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The Golden Calf


When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, 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.” 2Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” 5When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the L ord.” 6They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.

7 The L ord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ ” 9The L ord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”

11 But Moses implored the L ord his God, and said, “O L ord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. 13Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’ ” 14And the L ord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

15 Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain, carrying the two tablets of the covenant in his hands, tablets that were written on both sides, written on the front and on the back. 16The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved upon the tablets. 17When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, “There is a noise of war in the camp.” 18But he said,

“It is not the sound made by victors,

or the sound made by losers;

it is the sound of revelers that I hear.”

19 As soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. 20He took the calf that they had made, burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it.

21 Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you that you have brought so great a sin upon them?” 22And Aaron said, “Do not let the anger of my lord burn hot; you know the people, that they are bent on evil. 23They said to me, ‘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.’ 24So I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, take it off’; so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!”

25 When Moses saw that the people were running wild (for Aaron had let them run wild, to the derision of their enemies), 26then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, “Who is on the L ord’s side? Come to me!” And all the sons of Levi gathered around him. 27He said to them, “Thus says the L ord, the God of Israel, ‘Put your sword on your side, each of you! Go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor.’ ” 28The sons of Levi did as Moses commanded, and about three thousand of the people fell on that day. 29Moses said, “Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of the L ord, each one at the cost of a son or a brother, and so have brought a blessing on yourselves this day.”

30 On the next day Moses said to the people, “You have sinned a great sin. But now I will go up to the L ord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” 31So Moses returned to the L ord and said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin; they have made for themselves gods of gold. 32But now, if you will only forgive their sin—but if not, blot me out of the book that you have written.” 33But the L ord said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book. 34But now go, lead the people to the place about which I have spoken to you; see, my angel shall go in front of you. Nevertheless, when the day comes for punishment, I will punish them for their sin.”

35 Then the L ord sent a plague on the people, because they made the calf—the one that Aaron made.

1 And when the people saw that Moses. In this narrative we perceive the detestable impiety of the people, their worse than base ingratitude, and their monstrous madness, mixed with stupidity. For their sakes Moses had been carried up above the state of terrestrial life, that he might receive the injunctions of his mission, and that his authority might be beyond the reach of controversy. They perversely declare that they know not what has become of him, nay, they speak contemptuously of him as of a person unknown to them. It is for this that Stephen severely blames them, 324324     It will be seen that C. does not give the actual words, but the sense of Stephen. This is that Moses (he says) whom your fathers rejected, though he was the minister of their salvation. (Acts 7:35.) They confess that he had been their deliverer, yet they cannot tolerate his absence for a little time, nor are they affected with any reverence towards him, unless they have him before their eyes. Moreover, 325325     “Mais qui pis est;” but what is worse. — Fr. although God offered Himself as if present with them by day and by night in the pillar of fire, and in the cloud, they still despised so illustrious and lively an image of His glory and power, and desire to have Him represented to them in the shape of a dead idol. For what could they mean by saying, “make us gods which shall go before us?” Could they not see the pillar of fire and the cloud? Was not God’s paternal solicitude abundantly conspicuous every day in the manna? Was he not near them in ways innumerable

Yet, accounting as nothing all these true, and sure, and manifest tokens of God’s presence, they desire to have a figure which may satisfy their vanity. And this was the original source of idolatry, that men supposed that they could not otherwise possess God, unless by subjecting Him to their own imagination. Nothing, however, can be more preposterous; for since the minds of men and all their senses sink far below the loftiness of God, when they try to bring Him down to the measure of their own weak capacity, they travesty Him. In a word, whatever man’s reason conceives of Him is mere falsehood; and nevertheless, this depraved longing can hardly be repressed, so fiercely does it burst out. They are also influenced by pride and presumption, when they do not hesitate to drag down His glory as it were from heaven, and to subject it to earthly elements. We now understand what motive chiefly impelled the Israelites to this madness in demanding that a figure of God should be set before them, viz., because they measured Him by their own senses. Wonderful indeed was their stupidity, to desire that a God should be made by mortal men, as if he could be a god, or could deserve to be accounted such who obtains his divinity at the caprice of men. Still, it is not probable that they were so absurd as to desire a new god to be created for them; but they call “gods” by metonymy those outward images, by looking at which the superstitious imagine that God is near them. And this is evident from the fact, that not only the noun but the verb also is in the plural number; for although they were satisfied with one God, still they in a manner cut Him to pieces by their various representations of Him. Nevertheless, however they may deceive themselves under this or that pretext, they still desire to be creators of God.

Those who suppose that confusion is implied by the word “delayed,” are, in my opinion, mistaken; for, although the word בשש, boshesh, with its third radical doubled, is derived from בוש, bush, which means to be ashamed, still it is clear from Judges 5:28, that it is used simply for to delay, where it is said, in the address of the mother of Sisera, “Why 326326     “Why is his chariot so long in coming?” — A.V. does his chariot delay (or defer) to come?”

Hence we may understand that hypocrites so fear God as that religion vanishes from their hearts, unless there be some task-master (exactor) standing by them to keep them in the path of duty. They duly obeyed Moses and reverenced his person; but, because they were only influenced by his presence, as soon as they were deprived of it they ceased to fear God. Thus, whilst Joshua was alive, and the other holy Judges, they seemed to be faithful in the exercise of piety, but when they were dead, they straightway relapsed into disobedience.

2. And Aaron said unto them, Break off the golden ear-rings. I doubt not but that Aaron, being overcome by the importunate clamor of the people, endeavored to escape by means of a subterfuge; still, this is no valid excuse for him, since he ought to have heartily opposed them in a direct reply, and sharply to have inveighed against their wicked renunciation of God. By commanding them to give him gold, he might have quieted their intemperate demands through dread of the expense; but it was a remedy more likely to be successful, to snatch from them those ornaments and trinkets of which women do not willingly allow themselves to be deprived. He therefore purposely requires of them a hateful, or at any rate a by no means pleasant thing, that he might thus impede their sinful design; but without success, for the power of superstition to carry people away is not less than that of lust. Perhaps also he had the tabernacle in view, lest they should sacrilegiously proceed to lay hands on the sacred vessels; and there was a probability that, if it remained uninjured, the sight of it might at length recall them to a better mind. Besides, the recollection of their recent profuse liberality might have extinguished or cooled their ardor, from the fear of being utterly drained. He says emphatically, “Break 327327     Auferte. — Lat. off the ear-rings from your wives and children,” that they may desist from the purpose out of dread of giving offense, since women are slow to part with such objects of gratification. But it is added immediately afterwards, that they were so blinded by the fervor of their foolish zeal, that they undervalued everything in comparison with their perverse desire, and thus the ornaments were taken from their ears. The readiness with which this was done was wonderful; and not by one person, or by a few, but by the whole people, as if in rivalry of each other. Even in these days ear-rings are worn by the 328328     “The ear-rings now worn in the East are various in form and size. They are generally thick, sometimes fitting close to the ear, and in other instances very large, perhaps three or four inches in diameter, and so heavy as greatly to distend the lobe of the ear, at the same time enlarging in a very disagreeable manner the orifice made for the inserting of the ring.” — Illustrated Commentary in loco.
   For the ear-rings worn by the Egyptian Ladies, see Sir G. Wilkinson, “Popular Account of the Ancient Egyptians,” vol. 1, p. 145, where he figures a group of them from Thebes evidently talking about their ear-rings; and vol. 2, p. 335, etc.
Orientals, though it is not so common among us. Now, if unbelievers are so prodigal in their absurdities as to throw away thus carelessly and rashly whatever is precious to them, how shall their tenacity be excusable who are so niggardly in providing for the service of God? Hence let us learn to beware of foolishly squandering our possessions in unnecessary expenditure, and to be liberal where we ought; especially to be ready to spend ourselves, and what we have, when we know that our offerings are pleasing and acceptable to God.

