Moses, having shown his just indignation against the sin of Israel by breaking the tables and burning the calf, now proceeds to reckon with the sinners and to call them to an account, herein acting as the representative of God, who is not only a holy God, and hates sin, but a just God, and is engaged in honour to punish it, Isa. 59:18. Now,
I. He begins with Aaron, as God began with Adam, because he was the principal person, though not first in the transgression, but drawn into it. Observe here,
1. The just reproof Moses gives him, Exod. 32:21. He does not order him to be cut-off, as those (Exod. 32:27) that had been the ring-leaders in the sin. Note, A great deal of difference will be made between those that presumptuously rush into sin and those that through infirmity are surprised into it, between those that overtake the fault that flees from them and those that are overtaken in the fault they flee from. See Gal. 6:1. Not but that Aaron deserved to be cut off for this sin, and would have been so if Moses had not interceded particularly for him, as appears Deut. 9:20. And having prevailed with God for him, to save him from ruin, he here expostulates with him, to bring him to repentance. He puts Aaron upon considering, (1.) What he had done to this people: Thou hast brought so great a sin upon them. The sin of idolatry is a great sin, so great a sin that the evil of it cannot be expressed; the people, as the first movers, might be said to bring the sin upon Aaron; but he being a magistrate, who should have suppressed it, and yet aiding and abetting it, might truly be said to bring it upon them, because he hardened their hearts and strengthened their hands in it. It is a shocking thing for governors to humour people in their sins, and give countenance to that to which they should be a terror. Observe, in general, Those who bring sin upon others, either by drawing them into it or encouraging them in it, do more mischief than they are aware of; we really hate those whom we either bring or suffer sin upon, Lev. 19:17. Those that share in sin help to break their partners, and really ruin one another. (2.) What moved him to it: What did this people unto thee? He takes it for granted that it must needs be something more than ordinary that prevailed with Aaron to do such a thing, thus insinuating an excuse for him, because he knew that his heart was upright: “What did they? Did they accost thee fairly, and wheedle thee into it; and durst thou displease thy God, to please the people? Did they overcome thee by importunity; and hadst thou so little resolution left as to yield to the stream of a popular clamour? Did they threaten to stone thee; and couldest not thou have opposed God’s threatenings to theirs, and frightened them worse than they could frighten thee?” Note, We must never be drawn into sin by any thing that man can say or do to us, for it will not justify us to say that we were so drawn in. Men can but tempt us to sin; they cannot force us. Men can but frighten us; if we do not comply, they cannot hurt us.
2. The frivolous excuse Aaron makes for himself. We will hope that he testified his repentance for the sin afterwards better than he did now; for what he says here has little in it of the language of a penitent. If a just man fall, he shall rise again, but perhaps not quickly. (1.) He deprecates the anger of Moses only, whereas he should have deprecated God’s anger in the first place: Let not the anger of my Lord wax hot, Exod. 32:22. (2.) He lays all the fault upon the people: They are set on mischief, and they said, Make us gods. It is natural to us to endeavour thus to transfer our guilt; we have it in our kind, Adam and Eve did so; sin is a brat that nobody is willing to own. Aaron was now the chief magistrate and had power over the people, and yet pleads that the people overpowered him; he that had authority to restrain them, yet had so little resolution as to yield to them. (3.) It is well if he did not intend a reflection upon Moses, as accessory to the sin, by staying so long on the mount, in repeating, without need, that invidious surmise of the people, As for this Moses, we know not what has become of him, Exod. 32:23. (4.) He extenuates and conceals his own share in the sin, as if he had only bidden them break off their gold that they had about them, intending to make a hasty assay for the present, and to try what he could make of the gold that was next hand: and childishly insinuates that when he cast the gold into the fire it came out, either by accident or by the magic art of some of the mixed multitude (as the Jewish writers dream), in this shape; but not a word of his graving and fashioning it, Exod. 32:24. But Moses relates to all ages what he did (Exod. 32:4), though he himself here would not own it. Note, He that covers his sin shall not prosper, for sooner or later it will be discovered. Well, this was all Aaron had to say for himself; and he had better have said nothing, for his defence did but aggravate his offence; and yet he is not only spared, but preferred; as sin did abound, grace did much more abound.
II. The people are next to be judged for this sin. The approach of Moses soon spoiled their sport and turned their dancing into trembling. Those that hectored Aaron into a compliance with them in their sin durst not look Moses in the face, nor make the least opposition to the severity which he thought fit to use both against the idol and against the idolaters. Note, It is not impossible to make those sins which were committed with daring presumption appear contemptible, when the insolent perpetrators of them slink away overwhelmed in their own confusion. The king that sits upon the throne of judgment scatters away all evil with his eyes. Observe two things:—
1. How they were exposed to shame by their sin: The people were naked (Exod. 32:25), not so much because they had some of them lost their ear-rings (that was inconsiderable), but because they had lost their integrity, and lay under the reproach of ingratitude to their best benefactor, and a treacherous revolt from their rightful Lord. It was a shame to them, and a perpetual blot, that they changed their glory into the similitude of an ox. Other nations boasted that they were true to their false gods; well may Israel blush for being false to the true God. Thus were they made naked, stripped of their ornaments, and exposed to contempt; stripped of their armour, and liable to insults. Thus our first parents, when they had sinned, became naked, to their shame. Note, Those that do dishonour to God really bring the greatest dishonour upon themselves: so Israel here did, and Moses was concerned to see it, though they themselves were not; he saw that they were naked.
