There are different kinds of pleasures in this life, and then there is what the Bible describes as joy. Can you imagine the rush of pleasure that Adam felt when he ate of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden? For a moment, he must have felt like he ruled the world, and his destiny. He thought he was God. Then came the flood of guilt and fear that Adam and Eve felt as they found their sinful hearts naked and exposed in God’s presence.
Is it not true that God would have been perfectly just to judge Adam and Eve for their sin by putting them to death, and ending the world forever? But God relented and had compassion on humankind – so that we might know the joy of eternal life. And he did so ultimately for his own glory.
In the book of Deuteronomy, God’s people – Israel – are in a similar predicament to our father Adam in the Garden of Eden. Like the first Adam, Israel is in a covenant relationship with God. And like God’s covenant with Adam before humankind’s Fall into sin, God’s covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai is defined by a principle of works. In other words, in God’s covenant with Israel set forth in Deuteronomy, he imposes certain obligations or conditions upon his people. These conditions are found in God’s law summed up in the Ten Commandments. If Israel obeys the law and is faithful to the covenant, she will be rewarded with a long life of blessing in the garden of Eden-like Promised Land. However, if Israel disobeys and breaks the covenant, she will be cursed.
In the Song of Moses so far, God has revealed himself as Israel’s rock and refuge. Thanks to God and his marvelous deeds, Israel has a history of glorious deliverance and preservation. But, the Song has also served to expose Israel’s sin. Why? Because they have acted with gross ingratitude toward God and his gracious deeds towards them. Israel has prostituted herself to gods who are no gods, in full view of God! She is naked and shameful. Like Adam and Eve who were punished with banishment from the Garden of Eden, Israel will be exiled from the Promised Land and will endure the full barrage of God’s covenant curses. We see the horror of these curses in Deut 28, and Moses repeats them in Deut 32.19-25. So outraged is God, with righteous indignation, that he will not even spare the woman or the nursing child from the ravages of war, v25.
But does this mean that Israel has no hope or future with God? Like Adam, she failed the test of obedience in the garden of the Promised Land. But like Adam, Israel was not ultimately destroyed by God. In Gen. 3:15, God promised Adam and his descendents life through the seed of the woman. And then in Gen. 15-17, God reveals more of this salvation promise in his covenant with Abraham. In the Abrahamic covenant or the covenant of grace, God makes an unconditional oath to redeem a people that will one day come from the physical descendents of Abraham and the nation of Israel.
Well, the Song of Moses is in keeping with this hope, in its third and final movement, in vv26-43.
In v26 of Deut. 32, the heat of God’s just anger has reached boiling point. Moses writes: “I would have said, “I will cut them to pieces; I will wipe them from human memory.” But then the dramatic reversal. God says: “I would have destroyed Israel, but I will not.” Here, seemingly out of nowhere, the tempo of the song changes from one of judgment, to hope. But how can this be? How can Israel have a future beyond judgment?
Because: as was the case for Adam and Eve, God will act for the vindication of his name by saving Israel. God will act for his glory!
You see, as the story goes, once Israel had enjoyed a period of time in the Promised Land, she was eventually driven out by God for her disobedience. As punishment for her sins, she was defeated and owned by foreign enemy nations.
It was common in the Ancient Near East for the nation victorious in war to lay claim to the superiority of their gods: “we beat you in battle, so our gods are greater than yours.” Knowing this, God will act for the glory and vindication of his name, by acting on behalf of his people. God will act lest Israel’s enemies misunderstand, lest they think that by their power and might they have triumphed over God’s people, v27.
The folly of the nations in God’s hand
Think about it: what do pagan nations and unbelieving sinners trust in but their own self-sufficiency, based on pompous pride! Vv28-29: they are “void of counsel and understanding.” They should have known that their victory over Israel was due to God’s hand disciplining his people, and not their own strength!
This truth is the answer to the rhetorical question posed by God in v30 concerning how the pagan nations could have defeated Israel. The fact is that enemy nations had victory over Israel because it was a divinely-enabled victory. Only God, the Rock, could have “chased a thousand… and put ten thousand to flight.” The world must know that even judgments against Israel occur by the hand of God and not ultimately by foolish and rebellious nations! For, the rock of Assyria and Babylon is not like the Rock of Israel, v31. For Moses writes that Israel’s enemies are deeply rooted in evil and self-deception, “from the vine of Sodom and the fields of Gomorrah”: bringing forth “grapes of poison” and wine as the “poison of serpents.”
