Expansion of the First Commandment
Starting in chapter 6 and running again through chapter 11, Moses zeroes in on the first commandment. Many of us would like to get onto more exciting things in Deuteronomy because we feel like we've exhausted the first commandment. We get impatient with this because we are too much of a microwave-able generation. We want everything, fast, furious, and right now. Well, if you want to have an Oak tree, you're going to have to be patient because it takes much longer to develop a fully developed, mature Oak tree than it does, for example, a Mimosa or Hackberry tree. Hackberry trees may grow faster; however, many horticulturalists will instruct you to cut down the Hackberry trees. Hackberry trees are junk/trash trees; Oak trees are more valuable. If we are really going to grow and develop into the people God wants us to be, then we are going to have to slow down and concentrate on what God is saying to us.
In chapter 8 we looked at a real temptation the Israelites were going to face when they entered Canaan. They Canaanites had already cultivated the land, dug out wells, and built houses and fortified cities. The Israelites were merely going to go in and occupy the land. At first, the Israelites would naturally be very thankful to God for giving them this bounty. After a while, though, their attitude would change. Instead of glorifying God for what He had given them, they would begin to take the credit for themselves for all they were enjoying in Canaan. Instead of worshiping God, they would worship themselves.
Well, a similar temptation is confronting the Israelites in chapters 9-11. God was sending them in so that they would wipe out the Canaanites. The Canaanites were so morally depraved that they only thing they deserved was complete annihilation. The Israelites were going to function as agents of God's judgment and justice. The temptation would be to start thinking more highly of themselves. They would be tempted to think that God had chosen them to be agents of His justice because they were righteous. God was so lucky, in their opinion, to have them as His agents of justice because they were so righteous! Again the temptation would be to glorify self instead of God.
THREE REASONS THE ISRAELITES SHOULD NOT BOAST IN SELF-RIGHTEOUNESS (9:4-6)
God obliterates such reasoning. He gives the Israelites 3 reasons why they are agents of His justice, and not one of the reasons has to do with their righteousness. The first reason God is using them to destroy the Canaanites is that the Canaanites are simply so bad. In last week's lesson we saw what depths the Canaanites had sunk into spiritually and morally. This had nothing to do with Israel's righteousness but rather had to do with the Canaanites' sin. In another 800 years the Israelites would learn the terrible lesson that God will even take people who are more unrighteous than His people to discipline them because they had fallen into sin. The Babylonians were definitely more unrighteous than the Jews; however, God sent the Babylonians to destroy Jerusalem and Judah. This is basically the issue the book of Habakkuk deals with. Simply because God was using the Israelites to bring justice upon the Canaanites did not prove that the Israelites were righteous.
The second reason that God is giving the land to the Israelites is that He is keeping His promise to Abraham; once more this has nothing to do with their righteousness. The primary promise God made to Abraham is in Gen. 12:1-3; however, several times He will elaborate upon that promise. Later God promises Abraham that He will give him the land of Canaan with its borders stretching from the Nile River to the Euphrates River (Gen. 15:18). This promise was made 430 years before the Israelites ever entered Canaan and before they had either acted righteously or unrighteously; therefore, their entering the land had absolutely nothing to do with their righteousness or unrighteousness.
The third way we know that God was not using the Israelites as agents of judgment because of their righteousness was that the Israelites themselves were not righteous people; they had actually been stubborn from the time they entered into a relationship with God. The rest of the chapter highlights the fact that Israel was stubborn and not righteous, and therefore had no right to point to their righteousness as the reason God used them to bring judgment upon the Canaanites.
ILLUSTRATION OF ISRAEL'S STUBBORNNESS (9:7-29)
In order to prove his point, Moses points back to several instances in which Israel revealed her stubbornness and unrighteousness. The primary illustration is what occurred at the foot of Mt. Sinai. After God had spectacularly delivered the Israelites from the hands of the Egyptians at the Red Sea, He brought them to Mt. Sinai so that He could communicate to them directly His covenant with them. God descended in thunder and lightning. He communicated to them directly the 10 Commandments. It was one of the highlights of Israel’s history. Afterwards upon the people's request, Moses ascended the mountain in order to receive the rest of the commandments because God communicating to them directly was more than they could handle. This request betrayed their true heart. You would have thought that they would have wanted God to communicate to them directly. How wonderful to be that close to God; however, whenever you want to have your own way, the last thing you want is for God to be that close to you. If God speaks to you through another person like Moses, then you can question whether or not God really spoke to that person. You can claim that you are rejecting Moses but not God. In the same way many Christians even today do not want to develop a close relationship with God; this way they can try to get around God by criticizing people, circumstances, and books He uses to communicate to them. They can claim, "Oh, that just B.F.'s opinion" and thereby get around the fact that God is communicating to them.
