Entrance Into the Kingdom

23 And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” 26 But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” 27 Then Peter said in reply, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” 28 Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” –  Matthew 19:23-30 ESV

It’s essential that we not separate the content of these verses from the encounter that Jesus had with the rich young man. Verse 22 ended with the sobering statement: “When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”

When Jesus had instructed the man to sell all he possessed, give it to the poor and follow him, the man had simply walked away. He considered the cost too high. In his mind, the price Jesus seemed to have placed on eternal life was too steep to pay. This man couldn’t bear the thought of giving up all that he possessed in order to gain eternal life. So Matthew records that the man went away sorrowful.

But we must not miss two critical statements made by Jesus that help give clarity to what Jesus told His disciples after the man’s departure. Two different times in His exchange with the young man, Jesus addressed his desire to know what he had to do to gain eternal life.

If you would enter life… – vs. 17

If you would be perfect… – vs. 21

And in both cases, Jesus had followed up those statements with action steps:

…keep the commandments. – vs. 17

go, sell what you possess and give to the poor. – vs. 21

Jesus knew something the disciples didn’t know. It was not a case of whether the man would or wouldn’t keep Jesus’ instructions. It was that he couldn’t. It was impossible. While the young man claimed to have kept the five commandments Jesus outlined, there was no way he had done so perfectly. And it is painfully clear that the young man loved his wealth and possessions more than he loved God. In other words, he had broken the very first commandment because he had made a god out of material things. And he was willing to sacrifice the hope of eternal life with God in order to hold on to his false god of materialism.

So, as the disciples watched the man walk away, Jesus used the moment as a teaching opportunity. He made a statement that must have caught them by surprise.

“Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” – Matthew 19:23-24 ESV

For the disciples, this statement made no sense. As Jews, they had always understood a person’s wealth to be a sign of God’s blessing. They had been taught to believe that one of the primary ways in which God bestowed His favor upon men was through material possessions. When they looked at the lives of the patriarchs, like Abraham, Joseph, and David, they saw men who had been greatly blessed by God with great wealth. And they aspired to be blessed in the same way.

So, the words of Jesus caught them off guard. They were inconsistent with their understanding of how life worked. Which explains their astonishment and their question to Jesus: “Who then can be saved?”

Their train of thought had jumped the tracks. The words of Jesus were illogical and disturbing. Their question to Jesus might be expressed this way: “If those who are obviously blessed by God are going to have a difficult time entering the kingdom of heaven, then what hope do we have?”

The disciples were far from wealthy. They had little in the way of possessions. And nobody looked up to them or aspired to be like them. But their whole concept of God’s blessings was warped. They had not yet understood what Jesus had said in His sermon on the mount.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit…”

“Blessed are those who mourn…”

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth…”

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…”

“Blessed are the merciful…”

“Blessed are the pure in heart…”

“Blessed are the peacemakers…”

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…”

“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely…” – Matthew 5:3-11 ESV

God’s standard of blessing or approval was not wealth. It was an attitude of spiritual poverty and complete reliance upon God. When it came to the kingdom of heaven, the self-reliant and self-sufficient would be denied entrance. Those who determine to make comfort and ease their goal in this life will miss out on the joys of eternal life.

This discussion left the disciples confused and led them to ask, “Who then can be saved?” It’s important to note that they were not using the term “saved” in the same sense we would. They were not tying salvation to the gospel, but to man’s entrance into eternal life. And their understanding was much like that of the rich young man. They believed that eternal life was a reward for the good things done in this life.

But Jesus shocked them when He said, “With man this is impossible, but with God, all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26 ESV). The word “this” ties back the idea of salvation or the earning of eternal life. It is impossible for any man to earn his way into God’s kingdom. And not only that, it was going to be particularly difficult for the wealthy. Why? Because, like the young man who had just walked away, they would find their wealth to be a barrier to saving faith. Materialism has a way of masking our needs. It keeps us from recognizing our true spiritual poverty. Money can buy us a false sense of peace and security. It can make us feel invincible and invulnerable. 

And if you believe that your wealth is a sign of God’s blessing, you will have little impetus to see yourself as someone in need of God’s forgiveness.

This whole exchange began with Jesus describing the need for childlike faith. The disciples had been arguing over who was the greatest. They falsely viewed prominence and position as a sign of favor with God. But Jesus had told them, “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3 ESV). Now, He was expanding on this thought by saying it was impossible for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Why? Because a rich man lacked the humble, innocent, and completely dependent faith that displayed his need for God.

And Jesus stressed the sheer impossibility of it all by using an extremely ludicrous illustration. A rich man could no more earn his way into God’s kingdom than a camel could squeeze through the eye of a needle.

Always quick to share his opinion, Peter asked, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?”

It’s obvious that Peter was thinking of the words Jesus had spoken to the rich young man: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor” (Matthew 19:21 ESV). In Peter’s mind, he had done what Jesus had asked. He had sacrificed greatly in order to follow Jesus so, he wanted to know what was in it for him. What would be his reward? Remember what Jesus told the young man. If he sold all that he had and gave it to the poor, he would “have treasure in heaven.” So, Peter wanted to know what he was going to get for all of his sacrifices.

Jesus answered Peter’s question, but not in the way that he had hoped.

“Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.” – Matthew 19:28-29 ESV

Jesus assured Peter that he would have a reward, but it would be far different than what he was expecting. Jesus revealed that there was a day coming when He would establish His kingdom on earth. He would sit on the throne of David and rule from Jerusalem. But that day was in the far-distant future. He was speaking of His millennial kingdom, which will take place after His second coming. And in that kingdom, the 12 disciples will receive their reward. They will rule over the 12 tribes of Israel. They will have positions of power and prominence. They will rule alongside the Messiah in His millennial kingdom.

But in the meantime, they were going to be called to sacrifice. The disciples would be required to give up far more than could imagine. Most of these men would end up sacrificing their lives on behalf of the kingdom of God. They would face persecution and difficulty. And Jesus had already warned them of the reality of their future fate.

“But beware! For you will be handed over to the courts and will be flogged with whips in the synagogues. You will stand trial before governors and kings because you are my followers. But this will be your opportunity to tell the rulers and other unbelievers about me. When you are arrested, don’t worry about how to respond or what to say. God will give you the right words at the right time. For it is not you who will be speaking—it will be the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.”  – Matthew 10:17-20 NLT

Their reward would be in the future. And it would be tied to eternal life in the kingdom of God. So, rather than seeking their reward in the here-and-now, they were to focus their attention on the hereafter. In this life, they would be required to sacrifice. They would have to die to self and serve God, not material things. Their faith was to be based on the future reward promised to them by God through Christ. They needed to stop viewing the kingdom from a worldly perspective. Wealth, power, and prominence in this life were no guarantees of eternal life. Salvation is a work of God. And nothing is impossible for Him. While we can never earn our salvation, God has made it possible for all who place childlike faith in His Son to receive the unmerited reward of life everlasting.

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson
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No One Like Him

1 Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho. And the Lord showed him all the land, Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the western sea, the Negeb, and the Plain, that is, the Valley of Jericho the city of palm trees, as far as Zoar. And the Lord said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, ‘I will give it to your offspring.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there.” So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord, and he buried him in the valley in the land of Moab opposite Beth-peor; but no one knows the place of his burial to this day. Moses was 120 years old when he died. His eye was undimmed, and his vigor unabated. And the people of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days. Then the days of weeping and mourning for Moses were ended.

And Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him. So the people of Israel obeyed him and did as the Lord had commanded Moses. 10 And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, 11 none like him for all the signs and the wonders that the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, 12 and for all the mighty power and all the great deeds of terror that Moses did in the sight of all Israel. Deuteronomy 34:1-12 ESV

The fateful day finally arrived. Moses had known for some time that he would never cross over the Jordan and walk in the land of Canaan. He had spent more than 40 years of his 120-year-long life leading the people to the land of promise, but he would never set foot in that land.  He had sinned against God and would pay the consequences for that sin. And that time had come.

As the people of Israel prepared to enter Canaan, God led Moses up to the top of Mount Nebo, located in the plains of Moab. From that vantage point, “the Lord showed him all the land,” from Dan in the north to the Dead Sea in the south. Directly across the valley, Moses would have seen the area on which the temple would later be erected by Solomon. His unobstructed view from the mountaintop would have given him a bird’s-eye perspective of the land promised by God to Abraham. And as Moses scanned the horizon, he was reminded by God:

“This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, ‘I will give it to your offspring.’ I have let you see it with your eyes…” – Deuteronomy 34:4 ESV

God had fulfilled His promise. He had done what He had said He would do. And now, He was allowing Moses to take it all in, but He would not allow Moses to go in.

“…but you shall not go over there.” – Deuteronomy 34:4 ESV

What an emotional moment this must have been for Moses. To stand, gazing into the vast valley that lay before him, realizing that he was looking at the fulfillment of a nearly half-century of toil and effort on his part. From the moment God had called him in Midian and assigned him the task of rescuing the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, Moses had done all that God had asked Him to do. Sure, he had displayed a bit of reluctance early on, doubting that the people of Israel would buy his explanation that God had sent him as their deliverer.

“But behold, they will not believe me or listen to my voice, for they will say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you.’” – Exodus 4:1 ESV

So, God had given Moses tangible proof that the people would listen to what he had to say. He performed a sign, a somewhat disturbing and disconcerting sign. God turned the Moses’ shepherd staff into a snake and then commanded that he pick it up by the tail. When Moses did as God commanded, the snake transformed back into the staff. But God was not done. He commanded that Moses place his hand inside his cloak. Much to his shock and dismay, Moses removed his hand, only to find that it was covered with leprosy. Yet, God miraculously restored it.

But even with these miraculous signs as proof, Moses questioned his own qualifications to act as God’s spokesman.

“Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue.” – Exodus 4:10 ESV

At this point, Moses was making excuses. He was doing everything in his power to get out of the task God had assigned to him. But God wasn’t interested in Moses’ qualifications. HIs choice of Moses wasn’t based on anything this former murderer and fugitive from justice could bring to the table. God didn’t ask Moses to be eloquent or powerful. He didn’t pick Moses based on his impressive resume or track record as a leader. When God appeared to Moses, it was in the middle of Midian, where Moses had been leading sheep, not men. So, God assured Moses that He didn’t need him to be eloquent or persuasive. He simply needed him to be obedient.

“Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?  Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.” – Exodus 4:12-13 ESV

But Moses had displayed a stubborn resistance to God’s will, begging that He find someone else to do this impossible task.

“Oh, my Lord, please send someone else.” – Exodus 4:13 ESV

But God didn’t let Moses off the hook. Instead, He gave Moses an assistant, someone who would walk alongside him and share the burden of leadership with him. God added Aaron, Moses’ brother, to the team.

“You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth, and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth and will teach you both what to do.  He shall speak for you to the people, and he shall be your mouth, and you shall be as God to him.” – Exodus 4:15-16 ESV

These two men became God’s reluctant delivers. Together, they would confront Pharaoh and demand that he release the people of Israel from their slavery. Together, they would call down the plagues upon the nation of Egypt, bringing about the eventual release of the Israelites. Together, they would lead the people across the wilderness. And together, they would dishonor God before the people, and suffer the consequences for their actions. Years earlier, Aaron had been led by God to the top of another mountain, Mount Hor, where his life was taken by God. He was not allowed to enter the land of promise either.

“Let Aaron be gathered to his people, for he shall not enter the land that I have given to the people of Israel, because you rebelled against my command at the waters of Meribah. Take Aaron and Eleazar his son and bring them up to Mount Hor. And strip Aaron of his garments and put them on Eleazar his son. And Aaron shall be gathered to his people and shall die there.” – Numbers 20:24-26 ESV

And now, Moses was standing on the top of Mount Nebo, where he would experience the very same fate as his brother, Aaron.

 So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord, and he buried him in the valley in the land of Moab opposite Beth-peor; but no one knows the place of his burial to this day. – Deuteronomy 34:5-6 ESV

There is a great deal of mystery surrounding the death of Moses. And the book of Jude makes it even more difficult to understand what happened.

 But when the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, was disputing about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a blasphemous judgment, but said, “The Lord rebuke you.” – Jude 9 ESV

We have no idea what this means or to what Peter is referring. But suffice it to say, Moses disappeared from the scene and “no one knows the place of his burial to this day.” Moses died at a ripe old age, but “His eye was undimmed, and his vigor unabated.” In other words, he was in good health when God took him home. And his departure made way for Joshua to take over the reins of leadership.

And Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him. So the people of Israel obeyed him and did as the Lord had commanded Moses. – Deuteronomy 34:9 ESV

A new era was beginning. But God closed out the legacy of Moses with the following words:

No prophet ever again arose in Israel like Moses, who knew the Lord face to face. He did all the signs and wonders the Lord had sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh, all his servants, and the whole land, and he displayed great power and awesome might in view of all Israel. – Deuteronomy 34:10-12 NLT

Moses received God’s “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.” He had walked with God. He had done signs and wonders on behalf of God.  And he had done it all in the power of God. Moses had been called by God, led by God, empowered by God, and, ultimately, taken home by God. He had served his Master well, and there is little doubt that Moses heard those comforting words, “‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master’” (Matthew25:23 NLT).

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.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

There Is None Like God

23 And of Naphtali he said,

“O Naphtali, sated with favor,
    and full of the blessing of the Lord,
    possess the lake and the south.”

24 And of Asher he said,

“Most blessed of sons be Asher;
    let him be the favorite of his brothers,
    and let him dip his foot in oil.
25 Your bars shall be iron and bronze,
    and as your days, so shall your strength be.

26 “There is none like God, O Jeshurun,
    who rides through the heavens to your help,
    through the skies in his majesty.
27 The eternal God is your dwelling place,
    and underneath are the everlasting arms.
And he thrust out the enemy before you
    and said, ‘Destroy.’
28 So Israel lived in safety,
    Jacob lived alone,
in a land of grain and wine,
    whose heavens drop down dew.
29 Happy are you, O Israel! Who is like you,
    a people saved by the Lord,
the shield of your help,
    and the sword of your triumph!
Your enemies shall come fawning to you,
    and you shall tread upon their backs.” Deuteronomy 33:23-29 ESV

The last two tribes to receive the blessing of Moses are those of Naphtali and Asher. Once Israel entered Canaan and began their conquest and occupation of the land, these two tribes would eventually settle in the northern region, encompassing the port cities of Tyre and Sidon, as well as Dan, the city that would become home to one of the golden calves set up by King Jeroboam in the northern kingdom of Israel.

These two tribes would eventually find themselves living on very rich and fertile land with Asher enjoying access to the Mediterranean Sea. The tribe of Naphtali would own the entire eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, providing it with easy access to fresh water and the abundance of fish it contained. The Dan River, emanating from Mount Herman, flowed into the Jordan and on to the Sea of Galilee, providing a ready source of fresh water year-round.  So, these two tribes enjoyed fertile land and access to ample natural resources. In his blessing of them, Moses made reference to their favorable circumstances, even before the Israelites had crossed the Jordan or the land had been allotted.

