Israel hit a rough patch of their own making. This was rock bottom. They'd turned their back on the one thing keeping them alive and turned back to the ways of those who enslaved them. Their preacher was gone longer than expected, so they gave up on him and on his God. They told the preacher's brother, their priest, to make them new gods to go before them, and he did. They needed a preacher, yet Aaron, the priest, was a pawn. They took the gold rings from their ears, and he made them an idol. They gave up on their preacher and gave over their ears. Their preacher had become merely "this Moses," "this man" (Ex. 32:1).
Unbelief loves the sound of its own voice and never sits still.
Moses came down the mountain, two tablets in hand, on which God himself had written his law. The sound from the camp reached him long before he reached it. The people shouted and danced for their idol. Unbelief loves the sound of its own voice and never sits still. Incensed, he threw down the commandments. They broke at the foot of the mountain. It was a debacle.
Sin leaves a bitter aftertaste. Moses wanted the people to savor it. He threw the idol into fire and ground it down to powder. He made them drink it. God had done so much for them. In return, they had done this to themselves.
Moses was incensed, but he was their preacher, so he wouldn't give up. He knew God was holy and just, but he also knew something more, and so he resolved to speak up for those he was called to speak to.
Moses approached the LORD as a sinner who led a sinful people. He made no pretense. The Israelites had sinned, badly. They'd turned their back on God. There was no way around it. By interceding for them, Moses was taking up the cause of sinners, as a sinner, with people who broke the commandments before they even had them.
Moses knew God was holy and just, but he also knew something more. He went to the LORD and pled for mercy on the basis of God's grace or favor. Favor is how God sees you in grace. Moses knew that even in his wrath, God would see him in grace. God was holy and just, but he was also something more. With words that seemed like he was begging for death, he told God, "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" (Ex. 32:31-32).
Those are some words. Moses' knees must have trembled beneath his robes. He put his life on the line for his people because he knew the LORD, and he knew the LORD knew him. And yet the LORD spoke troubling words. He told Moses to lead the people into the land he promised them, which was good, but added that he would not go with them. The LORD then sent a plague on the people. The wages of sin is death. This was not what Moses had hoped for. God seemed to be speaking out of both sides of his mouth. Moses was listening, though, and Moses knew what to do.
The LORD repeated his command to leave Sinai. It was time to go. Head to the land he had promised to Abraham, he told Moses. Go, he said, but know that he would not be going with them, lest he consume them, because of their sin, because they were a stiff-necked people. Moses' people were a rotten lot.
God had their ears again, so the people listened. And what they received through Moses was a disastrous word. God gave Moses a word, and he preached it, and it did its work—terrible, terrifying work. The people were struck to the heart. Those who had so easily turned from God before now refused to go without him. They looked to their preacher. Was this it? Thankfully, they had a good preacher. He refused to give up on them, and he refused to give up on God.
So Moses interceded for the people again, and God heard him. God promised to go with the people. Moses was bold to ask for a guarantee of sorts. He asked to see the LORD's glory. The LORD said he could see his "goodness" (Ex. 33:19). God would show Moses who he was, just as he shows us who he is today in the bread, wine, and water of the sacraments.
This wouldn't be easy for Moses. Seeing God isn't for sinners. God had to protect Moses. God said he would hide his preacher in the cleft of the rock and cover him with his hand until the time was right. At just the right moment, he would take away his hand so Moses could see his back. But Moses couldn't see his face. For their own good, sinners couldn't see the face of God.
The LORD told Moses to cut two tablets of stone, so he could write on them as he had with the first set. Moses did so. In the morning, he went back up to Sinai. Before he could reach the top, the LORD descended to him. The LORD has a habit of descending to us. The LORD descended and gave his preacher a preachment, or a sermon on his name. It was mercifully short, and it was full of mercy:
The first half of the LORD's sermon is what would have struck them, especially at that moment, and it's what should strike us because the LORD is so utterly unlike anything or anyone else, including us.
The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, "The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation" (Ex. 34:6-7).
Modern readers latch onto the last part. The LORD doesn't acquit. He visits the iniquity of the fathers on the children and their children to the third and fourth generation. But modern readers miss the point. Any sociologist can tell you that we visit the iniquity on future generations as much as any deity. We are products of our homes, our parent's homes, and their parents' homes. We live with the decisions of communities made long ago. And a wrathful deity would hardly have struck Moses or the Israelites as innovative. Their world was full of them. The first half of the LORD's sermon is what would have struck them, especially at that moment, and it's what should strike us because the LORD is so utterly unlike anything or anyone else, including us.
God preached to the preacher, and the preacher preached to his people, the LORD's people. The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. He keeps his promises. He forgives. The Israelites had received a sermon before this. They had disastrous words to think on. That sermon, however, was penultimate. This was the final word.
We, too, live under contradictory words. We know God is holy and just, and sin has consequences. Like Moses, though, we need to know something more. We have an advantage, too. We can see God's face. The LORD took on flesh and spoke, and we have that word, a marvelous word, good news.
He is gracious and merciful. He abounds in love.
Moses knew what to do when he heard contradictory words from God, a God who doesn't acquit but forgives, who kills but makes alive, who hides but reveals himself. Listen to Moses. See the face of the LORD with your ears. Listen to the one to whom Moses listened. He speaks good news. He is gracious and merciful. He abounds in love. He forgives even those who hit a rough patch of their making, who hit rock bottom at high speed.
Who is your God? God tells you. Hear him. Unbelief loves the sound of its own voice and is always busy. Faith listens. God speaks: "The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, "The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin" (Ex. 34:6-7).