2. The course that Moses took to roll away this reproach, not by concealing the sin, or putting any false colour upon it, but by punishing it, and so bearing a public testimony against it. Whenever it should be case in their teeth that they had made a calf in Horeb, they might have this to say, in answer to those that reproached them, that though it was true there were those that did so, yet justice was executed upon them. The government disallowed the sin, and suffered not the sinners to go unpunished. They did so, but they paid dearly for it. Thus (said God) thou shalt put the evil away, Deut. 13:5. Observe here,
(1.) By whom vengeance was taken—by the children of Levi (Exod. 32:26, 28); not by the immediate hand of God himself, as on Nadab and Abihu, but by the sword of man, to teach them that idolatry was an iniquity to be punished by the judge, being a denial of the God that is above, Job 31:28; Deut. 13:9. It was to be done by the sword of their own brethren, that the execution of justice might redound more to the honour of the nation. And, if they must fall now into the hands of man, better so than flee before their enemies. The innocent must be culled out to be the executioners of the guilty, that it might be the more effectual warning to themselves, that they did not the like another time; and the putting of them upon such an unpleasant service, and so much against the grain as this must needs be, to kill their next neighbours, was a punishment to them too for not appearing sooner to prevent the sin, and make head against it. The Levites particularly were employed in doing this execution; for, it should seem, there were more of them than of any other tribe that had kept themselves free from the contagion, which was the more laudable because Aaron, the head of their tribe, was so deeply concerned in it. Now here we are told, [1.] How the Levites were called out to this service: Moses stood in the gate of the camp, the place of judgment; there he displayed a banner, as it were, because of the truth, to enlist soldiers for God. He proclaimed, Who is on the Lord’s side? The idolaters had set up the golden calf for their standard, and now Moses set up his, in opposition to them. Now Moses clad himself with zeal as with a robe, and summoned all those to appear forthwith that were on God’s side, against the golden calf. He does not proclaim, as Jehu, “Who is on my side (2 Kgs. 9:32), to avenge the indignity done to me?” but, Who is on the Lord’s side? It was God’s cause that he espoused against the evil-doers, Ps. 94:16. Note, First, There are two great interests on foot in the world, with the one or the other of which all the children of men are siding. The interest of sin and wickedness is the devil’s interest, and all wicked people side with that interest; the interest of truth and holiness is God’s interest, with which all godly people side; and it is a case that will not admit a neutrality. Secondly, It concerns us all to enquire whether we are on the Lord’s side or not. Thirdly, Those who are on his side are comparatively but few, and sometimes seem fewer than really they are. Fourthly, God does sometimes call out those that are on his side to appear for him, as witnesses, as soldiers, as intercessors. [2.] How they were commissioned for this service (Exod. 32:27): Slay every man his brother, that is, “Slay all those that you know to have been active for the making and worshipping of the golden calf, though they were your own nearest relations, or dearest friends.” The crime was committed publicly, the Levites saw who of their acquaintance were concerned in it, and therefore needed no other direction than their own knowledge whom to slay. And probably the greatest part of those that were guilty were known, and known to be so, by some or other of the Levites who were employed in the execution. Yet, it should seem, they were to slay those only whom they found abroad in the streets of the camp; for it might be hoped that those who had retired into their tents were ashamed of what they had done, and were upon their knees, repenting. Those are marked for ruin who persist in sin, and are not ashamed of the abominations they have committed, Jer. 8:12. But how durst the Levites encounter so great a body, who probably were much enraged by the burning of their calf? It is easy to account for this; a sense of guilt disheartened the delinquents, and a divine commission animated the 457d executioners. And one thing that put life into them was that Moses had said, Consecrate yourselves to day to the Lord, that he may bestow a blessing upon you, thereby intimating to them that they now stood fair for preferment and that, if they would but signalize themselves upon this occasion, it would be construed into such a consecration of themselves to God, and to his service, as would put upon their tribe a perpetual honour. Those that consecrate themselves to the Lord he will set apart for himself. Those that do the duty shall have the dignity; and, if we do signal services for God, he will bestow especial blessings upon us. There was a blessing designed for the tribe of Levi; now says Moses, “Consecrate yourselves to the Lord, that you may qualify yourselves to receive the blessing.” The Levites were to assist in the offering of sacrifice to God; and now they must begin with the offering of these sacrifices to the honour of divine justice. Those that are to minister about holy things must be not only sincere and serious, but warm and zealous, bold and courageous, for God and godliness. Thus all Christians, but especially ministers, must forsake father and mother, and prefer the service of Christ and his interest far before their nearest and dearest relations; for if we love our relations better than Christ we are not worthy of him. See how this zeal of the Levites is applauded, Deut. 33:9.
(2.) On whom vengeance is taken: There fell of the people that day about 3000 men, Exod. 32:28. Probably these were but few, in comparison with the many that were guilty; but these were the men that headed the rebellion, and were therefore picked out, to be made examples of, for terror to all others. Those that in the morning were shouting and dancing before night were dying in their own blood; such a sudden change do the judgments of God sometimes make with sinners that are secure and jovial in their sin, as with Belshazzar by the hand-writing upon the wall. This is written for warning to us. 1 Cor. 10:7; Neither be you idolaters, as were some of them.