17 And when Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, "There is a noise of war in the camp."
18 But he said:
"It is not the noise of the shout of victory,
Nor the noise of the cry of defeat,
But the sound of singing I hear."
It wasn't exactly a shining moment in Moses' fledgling ministry of the people of Israel. Moses and Joshua had ascended the mountain in Sinai to receive the Word of God, and while the prophet and his disciple were gone, the Israelites--including Moses' own brother Aaron--had yielded to sin and idolatry. Even as Moses was receiving the Commandments that said "You shall have no other gods before Me" and "You shall not make for yourself a carved image" (Exodus 20:3-4), Aaron was using the wealth of the freed slaves to make a golden calf for them to worship. While Moses stood on the mountaintop and received the written Commandments, Joshua waited down on the mountainside and heard noise from the camp. And what did Joshua think he heard? "A noise of war."
Joshua was right: there was a war taking place in that camp. It wasn't the kind of war the Israelites would have faced if Pharaoh had caught up to them, nor was it the kind of war that King David later regularly faced against the Philistines. This was a different war.
2 Corinthians 10:3
For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh.
It was a war of the spirit, a war between the redeemed heart and the ways of the flesh. It is a war we all face every day. Through Christ, we are now victorious and we can raise a joyful shout, but the Israelites yielded too easily, gave up too soon on this God who had saved them from bondage. And so Joshua heard the noise of that war. What kinds of things did he hear?
Now when the people saw that Moses delayed coming down from the mountain, the people gathered together to Aaron, and said to him, "Come, make us gods that shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him."
The first thing Joshua might have heard was the sound of the people being impatient with the Lord. Despite having been freed from slavery and hardship, they yet sought even more, and they wanted it NOW. Just a scant few days before, Moses and the people had sung:
"The LORD is my strength and song,
And He has become my salvation;
He is my God, and I will praise Him;
My father's God, and I will exalt Him."
And so here at the base of the mountain, the people might have prayed like David:
Lead me in Your truth and teach me,
For You are the God of my salvation;
On You I wait all the day.
But in their impatience, they denied the One who had led them from bondage, and they gave up on the one man who had given up everything to set God's people free. The people were not willing to wait upon the Lord and His teachings, nor even on His chosen servant. Here was Moses, a man who had plainly showed that the Lord God was on their side, a man who unleashed the power and wrath of God against the enemies of God's people, and yet those same people would not wait for Moses' return. No sooner had the people given up on that man of God than they sought another man and another god to lead them.
1 Samuel 8:7
And the LORD said to Samuel, "Heed the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them."
In their impatience with God's timing and with God's blessings, the people rejected the Lord their God who had brought them out of Egypt, and they sought for themselves breathless, manmade idols which they could display as their gods.
2 And Aaron said to them, "Break off the golden earrings which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me."
3 So all the people broke off the golden earrings which were in their ears, and brought them to Aaron.
The next sound that Joshua would have heard was the sound of Aaron yielding to the people and becoming a leader in their sin. Aaron would one day become the first priest of the Israelites, but on this day, having given up on the very prophet that he himself knew well, Aaron gave in to the people's wishes and led them further astray. Left in charge by his own brother Moses--a man alongside whom Aaron himself had been the mouthpiece of God (Exodus 4:14-16)--rather than leading the people in patience, restraint, and obedience, Aaron became the spokesman of sin. That was the sound that Joshua heard.
And he received the gold from their hand, and he fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made a molded calf. Then they said, "This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!"
Imagine poor Joshua halfway up the mountain, as he witnessed the thundering and fire on the mountaintop that was evidence of the presence of God Himself, and then he heard from the camp below, "THIS is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!" What Joshua heard was the sound of falsehood and deception, the sound of people blaspheming the very God that truly HAD brought them out of Egypt.
31 "Therefore I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven men.
32 "Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come."
It is one thing to give up on God and the people He has called to lead us, but it is quite another to speak against the Holy Spirit of God and give credit for His works to lifeless idols and false gods. The people had witnessed the power of God to redeem them, and they had seen and heard the evidence of His presence on the mountain. (Exodus 20:18-21) And yet at the first sign of having to wait for His continued leadership, as they waited to learn from His own Word how they were to live, the people rejected Him and gave glory and honor for His works to other people and things.
