God doesn't give up on us.
Sometimes, with God, we are tempted to think it’s all about “arriving.” You know, getting to the destination, reaching the goal. But, as I read this chapter, I saw something different. Check out this verse: “It takes eleven days to go from Horeb to Kadesh Barnea by the Mount Seir road.” (vs 2) I love the fact that, in the Bible, this verse is actually in parentheses, more like an aside. It’s as if Moses was saying, “Uh, we’ve spent forty years in this desert. Just so you know, this journey should have taken eleven days.”
Of course, early on, the Israelites knew they weren’t going into the Promised Land right away. Because they didn’t trust God, they were not ready to go in. They knew they were going to wander around in the desert until the “older” generation died off and the “younger” generation could receive the inheritance. Instead of taking eleven days, their journey to the Promised Land ended up taking fourteen thousand, six hundred days.
So, if the point was to get the Israelites into the Promised Land, why didn’t God just kill off the older generation with a plague the first time they reached Canaan’s border? Why wait forty years? And then it dawned on me. The point was not to get the Israelites into the Promised Land. The point (at least for God) was to have a relationship with His people. He wanted to go on a journey with them. Canaan was just a bonus. And if His people didn’t want to journey in the Promised Land, He would journey with them in the desert. Although He was anxious to bless them by giving them the Promised Land, He cared primarily about them, not where they lived. So why should He cut the whole journey short just because they decided to take a U-turn?
I think we tend to look at the Israelites’ wandering in the desert for forty years as a punishment. But is that really what it was? That’s what I always thought . . . up until this very moment, as I was writing this blog just now. But what if it wasn’t a punishment at all? What if it was God’s acknowledging and accepting where His people were at (spiritually) and deciding that He was going to stay with them . . . even if it meant staying in the desert? What if we chose to look at God’s continued presence with them in the wilderness asHis gift, instead of looking at their failure to take Canaan as His punishment?
I mean, we know from the story of the spies and giants that—without a willingness to listen to God’s instructions—there was no way they would defeat those giants. But God didn’t have to stick with them. He could have gotten rid of the older generation and taken the babes into Canaan. Or He could have gone off into Canaan Himself and left the Israelites to starve in the desert. But God didn’t do either of those things. He decided to stay with them. He decided not to give up on them. He decided to continue on the journey with them—even if their destination wasn’t His first choice. If they didn’t want to come with Him, He would go with them.
For God, the ultimate goal is not the destination, but the journey. And if and when we’re not ready, equipped, or willing to go where He wants us to go, God doesn’t give up on us. He loves us too much for that. Instead, He sticks with us, taking us along the scenic route—no matter how long it takes. In the case of the Israelites, their actual journey to the Promised Land took 1327 times longer than it should have. But that was alright with God, because even when we give up on Him, He doesn’t give up on us.
God wants our attention.
In this chapter of Deuteronomy, the Lord said to the Israelites, “This very day, I will begin to put the terror and fear of you on all the nations under heaven. They will hear reports of you and will tremble and be in anguish because of you.” (vs 25) This immediately made me think of the Israelites themselves when they were camped around the base of Mount Sinai. There was thunder and lightning and smoke, and the Israelites were trembling and afraid.
What was the purpose of that? To get their attention, so they would listen to what God had to say. Once they were listening, He wouldn’t have to resort to “raising His voice” to make Himself heard. And now, it seems He was planning to make Israel into a Mount Sinai for the surrounding nations. As reports got back to these heathen people, they were supposed to begin to tremble and be afraid—of Israel and their God. What was the purpose of that? To get their attention, so they would listen to what God had to say. Once they were “terrified” of Israel, they would be in a position to listen and hear that the God of Israel was good.
And how was this terror supposed to come about? It’s an interesting question, for all through this chapter, God is specifically forbidding the Israelites to war with the neighboring peoples. More than once, He said, “Do not harass them or provoke them to war, for I will not give you any of their land, not even enough to put your foot on.” Hmmm, this doesn’t sound like the war-mongering, genocide-loving Old Testament God I’ve heard about.
In fact, the only war in the chapter occurs when Sihon king of Heshbon brought his army out and attacked Israel. Once they were attacked, they fought back, and they won a decisive victory. That probably got the attention of many of those surrounding nations. It’s no coincidence that God was bringing His people into a place where a myriad of heathen cultures lived and mingled. He loved all of those people just as much as He loved the Israelites, and He was anxious to get their attention, too!
God reminds us of our past.
When the devil reminds you of your past, remind him of his future. Have you ever seen that saying on a church sign or, perhaps, heard it in a sermon? As forgiven sinners with a checkered past, we don’t like to be saddled with reminders of our history. I know I don’t.
But in Deuteronomy 3 (and, I’m quite certain, the whole rest of this book!), God seems intent on taking His people down memory lane. They’re getting ready to take possession of the Promised Land, but—just like a plane sometimes sits on a runway waiting for takeoff—their progress has stalled as Moses begins reminding them of their history in the wilderness.
It seems that it isn’t only the devil who has an interest in bringing up the past. But I think the difference is the motive for doing it. To be sure, the devil isn’t interested in anything but fueling our guilt and fear . . . and probably just plain annoying us, too. With his temptation to self-condemnation, he’d like to do anything he can to lure us back into our self-destructive behaviors.
But God takes us on a trip down memory lane for a different reason: it’s so we will remember Him and what He has done for us. He reminds us of our past—not so that we will relive our failures, but so we will relive His blessings and provisions. He reminds us of our past to fan the flames of our faith in Him regarding our future. As He has led us so wonderfully yesterday, He will continue to guide and care for us tomorrow.
Now sometimes, as in the case of the Israelites, remembering our past does include remembering how we have not lived up to God’s ideal. However, that remembrance can only be viewed through the lenses of blessing as we (once again) recall that God does not abandon us when we fail Him. His ever-steady commitment to us—even in the worst of times—is proof positive that, in Him, we truly find everything we need.
So, when it comes to remembering the past, make sure you ignore the devil. But don’t miss a chance to take a trip down memory lane with God. He reminds us of our past so we will trust Him all the more for the future!
God plays offense.
I totally loved this part: “Ask now about the former days, long before your time, from the day God created human beings on the earth; ask from one end of the heavens to the other. Has anything so great as this ever happened, or has anything like it ever been heard of? Has any other people heard the voice of God speaking out of fire, as you have, and lived? Has any god ever tried to take for himself one nation out of another nation, by testings, by signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, or by great and awesome deeds, like all the things the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes? You were shown these things so that you might know that the Lord is God; besides him there is no other.” (vs 32-35)
It seems that god-man relations in the Old Testament followed either one of two scenarios: either men were trying to get the attention of non-existent gods or the true God was trying to get the attention of men. Unfortunately, it didn’t often happen that men were trying to get the attention of the true God. But even if they were so inclined, they probably still wouldn’t have had to work to get the attention of the true God—because He plays offense. Before we go out seeking to get His attention, He’s already been working to get ours.
God is always on the offensive. He doesn’t wait for us to come to Him. He comes to us. This is a wonderful thing to remember, especially at Christmas. When we were not in a position to be at home with Him, Jesus came to be at home with us. He is always taking the initiative in our relationship, always pursuing, always seeking.
This is one of the reasons we can believe that He is—right now—preparing a place for us. Not because He said so (although He did, in John 14), but because He came to us when we had no place prepared for Him. The fact that we didn’t send Him an invitation didn’t matter. He didn’t wait then. He didn’t wait with the Israelites in the Old Testament. And He’s still not waiting. He makes the first move. He comes to us. He always plays offense.
God wants us to obey.
Before the Israelites went in to take possession of the Promised Land, Moses was determined to reiterate the law the Lord had given them. In fact, the very name of this book means a “second” (deutero) giving of the “law” (nomy). Remember, this was 40 years after God had originally given the law to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, and those who were now in Moses’s audience were either babies at that time or not yet born.
Obviously, God gave us the law because He wants us to obey. But when Jesus was asked about which was the greatest “rule,” He said this: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Mt 22:37-40) What Jesus was saying was that love is the greatest commandment . . . but love isn’t something that can be commanded, is it? You cannot elicit love from a person by threatening them with punishment if they don’t comply.
And that’s precisely the point. Even though God gave the law (because He was beginning with people who needed it spelled out for them), God was essentially asking them to do something that He can’t ultimately command. And that’s why, in verse 29, He explains why He wants this obedience: “Oh, that their hearts would be inclined to fear me and keep all my commands always, so that it might go well with them and their children forever!”
You see, God is just a good parent who wants to see His children happy and satisfied. That’s why He wants us to obey—not because He demands respect for His authority, but because love is the only thing that will lead us to true happiness, peace, and joy. He wants us to obey for our sakes, not for His sake. He wants us to do the things He can’t command so we will reap the natural consequences of obedience, which are things He can’t bestow.
God is not an employer.
