Song of Witness: to God and to Israel’s sin

There is nothing quite like song to make you remember.  God made it this way.  Therefore, it is little wonder that God had Moses compose a song to help his chosen people, Israel, remember the essence of God’s covenant made at Mt. Sinai.  The Song of Witness was to serve as a reminder to Israel for generations to come.  It was not to depart from their hearts and lips.

In Deut 31, we find that the stage is set for Moses to pass the torch of leadership to Joshua, who would lead Israel into the Promised Land.  Towards the latter half of the chapter there is a very familiar theme being repeated in Israel’s hearing: which is Israel’s ongoing idolatry.  In Deut 31.21, God instructs Moses to write a Song of Witness to expose Israel’s sin.  What we have in this Song, in Deut 32, is a summary of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) – a summary of the book of Deuteronomy – which penetrates to the heart of God’s covenant made with Moses at Mt. Sinai.

In short, the Song of Witness testifies to God and his ways, and exposes Israel’s sin.  Not only is this a Song that Israel must never forget, but it is also one that should never stop playing over in our hearts as well.  For like Israel, we are sinners and like Israel we can only escape God’s wrath by trusting in the same promise of salvation made to Abraham in the covenant of grace.

The Song of Witness is divided up into three parts, and as we shall see has many of the key components of a covenant treaty document, which is in fact what the book of Deuteronomy as a whole is.  We will look at the first two parts this morning, in vv1-25.  However, before we consider the first part, in vv1-14, it is helpful to point out that the predominant mood of this Song is one of covenant lawsuit.  God accuses Israel for committing the most heinous of crimes.  For they have broken the covenant through their disobedience and have provoked God’s terrible curse toward them.

Covenant prologue

In Deut 31.30, we are told that Moses spoke the words of the Song in Israel’s hearing.  (Israel is on the plains of Moab in the Ancient Near East an they are waiting to enter the Promised Land after wandering in the desert for forty years due to their disobedience.)  In Deut 32.1-3, Moses summons the people with words about their covenant God, Yahweh.  In v1, Moses invokes heaven and earth – in addition to God – as witnesses against Israel.  Israel is in court for breaking the law and the witnesses are the Creator of the universe and his creation.

Right at the beginning of this Song we are also given its purpose.  In v2, Moses compares the “teaching” of his Song torain” and “dew” that brings life to the earth. The purpose of the witness and testimony of the Song is to bring spiritual life to Israel.  What is this “teaching” – the wisdom – that brings life?  V3: it is about the “name” of God, which means the Song is chiefly about God’s nature and his magnificent deeds.  Thus, the opening words of the Song serve as a call to Israel to worship God and find salvation in him – and not in themselves.

Israel is to worship God because he is their rock, v4.  God is as solid and immovable as a mountain in his faithfulness towards his people.  His work is perfect and he is guiltless with respect to keeping his end of the covenant.

Israel’s corruption

Now, consider the stark moral contrast between God and his ways, and his people and their deeds in v5.  God is perfect, but Israel is not – for she has dealt corruptly with God.  In fact, they are “no longer God’s children, because they are “blemished,crooked and “twisted.  Israel is completely out of harmony in reciprocating God’s covenant love toward them.  So Moses interrogates them, v6: So this is how you reward the Lord, you foolish and senseless people?!  “Is God not your father, who created you, who made you and established you?

Notice that there is no reference to a particular instance of Israel’s sin here.  It is rather a timeless description of the unfaithfulness of God’s people.  It is a window into the depravity of every human heart and its rebellion against God – including yours and mine.

Israel’s unfaithfulness compared to God’s faithfulness

The contrast between God and his people is heightened further in vv7-14, where Moses recalls God’s gracious and loving deeds toward his people.  These verses are very much like the historical prologue or introduction to the covenant, found early in Deuteronomy.  Here Israel is called to remember the great works of God towards them, not least of which is his deliverance of them from slavery in Egypt.

