A number of explanations are possible. First, let’s look at the incident of the golden calf (Exod. 32). When Moses came down from the mountain and realized what was going on, he called the people to repentance, asked who among them would declare themselves to be on the Lord’s side, and then interceded for the people. Moses asked God to forgive Israel’s sin or else to blot him out of God’s book. Though the Scripture account does not specifically state that Aaron repented after his silly lie about casting the gold into the fire and its somehow coming out as a golden calf, it seems quite apparent that he must have done so. The account indicates that Aaron rallied to Moses’ side as a repentant individual (vv. 26–28).
Therefore, Moses’ intercession was a key. Deuteronomy 9:20 says of the golden calf incident, “And the LORD was very angry with Aaron to have destroyed him: and I prayed for Aaron also the same time.” Had not Moses interceded for his people, Aaron would undoubtedly have been punished then and there.
Second, God does not always tell us everything. Perhaps He meted out some sort of punishment over the golden calf incident that Scripture does not record. Of the people en masse, Exodus 32:35 states, “And the LORD plagued the people, because they made the calf, which Aaron made.” This punishment might have included Aaron, and it shows another perspective of the incident: Aaron was not the only guilty one.
Third, we must take into consideration God’s patience and long-suffering. God didn’t forbid Aaron to enter the Promised Land at this point. This punishment came, as you note in your question, later—at the Meribah incident, where Moses and Aaron defiantly disobeyed God by striking the rock two times instead of speaking to the rock to obtain water. Perhaps by then God had had enough of Aaron’s disobedience, unbelief, and compromise along the way.
Or perhaps this incident carried a certain significance in God’s sight, and God couldn’t overlook the marring of this picture. We find this account mentioned in 1 Corinthians 10:1–4. The significance of Moses and Aaron’s act of disobedience was that the rock pictured Christ.
Numbers 20:12 states that Moses and Aaron did not sanctify God in the eyes of Israel. How tragic for God’s chosen leaders to “blow it” before the congregation. Yet we again see God’s grace and long-suffering in the fact that even though they disobeyed by hitting the rock instead of speaking to it, He still provided gushing water for all from that rock.
How do these incidents relate to us? We can conclude that God will not overlook or ignore sin. Someday He will judge unbelievers as unbelievers. All their deeds are recorded, and the books will be opened. Since their names are not written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, they will go into a Christless eternity in the Lake of Fire forever. Believers who have unconfessed sins will be dealt with at the Judgment Seat of Christ (Rom. 14:7–12; 1 Cor. 3:12–15; 2 Cot 5:10; 1 John 2:28).
Also, we can conclude that while God might not deal with people today in the seemingly heavy-handed way He sometimes did in the Old Testament, chastening is still a reality (1 Cot 11:31, 32; Heb. 12:6–15). Chastening in a believer’s life doesn’t always come immediately. Like a parent, God sometimes waits patiently and allows a person “to come to the end of himself.” He gives unbelievers judgment, not chastening. Judgment doesn’t always come right away either.
As we bemoan today’s society bent on flagrant disobedience and rejection of God, we can keep this fact in mind and be sure of it.
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