So when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, "Tomorrow is a feast to the LORD."
The next thing Joshua would have heard was someone establishing a tradition that God had not assigned to the people. No sooner had the people made another god for themselves than they also created a new holy day and holy place. Wherever the golden calf might have been, that would have been the place that they assigned for an altar. And whatever day they had created their idol, the people would have soon established a new feast day to that idol. Rather than wait on the presence of the everlasting God, rather than hear the voice of God telling them when and how to worship Him, they created their own methods and times of worship. It might not have been so bad if they were at least worshiping the Lord their God, but they were worshiping a god they themselves had created! The noise that Joshua heard was the people establishing human traditions in the place of God's commandments.
Then they rose early on the next day, offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.
A few years ago, I lived just a few blocks away from the football stadium at a major university. On some Saturdays, I could sit in my back yard and listen to the sounds of cheering and catcalls as the games were played in that house of sport. And that was with just fifty thousand people worshiping their "idols" on that playing field. Imagine that sound TWO HUNDRED TIMES LARGER! Close to a million people waited for Moses in the Israelite camp, and they all woke up that morning to eat, drink, and be merry. The Hebrew word for "play" is "tsachaq," which literally means to laugh or have fun. Now, it's not that we are not to enjoy worshiping the Lord our God. After all, the Psalmist does tell us to "Make a joyful shout to the LORD." (Psalms 100:1) But the people weren't worshiping the LORD, and they weren't waiting on HIM. Instead they were building altars to dead gods and giving themselves over to lust and sin.
23 "But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him.
24 "God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth."
The sound that Joshua heard was the sound of people worshiping idols in the flesh rather than worshiping the Lord their God in spirit and in truth.
The sounds of war that Joshua heard are sounds we still hear today. They are the sounds of people's impatience with God's will, the sounds of God's chosen leaders yielding to the will of the people rather restraining people according to the Word of God, the sounds of blasphemy as people deny the work of God in their lives, the sounds of people creating human traditions disguised as the statutes of God, and the sounds of people worshiping false idols in the flesh. They are the rattles of sabers and the clashing of shields as Satan throws all he has against the whole armor of God. (Ephesians 6:12-20) And armored we must be to stand up against such warfare! Armed with salvation and the Word of God, we must stand up for those who lead us in His truth, "praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints," so that men like Moses--God's chosen ambassadors--can do the work He sets for them to do as apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. (Ephesians 6:17-20, 4:11) We must, as David wrote, seek God's teaching and ways, and wait upon Him all the day.
Just as the Israelites had shattered their faith upon the rocks of idolatry and sin, so did Moses shatter the tablets of the Law when he saw the debauchery of God's people. (Exodus 32:19) But Moses ended up interceding for the people of Israel. He stood before the Lord their God and asked for mercy upon those wayward, stiff-necked people. (Exodus 32;11-13) Jesus Christ stands with the Father today, interceding for all those who believe in Him. (Romans 8:34) If we continue in our idolatry, our worldliness, our blasphemy, and our pride and self-righteousness, then we will surely perish. But if we fall upon God's mercy, and humbly repent and believe in the gospel, then we shall be saved. The noise of war is rising from the camp of God's children. Will it be a cry of defeat at the hands of Satan, a sound of singing as we surrender to the devil, or a joyous shout as we proclaim Jesus' victory over sin and death?
Holy Father God, I can hear the sounds of war among Your people as we get impatient for Your return, as we refuse to yield to Your timing and Your truth. O Lord my God, I ask that You should discipline Your people, plague us, strike us, bring us to shame in our sin. Ground up our idols and make us drink the poison of our sin so that we shall know--truly KNOW--that You alone are God. Then, Father God, let us all yield to You and seek Your teaching and Your ways, waiting upon You even as we live lives that are glorifying only to You, our Rock and our redeemer. Let us not be led astray any more by worldly idols but instead embrace the one true and living God, the one Spirit who binds us to Your will, and the one Messiah who is Savior and Lord of our lives. Amen.