In vv8-9 we learn that although God is sovereign over all the nations, in his electing love he chose Israel to be his prized possession.  God sought and found his people, v10, “in a desert land, and in the howling waste of the wilderness.”  Here the reference to “wilderness” can refer to Israel’s slavery in Egypt, the wanderings of the Patriarchs (Jacob referred to as a wandering Aramean) or the desert experience after the Exodus.  The point is that God has cared for and delivered his people even when they were most exposed, destitute and distressedTime and time again God has encircled his people.  He has treated his people as he would the very pupil of his eye, with the most delicate care.  V11: God has been to Israel like an eagle tending to her young.  The imagery here is that God has made a nesting place – a sanctuary – among his people.  Even though they are exposed to the howling wilderness, God has been there to protect his people: spreading out his wings to enclose them and catching them when they fall.  V12, “the Lord alone guided Israel, no foreign God was with him.”  In vv13-14 we are told that the Lord provided Israel with sustenance, which would culminate with the overflowing bounty of the Promised Land: suckled with oil and honey, fed with milk and the fat of lambs, the finest wheat and foaming wine…

And then comes the piercing note in the Song of Witness, which Israel must never forget, and which must echo over and over in our hearts as well.

Israel had everything.  They had the love and protection of the God of the universe, who had entered into covenant with them and blessed them beyond compare.  And yet, what does Israel do in full view of God and his wondrous deeds?  V15: “Jeshurun” (a term of endearment for Israel used ironically here) has grown obese on the pleasures of life.  And like a beast who senselessly tries to kills its master, so Israel has kicked against God.  “Israel forsook God who made him and scoffed at the Rock of his salvation.”

Brothers and sisters, to put it another way… Israel is like a spouse who has everything in marriage: a loving and faithful companion who helps provide the protection of a warm home.  And yet in spite of all this the ungrateful and self-absorbed spouse has relations with a neighbour in the middle of the family room.  Such is the sinfully depraved ingratitude and unbelief that this Song seeks to expose in Israel.

God’s indictment and curse of Israel

This commences the second part of the Song, with the groaning of a gorged and fattened Israel in the background.  Listen to the witness against Israel’s sinful folly that continues…

In vv16-17, we read that Israel has shattered the first two commandments.  Israel has not loved God, but instead made him jealous with strange gods.  In fact, so bent on idolatry is Israel that she has sacrificed to demons that were no gods.  They have worshipped gods that their fathers had not even known.  As if adultery with a neighbors spouse is not base enough, Israel has gone off with a stray animal from the field.  So self-absorbed is Israel, that she, v18, gives no thought to the “Rock that bore her,” she forgets the God who “gave her birth.”

This behavior the holy and just Judge of the universe cannot endure.  Therefore, with something like the fiery jealousy of a man whose spouse has been unfaithful, God pronounces a sentence of death upon Israel for her spiritual adultery.

In vv19-25, we read that Israel gets what she deserves – the curses of the covenant, which takes us back to the frightening words of Deut 28.  The Lord saw the evidence of Israel’s lust and spurned them, v19.  He says, v20, “I will hide my face from them.”  This is like God saying I will remove my blessing and favor, and expose you to judgment for breaking my covenant.  God will repay Israel for making him “jealous with what is no god,” v21.  So God will make Israel jealous with those who are “no people.”  God’s holy anger is kindled and swift justice will be executed, v22.  There will be no escape from God’s fury – not even the depths of hell will provide a hiding place.  God will reverse the natural order to destroy Israel, vv23-24Disaster will be heaped upon them, hunger will eat at them, plague and poisonous disease will devour them, and the teeth of beasts and venomous vipers will come against themIf this were not enough, v25, war will sweep through the land, even into the city.  God will be merciless – not even sparing woman and child.  It will literally be hell on earth for Israel!

With this comes the end of the first two parts of the Song of Witness against Israel.  The truths of this Song Israel must never forget if they want life.

What about us today?

But, we must not forget the wisdom of the first two movements of this Song either.  This is the clear message of the NT.  For example, in 1 Cor 10 Paul claims that the example of Israel’s idolatry in the wilderness is instructive for the church today.  Here he recounts for the Corinthians and us the story of Israel who once drank from the spiritual Rock, which was Christ, and yet out of sinful ingratitude and unbelief they turned away from God.  Instead of exercising faith in God, they lived for their own sinful lusts.  To reward their unbelief, which manifested itself in all sorts of acts of idolatry, like sexual immorality, God put many Israelites to death – as many as twenty-three thousand in one day.  Paul says in v6, “these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.”

Beloved, the truths of this Song we must never forget.  They must keep on playing over and over in our hearts, if we want to have eternal life.  For – again – what is the wisdom that this Song intends to teach us?