“O Naphtali, sated with favor,
    and full of the blessing of the Lord,
    possess the lake and the south.” – Deuteronomy 33:23 ESV

“Most blessed of sons be Asher;
    let him be the favorite of his brothers,
    and let him dip his foot in oil. – Deuteronomy 33:24 ESV

This last phrase is likely a reference to olive oil, a symbol of blessing and prosperity. The land the tribe of Asher would occupy in Canaan was abundant in olive trees and this commodity would be in high demand among the other tribes, providing Asher with a lucrative market.

The blessing Jacob gave to Naphtali is a bit vague and difficult to understand.

“Naphtali is a doe let loose
    that bears beautiful fawns.”
– Genesis 49:21 ESV

Their designation as a “doe let loose” seem to convey a certain freedom they would enjoy as a tribe. And the second half of Jacob’s blessing can best be translated as “he gives beautiful words” (NET). The tribe of Naphtali would live in a large, fertile region of Canaan, and they would have a positive influence on the rest of the tribes.

But for all the abundance of their lands and the positive qualities associated with these two tribes, the book of Judges reveals that neither Naphtali or Asher were successful in driving out the inhabitants of their allotted territories.

Asher did not drive out the inhabitants of Acco, or the inhabitants of Sidon or of Ahlab or of Achzib or of Helbah or of Aphik or of Rehob, so the Asherites lived among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land, for they did not drive them out. – Judges 1:31-32 ESV

Naphtali did not drive out the inhabitants of Beth-shemesh, or the inhabitants of Beth-anath, so they lived among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land. Nevertheless, the inhabitants of Beth-shemesh and of Beth-anath became subject to forced labor for them. – Judges 1:33 ESV

God would bless them abundantly, but they would fail to live fully obedient to His commands. The phrase, “so the Asherites lived among the Canaanites” is meant to convey shock and surprise. They would directly violate the revealed will of God, choosing instead to compromise their convictions and maintain a relationship with their enemies that was based on convenience and concessions. The tribe of Asher was supposed to have become the new inhabitants of the land, but their refusal to eliminate the Canaanites, left them as interlopers in a land that God had provided as their inheritance.

And the author of Judges states that the tribe of Naphtali fared no better, choosing to live among the Canaanites rather than do as God said and eradicate them from the land.

The book of Judges goes on to tell the story of a future leader from the tribe of Naphtali. This man’s name was Barak, and he had been commanded by God to raise an army of 10,000 men from the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun, in order to attack the Canaanites. But he refused. Instead, he waited for Deborah, the God-appointed judge over Israel to show up and lead the army. And when Deborah got word, she sent for Barak and questioned why he had refused to obey the Lord.

“Has not the Lord, the God of Israel, commanded you, ‘Go, gather your men at Mount Tabor, taking 10,000 from the people of Naphtali and the people of Zebulun. And I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the river Kishon with his chariots and his troops, and I will give him into your hand’?” Barak said to her, “If you will go with me, I will go, but if you will not go with me, I will not go.”  – Judges 4:6-8 ESV

Deborah agreed to fight alongside Barak and his army, but she delivered some less-than-encouraging news.

“I will surely go with you. Nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” – Judges 4:9 ESV

God gave them the victory that day, but it was at the hands of a woman named Jael. During the battle, Sisera, a Canaanite general fled from the scene and sought refuge in Jael’s tent. He begged her to keep watch while he rested in her tent, but instead, Jael took matters into her own hands – literally.

But Jael the wife of Heber took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand. Then she went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple until it went down into the ground while he was lying fast asleep from weariness. So he died. – Judges 4:21 ESV

As with the rest of the blessings Moses gave, they reveal that God was going to use these tribes in ways they could not imagine or fully predict. Even the blessings pronounced by Jacob hundreds of years earlier would be fulfilled, but in ways that he could have never understood. These blessings say far more about the sovereignty of God than they illuminate the future of the various tribes. Both Jacob and Moses knew that God was the key to whether Israel survived or thrived.

That is why Moses closes up this section with an emphasis on God and His greatness.

“There is no one like the God of Israel.
    He rides across the heavens to help you,
    across the skies in majestic splendor.
The eternal God is your refuge,
    and his everlasting arms are under you.
He drives out the enemy before you;
    he cries out, ‘Destroy them!’” – Deuteronomy 33:26-27 NLT

All the great things Moses had to say about the tribes were meant to reflect on the goodness of God. He is the one true God who operates from His heavenly kingdom, from where He controls all the affairs of earth. He was going to help Israel by providing them with refuge and driving out the enemies before them. But as Judges 1 reveals, the tribes of Israel would doubt the word of God, refusing to do their part in the elimination of the Canaanites. And their failure to remove the pagan nations from their midst would end up diluting their effectiveness and diminishing their faithfulness.

As Moses wraps up his oration to the people of Israel, his last will and testament, he reminds them that God was their help and hope.

So Israel will live in safety,
    prosperous Jacob in security,
in a land of grain and new wine,
    while the heavens drop down dew.
How blessed you are, O Israel!
    Who else is like you, a people saved by the Lord?
He is your protecting shield
    and your triumphant sword!
Your enemies will cringe before you,
    and you will stomp on their backs!” – Deuteronomy 33:28-29 NLT

They could trust God. And, as long as they did, they would experience the blessings of God. His provision and protection, as well as their prosperity, were tied to their trust in God. As long as they stayed fully reliant upon His power and fully committed to keeping His commands, they could enjoy His favor and faithfulness. But time would reveal that each of the tribes would turn their backs on the very one who had saved them and was ready, willing, and able to bless them.

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.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Sovereign Hand of God

12 Of Benjamin he said,

“The beloved of the Lord dwells in safety.
The High God surrounds him all day long,
    and dwells between his shoulders.”

13 And of Joseph he said,

“Blessed by the Lord be his land,
    with the choicest gifts of heaven above,
    and of the deep that crouches beneath,
14 with the choicest fruits of the sun
    and the rich yield of the months,
15 with the finest produce of the ancient mountains
    and the abundance of the everlasting hills,
16 with the best gifts of the earth and its fullness
    and the favor of him who dwells in the bush.
May these rest on the head of Joseph,
    on the pate of him who is prince among his brothers.
17 A firstborn bull—he has majesty,
    and his horns are the horns of a wild ox;
with them he shall gore the peoples,
    all of them, to the ends of the earth;
they are the ten thousands of Ephraim,
    and they are the thousands of Manasseh.” Deuteronomy 33:12-17 ESV

A quick comparison between the blessings given by Jacob to his 12 sons and those given by Moses to the 12 tribes of Israel reveal some interesting differences. For instance, Jacob referred to his youngest son, Benajamin, as a ravenous wolf who plunders his enemies at night.

“Benjamin is a ravenous wolf,
    devouring his enemies in the morning
    and dividing his plunder in the evening.” – Genesis 49:27 NLT

Yet, Moses seems to refer to the tribe of Benjamin as “the beloved of the Lord.” But the words of Moses can and have been translated in two different ways. The New English Translation renders verse 12 as follows:

“Of Benjamin he said:
The beloved of the Lord will live safely by him;
he protects him all the time,
and the Lord places him on his chest.” – Deuteronomy 33:12 NET

The New American Standard Version takes a similar approach.

“May the beloved of the Lord dwell in security by Him,
Who shields him all the day,
And he dwells between His shoulders.”

In these translations, the “beloved of the Lord” is clearly not a reference to Benjamin, but to somone or something else. It could be speaking of the tribe of Judah, the tribe from which the Messiah would come. Recall the words of Jacob’s blessing to his son, Judah.

“The scepter will not depart from Judah,
    nor the ruler’s staff from his descendants,
until the coming of the one to whom it belongs,
    the one whom all nations will honor.” – Genesis 49:10 NLT

The term, “the beloved of the Lord” could also be a reference to Jesus Himself. But it is seems more likely that the tribe of Judah is the focus of Moses’ words. These two tribes, Benjamin and Judah would enjoy close ties, even sharing a common border in the land of Canaan.

The first allotment of land went to the clans of the tribe of Benjamin. It lay between the territory assigned to the tribes of Judah and Joseph. – Joshua 18:11 NLT

Years later, when God split the kingdom of Israel in half, the two tribes of Judah and Benjamin would form the new southern kingdom of Judah. And the larger, more powerful tribe of Judah would provide protection for its smaller neighbor and ally. The territory alloted to Benjamin also contained the city of Jerusalem, which would become the capital of Judah, later known as the city of David, and the place where Solomon built the temple of God.

Jacob predicted that his son, Benjamin, would produce a people who were warlike and reknowned for their success in battle. But the book of Judges reveals that the Benjamites would eventually use their propensity for battle in a civil war against the other 11 tribes of Israel. It would end in their defeat at the hands of their brothers.

And the Lord defeated Benjamin before Israel, and the people of Israel destroyed 25,100 men of Benjamin that day. All these were men who drew the sword. So the people of Benjamin saw that they were defeated. – Judges 20:35-36 ESV

These were dark days for the tribe of Benjamin and for the people of God, with the 21st chapter of the book of Judges closing with the sobering words:

In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes. – Judges 21:25 ESV

But the first king of Israel came from the tribe of Benjamin, a man named Saul, who would prove to be a great warrior, but a lousy king. And God would eventually reject him as king, replacing him with a man after His own heart, a man named David. And David, from the tribe of Judah, and Jonathan, the son of Saul from the tribe of Benjamin, would become the closest of friends. So, we see this bound between these two tribes lived out over time. And eventually, the apostle Paul would come from the tribe of Benjamin.

“I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin.” – Romans 11:1 ESV

This small tribe would play a significant role in the history of Israel, for both good and bad. But God would use them to accomplish His divine will for His people and for the world. From this somewhat irrelevant tribe would come Saul, the first king of Israel. But hundreds of years later, there would come another Saul, the one known as the apostle Paul, whom God would use to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the world. And all because Paul would have his life transformed by an encounter with Jesus, the Son of God and a member of the tribe of Judah.

Next, Moses turns his attention to the tribe of Joseph. He was the son Jacob thought had been killed by wild animals, but later discovered had been sold into slavery by his own brothers. Jacob and Joseph were reunited in Egypt, where Joseph had become a powerful ruler in the kingdom of Pharaoh. And Joseph was able to use his authority to provide protection and provision for his family when the were forced to flee from the famine taking place in Canaan. So, Jacob held a special place in his heart for Joseph, as revealed in the words of the blessing he pronounced over him.

“Joseph is a fruitful bough,
    a fruitful bough by a spring;
    his branches run over the wall.
The archers bitterly attacked him,
    shot at him, and harassed him severely,
yet his bow remained unmoved;
    his arms were made agile
by the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob
    (from there is the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel),
by the God of your father who will help you,
    by the Almighty who will bless you
    with blessings of heaven above,
blessings of the deep that crouches beneath,
    blessings of the breasts and of the womb.
The blessings of your father
    are mighty beyond the blessings of my parents,
    up to the bounties of the everlasting hills.
May they be on the head of Joseph,
    and on the brow of him who was set apart from his brothers.” – Genesis 49:22-26 ESV

Moses picks up on Jacob’s high honor of Joseph, referring to him as “him who is prince among his brothers” (Deuteronomy 33:16 ESV). And when Moses speaks of Joseph, he clarifies that he is really addressing the tribes of the two sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh. Eventually, the name Ephraim would become closely associated with the ten tribes that comprised the northern kingdom of Israel. Just as Joseph was “set apart from his brothers” (Deuteronomy 49:26 ESV), Ephraim, Manasseh, and the other eight tribes would be set apart from Judah and Benjamin, dividing the once unified nation in two.

Moses pronounces a blessing on Joseph and his descendants, calling on God to provide them with “the choicest gifts of heaven above” (Deuteronomy 33:13 ESV) and:

“the choicest fruits of the sun
    and the rich yield of the months,
with the finest produce of the ancient mountains
    and the abundance of the everlasting hills,
with the best gifts of the earth and its fullness
    and the favor of him who dwells in the bush.” – Deuteronomy 33:14-16 ESV

God would continue to bless Joseph’s descendants, providing them with good land and and an abundance of blessings. But they would prove to be rebellious and spiritual unfaithful to God. They would turn their backs on God by worshiping false gods of their own making. And yet, they would enjoy great success and grow in number.

“…they are the ten thousands of Ephraim,
    and they are the thousands of Manasseh.” – Genesis 49:17 ESV

God would bless them, in spite of them. But the day would come when God would punish them for their sins, bringing judgment upon them in the form of the Assyrian army and allowing them to be defeated and deported as slaves. God would reward the descendants of Joseph for their forefather’s faithfulness while living in Egypt. But, eventually, He would punish them for their own unfaithfulness while living in the land of promise.

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.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

One Last Word

1 This is the blessing with which Moses the man of God blessed the people of Israel before his death. He said,

“The Lord came from Sinai
    and dawned from Seir upon us;
    he shone forth from Mount Paran;
he came from the ten thousands of holy ones,
    with flaming fire at his right hand.
Yes, he loved his people,
    all his holy ones were in his hand;
so they followed in your steps,
    receiving direction from you,
when Moses commanded us a law,
    as a possession for the assembly of Jacob.
Thus the Lord became king in Jeshurun,
    when the heads of the people were gathered,
    all the tribes of Israel together.” Deuteronomy 33:1-5 ESV

For his final act as the spiritual leader of the nation of Israel, Moses chose to pronounce blessings upon the 12 tribes. In a sense, this was his official last testament. God had just informed Moses that this day would be his last. He would soon be ascending Mount Nebo in the land of Moab, on the eastern side of the Jordan, outside the land of Canaan. Once there, Moses would die, at the ripe old age of 120. The Scriptures are cloaked in mystery when it comes to the details regarding the death of Moses. But it was according to God’s plan and solely based on His timing. The mantel of leadership had been passed to Joshua. The people had been reminded of their responsibility to keep the covenant they had made with God. They had been warned of the consequences should they choose to do so. And, unfortunately, God had revealed that they would prove unfaithful and unwilling to keep His commands, eventually experiencing all the judgments He had warned them about.

But before he passed off the scene, Moses chose to pronounce blessings on the tribes of Israel. This is similar to the blessings pronounced by Isaac (Genesis 27) and Jacob (Genesis 49) on their sons as they lie on their deathbeds. Moses, as the spiritual father of the children of Israel, was communicating his last testament or will. This “blessing” was his gift to the people, his “invocation of good.” For 40 long years they had made his life miserable with their bickering, moaning, constant complaining, and stubborn refusal to remain faithful to God. Yet Moses, with a true shepherd’s heart, displays his deep love for them and his desire that they would succeed and not fail.

It’s likely that Moses modeled his blessing after that of Jacob recorded in Genesis 49. And it’s interesting to note the similarities between these two testaments or will. Genesis 47 contains the details regarding the closing days of Jacob’s life.

Thus Israel settled in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen. And they gained possessions in it, and were fruitful and multiplied greatly. And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years. So the days of Jacob, the years of his life, were 147 years. – Genesis 47:27-28 ESV

Jacob was the father of the 12 sons from whom the 12 tribes of Israel would come. But Jacob and his sons were living in Egypt when the end of his life drew near. They had moved there to escape a famine in the land of Canaan. And they had found help in the form of Joseph, the son of Jacob who had been sold into slavery by his own brothers. During his time in Egypt, Joseph had been elevated by God from slave to sovereign. He had become one of the highest-ranking officials in the land, second only to the Pharaoh. In his official capacity, Joseph provided his family with land and employment as shepherds. And as the text indicates, they “were fruitful and multiplied greatly.”