4. And he received them at their hand. He briefly narrates this base and shameful deed; yet sufficiently shows, that whilst Aaron yielded to their madness, he still desired to cure it, though, at the same time, he was weak and frightened, so as to pretend to give his assent, because he feared the consequences of the tumult as regarded himself. For why does he not command the ear-rings to be thrown into some chest, lest he should pollute himself by the contagion of the sacrilege? Since, therefore, he received them into his own hands, it was a sign of a servile and effeminate mind; and thus he is said to have been the founder, or sculptor of the calf, when it is nevertheless probable that workmen were employed upon it. But the infamy of the crime is justly brought upon him, inasmuch as he was its main author, and by his guilt betrayed the religion and honor of God.

The Hebrew word 329329     Professor Robinson says a graving tool; but more properly to be rendered a bag here. C. alludes to what S.M. tells us, that the Rabbins, wishing to excuse their forefathers, said that there came forth a calf, not wrought by any workmen, but produced by the magical arts, which some of the Egyptians, mixed with the people, now employed to introduce idolatry. — W. Lightfoot has a characteristic note on this: “Expositors cannot tell what to say of their intent, for they cannot think they were such calves, (as to turn the glory of God into a calf,) and yet what else can we say? Jonathan saith, ‘The devil got into the metal, and fashioned it into a calf.’ The devil, indeed, was too much there; but it was in their fancies more than in the metal.” Explan. of divers difficult passages of Scripture. Decad, 1. 4. He elsewhere also refers to the probability, stated below by C., that the idol was made after an Egyptian pattern: “Israel cannot be so long without Moses, as Moses can be without meat. The fire still burneth on the top of Mount Sinai, out of which they had so lately received the Law; and yet so suddenly do they break the greatest commandment of that Law to extremity; — of Egyptian jewels they make an Egyptian idol, because, thinking Moses had been lost, they intended to return for Egypt.” — A handful of gleanings out of Exod., sect. 32. חרט, cheret, some translate a stylus or graving-tool, some a mould; the former think that the rough mass was formed by sculpture into the shape of a calf; the latter, that the calf was cast or founded; as we say, jetter en mousle, to cast in a mould. Ridiculous, however, is the fable, that when the gold was thrown into a furnace, it came forth like a calf without human workmanship; but thus licentiously do the Jews trifle with their fond inventions. The more probable conjecture is, that Aaron designedly sought a remedy for the people’s folly.

It was a disgraceful thing to prostrate themselves before a calf, in which there was no connection or affinity with the glory of God; and with this the Prophet expressly reproaches them, that “they changed their glory (i.e., God, in whom alone they should have gloried) into the similitude of an ox that eateth grass.” (Psalm 106:20.) For, if it be insulting to God to force Him into the likeness of men, with how much greater and more inexcusable ignominy is His majesty defiled, when He is compared to brute animals? Still it had no effect towards bringing them to repentance; and this is expressed with much force immediately afterwards, when they said to each other, “These be thy gods, O Israel.” Surely the hideousness of the spectacle should have struck them with horror, so as to induce them voluntarily to condemn their own madness; but, on the contrary, they mutually exhort one another to obstinacy; for there is no doubt but that Moses indicates that they were like fans to each other, and thus that their frenzy was reciprocally excited. For, as Isaiah and Micah exhort believers, that each of them should stretch out his hand to his brother, and that they should say to each other,

“Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord;” (Isaiah 2:3; Micah 4:2;)

thus does perverse rivalry provoke unbelievers mutually to excite each other to progress in sin. Still they neither speak ironically nor in mockery of God, nor have any intention of falling away from Him; but they cover their sin against Him under a deceitful pretext, as if they denied that by their new and unwonted mode of worship, they desired to detract from the honor of their Redeemer; but rather that it was thus magnified because they worshipped Himself under a visible image. Thus now-a-days do the Papists boldly obtrude their fictitious rites upon God; and boast that they do more for Him by their additions and inventions than as if they merely continued within the bounds prescribed by Himself. But let us learn from this passage, that whatever colouring superstition may give to its idols, and by whatever titles it may dignify them, they remain idols still; for, however those who corrupt the pure worship of God by their inventions, may pride themselves on their good intentions, they still deny the true God, and substitute devils in His place.