First and foremost, the background beat of this Song tunes us to our awful predicament under the law due to sin.  For like Israel, the inclination of our hearts is naturally bent toward gorging ourselves on the lusts of the flesh, becoming fat on the pleasures of this life and kicking against God with ingratitude.  And we do this in full view of God and his merciful deeds towards us.  Along with OT Israel, we all fell into sin with Adam in the Garden of Eden and the intentions of our hearts are evil continuously: ever prone to toward idolatry and spiritual adultery.  Like Israel, we are all law-breakers.  None of us keep the Ten Commandments, as we should.  We all deserve the fierce wrath of God.

It is this knowledge of sin that comes through the law that drove the remnant of Israel to God’s promise.  Like Israel, it must also drive us to sing with joyful hearts the chorus of this Song: which is God’s promise of grace toward us in Christ.  Yes, God is holy and righteous judgeBut the Song of Moses also teaches that he is also our gracious redeemer who has acted in love and mercy toward us.

Brother and sisters, children, do you remember what God has done for you?  He sought you out when you were still lost in the wilderness of sin and idolatry.  He had compassion on you, and he saved you, because he loves you!  Like an eagle tending to its vulnerable and exposed young, God has made his sanctuary among us, his church.  The holy, jealous, and wrathful God of Israel now dwells in peace among his people!  How?  The same Spirit that hovered over the deep at creation, that guided and protected Israel in the wilderness, did in the fullness of time empower Jesus to save and recreate a people for own treasured possession, which are you and I.

For, beloved, to know your sin is to know your desperate need for life in Jesus.  For Jesus became sin for us.  Jesus endured the full fury and indignation of God’s judgment and wrath for us.  Jesus received our death sentence so that we now have eternal life.  How can we then spurn God in light of such love and mercy?!  Therefore, repent of your sins and believe this good news!

The wisdom of this Song, simply put, is to know our spiritual death sentence under the law, which in turn drives us to seek life and liberty in the gospel.  For the law teaches us that our righteousness will never avail in God’s courtroom of justice.  We are rightly condemned on account of our sin.  Only once we know our sin and desperate need can we truly embrace God’s marvelous deeds towards us by faith.  For in Christ, God has silenced the loud thunder of the law.  And he has put a new song of grace in our hearts, so we can worship in Spirit and in truth, this day and forevermore.  Amen.


Simon Jooste, RCSS morning service, March 17, 2013

We are objects of God’s mercy

This is a sermon that was preached at Bellville Reformed Church this past Sunday evening.  For examples of other Reformed sermons and resources, please look here.

We are objects of God’s mercy

1 Peter 2:1-10

Have you ever arrived in a new place – like another part of your home city or country, or perhaps another country altogether – and you have thought to yourself: This is like a different world?  It looks and sounds and feels so foreign?  For many Christians, the Old Testament – or at least parts of it – can seem like a very different world.  The OT can seem so different from the NT and the ways in which God deals with his people today.  Throughout the ages, Christians have wrestled with how to relate the Old and New Testaments.  Some theologians have concluded that the God of the OT is one of judgment and wrath, while the God of the NT is one of mercy and love.  Others believe that Israel was saved through keeping God’s law in the OT, while Christians are saved by faith in Jesus in the NT.  These theologians see little continuity between the Old and New Testaments.  Because of perspectives like these, the OT is all too often outright neglected in the life and ministry of the church.  But is our world really so unlike that of OT Israel in the ultimate sense?

Let’s answer this question this evening by considering 1 Peter 2:1-10, with special emphasis given to vv 4-6 and 9-10.  One of the defining features of the letters of the Apostle Peter is that they were written to Christians who were predominantly Gentile in nature.  In other words, they were not ethnic Jews and physical descendents of Abraham.  This reality is important in a number of ways for our understanding of God’s message of salvation to us in our passage as well as the Peter’s letters in general.  I will give you two closely related reasons why.  First, Peter takes salvation truths about God’s OT people and their world, and applies them directly to Gentiles, who, for the longest time were considered strangers to God’s covenant promises.  In other words, Peter shows us the magnificent continuity between the OT and NT worlds.  But how does he do this?  This brings me to my second point.  The world of the OT and ours come together in Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah of the OT.  [Die wereld van die Ou en Nuwe Testament kom saam in Jesus Christus, die beloofde Messias van die Ou Testament.]  Through the blood of Jesus Christ, both Jew and Gentile, you and I, have escaped the wrath of God and become objects of his mercy.

I. Two testaments, one people

The first ten verses of 1 Peter 2 are filled with direct and indirect references to the OT and the identity of God’s chosen people, Israel.  Peter uses these references to describe who we are as NT Christians.  You will notice how naturally and seamlessly Peter applies OT Jewish truths to NT Gentiles, but not without reference to Messiah, that is Jesus, the cornerstone of the church.  So, let’s consider some of the ways in which our identity as Christians is shaped by the world of the OT, and God’s salvation promises and acts we find there.

Brothers and sisters, here Peter gives us spiritual nourishment for our souls without which we will perish.  Let us heed Peter’s admonition in 1 Peter 2.2 to long for “pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation.”  No infant can live without milk, so likewise no Christian can live without the Word of the Lord.  So, if you have like the Psalmist (in Psalm 34.8), “tasted that the Lord is good”, then seek after more of his grace this morning as he speaks to us.  Let us consider who God has made us to be in Jesus so that our faith may be strengthened.

In 1 Peter 2.4-6, Peter tells his readers – tells us – that like “living stones” we are being “built up as a spiritual house” of which Jesus is the foundation or cornerstone.  In other words, Peter uses the imagery of the OT temple – where God met with his people – to describe our union with God.  Remember, Jesus is the one prophesied of in the OT as the fulfillment of the physical temple.  Jesus is the one of whom the Psalmist spoke of and Peter picks up on in Psalm 118.22: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”  While rejected and ultimately crucified by men, Jesus is nevertheless “in the sight of God chosen and precious” (1 Peter 2.4).  Therefore, if you have faith in Jesus this morning, you too are chosen and precious in the sight of God; you have entered into God’s house through the doorway of Jesus.  The Holy Spirit has united us to Jesus, and thereby sanctified us, to make us “holy priests” so that we can offer up “spiritual sacrifices” to God.

In the OT, God met with Israel in the temple, where only the high priest could enter the most holy place, and only after all sorts of cleansing rituals.  In the OT, the priests offered up the sacrifice of goats and bulls to atone for the sins of the people.  But with the coming of Jesus, things have changed.  Things are much better.  Peter tells us that through Jesus we have all become stones in God’s temple (v5).  We have all been made holy priests who can now enter boldly into God’s presence, into the inner sanctuary – through Christ.  And because Jesus offered up the sacrifice of himself once and for all for our sins, we now offer up sacrifices of praise to God out of thanksgiving.

Brothers and sisters, the good news to us this evening that is born out of and builds upon the world of the OT; the spiritual nourishment for our souls, which is a bottomless-banquet; is that if you believe in Christ this morning “you will not be put to shame” (v6).  For the one that Isaiah prophesied of in Isaiah 28:16, and Peter quotes in his letter, has washed away our sins and has given us the certain hope of eternal life.  And this is true despite the accusations of the law, and what the world might say and how it treats us.  Although we are sinners and guilty of breaking God’s law, our nakedness and shame has nevertheless been dealt with by Jesus.  Jesus took our shame and gave us his perfect righteousness.  Now, by faith in Jesus, we stand justified in the sight of God, never again to be condemned for our wicked deeds. [Deur die geloof in Jesus Christus staan ons regverdig voor God.Although the world ridicules us for our faith and our stand against idolatry and immorality; although, like Israel in exile, the world oppresses us; although the world would like to shame us, humiliate us and disgrace us – our sufferings in this life will not result in shame and condemnation before God.  For we have been vindicated before the world in Jesus.  We will most certainly reign with him in final victory over sin, death and hell.  Beloved, consider who God has made you in Christ by his Holy Spirit.  Consider the even greater clarity and confidence we have of our salvation than the OT Saints.

Two Testaments, one people, in Christ

Have you – like the Psalmist and a countless number of OT Israelites – tasted of the goodness of the Lord, which has become even sweeter since the coming of Christ?  Do you believe in Lord Jesus and do you know the forgiveness of sins?  Or do you continue to reject the Son of Man like those who crucified Jesus and put him to death?

Friends, let us not forget the flip side of God’s promise of salvation.  The sobering reality is that for those who reject Jesus, he is: “A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense” (1 Peter 2.8).  In other words, to reject Jesus – the incarnate Word and the cornerstone of God’s kingdom – is not without consequence.  It results in spiritual death and condemnation.

But for those of faith, Peter gives these magnificent words of life and assurance in vv 9-10: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”  Beloved, consider with me again the wonder of God’s promise of salvation to us Gentiles.  Remember that according to the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 2.12, we were once “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”  But this has changed, has it not?  Notice Peter’s description of the unity that we now share with God’s OT people.  Consider how God has widened the scope of his grace now to include both Jew and Gentile, you and I.  Notice how we now share in the fulfillment of God’s promises to OT Israel, how we share in the fulfillment of Israel’s experience as God’s chosen people.  And how has all this been made possible?  Through Jesus!

