By Edward Dennett
THE Lord had been occupied with the blessing of His people, giving instructions for the erection of His sanctuary that He might dwell in their midst. Moses was on high to receive these communications of His grace. The Lord was "communing" with His servant concerning the establishment of the precious things connected with the relationship on which He had entered in grace with Israel. But even while He was thus engaged, sin and even apostasy are witnessed in the camp at the foot of Sinai. Above, all is light and blessing; below, all is darkness and evil.
"And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down out of the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him, Up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him. And Aaron said unto them, Break off the golden earrings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them unto me. And all the people brake off the golden earrings which were in their ears, and brought them unto Aaron. And he received them at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, after he had made it a molten calf: and they said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt. And when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation, and said, Tomorrow is a feast to the Lord. And they rose up early on the morrow, and offered burnt-offerings, and brought peace-offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play." (vv. 1-6.)
There is a striking resemblance, in one aspect, between this scene and that witnessed at the foot of the mount of transfiguration. In both alike Satan holds full sway. In the one before us it is the nation who have fallen under his power, in the other it is the child whom he has possessed; but the child again is a type of the Jewish nation of a later day. The absence of Christ on high (shown in figure also by Moses on Sinai) is the opportunity seized by Satan — under God's permission — for the display of his wicked power, and man (Israel) in the evil of his heart becomes his wretched slave. But it should be observed that Satan, whatever his activity, can never forestall God. He may seek to thwart, and he may appear to succeed in postponing the accomplishment of, but he can never frustrate, the purposes of God. Thus, in the scene before us, the Lord had made an end of communing with Moses (Ex. 31: 18), and had arranged everything according to His will, before the people fell into sin. It is so throughout the whole of the Scriptures. Satan, having no foresight, is always a day behind; so that if he seem to gain a momentary success, it is only to expose himself in the end to a more crushing defeat. This fact should encourage the hearts of believers while waiting for the moment, which will come "shortly," when the God of peace shall bruise Satan under their feet.
The act of the people is no less than open apostasy. Its several features may be briefly indicated. First, they forgot and abandoned the Lord. Secondly, they attributed their deliverance from Egypt to Moses: they described him as "the man that brought us out of Egypt." Finally, they fell into idolatry. They wanted visible gods — testifying against themselves that they were "children in whom was no faith." Aaron fell with them — apparently without a struggle. The man who had been designated to the priestly office, the one who was to enjoy the privilege of entering into the holy of holies to minister before the Lord, became the instrument, if not the leader, of their wicked rebellion. Priest and people alike accept the evil inspiration of Satan, and worship the gods which their own hands had made; and they cried, as they worshipped, "These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt." Another thing should be remarked, Aaron seeks to conceal the shame of their idolatry by putting the Lord's name upon it. Having built an altar, he made proclamation, and said, "Tomorrow is a feast to JEHOVAH." This is just what an apostate Christendom has done. Having set up their idols, they call it the worship of the Lord; and thereby souls are deluded into acceptance of that which is really an abomination before God. What was this golden calf? It was, Aaron would have said, but a symbol of Jehovah. So Romanists and Ritualists argue, and they thus dignify their idolatry with the name of Christ and Christianity. This scene therefore — picture on the one hand, it may be, of the last state of the Jews, which will be worse than the first, is no less instructive, on the other, for the present day. In fact, Israel rejected Jehovah, and His servant Moses. They became apostate, and apostasy is the only word which expresses the true condition of modern Christendom, which, while owning the name, really rejects the authority of Christ at the right hand of God.
It was no wonder that the wrath of the Lord waxed hot against His people.
"And the Lord said unto Moses, Go, get thee down; for thy people, which thou broughtest out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves: they have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them: they have made them a molten calf, and have worshipped it, and have sacrificed thereunto, and said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which have brought thee up out of the land of Egypt. And the Lord said unto Moses, I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiff-necked people: now therefore let Me alone, that My wrath may wax hot against them and that I may consume them; and I will make of thee a great nation." (vv. 7-10.)
Israel had indeed exposed themselves to the righteous judgment of God. They had voluntarily promised obedience to God's law as the condition of blessing; and the covenant had been sealed by the sprinkling of blood — emblem of death — as the penalty of its breach. This penalty they had now incurred. God no longer therefore treats them as His people. They had rejected Him, and had spoken of Moses as the man who had brought them up out of Egypt; and the Lord takes them on their own ground. Hence He says to Moses, "Thy people, which thou broughtest out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves," etc. (v. 7.) Then, after describing their sin, He announced His solemn judgment: "I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiff-necked people: now therefore let Me alone, that My wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them; and I will make of thee a great nation." (vv. 9, 10.) Thus Israel, if dealt with according to the righteous requirements of the law which they had accepted, and to which they had promised obedience as the condition of blessing, were lost beyond recovery, and would perish through their own wilful sin and apostasy.
