The story of the Israelites and the Golden Calf is a ridiculous one, isn’t it? C’mon, people. Just a few weeks after God performed ten miraculous plagues, led you through the Red Sea on dry ground but drowned Pharaoh’s army after you, and fed you with manna and quail, you forget all this and make an idol to worship? After all God has done for you, this is your response? It’s laughable, really. This golden calf that Aaron made in front of your eyes is the one who led you out of Egypt? Lame. And yet, all too familiar. Because we are no different today.
The account of the Golden Calf actually reads much like an account from the Christian’s week. In Exodus, the man of God (Moses) reminds the people of all God has done for them. He points them to their Savior. But now he’s gone, up on this mountain for days on end, and the people are getting restless. They aren’t hearing God’s Word anymore, and they’re doubting this God they can’t see. They would much rather have a tangible god; something they can see with their own eyes like the idols of Egypt. So they ask Aaron to make them gods, and he complies by making a golden calf. As if that isn’t bad enough, then the people have a big orgy. The Bible is delicate in its language when it says they “sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play” (Exodus 32:6). The word “play” here refers to all sorts of immorality. It wasn’t their finest moment, that’s for sure.
What about us today? We go to church on Sunday and hear God’s Word and are strengthened for our lives, but then we leave and go about our daily lives. We aren’t surrounded by a sanctuary of fellow believers, the man of God (in this case, the pastor) isn’t next to us, reminding us of God’s promises, and we start to doubt how relevant our faith really is in these modern times. So we turn to our own idols, whatever they may be. Money, work, sinful pleasures… Perhaps we neglect our own devotional life, leaving us without that strength. Maybe we decide to skip church one week, making it that much easier to skip the next, and the next… But the longer we go without hearing and reading God’s Word, the longer we go without partaking of Christ’s body and blood, the more we distance ourselves from the fellowship of believers, the more susceptible we are to the devil’s attacks and the more vulnerable we are to worship false idols.
But there’s more to the story. Yes, the Israelites were punished for their false worship. Pretty severely, in fact. There was basically a civil war, where the Levites fought against the other tribes in zeal for the Lord. Three thousand people died. On top of that, God sent a plague. Sin really is that serious. But Moses interceded for the people, and God forgave them. He made new tablets to replace the ones Moses had broken, and He renewed His covenant with His people, despite the fact that they clearly couldn’t keep it on their own accord. God is faithful even when His people are not. When we return to church, no matter how long it’s been, we start the service with confession and absolution. We have sinned—even worshipped false gods—but God forgives.
The story of the golden calf need not be played out every week in your life, dear Christian. Stay in the Word, in corporate worship and in your personal and family devotional life. Remind yourself of all God has done for you. He sent Jesus as the perfect sacrifice in your place. He provides for you every day of your life and blesses you far more abundantly than you ask or deserve. He alone is worthy of your worship and praise. There’s no place for dead idols, because we serve the ever-living God.
(Special thanks to Ryan Grube, whose insights on this account are the basis for this blog!)