One of my favorite Bible texts is in this chapter, but it might not be the one you think. Yes, there is the famous “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” (vs 4) And there’s also the one Jesus quoted: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” (vs 5) And both of those are nice, but neither is the one I’m thinking of.
The passage I love is this: “When the Lord your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you—a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant—then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” (vs 10-12)
This passage is all about two things: what God was going to do, and what the people were not going to do. They were not going to build, provide, dig, or plant, yet God was planning to give them cities, full houses, wells, and vineyards. Why, that sounds like getting something for nothing. Yes! That’s exactly how God works!
God is not an employer. He doesn’t pay wages. It’s not tit for tat. He doesn’t give us what we’ve earned or deserve. On the contrary, He gives us what we don’t deserve. He gives us what we haven’t worked for. He’s into gifts, not paychecks. Those Israelites hadn’t done one thing to deserve all the blessings God was about to heap on them, but He was planning to do it anyway.
I believe this is an important distinction—the comparison between paying wages and giving gifts. It’s a distinction Paul drew in Romans 6:23. “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life.” One Bible version says, “Sin pays its own wage. The wage is death.” I think the comparison is clear. If you’re looking for an employer, one that will grant you exactly what you deserve, seek out sin. It’s a strict employer, and it pays a severe wage. But God is not an employer. He is a giver through and through. His gift is life, life, and more life! And, on top of that, He is anxious to give us every good gift—cities we didn’t build, houses we didn’t buy, wells we didn’t dig, gardens we didn’t plant, etc
God is not nationalistic.
Wow, this is a pretty heavy chapter. God lays out for the Israelites the plan to take over Canaan. There is talk of both destruction and driving nations out ahead of the Israelites with “the hornet.” (vs 20) God does say that, when the Israelites have defeated a nation, they are to destroy everything associated with that nation’s gods. “This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire.” (vs 5)
Previously, we have heard God’s intention to make Himself known to the heathen nations through the Israelites. Of course, one way of doing that in the ancient world was to destroy things. Whoever had the “strongest god” would win on the battlefield, so being able to totally destroy another nation was a pretty clear indication that your god was the strongest. That would be a message to the heathen peoples . . . but would any of them be left to hear it? How can you get a message across to people you’re destroying? Was that God’s intention?
I don’t think it was. As we saw several chapters ago, I think God’s ideal plan was to drive these nations out of the land where the Israelites were going to live. Then, through interaction with Israel, these other nations would gain an understanding of the true God. However, not only did the Israelites seem inclined to fight, but these heathen nations were also warmongers. More often than not, when the Israelites defeated and wiped out an enemy in Canaan, it was the Canaanites who had come to attack—not the other way around.
And anyways, what was so special about the Israelites? Why did God “choose” them over the Canaanites or the Amorites or the Amalekites? It certainly wasn’t because of anything they did. Even in this chapter, Moses reminds them that they weren’t chosen because they were advantageous to God: “The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples.” (vs 7)
No, I think the scary truth is that God chose the Israelites because—out of all the nations He had to choose from—they were the most willing and able to listen to God. Now you can see why I said this was a scary truth, because the truth was, most of the time, they didn’t even listen to God! Once they got into the Promised Land, they forgot all about God, they didn’t do what He told them to do, and they ended up spending most of their time running after non-existent gods. Still, I think they were chosen by God because they were the “best of the worst.”
Above all, I think it’s important for us to remember (though it may be hard to see on the surface) that the promises of God to the Israelites here were about their role as His people on the Earth, not about their eternal life. And the same is true for the heathen nations. Just because a Canaanite king didn’t like the Israelites in his land, went to war with them, and ended up seeing his nation destroyed, doesn’t mean that some of the “heathen” casualties weren’t innocent children or good men and women.
In bringing the Israelites into the Promised Land, God wasn’t trying to achieve their salvation. He was trying to position a group of people who knew Him in the best possible place to witness about Him to others. God didn’t “choose” them for salvation. He “chose” them to do a job. And that job was to communicate that God “chooses” us all for salvation. He is not nationalistic. He loves everyone
God reveals the heart.
I was intrigued by this verse today: “Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands.” (vs 2) As I read, I thought, didn’t God already know what was in the hearts of the Israelites? Of course He did. God knows us intimately and reads our hearts.
The only thing this can mean, then, is that God used the wilderness to reveal what was in the hearts of the Israelites to the Israelites. You see, we don’t know our own hearts. Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?” The point is, God knows just how bad it is, and in our spiritual journey with Him, one of the things He will do is reveal to us just how bad it is. Until we have the diagnosis, we can’t understand or accept the treatment.
It was very easy for the Israelites to say, “We will do everything the Lord has commanded.” (Ex 24:3) But then, they turned around and did just about everything He had commanded them not to do. Things haven’t changed very much since then. It is very easy to say one thing but do another. Our talk is cheap, and until we are in the wilderness, we don’t really know whether or not we will do what God has said.
The wilderness is simply preparation for the Promised Land. There, God will reveal to us the condition of our hearts and speak kindly to us about treatment. He will remind us that He provides for all our needs (vs 4) and that it is only in Him that we find true life (vs 3). If we are willing to listen to Him, He is more than able to teach us anything we need to know.
God sees differently than we do.
As Moses continues to recount the failures of faith in the wilderness, he reminds the people where they’re going. “Hear, Israel: You are now about to cross the Jordan to go in and dispossess nations greater and stronger than you, with large cities that have walls up to the sky. The people are strong and tall—Anakites! You know about them and have heard it said: ‘Who can stand up against the Anakites?’” (vs 1-2)
Nations greater and stronger? Cities with walls up to the sky? People strong and tall? Who wouldn’t look at such obstacles and cower in the corner? And, of course, that was precisely the point. God does not see things the way we do. We look at the cities and see walls that can’t be climbed over. God looks at the cities and sees walls that can be felled with trumpets and marching. The Israelites looked at Canaan and saw a land inhabited by formidable giants. God looked at Canaan and saw a land flowing with milk and honey to give to His people.
The fact of the matter is, God can do anything. Instead of looking at life’s circumstances and making decisions based on what we see, let’s slow down and take the time to ask God what He sees. Chances are, we’ll hear something we can’t imagine, because He sees things we can’t.
God has the best government.
As I read this chapter, I couldn’t help but think about God’s government versus man-made governments. Specifically, three things were mentioned that brought this comparison to mind: citizen burden, corruption and greed, and treatment of the weakest in society. First, citizen burden: ”And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?” (vs 12-13)
When you think about it, what does God really ask of us? Yes, He wants us to obey Him, to serve Him, and to love Him . . . but this is for our best good, our happiness, and our benefit. He doesn’t ask us to obey for His sake. Everything He does and asks us to do is for us. Man-made governments—even America’s government (which I think is great)—rarely achieve a sustained program of good for their citizens. Somewhere along the way, government just seems to suck up much more than it gives. As Ronald Reagan once quipped, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’” Compared to man-made governments, God’s requirements for His people seem like nothing. His requirements bless us, not burden us. Perhaps that’s why Jesus said, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt 11:30)
Something else that has plagued every government known to man is corruption and greed. God addresses this specifically in Deuteronomy 10: “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes.” (vs 17) We could all wish for this kind of politician, couldn’t we? One that would accept no bribes or show no favoritism.
The fact is, every man-made government is prone to corruption in this way. Every “ism,” no matter if it’s capitalism, socialism, fascism, communism, or totalitarianism seems to highlight, exploit, and expand the greed that is lying in the sinful human heart. Some may have more disastrous consequences for society as a whole than others, but all are prone to this type of corruption. Not God’s government, however. In contrast to governments set up by man, God is perfectly fair and perfectly just. (I wonder sometimes if His fairness and justice would look anything like what we think is fair and just.)
Finally, God does not despise nor marginalize the weak ones in society. “He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.” (vs 18) God Himself takes care of “the least of these.” Jesus asked us to join Him in this endeavor. This kind of care can never truly stem from a man-made government (plagued as they are by greed and corruption). Instead, loving individuals must take up the burden of caring for the orphans, the widows, and those who are in need.
And that brings us to the kicker: “He is the one you praise; he is your God, who performed for you those great and awesome wonders you saw with your own eyes. Your ancestors who went down into Egypt were seventy in all, and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars in the sky.” (vs 21-22)
In 1980, an anonymous “group of Americans who seek the Age of Reason” erected the Georgia Guidestones, which have sometimes been referred to as an American Stonehenge. On the stones are ten guidelines–principles, if you will, for how we should live in the future. Number one states “Maintain humanity under 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature.” That involves a reduction in the Earth’s population of over ninety percent. The stones don’t offer suggestions on how to accomplish such a reduction. But there are many in our world today who believe that, for the Earth’s continued survival, the population of the planet must be severely decreased.
Is that true? I don’t know. But what I do know was that when God was in charge of Israel’s government, He fostered a population explosion. The principles of His government are bounty, not restriction. Unlike any government we have known or will know on this Earth, God’s government is truly for the people.
