The tragedy of the golden calf is how quickly the human heart turns from God and seeks to make gods in our own image and in our own power that we can worship and adore. The Lord has been speaking to Moses and the people have witnessed the magnificence of God’s presence, even to the point of trembling with fear and yet they are fickle and turn quickly to idols.
What a true commentary on each of our hearts. We can’t stand not being able to have a physical god before our eyes whom we can carry and set aside at will. Yet God has specifically forbade any such actions in the second and third commandments. Such behavior is an affront to God. He hates it and stands ready to punish it with the most severe affliction. As God tells Moses,
Leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation. (Exodus 32:10)
Idolatry, indeed all sin is punishable by death, with the full wrath of God being poured out. Yet a marvelous thing happens. Moses intercedes for the people. He appeals to God’s character and his renown. He appeals to God’s covenant to Abraham and in this act of intercession, God relents. Moses is a picture of the ministry and work of Christ interceding for his people. Calling God to forgive and carry out his plan of redemption for his own name’s sake. And just as Moses became angered at the sin of the nation when he witnessed it firsthand, so too does our Lord hate the sin of the hypocrites who worship in vain. He weeps for Jerusalem. He fashions a whip and drives out the moneychanges who have exchanged prayer for gold coin. He challenges the sin prevalent in the nation.
As the story is relayed in Exodus. Moses and the Levites end up killing many of the people, setting men against their own family in the service of the Lord. Jesus proclaimed a similar truth as he taught,
Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:51-53)
Following Christ, being holy to God is a dividing line which those set apart for God cannot compromise. Family relationships must take a second place to faithfulness and fidelity to God. Yet we must know that God disciplines those he loves and so he brings a plague upon the people to turn them from the errors of their ways.