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Matthew Henry's Commentary – Verses 1–6
Verses 1–6

While Moses was in the mount, receiving the law from God, the people had time to meditate upon what had been delivered, and prepare themselves for what was further to be revealed, and forty days was little enough for that work; but, instead of that, there were those among them that were contriving how to break the laws they had already received, and to anticipate those which they were in expectation of. On the thirty-ninth day of the forty, the plot broke out of rebellion against the Lord. Here is,

I. A tumultuous address which the people made to Aaron, who was entrusted with the government in the absence of Moses: Up, make us gods, which shall go before us, Exod. 32:1.

1. See the ill effect of Moses’s absence from them; if he had not had God’s call both to go and stay, he would not have been altogether free from blame. Those that have the charge of others, as magistrates, ministers, and masters of families, ought not, without just cause, to absent themselves from their charge, lest Satan get advantage thereby.

2. See the fury and violence of a multitude when they are influenced and corrupted by such as lie in wait to deceive. Some few, it is likely, were at first possessed with this humour, while many, who would never have thought of it if they had not put it into their hearts, were brought to follow their pernicious ways; and presently such a multitude were carried down the stream that the few who abhorred the proposal durst not so much as enter their protestation against it. Behold how great a matter a little fire kindles! Now what was the matter with this giddy multitude?

(1.) They were weary of waiting for the promised land. They thought themselves detained too long at mount Sinai; though there they lay very safe and very easy, well fed and well taught, yet they were impatient to be going forward. They had a God that staid with them, and manifested his presence with them by the cloud; but this would not serve. They must have a god to go before them; they are for hastening to the land flowing with milk and honey, and cannot stay to take their religion along with them. Note, Those that would anticipate God’s counsels are commonly precipitate in their own. We must first wait for God’s law before we catch at his promises. He that believeth doth not make haste, not more haste than good speed.

(2.) They were weary of waiting for the return of Moses. When he went up into the mount, he had not told them (for God had not told him) how long he must stay; and therefore, when he had outstayed their time, though they were every way well provided for in his absence, some bad people advanced I know not what surmises concerning his delay: As for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of Egypt, we wot not what has become of him. Observe, [1.] How slightly they speak of his person—this Moses. Thus ungrateful are they to Moses, who had shown such a tender concern for them, and thus do they walk contrary to God. While God delights to put honour upon him, they delight to put contempt upon him, and this to the face of Aaron his brother, and now his viceroy. Note, The greatest merits cannot secure men from the greatest indignities and affronts in this ungrateful world. [2.] How suspiciously they speak of his delay: We wot not what has become of him. They thought he was either consumed by the devouring fire or starved for want to food, as if that God who kept and fed them, who were so unworthy, would not take care for the protection and supply of Moses his favourite. Some of them, who were willing to think well of Moses, perhaps suggested that he was translated to heaven like Enoch; while others that cared not how ill they thought of him insinuated that he had deserted his undertaking, as unable to go on with it, and had returned to his father-in-law to keep his flock. All these suggestions were perfectly groundless and absurd, nothing could be more so; it was easy to tell what had become of him: he was seen to go into the cloud, and the cloud he went into was still seen by all Israel upon the top of the mount; they had all the reason in the world to conclude that he was safe there; if the Lord had been pleased to kill him, he would not have shown him such favours as these. If he tarried long, it was because God had a great deal to say to him, for their good; he resided upon the mount as the ambassador, and he would certainly return as soon as he had finished the business he went upon; and yet they make this the colour for their wicked proposal: We wot not what has become of him. Note, First, Those that are resolved to think ill, when they have ever so much reason to think well, commonly pretend that they know not what to think. Secondly, Misinterpretations of our Redeemer’s delays are the occasion of a great deal of wickedness. Our Lord Jesus has gone up into the mount of glory, where he is appearing in the presence of Gold for us, but out of our sight; the heavens must contain him, must conceal him, that we may live by faith. There he has been long; there he is yet. Hence unbelievers suggest that they know not what has become of him; and ask, Where is the promise of his coming? (2 Pet. 3:4), as if, because he has not come yet, he would never come. The wicked servant emboldens himself in his impieties with this consideration, My Lord delays his coming. Thirdly, Weariness in waiting betrays us to a great many temptations. This began Saul’s ruin; he staid for Samuel to the last hour of the time appointed, but had not patience to stay that hour (1 Sam. 13:8); so Israel here, if they could but have staid one day longer, would have seen what had become of Moses. The Lord is a God of judgment, and must be waited for till he comes waited for though he tarry; and then we shall not lose our labour, for he that shall come will come, and will not tarry.

(3.) They were weary of waiting for a divine institution of religious worship among them for that was the thing they were now in expectation of. They were told that they must serve God in this mountain, and fond enough they would be of the pomp and ceremony of it; but, because that was not appointed them so soon as they wished, they would set their own wits on work to devise signs of God’s presence with them, and would glory in them, and have a worship of their own invention, probably such as they had seen among the Egyptians; for Stephen says that when they said unto Aaron, Make us gods, they did, in heart, turn back into Egypt, Acts 7:39, 40. This was a very strange motion, Up, make us gods. If they knew not what had become of Moses, and thought him lost, it would have been decent for them to have appointed a solemn mourning for him for certain days; but see how soon so great a benefactor is forgotten. If they had said, “Moses is lost, make us a governor,” there would have been some sense in it, though a great deal of ingratitude to the memory of Moses, and contempt of Aaron and Hur who were left lords-justices in his absence; but to say, Moses is lost, make us a god, was the greatest absurdity imaginable. Was Moses their god? Had he ever pretended to be so? Whatever had become of Moses, was it not evident, beyond contradiction that God was still with them? And had they any room to question his leading their camp who victualled it so well every day? Could they have any other god that would provide so well for them as he had done, nay as he now did? And yet, Make us gods, which shall go before us! Gods! How many would they have? Isa. not one sufficient? Make us gods! and what good would gods of their own making do them? They must have such gods to go before them as could not go themselves further than they were carried. So wretchedly besotted and intoxicated are idolaters: they are mad upon their idols, Jer. 50:38.

II. Here is the demand which Aaron makes of their jewels thereupon: Bring me your golden ear-rings, Exod. 32:2. We do not find that he said one word to discountenance their proposal; he did not reprove their insolence, did not reason with them to convince them of the sin and folly of it, but seemed to approve the motion, and showed himself not unwilling to humour them in it. One would hope he designed, at first, only to make a jest of it, and, by setting up a ridiculous image among them, to expose the motion, and show them the folly of it. But, if so, it proved ill jesting with sin: it is of dangerous consequence for the unwary fly to play about the candle. Some charitably suppose that when Aaron told them to break off their ear-rings, and bring them to him, he did it with design to crush the proposal, believing that though their covetousness would have let them lavish gold out of the bag to make an idol of (Isa. 46:6), yet their pride would not have suffered them to part with the golden ear-rings. But it is not safe to try how far men’s sinful lusts will carry them in a sinful way, and what expense they will be at; it proved here a dangerous experiment.

III. Here is the making of the golden calf, Exod. 32:3, 4. 1. The people brought in their ear-rings to Aaron, whose demand of them, instead of discouraging the motion, perhaps did rather gratify their superstition, and beget in them a fancy that the gold taken from their ears would be the most acceptable, and would make the most valuable god. Let their readiness to part with their rings to make an idol of shame us out of our niggardliness in the service of the true God. Did they not draw back from the charge of their idolatry? And shall we grudge the expenses of our religion, or starve so good a cause? 2. Aaron melted down their rings, and, having a mould prepared for the purpose, poured the melted gold into it, and then produced it in the shape of an ox or calf, giving it some finishing strokes with a graving tool. Some think that Aaron chose this figure, for a sign or token of the divine presence, because he thought the head and horns of an ox a proper emblem of the divine power, and yet, being so plain and common a thing, he hoped the people would not be so sottish as to worship it. But it is probable that they had learnt of the Egyptians thus to represent the Deity, for it is said (Ezek. 20:8), They did not forsake the idols of Egypt, and (Exod. 23:8), Neither left she her whoredoms brought from Egypt. Thus they changed their glory into the similitude of an ox (Ps. 106:20), and proclaimed their own folly, beyond that of other idolaters, who worshipped the host of heaven.