But 18 years later, as Jacob lie dying, he called his 12 sons together and he blessed them. They had moved to Egypt in order to escape a famine in the land of Canaan, the land of promise. But they had stayed much longer than they had planned, and now Jacob, facing death, gave his blessing to his sons.

Moses, facing his own death, looked on all the descendants of these 12 men and determined to offer his own blessing. But now they stood on the edge of Canaan, poised to enter the land their forefather, Jacob, had been forced to leave nearly five centuries earlier. Many years had passed by and during that time, the nation of Israel had seen it all. They had experience the oppression of slavery and the joy of release from captivity. They had witnessed the miracles of the ten plagues, the spectacle of the parting of the Red Sea, the provision of their needs as they made their way to the promised land, and memorable moment when God appeared on Mount Sinai and delivered His law to them.

Jacob had blessed his sons. Now Moses was going to bless their descendants. But before he began, he provided them with a brief history lesson. He reminded them how God had repeatedly appeared to them in the wilderness. He describes the mountains of Sinai, Seir and Paran. From these lofty heights, close to God’s heavenly dwelling place, God had made Himself known to the people of Israel. It was to Mount Sinai that God had descended, accompanied by fire, smoke, thunder, and lightning. From Mount Sinai God had given His law to Moses. The Holy One had condescended and made Himself known to men. He had revealed Himself to Moses and shared His holy law with the people of Israel. He had made a binding covenant agreement with them, vowing to give them the land of Canaan, just as He had promised to Abraham.

For Moses, all of this was evidence of God’s love.

Yes, he loved his people,
    all his holy ones were in his hand;
so they followed in your steps,
    receiving direction from you. – Deuteronomy 33:3 ESV

God had loved them. He had guided them. He had protected them with His hand. And He had been their king.

“Thus the Lord became king in Jeshurun,
    when the heads of the people were gathered,
    all the tribes of Israel together.” – Deuteronomy 33:5 ESV

Moses had been their leader, but God had been their King. From the day they had left Egypt to the moment they arrived on the shore of the Jordan, God had been their sovereign King and Lord. This great God, who rules in the heavens, had deemed to bring His reign to earth, designating the people of Israel as His holy nation, His royal priesthood, and His chosen possession.

This brief, but significant reminder prefaces all that Moses is about to say to the 12 tribes. As God’s leader, he spoke only by God’s authority. It was essential that the people understand that God was going to continue to be their king. Moses was going away, but God would be with them. Joshua was going to step into the role of shepherd, but God would remain their Great Shepherd. Moses could pronounce a blessing, but only God could fulfill it.

The Israelites needed to understand their complete dependence upon God. Moses was leaving them, but they had no reason to fear. God would be going before them. He would be with them. And the blessings Moses pronounced on them would be totally up to God to fulfill. Like Jacob, Moses knew that any and all blessings come from God, not men. The future of Israel was in the hands of their King and Lord.

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.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Choose Life

11 “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. 12 It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ 14 But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.

15 “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. 17 But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.” Deuteronomy 30:11-20 ESV

As Moses wraps up his message to the people of Israel, he boils down all that he has said as a choice between two options: Life and death. And all they had to do to determine their preferred outcome was either obey or disobey. It was that easy. In fact, Moses tells them, “this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you” (Deuteronomy 30:11 ESV). The Hebrew word is pala’  and it literally means “not too wonderful.” But, in this context, it conveys the idea of something not being too difficult to understand or do. God’s law was not intended to be some mysterious divine dictate that was unapproachable and unachievable. It had not required a trip into the heavenly realms to discover its secrets. God had required a lengthy trip across the ocean in order to discover His hidden commands.

God had personally delivered His commands, dictating them to Moses, who then communicated them to the people of Israel. That’s why Moses reminds them, “No, the message is very close at hand; it is on your lips and in your heart so that you can obey it” (Deuteronomy 30:14 NLT).

Now, Moses was not insinuating that adherence to God’s law was going to be easy. But he was saying that the decision whether to obey or disobey should be a simple and non-debatable one.

“See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil.” – Deuteronomy 30:15 ESV

Who in their right mind would choose death over life? What would possess anyone to opt for curses when they could enjoy the blessings of God? Well, the sad fact is, mankind has been making what is clearly the wrong choice since the beginning. The book of Genesis records the first choice between life and good, death and evil, that man was ever given by God. God had made man and placed him in the garden of Eden, where he was surrounded by the goodness and glory of God’s creation. Immediately after creating man, God had deemed all that He had made as “very good.” It was physically and morally perfect and devoid of any hint of evil. And in this pristine and perfectly flawless environment, Adam was given a choice by God.

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” – Genesis 2:15-17 ESV

Adam had options. He could obey God and refuse to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, or he could disobey and suffer death. And we all know how the story went. In the very next chapter of Genesis, Eve encounters Satan, who has disguised himself as a serpent, just another innocent creature made by God. And Satan begins a dialogue with Eve designed to confuse her understanding of God’s command. He infers that God had denied them access to the fruit of all the trees of the garden. But Eve corrects this misconception, clearly revealing her understanding that there was only one tree that was off-limits – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Eve restates God’s warning: “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die” (Genesis 3:3 ESV). She clearly understood that this tree was off-limits. But Satan immediately raised doubts concerning God’s words and the purposes behind His ban on the fruit of this particular tree.

But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” – Genesis 3:4-5 ESV

God had warned that death would be the outcome if they disobeyed His command. Yet Satan flatly contradicted God’s word, stating instead that enlightenment would be the result of their decision to eat the fruit of the tree. Their eyes would be opened, and they would be like God, knowing good and evil.

Like the fruit of the tree, that Eve found “a delight to the eyes,” the words of Satan sounded appealing to her ears. What God had banned, the enemy promoted. And the rest is, as they say, history.

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. – Genesis 3:6 ESV

She took and ate. She made her choice. And in doing so, she choice death over life. But not just physical death. She and her husband would experience spiritual death – a permanent loss of fellowship with God. They were cast from the garden and from God’s presence. She and her husband had made a choice and that simple decision would have long-term ramifications that would impact all their future descendants.

Fast-forward to the day when Moses stood before the people of Israel, presenting them with yet another simple, yet sobering choice.

If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.” – Deuteronomy 30:16 ESV

If you obey…then you will live. It’s that simple. That doesn’t mean it will be easy. But the choice is simple and clear. No ambiguities. No hidden agendas. And just so they understand their options, Moses points out their only other choice.

“But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish.” – Deuteronomy 30:17-18 ESV

No one in their right mind would read these two choices and their associated outcomes and have any difficulty determining which one made the most sense. It’s obvious. Obedience brings life and the blessings of God. Disobedience brings death and the curses of God. Who would be crazy enough to choose the latter over the former?

The answer is, everyone who has ever lived. As Paul so succinctly puts it: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 ESV). Ever since the garden, mankind has been choosing the forbidden fruit and its tempting offer of godlikeness. There is something appealing about disobedience. It seems to give us power and control. By doing that which God has commanded us not to do, we somehow believe we become the masters of our fate and the captains of our soul. God say’s, “No!” and we say, “Yes!”

It’s a simple choice. But behind it lies a complex set of calculations and false assumptions. The enemy is the one who wants to confuse and over-complicate God’s commands, twisting our Father’s desire to bless us into a some kind of evil attempt to deny us what is rightfully ours: Godlikeness.

It is interesting to notice how the enemy makes choice the goal, when God focuses on the outcome of the choice. Satan makes it all about the ability to choose between good and evil. But God is all about blessing and life. Satan wants you to believe that you have a right to choose. But God’s desire is that you choose what is right. Because he longs to bless you. Even Moses places the emphasis where it belongs – on the outcome: “life and good, death and evil.”

They say that life is about choices. But really, life is about just two choices. Whether to obey or disobey God. And years later, long after the people of Israel had occupied the land of Canaan, Joshua, the successor to Moses, would offer the people of Israel another version of the choice.

“But if you refuse to serve the LORD, then choose today whom you will serve. Would you prefer the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates? Or will it be the gods of the Amorites in whose land you now live? But as for me and my family, we will serve the LORD.” – Joshua 24:15 NLT

Joshua had made his choice. He had decided to go with God. He had determined that life and good were preferable to death and evil. A commitment to God and His ways made sense. By choosing to follow and serve God, he knew he was choosing life.

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.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

It Pays to Obey

1 “And if you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God. Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field. Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground and the fruit of your cattle, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock. Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out.

“The Lord will cause your enemies who rise against you to be defeated before you. They shall come out against you one way and flee before you seven ways. The Lord will command the blessing on you in your barns and in all that you undertake. And he will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. The Lord will establish you as a people holy to himself, as he has sworn to you, if you keep the commandments of the Lord your God and walk in his ways. 10 And all the peoples of the earth shall see that you are called by the name of the Lord, and they shall be afraid of you. 11 And the Lord will make you abound in prosperity, in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your livestock and in the fruit of your ground, within the land that the Lord swore to your fathers to give you. 12 The Lord will open to you his good treasury, the heavens, to give the rain to your land in its season and to bless all the work of your hands. And you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow. 13 And the Lord will make you the head and not the tail, and you shall only go up and not down, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you today, being careful to do them, 14 and if you do not turn aside from any of the words that I command you today, to the right hand or to the left, to go after other gods to serve them. Deuteronomy 28:1-14 ESV

Obedience has its benefits. Ten times in 14 verses, the words blessed, bless, and blessing occur. And while God had the Levites begin this solemn ceremony by reciting a list of 12 curses, the next words out their mouths were all about the goodness and graciousness of God that accompanies obedience to Him.

This section opens up with the qualifying statement, “if you faithfully obey…” In Hebrew, it is actually one word: shama`. And that one word carries the connotation of hearing with the intention of obeying. God’s commands were not to go in one ear and out the other. They were to be carefully heard and faithfully obeyed. To hear God’s law but disregard it would not only be disobedience but a sign of disrespect for God. To reject His holy and righteous law would be to reject Him. And such behavior would result in curses. But for the one who faithfully heard and obeyed, there would be unprecedented blessings.

But there is a second qualifying statement that accompanies this list of blessings. Not only were the Israelites to faithfully obey God’s law, but they were also to be “careful to do” all that He had commanded. In Hebrew, that little phrase is shamar `asah, and it adds another level of commitment to the Israelites’ observance of God’s law. The first word carries the idea of keeping or guarding. It paints a word picture of someone building a hedge of thorns around something in order to protect it. They were to keep and preserve God’s law like a beloved garden or a flock of lambs.

But the second word, `asah, adds an important next step. It means “to work” or “ to do.” What good would it be to build a hedge around a garden but to never work that garden so that it produced fruit? What a waste of time it would be to place your sheep in a fold you have built to protect them, but then fail to care for them. God wanted His people to guard His law as if it was their most precious possession. But He also wanted them to do what it said. He wanted them to do the work of keeping His law.

And if they did, they would reap the rewards that come with obedience. And God went out of His way to clarify just how great their reward would be.

“…the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth.” – Deuteronomy 28:1 ESV

God would make the people of Israel the most exalted nation on all the earth. And this promise of prominence is repeated in these verses for added emphasis.

“The Lord will cause your enemies who rise against you to be defeated before you.” – Deuteronomy 28:7 ESV

“The Lord will establish you as a people holy to himself…” – Deuteronomy 29:9 ESV

“And all the peoples of the earth shall see that you are called by the name of the Lord, and they shall be afraid of you.” – Deuteronomy 28:10 ESV

“And you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow. And the Lord will make you the head and not the tail…” – Deuteronomy 28:12-13 ESV

Prominence, power, prosperity, and a preferred position as His holy possession. All of it would be theirs if they would only obey His law. And God gave them a long list of practical outcomes that would accompany their obedience. They would experience His blessings in every area of their lives. Whether they lived in the city or the country, His blessings would find them. His blessings would take the form of fruitful families, flocks, and farms. When they sat down to eat, there would always be plenty of food. When they traveled, the blessings of God would go with them.

In battle, they would always be victorious. In farming, they would always be productive. In business, they would always be prosperous. Their families and flocks would be large. Their reputation as a holy people, set apart by God, would spread and their success would be proof that their God was both great and good. Even the pagan nations would marvel at the many blessings enjoyed by the people of Israel. The kinds of outcomes described in these verses were exactly what the pagan nations looked for from their own gods. They saw their false gods as the distributors of everything from rain and sunshine to fruitfulness and prosperity. Their worship was a constant exercise in attempting to placate and please their fickle and penurious gods. So, when they witness all the blessings coming to the Israelites, they would automatically know the source was divine. And they would be jealous.

But there is a caveat that runs throughout these verses, and it must not be overlooked. The blessings of God were directly tied to the obedience of His people.

if you faithfully obey…” – vs. 1

if you obey the voice of the Lord your God…” – vs. 2

if you keep the commandments of the Lord your God and walk in his ways.” – vs. 9

if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God.” – vs. 13

if you do not turn aside from any of the words that I command you today…” – vs. 14

This was a conditional covenant. They had to do their part. If they wanted to enjoy the blessings of God, they were going to have to hear and obey His law. Obedience was the key to His blessings. And obedience was going to require that they trust Him. Because everything was going to cause them to doubt the veracity of God’s word and the reality of His blessings. They would be tempted to take shortcuts. They would find themselves wanting to compromise their convictions and to copy the behavior of their pagan neighbors. God’s law would eventually become burdensome to them. All His rules and regulations would begin to feel stifling and restrictive. And the enemy would begin to cause them to question God’s will, filling their minds with the same question he raised to Eve in the garden: “Did God actually say…?” (Genesis 3:1).

That is why Moses had them write the law on stones and build a memorial. It’s why they were to conduct this ceremony between Mount Elba and Mount Gerizim. They were to remember exactly what God said and never forget it. They were to teach God’s law to their children. They were to memorize it, memorialize it, and make every effort to live by it. Otherwise, they would find themselves disobeying it. And disobedience would result in curses, not blessings.

And this section ends with a description of the greatest form of disobedience: Idolatry. If the people turned their away from God’s law, they would end up pursuing other gods. Failure to obey God ultimately leads to unfaithfulness to God. Rejection of God’s law leads to spiritual adultery. But why would God’s people turn to a false god when the one true God was the only source of blessing? Because their disobedience would lead to curses, which would cause them to seek the help of false gods. They would turn to the gods of their enemies rather than willingly obey the God of their ancestors. And as the Bible painstakingly reveals, that would be the less-than-flattering fate of the people of God.