No burdensome requirements. No favoritism. No bribes. No restrictions. That’s how God does government.
God believes in choices.
What a great verse from today’s chapter: “See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse—the blessing if you obey the commands of the Lord your God that I am giving you today; the curse if you disobey the commands of the Lord your God and turn from the way that I command you today by following other gods, which you have not known.” ( vs 26-28 )
It never ceases to amaze me—that the all-powerful Sovereign of the Universe prefers to create intelligent, free beings with the power to decide their own destiny in life. We can choose to continue to have life—of course, this must be done in harmony with the Law of Love, since everything in the universe runs on that principle. Or, we can choose to separate ourselves from God by rejecting the Law of Love—unfortunately, this results in death.
God gives a blessing. Sin gives a curse. But we are given the power to make the decision—and God respects the choice we make!
It reminds me of Jesus’s conversation with Nicodemus, when He introduced the idea that man has a choice to be “born again.” When you think of it, nobody had the choice to be created or not. Not us, not the angels. But God believes in freedom so much that the act of our creation isn’t the last word in our existence. We get to have the last word. If we choose life, we can opt into the second birth. If we don’t want to live life according to the Law of Love, we can opt into the second death. Either way, we get to choose.
For God to create even one intelligent being capable of rejecting Him, He took an extreme risk of rejection and hurt. This required an immense amount of vulnerability and humility. But, in His eyes, this was worth it in order to have the opportunity of a love relationship with us. Our freedom is the most important thing to Him. He gives us the power in our relationship with Him.
God, Hound of Heaven.
Emmanuel. God with us. This is the name of the God we know, love, and serve. A God who is not distant, far-off, aloof. A God who pursues us relentlessly—as Michael Card once put it, the Hound of Heaven. He doesn’t stop to test the temperature of the water before He jumps right in. He is a hands-on kinda guy.
I saw that distinction made so clearly in this chapter. First, Moses warns the people not to play with fire: “Destroy completely all the places on the high mountains, on the hills and under every spreading tree, where the nations you are dispossessing worship their gods. Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and burn their Asherah poles in the fire; cut down the idols of their gods and wipe out their names from those places.” (vs 2-3)
Why did those nations build places of worship on the high mountains and the hills? I think one of the main reasons was that they were desperately trying to get as close to their gods as they could. The fact is, they had never had any sort of communication from these gods, and they didn’t know anything about them. They were feeling their way along in the dark, trying to understand how to appease them, but they had never actually seen any of these gods. In building their worship spots on the mountains, they were trying to catch a glimpse of the gods. They were the ones doing the seeking.
By contrast, the God of Heaven is a seeker. Before we can even think of trying to catch a glimpse of Him, His presence is imminent: “You must not worship the Lord your God in their way. But you are to seek the place the Lord your God will choose from among all your tribes to put his Name there for his dwelling. To that place you must go; there bring your burnt offerings and sacrifices, your tithes and special gifts, what you have vowed to give and your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks.” (vs 4-6)
Who is this God of the Israelites, who chooses for Himself a place of worship? This is unheard of among the ancient nations! The servants of Baal and Molech would have cut off a limb (quite literally, probably) to have their god announce anything—especially a place and method of worship. But no such announcements were forthcoming—the servants of these “gods” were left in darkness with their own suppositions.
By comparison, the true God—Light of the World—never leaves us in the dark. He is “the true light that gives light to every man.” (Jn 1:9) Long before we want to find Him, we realize that we are already found by Him. He doesn’t wait for us to want a relationship with Him. He is constantly hunting us down, this Hound of Heaven.
God places a high degree of importance on knowing.
I found a mantra in this chapter of Deuteronomy: “If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder spoken of takes place, and the prophet says, ‘Let us follow other gods’ (gods you have not known) ‘and let us worship them,’ you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer.” (vs 1-3)
Gods you have not known. It immediately reminded me of when Jesus predicted what He will undoubtedly say to some at the end of the age: “I never knew you. Depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.” (Matt 7:23) Knowing is a big deal to God. He wants us to know Him, and—especially in this chapter—He seemed very intent on keeping the Israelites away from gods they didn’t know.
The word translated know is the same Hebrew word used to describe marital relations in the Bible: “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived.” (Gen 4:1) It’s a word that connotes intimate knowledge of a highly personal nature. This is precisely the kind of relationship God wants to have with us! He knows us that intimately, and He wants us to know Him that intimately also.
Today, we don’t run after false gods like Baal and Molech, but we do contend with a number of our own false gods: materialism, career success, fame, greed, etc. We may think that by pursuing things and notoriety, we will become known. But there is only One who truly knows us—the marvelous God of heaven. He knows you intimately and loves you tremendously. So don’t go chasing after gods you have not known. The God who knows you even better than you can know yourself is ready and waiting to bless you!
God loves jewels.
I love jewelry. I like things that glitter and sparkle. I love to walk into a jewelry store and look at the beautiful diamonds and rubies and emeralds which have been so carefully placed in their gold settings. Lights in jewelry stores are positioned just right to make those precious stones sparkle and shine. Oh yes, I love jewelry.
I’m in good company, here, because my God loves jewelry too. Think not? Check out the description of the walls of heaven in Revelation 21—twelve huge rows of glittering jewels. Not to mention the streets of pure gold and the twelve gates of heaven—which are all huge pearls, of course. God even brought a taste of this jewelry to Earth with His clothing designs for the high priest in Israel. Remember the description in Exodus 28? When the high priest walked around in the sun, it must have blinded the people. His breastplate was dazzling.
And that’s why I love this verse in Deuteronomy 14: “The Lord has chosen you to be a peculiar people unto himself, above all the nations that are upon the earth.” (vs 2) Forgive me for quoting the King James Version here, but I just love that word peculiar. It’s how I heard it most often growing up. And I hope you’ll pardon the pun (?), but I always thought it was such a peculiar thing to say. Why would God want weird or strange people as His ambassadors? To me, it sounded like God was looking for the circus-side-show freaks to represent Him.
But that’s not what the Hebrew word means at all. The word is cegullah, which means valued property or treasure. In other places, the same word is translated (drum roll, please) jewel. That’s right! God not only likes precious gems, but He is so awesome that He can turn us into jewels too. As we grow in our relationship with Him, as we respond to His Spirit’s transforming work in our lives, we will become like beautiful, dazzling jewels that will capture the attention of those around us—especially when the hot lights of life bear down on us.
I really love this about God. The walls, gates, and streets of heaven are encrusted with fine gems, yet He calls me His precious treasure. He says you are His valued gem. With God, I don’t get to just love jewelry, I get to be jewelry!
God has a favorite number.
“At the end of every seven years, you must cancel debts.” (vs 1) I have always been intrigued by the number seven and the way it is used in the Bible. I think it must be God’s favorite number. It seems to carry the idea of perfection, wholeness, completeness. There are lots of significant things that happened in the Bible regarding the number seven: Noah took seven of the clean animals into the ark, Jacob worked seven years each for Leah and Rachel, Egypt had seven years of plenty and seven years of famine, and Jesus cast out seven demons from Mary Magdalene. Even the multiples of seven have some significance in the Bible. For instance, many great Bible men came from generations that were a multiple of seven: Enoch (7), Abraham (21), David (35), and Jesus (77). Wow, double seven!
In this chapter of Deuteronomy, the number seven was associated with freedom and release—particularly from financial burdens and slavery. In other words, in the seventh year, the Israelites experienced rest from the things that might have been plaguing their lives up to that point. If they were in debt, their loans were cancelled. (Hey, who said everything in the Old Testament should be obsolete! Let’s bring that rule back, shall we?) If an Israelite had sold himself into slavery/servanthood in order to pay a debt, he had the option to be released in the seventh year if he wanted to pursue another line of work.
I don’t think it’s any accident that every seventh year was associated with rest and freedom, because God has seen to it that every seventh day is also associated with rest and freedom. In the Sabbath, He gave us the reminder for all time that (1) He is the Creator and (2) He has given us freedom from everything that enslaves us. Because of the life and death of Christ, we know that God holds no unpaid account over our heads. Jesus revealed God as one who loves and forgives, even before He is asked. It is only this knowledge about our wonderful God that can bring the kind of spiritual rest and freedom that our sin-riddled souls crave.
So, the next time you wish that all your loans would magically disappear every seven years, remember to take time on a regular basis to reflect on how God has lifted all your spiritual burdens. Don’t spend another moment fretting over how to repay God the debt you may think you owe. He wants you to rest and enjoy your freedom in Him!
God wants all the things He cannot command.
I direct an adult volunteer church choir. Some have mused that this is akin to herding cats. An adult volunteer choir is a special sort of group. It is made up of people who love to sing but usually, at least subconsciously, believe they really can’t sing all that well. After all, they’re not “professionals.” So they reason that they could never achieve a “professional” sort of sound. Consequently, the majority of rehearsal time is spent in trying to persuade them to get themselves out of the way so their voices can do what they intuitively know how to do—sing properly.
