Here, I. God acquaints Moses with what was doing in the camp while he was absent, Exod. 32:7, 8. He could have told him sooner, as soon as the first step was taken towards it, and have hastened him down to prevent it; but he suffered it to come to this height, for wise and holy ends, and then sent him down to punish it. Note, It is no reproach to the holiness of God that he suffers sin to be committed, since he knows, not only how to restrain it when he pleases, but how to make it serviceable to the designs of his own glory. Observe what God here says to Moses concerning this sin. 1. That they had corrupted themselves. Sin is the corruption or depravation of the sinner, and it is a self-corruption; every man is tempted when he is drawn aside of his own lust. 2. That they had turned aside out of the way. Sin is a deviation from the way of our duty into a by-path. When they promised to do all that God should command them, they set out as fair as could be; but now they missed their way, and turned aside. 3. That they had turned aside quickly, quickly after the law was given them and they had promised to obey it, quickly after God had done such great things for them and declared his kind intentions to do greater. They soon forgot his works. To fall into sin quickly after we have renewed our covenants with God, or received special mercy from him, is very provoking. 4. He tells him particularly what they had done: They have made a calf, and worshipped it. Note, Those sins which are concealed from our governors are naked and open before God. He sees that which they cannot discover, nor is any of the wickedness in the world hidden from him. We could not bear to see the thousandth part of that provocation which God sees every day and yet keeps silence. 5. He seems to disown them, in saying to Moses, They are thy people whom thou broughtest up out of the land of Egypt; as if he had said, “I will not own any relation to them, or concern for them; let it never be said that they are my people, or that I brought them out of Egypt.” Note, Those that corrupt themselves not only shame themselves, but even make God himself ashamed of them and of his kindness to them. 6. He sends him down to them with all speed: Go, get thee down. He must break off even his communion with God to go and do his duty as a magistrate among the people; so must Joshua, Exod. 7:10. Every thing is beautiful in its season.
II. He expresses his displeasure against Israel for this sin, and the determination of his justice to cut them off, Exod. 32:9, 10. 1. He gives this people their true character: “It is a stiff-necked people, unapt to come under the yoke of the divine law, and governed as it were by a spirit of contradiction, averse to all good and prone to evil, obstinate against the methods employed for their cure.” Note, The righteous God sees, not only what we do, but what we are, not only the actions of our lives, but the dispositions of our spirits, and has an eye to them in all his proceedings. 2. He declares what was their just desert—that his wrath should wax hot against them, so as to consume them at once, and blot out their name from under heaven (Deut. 9:14); not only cast them out of covenant, but chase them out of the world. Note, Sin exposes us to the wrath of God; and that wrath, if it be not allayed by divine mercy, will burn us up as stubble. It were just with God to let the law have its course against sinners, and to cut them off immediately in the very act of sin; and, if he should do so, it would be neither loss nor dishonour to him. 3. He holds out inducements to Moses not to intercede for them: Therefore, let me alone. What did Moses, or what could he do, to hinder God from consuming them? When God resolves to abandon a people, and the decree of ruin has gone forth, no intercession can prevent it, Ezek. 14:14; 15:1. But God would thus express the greatness of his just displeasure against them, after the manner of men, who would have none to intercede for those they resolve to be severe with. Thus also he would put an honour upon prayer, intimating that nothing but the intercession of Moses could save them from ruin, that he might be a type of Christ, by whose mediation alone God would reconcile the world unto himself. That the intercession of Moses might appear the more illustrious, God fairly offers him that, if he would not interpose in this matter, he would make of him a great nation, that either, 8000 in process of time, he would raise up a people out of his loins, or that he would immediately, by some means or other, bring another great nation under his government and conduct, so that he should be no loser by their ruin. Had Moses been of a narrow selfish spirit, he would have closed with this offer; but he prefers the salvation of Israel before the advancement of his own family. Here was a man fit to be a governor.