Their conjecture is probable who suppose that, Aaron devised the calf in accordance with Egyptian superstition; for it is well known with what senseless worship that nation honored its god 330330     This appears to have been either a slip of the pen, or of the memory. It was not Anubis, but Osiris, “who was worshipped under the form of Apis, the Sacred Bull of Memphis, or as a human figure with a bull’s head, accompanied by the name Apis. Osiris.” — See Sir Gardner Wilkinson’s “Ancient Egyptians,” vol. 4, p. 347; 3d edition. Anubis. It is true that they kept 331331     It is a strange notion of R. Salomon Jarchi, that the molten calf was alive; because it is said in Psalm 106:20, that it was the “similitude of an ox that eateth grass.” See also Breithaupt’s note in loco. a live bull to be consulted as the supreme god; but, inasmuch as the people were accustomed to this fictitious deity, Aaron seems in obedience to their madness to have followed that old custom, from whence they had contracted the error, which was so deeply rooted in their hearts. Thus from bad examples does contagion easily creep into the hearts of those who were else untainted; nor is it without good reason that David protests that idols should be held in such abomination by him, that he would not even “take up their names into his lips,” (Psalm 16:4;) for, unless we seriously abhor the ungodly, and withdraw ourselves as far as possible from their superstitions, they straightway infect us by their pestilential influence.

5. And, when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it. When he sees the people so infuriated, that he despairs of being able to resist their conspiracy, in perfidious cowardice he gives way to compliance. And this end awaits all those who do not dare ingenuously and firmly to maintain what is right, but who bargain, as it were, and descend to compromises; for, after they have vacillated for a while, 332332     Addition in Fr., “Et nage entre deux eaux;” and swam between two waters. they at length succumb altogether, so as to shrink from nothing, however unworthy and disgraceful. He seems, indeed, by his proclamation to uplift their minds to the worship of the true God; but, when he is violating the law just given, it is a wretched quibble to shield their offensive and degenerate worship under God’s sacred name.

6. And they rose up early on the morrow. The earnestness of the people in the prosecution of their error is again set forth; for there is no doubt but that it was at their demand that Aaron proclaimed the solemn sacrifice; and now it is not only added that they were ready for it in time, but their extraordinary diligence is declared in that they appeared at the very dawn of day. Now, if, at the instigation of the devil, unbelievers are thus driven headlong to their destruction, alas for our inertness, if at least an equal alacrity does not manifest itself in our zeal! Thus it is said in the Psalm, (110:3,)

“Thy 333333     C. here quotes his own translation, see Calvin Soc. edit., vol. 4. 301, with the Editor’s note. It will be seen that it nearly agrees with the Prayer-book version of the Church of England. people (shall come) with voluntary offerings in the day
(of the assembling) of thy army.”

What follows as to the people sitting down “to eat and to drink,” many 334334     Willet, in loco, attributes the opinion rejected by C. as to their intemperance to Ambrose, and, after him, to Simler. The latter notion, with respect to the word play, seems to be a very common one with the Commentators. Bushe says it implies “not only such sports as singing, dancing, and merry-making in general, but in some cases also a species of conduct which the epithet wanton as correctly defines as any term which we deem it proper to employ. Compare the use of the same original word rendered mock, Genesis 39:14. Compare also Numbers 25:1, 2.” Corn. A Lapide quotes a striking parallel as to the abuse of sacrifices among the heathen, from Epicharmus, ap Athenoeum, lib. 2, — “Ex sacrificio epulum, ex epulo facta est potatio, ex potatione comus, ex como ludus, ex ludo judicium, ex judicio condemnatio, ex condemnatione compedes, sphacelus, et mulctatio;” and adds, that “drunken-bouts were called μέθας, because they were indulged in μετὰ τὸ θύειν, i e., after sacrifices.” Dathe appears precisely to represent C.’s view: “Postridie igitur mane holocausta et eucharistica sacrificant, atque commessationibus et compotationibus peractis, ad saltationes solennes sese convertunt.” ignorantly wrest to mean intemperance; as also they wrongly expound their “rising up to play,” as meaning lasciviousness; whereas thus Moses rather designates the sacred banquet and sports engaged in, in honor of the idols; for, as we have seen elsewhere, the faithful feasted before God at their sacrifices, and so also heathen nations celebrated sacred feasts, whilst they worshipped their idols in games. Of this point Paul is the surest interpreter, who quotes this passage in condemnation of the idolatry of the ancient people, and ably accommodates it to the purpose he had in hand; for the Corinthians had not gone to such an excess as to bow their knees to idols, but were boon-companions of unbelievers in their polluted sacrifices. (1 Corinthians 10:20.)