Often, after a long teeth-pulling session, the choir will sing a section of music as if they are the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. And, shocked as I always am during those moments—wow! they actually did it!—I find myself saying something along the lines of, “Yes! Thank you! Why don’t you always sing like that?! Please, don’t make me pull it out of you! Do it because you can and because you take pride in yourself when you sound that way.” And, slowly but surely, they begin to realize that you really don’t have to be a “professional” to sound like one. And we make baby steps.
But, as a teacher, I want them to catch a glimpse of what they can do . . . and then to see them do it because they want to. Not just because I want them to. And that’s one of the things I see at work in this chapter of Deuteronomy. Did you notice the subtlety in this instruction? “Count off seven weeks from the time you begin to put the sickle to the standing grain. Then celebrate the Festival of Weeks to the Lord your God by giving a freewill offering in proportion to the blessings the Lord your God has given you.” (vs 9-10)
God asks the people to give in proportion to what they have received. But . . . who determined the amount of blessings received in order to figure out the proportion to be allotted for the offering? The people did. I think that’s significant. Not only were they to bring God an offering, but they were to bring one based upon how many blessings from God they recognized. Wow, that’s a pretty subjective thing, isn’t it?
I know people who seem to always go around with a positive, “I’m blessed” kinda attitude, even when it looks like their life is in the toilet. And then, I know others who seem to always find something wrong with life, even though it looks to me like they have truckloads of blessings staring them in the face. Of course, God wants us to have an attitude of gratitude, because the fact is, no matter how bad we think things are, God is always blessing us. In 2 Corinthians 9:7, Paul observed that “God loves a cheerful giver.” Also in that verse, Paul suggested that we give to the Lord from our hearts, not because we have to, not with a begrudging spirit.
You see, that’s what God ultimately wants: the heart of a friend who willingly participates in a relationship with Him. He doesn’t want His people to give simply because He commands it. He could do that, you know. He could rattle off a long list of what He expects us to bring to Him—and in some cases in history, He has done just that. (Didn’t work out so well.) But His ultimate wish is that we would recognize the millions of ways—large and small—that He has blessed our lives and then respond to that with grateful and cheerful giving. That’s what He wants, and it’s something He can’t really command.
It works the same way with my choir. I can poke them, prod them, encourage them, beg them, and bribe them to sing better. I can rant and rave and demand that they do everything I say, that they try all the vocal exercises I introduce to them, even if it makes them feel foolish. But, at the end of the day, I can’t crawl into their throats and force them to do it. I can’t command them to do what I want them to do. If they are going to sing right and well, it will ultimately be because they want to.
Wanting things you can’t command requires a lot of patience, power, and humility. Hmmm. Sounds like God.
God does not support freedom of religion.
What do you think of the title of today’s blog? Do you agree? Disagree? Let’s examine the evidence and see what conclusions we can arrive at.
It is an astonishing fact: there was no such thing as the freedom of religion in Israel—at least not as spelled out in the law. (Whether punishments were actually carried out as prescribed is another discussion.) But in Deuteronomy 17, we find yet another admonition against worshiping false gods: “If a man or woman living among you in one of the towns the Lord gives you is found doing evil in the eyes of the Lord your God in violation of his covenant, and contrary to my command has worshiped other gods, bowing down to them or to the sun or the moon or the stars in the sky, and this has been brought to your attention, then you must investigate it thoroughly. If it is true and it has been proved that this detestable thing has been done in Israel, take the man or woman who has done this evil deed to your city gate and stone that person to death.” (vs 2-5)
Wow, that doesn’t really sound like freedom of religion, does it? When it came to worship in Israel, there were only two important rules: (1) Worship God. (2) If you worship any other god, you will be stoned to death. How could this be? How could the God who is so into freedom refuse to let His people make the choice about whom they wanted to worship?
Here’s what I’m thinking (but please feel free to share your thoughts and ideas). God is in the business of helping people. And here’s what Dr. Thomas Sowell said about helping people: “When you want to help people, you tell them the truth. When you want to help yourself, you tell people what they want to hear.” God is in the first category. He cares about us and will do anything He can to help us, even when it involves a huge, personal sacrifice on His part.
And here’s the truth about worship: Worshiping any god besides the one, true God ultimately leads to death. And it’s not death by stoning. It’s the death doled out by sin, the ultimate self-destruction that comes as a result of separation from the Source of Life. That’s the unarbitrary truth of it; God doesn’t impose the ultimate death for idolatry, but it is a reality—just as gravity is a reality on Planet Earth. That’s why God’s prescribed punishment for false-god worship in Israel was so strong—He was determined to prevent them from heading down the road of idolatry, if possible.
So, if “freedom of religion” means that people are free to pursue whatever they want to worship and expect the same results, they’re fooling themselves. It doesn’t work that way. Those who love and worship the true God will find life. Those who love and worship anything other than the true God will not find life. They will become so joined to their idols that God will eventually be forced—as described in Romans 1—to let them go and give them up. Yes, if you want to live, there is no such thing as “freedom of religion.”
However, what God does support (and personally works very hard to ensure) is the freedom to choose for or against Him. It is important to Him that we are the ones who make the choice—and that we are well informed when we make it. This was precisely why He set up these deterrents to Israel’s idol worship. He was trying to keep them from running down the path of idolatry until they knew exactly where they were headed. The threat of stoning was also a warning of where their idolatry would ultimately end—in death.
As we will unfortunately discover as we head through the Old Testament, the threat of stoning didn’t keep the Israelites from idolatry. And, more often than not, neither did the perpetrators face stoning for their false-god worship. But even though the prescribed punishment wasn’t imposed, Israel still suffered the consequences of their idolatry. The more they ran after gods who did not exist, the more they separated themselves from the one, true God—until they were in danger of losing all ability to hear His voice.
So, perhaps the title of my blog is a bit misleading. God entirely supports freedom. But He doesn’t just tell us things we want to hear. He tells us the truth, and the truth is, the only true spiritual life to be had is in Him. Anything else is, quite literally, a dead end.
God is not subtle.
In this chapter of Deuteronomy, there is once again a strong admonition against divination, sorcery, and witchcraft. In fact, God says that the heathen nations in Canaan would be thrust out of the land precisely because they practiced these sorts of detestable things: “The nations you will dispossess listen to those who practice sorcery or divination. But as for you, the Lord your God has not permitted you to do so.” (vs 14)
Why do people do this kind of stuff anyway? Why do they see a psychic or a fortune teller or a medium? Isn’t it in order to get answers? Aren’t they seeking information about their loved ones or their life—past or future? Often, they are trying to find a way to make sense of life or discover what is going to happen to them so they can be prepared.
But those of us who know the Lord are not to consult with these types of people who, at best, are misguided and, at worst, are evil. God continues: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites.” (vs 15) Once again, God provides a solution for His people. He knows that we will seek out answers about the meaning of life. He knows that ahead of time. So what does He say? “You don’t have to come to Me. I’ll come to you.”
Instead of us having to try to seek out the answers, He’ll bring the answers to us. Instead of us having to consult a witch, He’ll raise up a prophet. Instead of us having to guess at whether the psychic is correct, He’ll put an accurate prophecy right in our path. You see, God is not subtle. He’s not out to leave us in the dark or waste our time with guessing games. He has plenty of proverbial two-by-fours, and He’s not afraid to use them!
When we need answers, when we need information, He is more than able and willing to bring it to us. He is eager to come to us with the answers to all our questions, and He comes in such a way that we don’t have to wonder about whether it is really Him or not. Romans 1 says that we will know what we need to know about God because He makes it plain to us. We don’t need to search for Him or try to find Him. He has already found us, and He will happily make Himself known!
God plays the hand He is dealt.
Blood feuds have been around for as long as there have been sinful human beings on this planet. According to the Wikipedia article on feuds, a blood feud is “a feud with a cycle of retaliatory violence, with the relatives of someone who has been killed or otherwise wronged or dishonored seeking vengeance by killing or otherwise physically punishing the culprits or their relatives.”
These types of vendettas aren’t new, but neither are they a thing of the past. Today in Albania, for example, more than 5,000 families are involved in blood feuds. In the last 20 years, more than 10,000 Albanians have died and another 20,000 are under a “death sentence” because of these feuds. These feuds develop into a vicious cycle of murder, retaliations, and all-out warfare. This can span generations—often, the original cause is long-forgotten while the feud continues, simply because new generations grow up being taught to further the animosity. Unfortunately, these vendettas typically end in the mutual extinction of both families.
This type of circular, escalating violence was common in Old Testament times. (Remember Genesis 34?) But this is not God’s way. God’s way was expressed by Jesus in Matthew 5: “I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (vs 44) But here’s God’s dilemma: how do you take barbaric people who are prone to violent blood feuds and teach them to love their enemies instead?
