The intent of this study through Exodus was to observe and learn about leadership and how God shapes His leaders. There have been many side trails and other topics we’ve explored as we’ve gone through the Scriptures; however, the goal has remained the same. And today, we’re going to see what godly leadership does not look like. We’re going to examine a leader who had no fear of God and who used his power to lead the people to death. That leader was Aaron.
While Moses was on Mount Sinai hearing from God, the people of Israel were getting antsy. I have to admit, Moses was gone for a long time—forty days and nights—and after being in quarantine for seven weeks, I can more closely sympathize with the Israelites. However, while they could not see Moses, they could still see God. The fire still burned on Mount Sinai throughout those forty days. One glance towards the mountain should have reminded the Israelites of God’s voice, His authority, and how they begged Moses to speak with God for them.
But no, this stubborn, easily forgetting people dismissed the fire and cloud on top of the mountain. They spiraled into despair and anxiety, and approached their interim leader for a god to worship. The events that transpired next are, from a spiritual perspective, among the saddest in all Israelite history. Here’s what happened:
“When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, ‘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.’ So Aaron said to them, ‘Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.’ So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the LORD.” And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.”
What a tragedy! Just weeks before, the very same people were fervently declaring to God, “All that you tell us we will do.” Looking back at the Israelites in chapter 20, you would have thought that they never would have forsaken their God. They were terrified of Him and bowed down in reverent fear. But now look at their attitude! They could care less about the great I AM. They have given up on Moses and given up on the God he serves. How quickly they gave up their covenant and commitment to the living God.
But what caused these once dedicated people to demand an idol? What happened in camp over the forty days Moses was gone? How could they be so quick to break the first three of the Ten Commandments God had given them?
The answer to that question lies not in what they did, but what they didn’t do. They didn’t remember all that God had done for them. They didn’t fear God. Even as they gathered their daily supply of manna, they didn’t keep God in their hearts.
This is an important lesson for us as well. Idolatry can quickly and easily slip into our hearts when we don’t keep our fear, honor, and relationship with God. When we don’t remember what God has done for us and spend time with Him, we’ll become like the Israelites and erect an idol to worship. We’ll forget about our commitment and covenant with the living God and start serving and worshiping items made and constructed by human hands.
Therefore, we must be careful and vigilant to always keep the LORD before us and central in our hearts. Because just as we would never have guessed that the Israelites would so quickly turn to idolatry when reading Exodus 20, we also can quickly go from passionate about God and serving Him to indifferent. So be warned and heed the lessons we can learn from the children of Israel.
But the reason why the people of Israel were unhappy with the God of Moses was largely due to the fact that they didn’t have a strong, spiritual leader. Aaron was left in charge when Moses ascended the mountain of God. However, remember back to when we explored the encounter between God and the elders of Israel? Remember how we discovered that while Aaron and the other elders saw God, they were not transformed or awed by His presence. It did not change them. They were not drawn into a personal relationship with the living God. Therefore, Aaron was not leading the people towards the Lord. He was not reminding them of all the things that God had done for them and proved His faithfulness. During those forty days of Moses’ absence, Aaron did not point the children of Israel towards their God and remind them of the covenant they made with Him.
Therefore, the people lost interest. They were no longer concerned with the God of Moses. They wanted something different, something familiar from Egypt, and something they could see. However, remember that they had the opportunity to see God, but they were too afraid to draw near His presence. None the less, they approached Aaron and demanded an idol. For when leadership fails, the people perish. As Proverbs 29:18 wisely states: “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (KJV).
One of the things that astounds me the most about this interchange is that Aaron gives no resistance to the people’s demands. Never once did he say, “God told us not to do that.” Or “I don’t think that’s allowed.” Or “We already have a God, and we don’t need to make one.” No, he gave no resistance to the Israelites’ demand for an idol but rather encouraged it. He gave them instructions on what to do and molded them an idol.
An idol made of gold…gold that was intended to be used for God’s tabernacle. The idol was a golden calf before which the people worshipped and threw a party. This was a dark, wicked worship service. The “play” referred to in the text does not refer to a game of marbles or monopoly. The New International Version better translates verse 6 to read: “So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.”
So the Israelites were not just breaking God’s law and their holy covenant by worshiping an idol, but they were also committing sexual immorality and disgusting themselves by their perverted, drunken actions. How this broke God’s heart! Not even forty days after reestablishing His covenant, promises, and love for this special people, and then they flaunt lack of respect and lewdness before His face!
God had a beautiful plan for the gold He had given the people. But in their ignorance they used it for their own purposes. They used the very gift God had given them to create an idol. They used the freedom God had provided to sin and break the very covenant they had sworn to keep just over a month before.
This was a black mark of Israel’s history. But as we examine this story, we begin to see ourselves reflected in the attitudes of the people. We must not judge this stubborn group too quickly. For how often do we use the gifts God has given us to pursue fame, success, fortune, and worldly glory? How often do we use the talents and abilities He’s given us to erect idols in our lives and sacrifice everything before it?
Remember, an idol is anything that takes the place of God. In ancient times, they were typically made of wood or stone. But now, they are much more subtle because they are constructed in our minds and hearts. We cannot see them, but they can be very real and present in our lives. In this modern era, they can look like a person (that spouse you’ve wanted for so long), a job, a perfect family, an addiction, a dream, self-imagine, and the list goes on.
Therefore, we have much we can learn from the Israelites and the incident of the golden calf. We must watch out for idolatry in our own lives and learn from the mistakes of those who have gone before us. We also can learn from the poor leadership of Aaron. Because he failed to cast and recast vision and the truth of God to the people, he ultimately led them to death. His failure to lead well cost much; and when he finally acted in leadership, he told them how to create an idol. So let us learn and heed the warnings and lessons from Exodus 32 and not repeat the event leading up to and culminating in the golden calf.
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