The enemy should have known better. Their arrogance should have turned to trembling if they had realised their terrible state before God. They should have known that their greatest evil was their enmity toward the people of God and therefore toward God himself. For Holy God has not forgotten their sin and folly, v34. Israel’s enemies may have triumphed in battle, but they will certainly not escape the “vengeance and recompense” of God. God will execute his justice against them. “Their foot will slip”; “for the day of their calamity is at hand, and their doom comes swiftly.” Those who despise God and his people will surely perish.
From curse to blessing
In v36, Moses returns to God’s dealings with his people. Here the chorus of joy begins to trumpet over the death march of God’s curses that has been so dominant in the Song of Moses so far. This chorus is that God’s judgment upon his people is not the full story, but will be followed by blessing! “The Lord will judge his people and have compassion on his servants…” Yes, God will most certainly judge Israel with the curses of the covenant. If God is just, he must judge sin, to uphold his glory!
But look: God will also have compassion on his people!
However, only when Israel “sees that their power is gone.” Only when they know they are as helpless as when God first found them: like an eagle finding her chick lings in the howling wilderness. Only when Israel is exhausted and undone by the oppression of her enemies will God intervene. Only when Israel has given up on the idols she worshipped vainly in exile. Only when she comes face to face with nothing but sin, death, and hell – only then will God redeem his people. Israel must first learn to sing the blues…
For God’s glory
Then Israel will see things as they truly are. Through the lessons of sorrow and repentance will they learn the hope and joy that is rooted God’s glory and his ways. God speaks again in v39: “see now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.” Here God affirms that he is God. There are not many gods, but one. Yahweh, Israel’s God, is the one who “kills and makes alive.” God identifies himself alone as the one in control. He exercises the absolute sovereign right to judge the nations, and to judge Israel, but also to give Israel life. God, and no one else, is the Savior of his people. To God alone belong the glory of judgment, but also the glory of redeeming Israel from sin, death and hell.
This is the high note of the Song of Moses. It is to remind Israel of their God: of what he has done for them and what he will do for them, even when they are sinking in the ocean of sin and covenant curses; even in exile under the oppression of enemy nations.
Salvation rooted in God’s oath-bound promise
No matter what their lot is in this life, Israel can always bank on the unshakeable promise of God spoken in vv40-43: which is to act for their good beyond judgment. Notice that God does not say: “I will act if Israel performs, if she obeys, or if she keeps the law.” No, rather God “lifts up his hand to heaven and swears” – he takes an oath with God as witness and by his own name – to act on Israel’s behalf! Like a warrior readying for battle by brandishing his sword, God promises to act and “take vengeance on his adversaries and repay those who hate him”, v41. V42, “I will make my arrows drunk with blood, and my sword shall devour flesh…” Yes, God will meet out terrible judgment on those who reject him. But for those who know their sin and turn to God for mercy, God will save.
This is the note of triumphant benediction upon which the Song of Moses ends in v43. A Song so full of the blues and low notes now ends on a crescendo of hope and joy, one that will resound in heaven for all eternity! “Rejoice with him, O heavens; bow down to him, all gods, for he avenges the blood of his children and takes vengeance on his adversaries. He repays those who hate him and cleanses his people’s land.”
Brothers and sisters, children, do you know that we are singing the same music that Israel sang in the wilderness, in the Promised Land and in exile? The difference, however, is that we have the complete hymnbook because God has acted finally in Jesus. And we can read the music better by the power of the Holy Spirit. You and I can “rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (2 Cor. 9:15) because we share in the fulfillment of Israel’s hope, which is God’s promise to Abraham. For in Jesus, God has promised to cleanse us of our sin and give us eternal life.
Beloved, do you hear the overall rhythm of this Song? It is one that ultimately beats to God’s jealous pursuit of his own glory in saving a people for himself. The central message of the Song of Witness is that God has acted in mercy to save sinners who cannot help themselves.
Has the law revealed to you your sin? Have your sufferings in this life made you give up on trying to impress God with your own works? Have you learned to sing the dirge of sorrow and repentance?
Friends, let us be sure not to reject the one who calls us from heaven with a better message than the Israelites ever heard. Let us be sure not to reject God’s promise of salvation that has come through a better covenant secured by Jesus. For the writer to the Hebrews issues a stern warning in Heb 10 of greater punishment for those “who spurn the Son of God and profane the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified, and have outraged the Spirit of grace.” V30, “For we know him who said, ““Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall in to the hands of the living God.”
In light of the fact that Scripture reveals God as both terrible judge and merciful redeemer, let us therefore turn away from the fleeting pleasures of sin and put our faith in Jesus. Only then can we know true joy in this life: joy that flows from the hope of eternal life. For Jesus was cursed for our sin. Jesus was judged in our place. And Jesus was raised from the dead so that we might have life eternal. Amen.
Simon Jooste, RCSS morning service, March 24, 2013