The answer is, slowly, one baby step at a time. And it starts with what we find in Deuteronomy 19. Imagine the God of Loving Your Enemies saying this: “Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” (vs 21) Show no pity?! That doesn’t sound like a loving God. Not to mention following that up with instructions to either take life or maim people. And in fact, many Christians point to this verse as evidence that the God of the Old Testament is somehow different from the God of the New Testament.
On the contrary, I believe that God’s instruction to take only one life for only one life was an absolute mercy when you consider the alternative—which was a generations-long blood feud. When confronted with a society whose members would “repay” an accidentally-cut-off hand with murder, what shall you do? When dealing with people who would gladly run out and murder hundreds to avenge the death of one relative, where shall you begin? God decided to begin by limiting violence. He decided to begin by cutting the cycle of escalating vengeance off at the knees.
The cities of refuge were part of this plan. A person who had killed another could flee to one of these cities—even while the “blood avenger” was pursuing them. Once they made it to the city, they would have the opportunity for a fair hearing on the matter. If it was determined that the killing was an accident, they would be allowed to remain safely in the city. However, if it was determined that they had purposely killed the other person, they would be turned over to the “blood avenger” to be put to death.
As I read the chapter, it dawned on me that an added benefit of having an accused killer flee to a city of refuge was that this necessarily put some distance between them and their family. I think this would have greatly lessened the temptation to kill other family members—especially since the “blood avenger” would be pursuing the accused to the city of refuge. Yes, God was doing everything He could to move the Israelites forward in their understanding of matters of fairness, justice, and mercy—in this case, by saying “Show no pity”!
Nowadays, even the “eye for an eye” seems barbaric to us. But I bet it wouldn’t if we lived in a time and place where blood feuds were common. We’d be grateful for at least some restriction on the “acceptable” level of violence. I think it’s incredible that God takes the situation He is given and—in whatever He does—works to start bringing as much peace and harmony as possible. When He is dealt an ugly hand, He doesn’t whine and complain or demand new cards. No, He takes the cards He’s been given and works them—like a Master.
I’m so glad He’ll take us step by step and not just expect or require us to take huge leaps that are impossible for us. If we’re not ready for “love your enemies,” He’s willing to begin with “an eye for an eye.” He doesn’t force us to take the hand He wants to deal. He willingly joins in our game and takes the cards we dole out to Him.
God wages war differently than we do.
At the outset of writing this blog, I must be honest and confess that I have no idea where it’s going. Perhaps we will end with more “questions” than “answers” today. And wouldn’t that be delightful!
To me, the overriding theme of this chapter is the weird way God wages war. Let’s make a list of the oddities:
1. Right before going into battle, He dismissed a good percentage of His troops, including those who had just built a house, those who had just planted a garden, those who were engaged, and anyone who was just generally fearful or hesitant. Are you scared? It’s okay! You can leave now!
2. The first order of business after meeting “the enemy” was to extend an offer of peace. If the people accepted the offer, they would enter a life of service to the Israelites. Now, at first, this might not seem like such a deal: You pick. Slavery or death. However, don’t forget God’s strict requirements about how Israelites were to treat their servants. Furthermore, the Bible doesn’t say that if the offer of peace was rejected, the Israelites were to attack the enemy. No, it says this: “If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city.” (vs 12)
3. If the enemy decided to go to war with Israel, the Israelites were instructed not to let anybody from that city live. However, the Israelites were also equally subject to the fight. This is evidenced by verse 7: “Has anyone become pledged to a woman and not married her? Let him go home, or he may die in battle and someone else marry her.” Actually, when I started thinking about this, it seemed more odd than the other things. If God Almighty was with you and even fighting for you (vs 4), why would you be in danger of death? But apparently the Israelites were subject to the fight. This means that a war with any of their enemies would not simply be a one-sided slaughter. Hmm, so perhaps this kind of war was not about ultimately wiping out the heathen nation. For if it was, God could have certainly done that without needing the Israelites.
So, exactly what kind of “war” was God describing? We might recognize the bloodshed, but given our modern context for war, the honorable discharges and the peace treaties before the fight seem out of place. Also, if God was a fierce warmonger bent on the destruction of His enemies, it doesn’t make sense that He wouldn’t at least put a hedge of protection around all of His troops. What modern general—given the power or technology—wouldn’t safeguard his own soldiers whilst devastating the enemy army?
For me, there are a lot of things that don’t quite add up. And you know what? I’m glad about that. Because it means that we don’t have all the answers; we don’t know everything that was going on here—in the culture, in the context. What I can conclude with confidence (at least to my satisfaction) is that I can’t summarily dismiss the “God of the Old Testament” as some vengeful, warmongering dictator—if for nothing more than the fact that He required His people to offer peace first and practice self-defense if necessary.
Of course, when Jesus came to shine the light on the true character of God, we caught a glimpse of just how far-reaching God’s ideal of peace really is. (Even though it was Jesus who said He had not come to bring peace, but a sword.) Still, as we saw yesterday, God will begin with the hand He’s dealt, and here’s a perfect example of that. In the Israelites, He was dealt a hand of war-loving people. And in Deuteronomy 20, He proves that He will masterfully work with even that hand—waging war, perhaps, but in a totally different manner than we would!
God values human life.
At first blush, this may seem like a strange chapter on which to affix a title like God values human life. After all, it references things such as murder, stoning, hanging, and captivity. Yet, beneath the discussion—like a strong undercurrent—I see a God who is trying to instill in His people a fundamental respect for life. Let’s take a quick peek at each section:
1. Atonement for an Unsolved Murder (vs 1-9). In Israel, if a person was found dead and nobody knew how they had died, the priests in the nearest city to the body were required to sacrifice a heifer (a valuable one, mind you) in order to “make atonement” for the bloodshed. When I first read that, I thought, what’s that all about? What does a cow’s broken neck have to do with a dead body? But the more I thought about it, the more I thought about the time and effort involved in carrying out such a ritual. One thing is for sure: nobody in Israel would be able to just ignore a dead body and go on about their business. I think it served to help the people understand that every life is precious to God—even those that end when nobody else is watching. They matter to Him, and so He wanted them to also matter to His people.
2. Marrying a Captive Woman (vs 10-14). There were a lot of beautiful women in the surrounding heathen nations, and I’m sure it often happened that Israelite men were attracted to them. (This is what got them into trouble with the Moabites, remember?) Well, once again, God shows His soft underbelly and tenderness toward women. He instructs the Israelite men who want to marry a captive woman to, first, allow them a month of mourning for their family (presumably killed in battle) and then to be basically granted all the rights of an Israelite wife. That is, if the man decided to “divorce” her, he couldn’t sell her or treat her as a slave. She would not revert to being a “prisoner of war.”
3. The Right of the Firstborn (vs 15-17). Oh, how often is it the children who suffer through the marital problems of their parents. There is an unfortunate amount of evidence for that in our own society, and here we see that we did not invent such ills. Only, in Bible times, instead of divorcing the first wife and marrying a second and having an entirely separate family, men usually just added wives to the household. Talk about rivalry and competition—between the wives and the children! So God told His men to respect their firstborn sons—no matter what they came to think of the mother. If more fathers would heed the principle of this advice today, we might have a lot fewer hurting children in our society.
4. A Rebellious Son (vs 18-21). This one sort of made me want to laugh right out loud. If you don’t obey your parents, they will take you to be stoned. First of all, I can’t think of a single Bible story (off the top of my head) where this warning was actually carried out. We’ll have to keep our eyes open for some as we go along. But I think there’s a little clue to this warning in verse 21: “All Israel will hear of it and be afraid.” I think this is the Biblical equivalent of, You just wait until your father gets home. I doubt there were many parents who would have actually taken their own children to be stoned to death, but I bet it was a great deterrent to disobedience! (Johnny, clean that toilet right now . . . you know what it says in Deuteronomy about a rebellious son!) On a fundamental level, however, I think this shows the great importance God places on parenting—both on the parent’s responsibility to be good parents and the child’s responsibility to respect authority. A great prerequisite for valuing life!
5. Various Laws (vs 22-23). Last but not least, there is the instruction to bury dead bodies—especially those of folks who died in a public way. How does this show respect for the value of human life? Well, I have often wondered what it would have been like to live under Roman authority in the time of Christ. I have read in the past that crucifixion was so common then that the main highways were nearly littered with crosses and as many as 500 people were crucified per day. Around 40 BC, a Roman historian recorded that 2,000 people were crucified in a single day—simply for the entertainment of Quintilius Varus. But regardless of whether it was done for punishment or pleasure (ugh), such exposure to suffering, death, and dying on a regular basis would have a powerfully desensitizing effect. Here, it seems God wanted to minimize that desensitization has much as possible.
I am so glad that our God values human life—and not just the physical aspects, but the emotional and spiritual aspects as well. He cares about how we are treated. He cares about whether we receive respect from and give respect to others. He cares that we love and are loved. And this isn’t just cheap talk or pretty words: He cares to such an extent that He didn’t even spare His own life in the quest to show us just how much He values us. Wow. What a God!