7. And the Lord said unto Moses, Go, get thee down. This was a violent temptation to shake the faith of Moses. He thought that his own and the people’s happiness was absolutely complete, when God’s covenant was engraven on the tables to secure its perpetuity; whereas now he hears that this covenant was violated, and almost annihilated by the perfidy and rebellion of the people, whilst its abolition involved the loss of salvation and all other blessings. Moreover, that God might more sorely wound the mind of the holy man, He addresses him exactly as if part of the ignominy fell upon himself; for there is an indirect reproach implied in the words, “thy people, which thou broughtest out of the land of Egypt.” Yet Moses had only taken this charge upon him by God’s command, and, indeed, unwillingly; how, then, is this deliverance thrown in his teeth, wherein he had only obeyed God? and why is his devotedness spoken of in mockery, as if he had bestowed his labor amiss, when no part of the blame attaches to him? I have already said that God sometimes thus pierces the hearts of the godly to the quick, in order to prove their patience, as if their well-directed zeal had been the cause of the evils which occur. Some 335335     This seems to be a very general opinion of the Commentators, from Jerome downwards. “Though Calvin mislikes this sense, yet it is warranted by that place, Deuteronomy 32:5. They have corrupted themselves, not being his children.” — Junius in Willet. give too subtle an exposition to this, viz., that they are called the people of Moses, because they had ceased to be the people of God; and suppose that there is an antithesis here, as if it were said, — your people, and not mine; but I fear this is not well founded; for, since they had broken the covenant, they were not more alienated from God than from Moses the minister of the Law. I do not deny that it is an implied renunciation of them; but we must bear in mind that design of God, to which I have already adverted, that Moses was in a manner implicated in their crime, in order that his patience might be tried, and also that he might be more grieved at its enormity. Meanwhile, it is obvious that God refers to His recent grace, because it was a monstrous and incredible thing that those who had been lately delivered by this amazing power, and with whom He had just renewed His covenant, should be so suddenly drawn away into rebellion. He adds also, in aggravation of their crime, that they had immediately turned aside from the way which was pointed out to them. Forty days had not yet elapsed since Moses left them, when they were impelled by their depravity to such madness as this. A little time ago they had manifested a wonderful zeal for God’s service, by abundantly contributing what was required; the glory of the tabernacle was presented to their eyes to restrain them; and yet they burst through all these barriers, and rush impetuously after their own lust, when scarcely six months had passed since the promulgation of the Law. The verb שחת shicheth, being in the Pihel conjugation, is active; and yet is employed without being intensive; I have, therefore, rendered it, corrupted themselves, though it might be appropriately taken passively, viz., that the people had been corrupted.

8. They have turned aside quickly out of the way. So speedy a transgression, as I have said, aggravates their crime. God then states the nature of their corruption, that they have worshipped a molten calf, that is to say, the work of their own hands. But it is to be observed, that what they had put forward as a colouring for their ungodliness is alleged last, as the climax of their sin; for, when they said that these were their gods which had brought them up, their object was to advance a legitimate excuse, as if they were not falling away from the worship of the true God, and their Deliverer, but that rather it was an evidence of their more fervent zeal, that they should fall down as worshippers before the calf in honor of Him. But God retorts this upon them, and complains of the gross indignity which was put upon Him, when the dead image of a calf was substituted in the place of His glory.

