1 “Hear, O Israel: you are to cross over the Jordan today, to go in to dispossess nations greater and mightier than you, cities great and fortified up to heaven, 2 a people great and tall, the sons of the Anakim, whom you know, and of whom you have heard it said, ‘Who can stand before the sons of Anak?’ 3 Know therefore today that he who goes over before you as a consuming fire is the Lord your God. He will destroy them and subdue them before you. So you shall drive them out and make them perish quickly, as the Lord has promised you.
4 “Do not say in your heart, after the Lord your God has thrust them out before you, ‘It is because of my righteousness that the Lord has brought me in to possess this land,’ whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is driving them out before you. 5 Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
6 “Know, therefore, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people. 7 Remember and do not forget how you provoked the Lord your God to wrath in the wilderness. From the day you came out of the land of Egypt until you came to this place, you have been rebellious against the Lord. 8 Even at Horeb you provoked the Lord to wrath, and the Lord was so angry with you that he was ready to destroy you. 9 When I went up the mountain to receive the tablets of stone, the tablets of the covenant that the Lord made with you, I remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights. I neither ate bread nor drank water. 10 And the Lord gave me the two tablets of stone written with the finger of God, and on them were all the words that the Lord had spoken with you on the mountain out of the midst of the fire on the day of the assembly. 11 And at the end of forty days and forty nights the Lord gave me the two tablets of stone, the tablets of the covenant. 12 Then the Lord said to me, ‘Arise, go down quickly from here, for your people whom you have brought from Egypt have acted corruptly. They have turned aside quickly out of the way that I commanded them; they have made themselves a metal image.’” – Deuteronomy 9:1-12 ESV
It’s interesting to consider how the blessings of God can produce one of two reactions in those who experience them. The first and proper response is that of gratitude and humility, fueled by the recognition that His blessings are unmerited and are signs of His love. But, sadly, the more common response is to arrogantly assume that His blessings are somehow deserved – a kind of a reward for our righteousness. In this second scenario, the recipient of God’s blessings is actually taking credit for them. He is making God’s blessings a form of payment for services rendered.
But, Moses is warning the Israelites not to make that dangerous and deadly mistake. Robbing God of glory is not a game they want to play. And he opens this section of his speech to the people of Israel by describing God as a “consuming fire.” Like a superheated flame that quickly devours everything in its path, God will destroy and subdue all the enemies that stand in the way of Israel occupying the land of Canaan. But they must understand that God, the consuming fire, can be indiscriminate when it comes to His righteous indignation.
The consuming nature of God’s wrath, directed against all unrighteousness, was non-discriminatory. He is a holy and righteous God who must punish all sin. And, in the book of Acts, the apostle Peter saw that God was also non-discriminatory when it came to bestowing His grace.
“I see very clearly that God shows no favoritism. In every nation he accepts those who fear him and do what is right.” – Acts 10:34-35 NLT
And Paul echoed this very same idea when he wrote to the believers in Rome, accentuating the lack of favoritism and partiality on God’s part.
But there will be glory and honor and peace from God for all who do good—for the Jew first and also for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism.
When the Gentiles sin, they will be destroyed, even though they never had God’s written law. And the Jews, who do have God’s law, will be judged by that law when they fail to obey it. – Romans 2:10-12 NLT
Moses tried to make two essential points perfectly clear to the Israelites. First of all, God was going to give the Israelites the land of Canaan, but not because they were righteous. Secondly, He was going to destroy all the Canaanites, and it would be due to their wickedness. Nobody in this scenario deserved God’s blessings. The Israelites had done nothing to merit God’s mercy and grace. As a matter of fact, Moses delivers the less-than-comforting news that God was going to deliver the Israelites in spite of them.
“You must recognize that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land because you are good, for you are not—you are a stubborn people.” – Deuteronomy 9:6 NLT
They were stubborn and rebellious and, therefore, wicked in God’s eyes. They had been given God’s commandments but had failed to keep them. Even when Moses had been on the mountaintop at Sinai, receiving the Ten Commandments, the people had chosen to rebel against God and make an idol to worship in His place. It doesn’t get any more wicked than that. Consider the words God spoke to Moses as He informed him about what was taking place down in the valley.
“Get up! Go down immediately, for the people you brought out of Egypt have corrupted themselves. How quickly they have turned away from the way I commanded them to live! They have melted gold and made an idol for themselves!” – Deuteronomy 9:12 NLT
Yet, here they were, ready to enter the land of Canaan and take possession of the inheritance promised to Abraham by God. And that seems to be Moses’ point in all of this. God could have destroyed them for their wickedness because He is a consuming fire. He could have done to them exactly what He was going to do to the Canaanites and have been fully justified in doing so. But Moses assured the Israelites that the only reason God was not destroying them was “to fulfill the oath he swore to your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Deuteronomy 9:5 NLT).
God was fulfilling the promise He had made to Abraham and had reiterated to Isaac and Jacob. The Israelites did not deserve what God was about to do. They had not earned His favor, and most certainly could not claim to be righteous in His eyes. They were wicked and rebellious. They were stubborn and stiffnecked. And they couldn’t claim ignorance, because God had given them His law. They knew exactly what He expected of them and yet, they had chosen to reject His divine will and live in open rebellion to Him.
And Moses does not let them forget just how angry God had been with them for their unfaithfulness at Mount Sinai.
“Even at Mount Sinai you made the Lord so angry he was ready to destroy you.” – Deuteronomy 9:8 NLT
But God had spared them. Why? Because He is a faithful, covenant-keeping God. He does not lie. He will not go back on His word. He had promised Abraham that his descendants would occupy the land of Canaan. He had made a commitment to give them the land as their inheritance, and He would fulfill that promise.
No man deserves the mercy and grace of God. No one can stand before God and demand that He reward them for their righteousness. As the book of Ecclesiastes states:
Not a single person on earth is always good and never sins. – Ecclesiastes 7:20 NLT
And, quoting from Psalm 14, the apostle Paul sums up the sad state of mankind’s spiritual condition.
No one is righteous—not even one. No one is truly wise; no one is seeking God. All have turned away; all have become useless. No one does good, not a single one. – Romans 3:10-12 NLT
The Israelites stood before God as guilty and condemned, and worthy of experiencing the consuming fire of God’s righteous anger. But He would show them mercy because He had made a promise to Abraham, and that promise included their existence as a nation.
“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” – Genesis 12:2 NLT
But there was a second aspect to that promise.
“And through your descendants all the nations of the earth will be blessed—all because you have obeyed me.” – Genesis 22:18 NLT
God had plans for Israel. And those plans included the coming of the Messiah. God was going to use this rebellious, sin-prone nation to bring forth the Savior of the world. Jesus would be born a Jew, from the tribe of Judah. He would take on human flesh and become the one and only man who lived in perfect obedience to God’s law. And His sinless existence would make Him qualified to act as the unblemished Lamb to serve as payment for mankind’s sin debt. His death would satisfy the just demands of a holy God and provide atonement for all who would recognize their sin and accept His undeserved, unmerited offer of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.