God has always taught the Golden Rule.
Since there are a lot of “miscellaneous” rules chronicled in this chapter, I’ve decided to focus on the very first one, outlaid in vs 1-4: “If you see your fellow Israelite’s ox or sheep straying, do not ignore it but be sure to take it back to its owner. If they do not live near you or if you do not know who owns it, take it home with you and keep it until they come looking for it. Then give it back. Do the same if you find their donkey or cloak or anything else they have lost. Do not ignore it. If you see your fellow Israelite’s donkey or ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it. Help the owner get it to its feet.”
Did you know that nearly every religion in the world has some form of the “Golden Rule”? Here are a couple: “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful” (Buddhism); “This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you” (Hinduism). There is an interesting difference between the majority of these other versions and God’s version. The others tend to focus on not doing something that would harm your neighbor. God’s version focuses on action—doing for someone else what you would want them to do for you.
We normally associate the Golden Rule with Jesus. “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt 7:12) The Message Bible puts it even more boldly: “Ask yourself what you want people to do for you, then grab the initiative and do it for them.” But where did Jesus learn this principle? Why, I think He got it from Deuteronomy 22!
Here, right here, in the midst of the barbarianism and blood feuds is God’s instruction to the Israelites to help their neighbors, not just refrain from harming them. So, instead of being unconcerned and “minding their own business,” they were supposed to notice when their neighbor was in need. They were even supposed to help when they didn’t know who they were trying to help! (vs 2) Instead of sitting back on their haunches, they were encouraged to take the initiative in being kind.
I am continually amazed at this Bible journey—at how much of what we associate only with Jesus and The Gospels is in the Old Testament . . . and has been there all along! Jesus didn’t make up the Golden Rule. In saying “do unto others,” He wasn’t articulating some new rule that was meant to counteract something contradictory in the Old Testament. No, He was simply repeating what had already been given in the Old Testament. So let’s not relegate this great principle of God’s kingdom to the New Testament only. God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He has always taught the Golden Rule!
God turns every curse into a blessing.
I was so tempted to make my blog a commentary on the fact that God had to tell Israelite men to bury their business instead of leaving it around to stink up the camp. However, being Christmas and all, I decided to go for something a bit more refined.
In the chapter, this also caught my eye: “No Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord, not even in the tenth generation. For they did not come to meet you with bread and water on your way when you came out of Egypt, and they hired Balaam . . . to pronounce a curse on you. However, the Lord your God would not listen to Balaam but turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the Lord your God loves you.” (vs 3-5)
When I read this, I thought, did Balaam’s intention to curse Israel have any power? Any authority? He was just a guy standing on a hilltop, far enough away from the camp to see the whole thing. Even if he had been able to speak words that would “curse” Israel, would they have heard it? What difference would it have really made?
Well, obviously on some level, Balaam did have the power to curse Israel—either through himself or perhaps through Satan or other evil agencies that would have been happy to mess up what God was trying to do with His people—but his power was thwarted by God. God took the curse he intended and turned it into a blessing instead.
God takes curses and turns them into blessings. In the case of Balaam, He never even allowed Balaam to utter the curse in the first place. But what about Job? God allowed Satan to destroy nearly everything that was important to him: his family, his wealth, and his health. God allowed that. He didn’t protect Job from Satan’s curse the same way He had protected Israel from Balaam’s curse. So, this leads us to a truth that, for me, is sometimes hard to swallow. When the “curses” come, it is because God has allowed them to come. That doesn’t mean He has caused them. That doesn’t mean He wants them to happen. But it means that, for a variety of reasons, He sometimes allows the curses to come to us.
Ouch. I don’t know about you, but that can be a hard truth to face.
And that’s precisely why we have the story of Balaam (and others like it in the Bible)—so we will know that every curse that comes to us is turned into a blessing by our heavenly Father. One of the greatest examples I can think of right off the top of my head is the story of Joseph. Joseph was greatly cursed (it would seem). He was going to be killed by his brothers, but instead he was sold into a life of slavery, then falsely accused of sexual assault, and sent to prison and forgotten about . . . until the right time, that is. Yes, God knew just how to turn all of Joseph’s curses into blessings. He used them all to save Joseph, his family (including his naughty brothers), and the Egyptians. Wow!
So, are you under any curses today? Praise God—because, in the near future, those very curses are going to become some of His very best blessings to you! Just as He took the curse of being hung on a tree (Deut 21:23) and turned it into the greatest blessing the universe has ever known, so He can—in every circumstance—bless your life today.
Merry Christmas! God (is) bless(ing) you!
God is a master of relationships.
The first year David and I were married, he was not allowed to work whilst we waited for the government to issue him a work visa. (He immigrated from England.) Of course, this was a big financial strain on things. I was working a pretty good, flexible full-time job, but David—being the hard-working man he is—was fit to be tied over his mandatory unemployment situation. I tried to remind him often that he would soon be working too much and wishing for his “pre-employment” days to come back!
So, we tried to forget about the finances and enjoy the extra time we had together. And what wonderful times those were! I was working as a Director of Music in a church about 90 minutes from our home, so we would make the drive together three or four times a week. While I was working in my office, David would read or surf the internet. We got to go to lunch every day, have long walks and talks, and just generally enjoy each other’s company.
Now that David is a truck driver and only home on the weekends, I long for the days of our first year of marriage! But now that we are separated by work, I realize what a huge asset those months were. All that time together strengthened the bond of our relationship and prepared us for life as we now know it. I think that could be why God instructed the Israelites to treat newlyweds in a special way: “If a man has recently married, he must not be sent to war or have any other duty laid on him. For one year he is to be free to stay at home and bring happiness to the wife he has married.” (vs 5)
I just love this. Bring happiness to his wife. I remind my husband that it really doesn’t say anything about the wife bringing happiness to the husband. Here, God places the duty of happiness squarely on the man’s shoulders. However, I suppose men probably know by now that when they love their wives, they’re really loving themselves. When mama’s happy, everybody’s happy.
God is a master of relationships. And He knows that one of the major things a good relationship requires is time. That’s why He ordered a one-year honeymoon for newlyweds. That’s why He gave us a weekly day to stop and spend time with Him. We serve a God who is all about relationships, and He knows how to make them great!
God reveres honesty.
God is a master of relationships, and the first key to any relationship is honesty. When you think about it, the whole world—even the universe—is in the mess it’s in because one of God’s creatures decided to be dishonest instead of honest. Up in heaven, Lucifer began spreading lies about God, and when Adam and Eve bought into his lies in the Garden of Eden, our planet began to descend into chaos.
You can’t have any sort of positive relationship without trust, can you? If you can’t really believe what the other person is telling you, what does that mean for the relationship? You are suspicious of everything they do and say. They may be suspicious of you in return. And when both people in a relationship are guarding themselves because they’re afraid of being suckered, there isn’t a whole lot of relating going on.
A friend of mine once commented about the story of Adam and Eve (when God came looking for them in the garden) this way: “Once the finger pointing begins, the conversation is over.” That’s why God gave the Israelites strict instructions to safeguard the trust and integrity of their relationships between one another. Here’s what He said: “Do not have two differing weights in your bag—one heavy, one light. Do not have two differing measures in your house—one large, one small. You must have accurate and honest weights and measures, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you. For the Lord your God detests anyone who does these things, anyone who deals dishonestly.” (vs 13-16)
Honesty is everything in a relationship. I mean, if you’re not even willing to deal in reality, what’s the point? This is the whole problem with sin. When we became afraid of God, we started to believe that we had to protect ourselves, that we couldn’t trust Him to do what was right by us. This is the very (flawed) thinking God is trying to overcome.
God is always honest with us, and He wants us to be honest with Him and others. When we deal with others in a trustworthy manner, we not only strengthen our personal relationships, but we honor God as well. He reveres honesty.
God is highly efficient.
There has been much talk in the American media lately of taxes, what with the frenzy to extend former-President Bush’s tax cuts before the end of the year. It has also been a year full of talk about how much the government should play a role in the day-to-day lives of American citizens. Should the government provide universal health care? Should the government take more money from the rich and give it to the poor? Should the Federal Reserve print more money to cover our expanding debt?
It’s enough to make your head swim. Not to mention the fact that people on both sides of the issues are now routinely lining up to claim that Jesus would support their particular version of social policy. I think it might be fair to say that never in our history has God’s name been used so much on television (that is, when it wasn’t followed by a four-letter word).