We share in the fulfillment of God’s promise to Moses, and therefore OT Israel, stretching all the way back to Exodus 19.4-5.  Back then, the Lord addressed Moses with these words: “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”  In the Ancient world, God delivered the physical descendents of Abraham from slavery in the great Exodus event from Egypt and made Israel his chosen people.  Now, in NT times, and according to Peter, we too have become part of the ultimate spiritual realities symbolized back then in the first Exodus.  We are Abraham’s spiritual descendents and God’s “chosen race” through the second and final Exodus accomplished by Jesus at the cross.  The good news of the gospel is that regardless of our ethnic or cultural background, we can all become part of God’s family; we are all one in Christ.  If you have faith this evening, know that God chose you before the foundations of the world to be part of a new and redeemed humanity, through the sacrifice of Jesus applied to us by the power of the Holy Spirit.  [In Christus het ons deel in die beloftes van die Ou Testament.]

Peter also tells us that like OT Israel we are a “royal priesthood”.  Here again, it is through Jesus Christ and God’s Holy Spirit that we have been sanctified and made holy so that we can enter into God’s presence and offer him our sacrifices of praise.  Our identity and destiny is the fulfillment of Israel’s redemption from bondage in Egypt and deliverance into the Promised Land.  In the OT, Israel served King Yahweh in Canaan as a nation of priests.  Today, we serve as priests in God’s spiritual kingdom that is already ours, but has not yet come in all its fullness.  Like OT Israel, we have been set apart from all the peoples on earth to be part of God’s “holy nation”: one that is not defined by ethnicity, race, politics or geography, but by faith in the atoning blood of Jesus.  Just as God made Israel his prized possession from among all he nations of the world, we too are called “God’s special possession”.  In the OT, God’s people consisted mainly of ethnic Jews, but today we comprise a people that have been drawn from every, tongue, tribe and nation as a trophy for God’s glory.

Brothers and sisters, let me ask you once more: Do you see the magnificent continuity between the Old and New Testaments?  Do you see how we share in the same dramatic story of God’s redeeming acts that stretch all the way back to the early chapters of Genesis?  Peter has shown us that there are two testaments in the Bible, but only one people of God.  Israel is not replaced in the New Testament by another people, but rather Israel is enlarged to include us.  We, the church, are the Israel of God.  This is the first point I have been making this evening.  The second is that in order for this to be true – two Testaments, one people – God had to send Jesus.  Why?  Because of our sin and the idolatry of mankind.

In closing, I would like to bring the problem of sin into sharper focus, because it helps magnify the wonder of Peter’s in verse 10.  In order for us to appreciate the wonder of the gospel and our new identity in Christ, we must grasp the awful predicament that all of humanity is in on account of sin.  No one is able to cleanse himself and make himself holy before God.  Think back to OT Israel.  God promised them a long and prosperous life in the Promised Land – which was like heaven on earth – if they obeyed God’s law.  But, they failed didn’t they?  God ended up divorcing and disowning Israel as a people and sending them into exile for their disobedience.  The book of Hosea is one place where the unfaithfulness of Israel is graphically portrayed.  Israel is described as the prostitute, Gomer, who had gone after foreign lovers.  Israel is also likened to Gomer’s children of whoredom, whom God calls “Not my people” and “No Mercy”… And yet, exile and separation was not the end of the story for adulterous Israel.  For we read in Hosea 2.23 of God’s promise: “And I will have mercy on No Mercy, and I will say to Not my People, ‘You are my people’; and he shall say, ‘You are my God.’”

Notice how this is the same storyline of redemption that Peter picks up on in 1 Peter 2:10.  Once again, we find that we are no different from Israel.  We too are lawbreakers caught up in this world of sin.  And yet, the good news of the gospel is that like the remnant of Israel we have become participants in another world – the age to come – through Jesus Christ.  Once we were not a people, “but now you are God’s people, once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”  Thanks be to God for his promise made to Abraham that cuts through two testaments and two peoples, and finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ.  As recipients of God’s grace and mercy, let us therefore live as strangers and exiles in this world with a certain hope of future salvation.  Let us fight against sin because we are dead to sin and this world.  Let us go forth with thankfulness, knowing that we have been cleansed and justified in Jesus.  Let us go forth proclaiming “the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” Amen!

Simon Jooste

Evening service, Bellville Reformed Church, September 30, 2012