The announcement which the Lord had made evoked from the heart of Moses an intercession of unparalleled beauty and force. The Lord had said, "I will make of thee a great nation." but in his magnificent love for his people, losing sight of himself, and utterly disregarding what might be termed his own interests, he thinks only of the Lord's glory, and the misery of Israel. Through grace he was enabled to take up the true place of a mediator; and he pours out his whole soul in his pleading intercession. The character of his appeal is most noteworthy. He does not for one moment extenuate the sin of the people — this he could not do: nor does he entreat for mercy, for there was no room for mercy in the covenant of Sinai. What he does therefore is to throw himself upon God — and upon what His glory necessitated in connection with the people He had redeemed. First, he urges the dishonour that would be done to His name among the Egyptians, if Israel should be destroyed. He reminds Jehovah of the link established with His people through redemption. God had said to Moses, "thy" people; but Moses pleads that they are "His" people. He will not accept the breaking of the link, but cries, "Lord, why doth Thy wrath wax hot against Thy people, which Thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power, and with a mighty hand? Wherefore should the Egyptians speak and say, For mischief did He bring them out?" etc. (vv. 11, 12.) Spite of their shameful apostasy, the plea of Moses was that they were still God's people, and that His glory was concerned in sparing them — lest the enemy should boast over their destruction, and thereby over the Lord Himself. In itself it was a plea of irresistible force. Joshua uses one of a like character when the Israelites were smitten before Ai. He says, "The Canaanites, and all the inhabitants of the land, shall hear of it, and shall environ us round, and cut off our name from the earth: and what wilt Thou do unto Thy great name?" (Joshua 7: 9.) In both cases it was faith taking hold of God, identifying itself with His own glory, and claiming on that ground the response to its desires — a plea that God can never refuse. But Moses has another. In the energy of his intercession — fruit surely of the action of the Spirit of God — he goes back to the absolute and unconditional promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, reminding the Lord of the two immutable things in which it was impossible for Him to lie. (Heb. 6: 18.) A more beautiful example of prevailing intercession is not found in the Scriptures. Indeed, in the emergency which had arisen, everything depended on the mediator, and in His grace God had provided one who could stand in the breach, and plead his people's cause — not on the ground of what they were, for by their sin they were exposed to the righteous indignation of a holy God — but on the ground of what God was, and on that of His counsels revealed and confirmed to the patriarchs, both by oath and promise. The Lord heard and "repented of the evil which He thought to do unto His people." What encouragement to faith! If ever there was an occasion when it seemed impossible that prayer should be heard it was this; but the faith of Moses rose above all difficulties, and grasping the hand of Jehovah, claimed His help; and, inasmuch as He could not deny Himself, the prayer of Moses was granted. Surely the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.
"And Moses turned, and went down from the mount, and the two tables of the testimony were in his hand: the tables were written on both their sides: on the one side and on the other were they written. And the tables were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tables. And when Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said unto Moses, There is a noise of war in the camp. And he said, It is not the voice of them that shout for mastery, neither is it the voice of them that cry for being overcome; but the noise of them that sing do I hear. And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf, and the dancing: and Moses' anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and brake them beneath the mount. And he took the calf which they had made, and burnt it in the fire, and ground it to powder, and strawed it upon the water, and made the children of Israel drink of it. And Moses said unto Aaron, What did this people unto thee, that thou hast brought so great a sin upon them? And Aaron said, Let not the anger of my lord wax hot: thou knowest the people, that they are set on mischief. For they said unto me, Make us gods, which shall go before us: for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him. And I said unto them, Whosoever hath any gold, let them break it of. So they gave it me: then I cast it into the fire, and there came out this calf." (vv. 15-24.)
The covenant of Sinai had been broken — broken irretrievably. Still Moses took the two tables of stone with him, as he turned from the presence of the Lord to go down to the camp; and the Spirit of God takes occasion from this circumstance to call attention to its divine and perfect character. "The tables were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tables." (v. 16.) All was divine — divine in its origin, and divine in its execution. But these divine tables of the law never reached the camp. It was impossible. The people had made a complete breach between themselves and God; and there could be therefore no further question of obedience on the ground of pure law. They might be objects of mercy in response to intercession, but as open transgressors they had broken the covenant which they had so readily accepted, and had now become idolators. Joshua thought it was a noise of war he had heard in the camp; but Moses, who had been so long in the presence of God, was more quick to discern the true character of the sounds that reached their ears. "And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf, and the dancing: and Moses' anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and brake them beneath the mount." Remark, how completely Moses had fellowship with the Lord's own mind concerning His people. The Lord's anger had waxed hot against them, and though Moses as mediator had pleaded with Him on this account, yet his own anger waxed hot when he descended and saw the golden calf. If, therefore, he broke the tables of the law, it was only the expression of the necessity which had arisen on account of what the people had done with the covenant, and the act, at the same time, was in entire conformity with the mind of God. To quote the language of another, "His exercised ear, quick to discern how matters stood with the people, hears their light and profane joy. Soon after he sees the golden calf, which had even preceded the tabernacle of God in the camp, and he breaks the tables at the foot of the mount; and, zealous on high for the people towards God because of His glory, he is below on earth zealous for God because of that same glory. For faith does more than see that God is glorious (every reasonable person would own that); it connects the glory of God and His people, and hence counts on God to bless them in every state of things, as in the interest of His glory, and insists on holiness in them at all cost, in conformity with that glory, that it may not be blasphemed in those who are identified with it." These are true and weighty words, and should sink deep into the hearts of the Lord's people in a day like this — when the "camp" of professing Christianity presents an appearance not unlike that which Moses beheld when he came down from the mount; and they should be much pondered over by those of the Lord's servants who have it laid upon them to act for Him in any difficulties, and indeed by all who would be truly identified with the interests of Christ, in the church. For unless we are first zealous before God on behalf of His people, we cannot be zealous for His glory when dealing with His people below.
Moses in the next place deals with Aaron — charges him with bringing so great a sin upon the people. An additional circumstance, which may help us to understand this, is found in Deuteronomy. There Moses says, "And the Lord was very angry with Aaron, to have destroyed him: and I prayed for Aaron also the same time." (Deut. 9: 20.) He is undoubtedly looked upon as the responsible head of the people during the absence of Moses, hence the special guilt with which he is charged; and it is evident from the narrative that he was not slow to fall in with the people's desires. As with Israel so with Aaron — both are spared through the intercession of Moses from the governmental consequences of their sin, but the guilt of the sin as toward God remained. This distinction must be carefully borne in mind, or the judgment afterward executed might seem inconsistent with the statement that "the Lord repented of the evil which He thought to do unto His people." The nation would have been destroyed but for the intercession of Moses, as the result of God's government on the basis of the law of Sinai. Delivered from this consequence, God was still free to deal with them — as we find, at the close of the chapter, that "the Lord plagued the people, because they made the calf, which Aaron made." Aaron is distinguished in these words; for, occupying the position he did, he is regarded as specially criminal. His answer to Moses reveals the heart of a convicted sinner. As Adam threw the blame upon Eve, and Eve upon the serpent, so Aaron shelters himself behind the people. It was true that they were "set on mischief;" but his sin lay in helping them to their object. He should have died rather than have yielded to their desires. His weakness — often exhibited, spite of the favour and grace of the Lord — was his shame and guilt.
