Alas, this people has sinned a great sin. They have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will forgive their sin—but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written. – Exodus 32:31-32 ESV
The people had sinned. While Moses had been up on the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments from God, the people had grown restless and had decided to make their own god. They had turned to Aaron, Moses’ right-hand man, and demanded, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him” (Exodus 32:1 ESV). And Aaron had given in to their demand, created a golden calf and allowed the people to worship it, attributing to it the glory due to God alone. “And they said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” (Exodus 32:4 ESV). When God had seen what they had done, He was less than pleased and had told Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you” (Exodus 32:9-10 ESV). God was going to destroy them. They had rebelled against Him, turning their back on Him and making for themselves false gods to replace the one true God. But the Scriptures tell us that “Moses implored the Lord his God” (Exodus 32:11 ESV). When he heard what God was going to do, Moses was grieved. The word “implored” does not adequately convey what was going on with Moses. The Hebrew word communicates with much more intensity. Moses was grieved to the point of sickness. The thought of God destroying the people of Israel literally made him sick to his stomach. He couldn’t bear the thought.
Now it’s important to remember that Moses and the people of Israel had had their fair share of issues since the time they had left Egypt. They had questioned his leadership over and over again. They had doubted his word, grumbled and complained, threatened to go back to Egypt and generally made his life miserable. But when he heard that God was going to destroy them, he was sickened at the thought. So he took his concern to God. “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever’” (Exodus 32:11-14 ESV). Moses gave God four great reasons to show mercy. He appealed to the very nature and character of God. First, He reminded God that these were His people. Secondly, it was He who delivered them from Egypt with great power, redeeming them from captivity and promising them their own land in Canaan. Third, if God was to destroy them now, the Egyptians would have every reason in the world to mock God and question His integrity. Finally, Moses reminded God of the covenant He had made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Moses knew God to be a covenant-keeping God.
As a result of Moses’ prayer, the Scriptures say, “And the Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people” (Exodus 32:14 ESV). Now this raises all kinds of questions, not the least of which is whether or not our prayers can change the mind of God. Or to put it another way, can we alter the will of God with our prayers? God seems to have clearly indicated His plan to destroy the people of Israel for their actions. Moses interceded and God appears to have changed His mind. But on closer inspection, we see that God had told Moses, “Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you” (Exodus 32:10 ESV). This was God speaking to Moses. It was as if God said to Moses, “Get out of my way! Let me at them!” In essence, God was testing Moses’ leadership characteristics. He was wanting to see what kind of a shepherd Moses really way. So He threatened to destroy those for whom Moses was responsible. And while Moses could have simply stepped aside and said, “Do what You want!”, he instead stepped up and intervened and interceded on their behalf. In fact, he told God that he would rather die than see the people destroyed. He was willing to give his life rather than see these rebellious, stubborn, stiff-necked people get what they deserved. It is interesting to note that the Hebrew word that is often translated that God “repented” could also be translated that God was “comforted”. His anger was eased by the way in which Moses rose to the occasion. He stepped up. He interceded. He put his own life on the line in order to see the people of God spared.
In a way, I think this was far more a test for Moses than anything else. God was not surprised by the actions of the people. He was not caught off guard when He saw what they had done. But Moses was. He hadn’t seen this one coming. And when he saw God’s reaction, he suddenly realized just how serious the sin of the people really was. So he cried out to God on their behalf. He begged God to show mercy. He appealed to God’s covenant-keeping nature. And God spared them. Moses learned a great deal that day. He learned just how sinful the people really were. He learned just how much God hated sin. And he also learned just how merciful God could be even when faced with open rebellion and the blatant rejection of His goodness and grace. But the most important lesson he learned was the value of godly leadership. He was responsible. He had a vital job to do and he did it. He was willing to die for the people God had given him to lead. It makes me wonder just how committed I am to the people under my care. Do I love the people of God enough to give my life for them? Am I willing to die in order to see God’s people blessed by God? Jesus Himself said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13 ESV). My death can’t save anyone, but my willing sacrifice of self is the greatest expression of my love for them. What would this world be like if we had more man and women with the attitude of Moses?