Rev. Bruinsma is pastor of First Protestant Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan.

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. 

Exodus 32:31-32

It is a well-known Bible story: the golden calf. When the children of Israel observed that Moses delayed to come down out of Mt. Sinai, they approached Aaron. With the demand placed before him, “Up, make us gods which shall go before us,” Aaron succumbed to a great and grievous sin. In spiritual weakness Aaron requested of the people their golden earrings which he, in turn, melted in the fire. As the gold cooled he fashioned it into an idol in the form of a calf. Why a calf? Most probably because the children of Israel were already, sad to say, familiar with the worship of Apis, the ox-god of the Egyptians. It was not strange, therefore, for the people to see this golden calf before them; neither were the sinful rites which they then practiced foreign to them. We learn from the Scriptural account that the people, with Aaron’s help, celebrated a feast in honor of their gods, offering sacrifices to it. Then, to add sin upon sin, the children of Israel also danced naked together before it and “played together” to their shame.

The character of this sin stands on the foreground. The people were not simply guilty of worshiping an image by which they thought to represent Jehovah. They had become guilty of idol worship: worshiping a god other than Jehovah. By their sin Israel as a whole had rejected Jehovah as their God, and revealed that they preferred the gods of the world-the gods of Egypt rather than Jehovah. This was a sin against the sovereign God of heaven and earth who had revealed Himself to Israel by a mighty and outstretched arm which had completely destroyed the land of Egypt before their very eyes. This sin was not, therefore, one of simple ignorance, but was out-and-out unbelief and rebellion!

It is evident from the words of Moses’ prayer that he considered this sin of Israel as greater than any they had committed before. “Oh, this people hath sinned a great sin!” Moses even pulls up short of asking God to forgive their sin: “Yet now, if thou wilt forgive their sin -.” But why was this sin of idol-worship any worse, than the other sins Israel had committed? Had not Israel murmured and complained against God throughout their wilderness journey? Had she not accused God of leading her out into the wilderness in order to slay her? Had not Israel even before this time been guilty of worshiping the idol gods of Egypt? Why was this sin at Sinai so much greater than these other sins? Because of what had taken place a little over a month prior to this event. There, at Mt. Sinai, just before Moses went up into the mountain, Israel had become the covenant people of God! Moses had sprinkled them with the blood of the sacrifice. He had proclaimed to them: “Behold, the blood of the covenant, which Jehovah hath made with you. . . .”

In response Israel swore, not once, but twice, “All that Jehovah hath said we will do, and be obedient!” Now, about a month later, Israel had broken her solemn oath. She had sinned as Jehovah’s covenant people, to whom so much had been revealed and promised!

Oh, how we mourn for Israel! No, not just for Israel then. But for Israel today too! We mourn for ourselves!

Is our sin any different from Israel’s sin? The church of Christ today has been incorporated into that same covenant of God in which Israel shared. God fellowships with us on the basis of the blood of Christ that has been sprinkled on us. In that blood we have been delivered from the bondage of sin. Our guilt has been covered and our iniquities cleansed away. We too have sworn before God that we will “lead a new, godly life.”

When we return to the idols of this wicked world as did Israel, therefore, we too commit a great sin! It is not a sin of ignorance, mind you, as the sin of the heathen who have never heard of Christ. We sin as those who have been given the revelation of our salvation in Jesus Christ! We sin as those who have shared in God’s fellowship and have tasted of the benefits bestowed on us in Christ! When we then dance and sing and play with the idol gods of the wicked around us, then we become guilty before the God of heaven and earth who has chosen to place His name in our midst.

Certainly we can understand the need for the plea Moses makes to Jehovah in this prayer. “Oh, this people have sinned a great sin. Yet now, if thou wilt forgive their sin -; and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written.”

That prayer sends shivers down one’s spine! What a man of compassion was Moses!

Moses knew what Israel had done. He knew also what they deserved for their sin! In fact, God had already told Moses that He would destroy the whole nation and make a new nation out of Moses’ seed. Moses knew this. But as the shepherd of his sheep he had a deep love for them – as well as a deep love for God’s covenant. And in that love Moses was willing to give up his own place in heaven for that people. Moses was willing to substitute not only his body, but his soul, on behalf of this nation! “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

And although we know, as did Moses, that it was impossible for his name to be erased from the book of life, nevertheless we can appreciate his plea. How many times have not we who are parents wished this when faced with an erring child? How often, too, a pastor can stand before the faces of his congregation and desire this. We know it is impossible, yet how often we with Paul can say (Rom. 9:3), “For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh.”

But there is more revealed in this plea of Moses. In his request Moses reveals that he was fully aware of two great truths. First, he was aware of the awful reality of sin and its consequences. “Yet now, if thou wilt forgive their sin….” He dare not say more. Could God forgive the sin of Israel? Was there any way possible to remove from the sight of God the horrible sin they had committed against the most high majesty of God? The only possible answer to such a weighty question was: God’s justice had to be satisfied! The price had to be paid. And that meant for Israel eternal destruction in hell. Moses was aware of that.

This then led him to another great truth: the need for substitution. Moses knew that since Israel could not pay for her sin, someone else must. So Moses offered himself in the stead of the nation: What Moses did not understand, however, is that he could not be such a substitute. Moses was himself a sinner. If he were to suffer punishment for sin it would have to be for his own sins, not those of another. And, more, Moses was but a small, finite creature of the dust. Could he possibly bear the eternal weight of God’s wrath against sin and ultimately pay the price of that sin? He would be crushed. Moses could not substitute himself. He was unacceptable.

But God did hear the plea of His servant, and Israel was spared.

No, not all Israel was spared. Those who were not God’s chosen, those who therefore were hardened in their sin and refused to repent, perished in the wilderness. And, worse – those God blotted out of His book of life. But God’s people in Israel were spared from the wrath of God.

Of course, Moses himself was not the reason or the ground for God’s mercy toward Israel. It was the One whom Moses typified – Jesus Christ. In this prayer of intercession Moses becomes the perfect picture of Christ. How we need to hear that! We would despair in our own sin if not for that precious word of the Gospel! We need to hear of forgiveness just as well as Israel did. And this we find in the blood of the Lamb of God. Christ, our divine-human Mediator, substituted Himself in our stead. He went the way of damnation and hell both in body and in soul. And in doing so He paid the price. Christ could do this because, unlike Moses, an imperfect type, Christ is the perfect reality. He had no sin of His own to pay for, as did Moses. Moreover, though Christ was a man, He yet remained God. He had the power to bear God’s wrath and then live to bestow on others what He earned in His death. Christ, more willingly than would Moses have done so, laid down His life for His sheep.

Our sins are forgiven! Christ has accomplished that for us! So much has He loved us.

So much has God loved us. He spared not His only begotten Son to deliver us from sin and death! That is of greatest joy and comfort to us. Otherwise we would have no reason to bow upon bended knee and plead with God for forgiveness from day to day. God is gracious to forgive. Christ has given His life for us.

“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends!” We thank God for His love!