Moses, having executed justice upon the principal offenders, is here dealing both with the people and with God.
I. With the people, to bring them to repentance, Exod. 32:30.
1. When some were slain, lest the rest should imagine that, because they were exempt from the capital punishment, they were therefore looked upon as free from guilt, Moses here tells the survivors, You have sinned a great sin, and therefore, though you have escaped this time, except you repent, you shall all likewise perish. That they might not think lightly of the sin itself, he calls it a great sin; and that they might not think themselves innocent, because perhaps they were not all so deeply guilty as some of those that were put to death, he tells them all, You have sinned a great sin. The work of ministers is to show people their sins, and the greatness of their sins. “You have sinned, and therefore you are undone if your sins be not pardoned, for ever undone without a Saviour. It is a great sin, and therefore calls for great sorrow, for it puts you in great danger.” To affect them with the greatness of their sin he intimates to them what a difficult thing it would be to make up the quarrel which God had with them for it. (1.) It would not be done, unless he himself went up unto the Lord on purpose, and gave as long and as solemn attendance as he had done for the receiving of the law. And yet, (2.) Even so it was but a peradventure that he should make atonement for them; the case was extremely hazardous. This should convince us of the great evil there is in sin, that he who undertook to make atonement found it no easy thing to do it; he must go up to the Lord with his own blood to make atonement. The malignity of sin appears in the price of pardons.
2. Yet it was some encouragement to the people (when they were told that they had sinned a great sin) to hear that Moses, who had so great an interest in heaven and so true an affection for them, would go up unto the Lord to make atonement for them. Consolation should go along with conviction: first wound, and then heal; first show people the greatness of their sin, and then make known to them the atonement, and give them hopes of mercy. Moses will go up unto the Lord, though it be but a peradventure that he should make atonement. Christ, the great Mediator, went upon greater certainty than this, for he had lain in the bosom of the Father, and perfectly knew all his counsels. But to us poor supplicants it is encouragement enough in prayer for particular mercies that peradventure we may obtain them, though we have not an absolute promise. Zeph. 2:3; It may be, you shall be hid. In our prayers for others, we should be humbly earnest with God, though it is but a peradventure that God will give them repentance, 2 Tim. 2:25.
II. He intercedes with God for mercy. Observe,
1. How pathetic his address was. Moses returned unto the Lord, not to receive further instructions about the tabernacle: there were no more conferences now about that matter. Thus men’s sins and follies make work for their friends and ministers, unpleasant work, many times, and give great interruptions to that work which they delight in. Moses in this address expresses, (1.) His great detestation of the people’s sin, Exod. 32:31. He speaks as one overwhelmed with the horror of it: Oh! this people have sinned a great sin. God had first told him of it (Exod. 32:7), and now he tells God of it, by way of lamentation. He does not call them God’s people, he knew they were unworthy to be called so; but this people, this treacherous ungrateful people, they have made for themselves gods of gold. It is a great sin indeed to make gold our god, as those do that make it their hope, and set their heart on it. He does not go about to excuse or extenuate the sin; but what he had said to them by way of conviction he says to God by way of confession: They have sinned a great sin; he came not to make apologies, but to make atonement. “Lord, pardon the sin, for it is great,” Ps. 25:11. (2.) His great desire of the people’s welfare (Exod. 32:32): Yet now it is not too great a sin for infinite mercy to pardon, and therefore if thou wilt forgive their sin. What then Moses? It is an abrupt expression, “If thou wilt, I desire no more; if thou wilt, thou wilt be praised, I shall be pleased, and abundantly recompensed for my intercession.” It is an expression like that of the dresser of the vineyard (Luke 13:9), If it bear fruit; or, If thou wilt forgive, is as much as, “O that thou wouldest forgive!” as Luke 19:42; If thou hadst known is, O that thou hadst known. “But if not, if the decree has gone forth, and there is no remedy, but they must be ruined; if this punishment which has already been inflicted on many is not sufficient (2 Cor. 2:6), but they must all be cut off, blot me, I pray thee, out of the book which thou hast written;” that is, “If they must be cut off, let me be cut off with them, and cut short of Canaan; if all Israel must perish, I am content to perish with them; let not the land of promise be mine by survivorship.” This expression may be illustrated from Ezek. 13:9; where this is threatened against the false prophets, They shall not be written in the writing of the house of Israel, neither shall they enter into the land of Israel. God had told Moses that, if he would not interpose he would make of him a great nation, Exod. 32:10. “No,” says Moses, “I am so far from desiring to see my name and family built up on the ruins of Israel, that I will choose rather to sink with them. If I cannot prevent their destruction, let me not see it (Num. 11:15); let me not be written among the living (Isa. 4:3), nor among those that are marked for preservation; even let me die in the last ditch.” Thus he expresses his tender affection for the people, and is a type of the good Shepherd, that lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11), who was to be cut off from the land of the living for the transgression of my people, Isa. 53:8; Dan. 9:26. He is also an example of public-spiritedness to all, especially to those in public stations. All private interests must be made subordinate to the good and welfare of communities. It is no great matter what becomes of us and our families in this world, so that it go well with the church of God, and there be peace upon Israel. Moses thus importunes for a pardon, and wrestles with God, not prescribing to him (“If thou wilt not forgive, thou art either unjust or unkind”); no, he is far from that; but, “If not, let me die with the Israelites, and the will of the Lord be done.”