Moses, seeing that the people were naked (for Aaron had made them naked unto their shame among their enemies), turns from the excuses of his brother, and burning with a holy zeal for the Lord, stood in the gate of the camp, and cried, "Who is on the Lord's side? let him come unto me." It was no time for concealment of the evil or for compromise. When there is open apostasy there can be no neutrality. Neutrality when the question is between God and Satan is itself apostasy. He that is not with the Lord, at such a time, is against Him. And mark, moreover, that this cry is raised in the midst of those who were the Lord's professing people. They were all Israelites. But now there must be a separation, and the challenge of Moses, "Who is on the Lord's side?" makes all manifest. He became the Lord's centre; and hence to gather to Him was to be for, to refuse his call was to be against, the Lord. What was the effect of his summons? Why that of all the tribes of Israel, Levi only was found faithful. "The sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him." Theirs was the distinguished honour — through the grace of God — of being on the Lord's side when the. whole camp was in utter rebellion. How precious the fidelity of Levi must have been in the eyes of the Lord. It would seem indeed from Deuteronomy that the Lord claimed them for the special service of the Tabernacle in connection with their conduct at this time. Moses says, "At that time the Lord separated the tribe of Levi, to bear the ark of the covenant of the Lord, to stand before the Lord, to minister unto Him, and to bless in His name, unto this day. Wherefore Levi hath no part nor inheritance with his brethren: the Lord is his inheritance, according as the Lord thy God promised him." (Deut. 10: 8, 9.) It was indeed no common fidelity; for no sooner had they responded to the call of Moses than they were commanded, "Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Put every man his sword by his side, and go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour. And the children of Levi did according to the word of Moses: and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men. For Moses had said, Consecrate yourselves today to the Lord, even every man upon his son, and upon his brother; that He may bestow upon you a blessing this day." (vv. 27, 28.)
Thus Levi alone responded to the divine call, separating themselves from their idolatrous brethren, and unhesitatingly taking part with God against the iniquity of His people. It was a searching trial — a trial which demanded that Levi should put aside every claim of the flesh, yea, that he should, in the words of Moses, say to "his father and to his mother, I have not seen him; neither did he acknowledge his brethren, nor knew his own children: for they have observed Thy word, and kept Thy covenant." (Deut. 33: 9.) It was obedience at all costs to the divine call, and hence complete separation from the evil into which Israel had fallen. God often tests His people in the same way; and whenever confusion and declension have begun, the only path for the godly is that which is marked out by the course of Levi — that of full-hearted, unquestioning obedience. Such a path must be painful — involving for those who take it the surrender of some of the most intimate associations of their lives, and breaking many a tie of nature — of kindred and relationship; but it is the only path of blessing. Well may all challenge their hearts, and inquire, if in this evil day they are found apart from all that dishonours the Lord's name in subjection to His word.
Moses on the next day returned to the Lord in the mount.
"And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moses said unto the people, Ye have sinned a great sin: and now I will go up unto the Lord; peradventure I shall make an atonement for your sin. And Moses returned unto the Lord, and said, oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them gods of gold; yet now, if Thou wilt forgive their sin —; and if not, blot me, I pray Thee, out of Thy book which Thou hast written. And the lord said unto Moses, Whosoever hath sinned against Me, him will I blot out of My book. Therefore now go, lead the people unto the place of which I have spoken unto thee: behold, Mine angel shall go before thee: nevertheless in the day when I visit I will visit their sin upon them." (vv. 30-34.)
First, he charges the people with their sin, and then, in his love for the people, proposes to go on their behalf into the Lord's presence, saying, "Peradventure I shall make an atonement for your sin." The contrast between Moses and the Lord Jesus in this respect has been beautifully drawn by another. He says, "What a contrast do we here remark, in passing, with the work of our precious Saviour! He, coming down from above — from His dwelling-place in the glory of the Father — to do His will; and, while keeping the law (instead of destroying the tables, the signs of this covenant, the requirements of which man was unable to meet), He Himself bears the penalty of its infringement; and having accomplished the atonement before returning above, instead of going up with a cheerless 'peradventure' in His mouth, which the holiness of God instantly nullified, He ascends with the sign of the accomplishment of the atonement, and of the confirmation of the new covenant with His precious blood, the value of which was anything but doubtful to that God before whom He presented it." True, Moses was a mediator, but as such it is in the contrast rather that he typifies Christ in this character.
But he returned, confessed his people's sin, and pleaded in the intensity of his affection for their forgiveness. Even more — he could not go farther — he added, "If not, blot me, I pray Thee, out of Thy book which Thou hast written." So fully had he identified himself with the people — source of all strength in intercession when produced by the Spirit of God — that if they were unforgiven he desired to perish with them. It was the overflowing of his intense love for guilty Israel, as in the not dissimilar case of the apostle Paul, who said, "I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh." (Rom. 9: 3.) God did not accede to the request of His servant, for he had no accomplished atonement on which to take his stand, nor had he wherewith to make atonement — the only basis on which a holy God could righteously forgive His people. But his intercession prevailed so far as to secure the people from the governmental consequences of their sin — their destruction as the penalty of their transgression. While however they were spared in the long-suffering of the Lord, He put them back individually under responsibility with the words, "Whosoever hath sinned against Me, him will I blot out of My book." (v. 33.) Thereon He commanded Moses to go, and to lead the people to the place He had promised, saying, "Mine angel shall go before thee: nevertheless in the day when I visit I will visit their sin upon them. And the Lord plagued the people, because they made the calf, which Aaron made." It is not now Jehovah dwelling in their midst, but an angel to go before them, and the people still under just judgment because of their sin. This change, producing a new action and intercession on the part of Moses, is developed as to its consequences in the next chapter.