9. I have seen this people, and behold. This was, indeed, the sharpest and sorest trial of the faith of Moses; when God seemed to contradict Himself and to depart from His covenant. If ever, after having been long oppressed by excessive calamities, we are not only wearied by the delay, but also agitated with various doubts, which at length tempt us to despair, as if God had disappointed us by deceptive promises, the contest is severe and terrible; but when God seems at first sight to throw discredit upon His own words, we have need of unusual fortitude and firmness to sustain this assault. For, since faith is founded on the Word, when that Word appears to be at issue with itself, how in such conflicting circumstances could pious minds be sustained unless they were supported by the incomparable power of the Spirit? Still in the mind of Abraham there was such strength of faith, that he came forth as a conqueror from this kind of temptation. He had heard from God’s own mouth, “In Isaac shall thy seed be called;” he is afterwards commanded to slay him, and reduce his body to ashes; yet, because he is persuaded that God was able to raise him up seed even from the dead, he obeys the command. (Hebrews 11:17-19.) The same thing is here recorded of Moses, before whom God sets a kind of contradiction in His Word, when He declares that He has the intention of destroying that people, to which He had promised the land of Canaan. Nevertheless, we see how successfully he strove, since, trusting in the eternal and inviolable covenant of God, he did not cease to cherish a good hope. If any still should ask whether it was right for him to despise or count for nothing what was said to him in the second place as to the utter destruction of the people, I reply, that the victory of his faith did not consist in subtle disquisitions, but that having embraced God’s covenant with both arms, as they say, he was so fortified by his confidence that he had room for no objections; and, in point, of fact, pious minds which rest on firm assurance, although unable to free themselves from every perplexity which occurs, still do not waver, but keep a tight grasp on what the Spirit of God has once sealed to them; and, if sometimes it happens that they begin to doubt or vacillate, nevertheless they come back to their foundation and break through every obstacle, so as never to desist from calling upon God. Meanwhile, it is certain that, whilst God is trying the faith of Moses, He quickens his mind to be more earnest in prayer, even as Moses himself was led in that direction by the secret influence of the Spirit. Nor is there any reason why slanderous tongues should here impugn God, as if He pretended before men what He had not decreed in Himself; for it is no proof that He is variable or deceitful if, when speaking of men’s sins, and pointing out what they deserve, He does not lay open His incomprehensible counsel. He here presents Himself in the character of Judge; He pronounces sentence of condemnation against the criminals; he postpones their pardon to a fitting season. Hence we gather that his secret judgments are a great deep; whilst, at the same time, His will is declared to us in His word as far as suffices for our edification in faith and piety. And this is more clearly expressed by the context; for He asks of Moses to let Him alone. Now, what does this mean? Is it not that, unless he should obtain a truce from a human being, He will not be able freely to execute His vengeance? — adopting, that is to say, by this mode of expression, the character of another, He declares his high estimation of His servant, to whose prayers He pays such deference as to say that they are a hinderance to him. Thus it is said in Psalm 106:23, that Moses “stood in the breach, to turn away the wrath” of God. Hence do we plainly perceive the wonderful goodness of God, who not only hears the prayers of His people when they humbly call upon Him, but suffers them to be in a manner intercessors with Him.

He assigns as the reason why He should be implacable, that He well knew the desperate and incurable wickedness of the people; for by “stiff-necked,” indomitable obstinacy is metaphorically expressed; and the similitude is taken from stubborn oxen who cannot be brought to submit to the yoke. Now, where such hardness and obstinacy exists, there is no room for pardon. It is indeed an expression which must not be taken literally, that God had learnt by experience that they were a stiff-necked people; but we know that God often assumes human feelings; for unless He should thus come down to us, our minds could never attain to His loftiness. The sum is, that the character of the people was desperate, inasmuch as they had already manifested their inflexible perverseness by many proofs. Still, lest Moses should grieve at the loss of his noble chieftainship, a compensation is promised him; by which trial it appeared that he did not regard his own private interests or advantages.

11. And Moses besought the Lord his God It is clear that this prayer sprang from faith, though in it he seems to fight against the very word of God; for God had said, Get thee down to thy people; but his answer is, Nay, it is thine. But, as I have lately stated, inasmuch as he firmly grasped the principle, that it was impossible for God’s covenant to be made ineffective, he breaks through or surmounts all obstacles with closed eyes as it were. He proves them to be God’s people by the benefit they had so recently received; yet he mainly relies on the covenant; nay, he mentions their deliverance as a result of it; for he proceeds afterwards to say, “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel.” We see, therefore, that the first ground of his confidence is the promise, although Moses refers first of all to the fact that the people had been delivered by the hand of God. He so expressly particularizes His “mighty hand,” and “great power,” to signify that the more conspicuous God’s miracles had been, the more was His glory exposed to the calumnies of the ungodly; and this he immediately afterwards explains, “Wherefore should the Egyptians speak,” etc.

