If you’re at all familiar with the Old Testament, I wonder which story and/or sin you’d consider most offensive. We’d have a sizeable selection to choose from but my vote would go to the golden calf episode in Exodus 32. We could find national sins marked by deeper moral depravity, but I don’t know that another sin ever provoked the Lord’s anger as did the idolatry at Sinai. It’s not every day that the Lord threatens the mass annihilation of his people.
The Old Testament was written both to warn us (1Cor 10:6-7) and encourage us (Rom 15:4) and no serious Christian can read Exodus 32 with a “that-was-then-this-is-now” attitude. Then again, we can’t actually claim to be Christians without confessing that things have truly changed because of Christ’s work. So in the case of Exodus 32 we should be sensitive to how God’s dealings with his old covenant people (i.e. Israel) are both similar and dissimilar from his dealings with his new covenant people (i.e. the Church).
The content is rich, particularly when Exodus 32 is read as a cohesive unit to include chapters 32-34, but I’ll limit my observations to two points. First, God is determined to show mercy to his people which is why Moses was able to intercede successfully. And second, that the content of Moses’ pleas offers us a model for prayer when we have succumbed to sin.
God will grant mercy to his people
Having wasted no time in breaking the covenant that they swore they would keep (Exod 19:8; 24:7), the Lord assesses Israel to be rotten, unfaithful, and unyielding (32:7-9). As such, Moses is told that God’s burning anger will consume the people (32:10). Moses responds by pleading for the Lord to withhold his anger and, having offered reasons for God to exercise restraint, is granted his request for undeserved mercy.
A quick and casual reading might leave us with the impression that God’s intent, maybe even his desire, was to expend righteous anger on his people for their sin until Moses persuaded God to choose mercy instead. But is that the way we ought to understand the dialogue between God and Moses? Is God talked into a merciful act that he neither intended nor desired?
I think the passage points in a different direction. God did not change in any way at all but demonstrated a merciful constancy for his people through his chosen mediator. Consider the following:
(1) God called up Moses to dwell with him on the mountain, effectively separating Moses from the people. Since Moses does not have a share in the nation’s sin, he is qualified to intercede for the condemned.
(2) God revealed Israel’s sin to Moses (32:7) and provoked him to stand in the way of divine wrath (32:10). Moses would never have even known of the need to intercede, let alone proceeded to do so, had God not prompted him.
(3) God provides Moses with the ground for a successful appeal by quoting a line from God’s promise to Abraham (32:10c; see Gen 12:2a). Not surprisingly, fidelity to the promises for Abraham becomes Moses’ ultimate appeal for God to preserve his people (32:13).
On these grounds alone we’re able to see that God was determined to show his people mercy. He was the one who guaranteed that his wrath would be set aside by his provision of a mediator to intercede for his people.
And on these grounds we find our confidence and hope today. God will not change his mind concerning us. He himself has turned away his wrath by his provision of a better mediator who always intercedes for us (Heb 7:25). If the pleas of a servant like Moses were effective, how much more the pleas of God’s Son (Heb 3:5-6).
God’s every intention is to give his sinful people the undeserved riches of his mercy. If that isn’t what he truly wants to do he would never have given us Jesus.