"And the Lord said unto Moses, Depart, and go up hence, thou and the people which thou hast brought up out of the land of Egypt, unto the land which I sware unto Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, Unto thy seed will I give it., and I will send an angel before thee; and I will drive out the Canaanite, the Amorite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite: unto a land flowing with milk and honey: for I will not go up in the midst of thee; for thou art a stiffnecked people; lest I consume thee in the way. And when the people heard these evil tidings, they mourned; and no man did put on him his ornaments. For the Lord had said unto Moses, Say unto the children of Israel, Ye are a stiff-necked people: I will come up into the midst of thee in a moment, and consume thee: therefore now put off thy ornaments from thee, that I may know what to do unto thee. And the children of Israel stripped themselves of their ornaments by the mount Horeb." (vv. 1-6.)
Several points in this statement should be noticed, as indicative of the position which the people now occupied. In the first place, the Lord did not yet take back the people into that relationship with Himself which they had forfeited through their transgression. They had rejected Him, and He keeps them as it were on that footing. He thus still says to Moses, "Thou and the people which thou hast brought up out of the land of Egypt." Secondly, He promises them the land notwithstanding; this had been secured by the first intercession of Moses, when he appealed to the absolute and unconditional promises made to the patriarchs. (32: 13.) But, thirdly, He announces that He will not go up in their midst: "For," said He, "thou art a stiff-necked people; lest I consume thee in the way." A holy God, to speak after the manner of men, knew not how He could now dwell in the midst of a nation of transgressors. Lastly, He threatens judgment, and commands the people to strip off their ornaments that He might know what to do with them. God weighs, as it were, the condition of His poor people, and pauses before He smites, seeing that they mourned — humbled by their sin — at the tidings they had received. It is a striking if solemn, scene — the people stripped of their adornments, awaiting the judgment pronounced in bitterness and sorrow of heart; and the Lord pausing before the blow is struck.
But He who pronounced judgment upon the people for their sins, provided a way for their escape through a new action on the part of Moses. First of all, he pitched the tabernacle outside the camp.
"And Moses took the tabernacle, and pitched it without the camp, afar off from the camp, and called it the tabernacle of the congregation. And it came to pass, that every one which sought the Lord went out unto the tabernacle of the congregation, which was without the camp. And it came to pass, when Moses went out unto the tabernacle, that all the people rose up, and stood every man at his tent door, and looked after Moses, until he was gone into the tabernacle. And it came to pass, as Moses entered into the tabernacle, the cloudy pillar descended, and stood at the door of the tabernacle, and [the Lord] talked with Moses. And all the people saw the cloudy pillar stand at the tabernacle door: and all the people rose up and worshipped, every man in his tent door. And the Lord spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend. And he turned again into the camp: but his servant Joshua, the son of Nun, a young man, departed not out of the tabernacle." (vv. 7-11.)
It does not appear that Moses, in pitching the tabernacle1 outside the camp, was acting under any direct commandment from the Lord. It was rather spiritual discernment, entering into both the character of God and the state of the people. Taught of God, he feels that Jehovah could no longer dwell in the midst of a camp which had been defiled by the presence of the golden calf. He therefore made a place outside, afar off from the camp, and called it the tabernacle of the congregation. This was a totally different thing from what the Lord had said unto Moses: "Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them." They were no longer to be the Lord's people — grouped round about Himself as their centre; but He being outside, "every one who sought the Lord went out unto the tabernacle of the congregation, which was without the camp." It thus became an individual thing; and the true worshippers were in the place of separation — they took the ground of separation from the camp which had acknowledged a false god. This gives a principle of the utmost value and importance. For it must be remembered that Israel professedly were the Lord's people; but their condition had become such that the Lord could no longer be in their midst. So it was in a later day, as we gather from the epistle to the Hebrews; and hence the exhortation which is there given, "Let us go forth therefore unto Him without the camp, bearing His reproach." (Heb. 13: 13.) Whenever the Lord's name is dishonoured, and His authority is rejected, and another authority is substituted, there is no resource for the godly but to go outside of all that answers to the camp, if they would worship God in spirit and in truth. And it should be carefully remarked that, as in the case of Moses, the need for such separation is a matter of spiritual discernment. There are times and seasons — and those who have a single eye will not fail to apprehend them — when it becomes a high and holy privilege, as in the case of Levi at the end of the previous chapter, to take part with the Lord against His people, at least in testimony against their ways; and, as in the case of Moses, to take a place outside of all the declension, rejection of the Lord's authority, and idolatrous practices of His people. In taking such a step there must undoubtedly be the authority of the word of God — the only light to our feet in the darkness around, as it is our only resource in the evil day. But the application of the word to any given state of things must be a matter of spiritual wisdom and discernment through the Spirit of God.
The tabernacle having been pitched, Moses, in the sight of all the people, went out and entered into it; and, as he entered, the Lord immediately endorsed his act of faith, for the cloudy pillar descended, and stood at the door of the tabernacle, and He talked with Moses. (v. 9.) Being in separation from the camp, the Lord revealed Himself as He had not done before, and so strikingly that the people "rose up and worshipped, every man in his tent door. And the Lord spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend." This was a totally new thing, altogether different from the sublime communications of Sinai. It was an intimacy of approach and communion which Moses had never before enjoyed. The Lord Himself alludes to this as the distinguishing privilege of His servant, when vindicating him from the aspersions of Aaron and Miriam. (Num. 12: 5-8.) This fact is full of consolation — teaching as it does that, though ruin, and even apostasy, may characterize the professing people of God, a way into His presence may still be found by those who can enter into His mind, and are enabled by His grace to take a place outside of the corruptions by which they are surrounded; and that the Lord will reveal Himself to such, in response to their faith and faithfulness, in a most special and gracious way. The fact is, identified with the corruptions of an apostate people, we of necessity share their condition and even judgment; but apart according to the mind of the Lord, the barrier to the manifestation of Himself is removed. We are on a different footing — on the footing of individual faith and individual condition of soul. But then it must be remembered, that all who so act will find themselves together gathered individually around a new centre. The act of Moses indeed is, in some sort, the anticipation of that word, "Where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them." (Matt. 18: 20.) And this assurance is the resource of the godly in this day of confusion and corruption, as the tabernacle of the congregation without the camp was that of those who sought the Lord in the midst of Israel's idolatry; and those who, in simplicity and faith, have recourse to it will receive, as Moses did, special manifestations of the Lord's favour and presence.
The act of Moses having been accepted, he returned to the camp — now the recognised mediator; but Joshua, type of Christ in spirit, as the leader of His people, remains in the tabernacle. Thereon Moses as mediator commences his intercession. He accepts the place into which the Lord had put him — as the one appointed to conduct the people to the promised inheritance. (v. 1.) He takes this ground as the basis of his plea.
"And Moses said unto the Lord, See, Thou sayest unto me, Bring up this people: and Thou hast not let me know whom Thou wilt send with me. Yet Thou hast said, I know thee by name, and thou hast also found grace in My sight. Now therefore, I pray Thee, if I have found grace in Thy sight, show me now Thy way, that I may know Thee, that I may find grace in Thy sight; and consider that this nation is Thy people." (vv. 12, 13.)
He makes supplication in the first place for himself. He desires first to know whom the Lord would send with him. God had said that He would send an angel (v. 2); but Moses would know more; and he pleads for this knowledge on the ground that the Lord had said to him, "I know thee by name, and thou hast also found grace in My sight." Furthermore, he would know God's way, that he might know Him, that he might find grace in His sight. And then he brings the people before God. As everything now depended on Moses, as mediator, he presents his own cause first; and then he introduces the people. "Consider," he touchingly prays, "that this nation is Thy people." All this is exceedingly beautiful, as it is also full of interest and instruction. It was not enough for Moses that he had been divinely appointed to lead Israel, and that an angel should go before him in the path, but he desired to know, not his but God's way through the wilderness, that he might also know Him. He could not be satisfied short of knowing God and God's way — if he were to lead up the people. This is what every believer needs, and there is nothing beyond while in the wilderness.
The Lord graciously accepted the prayer of His servant. He said, "My presence shall go with thee, and I will give thee rest." This was a full response to the cry of the mediator, and all that he needed to carry him and the people through their desert path. This comforted and emboldened his heart — and he replied, "If Thy presence go not, carry us not up hence." (v. 15.) Now he identifies himself with the people. This is no mean adumbration of the heart of Christ — this intense love of Moses for Israel, linking them with himself in his place of favour before God. And not only so, but, rising higher, he now links them again with God. We have remarked that God took Israel on their own ground, and since they had rejected Him, He had said to Moses, "thy" people. But now — now that Moses, acting as mediator, has gained the ear of God, he says again "Thy" people. "For wherein," he proceeds, "shall it be known here that I and Thy people have found grace in Thy sight? is it not in that Thou goest with us? so shall we be separated, I and Thy people, from all the people that are upon the face of the earth." (v. 16.) He thus claims, as it were, as proof of divine favour — restoration of favour — God's own presence with His people. It could not be otherwise known; and the fact of His presence would separate them off from all other people. It is the same in principle during this dispensation. The presence of the Holy Ghost on earth, building His people into an habitation for God, separates from all else, and so completely, that there are but the two spheres — sphere of the presence and action of the Holy Ghost, and sphere of the action and power of Satan.
"And the Lord said unto Moses, I will do this thing also that thou hast spoken: for thou hast found grace in My sight, and I know thee by name." (v. 17.)
The success of the mediation of Moses was thus complete, complete for the restoration of the people. They are once again the Lord's people — to be put under a new covenant, as will be seen in the next chapter, a covenant of law indeed, but law mingled with grace, according to the character of God as now revealed. The effect on Moses of the divine favour is remarkable. Every successive display of grace does but elicit larger desires; and Moses therefore now longs for himself that he may see God's glory.
"And he said, I beseech Thee, show me Thy glory." (v. 18.)
Such is ever the action of grace upon the soul. The more we know of God, the more we desire to know. But this very petition of Moses affords a contrast with the place of the believer. Now we behold with unveiled face the glory of the Lord; here Moses prays that he may see it. The holy longing, however, which he thus expresses, shows the effect of intimacy with God, and the consequent energetic action on the soul of the Holy Ghost.
"And He said, I will make all My goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the Lord before thee; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. And He said, Thou canst not see My face; for there shall no man see Me, and live. And the Lord said, Behold, there is a place by Me, and thou shalt stand upon a rock: and it shall come to pass, while My glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a clift of the rock, and will cover thee with My hand while I pass by: and I will take away Mine hand, and thou shalt see My back parts; but My face shall not be seen." (vv. 19-23.)
The Lord hears, and grants as far as was possible for Moses to receive, the request he had made. He would make all His goodness pass before him, and proclaim the name of Jehovah. Then He lays down the principle of His sovereignty, on which He must act in order to spare Israel; for had He dealt with them on the basis of righteous law, the whole nation must have perished. It is this very scripture that the apostle Paul cites to enforce the same truth — that Israel was spared on the one hand, and Pharaoh destroyed on the other, in the exercise of God's sovereign rights. His object is to reconcile the bestowal of grace on the Gentiles with the special promises made to Israel, and he thus leads them back to their sin in connection with the golden calf, to remind them that they were at that time equally indebted to the sovereign grace of God as were now the Gentiles — that, both the one, therefore, and the other, were alike the objects of sovereign mercy and grace. This word of the Lord to Moses is the fountain-head — so to speak — of this truth, though God had acted on the principle all down the line of Israel's history. (See Rom. 9: 7-13.) It is affirmed now as the foundation on which, in answer to the intercession of Moses, He could spare the people. But notwithstanding this favour accorded to Moses — this privilege of beholding the goodness of the Lord and bearing His name, he could not behold His face and live. The Lord would put him "in a clift of the rock" while He passed by. "And I will take away Mine hand, and thou shalt see My back parts; but My face shall not be seen." No, God was not yet fully revealed; the work was not accomplished through the efficacy of which God could bring the sinner into His immediate presence, and without a cloud between. Distinguished therefore as was the place which Moses occupied, the humblest believer of this dispensation is brought nearer to God. The Christian may behold all the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ; but Moses must be hidden in a "clift of the rock" — type, it may be, of the believer in Christ — while that glory passed by. As another has said, "He will hide him while He passes by, and Moses shall see His back parts. We cannot meet God on His way as independent of Him. After He has passed by, one sees all the beauty of His ways." This is exemplified in the next chapter — on the re-establishment of the covenant with Israel.
"And the Lord said unto Moses, Hew thee two tables of stone like unto the first; and I will write upon these tables the words that were in the first tables, which thou brakest. And be ready in the morning, and come up in the morning unto mount Sinai, and present thyself there to Me in the top of the mount. And no man shall come up with thee, neither let any man be seen throughout all the mount; neither let the flocks nor herds feed before that mount. And he hewed two tables of stone like unto the first: and Moses rose up early in the morning, and went up unto mount Sinai, as the Lord had commanded him, and took in his hand the two tables of stone. And the Lord descended in the cloud, and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. And the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed, The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, unto the third and to the fourth generation." (Ex. 34: 1-7.)
Moses presented himself in obedience to the divine command, with the two tables of stone, to receive again the law under which Israel was to be placed. Sinai is therefore once more the scene of his interview with the Lord. The Lord, faithful to His promise, descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. Name in Scripture, in connection at least with God, is expressive of nature; and hence here it is significant of what God was as JEHOVAH. It is essential to remember that it is not the Father, but Jehovah in His relationship with Israel, who is thus revealed. It is therefore not a complete revelation of God. This could not be until after the cross; but it is the name of Jehovah — expression of what God was in this character — that is proclaimed. "It is not at all the name of His relationship with the sinner for his justification, but with Israel for His government. Mercy, holiness, and patience mark His ways with them, but He does not clear the guilty." The reader must study for himself this unfolding of what God was to Israel — each word employed being in this aspect the declaration of His immutable character. Mercy and truth are seen in combination, though it was not until the cross that they met together, and were harmonized in their activities, when also righteousness and peace kissed each other. Goodness and grace are also here, as well as long-suffering; but there is also holiness, and hence, while keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, Jehovah would by no means clear the guilty. There was indeed a heart of love for His people, but this heart of love was pent up, if it may be so expressed, until atonement should have been completed, when God could righteously justify the ungodly. But whoever traces down the line of God's dealings with Israel, from this moment until their expulsion from the land, and indeed until the cross, will find every one of these attributes in constant exercise. All that God is, as here declared, is revealed in His ways with His ancient people. The proclamation of His name is, in fact, the summary of His government from Sinai until the death of Christ. But while admitting to the full the wondrous character of the revelation thus made to. Moses, let it be again observed that it is not that which Christians now enjoy. If it is compared with the words of our blessed Lord, "I have declared unto them Thy name, and will declare it: that the love wherewith Thou hast loved Me may be in them, and I in them" (John 17: 26), the immensity of the difference cannot fail to be apprehended. The difference is between what God was as Jehovah to Israel, and what God is as the Father to His children.
One other remark should be made. Satan had come in, and for the moment seemed as if he had succeeded in frustrating the purposes of God with respect to His people. But Satan is never so completely defeated as in his apparent victories. This is nowhere so fully illustrated as in the cross; but the same thing is perceived in connection with the golden calf. This was Satan's work; but the failure of Israel becomes the occasion, through the mediation of Moses, which God in His grace had provided, of the fuller revelation of God, and of His mingling grace with law. The activity of Satan does but work out the purposes of God, and his wrath is made to praise Him against whom all his malice and enmity are directed.
We may now consider the effect on Moses of the proclamation of the name of Jehovah.
"And Moses made haste, and bowed his head toward the earth, and worshipped. And he said, If now I have found grace in Thy sight, O Lord, let my Lord, I pray Thee, go among us; for it is a stiff-necked people; and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for Thine inheritance." (vv. 8, 9.)
The first effect is personal. It bows Moses to the ground in worship before the Lord. Every revelation of God to the heart of His people produces this result. This is remarkably illustrated in the experience of the patriarchs. Such records as this are common: "And the Lord appeared unto Abram . . . . and there builded he an altar unto the Lord, who appeared unto him." (Genesis 12: 7.) So with Moses. Overwhelmed by the revelation made in grace to his soul, he is constrained to worship. But he immediately takes up his position of mediator. Made to feel his own acceptance by the favour into which he had been brought, and his acceptance, too, as mediator for Israel, he commences his intercession; and he prays that the Lord would go among them, and for the very reason that had led the Lord to say He would not dwell in their midst. (Cp. v. 3.) Moreover, he besought the forgiveness of their sin; and that He would take them for His inheritance. It is exceedingly beautiful to note, now that Moses has obtained the full place of an accepted mediator, how entirely he identifies himself with those whose cause he pleads. He says, "among us;" "our iniquity and our sin, and take us for Thine inheritance." This is a principle of the highest importance. It was exemplified perfectly in Him of whom Moses was but a type. And it will apply to every kind of intercession for the people of God. Indeed, whenever any of the Lord's servants have occupied the place of intercessors, this feature has been distinctly marked. (See Daniel 9; Nehemiah 1, etc.) So now. We can never have power with God on behalf of others, unless by grace we are enabled to enter into the condition of, and identify ourselves with, those whom we would bear on our hearts before the Lord. Moses was enabled to do this, and his prayer was accepted, and, in response, the Lord established a new covenant with the people.
"And He said, Behold, I make a covenant: before all thy people I will do marvels, such as have not been done in all the earth, nor in any nation: and all the people among which thou art shall see the work of the Lord; for it is a terrible thing that I will do with thee. Observe thou that which I command thee this day: behold, I drive out before thee the Amorite, and the Canaanite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite. Take heed to thyself, lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land whither thou goest, lest it be for a snare in the midst of thee: but ye shall destroy their altars, break their images, and cut down their groves: for thou shalt worship no other god: for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God: lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and they go a whoring after their gods, and do sacrifice unto their gods, and one call thee, and thou eat of his sacrifice: and thou take of their daughters unto thy sons, and their daughters go a whoring after their gods, and make thy sons go a whoring after their gods. Thou shalt make thee no molten gods.
"The feast of unleavened bread shalt thou keep. Seven days thou shalt eat unleavened bread, as I commanded thee, in the time of the month Abib: for in the month Abib thou camest out from Egypt. All that openeth the matrix is Mine; and every firstling among thy cattle, whether ox or sheep, that is male. But the firstling of an ass thou shalt redeem with a lamb: and if thou redeem him not, then shalt thou break his neck. All the firstborn of thy sons thou shalt redeem. And none shall appear before Me empty. Six days thou shalt work, but on the seventh day thou shalt rest: in earing time and in harvest thou shalt rest. And thou shalt observe the feast of weeks, of the firstfruits of wheat harvest, and the feast of ingathering at the year's end. Thrice in the year shall all your men-children appear before the Lord God, the God of Israel. For I will cast out the nations before thee, and enlarge thy borders: neither shall any man desire thy land, when thou shalt go up to appear before the Lord thy God thrice in the year. Thou shalt not offer the blood of My sacrifice with leaven; neither shall the sacrifice of the feast of the passover be left unto the morning. The first of the firstfruits of thy land thou shalt bring unto the house of the Lord thy God. Thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother's milk. And the Lord said unto Moses, Write thou these words: for after the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with thee and with Israel. And he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments." vv. 10-28.)
The terms of this covenant are not new, though they are newly enjoined. Almost every one of them has been already under consideration. (See Ex. 13 and Ex. 23) A brief notice of their character will therefore suffice. The foundation of all is laid in what God would do for His people. (v. 10. ) Thereon He commands complete separation from the nations around, after they should have been put into possession of the land — separation from the people themselves, from their ways, and from their worship. They must worship the Lord alone; for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God. (vv. 11 — 16.) But if, on the one hand, there must be separation from evil, there must be, on the other, separation to God. Hence the least of unleavened bread should be kept.2 Seven days — a complete period, typical of their whole lives, they were to eat unleavened bread — the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Cor. 5: 8.) They should, moreover, recognize God's claims both upon themselves and upon their cattle. "All that openeth the matrix is mine." (v. 19.) Thereon follows a remarkable provision — that both the firstling of an ass, and the firstborn of their sons, should be redeemed. Man in nature is thus associated with the unclean (see Exodus 13: 13) — teaching both his lost condition as born into this world, and his need of redemption, as well as his doom if unredeemed. The sabbath, the feasts of Pentecost and of Tabernacles, are again commanded — with the provision that three times in the year "all your men-children appear before the Lord God, the God of Israel."3
"After the tenor of these words," the Lord made a covenant with Moses and with Israel. (v. 27.) The words "with thee" are significant. It shows how that the place of Israel had been made dependent upon the mediator, and indicates consequently the position into which Moses had been brought. For the second time he had been forty days and forty nights — in a state above nature — in the presence of God. He did neither eat bread, nor drink water. God thus sustained His servant in His own presence, and enabled him to listen to His voice and receive His words. In fine, he received once again two tables of testimony on which God had written the ten commandments, and descending from the mount, returned to the people.
Such was the covenant into which God in grace entered with His people after their failure and apostasy. "It is important to remark that Israel never entered the land under the Sinai covenant, that is, under simple law (for all this passed under mount Sinai); it had been immediately broken. It is under the mediation of Moses that they were able to find the way of entering into it. However, they are placed again under the law, but the government of patience and grace is added to it." Israel had indeed forfeited everything, and become amenable to destruction, through the sin of the golden calf. They had lost thereby all title to blessing or the inheritance. The mediation of Moses availed, for governmental forgiveness, to restore them to their position as the people of God, and to secure for them the possession of the land. Moreover, God proclaimed the name of Jehovah — the revelation of His character in relation with Israel — and thereafter put them back under law. Israel therefore was never actually under the covenant of Sinai. It was broken before its terms — written on the tables of stone — reached the camp. The terms of the second covenant are indeed the same, but these were mingled with the grace and goodness and long-suffering which had been proclaimed in the name of Jehovah. In fact Israel, after their sin, were saved by grace through the intercession. of Moses; and then they are put back under the law, with the additional elements named. Their position thenceforward was not unlike that of those believers who, not knowing the new place into which they are brought through the death and resurrection of Christ, put themselves under the law as the rule of their conduct and life. What wonder, then, if the path of both alike is marked by continual failure and transgression?
This section closes with a striking account of the effect on Moses of being in the presence of God on the mount.
"And it came to pass, when Moses came down from mount Sinai with the two tables of testimony in Moses' hand, when he came down from the mount, that Moses wist not that the skin of his face shone while he talked with Him. And when Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone: and they were afraid to come nigh him. And Moses called unto them; and Aaron and all the rulers of the congregation returned unto him: and Moses talked with them. And afterward all the children of Israel came nigh: and he gave them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken with him in mount Sinai. And till Moses had done speaking with them, he put a veil on his face. But when Moses went in before the Lord, to speak with Him, he took the veil off, until he came out. And he came out, and spake unto the children of Israel that which he was commanded. And the children of Israel saw the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses' face shone: and Moses put the veil upon his face again, until he went in to speak with Him." (vv. 29-35.)
There are three things in this description to be considered. First, the fact that the skin of the face of Moses shone as the consequence of being in the mount with God. brought, into the immediate presence of the glory of Jehovah, his face caught, and retained, some of the beams of that glory — though he "wist not that the skin of his face shone while he talked with Him." The contrast with our Lord on the mount of transfiguration cannot fail to be noted. He "was transfigured before them; and His face did shine as the sun, and His raiment was white as the light." (Matt. 17: 2.) But this was the outshining of His own glory — a glory which transfused and irradiated His whole body before the eyes of the disciples, so that He appeared to them as a Being of light. The glory that shone from the face of Moses was but external, the reflection of that of Jehovah, the effect of his communion with God. Moses, absorbed in the communications he was receiving, and in contemplation of the One whose words he heard, knew not that his face had become irradiated with light. No; the believer never knows the outward effect of his being alone with God. Others may see — they cannot fail to see;. but he himself will be unconscious that he is reflecting the light of Him in whose presence he has been. For indeed it is ever true —
"The more Thy glory strikes mine eye,
The humbler I shall lie."
But Aaron and all the children of Israel beheld the glory shining from the face of Moses; and this brings us to the second point; viz., the effect it produced on them. They were afraid to come nigh him; and hence, while Moses was talking with them, giving them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken with him in mount Sinai, he put a veil upon his face. It is this incident which the apostle Paul adduces to show the contrast between "the ministration of death," and "the ministration of the Spirit;" or "the ministration of condemnation," and "the ministration of righteousness;" i.e. between the dispensation of law, and the dispensation of grace. The face of Moses, it should be remarked, did not shine when he came down from Sinai the first time; not until his return from his successful mediation on behalf of the people on account of their sin. Why, then, were they afraid to come near him? Because the very glory that shone on his face searched their hearts and consciences — being what they were, sinners, and unable of themselves to meet even the smallest requirement of the covenant which had now been inaugurated. It was of necessity a "ministration" of condemnation and death, for it required a righteousness from them which they could not render, and, inasmuch as they must fail in rendering it, would pronounce their condemnation, and bring them under the penalty of transgression, which was death. The glory which they thus beheld upon the face of Moses was the expression to them of the holiness of God — that holiness which sought from them conformity to its own standards — and which would vindicate the breaches of that covenant which had now been established. They were therefore afraid, because they knew in their inmost souls that they could not stand before Him from whose presence Moses had come. But in the "ministration" of righteousness and of the Spirit all is changed. This requires no righteousness from man, but reveals God's righteousness as a divine gift in Christ to every believer, and seals its bestowal by the gift of the Holy Spirit. Instead therefore of fearing, we rejoice as we behold the glory in the face of Jesus Christ at the right hand of God; for every ray of that glory speaks of accomplished atonement, and of the complete putting away of our sins if we are believers. For He who was delivered for our offences has been raised again for our justification; He who Himself bare our sins in His own body on the tree, has been raised by God Himself, and exalted at His own right hand. God has glorified Him in Himself. That is, He has come in, and raised up the One that bore our sins, went down into death under them, and in token of His satisfaction with His work, He has put Him in the glory, so that the glory of God now shines forth in the face of Jesus Christ. It is this fact that gives confidence to our souls, enables us to draw near in peace, because the very glory that we behold is the evidence to us that all that was against us is cleared away. Hence, instead of putting a veil on His face, as Moses did, because the children of Israel were afraid to draw nigh, He is at God's right hand with unveiled face, and we delightedly contemplate the glory that is there displayed, and as we gaze we are changed into the same image from glory to glory, as by the Spirit of the Lord. (2 Cor. 3, 4) The effect therefore on the children of Israel of the glory in the face of Moses forms a perfect contrast to that produced upon the believer as he beholds the glory of the Lord. It is quite true that Israel was no longer under pure law, that goodness and grace had now been mingled with it; but this very fact would make their sin the more heinous if they broke the covenant a second time. In that case, it would not only be sin against righteousness, but also against the goodness and grace which had spared them, and restored them to relationship with God. This enhances, instead of diminishing the contrast, and should lead out our hearts in adoring gratitude in that we are brought into such a place — a place where we behold, with unveiled face, the glory of the Lord — knowing by the very fact of the glory we behold that our sins are gone from the sight of God for ever.
The last action must also be noted. When Moses went in before the Lord to speak with Him he took the veil off, until he came out. (v. 34.) He unveils his face to speak to the Lord, while he covers his face to speak to the people. In this respect he becomes rather a type of the present position of the believer, to which reference has already been made. Moses was brought into the very presence of God without a veil, even as the believer is set down in the light as He is in the light. There is still the difference already noted. However intimate the access Moses enjoyed, it was as Jehovah that God spake with him; but the believer is before God according to all that God is, according to that full and perfect revelation of Himself which He has made in Christ as our God and Father. While, moreover, Moses was permitted thus to come before Jehovah to commune with Him, the believer is brought into God's presence as his abiding position. He is ever before God in Christ.
1) The reader will understand that this was not the Tabernacle, the pattern and details of which had been prescribed to Moses in the mount, but a tent which was now to be a tabernacle — a meeting-place between God and those who sought Him, pitched to meet the present need outside the camp in consequence of the people's sin.
2) See Ex. 13 for the exposition of this feast.
3) These statutes have been considered in Ex. 23: 14-19.