2. Observe how prevalent his address was. God would not take him at his word; no, he will not blot any out of his book but those that by their wilful disobedience have forfeited the honour of being enrolled in it (Exod. 32:33); the soul that sins shall die, and not the innocent for the guilty. This was also an intimation of mercy to the people, that they should not all be destroyed in a body, but those only that had a hand in the sin. Thus Moses gets ground by degrees. God would not at first give him full assurances of his being reconciled to them, lest, if the comfort of a pardon were too easily obtained, they should be emboldened to do the like again, and should not be made sensible enough of the evil of the sin. Comforts are suspended that convictions may be the deeper impressed: also God would hereby exercise the faith and zeal of Moses, their great intercessor. Further, in answer to the address of Moses, (1.) God promises, notwithstanding this, to go on with his kind intention of giving them the land of Canaan, the land he had spoken to them of, Exod. 32:34. Therefore he sends Moses back to them to lead them, though they were unworthy of him, and promises that his angel should go before them, some created angel that was employed in the common services of the kingdom of providence, which intimated that they were not to expect any thing for the future to be done for them out of the common road of providence, not any thing extraordinary. Moses afterwards obtained a promise of God’s special presence with them (Exod. 33:14, 17); but at present this was all he could prevail for. (2.) Yet he threatens to remember this sin against them when hereafter he should see cause to punish them for other sins: “When I visit, I will visit for this among the rest. Next time I take the rod in hand, they shall have one stripe the more for this.” The Jews have a saying, grounded on this, that henceforward no judgment fell upon Israel but there was in it an ounce of the powder of the golden calf. I see no ground in scripture for the opinion some are of, that God would not have burdened them with such a multitude of sacrifices and other ceremonial institutions if they had not provoked him by worshipping the golden calf. On the contrary, Stephen says that when they made a calf, and offered sacrifice to the idol, God turned, and gave them up to worship the host of heaven (Acts 7:41, 42); so that the strange addictedness of that people to the sin of idolatry was a just judgment upon them for making and worshipping the golden calf, and a judgment they were never quite freed from till the captivity of Babylon. See Rom. 1:23-25. Note, Many that are not immediately cut off in their sins are reserved for a further day of reckoning: vengeance is slow, but sure. For the present, the Lord plagued the people (Exod. 32:35), probably by the pestilence, or some other infectious disease, which was a messenger of God’s wrath, and an earnest of worse. Aaron made the calf, and yet it is said the people made it, because they worshipped it. Deos qui rogat, ille facit—He who asks for gods makes them. Aaron was not plagued, but the people; for his was a sin of infirmity, theirs a presumptuous sin, between which there is a great difference, not always discernable to us, but evident to God, whose judgment therefore, we are sure, is according to truth. Thus Moses prevailed for a reprieve and a mitigation of the punishment, but could not wholly turn away the wrath of God. This (some think) bespeaks the inability of the law of Moses to reconcile men to God and to perfect our peace with him, which was reserved for Christ to do, in whom alone it is that God so pardons sin as to remember it no more.