IV. Having made the calf in Horeb, they worshipped the graven image, Ps. 106:19. Aaron, seeing the people fond of their calf, was willing yet further to humour them, and he built an altar before it, and proclaimed a feast to the honour of it (Exod. 32:5), a feast of dedication. Yet he calls it a feast to Jehovah; for, brutish as they were, they did not imagine that this image was itself a god, nor did they design to terminate their adoration in the image, but they made it for a representation of the true God, whom they intended to worship in and through this image; and yet this did not excuse them from gross idolatry, any more than it will excuse the papists, whose plea it is that they do not worship the image, but God by the image, so making themselves just such idolaters as the worshippers of the golden calf, whose feast was a feast to Jehovah, and proclaimed to be so, that the most ignorant and unthinking might not mistake it. The people are forward enough to celebrate this feast (Exod. 32:6): They rose up early on the morrow, to show how well pleased they were with the solemnity, and, according to the ancient rites of worship, they offered sacrifice to this new-made deity, and then feasted upon the sacrifice; thus having, at the expense of their ear-rings, made their god, they endeavour, at the expense of their beasts, to make this god propitious. Had they offered these sacrifices immediately to Jehovah, without the intervention of an image, they might (for aught I know) have been accepted (Exod. 20:24); but having set up an image before them as a symbol of God’s presence, and so changed the truth of God into a lie, these sacrifices were an abomination, nothing could be more so. When the idolatry of theirs is spoken of in the New Testament the account of their feast upon the sacrifice is quoted and referred to (1 Cor. 10:7): They sat down to eat and drink of the remainder of what was sacrificed, and then rose up to play, to play the fool, to play the wanton. Like god, like worship. They would not have made a calf their god if they had not first made their belly their god; but, when the god was a jest, no marvel that the service was sport. Being vain in their imaginations, they became vain in their worship, so great was this vanity. Now, 1. It was strange that any of the people, especially so great a number of them, should do such a thing. Had they not, but the other day, in this very place, heard the voice of the Lord God speaking to them out of the midst of the fire, Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image? Had they not heard the thunder, seen the lightnings, and felt the earthquake, with the dreadful pomp of which this law was given? Had they not been particularly cautioned not to make gods of gold? Exod. 20:23. Nay, had they not themselves solemnly entered into covenant with God, and promised that all that which he had said unto them they would do, and would be obedient? Exod. 24:7. And yet, before they stirred from the place where this covenant had been solemnly ratified, and before the cloud was removed from the top of mount Sinai, thus to break an express command, in defiance of an express threatening that this iniquity should be visited upon them and their children—what shall be think of it? It is a plain indication that the law was no more able to sanctify than it was to justify; by it is the knowledge of sin, but not the cure of it. This is intimated in the emphasis laid upon the place where this sin was committed (Ps. 106:19). They made a calf in Horeb, the very place where the law was given. It was otherwise with those that received the gospel; they immediately turned from idols; 1 Thess. 1:9. 2. It was especially strange that Aaron should be so deeply implicated in this sin, that he should make the calf, and proclaim the feast! Isa. this Aaron, the saint of the Lord, the brother of Moses his prophet, that could speak so well. (Exod. 4:14), and yet speaks not one word against this idolatry? Isa. this he that had not only seen, but had been employed in summoning, the plagues of Egypt, and the judgments, executed upon the gods of the Egyptians? What! and yet himself copying out the abandoned idolatries of Egypt? With what face could they say, These are thy gods that brought thee out of Egypt, when they thus bring the idolatry of Egypt (the worst thing there) along with them? Isa. this Aaron, who had been with Moses in the mount (Exod. 19:24; 24:9), and knew that there was no manner of similitude seen there, by which they might make an image? Isa. this Aaron who was entrusted with the care of the people in the absence of Moses? Isa. he aiding and abetting in this rebellion against the Lord? How was it possible that he should ever do so sinful a thing? Either he was strangely surprised into it, and did it when he was half asleep, or he was frightened into it by the outrages of the rabble. The Jews have a tradition that his colleague Hur opposing it the people fell upon him and stoned him (and therefore we never read of him after) and that this frightened Aaron into a compliance. And God left him to himself, [1.] To teach us what the best of men are when they are so left, that we may cease from man, and that he who thinks he stands may take heed lest he fall. [2.] Aaron was, at this time, destined by the divine appointment to the great office of the priesthood; though he knew it not, Moses in the mount did. Now, lest he should be lifted up, above measure, with the honours that were to be put upon him, a messenger of Satan was suffered to prevail over him, that the remembrance thereof might keep him humble all his days. He who had once shamed himself so far as to build an altar to a golden calf must own himself altogether unworthy of the honour of attending at the altar of God, and purely indebted to free grace for it. Thus pride and boasting were for ever silenced, and a good effect brought out of a bad cause. By this likewise it was shown that the law made those priests who had infirmity, and needed first to offer for their own sins.