For a fuller picture we need to rewind back to Exodus chapters 19 and 20. There, God met with His people and gave them the 10 Commandments. Moses brought the people to the base of the mountain and God wrapped the mountain in smoke and “descended on it in fire”, causing the mountain to shake greatly (19:17-19). It was there that Moses spoke to God and God answered Him with thunder, summoning Moses to the top of the mountain. God then gave His people the 10 Commandments (20:1-17).
This whole scene terrified the people. We can see their reaction in 20:18-21:
18 Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid [fn4] and trembled, and they stood far off 19 and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” 20 Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.” 21 The people stood far off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.
To sum up this scene: The Israelites were shaking in their boots and did not want to communicate with God personally. They elected Moses to go and talk to God for them.
Now fast-forward to chapter 24. There, we have a picture of Moses setting up a covenant ratifying ceremony which included bulls, altars, and a whole lot of blood. The people of Israel agreed to obey all of God’s laws. They said “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” (24:7).
It was at this point that Moses went up the mountain to spend 40 days and 40 nights with God apart from the people below. This is where the whole ugly golden calf incident happens. In chapter 32, the people began to wonder about Moses. Their concern about Moses’ whereabouts led them to go to Aaron (the leader while Moses was gone) and ask him to make them gods that will lead them in lieu of Moses’ prolonged absence. Aaron, it seems, does not need a whole lot of convincing. He orders everyone to take off their gold jewelry and he got to work. He fashioned a suitable god for the people of Israel to worship. This act was a clear violation of the first two commandments.
What happens next is both strange and disturbing. We see a picture of a syncretistic melding of worship of the true God “Yahweh”, with their man-made golden calf. We read:
5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the LORD.” 6 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.
Aaron is looking to combine the true worship of Yahweh, with false worship of a graven image. They offered this calf sacrifices that belonged only to God. Then they started to worship in ways similar to way that the people’s around them worshiped their gods. We see this in that “the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.”
When we read that “they rose up to play”, we are not reading a description of them having a flag football tournament. Walt Kaiser, in the Expositor’s Commentary on Exodus, points out that that Hebrew verb “to play” signifies “drunken, immoral orgies and sexual play”. Like the peoples all around them, the children of Israel were incorporating sexual immorality into their worship.
This is not a pretty picture, but so what? What does this awful picture of false worship mean for Christians here in the twenty-first century? We must not make the mistake in thinking that idolatry, and syncretism for that matter, only existed in the days of Moses. The book of Revelation speaks about how man will not give up worshiping their idols even in the end as God unleashes His final judgments upon the earth (Revelation 9:20-21).
Idolatry is not a thing of the past, but a very present problem. And I believe the biggest form of idolatry that takes place today in American churches is the worship of “self”. I’m not talking about bringing your own personal shrine to church with you. A shrine complete with a nice picture of you, and a complete list of things that make you great.
No, the “self-worship” that I’m talking about is found in our hearts, and it is readily seen in the statements that so often follow our worship on a Sunday morning. Statements like “I didn’t get much out of that today.”, or “The singing did not make me feel good today”, or “That wasn’t very good worship.”
The sure sign of self-worship is that we enter worship expecting to get something, rather than expecting to give something. We worship self when we think that our time on Sunday’s is meant to be a pick-me-up, rather than a time to glorify God. I’m not for a second implying that true worship is not enjoyable. I’m not saying worshiping our Lord should not make you happy. True worship will inevitably be enjoyable and give you a pleasant disposition. But when you enter the worship event with all your focus on yourself and your own feelings and not on God, then there is a big problem. Worship is not about you….its not about me…its all about praising, exalting, and glorifying our Lord, Savior, and Redeemer.