In Deuteronomy 9 and 10, Moses reminds the second generation of what happened long ago when he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of stone that had been inscribed with the covenant of God. These were the words the Lord actually spoke to the children of Israel. These stone tablets were inscribed by the finger of God and were given to Moses by the Lord after he had been on Mount Sinai for 40 days and nights.
About that time, the people said concerning the golden calf they had made, “Israel! Here is your god, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!” (Ex. 32:4) The people proclaimed that the next day would be a feast for the Lord. The next day they began offering sacrifices to this metal image as if it were the Lord. The Lord told Moses to hurry and return to the people because they had already turned away from the terms of the marriage covenant by making a metal image.
Some would think there was nothing wrong with what the people had done because they were worshipping the Lord the best way they knew how. The metal image made to represent him was still wrong even though it wasn’t an idol meant to represent another god. Normally, we assume that God has only forbidden the worship of His creation or images of created things but Deuteronomy 4:15-19 tells us that the Lord did not reveal His form to the Israelites because He didn’t want them to worship an image of Him or worship something that represented His attributes either. This is why many religious icons are idols.
Creating a golden calf and referring to it as the Lord had clearly broken their covenant with Him. When Moses saw this with his own eyes, he took the tablets of the covenant, threw them down, and broke them in the sight of the people so they would understand that they had broken their covenant with the Lord. Moses knew they had lost God’s grace and needed His mercy.
Moses took their sin, the calf they had made, and burned it up in the fire. He beat it to pieces and then into fine dust. He then took the dust and threw it into the stream of water that was coming down the mountain. According to Exodus 32:20, Moses made the people of Israel drink it. After Moses scolded Aaron for being part of the whole mess, Moses saw the people were clearly out of control so he called all those who were for the Lord to come to him. The Levites gathered around him and Moses commanded them to kill their kinsman, friends, and neighbor. Certainly the ones who died participated in the worship of the golden calf. The three thousand people who died that day were not shown any mercy. Moses interceded for the people and asked the Lord to blot him out of His book but the Lord said he would only blot out the names of those who sinned against Him. The Lord assured Moses the time for the punishment of their sin would come. Because of the sin with the golden calf, the Lord struck the people with a plague. There doesn’t seem to be any grace or mercy here but let’s not forget what happened next.
Moses returned to Mount Sinai with two new stone tablets which were like the first ones. While Moses was on the mountain, the Lord inscribed the same words which were on the first tablets on the second ones. The Lord proclaimed that He would show both grace and mercy to the people–even during the time period of the Old Covenant! He promised to forgive their sin, lawlessness, and iniquities but He would always be just. He wouldn’t cleanse the liable but said their lawlessness would be brought upon their children to the 3rd and 4th generation (Exodus 34:6-7).
The Lord also commanded Moses to take the second set of tablets and place them inside the Ark of the Covenant. Please don’t miss this. The second set of tablets which were inscribed with the same covenant and placed inside the Ark of the Covenant foreshadowed the coming of the New Covenant. This is a picture of what Jeremiah prophesied in Jeremiah 31:31-33: “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah — 32 not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” (NKJV)
Verse 32 is referring to the first set of tablets which were physically broken whereas verse 33 is a picture of the second set of tablets. Even though the Lord showed the people mercy and grace after giving them the second set of tablets, they later broke their covenant with the Lord by committing idolatry/spiritual adultery. The only way, this could be remedied was by ending the Old Covenant and by making a new one; both steps were accomplished by Jesus’ death (Matt. 26:28; Romans 7:1-6).
Remember, by grace men are saved. The body of each believer is the temple of the Holy Spirit as a result of the new covenant. When a person trusts the Lord, the original terms of the marriage covenant are placed in their hearts and minds just as the second set of tablets were placed in the Ark of the Covenant! This is the location of the throne of God in the life of a believer. This person experiences the grace and mercy of God in their lives as they express their love and devotion to God by living according to the terms of the covenant.
Now the next time someone tells you there was no mercy or grace under the Old Covenant, be sure to tell them, “Oh, yes there was! Grace and mercy are part of both covenants.”