III. Moses earnestly intercedes with God on their behalf (Exod. 32:11-13): he besought the Lord his God. If God would not be called the God of Israel, yet he hoped he might address him as his own God. What interest we have at the throne of grace we should improve for the church of God, and for our friends. Now Moses is standing in the gap to turn away the wrath of God, Ps. 106:23. He wisely took the hint which God gave him when he said, Let me alone, which, though it seemed to forbid his interceding, did really encourage it, by showing what power the prayer of faith has with God. In such a case, God wonders if there be no intercessor, Isa. 59:16. Observe, 1. His prayer (Exod. 32:12): Turn from thy fierce wrath; not as if he thought God was not justly angry, but he begs that he would not be so greatly angry as to consume them. “Let mercy rejoice against judgment; repent of this evil; change the sentence of destruction into that of correction.” 2. His pleas. He fills his mouth with arguments, not to move God, but to express his own faith and to excite his own fervency in prayer. He urges, (1.) God’s interest in them, the great things he had already done for them, and the vast expense of favours and miracles he had been at upon them, Exod. 32:11. God had said to Moses (Exod. 32:7), They are thy people, whom thou broughtest up out of Egypt; but Moses humbly turns them back upon God again: “They are thy people, thou art their Lord and owner; I am but their servant. Thou broughtest them forth out of Egypt; I was but the instrument in thy hand; that was done in order to their deliverance which thou only couldest do.” Though their being his people was a reason why he should be angry with them for setting up another god, yet it was a reason why he should not be so angry with them as to consume them. Nothing is more natural than for a father to correct his son, but nothing more unnatural than for a father to slay his son. And as the relation is a good plea (“they are thy people”), so is the experience they had had of his kindness to them: “Thou broughtest them out of Egypt, though they were unworthy, and had there served the gods of the Egyptians, Josh. 24:15. If thou didst that for them, notwithstanding their sins in Egypt, wilt thou undo it for their sins of the same nature in the wilderness?” (2.) He pleads the concern of God’s glory (Exod. 32:12): Wherefore should the Egyptians say, For mischief did he bring them out? Israel is dear to Moses as his kindred, as his charge; but it is the glory of God that he is most concerned for; this lies nearer his heart than any thing else. If Israel could perish without any reproach to God’s name, Moses could persuade himself to sit down contented; but he cannot bear to hear God reflected on, and therefore this he insists upon, Lord, what will the Egyptians say? Their eyes, and the eyes of all the neighbouring nations, were now upon Israel; from the wondrous beginnings of that people, they raised their expectations of something great in their latter end; but, if a people so strangely saved should be suddenly ruined, what would the world say of it, especially the Egyptians, who have such an implacable hatred both to Israel and to the God of Israel? They would say, “God was either weak, and could not, or fickle, and would not, complete the salvation he began; he brought them forth to that mountain, not to sacrifice (as was pretended), but to be sacrificed.” They will not consider the provocation given by Israel, to justify the proceeding, but will think it cause enough for triumph that God and his people could not agree, but that their God had done that which they (the Egyptians) wished to see done. Note, The glorifying of God’s name, as it ought to be our first petition (it is so in the Lord’s prayer), so it ought to be our great plea, Ps. 79:9; Do not disgrace the throne of thy glory, Jer. 14:21; and see Jer. 33:8, 9. And, if we would with comfort plead this with God as a reason why he should not destroy us, we ought to plead it with ourselves as a reason why we should not offend him: What will the Egyptians say? We ought always to be careful that the name of God and his doctrine be not blasphemed through us. (3.) He pleads God’s promise to the patriarchs that he would multiply their seed, and give them the land of Canaan for an inheritance, and this promise confirmed by an oath, an oath by himself, since he could swear by no greater, Exod. 32:13. God’s promises are to be our pleas in prayer; for what he has promised he is able to perform, and the honour of this truth is engaged for the performance of it. “Lord, if Israel be cut off, what will become of the promise? Shall their unbelief make that of no effect? God forbid.” Thus we must take our encouragement in prayer from God only.
IV. God graciously abated the rigour of the sentence, and repented of the evil he thought to do (Exod. 32:14); though he designed to punish them, yet he would not ruin them. See here, 1. The power of prayer; God suffers himself to be prevailed with by the humble believing importunity of intercessors. 2. The compassion of God towards poor sinners, and how ready he is to forgive. Thus he has given other proofs besides his own oath that he has no pleasure in the death of those that die; for he not only pardons upon the repentance of sinners, but spares and reprieves upon the intercession of others for them.