I Will Love Them No More

15 Every evil of theirs is in Gilgal;
    there I began to hate them.
Because of the wickedness of their deeds
    I will drive them out of my house.
I will love them no more;
    all their princes are rebels.

16 Ephraim is stricken;
    their root is dried up;
    they shall bear no fruit.
Even though they give birth,
    I will put their beloved children to death.
17 My God will reject them
    because they have not listened to him;
    they shall be wanderers among the nations. – Hosea 9:15-17 ESV

For the second time, Hosea mentions the city of Gilgal. It was located just north of Jericho on the western side of the Jordan River. Back in chapter 4, Hosea warns the southern kingdom of Judah about emulating the sinful behavior of its northern neighbor, Israel.

Though you play the whore, O Israel,
    let not Judah become guilty.
Enter not into Gilgal,
    nor go up to Beth-aven,
    and swear not, “As the Lord lives.”
– Hosea 9:4 ESV

Hosea will bring up the city of Gilgal one more time before closing out his book.

But the people of Gilead are worthless
    because of their idol worship.
And in Gilgal, too, they sacrifice bulls;
    their altars are lined up like the heaps of stone
    along the edges of a plowed field. – Hosea 12:11 NLT

Gilgal was a city that should have held special significance to the people of Israel. It was at Gilgal that Joshua built a stone memorial to commemorate the Israelite’s successful crossing of the Jordan River. God had miraculously divided the waters of the river, allowing the Israelites to pass over on dry ground. Joshua had picked one man from each of the 12 tribes of Israel and commanded them to pick up one large stone from the middle of the river bed and carry it to the western side. When they arrived safely in Canaan, Joshua built the memorial with those stones.  Then he told the people:

“‘They remind us that the Jordan River stopped flowing when the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant went across.’ These stones will stand as a memorial among the people of Israel forever.” – Joshua 4:7 NLT

Gilgal was intended to be a place of memorial, a site of remembrance. It was there that Yahweh proved Himself powerful and faithful to His chosen people – yet again. And Joshua had instructed the Israelites to pass on the meaning of the stone memorial to the succeeding generations.

Then Joshua said to the Israelites, “In the future your children will ask, ‘What do these stones mean?’ Then you can tell them, ‘This is where the Israelites crossed the Jordan on dry ground.’ For the Lord your God dried up the river right before your eyes, and he kept it dry until you were all across, just as he did at the Red Sea when he dried it up until we had all crossed over. He did this so all the nations of the earth might know that the Lord’s hand is powerful, and so you might fear the Lord your God forever.” – Joshua 4:21-24 NLT

But the Israelites had turned Gilgal into one more sacred site for the worship of its false gods. They had forgotten all about the powerful, gracious, and loving God who had rescued them from captivity in Egypt, led them across the wilderness, and provided them with the land of Canaan as their inheritance. The miracle of the crossing of the Jordan River had become a distant memory and their commitment to honor God had long ago been replaced by their infatuation with false gods.

Chapter 5 of the book of Joshua records another important aspect of Gilgal’s history that heightens the Israelites disrespectful actions there. It was Gilgal that Joshua commanded that the next generation of Israelite males be circumcised. The people had been wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, as punishment for their refusal to enter the land when they had first arrived on the shore of the Jordan River.

Those who left Egypt had all been circumcised, but none of those born after the Exodus, during the years in the wilderness, had been circumcised. The Israelites had traveled in the wilderness for forty years until all the men who were old enough to fight in battle when they left Egypt had died. For they had disobeyed the Lord, and the Lord vowed he would not let them enter the land he had sworn to give us—a land flowing with milk and honey.– Joshua 5:5-6 NLT

So, before crossing the Jordan River and entering the land of Canaan, Joshua had ordered the circumcision of all the males who had been born during the 40 year period.

Then the Lord said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away the shame of your slavery in Egypt.” So that place has been called Gilgal to this day. – Joshua 5:9 NLT

By reinstituting the rite of circumcision, Joshua had faithfully obeyed God’s command and set apart the people of Israel as His chosen possession. This ordinance had been given to Abraham by God more than half a millennium earlier.

Then God said to Abraham, “Your responsibility is to obey the terms of the covenant. You and all your descendants have this continual responsibility. This is the covenant that you and your descendants must keep: Each male among you must be circumcised. You must cut off the flesh of your foreskin as a sign of the covenant between me and you. From generation to generation, every male child must be circumcised on the eighth day after his birth. This applies not only to members of your family but also to the servants born in your household and the foreign-born servants whom you have purchased. All must be circumcised. Your bodies will bear the mark of my everlasting covenant.” – Genesis 17:9-13 NLT

Gilgal should have been a place of memorial. Its very presence should have reminded the people of Israel about their God and the covenant commitment to remain faithful to Him. But they had desecrated this place of remembrance, proving yet again that they had no intentions of honoring their covenant commitments to Yahweh. And God delivers His ultimatum against His chosen people.

“All their wickedness began at Gilgal;
    there I began to hate them.
I will drive them from my land
    because of their evil actions.” – Hosea 9:15 NLT

Gilgal was to have been a place where the people could go and recover the rich heritage of their history. It was intended to be a visual and tangible reminder of God’s grace and power in their lives. They belonged to Him. He had rescued them out of captivity in Egypt and delivered them to the land He had promised to give to Abraham as his inheritance. God had helped them cross the Red Sea on dry ground, so they could leave the land of Egypt. Then He had repeated the very same miracle so they could enter the land of Canaan. He had given them victories over their enemies, including the nearby city of Jericho. He had provided them with kings and prophets, the sacrificial system, and His holy law. It was at Gilgal that they had celebrated their first Passover in the land of promise.

While the Israelites were camped at Gilgal on the plains of Jericho, they celebrated Passover on the evening of the fourteenth day of the first month. – Joshua 5:11 NLT

And from that point forward, the people never had to eat manna again.

The very next day they began to eat unleavened bread and roasted grain harvested from the land. No manna appeared on the day they first ate from the crops of the land, and it was never seen again. So from that time on the Israelites ate from the crops of Canaan. – Joshua 5:11-12 NLT

Yet, the people of Israel had failed to appreciate all that God had done for them. Now, God was warning them that His patience had run out, and He described His change of relationship in startling terms.

I will love them no more…” – Hosea 9:15 NLT

These words do not indicate that God no longer loved the people of Israel. That would require a change in His character, which is immutable and unchanging. But it does indicate that God was no longer going to express His love for them in tangible ways. They would receive no more blessings from His hand. They would enjoy no more of His bounty and provision. He would remove His protection and provision. If they wanted to live as if God did not exist, they would experience exactly what it was like to no longer enjoy His many blessings.

They would learn the painful lesson of what it feels like to live without God in their lives. They would be struck down, dried up, fruitless, and bereaved of their children. The one who had redeemed them would now reject them. Rather than living in the land of promise, they would become homeless wanderers. And all because they had refused to obey their loving, compassionate, and covenant-keeping 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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our Great Provider

38 And Elisha came again to Gilgal when there was a famine in the land. And as the sons of the prophets were sitting before him, he said to his servant, “Set on the large pot, and boil stew for the sons of the prophets.” 39 One of them went out into the field to gather herbs, and found a wild vine and gathered from it his lap full of wild gourds, and came and cut them up into the pot of stew, not knowing what they were. 40 And they poured out some for the men to eat. But while they were eating of the stew, they cried out, “O man of God, there is death in the pot!” And they could not eat it. 41 He said, “Then bring flour.” And he threw it into the pot and said, “Pour some out for the men, that they may eat.” And there was no harm in the pot.

42 A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing the man of God bread of the firstfruits, twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. And Elisha said, “Give to the men, that they may eat.” 43 But his servant said, “How can I set this before a hundred men?” So he repeated, “Give them to the men, that they may eat, for thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left.’” 44 So he set it before them. And they ate and had some left, according to the word of the Lord. 2 Kings 4:38-44 ESV

Once again, the author provides his readers with two stories that are intended to communicate a message about the spiritual state of apostate Israel and her faithful, all-powerful God. God’s prophet, Elisha, becomes the primary means by which God reveals His power and authority among the people. In this case, Elisha will have to deal with the effects of yet another famine in the land. During the days of Elijah, God had brought a devastating famine on the land of Israel because of the sins of Ahab and Jezebel. Elijah had been forced to deliver God’s message of judgment against the apostate king and his pagan, idol-worshiping wife.

“As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” – 1 Kings 17:1 ESV

And that first famine remained on the land until God determined to lift it. But its end came only after Elijah had defeated the 450 prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. Through His prophet, God delivered a devastating and decisive blow to the false god of Ahab and Jezebel. And only after a demonstrative display of His power and authority did God relent and restore fruitfulness to the land of Israel

And in a little while the heavens grew black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain. – 1 Kings 18:45 ESV

Yet, despite God’s gracious act of undeserved kindness, the people remained just as committed to their false gods. Ahab had died, but his two sons had carried on his legacy of unfaithfulness, continuing to lead the people of Israel in apostasy and idolatry. As a result, God had brought another famine on the land. In doing so, He was purposefully transforming a “land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 33:3) into a wasteland. Because the people of Israel had decided to forsake God and worship the false gods of Canaan, He would withhold the rain and allow their physical conditions to mirror the state of their hearts. Fruitfulness would be replaced with drought.

It would appear that the blessing of rain brought upon the land during the days of Elijah had made little impact on the people. They continued to reject Yahweh as the one true God. So, at some point, God brought yet another famine on the land. And, this time, it was Elisha who had to deal with the effects of this divine judgment.

The scene described in these verses involves the prophets of God who have gathered at a place called Gilgal. The identity of the characters and the location are essential to understanding the story. Elijah had gathered together with other men who served as the spiritual spokesmen for God among the people of Israel. This was a conclave of committed God-followers and they were meeting in a sacred site. Gilgal is significant because it was there that Joshua had erected a stone memorial to commemorate the Israelite’s crossing of the Jordan River.

The people came up out of the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month, and they encamped at Gilgal on the east border of Jericho. And those twelve stones, which they took out of the Jordan, Joshua set up at Gilgal. And he said to the people of Israel, “When your children ask their fathers in times to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel passed over this Jordan on dry ground.’ For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you passed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we passed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, that you may fear the Lord your God forever.” – Joshua 4:19-24 ESV

We have no way of knowing whether the stones were still standing by the days of Elisha, but these prophets of God would have all known the significance of their surroundings. They were standing on sacred ground.

Elisha ordered his servant, Gehazi, to prepare a stew for the prophets. Keep in mind that there was a famine in the land and food would have been scarce. Even these men of God would have been experiencing the impact of God’s judgment on the land. But Elisha, as the primary representative for Yahweh, took it upon himself to care for his fellow prophets. But one of the men made an innocent, yet potentially deadly mistake. In an effort to assist Gehazi, this unidentified prophet gathered some wild gourds and added them to the stew. But the gourds he picked proved to be poisonous. This young man had tried to help but had made things worse. His ignorance proved to be potentially deadly. The prophet’s inability to recognize a poisonous gourd could have ended in a tragedy. But fortunately, his mistake had been caught, preventing any of his fellow prophets from dying as a result of his error.

The lesson here is clear. As prophets of God, these men were to know the difference between the true and the false. They were God’s spokesmen, commissioned by Him to deliver His message of repentance to the people of Israel. They were to point the people back to God. But if they failed to recognize and revere Yahweh as the one true God, they would run the risk of bringing judgment upon the nation. In a sense, the wild gourd is meant to represent the worship of false gods. The young prophet had been fooled by the apparent similarities between a good gourd and one that contained deadly poison. He had not been equipped to spot the differences and his mistake had almost cost his friends their lives. The false gods the people of Israel were worshiping were particularly deceptive because they tended to look like the real thing. They were promoted as powerful deities who shared traits similar to those of Yahweh. These gods had altars and temples. They were said to have supernatural powers and worshipers would coerce the gods to use those power on their behalf through sacrifices and offerings. But the whole point of the story is that false gods are ultimately deadly. They can’t nourish or feed the people. They are a poison that brings nothing but death and destruction.

But the rest of the prophets of God recognized the presence of the poison, warning one another of the invisible danger before any lives were lost. Then Elisha stepped in and remedied the problem. He took flour and mixed it into the poisoned stew. Just as the wild gourd represents that deadly influence of idolatry, the flour seems to stand for the purifying influence of God’s Word. The truth concerning Yahweh and His commands to worship Him as the one true God were the answer to the deadly influence of Baalism. This entire scene was intended to be a powerful reminder to the prophets of God of their indispensable role as God’s messengers. If they didn’t speak the truth, the people were doomed. If they failed to recognize the deceptive and deadly nature of idolatry, the nation had no hope of survival.

But through the actions of Elisha, God purified the pot of stew, making the poisonous contents not only edible but beneficial. And we shouldn’t miss the similarities between this miracle and one that Elisha performed earlier. Back in chapter two, we have the story of Elisha transforming the brackish waters outside the city of Jericho. He had been told by residents of the city that …the water is bad, and the land is unfruitful” (2 Kings 2:19 ESV). The city had a water source, but it was non-potable. As a result, the land was unfruitful. But Elisha quickly solved the problem, providing yet another decisive demonstration of God’s power and holiness.

“Bring me a new bowl, and put salt in it.” So they brought it to him. Then he went to the spring of water and threw salt in it and said, “Thus says the Lord, I have healed this water; from now on neither death nor miscarriage shall come from it.” So the water has been healed to this day, according to the word that Elisha spoke. – 2 Kings 2:20-22 ESV

Through Elisha, God had made the water drinkable. And He had also made the poisoned stew safe for consumption. God’s presence and power were meant to be tangible and beneficial. He wanted to bless the lives of His people. He alone could bring sustenance and salvation. He was the great provider who could meet all their needs, if only they would turn to Him.

And God gave His prophets one further demonstration of His incomparable power to provide for all their needs. An unidentified man showed up who hailed from the town of Baal-shalishah. The name of the town is significant because it means “thrice great lord.” It was a town named after the false god, Baal, yet a resident of the city was bringing an offering dedicated to Yahweh. He brought 20 loaves of bread as a sacrifice of the first-fruits of his harvest and he gave them to Elisha. The people of Israel had no access to the temple in Jerusalem, so the man had no other way to present his offering to God. When Elisha received the gift, he ordered that it be distributed among his fellow prophets. But Elisha’s servant, Gehazi, informed him that the bread was insufficient to feed the 100 prophets.

Once again, God used Elisha to demonstrate His power to provide. Elisha ordered Gehazi to distribute the bread, telling him “Give them to the men, that they may eat, for thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left’” (2 Kings 4:43 ESV). And when Gehazi followed his master’s instructions, a miracle took place. All 100 prophets had more than enough bread to eat and there were even leftovers. This story foreshadows another miracle that would take place centuries later when Jesus fed the 5000 with nothing but three loaves of bread and two fish. Jesus, the final and consummate prophet of God would also demonstrate Yahweh’s power through a miracle of multiplication. And Matthew records that when Jesus had broken the loaves and the fishes, “they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over” ( Matthew 14:20 ESV). 

In the midst of a famine, God miraculously fed His prophets with stew that He had purified and bread that He had multiplied. And hundreds of years later, when the nation of Israel found itself in a time of spiritual famine, God would send His Son as the Bread of Life, to feed those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

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

When the People of God Become the Enemies of God

15 Now when the sons of the prophets who were at Jericho saw him opposite them, they said, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.” And they came to meet him and bowed to the ground before him. 16 And they said to him, “Behold now, there are with your servants fifty strong men. Please let them go and seek your master. It may be that the Spirit of the Lord has caught him up and cast him upon some mountain or into some valley.” And he said, “You shall not send.” 17 But when they urged him till he was ashamed, he said, “Send.” They sent therefore fifty men. And for three days they sought him but did not find him. 18 And they came back to him while he was staying at Jericho, and he said to them, “Did I not say to you, ‘Do not go’?”

19 Now the men of the city said to Elisha, “Behold, the situation of this city is pleasant, as my lord sees, but the water is bad, and the land is unfruitful.” 20 He said, “Bring me a new bowl, and put salt in it.” So they brought it to him. 21 Then he went to the spring of water and threw salt in it and said, “Thus says the Lord, I have healed this water; from now on neither death nor miscarriage shall come from it.” 22 So the water has been healed to this day, according to the word that Elisha spoke.

23 He went up from there to Bethel, and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!” 24 And he turned around, and when he saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys. 25 From there he went on to Mount Carmel, and from there he returned to Samaria. 2 Kings 2:15-25 ESV

After Elijah’s miraculous departure, Elisha was forced to retrace his steps alone. When he arrived at the Jordan River, he used Elijah’s cloak to part the waters, then passed through the river on dry ground. Whether Elisha realized it or not, he was reliving the experience of the people of Israel when they first arrived at the land of Canaan centuries earlier, and he was playing the part of Joshua. When the time had come for the Israelites to occupy the land God had given them for an inheritance, they were under new leadership. Moses had died, and Joshua was his God-appointed replacement. Joshua had inherited the responsibility of leading the nation of Israel across the Jordan River and into the land of promise. And he was old enough to remember that, 40 years earlier, Moses had failed in his first attempt to persuade the people to take possession of the land. So, God promised to give the new leader of His people a sign that He would be with him.

The Lord said to Joshua, “Today I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, that they may know that, as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. – Joshua 3:7 ESV

God knew that the people would be reluctant to follow Joshua. That’s why He shared the plan He had put in place to solidify Joshua’s role as Israel’s leader.

“Behold, the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is passing over before you into the Jordan. Now therefore take twelve men from the tribes of Israel, from each tribe a man. And when the soles of the feet of the priests bearing the ark of the Lord, the Lord of all the earth, shall rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan shall be cut off from flowing, and the waters coming down from above shall stand in one heap.” – Joshua 3:11-13 ESV

And God’s plan worked to perfection. The waters of Jordan parted, and the people of Israel walked across on dry ground. With their new leader going before them, the nation of Israel left the wilderness behind and began the first part of their God-ordained mission to possess the land He had graciously given them.

Elisha’s crossing of the Jordan mirrors that momentous occasion. Elijah, the former spiritual leader of Israel, was gone, and Elisha, his unproven and inexperienced replacement, required evidence to prove his role as the prophet of God. In a strange case of déjà vu, Elisha found himself mimicking the actions of Joshua once again. The first city the Israelites had encountered after their crossing of the Jordan was Jericho. And that is exactly where Elisha headed. He was met by 50 prophets of God who acknowledged that a transfer of power and leadership had taken place.

…they said, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.” And they came to meet him and bowed to the ground before him. – 2 Kings 2:15 ESV

But you can sense their reluctance to accept Elisha as Elijah’s replacement. They offer to send a search party to look for Elijah. After all, the prophet had a reputation for disappearing for long periods of time and then showing up unannounced. Perhaps he wasn’t really gone for good. While Elisha tried to talk them out of this vain quest, they persisted, and their search party came back empty-handed.

It’s important to remember that the city of Jericho had been destroyed by Joshua and the people of Israel. It was the very first victory that they had experienced as part of their conquest of the land of Canaan. God had told Joshua, “See, I have given Jericho into your hand, with its king and mighty men of valor” (Joshua 6:2 ESV). And He had given Joshua a rather bizarre strategy for conquering Jericho.

“You shall march around the city, all the men of war going around the city once. Thus shall you do for six days. Seven priests shall bear seven trumpets of rams’ horns before the ark. On the seventh day you shall march around the city seven times, and the priests shall blow the trumpets. And when they make a long blast with the ram’s horn, when you hear the sound of the trumpet, then all the people shall shout with a great shout, and the wall of the city will fall down flat…” – Joshua 6:3-5 ESV

But as strange as God’s tactics may have sounded to Joshua and the people, the results were hard to refute. The walls fell, and the entire city was destroyed. And Joshua placed the city of Jericho under a perpetual curse.

“May the curse of the Lord fall on anyone
    who tries to rebuild the town of Jericho.
At the cost of his firstborn son,
    he will lay its foundation.
At the cost of his youngest son,
    he will set up its gates.” – Joshua 6:26 NLT

This is an important point to consider because when Elisha showed up at Jericho, not only had it been rebuilt, but it was occupied by 50 prophets of Yahweh. They even give the city their Goodhousekeeping Seal of Approval: “This town is located in pleasant surroundings, as you can see” (2 Kings 2:19 NLT). The only problem they had with Jericho was its lack of clean water.

“But the water is bad, and the land is unproductive.” – 2 Kings 2:19 NLT

In Joshua’s day, the city of Jericho had represented the pagan nations that occupied the land of Canaan. It was well-fortified and well-defended. But it had proven to be no match for the God of Israel. He had literally leveled the entire city, and His new leader had “burned the city with fire, and everything in it” (Joshua 6:24 ESV).

Now, centuries later, the city of Jericho had been rebuilt and reoccupied. But not by Canaanites. The people of Israel had made themselves at home in the very city Joshua had cursed, and the prophets of God seemed to have blessed their decision. Yet, the city and the land around it unproductive and unfruitful. It was a town without a pure water supply. The revival of Jericho had been incomplete and insufficient. It was occupied but lacking in vitality and fruitfulness. And, once again, the city had become a symbol of all that was wrong in the land of promise.

When Elisha had crossed over the Jordan, he had entered into enemy territory, just as Joshua and the people of Israel had centuries earlier. But this time, the Israelites were the enemy and not the Canaanites. Under the leadership of wicked kings like Jeroboam and Ahab, the people of Israel had become disobedient and idolatrous. As a result, they were under a curse, having long ago replaced God, their only source of sustenance and refreshment, with the false gods of Canaan.

God, in His covenant faithfulness, led Elisha to restore their source of physical water. But He was really calling the people back to Himself. He was reminding them that He was the only viable and reliable source of salvation and sustenance. The prophet Jeremiah would later describe the spiritual condition of Israel in stark terms.

O Lord, the hope of Israel,
    all who forsake you shall be put to shame;
those who turn away from you shall be written in the earth,
    for they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living water. – Jeremiah 17:13 ESV

Elisha purified the water source. In doing so, he made it clear to the people that this was an act of God.

“This is what the Lord says: I have purified this water. It will no longer cause death or infertility. – 2 Kings 2:21 NLT

God validated Elisha’s ministry, but, more importantly, He vindicated His own status as the One true God. The author clarifies that while the water had been made pure, the people remained stained by sin. The next event the author describes is intended to provide a stark contrast to the water’s purification. As Elisha made his way from Jericho to Bethel, he was confronted by a crowd of “small boys” (2 Kings 2:23 ESV). This description can be a bit misleading. In Hebrew, the phrase is qāṭān naʿar and carries a wide range of possible meanings. The word qāṭān can be translated as “small, little, or young.” The word naʿar was used to refer to a child, a servant, or even a young man. So, based on the rather harsh actions of Elijah, it seems much more likely that he ran into a group of young adolescent males rather than a group of small boys.

These “juvenile delinquents” confronted the prophet of God, “mocking and making fun of him. ‘Go away, baldy!’ they chanted” (2 Kings 2:23 NLT). Whether they recognized Elisha as a prophet is not clear. But their disrespectful treatment of someone who was obviously their elder was a sign of their rebellious hearts. By their actions, these young men represented the people of Israel, showing disdain and dishonor for the prophet of God. They had no fear of Elisha and no respect for his God. From the oldest to the youngest, the entire nation had become hard-hearted and resistant to the leadership of God’s anointed prophet. The next generation of Israelites had been infected by the apostasy and idolatry of their parents. And, in an act of divine judgment, Elisha cursed these young men.

Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of them. – 2 Kings 2:24 NLT

This time, there would be no gracious act of mercy from the hand of God. Earlier, Elisha had made impure water clean. But this time, he would judge the unjust actions of impure men. As the prophet of God, Elisha could be an instrument of refreshment and renewal. But he could also serve as God’s divine agent of judgment and condemnation. Yahweh wanted His people to return to Him in humility and repentance. He longed to restore and refresh His people, but He was prepared to discipline them should they refuse to repent.

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 Righteous Wrath of God

19 “The Lord saw it and spurned them,
    because of the provocation of his sons and his daughters.
20 And he said, ‘I will hide my face from them;
    I will see what their end will be,
for they are a perverse generation,
    children in whom is no faithfulness.
21 They have made me jealous with what is no god;
    they have provoked me to anger with their idols.
So I will make them jealous with those who are no people;
    I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation.
22 For a fire is kindled by my anger,
    and it burns to the depths of Sheol,
devours the earth and its increase,
    and sets on fire the foundations of the mountains.

23 “‘And I will heap disasters upon them;
    I will spend my arrows on them;
24 they shall be wasted with hunger,
    and devoured by plague
    and poisonous pestilence;
I will send the teeth of beasts against them,
    with the venom of things that crawl in the dust.
25 Outdoors the sword shall bereave,
    and indoors terror,
for young man and woman alike,
    the nursing child with the man of gray hairs.
26 I would have said, “I will cut them to pieces;
    I will wipe them from human memory,”
27 had I not feared provocation by the enemy,
    lest their adversaries should misunderstand,
lest they should say, “Our hand is triumphant,
    it was not the Lord who did all this.”’ Deuteronomy 32:19-27 ESV

We love to talk about God’s love, mercy, and grace. And while these divine characteristics are essential to understanding His nature and bring us great comfort, they can also paint a rather one-dimensional image of God. An overemphasis of these positive aspects of God’s character can cause us to downplay His righteous anger and just judgment. This is one of the reasons so many people find such a disparity between the Old and New Testaments. They see conflicting images of God portrayed and choose the kind and compassionate God of the New Testament over the harsh and seemingly heartless God of the Old Testament.

But there is only one God, and He is unchanging in His nature. Yes, we may prefer to dwell on His more loving and father-like characteristics, but that does not mean He is incapable of displaying anger or dispensing harsh justice when necessary. And while the Old Testament is the primary place where this darker side of God’s character is displayed, it does not mean He has mellowed with time. Here are just a few reminders of God’s unchanging nature.

“For I the Lord do not change…” – Malachi 3:6 ESV

Of old you laid the foundation of the earth,
    and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you will remain;
    they will all wear out like a garment.
You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away,
    but you are the same, and your years have no end. – Psalm 102:25-27 ESV

And there countless passages in both the Old and New Testaments that reveal the righteous indignation of God.

“I, the LORD, will punish the world for its evil and the wicked for their sin. I will crush the arrogance of the proud and humble the pride of the mighty.” – Isaiah 13:11 NLT

In the greatness of your majesty you overthrow your adversaries;
    you send out your fury; it consumes them like stubble. – Exodus 15:7 ESV

“Now I will soon pour out my wrath upon you, and spend my anger against you, and judge you according to your ways, and I will punish you for all your abominations. And my eye will not spare, nor will I have pity. I will punish you according to your ways, while your abominations are in your midst. Then you will know that I am the Lord, who strikes.” – Ezekiel 7:8-9 ESV

But when he [Jesus] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? – Matthew 3:7 ESV

But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. – Romans 2:5 ESV

And in this portion of the song given by God to Moses, the anger of God is clearly revealed.

They have made me jealous…” – vs. 21

“…they have provoked me to anger.” – vs. 21

“…a fire is kindled by my anger…” – vs. 22

“…I will heap disasters upon them…” – vs. 23

I will spend my arrows on them…” – vs. 23

I will send the teeth of beasts against them…” – vs. 24

Not exactly the kind of sentiments you might find on a Hallmark card. These are clear expressions of God’s anger against the people of Israel and the tangible means by which He intends to manifest His indignation. He even goes so far as to say that He would have completely “cut them to pieces” and wiped them “from human memory” (Deuteronomy 32:26 ESV), but He knew their enemies would have taken credit for it.

God knew that, if He completely destroyed His people, their enemies would arrogantly assume that they were the ones responsible for Israel’s demise.

“Our hand is triumphant,
    it was not the Lord who did all this.” – Deuteronomy 32:27 ESV

And God hates the prideful and arrogant as much as He does the unfaithful and spiritually adulterous. He was not about to give the pagan nations the pleasure of taking credit for something He had done. They were simply instruments in His hands, doing His bidding and acting as His servants. Neither Babylon or Assyria, whom God would use to punish His rebellious people, could take credit for their success. God would raise them up and use them to accomplish His divine will by meting out His just and righteous judgment against His chosen people.

And God points out that His anger was brought on by the actions of those whom He had redeemed and rescued from slavery. His own adopted children had spurned His love and thrown His mercy and grace back in His face through their unfaithfulness.

They stirred him to jealousy… – vs. 16

They sacrificed to demon… – vs. 16

You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you… – vs. 19

…and you forgot the God who gave you birth. – vs. 19

And God makes His damning assessment of His rebellious people.

“…they are a perverse generation,
    children in whom is no faithfulness.” – Deuteronomy 32:20 ESV

What God describes here is serial apostasy. This is not a case of the occasional failure to remain faithful, but of the habitual and willful refusal to follow God’s will. This song is revealing what will become Israel’s because of Israel’s faithlessness.

God will spurn them and hide His face from them. Why? Because that is exactly how they will treat Him. They will turn their backs on Him, choosing instead to worship false gods and demons. They will hide from Him, attempting to disguise their spiritual infidelity and mask their apostasy by feigning faithful adherence to His laws. And so, God will give them a taste of their own medicine. But when God hides His face, the consequences are devastating. When He spurns them, they will experience a form of loss they could have never imagined or anticipated.

God warns of disasters, hunger, plagues, and pestilence. He describes suffering caused by “the teeth of beasts” and “the venom of things that crawl in the dust” (Deuteronomy 32:24 ESV). He foretells of death brought on by the sword and arrows. And no one will be spared. Young men and women will suffer. The nursing child and the old man with gray hair will each endure the same fate. There will be no mercy shown and no grace given.

And while we might not like this image of God, we cannot assume it is somehow incorrect or inconsistent with His character. He is God. And He is fully righteous. All that He does is right, just, and good. In fact, the opening stanza of this poem declared the justice of God.

“The Rock, his work is perfect,
    for all his ways are justice.
A God of faithfulness and without iniquity,
    just and upright is he. – Deuteronomy 32:4 ESV

He is not the one we should judge. He does not deserve our criticism and, most certainly, does not merit our disdain.

“They have dealt corruptly with him;
    they are no longer his children because they are blemished;
    they are a crooked and twisted generation.” – Deuteronomy 32:5 ESV

God had poured out His love, mercy, and grace upon the people of Israel. He had redeemed and rescued them from captivity in Egypt. He had led them across the wilderness and put up with their repeated displays of ingratitude and constant bickering and complaining. He had brought them to the border of the land of promise and watched as they stubbornly refused to enter in because they didn’t believe He would see them through.

And now, as the next generation stood at the very same border, preparing to enter into the land under the leadership of Joshua, God was informing them that their unfaithfulness would continue. They would conquer the land, but would never enjoy victory over their own apostasy. They would experience the power and presence of God, but would constantly turn their back on Him, seeking instead to give their affections to and place their hopes in false gods.

But God had long ago warned them about what He would do if they proved unfaithful.

“You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods. I lay the sins of the parents upon their children; the entire family is affected—even children in the third and fourth generations of those who reject me. But I lavish unfailing love for a thousand generations on those who love me and obey my commands.” – Exodus 20:5-6 NLT

We might not like reading about God’s anger. We may find His judgment difficult to understand or justify. But it is the righteous judgment of God that makes the grace and mercy of God so meaningful. The fact that God would spare a remnant of the people of Israel so He could send His Son as their Messiah shows us just how loving He really is. If we do not understand how just God is in judging those who reject Him and rebel against Him, we will never fully appreciate the value of the mercy and grace He offers. God has chosen to provide justification in place of judgment. He has made a way for sinful men and women to enjoy exoneration rather than condemnation. He has made a way possible for those dead in their trespasses and sins to experience forgiveness and eternal life. And it was all made possible through the death, burial, and resurrection of His Son.

But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. – Romans 5:8 NLT

It is not until we fully understand the justice of God’s wrath that we will fully appreciate the joy of God’s love.

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

Guilty As Charged

30 Then Moses spoke the words of this song until they were finished, in the ears of all the assembly of Israel:

1 “Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak,
    and let the earth hear the words of my mouth.
May my teaching drop as the rain,
    my speech distill as the dew,
like gentle rain upon the tender grass,
    and like showers upon the herb.
For I will proclaim the name of the Lord;
    ascribe greatness to our God!

“The Rock, his work is perfect,
    for all his ways are justice.
A God of faithfulness and without iniquity,
    just and upright is he.
They have dealt corruptly with him;
    they are no longer his children because they are blemished;
    they are a crooked and twisted generation.
Do you thus repay the Lord,
    you foolish and senseless people?
Is not he your father, who created you,
    who made you and established you?
Remember the days of old;
    consider the years of many generations;
ask your father, and he will show you,
    your elders, and they will tell you.
When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance,
    when he divided mankind,
he fixed the borders of the peoples
    according to the number of the sons of God.
But the Lord’s portion is his people,
    Jacob his allotted heritage.” Deuteronomy 31:30-32:9 ESV

At long last, Moses delivers the words of the song that God had given him. This powerful piece of poetry is really a prophetic oracle, contrasting the greatness and faithfulness of God with the wickedness and faithlessness of His chosen people. God had told Moses that its words would act as a witness against the people of Israel.

“Now therefore write this song and teach it to the people of Israel. Put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me against the people of Israel. – Deuteronomy 31:19 ESV

Every time they heard or recited its words of themselves, they would be convicted and reminded of the cause of their well-deserved guilt and shame. This poem pulls no punches. It is merciless in its exposure of Israel’s unprecedented treatment of their God. The prophet, Jeremiah, would later declare the absurd nature of Israel’s mistreatment of Yahweh, declaring on His behalf, “Has a nation ever changed its gods
(even though they are not really gods at all)? But my people have exchanged me, their glorious God, for a god that cannot help them at all!” (Jeremiah 2:11 NLT)

This poem contains a powerful indictment of Israel’s response to their gracious, all-powerful God. It paints a startling picture, detailing the shocking nature of their future treatment of Yahweh. And the words of this poem, given to Moses by God Himself, are intended to juxtapose Israel’s former glory as God’s children with their future status as abandoned orphans.

“…they are no longer his children because they are blemished;
    they are a crooked and twisted generation.” – Deuteronomy 32:5 ESV

But the opening stanzas of this poem focus on God. He is hailed for His greatness, described as The Rock, and regaled for the perfection of His work and the justice of His ways. He is a God marked by faithfulness and devoid of any iniquity. He is just and upright in all that He does. And these descriptions are meant to make Israel’s decision to reject God all that more egregious. Why in the world would they choose to disobey and abandon a God as great as Yahweh? And this theme of God’s greatness and Israel’s undeserved status as His children is echoed throughout the Old Testament.

“For what great nation has a god as near to them as the LORD our God is near to us whenever we call on him?” – Deuteronomy 4:7 NLT

“How great you are, O Sovereign LORD! There is no one like you. We have never even heard of another God like you! What other nation on earth is like your people Israel? What other nation, O God, have you redeemed from slavery to be your own people? You made a great name for yourself when you redeemed your people from Egypt. You performed awesome miracles and drove out the nations and gods that stood in their way. You made Israel your very own people forever, and you, O LORD, became their God.” – 2 Samuel 7:22-24 NLT

And yet, the words of the song condemn them: “They have dealt corruptly with him” (Deuteronomy 32:5 ESV). And their treatment of God makes no sense. It is unparalleled in its absurdity and stupidity. What would possess them to turn their backs on a God as good and great as Yahweh? Why would they ever walk away from a relationship that provided them with so many blessings?

Their decision to abandon God makes no sense. There is no reasonable explanation that can justify their actions. Which is why they are described as crooked and twisted. In the Hebrew language, these two words are rich in meaning. They describe someone who is deceitful and perverse in heart. They are crafty and adept at twisting words and modeling behavior that is meant to deceive. They can’t be trusted.

Also, they’re foolish and senseless. Only a fool would turn his back on the one true God. Which is exactly what King David wrote in his psalm.

Only fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, and their actions are evil; not one of them does good! – Psalm 14:1 NLT

The Hebrew word translated as “senseless” is actually the word for “wise.” But it can also mean “wily, shrewd, cunning.” In other words, they are marked by human wisdom. But the Scriptures have much to say about such individuals, and none of it is good.

There is more hope for fools than for people who think they are wise. – Proverbs 26:12 NLT

What sorrow for those who are wise in their own eyes and think themselves so clever. – Isaiah 5:21 NLT

The way of a fool is right in his own opinion – Proverbs 12:15 NLT

And these foolish, in all their self-inflated wisdom, have to answer the question: “Is this how you repay the Lord?” (Deuteronomy 32:6 ESV). If they were as smart as they thought they were, would they really want to treat God so flippantly and irreverently?

He is their Father and the one who created them. They owe their very existence to Him. And all they had to do was look back over their long and storied history as a nation to find proof of God’s goodness and greatness. They could ask their fathers and the elders of their people, and they could regale them with stories of God’s mighty acts on behalf of Israel. In fact, if the people of God had been faithful, they would have been sharing the stories of God’s greatness with each successive generation. The psalmist describes this process of cross-generational instruction which was intended to teach the children all the amazing stories of God’s past actions on behalf of His people.

Pay attention, my people, to my instruction!
Listen to the words I speak!
I will sing a song that imparts wisdom;
I will make insightful observations about the past.
What we have heard and learned—
that which our ancestors have told us—
we will not hide from their descendants.
We will tell the next generation
about the Lord’s praiseworthy acts,
about his strength and the amazing things he has done. – Psalm 78:1-4 NLT

But the people of Israel seem to have suffered from both short- and long-term memory loss. They didn’t pass on the stories of God’s mighty acts. They failed to tell the next generation of the Lord’s praiseworthy acts and the amazing things He has done. Which is why the book fo Judges opens up with the sad statement:

…another generation grew up who did not acknowledge the LORD or remember the mighty things he had done for Israel. The Israelites did evil in the LORD’s sight and served the images of Baal. They abandoned the LORD, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of Egypt. – Judges 2:10-12 NLT

How easy it is to forget the goodness and greatness of God. How quickly God’s people can find themselves losing the memory of God’s past activity in their lives. And forgetfulness leads to faithlessness. Our failure to recall God’s faithfulness in the past results in a tendency to doubt God for the future. We can even lose the ability to recognize His activity in the here-and-now. And when we do, we begin to act as if there is no God. And, in doing so, we become fools.

As the poem of God points out, the descendants of Jacob were going to forget who they were. They would lose sight of their unique status as God’s chosen people, living in the land He had graciously apportioned to them. Their privileged position as His treasured possession would become a distant memory, causing them to seek and to serve false gods.

But the song is far from over. God’s indictment of His people is far from finished. Their abandonment of Him would be complete, and His discipline for their treachery would be fully justified.

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

Joshua and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

23 And the Lord commissioned Joshua the son of Nun and said, “Be strong and courageous, for you shall bring the people of Israel into the land that I swore to give them. I will be with you.”

24 When Moses had finished writing the words of this law in a book to the very end, 25 Moses commanded the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, 26 “Take this Book of the Law and put it by the side of the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, that it may be there for a witness against you. 27 For I know how rebellious and stubborn you are. Behold, even today while I am yet alive with you, you have been rebellious against the Lord. How much more after my death! 28 Assemble to me all the elders of your tribes and your officers, that I may speak these words in their ears and call heaven and earth to witness against them. 29 For I know that after my death you will surely act corruptly and turn aside from the way that I have commanded you. And in the days to come evil will befall you, because you will do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger through the work of your hands.”  Deuteronomy 31:23-29 ESV

The commissioning of Joshua by God seems a bit anticlimactic, doesn’t it? It takes just one verse to record the whole affair. There were no animals sacrificed, no anointing oil poured over the head of Joshua. A comparison between his commissioning and that of Aaron reveals some remarkable and glaring contrasts.

And Moses brought Aaron and his sons and washed them with water. And he put the coat on him and tied the sash around his waist and clothed him with the robe and put the ephod on him and tied the skillfully woven band of the ephod around him, binding it to him with the band. And he placed the breastpiece on him, and in the breastpiece he put the Urim and the Thummim. And he set the turban on his head, and on the turban, in front, he set the golden plate, the holy crown, as the Lord commanded Moses. – Leviticus 8:6-9 ESV

And he poured some of the anointing oil on Aaron’s head and anointed him to consecrate him. And Moses brought Aaron’s sons and clothed them with coats and tied sashes around their waists and bound caps on them, as the Lord commanded Moses. – Leviticus 8:12-13 ESV

Yet, all Joshua got as a word of encouragement from God: “Be strong and courageous, for you shall bring the people of Israel into the land that I swore to give them. I will be with you” (Deuteronomy 31:23 ESV).

But even these words of encouragement and affirmation had to come across as a little underwhelming to Joshua. After all, he had just heard God say that the people of Israel would prove to be rebellious and unrepentant, earning them the full weight of the curses Moses had warned them about. So, while God provided Joshua with the assurance that he would be successful in his new role as leader of the people of Israel, it had to have been bitter-sweet news to his ears. Yes, Joshua would accomplish his God-given assignment and lead the people into the land of Canaan, but how could he forget the fact that they would not be allowed to stay there. The day would come when they would be destroyed by their enemies and taken as captives to foreign lands.

And even after his rather abrupt and abbreviated commissioning, Joshua had to hear Moses repeat the warning God had delivered to them in the tent of meeting.

I know how rebellious and stubborn you are. Behold, even today while I am yet alive with you, you have been rebellious against the Lord. How much more after my death!” – Deuteronomy 31:27 ESV

Put yourself in Joshua’s sandals. He has just been commissioned the new leader of the people of Israel and yet when he and Moses step out of the tent of meeting, he doesn’t even get an introduction. There is no official announcement of the leadership transition from Moses to Joshua. It’s almost as if Joshua simply stood in the background, eyes wide with shock and surprise. He had just seen the Shekinah glory of God, heard the voice of God, and was still digesting the devastating news from God that the nation of Israel would end up back in captivity one day. And just as he is about to take over the reins of leadership, he has to sit back and hear Moses accuse the people of being rebellious and stubborn.

And Moses wasn’t done. He had one more punch to the gut he wanted to deliver.

“I know that after my death you will surely act corruptly and turn aside from the way that I have commanded you. And in the days to come evil will befall you, because you will do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger through the work of your hands.” – Deuteronomy 31:29 ESV

I can’t help but imagine how Joshua felt as all this transpired. Here he was getting ready to lead the people of Israel into the promised land, not exactly an easy task, and Moses was busy stirring up and offending them. On top of that, Joshua had just been informed that, while the whole conquest-of-the-land initiative would be a success, it would prove to be shortlived and irrelevant.

This is probably not the way Joshua had envisioned his tenure as the shepherd of Israel beginning. This entire section of the book of Deuteronomy is weighted with a dark sense of foreboding. This should have been one of the most eagerly anticipated events in Israel’s long and storied history as they prepared to cross over the border and begin their conquest of the land promised to them by God centuries earlier. But rather than joy and celebration, the occasion was marked by sadness and disappointment. The party balloons had popped. The candles on the cake had blown out.

And Moses told the people that the law itself would bear witness against them. He instructed the Levites to “Take this Book of the Law and put it by the side of the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, that it may be there for a witness against you” (Deuteronomy 31:26 ESV). His handwritten copy of God’s commandments would be a constant presence among the people, practically screaming out its judgments against them every time they violated its contents.

Moses assembles all the elders and officers of the 12 tribes and calls heaven and earth to witness against them. But what does this mean? How do the heavens and the earth bear witness against the nation of Israel? Well, in the opening stanza of the song that God gave Moses, we read these words: “Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak, and let the earth hear the words of my mouth” (Deuteronomy 32:1 ESV).

Moses was going to sing the words of God’s song to the people, and the first words would be addressed to the heavens and the earth. It is as if God is saying, “If you won’t listen, creation will.” The rest of the creative order will hear the commands of God and bear witness against the Israelites for their stubborn refusal to do as He has said.

In a sense, Moses is saying that the heavens and earth will still remain, even after the Israelites are long gone. The sun, moon, and stars will still be in the sky long after Israel is exiled from the land of promise. They will look up from their new home in Babylon and see the same unchanging scene in the heavens, but they will be in captivity. The land of Canaan will remain right where it was when they left. Nothing will change about it except the identity of those who occupy it. The earth will keep spinning. The sun, moon, and stars will keep shining. Canaan will remain a land flowing with milk and honey. But the fate of the Israelites will be markedly different than it had been.

“…in the days to come evil will befall you, because you will do what is evil in the sight of the Lord.” – Deuteronomy 31:29 ESV

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

Not Exactly Music to the Ears

14 And the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, the days approach when you must die. Call Joshua and present yourselves in the tent of meeting, that I may commission him.” And Moses and Joshua went and presented themselves in the tent of meeting. 15 And the Lord appeared in the tent in a pillar of cloud. And the pillar of cloud stood over the entrance of the tent.

16 And the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, you are about to lie down with your fathers. Then this people will rise and whore after the foreign gods among them in the land that they are entering, and they will forsake me and break my covenant that I have made with them. 17 Then my anger will be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them and hide my face from them, and they will be devoured. And many evils and troubles will come upon them, so that they will say in that day, ‘Have not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us?’ 18 And I will surely hide my face in that day because of all the evil that they have done, because they have turned to other gods.

19 “Now therefore write this song and teach it to the people of Israel. Put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me against the people of Israel. 20 For when I have brought them into the land flowing with milk and honey, which I swore to give to their fathers, and they have eaten and are full and grown fat, they will turn to other gods and serve them, and despise me and break my covenant. 21 And when many evils and troubles have come upon them, this song shall confront them as a witness (for it will live unforgotten in the mouths of their offspring). For I know what they are inclined to do even today, before I have brought them into the land that I swore to give.” 22 So Moses wrote this song the same day and taught it to the people of Israel. Deuteronomy 31:14-22 ESV

There is no way to escape the fact that this is a sad section of Scripture. Moses has finished his address to the people of Israel, having recounted the law and warned them to stand by their commitment to keep it or face the consequences. He has given a copy of the law to the priests and elders, telling them to recite it before the people every seventh year as part of the annual celebration of the Feast of Booths. He has gone into great detail about the blessings and the curses, making sure the people were fully aware of just how serious God considered His covenant relationship with them.

Moses knows he won’t be going into the promised land. God has denied him that privilege because of his own failure to treat God as holy before the people. But, that has not kept Moses from doing everything in his power to prepare the people for their entrance into the promised land, including his selection of Joshua as his successor and their leader.

But as Moses and Joshua make their way into the tent of meeting so that God can commission Israel’s new shepherd, Moses has no way of knowing the news that awaits him. After reconfirming the fact that Moses will die outside the land of promise, God informs the two men that Israel will fail to keep their covenant commitment to Him. And, as a result, they will experience all the curses Moses warned them about.

“…this people will rise and whore after the foreign gods among them in the land that they are entering, and they will forsake me and break my covenant that I have made with them.” – Deuteronomy 31:16 ESV

God didn’t sugarcoat HIs message. He didn’t preface His remarks with a more positive spin, telling Moses and Joshua that there would be a period of relative obedience followed by the joy of His blessing. No, He cut to the chase and delivered the devastating news that Israel will prove to be unfaithful and, as a result, God’s “anger will be kindled against them in that day” (Deuteronomy 31:17 ESV).

As Moses and Joshua stood before the shekinah glory of God, in the form of the pillar of smoke, they must have been shocked at the message they heard. This was to have been a day of gladness and joy as the people prepared to enter the land promised to them by God more than half a century earlier. Moses and the people of Israel had waited a long time to get to this point, and now God was delivering the far-from-encouraging news that their stay in the land of promise would be temporary and would not end well.

God warns that they will experience “many evils and troubles” and be devoured. He will end up forsaking them and hiding His face from them. Why? Because they will forsake Him and break the covenant they made with Him. They will worship false gods.

And yet, when it all happens, they will end up blaming God for all their problems, claiming that He has abandoned them.

Have not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us? – Deuteronomy 31:17 ESV

But in charging God with abandonment, they will be leaving out an important detail concerning their circumstances.

I will surely hide my face in that day because of all the evil that they have done, because they have turned to other gods. – Deuteronomy 31:18 ESV

They will be guilty of having left God, not the other way around. And God’s response will be exactly what He said He would do if they proved unfaithful to Him. This will not be a knee-jerk reaction on God’s part. Their abandonment by God and the destruction they will suffer as part of His judgment of them, will follow the pattern of curses outlined by Moses in this very same book.

And, as odd as it may sound, the text says that God taught Moses a song and instructed him to teach it to the people. What a strange scene this is. God has reminded Moses that he’s going to die. He’s confirmed that the people will prove to be rebellious and be cast out of the promised land. And poor Joshua, who was about to take over the reigns of leadership, had to sit back and hear this dispiriting news. He had to wonder why he was taking over the captaincy of what appeared to be a sinking ship.

To matters worse, God had written a song that would function as a witness against the nation of Israel, every time they sang it. The words of this God-ordained tune would convict and condemn the people, accentuating their personal culpability and God’s justice in bringing His judgment against them.

The rebellion of the people of Israel was assured. It wasn’t a matter of if they would rebel, but only a matter of when. It was inevitable and unavoidable. And God makes that point painfully clear.

“…when I have brought them into the land flowing with milk and honey, which I swore to give to their fathers, and they have eaten and are full and grown fat, they will turn to other gods and serve them, and despise me and break my covenant.” – Deuteronomy 31:20 ESV

Again, think about how this news must have hit Joshua. He hadn’t even officially taken over the leadership role from Moses and he was being told that his efforts would end in failure. Oh, they would make it into the land. They would even enjoy all the fruitfulness the land had to offer, but rather than being motivated to serve and love God out of gratefulness, they would respond to His goodness with unfaithfulness. And God warns that the song He has written will live in the collective memory of their children, long after the nation has fallen prey to their enemies and experienced the full force of God’s righteous judgment.

God knows the hearts of men. And His all-knowing nature allows Him to see the outcome of events before they have even happened. He knew what Israel was going to do. He was not going to be surprised by their rebellion, because He had already planned for it.

“For I know what they are inclined to do even today, before I have brought them into the land that I swore to give.” – Deuteronomy 31:21 ESV

God already knew that, even before the Israelites had crossed the border into the land of promise, they would one day cross it again as captives. They would walk in as free men and conquerors, but years later they would leave as slaves and the conquered. All because they had failed to remain faithful to God.

And this sad section of Deuteronomy ends with Moses teaching the words of God’s song to the people of Israel. We’re not told the words of the song, but they must have mirrored God’s pronouncement of unfaithfulness and future destruction. This poem or song would haunt the Israelites for generations to come. But it was meant to be a memorable song that would stick in their minds and act as a reminder of their need for faithfulness. And, no doubt, it was sung with great gusto over years. But it would not be until the Israelites had failed to remain faithful and fallen to the Assyrians and Babylonians, that the words of this song finally hit home. Only then would the meaning behind the lyrics make sense. But it would be too little, too late. And the singing would be replaced with the sounds of moaning and despair.

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 Need For Strong Leadership

1 So Moses continued to speak these words to all Israel. And he said to them, “I am 120 years old today. I am no longer able to go out and come in. The Lord has said to me, ‘You shall not go over this Jordan.’ The Lord your God himself will go over before you. He will destroy these nations before you, so that you shall dispossess them, and Joshua will go over at your head, as the Lord has spoken. And the Lord will do to them as he did to Sihon and Og, the kings of the Amorites, and to their land, when he destroyed them. And the Lord will give them over to you, and you shall do to them according to the whole commandment that I have commanded you. Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.”

Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel, “Be strong and courageous, for you shall go with this people into the land that the Lord has sworn to their fathers to give them, and you shall put them in possession of it. It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.”  Deuteronomy 31:1-8 ESV

Moses’s days were numbered, and he knew it. His long and somewhat drawn out homily to the people was meant to prepare them for the inevitable and, possibly, to delay the unavoidable. He would not be going with them into the land of Canaan. God had denied Moses the privilege of leading the people of Israel when they crossed the border of Canaan and began their conquest of the land.

Moses had been God’s hand-picked deliverer. He had been chosen by God for the unique assignment of rescuing the people of Israel from their captivity in Egypt, and he had performed that role faithfully and effectively. Then he had successfully led the people to the edge of the land of promise, only to see them refuse to keep God’s command and cross the border – all because of an excess of fear and a lack of trust in God. So, Moses was forced to spend the next 40 years leading this rebellious generation around the wilderness until they had died off. Then, with a new generation in tow, he once again brought them to the edge of the land of promise so they might enter and possess it. But he would not be going with them. Why?

It all goes back to a regrettable scene that happened at a place called Meribah. Early on in their exodus from Egypt to Canaan, the people of Israel found themselves short on water and patience. So, they complained to Moses, who took the issue up with God. And God gave Moses instructions to take his brother Aaron’s staff “and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle” (Numbers 20:8 ESV).

But Moses was angry with the people for reading him the riot act over their lack of water. So, when he had assembled them, he took the staff and, rather than speaking to the rock as God had commanded, he took his anger out on it.

Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock. And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” – Numbers 20:10-12 ESV

God accused Moses of two sins: Disbelief and disrespect. He expressed a lack of faith in God by refusing to do exactly as God had said. God’s word was not enough. He decided to add a little drama to the moment by striking the rock. And, on top of that, he seemed to take credit for the miracle, showing a deep disrespect for God. In doing so, he did not treat God as holy in the eyes of the people. As a leader and the representative of God, he had displayed unholy behavior, and his actions had reflected poorly on God. When Moses spoke, he spoke for God. When he led, he did so on behalf of God. When he struck the rock in anger, he did so as the representative of God. And his ungodly actions made God look unholy in the eyes of the people. This was a serious issue that brought a severe punishment from God.

“…because you broke faith with me in the midst of the people of Israel at the waters of Meribah-kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin, and because you did not treat me as holy in the midst of the people of Israel. For you shall see the land before you, but you shall not go there, into the land that I am giving to the people of Israel. – Deuteronomy 32:51-52 ESV

And yet, just a few chapters later in the book of Deuteronomy, we read:

And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, 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, and for all the mighty power and all the great deeds of terror that Moses did in the sight of all Israel. – Deuteronomy 34:10-12 ESV

Moses was a great leader. He was a God-appointed and Spirit-anointed leader. But at Meribah, he had chosen to doubt and disrespect God, and he would pay dearly for that lapse in judgment. So, at the ripe old age of 120, Moses broke the news to the people of Israel that he would not be the one leading them on the next leg of their journey. That responsibility would fall to Joshua, Moses’ protegé and successor. And Moses assured the people that, ultimately, it would be God who would be going before them as their divine leader.

“The Lord your God himself will go over before you. He will destroy these nations before you, so that you shall dispossess them.” – Deuteronomy 31:3 ESV

Their true leader had always been God Almighty. Moses had been nothing more than a human representative whose authority and power had been delegated by God. Now, the responsibility to lead God’s people would fall to Joshua, whom Moses assured them would “cross before you just as the Lord has said” (Deuteronomy 31:3 ESV).

And just to make sure that the people understood that God, not Joshua, was their true leader, Moses reminds them just who it would be that gave them victory over their enemies.

 “…the Lord will do to them as he did to Sihon and Og…” – Deuteronomy 31:4 ESV

“…the Lord will give them over to you…” – Deuteronomy 31:5 ESV

“…the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.” – Deuteronomy 31:6 ESV

It would be God who gave them victory over their enemies. It would be God who went before them, never leaving them alone or on their own. Which is they could be “be strong and courageous” and not fear. Joshua would be their new human leader, but it was God who would make their path straight and their battles victorious.

Unlike Moses, God would never leave them or forsake them. Even good leaders can make bad mistakes that let their followers down. But not God. Moses would not be leading them into Canaan, but they could rest easy knowing that God would be with them every step of the way.

Next, Moses turns his attention to Joshua. He brings his much-younger successor before the people and provides him with a similarly worded charge:

Be strong and courageous, for you will accompany these people to the land that the Lord promised to give their ancestors, and you will enable them to inherit it.” – Deuteronomy 31:7 NLT

Joshua would be attempting to fill some rather large sandals. He was tasked with stepping into the formidable role that Moses had held for nearly half a century. And he was going to have to be strong. But his strength would have to be in the Lord. Without His help, Joshua would find the days ahead difficult, because as Moses knew all too well, leading God’s people was anything but a walk in the park. And he gave Joshua the same simple, yet vital reminder.

“It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.” – Deuteronomy 31:8 ESV

The people of Israel were going to need strong leadership if they were to be successful in fulfilling God’s command. The conquest of the land was not going to be easy. The enemies who lived in the land would not give up without a fight. There would be many battles to fight. They would face more powerful foes and come up against what appeared to be impenetrable defenses. But the people and their new leader would need to constantly remember that their strength and success would be God-ordained, not man-made.

Moses knew the people were going to need Joshua. But he also knew that Joshua was going to need the Lord. Effective spiritual leaders are those who allow themselves to be led by God. They find their strength and courage in the Lord, not in themselves. Moses knew from personal and painful experience just how difficult the role would be that Joshua was taking on. He was going to need all the help he could get and the only reliable source he could turn to was God Himself.

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