Exodus 32:1-4 illustrates how one can twist something into idolatry that is not directly connected to worship. On the surface, the Israelites were not really seeking a change of gods, but a change of leaders. Some did not like Moses, and besides, he had disappeared. In their impatience, they moved to entrust their leadership to one who could introduce them to a god similar to what Moses had done. However, they immediately regressed to a god of Egypt because that was all they really knew.
Nevertheless, God and Moses were highly offended because, to them, making the Golden Calf was an Israelite attempt to define God's nature and to control Him according to their desires. A man wrote in an email that he did not care whether the Bible said not to worship as the pagans do through the use of Christmas and Easter. He was going to do it anyway because it was his way of praising God. He is worshipping a god of his own design. He is doing the same thing the Israelites were, except that he carries his false image in his mind.
In a similar way, the pope takes the people's ornaments of gold, silver, ivory, and precious stones, makes a crucifix or Madonna, and says it is only to keep God in mind. The principle, however, is exactly the same. It will not be long before people associate the image directly with God, and they need it to perform their prayers of praise and request. In this, the first and second commandments are directly broken.
The carnal emailer wrote, "It is my way of praising the Lord" (emphasis added). The carnal Israelites in Moses day proclaimed "a feast to the LORD" (Exodus 32:5). Both justify themselves based on a false image of God's nature. In contrast, the spiritual God declared that the Israelites were corrupting themselves by worshipping the Golden Calf, and He showed His displeasure by destroying them. People corrupt themselves by defining God's nature to their own ends.
Mark 7:6-7 defines this travesty further: "This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men." Jesus joined battle with manmade supplements to God's Word, the works of men's hands. People keep traditional religious holidays in God's name, but He is not in them. Despite the outward appearance of sincere piety in keeping them, they are a lie because they simply are not true to God's nature. Celebrating them contradicts a Christian's commitment to truth.
The traditions of which Jesus spoke directly distorted the law of God and thus the image of God. The law is a description of God's character, the image He wants us to carry in our minds and follow in our conduct. Christ repudiates every addition, subtraction, and distortion elevated to a specious "divine" authority.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Second Commandment
The Israelites gave their mind to a different god, and immediately things began to take place in their life. That is the principle involved here. On a nationwide scale, it will determine the direction, morality, government, art, literature, education, and economics of the entire nation.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Nature of God: Elohim
In Exodus 32:1-6 is an example of what happens when a leader goes away and does not return within the expected time. It provides a clear-cut example of what was happening to the Ephesian church (Revelation 2:4-5).
Moses went up Mount Sinai; Christ went up to Mount Zion in heaven. "What has become of him?" the people asked. "We do not know what has happened to him! He is up there. He is supposed to return, but He has not returned according to our expectations."
What do the Israelites decide to do? They began looking to the world for a solution, in this case to Egypt. In the Ephesians' case, it was the world around Ephesus, the world of Asia Minor. They looked to the culture to gratify them, and they began to drift in that direction.
Moses' return was delayed longer than the people thought that he should have been gone, so their affections pulled their attention elsewhere. The same happened to the Ephesians, only it took a lot longer because of the Spirit of God in them. The people in Exodus did not have the Spirit of God, yet the people in Ephesus—in the church—did have God's Spirit, so what took place very quickly in the book of Exodus was dragged out over a much longer period in the first-century church. The Ephesian's affections were taking them back into the world, and they began to follow the world's ways once again.
John W. Ritenbaugh
How to Know We Love Christ
As this episode began, the people were not really asking for a change of gods but rather a new human leader. Moses had borne much of the brunt of Israel's discontent, and now he had disappeared! In their impatience, they wanted to entrust their leadership to one who could make a god. But this highly offended the true God and Moses! To them the golden calf was an attempt to redefine God's nature and control Him according to their desires.
In like manner, the Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches say the ornaments, icons, crucifixes, Madonna statues, and Christmas trees are only to keep God in mind. But this is the same principle involved in Exodus 32! It is not long before people associate the image with God.
In the Golden Calf episode, the first and second commandments were directly broken. Aaron proclaimed it "a feast to the LORD." The churches say, "These things are dedicated to worshipping God." The true God says in verses 7-8 that they had "corrupted themselves . . . and worshipped it." This sounds like today's Christmas observance. The people corrupted themselves by redefining God's nature and His way of worship according to their desires and ends.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Second Commandment (1997)
Moses had placed Aaron in charge while he received instruction from God on Mount Sinai. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, Aaron probably lacked the conviction or courage to fill Moses' shoes adequately in his absence. To stall for time, he asked the people to contribute to the cause, hoping to deter them. Understanding the principle of "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matthew 6:21), he asked them to donate some of their jewelry.