The particle, ברעה, beragnah, which the old interpreter 336336     “For mischief.” — A.V.By the old interpreter (C. means the V. which renders the word “callide,” craftily. The version of LXX. is μετὰ πονηρίας, with maliciousness. “Some thus, (says Poole,) malo sidere, under an evil star; because the Egyptians attributed all things to the stars. Fagius, Vatablus.” renders craftily, and others maliciously, I prefer simply to translate unto evil, (ad malum,) as denoting an unprosperous and unhappy issue. The exposition which others give, “under an unlucky star,” seems to me to be too far-fetched. 337337     Addition in Fr., “et profane.” I have no doubt, therefore, but that Moses signifies that this would be a consolation to the Egyptians in their misfortunes if the people should be destroyed, as if God had thus avenged them against their enemies; besides, by this misapprehension, the memory of God’s grace, as well as of His judgment, would have been destroyed; for the Egyptians would have hardened themselves, and would have been untouched by any sense of guilt, deeming that God would shew no mercy to His elect people.

What follows, “repent of this evil,” is spoken in accordance with common parlance, for the saints often stammer in their prayers, and, whilst unburdening their cares into the bosom of God, address him in their infirmity as by no means befits His nature; as, for instance, when they ask Him, How long wilt thou sleep? or be forgetful? or shut thine eyes? or hide thy face? But with God repentance is nothing but a change of dealing, wherein He seems to retrace His course, as if He had conceived some fresh design. When, therefore, it is said a little further on that “the Lord repented of the evil,” it is tantamount to saying, that He was appeased; not because He retracts in Himself what He has once decreed, but because He does not execute the sentence He had pronounced. If my readers 338338     See on Genesis 6:6, (Calvin Soc. Edit., vol. 1, pp. 248, 249,) the latter part of which passage is quoted by Hengstenberg on the Pentat., vol. 2, p. 373, “On the repentance of God,” with the following remark: “These last words show how very deeply Calvin had gained the right point of view in reference to Anthropomorphisms. In his esteem they formed a glorious ornament of holy writ. How totally different the apologists since the times of Deism! One remarks, on all occasions, how gladly they would dispense with Anthropomorphisms. They try to be satisfied only with that which they cannot alter.” See also C. on Minor Prophets, vol. 1, p. 402; 2, p. 61; 3, pp. 115, 126, 408; and Institutes, Book 1, ch. 17. Section 13, vol. 1, p. 263. (Calvin Soc. editions.) desire more on this point, let them consult my Comments on Genesis and the Prophets.

13. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, thy servants He does not bring thern forward as patrons, by the assistance of whose voice he might obtain what He seeks; but because the promise was lodged with them, which they transmitted as an inheritance to their descendants. We must observe, then, the quality or character with which God had invested the Patriarchs. For which reason it is said in Psalm 132:1, “Lord, remember David, and all his afflictions.” And hence the ignorance and folly of the Papists are easily refuted, who imagine from these testimonies that the dead are ordained to be intercessors.

He also purposely refers to God’s oath, whereby He had more solemnly bound Himself, so that His promise might be more sure and authoritative. The Apostle, in the Epistle to the Hebrews, 6:13, tells us why God swears by Himself; viz., “because he could swear by no greater;” though sometimes to the same effect He swears by His throne in heaven, or His sanctuary.

In fine, it is uncertain whether there is a ὕστερον πρότερον or not in this prayer, for we shall see as we proceed that when Moses returned a second time, he prayed for the preservation of the people, and was heard. Nor was this done in a moment; but he again occupied forty days in reconciling the people with God. To myself it seems probable that Moses, amazed at the horrible denunciation, immediately offered his prwer; and without receiving a reply promising pardon, came down in suspense to apply a remedy to the evil; for it was by no means likely that, after having heard so severe and weighty a threat, he would have interposed no supplications, when he was so deeply anxious for the safety of the people.

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