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.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The People of God

1 Now Moses and the elders of Israel commanded the people, saying, “Keep the whole commandment that I command you today. And on the day you cross over the Jordan to the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall set up large stones and plaster them with plaster. And you shall write on them all the words of this law, when you cross over to enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you, a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your fathers, has promised you. And when you have crossed over the Jordan, you shall set up these stones, concerning which I command you today, on Mount Ebal, and you shall plaster them with plaster. And there you shall build an altar to the Lord your God, an altar of stones. You shall wield no iron tool on them; you shall build an altar to the Lord your God of uncut stones. And you shall offer burnt offerings on it to the Lord your God, and you shall sacrifice peace offerings and shall eat there, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God. And you shall write on the stones all the words of this law very plainly.”

Then Moses and the Levitical priests said to all Israel, “Keep silence and hear, O Israel: this day you have become the people of the Lord your God. 10 You shall therefore obey the voice of the Lord your God, keeping his commandments and his statutes, which I command you today.” Deuteronomy 27:1-10 ESV

Moses finally concludes his recitation of the law to the people of Israel. And having completed this important task, he provides them with a final set of instructions. First, he adds one last command to the long list he has given them: That they obey every one of the laws. And to help them keep that commitment, Moses instructs them to build a memorial and an altar to God. The memorial would be made of stones covered in plaster, on which they were to inscribe every single one of the laws God had given them. We’re not told if this was simply a synopsis consisting of only the Ten Commandments or if it included the entire code found in the book of Deuteronomy. But the important point is that the law given to them by God was to be permanently recorded in stone and placed on Mount Ebal, where all could see it.

This site would become a symbol of Israel’s sacred covenant relationship with God. He had set them apart as His own and given them His law as their official code of conduct. Even the Canaanites living in the land would see this memorial and know that the Israelites were a different kind of people who lived according to a distinctively different set of rules. And they worshiped one God. That is why Moses also instructed the Israelites to build an altar to God right next to the memorial. And we know from the book of Joshua, that they followed Moses’ instructions to the letter.

At that time Joshua built an altar to the Lord, the God of Israel, on Mount Ebal, just as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded the people of Israel, as it is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, “an altar of uncut stones, upon which no man has wielded an iron tool.” And they offered on it burnt offerings to the Lord and sacrificed peace offerings. And there, in the presence of the people of Israel, he wrote on the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he had written. – Joshua 8:30-32 ESV

As the book of Deuteronomy comes to a close, it mirrors the life and legacy of Moses. He has been denied the privilege of entering into the land of promise. And knowing that his days are numbered, Moses is beginning the handoff of his ministry and leadership to Joshua, God’s chosen successor for Moses. It was important to Moses that with their entrance into the land of promise, the people of Israel got off on the right foot. He knew that the key to their success would be their adherence to the law which would be dependent upon their reverence for God. The memorial, made from plaster-covered stones inscribed with the law, would remind them of God’s expectations of them. The altar of uncut stones would remind them that their God was holy and righteous.

One of the very first things they were to do after crossing over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, was to offer sacrifices to God. And the altar upon which those sacrifices were to be made was to be distinctively different from the altars of the pagan nations that filled the land. It was to be constructed with whole stones, untouched by iron tools. The focus of the altar was to be God, not the beauty of the well-crafted stones or the handiwork of the stone-carver. Moses didn’t want the people to be impressed with the structure. He wanted them to be attracted to the holiness of God.

God requires the obedience of His people. But obedience is only possible when God’s people love and worship Him for who He is. Without the motivation that reverence for God produces, obedience will become nothing more than a self-manufactured adherence to a set of religious rules and regulations. It turns heartfelt submission to God’s will into little more than legalistic, fear-based adherence to a list of dos and don’ts. And that kind of behavior has a short shelf-life.

It is important that we recognize Moses’ instructions for building a memorial and a place of worship. They were to keep God’s law in mind at all times, but they were also to maintain a healthy reverence and respect for God. Otherwise, they would find themselves forgetting who God was and why His law was worthy of being kept.  God had told the people of Israel, “You must be holy because I, the LORD, am holy. I have set you apart from all other people to be my very own” (Leviticus 20:26 NLT). Their holiness would be based on their obedience to God’s laws. But the motivation behind their keeping of the law was to be the holiness of God. Because He was holy, they were to be holy, and the law was a black-and-white description of what holy behavior was to look like.

A law to remember and a God to reverence. The two were to go hand in hand. They were inseparable and interdependent. And God provided a description of what obedience divorced from true worship looked like.

“These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote.” – Isaiah 29:13 NLT

Heartless obedience is ultimately nothing more than self-effort masquerading as worship of God. It is insincere and wrongly motivated. It is not based on an accurate view of God and so, it ends up creating a false form of worship that is based more on self-merit than the worthiness of God.

The law was to be a constant reminder of God’s expectations for mankind. But the altar was where men came to express their love for and dependence upon God. They were to bring their burnt offerings and peace offerings to God. A peace offering was also known as a fellowship offering, and was intended as a means for the people of Israel to offer praise to God for His goodness, mercy, and grace. It was not associated with sin but was tied to the generosity and compassion of God. It was a voluntary sacrifice and the book of Leviticus provides a description of what it entailed.

This is the law of the peace offering sacrifice which he is to present to the LordIf he presents it on account of thanksgiving, along with the thank offering sacrifice he must present unleavened loaves mixed with olive oil, unleavened wafers smeared with olive oil, and well soaked ring-shaped loaves made of choice wheat flour mixed with olive oil.  – Leviticus 7:11-12 ESV

The sacrifice was to be eaten by the one who gave it. So, it was offered as a form of thanksgiving to God, but the giver was allowed to enjoy in the blessing God had bestowed.

The burnt offering was typically tied to sin and man’s need for forgiveness. It involved the complete destruction of the animal, which served as a stand-in or substitute for the one making the offering. The smoke that ascended from the offering was to be “a soothing aroma to the LORD” (Leviticus 1:9), propitiating or satisfying the righteous anger of a holy God for the sins committed by the one making the offering. It was intended to renew the relationship between Holy God and sinful man.

The altar was to be a place marked by confession, forgiveness, and rejoicing. And Moses reminds the people that, when they come to the altar, they were to rejoice before the Lord their God. They were to find joy in His provision for all their needs and His forgiveness of all their sins. He would provide them with food to assuage their hunger and a sin-substitute to satisfy His righteous judgment. God was going to give them plenty of reasons to rejoice, but it would begin with their adherence to His law, which would be based on their reverence for His holiness.

Which is why Moses cautions the people: “Keep silence and hear, O Israel: this day you have become the people of the Lord your God. You shall therefore obey the voice of the Lord your God, keeping his commandments and his statutes, which I command you today” (Deuteronomy 27:9-10 ESV). This statement is associated with the completion of the reciting of the law. God’s expectations have been clearly communicated. Their first responsibilities upon entering the land have been articulated. The covenant has been ratified and renewed, once again setting apart the people of Israel as God’s chosen possession. They belonged to Him and they were to live like it – from that day forward.

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.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Obedience and Blessing

12 “When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year, which is the year of tithing, giving it to the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, so that they may eat within your towns and be filled, 13 then you shall say before the Lord your God, ‘I have removed the sacred portion out of my house, and moreover, I have given it to the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, according to all your commandment that you have commanded me. I have not transgressed any of your commandments, nor have I forgotten them. 14 I have not eaten of the tithe while I was mourning, or removed any of it while I was unclean, or offered any of it to the dead. I have obeyed the voice of the Lord my God. I have done according to all that you have commanded me. 15 Look down from your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless your people Israel and the ground that you have given us, as you swore to our fathers, a land flowing with milk and honey.’