His plan failed. They eagerly gave of their treasure, showing where their heart really was. Now Aaron had to go through with it, and he did.
A major motivator in the process of apostasy is contained within the words, "Moses delayed his coming." Impatience, weariness with the way, and the constant struggle without any indication of relief are all included. God repeats this in the New Testament, when Christ warns that the evil servant says, "My master is delaying His coming" (Matthew 24:48; Luke 12:45). God emphasizes it just in case His children's endurance begins to lag. He does not want anyone to turn aside to some exciting distraction in the surrounding culture.
Unfortunately, that is what occurred here. The impatience and the weariness of their struggle moved the Israelites to take their eyes off the Promised Land, their goal. Instead they focused on a more exciting and stimulating practice from the world they had just left.
The key to this process is found in verses 4 and 5, in the words, "This is your god, O Israel" and "Aaron made a proclamation and said, 'Tomorrow is a feast to the LORD.'" Can God be worshipped in any form as long as it is dedicated to the Lord? Does that please God? Did this celebration become a feast to the Lord because a man in authority like Aaron proclaimed it? Is God pleased when His people worship Him in ways other than what He has prescribed? God's reaction to their idolatrous festivities plainly shows they had turned aside from what He had delivered to them through Moses (Exodus 32:10).
The world's theologians call this process syncretism, which means "the combination of different forms of belief or practice; the fusion of two or more original forms." The incident of the Golden Calf blends the worship of the true God with the worship of false gods, and the result is proclaimed to be worship of which the true God approves.
Predictably, God was indignant with the people for defining for themselves the nature of the god they wanted to serve. They were preventing the God of heaven from defining His own nature as revealed in His laws, His way, and His actions for and against them. Their experience with these things would teach them about Him. Instead, they decided to define that nature, and chose the form of a bull, a god commonly worshipped in Egypt.
Is God a bull? Of course not! Is God confined to what a bull can do? Of course not! To modern thought worshipping a bull seems silly and foolish, but the spiritual lesson involved is serious. The essence of idolatry is defining the nature of God, not according to His Word, but according to human experience and ideas.
What is the effect of man defining God according to his own ideals? His god determines his standards. These standards are immediately perceived in his conduct, which can rise only as high as his god, as exemplified in Exodus 32:6: "Then they rose early on the next day, offered burnt offerings [a form of worship], and brought peace offerings [indicating fellowship between God, the priest and offerer]; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play."
As one might imagine, they were not engaging in ordinary eating and drinking and playing. They were not throwing a ball around, they were not shooting a ball through a hoop, nor were they kicking a ball around a field. They were playing! These people were involved in a gluttonous, drunken debauchery! "Play" suggests conjugal caresses—fornication and adultery!
The symbolism is obvious. When the nature of the true God is falsely defined, the effect will be spiritual adultery. There will be a deterioration, a degeneration, of society expressed in peoples' conduct. Plummeting standards and moral laxity are the fruit produced. Writing of Christianity in the second century, historian Will Durant observes, "Much of this difficult code [of conduct, as practiced by the apostolic church] was predicated on the early return of Christ. As that hope faded, the voice of the flesh rose again, and Christian morals were relaxed" (Caesar and Christ, p. 599).
God handled Israel's debauchery at Sinai severely, but unfortunately, Israel failed to learn the lesson. They never understood the principle of worshipping God as He instructed. In fact, it led to their eventual destruction and captivity.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Guard the Truth!
They did this in their ignorance and their impatience to get things moving. Even though most of the people wanted it, and a renowned religious figure proclaimed it "a feast to the LORD," it did not make it so. God was definitely not positively impressed, nor was Moses. In one of the gravest acts of presumption shown in God's Word, and one of the largest in terms of the number involved, they took it on themselves to add this to the worship of God. What they did was very seriously disrespectful to God; they attempted to configure the nature of God according to their own desires.
Proverbs 14:12 says, "There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death." People say they keep Christmas and Easter to worship Christ, but they are also defining the nature of God according to their own ideas. Just as surely as the ancient Israelites blended paganism with what God truly revealed, so people do today. This is the basic principle of acts of presumption, and each of us has done this, not once, but sadly, repeatedly, even though we may know better.
Jesus says in John 4:24, "God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth," meaning we must worship to the fullest of God's intent as revealed in His Word, with every act guided and determined by His revealed truth. Yet, how many corners do we cut when we feel it serves us better at the time?
John W. Ritenbaugh
Presumption and Divine Justice (Part Two)
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing Exodus 32:1: