Verse 19. They made a calf in Horeb. In the very place where they had solemnly pledged themselves to obey the Lord they broke the second, if not the first, of his commandments, and set up the Egyptian symbol of the ox, and bowed before it. The ox image is here sarcastically called "a calf"; idols are worthy of no respect, scorn is never more legitimately used than when it is poured upon all attempts to set forth the Invisible God. The Israelites were foolish indeed when they thought they saw the slightest divine glory in a bull, nay, in the mere image of a bull. To believe that the image of a bull could be the image of God must need great credulity.
And worshipped the molten image. Before it they paid divine honours, and said, "These be thy gods, O Israel." This was sheer madness. After the same fashion the Ritualists must needs set up their symbols and multiply them exceedingly. Spiritual worship they seem unable to apprehend; their worship is sensuous to the highest degree, and appeals to eye, and ear, and nose. O the folly of men to block up their own way to acceptable worship, and to make the path of spiritual religion, which is hard to our nature, harder still through the stumblingblocks which they cast into it. We have heard the richness of Popish paraphernalia much extolled, but an idolatrous image when made of gold is not one jot the less abominable than it would have been had it been made of dross and dung: the beauty of art cannot conceal the deformity of sin. We are told also of the suggestiveness of their symbols, but what of that, when God forbids the use of them? Vain also is it to plead that such worship is hearty. So much the worse. Heartiness in forbidden actions is only an increase of transgression.
EXPLANATORY NOTES AND QUAINT SAYINGS
Verse 19. They made a calf. And why a calf? Could they find no fitter resemblance of God amongst all the creatures? Why not rather the lordly lion, to show the sovereignty; vast elephant, the immensity; subtle serpent, the wisdom; long-lived hart, the eternity; swift eagle, the ubiquity of God, rather than the silly senseless calf, that eateth hay? But the shape matters not much, for if God be made like anything, he may be made like anything, it being as unlawful to fashion him an angel as a worm, seeing the commandment forbids as well the likeness of things in heaven above as ill earth beneath ( Exodus 20:4 ). But probably a calf was preferred before other forms because they had learned it from the Egyptians' worshipping their ox Apis. Thus the Israelites borrowed ( Exodus 12:35 ) not all gold and silver but some dross from the Egyptians, whence they fetch the idolatrous forms of their worship.
Verse 19. The modern Jews are of opinion that all the afflictions which ever since have, do, or shall befall their nation, are still the just punishments on them for this their first act of idolatry. And the rabbins have a saying that God never inflicts any judgment upon them, but there is an ounce of his anger on them for their ancestors' making the golden calf. A reverend friend of mine, conversing at Amsterdam with a Jewish youth (very capable and ingenious for one of that nation) endeavoured to make him sensible of God's anger upon them for rejecting and crucifying of Christ, for which foul act he showed how the Jews have lived many hundred years in miserable banishment. But the youth would in no wise acknowledge in their sufferings any effect or punishment of their murdering of Christ, but taking his Bible turned to God's threatening immediately after their making of the calf ( Exodus 33:34 ); "Nevertheless in the day when I visit, I will visit their sin upon them", so interpreting and applying all the numerous calamities which since have befallen them to relate to no other cause than that their first idolatry. Whereas, indeed, the arrears of their idolatry long ago were satisfied, and this is a new debt of later date contracted on themselves by their infidelity. --Thomas Fuller, 1608-1661, in "A Pisgah Sight of Palestine."
Verse 19. They made a calf, etc. This people had seen this idolatrous service in Egypt; and now they did not more long after Egyptian food, than after this Egyptian god ... It is an easy matter for men to be drawn to the practice of that idolatry that they have been accustomed to see practised in those places that they have a long time lived in. He that would take heed of idolatry, let him take heed of Egypt; the very air of Egypt (as I may so say) is infectious in this kind. See here, they had seen the worship of a young bullock in Egypt, and they must have a bullock ...
The local seat of Antichrist (and what seat can that be but Rome?) is called in the Revelation by three names: it is called Egypt, Revelation 2:8 . It is called Sodom in the same verse. It is called Babylon in many places of the Revelation. It is called Babylon, in regard of her cruelty. It is called Sodom, in regard to her filthiness; and Egypt, in regard of her idolatry.
It is a hard matter for a man to live in Egypt, and not to taste and savour somewhat of the idolatry of Egypt. We had sometime, in England, a proverb about going to Rome. They said, a man that went the first time to Rome, he went to see a wicked man there; he that went the second rime to Rome, went to be acquainted with that wicked man there; he that went the third time, brought him home with him. How many have we seen (and it is pity to see so many) of our nobility and gentry go to those Egyptian, parts, and return home again; but few of them bring home the same manners, the same religion, nor the same souls they carried out with them. --Thomas Westfield, Bishop of Brigtow, in "England's Face in Israel's Glasse", 1658.
Verse 19. In Horeb. There is a peculiar stress on the words "in Horeb", as denoting the very place where the great manifestation of God's power and presence has been made, and where the law had been given, whose very first words were a prohibition of the sin of idolatry. --Agellius, in Neale and Littledale.
Verse 19-20. Apis, or Serapis, was a true living black bull, with a white list or streak along the back, a white mark in fashion of an half moon on his right shoulder, only two hairs growing on his tail (why just so many and no more, the devil knows), with a fair square blaze on his forehead, and a great bunch called cantharus under his tongue. What art their priests did use to keep up the breed and preserve succession of cattle with such gwrismata, or privy marks, I list not to inquire ... Besides this natural and living bull, kept in one place, they also worshipped boun diacruson, a golden or gilded ox, the image or portraiture of the former. Some conceive this Apis to have been the symbol and emblem of Joseph the patriarch, so called from ba, ab, a father, seeing he is said to be made by God a father to Pharaoh ( Genesis 45:8 ), that is, preserver of him and his country; and therefore the Egyptians, in after ages, gratified his memory with statues of an ox, a creature so useful in ploughing, sowing, bringing home, and treading out of corn, to perpetuate that gift of grain he had conferred upon them. They strengthen their conjecture because Serapis (which one will have to be nothing else but Apis with addition of rf, sar, that is, a prince, whence perchance our English Sir) was pictured with a bushel over his head, and Joseph (we know) was corn meter general in Egypt. Though others, on good ground, conceive ox worship in Egypt of far greater antiquity.
However, hence Aaron ( Exodus 32:4 ), and hence afterwards Jeroboam (who flying from Solomon, lived some years with Shishak, king of Egypt, 1 Kings 11:40 ) had the pattern of their calves, which they made for the children of Israel to worship. If any object the Egyptians' idols were bulls or oxen, the Israelites' but calves, the difference is not considerable; for (besides the objector never looked into the mouths of the latter to know their age) gradus non variat speciem, a less character is not another letter. Yea, Herodotus calls Apis himself moscoj, a calf, and Vitulus is of as large acceptation among the Latins. Such an old calf the poet describes --
Ego hanc vitalam (ne forte recuses
Bis venit ad mulctram binos alit ubere faetus)
My calf I lay (lest you mistake both tides
She comes to the pail and suckles twain besides).
But to put all out of doubt, what in Exodus is termed a calf, the psalmist calleth an ox ( Psalms 106:20 ). --Thomas Fuller.
Verse 19-22. It is to be hoped, we shall never live to see a time, when the miracles of our redemption shall be forgotten; when the return of Jesus Christ from heaven shall be despaired of; and when the people shall solicit their teachers to fabricate a new philosophical deity, for them to worship, instead of the God of their ancestors, to whom glory hath been ascribed from generation to generation. --George Horne.
HINTS FOR PASTORS AND LAYPERSONS
Verse 19. The sinner as an inventor.
- The Sin remembered.
- Idolatry: not forgetting God merely, or disowning him, but setting up an idol in his place.
- Idolatry of the worst kind: changing be glory of God into the similitude of an ox, etc.
- The idolatry of Egypt under which they had suffered, and from which they had been delivered.
- Idolatry after many wonderful interpositions of the true God in their behalf.
- The Remembrance of Sin.
- For Humiliation. It was the sin of their fathers.
- For self condemnation. "We have sinned with our fathers." It was our nature in them, and it is their nature in us that has committed this great sin.