16 “This day the Lord your God commands you to do these statutes and rules. You shall therefore be careful to do them with all your heart and with all your soul. 17 You have declared today that the Lord is your God, and that you will walk in his ways, and keep his statutes and his commandments and his rules, and will obey his voice. 18 And the Lord has declared today that you are a people for his treasured possession, as he has promised you, and that you are to keep all his commandments, 19 and that he will set you in praise and in fame and in honor high above all nations that he has made, and that you shall be a people holy to the Lord your God, as he promised.” – Deuteronomy 26:12-19 ESV

In verse 10, Moses instructed the people of Israel to bring their firstfruit offerin and “set it down before the Lord your God and worship before the Lord your God.” So, the offering was to be considered a form of worship. But there was more to the worship of God than the bringing of the required tithes and offerings. God was looking for sacrifice that was accompanied by a heart that reflected a love for God and others. Years later, the prophet, Amos would record God’s words of condemnation directed at the disobedient people of Israel.

“I hate all your show and pretense—
    the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies.
I will not accept your burnt offerings and grain offerings.
    I won’t even notice all your choice peace offerings.
Away with your noisy hymns of praise!
    I will not listen to the music of your harps.
Instead, I want to see a mighty flood of justice,
    an endless river of righteous living.” – Amos 5:21-24 NLT

So, after reminding the people of Israel to bring the firstfruits of their very first harvest to the Lord, Moses adds another important point of reminder. He reiterates God’s earlier command to provide a special offering designed to care for the poor and needy among them. This regulation was covered in chapter 14 of Deuteronomy.

“At the end of every three years you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in the same year and lay it up within your towns. And the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do.” – Deuteronomy 14:28-20 ESV

And Moses wants the people to keep this important command, because it would not only not their willingness to obey God, but would express their love for the less fortunate among them. Every third year, the firstfruits offering, which was intended as a form of provision for the Levites, was to be shared with the down and out, “so that they may eat within your towns and be filled” (Deuteronomy 26:12 ESV). God made provision for the destitute, the weak, and the foreigners living among the Israelites. No one was to be overlooked. And because of their obedience to this command, the Israelites would be able to declare their faithfulness to God.

“I have removed the sacred offering from my house and given it to the Levites, the resident foreigners, the orphans, and the widows just as you have commanded me. I have not violated or forgotten your commandments. – Deuteronomy 26:13 NLT

Moses wanted each and every Israelite to be able to state their obedience to God, having refrained from any temptation to withhold their tithes and offerings. It was important that they be able to declare their innocence from having misused of misappropriated the offerings God had demanded for the Levites, the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow. No excuses for disobedience would be accepted. There would be no rationale that would forestall God’s judgment for failure to keep His command.

For the Israelites to expect God to bless them, they would first have to obey Him.

“I have obeyed you and have done everything you have commanded me.  Look down from your holy dwelling place in heaven and bless your people Israel and the land you have given us, just as you promised our ancestors—a land flowing with milk and honey.” – Deuteronomy 26:14-15 NLT

Which is why Moses so forcefully reminds his audience to do exactly what God has told them to do. He commanded them to “keep these statutes and ordinances” and he added the important qualifier, “something you must do with all your heart and soul” (Deuteronomy 26:16 NLT). God was looking for heartfelt obedience, not just mindless, meaningless rule-keeping. He expected His people to put their hearts and souls behind their actions.

As we have discussed before, God had set the people of Israel apart as His own. They belonged to Him and were to reflect their unique status as His chosen people.

“…today the Lord has declared you to be his special people (as he already promised you) so you may keep all his commandments. – Deuteronomy 26:18 NLT

And when they faithfully kept His commands, Moses promised them that God would bless them.

“Then he will elevate you above all the nations he has made and you will receive praise, fame, and honor. You will be a people holy to the Lord your God, as he has said.” – Deuteronomy 26:19 NLT

God wanted the Israelites to be a blessing to others. He demanded that they take care of the needy among them. He would bless them so that they might be a blessing. And the more they blessed others, the more God would continue to bless them.

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.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

And You Shall Rejoice

1 “When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance and have taken possession of it and live in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from your land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket, and you shall go to the place that the Lord your God will choose, to make his name to dwell there. And you shall go to the priest who is in office at that time and say to him, ‘I declare today to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our fathers to give us.’ Then the priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down before the altar of the Lord your God.

“And you shall make response before the Lord your God, ‘A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us and laid on us hard labor. Then we cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders. And he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, O Lord, have given me.’ And you shall set it down before the Lord your God and worship before the Lord your God. 11 And you shall rejoice in all the good that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the sojourner who is among you.– Deuteronomy 26:1-11 ESV

Moses has finished reviewing all the rules and regulations intended to govern and guide the lives of the Israelites. Now, he provides them with instructions regarding the first harvest they will enjoy in the new land. Moses opens this section with the word, “when.” There was no question in his mind as to whether the Israelites would occupy the land. It was God’s will and it was going to happen. One generation had delayed the promise through their disobedience, but what God had ordained was going to happen. And Moses wanted the people to understand that God’s faithfulness was going to require an expression of gratitude on their part.

Once they settled in the land and began to cultivate it, they were to follow Moses’ instructions: “you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from your land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Deuteronomy 26:2 ESV). Essentially, this would be the first of the firstfruits. The offering of the firstfruits was to be a regular occurrence in Israel and was intended to accompany every single harvest. But this command from Moses seems to be a unique offering that was specifically tied to the very first harvest in their new homeland. It was to be a special occasion, marking their official inheritance of the land of promise.

At this point in the their story, not only would the houses and towns be theirs, but they would reap the benefit of the fruit of the land. Back in the early chapters of the book of Deuteronomy, Moses had told the people what God was going to do for them.

“The LORD your God will soon bring you into the land he swore to give you when he made a vow to your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is a land with large, prosperous cities that you did not build. The houses will be richly stocked with goods you did not produce. You will draw water from cisterns you did not dig, and you will eat from vineyards and olive trees you did not plant.” – Deuteronomy 6:10-11 NLT

And, because God is a promise-keeping God, the day was going to come when they would feast from the vineyards, orchards, and fields they had inherited as part of that promise. When they did, Moses told them they would need to express their gratefulness to God by offering Him the firstfruits of all they had harvested. This offering would not only be an expression of thanksgiving but a demonstration of their faithfulness. By giving God the first and the best of their harvests, they would be displaying their trust in His ongoing provision of all their future needs.

As part of the process of offering God the firstfruits of their harvest, the people of Israel were to recite the following phrase: “A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous” (Deuteronomy 26:5 ESV). This would be a direct reference to Jacob, who is referred to as an Aramean because he spent much of his early days in the region known as Paddan-aram. It was there that he married his wives and began his family. Eventually, Jacob would end up in Egypt, a guest of his long-lost son, Joseph, who had become the second-highest-ranking official in the land. When Jacob and his extended family arrived in Egypt, they were just over than 70 in number, but by the time they left some 400 years later, they would have numbered in the millions.

A significant part of the firstfruits offering was the importance that they recognize and remember all the suffering that had proceeded God’s deliverance. Their arrival in the land of promise had been prefaced by four-centuries-worth of trials and difficulties. But their ancestors had cried out and God had heard them and sent them a deliverer in the form of Moses. And Moses himself reminds the Israelites of what God did to free them from their bondage in Egypt.

“…the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders. And he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” – Deuteronomy 26:8-9 ESV

And it was their remembrance of God’s gracious actions in the past that was to drive their display of gratitude in the future.

“‘And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, O Lord, have given me.’ And you shall set it down before the Lord your God and worship before the Lord your God.’” – Deuteronomy 26:10 ESV

Their giving of the firstfruits of their harvest would be a form of worship. It would honor God for all that He had done and prove their commitment to trust Him for all their future needs. He was and is a good God. He had kept His promise and delivered them to the land just as He had said He would. And as long as they continued to rely upon Him and reverently worship Him, He would continue to meet their needs for generations to come.

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.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson