16 “You know how we lived in the land of Egypt, and how we came through the midst of the nations through which you passed. 17 And you have seen their detestable things, their idols of wood and stone, of silver and gold, which were among them. 18 Beware lest there be among you a man or woman or clan or tribe whose heart is turning away today from the Lord our God to go and serve the gods of those nations. Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit, 19 one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.’ This will lead to the sweeping away of moist and dry alike. 20 The Lord will not be willing to forgive him, but rather the anger of the Lord and his jealousy will smoke against that man, and the curses written in this book will settle upon him, and the Lord will blot out his name from under heaven. 21 And the Lord will single him out from all the tribes of Israel for calamity, in accordance with all the curses of the covenant written in this Book of the Law. 22 And the next generation, your children who rise up after you, and the foreigner who comes from a far land, will say, when they see the afflictions of that land and the sicknesses with which the Lord has made it sick— 23 the whole land burned out with brimstone and salt, nothing sown and nothing growing, where no plant can sprout, an overthrow like that of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim, which the Lord overthrew in his anger and wrath— 24 all the nations will say, ‘Why has the Lord done thus to this land? What caused the heat of this great anger?’ 25 Then people will say, ‘It is because they abandoned the covenant of the Lord, the God of their fathers, which he made with them when he brought them out of the land of Egypt, 26 and went and served other gods and worshiped them, gods whom they had not known and whom he had not allotted to them. 27 Therefore the anger of the Lord was kindled against this land, bringing upon it all the curses written in this book, 28 and the Lord uprooted them from their land in anger and fury and great wrath, and cast them into another land, as they are this day.’
29 “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” – Deuteronomy 29:16-29 ESV
This section is bookended by two phrases that provide us with the context of all that Moses has to say in-between. He begins with the words, “You know…” and then ends by talking about “the secret things…” which belong to the Lord. Moses realized that there were many things that God had left unrevealed to the people of Israel. There were a great many divine truths of which they were ignorant. As God would later say of Himself: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9 ESV).
Man in limited in his knowledge. He can’t know the future. He can predict and prognosticate, but it all ends up being little more than speculation or wishful thinking. Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, warned against such vain speculation.
Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring. – Proverbs 27:1 ESV
James provides even greater detail regarding man’s arrogant attempt to plan for the future, basing his decisions on things he cannot know or control.
Look here, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.” How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. What you ought to say is, “If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that.” Otherwise you are boasting about your own pretentious plans, and all such boasting is evil. – James 4:13-16 NLT
The Israelites had no idea what their future would look like. But they did know what God had done in the past and what He had commanded them to do in the present. And Moses had provided them with ample warning regarding what would happen should they choose to disobey what the did know – all that God had told them to do.
The generation to whom Moses was speaking had not grown up in Egypt. They had not experienced the pain and suffering of captivity in a foreign land. But they knew all about the details concerning Israel’s 400-plus years of slavery. They were also very well aware of the idolatry that ran rampant in Egypt because their parents had told them stories of the countless gods the Egyptians worshiped, including the Pharaoh himself.
Even during their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites had been exposed to one nation after another where they discovered the names of even more false gods and witnessed new forms of pagan worship. So, by the time the got to Canaan, they were highly familiar with idolatry, which is why Moses warned them to avoid that temptation like a plague.
“Beware lest there be among you a man or woman or clan or tribe whose heart is turning away today from the Lord our God to go and serve the gods of those nations.” – Deuteronomy 29:18 ESV
And they were to take this warning seriously, keeping an eye out for anyone who might consider abandoning the one true God for a false god. All it would take was one man or woman to throw a wrench into God’s plans for the entire nation. The covenant God had made with them was communal in nature, and adherence to it was to be a community-wide affair. If even one individual took the attitude, “I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart” (Deuteronomy 29:19 ESV), the whole nation would suffer the consequences.
They knew better. God had warned them repeatedly that the entire nation would be held accountable. They had seen what had happened when Achan had disobeyed God and taken treasure from the city of Jericho and had buried it in his tent. His hidden sin had resulted in Israel’s unexpected defeat when they attacked the city of Ai. God had held the entire nation culpable until they had dealt with the sin in their midst.
Moses makes sure the people understand the gravity of allowing disobedience in any form or fashion to infect the camp.
“The Lord will never pardon such people. Instead his anger and jealousy will burn against them. All the curses written in this book will come down on them, and the Lord will erase their names from under heaven. The Lord will separate them from all the tribes of Israel, to pour out on them all the curses of the covenant recorded in this Book of Instruction.” – Deuteronomy 29:20-21 NLT
They knew better and couldn’t claim ignorance as an excuse. And they could know for certain that future generations would reap the consequences of their present mistakes.
“Then the generations to come, both your own descendants and the foreigners who come from distant lands, will see the devastation of the land and the diseases the Lord inflicts on it.” – Deuteronomy 29:22 NLT
They might not be able to predict the future, but they could certainly influence it by choosing to disobey God in the here-and-now. Their present disobedience would bring future destruction to the land that will leave even the pagan nations scratching their heads in wonder and asking, “Why has the Lord done thus to this land? What caused the heat of this great anger?” (Deuteronomy 29:24 ESV).
And the answer to their questions will be a simple one: “It is because they abandoned the covenant of the Lord, the God of their fathers, which he made with them when he brought them out of the land of Egypt, and went and served other gods and worshiped them, gods whom they had not known and whom he had not allotted to them” (Deuteronomy 29:25-26 ESV).
There was a lot the Israelites didn’t know. As they stood on the edge of the land of Canaan preparing to enter in and conquer the nations who occupied it, their minds were filled with questions of all kinds. How would it go? Would they be successful? How long would it take? Would they die in battle? Would the nations living in the land prove to be too strong?
A million doubts, fears, and concerns had to have crossed their minds. Moses must have seen the apprehension in their eyes, which is why he told them, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God…” (Deuteronomy 29:29 ESV). Rather than wasting time worrying about the unknown and the unrevealed, Moses wanted them to focus on what they did know: “the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever” (Deuteronomy 29:29 ESV). They knew the law of God. Moses had just gone over it in detail. They knew all about the blessings that would come with obedience and they were more than familiar with the curses that would come upon them if they disobeyed.
They knew what God had done to free them from captivity in Egypt. They knew He had promised to give them the land of Canaan as their inheritance and was getting ready to do so. They knew all about idols and the constant threat these false gods would pose, tempting them to abandon God and forget His commands. They knew they had to enter the land and eliminate the nations who lived their, along with all their idols, altars, and shrines. They knew they had to remain faithful if they wanted to be fruitful. They knew that God would not tolerate sin the camp or allow even one case of disobedience to go unpunished.
God had told them all they needed to know. They had no reason to worry about the future, unless they decided to live disobediently in the present. They knew that God expected them to be faithful. And if they did what God wanted, they could know that He would do all that He had promised.
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.