Exodus 32 is a tremendous vision of all that God hates about false worship. If we pay careful attention, the problem is not absence of worship, but absence of divine sanction. In other words, the problem is not rejection of religion or indifference to worship. The problem is that worship derives its origin from some place other than God himself. This is not too different from the church today.
In an age of creative ventures in worship, the Golden Calf incident is worth our attention, because it provides a powerful counter-example to false forms of Christian worship. And what is most shocking and indicting is the fact that in Exodus 32 we find that false worship looks a lot like true worship, and that only in the light of divine revelation, can we tell the difference.
False Worship Looks A Lot Like True Worship
False religion is so dangerous because of how closely it apes true religion. It doesn’t come with a surgeon generals warning on it. In fact, if you use Christianbook.com as a resource for getting “good, Christian resources,” beware. There is no warning for the likes of Osteen, Boyd, Eldredge, Meyer, or Jakes. Today, too many Christian booksellers make a killing selling false doctrine.
In Exodus 32, we see a number of ways that ancient Israel apes true religion, and how Satan deceives God’s son.
First, while the need for leadership is real, the request is wrong. Moses has been gone for weeks, and Israel feels its need. So they come to Aaron earnestly; unfortunately, their worry is premature. The pillar of cloud is still on Mount Sinai. There is no evidence that it has departed. They were told that when Moses ascended, he would return and lead Israel to dwell with YHWH. But like in the garden, Satan plays on the emotions of Israel, and they fall for his temptation.
Second, the worship that Israel offers looks sacrificial. Here Aaron, failing to guard Israel, like Adam failed to guard his wife, calls for gold to fashion an idol. And the people give. They give liberally! It is a major act of spirituality–false spirituality. Sadly, they miss God’s mark. Part of God’s plan is for Israel to gather gold, silver, fabrics, etc (Exod 25, 35), thus, what Aaron calls for seems very natural. Sadly, his construction will distance Israel from God, it will not bring them near. Access to God requires God’s revelation.
We learn something very important here: Sacrifice does not equal spirituality. Spirituality calls for sacrifice. David says of Araunah’s threshing floor in 1 Sam 2:24, “I will not offer burnt offerings to the LORD my God that cost me nothing” True spirituality will cost you (cf. Luke 14:25-33), but just because you offer costly service, does not mean your spirituality is pleasing to God.
Third, the materials Israel offers for worship are essentially the same. The people of God build an altar, offer burnt offerings and peace offerings, and feast with the Lord (v. 5-6). Yet, while in name these offerings and elements of worship are the same, they are different because they are invented by men and not God. Aaron is not responding to God’s revelation, he is building the altar and offering the sacrifices according to all that he had seen in Egypt.
At this point in the narrative, Moses alone had God’s instructions. He is still on the Mountain. Israel does not yet have Exodus 25-31. We do. They don’t. Worse: Because of the sexual promiscuity often associated with temple worship in the ancient world, the “playing” in Exodus 32:6 is likely to have a sexually perverse element. Overall, the offering is an abomination, because it fails to do what God’s word says; it offers worship according to the vain imagination of fallen men.
Here is the application, via negative example, for us: It is natural and easy for the worship of God’s people to reflect more of the culture than of the court of heaven. False worship is indeed what will happen whenever God’s word is minimized. Unless we employ a regulative principle that allows Scripture to define and delimit our worship, we run the risk of offending God with the very thing with which we intend to please him.
Worship Without the Word Invokes God’s Wrath
The reaction of God is evident to all. YHWH was incensed. Verse 7 describes the distance that now existed between God and Israel. He calls Israel “Moses’ people,” and he tells Moses that he brought them up from Egypt. YHWH wants to have nothing to do with Israel. In verse 8, he condemns them legally for breaking the part of the law that they had. Remember, more than once, Israel swore that they would do all the words the Lord had spoken (Exod 25:3). They knew that failure to obey meant death. And so, God was fully within his rights, to say in 32:10, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them & I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you’
The people of God worshiped YHWH (v. 5), but not according to the way YHWH designed. Thus, they invoked his wrath. How many churches today do the same? As they creatively invite the presence of the Spirit through smells, bells, dramas, and personal interviews, they may actually distance themselves from the Christ they name. For churches and their leaders, it is worth asking: What biblical sanction is there for such activity in corporate worship? Failure to think through these things, invites God not to write his name on our churches, but rather the word “Ichabod.”
May God protect us from false worship, and may we pursue true worship as we look to the Word of God and worship according to all that he has revealed and prescribed in his sufficient revelation.
Soli Deo Gloria, dss