At this most spectacular moment in Israel's history, Israel turns to idolatry. Moses has been up on the mountain for 40 days and nights fasting and praying, and so the Israelites claim that God has abandoned them. They pressure Aaron into making an idol in the form of golden calf. Aaron—the chief spokesman for God when Moses was confronting Pharaoh, the one who had witnessed firsthand all the miracles God had performed against Egypt—caves into their demands. Quoting Exodus, Paul says that the Israelites at this time "stood up to play" (Ex. 32:6; 1 Cor. 10:7). The word translated "play" does not refer to football, baseball, etc., but to sexual sports. At this moment the children of Israel were no better than their Canaanite counterparts who likewise had combined sexuality with religion.
At the end of the 40 days and nights, God informs Moses that Moses' people Israel had turned to idolatry ("your people . . . " with the "your" referring to Moses). God then threatens to destroy the people. He has had it with the people. He had rescued them in a dramatic fashion from the Egyptians, and they had repaid Him by worshiping an idol. Will destroying the Israelites violate God’s promise to Abraham? No, because He will then raise up a nation from the family of Moses who also descended from Abraham. (At this point there is a break in Deuteronomy between God' words to Moses and Moses' response.) Moses, though, responds by calling the Israelites "your people . . . " This time the word "your" refers to God. The people are so bad that nobody wants to claim them. They’re like a ping pong ball. God says, "They are your people"; Moses says, "No, they are Yours," and back and forth.
Moses then argues Israel's case for God. Moses first appeals to God based upon His past kindness to Israel. He argues that since God has been good to Israel in the past by redeeming them from slavery, He would surely want to be good to Israel in the future; otherwise, all the past kindnesses He had shown to Israel were in vain. God does not take us just so far on the journey. He takes us all the way.
Second, Moses argues that God needs to forgive Israel and be gracious to her for the sake of His own reputation. When Israel left Egypt after God had devastated Egypt, the Egyptians did not turn to the Lord. They still chafed under the result of the 10 plagues God had afflicted Egypt with. The Egyptians would just love it if somehow or other the desert would take out Egypt’s revenge upon the Israelites. Moses tells God that His reputation would suffer greatly in Egypt because the Egyptians would construe God's destruction of the Israelites as an indication that HE was unable to see the project through.
Because of Moses' prayer for Israel, God relents and decides not to destroy Israel. This needs to be seriously emphasized. Some imply that God is going to do whatever He's going to do no matter what. Whereas it is true that God is going to do certain things no matter what, such as the cross and the second coming of Christ, it is also true that there are many positive things which will not happen in your life if you don't pray and there are many negative things which will happen in your life if you do not pray. Our relationship and future with God are not set in concrete. They are dynamic, and if we don't care enough to pray, then why should God care whether the good comes or the evil is prevented?
INDICATIONS OF GOD'S GRACE TOWARDS THE ISRAELITES (Deut. 10:1-5)
God then does several things which indicate that He has relented and is going to show grace to Israel. First, it needs to be noted that Moses did not let the sin go unpunished. He takes the tablets containing the 10 Commandments and casts them down to the ground as a symbol of their breaking the commandments. Second, he takes the golden calf and melts it down to a lump of gold to show the Israelites the utter futility of their idol. Lastly, he grinds the gold lump into a fine powder, casts it into the stream nearby, and forces several of the people to drink from the brook. By doing this, he is showing them the true nature of the god they worshiped.
Afterwards, Moses cuts out 2 more stone tablets so that God can once more write the 10 Commandments upon the stones with His own finger. By writing them with His own finger, He is informing the Israelites that when they violate those commands, they are breaking His commands and not Moses'. If they break them, they will have to deal with Him, not Moses. The fact, though, that God is going to rewrite the commands indicates that He is going to honor His covenant with them. Moses then takes the tablets and deposits them in the Ark of the Covenant which will be housed in the Tabernacle first and in the Temple later in order to communicate to the people that His covenant with them will always be before His eyes.
Next, Moses takes Aaron who actually made the golden idol and installs him as the first high priest of Israel. (Although Aaron will die later and not be able to enter the Promised Land, God keeps him out not because of this sin but because of a sin he commits later.) Instead of putting Aaron to death (which he deserved), God elevates Aaron to one of the 2 most important positions in all Israel. God's grace towards Aaron extends even further in that God will establish His descendants as the only legitimate priests in Israel. For the next 1500 years his family will constitute the priests of Israel.
Before leaving the subject, Moses wants to make one thing crystal clear. What happened at Mt. Sinai was not an unfortunate blip in Israel’s relationship with God. It was not like a one-time mistake. In case the Israelites started thinking, "Oh, but we've gotten much better since then," Moses reminds them of several other places where they sinned against the Lord: Taberah, Massah, and then Kibroth-hattaavah (9:22). In fact, at Kadesh-Barnea their sin angered God so much that He refused to allow that first generation to enter the Promised Land. He waited until all those 20 years of age and older died before He allowed their children to occupy Canaan. They had absolutely no basis at all for basting in their own righteousness.
Before we go any further, we need to remember what God is trying to do here. God is not trying to beat down the Israelites. Too many times Christians and churches do just that very thing. Someone rightfully said that the Christian army is the only army which shoots its own wounded. What God is trying to do is keep us humble. We should keep away from any and every form of pride because whereas most people don't know the sins we've committed either in our hearts or in our bodies, God does. God desires humility from each and every one of us.
WAYS TO ACT HUMBLY BEFORE GOD AND OTHERS (Deut. 10:12-13, 18)
It is easy to talk about humility in general terms; it is quite another to live it out in practical ways. God, though, first gives some general ways how to express humility and then some specific ways. First, God gives 5 general commands—fear God, walk, serve, love, and obey God. The basis for a life of humility is fear of God. At all times I need to remember that a great and awesome God is going to hold me accountable for my life. My dad loved me tremendously, and yet he was the last person I wanted to see whenever I did wrong. Well, the same applies to God in a more dramatic way. Though God is my Father, the truth, though, is that many times the last person I want to see whenever I do wrong is Him. The truth is that God is going to hold each and every one of us accountable for the choices we've made in our lifetimes. He does this not to scare us but to motivate us into taking Him seriously by the choices we make and the lives we live.
Love and obedience according to Jesus go together. According to Jesus, if you love Him, you will obey Him (John 14:21). Moreover, if you obey Him, you will love Him and in turn love His people. The person who hates other people does not love God no matter how much he has prayed and studied God's Word. "Walk" points to the daily nature of our relationship with Christ. Some Christians are always waiting to do the big thing for God. God is not interested in the big things we can do for Him once a week or a few times in our lifetimes; He's more concerned about what we do for Him on a daily basis. If we have kept close to Him on a daily basis, then we will be prepared for the big thing which may come only once or twice during our lifetimes.
God then gives the specific way we express humility. He commands the Israelites to pay special regard for those most vulnerable in society—the widow who does not have a husband to fend for her, the orphan who has neither the father nor mother to fend for it, and the resident alien who does not quite have all the protections of our society. (The resident alien in our society would be the legal alien who is in the U.S. on a work visa.) These are the vulnerable members of our society.
I remember once when I had an opportunity to defend one of these but did not. I was at a Burger King about to place my order. There was a delay, though, because a young Hispanic lady in front of me was having problems communicating her order to the attendant because of the language difficulty. What was infuriating was the way the BK attendant treated the young Hispanic lady, almost berating her for her poor English. I was getting hotter and hotter. So what did I do? Nothing. It was a golden opportunity to care for the very kind of person Jesus has commanded us to care for. I regret that I did nothing. That won't happen again.
Why does God want us to pay special attention to them? It's the way we acknowledge His own special attention to us. When it is all said and done, spiritually we are like orphans, widows, and resident aliens until we become Christians—whether we realize it or not. At least that is the way God views us. God out of mercy reached down to us and pulled us up. He says the only way we can express our faith is that we do for others physically what God did for us spiritually. As He helped us who were vulnerable spiritually, we should help those who are vulnerable to the attacks of society.