Well, no matter what you think of America’s social policy and where God would or wouldn’t fit into it, Deuteronomy 26 is all about God’s social policy. And—surprise!—it doesn’t look like anything on either side of our aisles. “When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied. Then say to the Lord your God: ‘I have removed from my house the sacred portion and have given it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, according to all you commanded. I have not turned aside from your commands nor have I forgotten any of them.’” (vs 12-13)
There were certain groups of people in Israel who did not have the ability to “work.” That is, they received no land inheritance with which to make a living. These were (1) the Levites, (2) foreigners, (3) the orphans, and (4) the widows. Basically, if you were unconnected (or had become disconnected) from your family and their inheritance, you didn’t have a way to make a living. So, what was God’s plan for providing for these groups of people? Brace yourselves. A triennial tax. Ten percent of your income once every three years. That was enough to care for the needy in Israel.
Wow. How does that sound to those of you who are getting ready to fill out tax forms? How about ten percent every three years as opposed to thirty, forty, or fifty percent every year? This is how God’s highly-efficient government works. Those who were able to be productive were expected to be productive, and those who were productive were expected to care for those who were unable to be productive. And, as everyone participated, those who were in need were cared for with very modest amounts of tithe. You see, God is such an extravagant giver that His blessings are more than enough to provide for everyone. In His government, there’s no need for the “rich” and “poor” to be at odds with each other. There is no class warfare. Israel’s citizens retained ninety-six percent of their annual income while the needy were also taken care of. Neither group was ignored or marginalized.
So I wonder how our own government would be better if we asked the Master for advice on how to govern. I’m not talking about a marriage of church and state, here. Rather, I’m talking about us as a nation of individuals humbly coming to God, recognizing that He is much more than just a pawn to be used in the promotion of our ideas. He is a super-intelligent, caring Parent who is eager to assist us in making every area of our lives better—even government!
God is a loud siren.
Here’s what shocked me from Deuteronomy 27: “When you have crossed the Jordan, these tribes shall stand on Mount Gerizim to bless the people: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph and Benjamin. And these tribes shall stand on Mount Ebal to pronounce curses: Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan and Naphtali.” (vs 12-13)
To pronounce curses? What does that mean? But before I could wonder any more about that, I ran right smack dab into the list of “curses” that would be announced. Apparently, cursed is anyone who:
- practices idolatry
- disrespects their parents
- tries to steal their neighbor’s land
- leads a blind person astray
- treats a foreigner, orphan, or widow unjustly
- has sex with his father’s wife
- has sex with an animal
- has sex with his sister
- has sex with his mother-in-law
- kills their neighbor
- performs murder for hire
- doesn’t practice God’s law
God is not articulating punishments here. He’s articulating reality. In other words, He’s not threatening that He will do something to people who don’t obey His law; rather, He’s sounding a warning bell—letting the Israelites know that anybody who disregards the law of love is cursed. God doesn’t curse them for not keeping the law. Not keeping the law is the curse.
So, what we’re talking about here is intrinsic versus imposed consequences. If we wanted, we could fashion our own kind of “cursed” list. Cursed is anyone who:
- jumps out of a plane without a parachute
- drinks poison
- wades out into the ocean wearing lead boots
Anyone who engaged in such behaviors would face dire, even life-threatening, consequences. And the same thing applies to the more abstract concepts of God’s law. You see, following the law of love—living in the way God has prescribed—is a blessing. It is its own reward. On the contrary, ignoring the law of love—living in the way God has proscribed—is a curse. It is its own punishment. God is not in the business of threatening; He’s in the business of warning. Oh, when the circumstances are really dire, He’ll issue a threat. But the reality is that such threats—when carried out—are acts of discipline designed to redirect our path away from the real danger, which is a persistent rejection of God’s law.
God doesn’t want us to be cursed! He wants us to be blessed! And that’s why He acts like a loud siren to warn us of impending danger. When we’re even thinking about heading down a self-destructive path, He goes into five-alarm-fire mode in order to get our attention. When we’re in harm’s way, He will sound the warning cry!
God believes in full disclosure.
So, here we have a mega-extension of yesterday’s chapter and lesson about God—that He warns us of impending danger. I know I’ve read this chapter of Deuteronomy several times as I’ve made my way through the Bible in the past, but never have I been so struck by the description of what life is like when we disregard God’s law of love. It is bleak.
To sum it all up, I believe, is this verse: “You will live in constant suspense, filled with dread both night and day, never sure of your life. In the morning you will say, ‘If only it were evening!’ and in the evening, ‘If only it were morning!’—because of the terror that will fill your hearts and the sights that your eyes will see.” (vs 66-67) What I see described here is a state of living in which there is no peace. There is only anxiety, worry, fear, and helplessness. Wow, if that doesn’t describe a large cross-section of today’s society!
God is the only place where we find true peace. And He really wants us to have true peace. He wants us to have true freedom. That’s why He doesn’t believe in “small print”—you know, the kind of terms and conditions you find buried at the end of a credit card agreement or mortgage documents. He is fully up-front and forthright about everything because He wants us to make fully-informed decisions.
Sometimes, though, I think it’s still hard for us to believe—especially when we look at the law—that He is trying to preserve our freedom and not restrict us. Some of His laws can look awfully restrictive at first. The other way looks so much more fun and appealing. We think to ourselves, could this possibly lead to a curse?
If there’s one area where Americans have made definite strides toward “freedom” in the last 50 years, it’s in the realm of sex. Ever since the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s, young men and women have been told that they are “free” to explore their sexuality in any context they want: within marriage, outside of marriage, with people of the same sex, with multiple partners at the same time, with animals, with children. (Yes, there are adults who advocate for the “right” to have sexual relations with children.)
Let’s examine where this so-called freedom has landed us. With healthier relationships? I don’t think so. With a stronger family unit in society? Hardly. The family unit is being decimated in America. Has it landed us with more emotional health? Not from what I’ve seen. Rather, I see an epidemic of young girls—who don’t know any better—trying to find their meaning and self-worth by giving themselves away to boys who aren’t committed to them. I see devastation, not freedom.
But, that’s the abstract realm. It might be easy to make the case that I simply know a lot of people for whom “sexual freedom” hasn’t worked out so well. So let’s go with something a little more concrete. Do you know how many sexually transmitted diseases there were in the 1960s? Two—gonorrhea and syphilis. After 50 years of “sexual freedom,” do you know how many there are today? Over fifty.
So, you tell me, has ignoring God’s guidelines for sex led to more freedom or less freedom? Do we have more peace now, or less? When it comes to sex, are we truly free to focus on our partner without fear, or do we have to worry about condoms, diseases, unwanted pregnancy, and past emotional baggage? You tell me where the true freedom lies.
I think it is in God. He knows it. And He wants us to know it, too. And that’s why He will say the hard things when they have to be said. That’s why He will paint the scary picture for us, to let us know exactly what things will be like if we ignore the law of love. I’m so glad God believes in full and honest disclosure. He will never trick us with small print or speedy disclaimers (like the ones that come at the end of radio commercials). He will always tell us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth!
God wants a future with you.
So, yet again, this chapter opens with a litany of Israel’s history—how they were slaves in Egypt, how God brought them out with signs and wonders, how God cared for them in the desert, and how they defeated all the nations who have come against them thus far. And I’m thinking, how many times have we heard this already? Do the Israelites have short-term memory loss? Why does Moses keep going over this again and again and again?
Aha, herein is more evidence of God’s relationship genius. Because it’s either that or He’s a broken record. (Hint: it’s the first one.) What are relationships, after all, except a living connection between two people based upon a history of memories? Isn’t that really what constitutes a friendship or intimate relationship? A connection that is formed over time as two people share experiences in a wide variety of circumstances.
In the case of my husband and me, I can trace the start of our relationship all the way back to a single look. That’s it. At that point, I didn’t know anything about him (except that he was staring at me), and he didn’t know anything about me (except that he liked the way I looked in my outfit). That was a rainy night in England. Fast forward nearly ten years, and we’re married and living in America. How did that happen? One memory at a time. At any point along the way, one or both of us could have decided that we’d had enough and didn’t want to make any more memories together. A lot of people do that. It’s called “breaking up” or “ending a friendship.” Instead, we decided we quite liked making memories together, and now, we keep the bond strong by making new memories as well as reminiscing about the old ones.
That’s what God is trying to do with the Israelites, over and over. He is trying to remind them of their shared history. Once again, this isn’t one of the heathen gods—faraway, distant, non-existent—that men had to make futile searches for. No, He chose them. He loved them. And His recounting their history was one of His simple ways of strengthening the bond between them.
It works in my life. The moment I am tempted to be anxious or worried over one of life’s circumstances, all I have to do is think back on my life and remember that God has never let me down. Not even once. Have there been disappointments? Sure. Have there been things that I wish hadn’t happened? Yup. However, a look back over history shows me now how all of those things were working together for my good. And when I remember that, I can trust that God is also using the things I may not like that are happening right now.
So, as you think back over this last year of your life, where do you see God? Can you see all the ways He’s been working in your life? Are you excited about 2011? Just as He went through the litany of Israelites’ history with them, He is anxious to go over His past with you so you will not forget Him in this New Year. He is looking forward to a wonderful future with you!
God has a Happy New Year for each day.
I found it curious that, in this chapter, Moses almost seems to prophesy that the Israelites will turn away from God: “When all these blessings and curses I have set before you come on you and you take them to heart wherever the Lord your God disperses you among the nations, and when you and your children return to the Lord your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you.” (vs 1-3)
At first, that didn’t seem very nice. Right before the people are to go into the Promised Land, Moses is basically saying, “You’re going to wander away, because we all know you’re not that faithful. However, when you come back, God will treat you as if you never left.” Well, it may not be what the people wanted to hear, but one thing’s for sure: we know that’s a true description of God, because it’s just how Jesus described Him in the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. The father treated the runaway son as if he had never left home.
God has always been that way, and God is still that way. This means that, when it comes to God, we don’t have to wait another 365 days to get a new year, a fresh start. We can have one every day. We can have one every minute, if necessary. God is ready and waiting with His pile of blessings to give us a Happy New Year anytime we want. So, let’s not spend one more minute in the land of the curses! God’s arms are open, and He is longing for us to come home. Let’s make today a Happy New Year with Him, too!
God loves His rebellious children.
I would like to marry two concepts I find in this chapter. First, that God’s love is active. It is a verb, not a noun. And second, that God loves us even while knowing exactly who and what we are. His intimate knowledge of our wickedness does not change His love for us. In fact, if anything, I think it fires Him up to love us (that is, to fiercely act for our best good) even more.
Let’s take that second idea first: God knows exactly who and what we are. Here’s a clue from Deuteronomy 31: “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘You are going to rest with your ancestors, and these people will soon prostitute themselves to the foreign gods of the land they are entering. They will forsake me and break the covenant I made with them.’” (vs 16) What does this mean? Long before the Israelites entered the Promised Land and began to chase after false gods, God knew that’s what they were going to do. He knew that they were wicked and faithless and disloyal. He knew that all the reminders of the evidence of His faithfulness wouldn’t ultimately make a difference. They would cut themselves in worshiping Baal. They would sacrifice their children to Molech.
What I find fascinating is that this knowledge didn’t cause God to give up on the Israelites, nor did it stop His working with them. Immediately after telling Moses that they would turn away from Him, He said this: “‘Now write down this song and teach it to the Israelites and have them sing it, so that it may be a witness for me against them. When I have brought them into the land flowing with milk and honey, the land I promised on oath to their ancestors, and when they eat their fill and thrive, they will turn to other gods and worship them, rejecting me and breaking my covenant. And when many disasters and calamities come on them, this song will testify against them, because it will not be forgotten by their descendants. I know what they are disposed to do, even before I bring them into the land I promised them on oath.’” (vs 19-21)
Wow! Even knowing that they would leave Him and forsake Him, God is still working to provide the people with an easy reminder of everything He has done for them. He knew that they would learn this song and obviously not forget it (vs 21). And once they had been devastated by the curses that would come to them from ignoring God’s law, the song would remind them about God, and they would return to Him. Incidentally, because love is a verb, the fact that disaster and despair would come upon the Israelites when they ignored God was loving. This was designed to discipline them, to teach them that the only good we can know is in God. And it was most definitely a loving thing to help, nudge, or even shove the Israelites toward that understanding!
For some reason, it gives me great comfort to know that God knows about all my wickedness. He knows about the evil that is lurking in my heart—even if I don’t know about it yet. And because He is such a great Lover, all of my ugly wickedness doesn’t turn Him away or turn Him off. Instead, He redoubles His efforts to get my attention and bring me back home to Him. He sees all my naughtiness and loves me—truly loves me—still. Amen.
God has a hero list.
I recently finished reading Miracle in the Andes by Nando Parrado. It’s the story of how 16 people survived an awful plane crash in the Andes Mountains—not because they were rescued, but because Nando and his friend Roberto ultimately climbed out of the Andes and back to civilization.
As their ordeal wore on, one of the boys, Roy Harley, had begun to get on Nando’s nerves. He writes about how he would often be frustrated by Roy’s impatience and complaining. Yet, he was the only one who knew anything about radios, so when a group of the boys decided to make a mini-climb in order to find the plane’s tail (where the radio was), Roy went along.
On the way back from their expedition, they got blindsided by a sudden blizzard. In the frigid, white-out conditions, Nando knew that if the group didn’t continue back to the plane, they would all die. But Roy was exhausted. He decided he couldn’t take another step, so he laid down in the snow to die. In an incredible account, Nando tells about how he couldn’t bring himself to leave Roy there, but he knew that if he stayed, they would both die.
With the others in the group disappearing ahead of them into the snow, Nando began to beat, kick, and punch Roy, hollering at him above the roar of the storm to get up. Finally, Roy got up and Nando began to drag him step-by-step back to the plane. Eventually, when Roy didn’t have the strength to go another step, Nando picked him up and carried him the rest of the way. Still, Nando writes that whenever he thinks back on the ordeal—and especially getting caught in the blizzard—he always thinks of Roy as a hero.
I thought that was incredible, and I couldn’t help but think about that as I read this chapter of Deuteronomy. Here is God, through Moses, teaching the Israelites a song about their unfaithfulness. I mean, how do you put lyrics like Is this the way you repay the Lord, you foolish and unwise people to music? Yet, right in the middle of this song about Israel’s wickedness, God calls His people “Jeshurun.” (vs 15)
Jeshurun means upright one. Upright one! What?! In the middle of a song dedicated to memorializing Israel’s unfaithfulness, God calls His people upright? Isn’t He paying attention to His own song?
Actually, this seems to be a pattern of God’s. He called His wayward children Jeshurun. He called David (you know, the lying, murdering adulterer) a man after His own heart. And in Hebrews 11, He celebrates a list of people who exhibited great faith, including Noah (a drunk), Abraham (a liar), Gideon (who is known for his lack of faith), and Samson! (Have you read the story of Samson lately?)
These were not the most honorable people. Yet God has included them in His list of faith heroes. And Israel certainly wasn’t anything close to faithful, yet God called them by a name that meant righteous and faithful. This is what God does. Like Nando, who now thinks of his friend Roy as a hero, God looks at us—even with all our imperfections—and sees giants of faith. Instead of exalting Himself for how He has patiently dealt with us, He exalts us, celebrating us and honoring us for the ordeal we’ve been through.
When God looks at you, He doesn’t see a screw-up. He doesn’t see a mistake. He doesn’t even see an unfaithful or weak child. He sees a precious friend. He sees someone He is proud of. He sees a hero.
God does not remember our sins.
I know. No big “earth-shattering” revelation today. We all know that God doesn’t remember our sins, but it’s awfully nice to see it in action. This promise of God’s isn’t just a claim; it’s a reality. In Deuteronomy 33, Moses pronounces a blessing on the people of Israel as they are getting ready to enter the Promised Land. As I read through the list of blessings, I couldn’t help once again noticing the names behind the tribes of Israel: Dan, Asher, Gad, Levi, Judah . . .
These were those wicked brothers who threw Joseph into a pit. They were plotting to kill him, but ended up selling him into slavery instead. And not only did their evil deed end up saving their own lives, but now they (through their descendents) are being blessed! There’s no longer any mention of what they did to their brother; no, their sins have been forgotten.
And just in case it seems like it, let’s also remember that this “forgetfulness” doesn’t mean God is having a senior moment. His forgetting our sins isn’t an accident; it’s a choice. Micah 7:9 says God “will again have compassion on us, will tread our sins underfoot, and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.” He doesn’t forget them because they’ve slipped His mind; He chooses not to remember them by putting them out of His mind.
When God looks at you, He doesn’t see a list of sins. He doesn’t remember your sins. And whatever evil you have done, you can be sure that God is going to repay that evil with kindness. He always stands ready to bless!
God is consistent.
After the death of Moses, the record in Deuteronomy 34 says this: “Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.” (vs 11) As I read this, it dawned on me that many of God’s good friends are found in the Old Testament, before the testimony of Jesus.
I had never thought about that before, but it’s true, isn’t it? I mean, in the Old Testament, you have Enoch, Abraham, Moses, Job, Elijah, and David—all of whom, while not perfect, were noted as special friends of God. Moses, particularly, had the privilege of speaking face-to-face with Him.
How amazing that all of these people (who lived before Christ’s first advent) could have known God well enough to be His good friends—especially when we look at the Old Testament and sometimes claim that the revelation of God there is skewed. We say that Jesus had to come to clear up the record—and that’s true. Jesus came to clear up misunderstandings about God as well as to explain His law in fuller detail.
But Hebrews says this about Jesus’s testimony: “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” (Heb 1:1-2) To me, this indicates that God has always been speaking; the communication from Jesus was simply one of the ways He has brought the message He’s been trying to give us all along. And it’s wonderful to discover that there were many who lived in Old Testament times who were able to get the message! They knew what God was like, even if those living around them were fuzzy on the details of His character.
God is consistent. His character is consistent. His love is consistent. How wonderful it is to know that we can always trust Him because He never changes.