This chapter begins with a call to attention: “Hear, O Israel!” The main point of the words in this chapter was to impress upon the minds of the people the same truth that the Lord’s people in all ages need to be perpetually reminded of – namely, the fact that the distinguishing mercy that is shown to them is not for any merit in them, but it is purely from the free grace and pleasure of the Lord. Moses told the people of the strength of the enemies which they were about to encounter in the land of Canaan – nations that were greater and mightier than themselves. He did this in order to drive them to God, and to encourage them to place their hope and trust in him; for he assured them of victory by the presence of God with them. The Lord would go before them – not only as their Captain and Commander, but also as “a consuming fire” to execute judgment upon their enemies. However, he cautioned them to not have the least thought of their own righteousness, as if that was what procured them favor from God’s hand. Similarly, our gaining possession of the heavenly Canaan must be ascribed to God’s grace, and not our own merits. In Jesus, we have both righteousness and strength. In Him alone, we must glory – not in ourselves or in any sufficiency of our own (Eph. 2:9, 11, 12).
Just to make sure that none of the Israelites would have any reason to imagine that God brought them into Canaan for their own righteousness’ sake, Moses showed them that it was a miracle of mercy indeed that they had not been destroyed in the wilderness. So far from purchasing to themselves the favor of the Lord, they had often laid themselves open to His displeasure. For forty years, both God and Moses were grieved with them. It is a very sad character which Moses here left of them: “You have been rebellious since the day I knew you” (verse 24). Although Moses’ history records little more than the occurrences of the first and last year of these forty, it seems by this general account that the rest of the years were not much better; they were one continued provocation. Even at the foot of Mount Sinai (here called Horeb), they made a golden calf and worshiped it. That was a sin so heinous, and so exceedingly sinful, that they very justly deserved to be rebuked for it. It was done in the very place where they heard the law by which they were expressly forbidden to worship God by images, it was done while the mountain was still burning before their eyes, and it was done while Moses had gone up to receive the law in writing. They turned aside quickly indeed! (verse 16) God was very angry with them for this sin; for by it, they had broken covenant with Him, and forfeited all the privileges of the covenant (which Moses signified to them by breaking the tablets of stone, verse 17). It was with great difficulty and very long perseverance that Moses prevailed in prayerfully turning away the wrath of God, and preventing their utter ruin. He fasted and prayed for a full forty days and forty nights before he could obtain their pardon (verse 18). This showed them the greatness of God’s displeasure against them, and also the narrow escape that they had for their lives. And in this, we have a picture of the greatness of God’s anger against all mankind, for nothing less than His own Son’s precious blood was sufficient to turn it away.
Even after this narrow escape, the people provoked the Lord again and again on many other occasions. Moses only needed to name the places (verse 22), for their very names carried the memorials of either the sin or the punishment. At Taberah (“a burning”), God set fire to them for their murmuring. At Massah (“the temptation”), they challenged Almighty power to help them. And at Kibroth-hattaavah (“the graves of lust”), the dainties which they coveted became their poison. And even after these incidents, they exhibited unbelief and distrust of the Lord at Kadesh-barnea, which Moses had already spoken of in chapter 1), and which he here mentions again (verse 23). This sin alone would have certainly completed their ruin, if the Lord had dealt with them according to their own merits. When the people of Israel laid all this together, it would have been quite clear to them that whatever favor God showed them in subduing their enemies and putting them in possession of the land of Canaan – it was not because of their own righteousness!
It is good for us to often remind ourselves, with sorrow and shame, of our former sins, so that we may see how much we are indebted to the Lord’s free grace, and so that we may humbly acknowledge that we never merited anything except His wrath and curse. One of the most precious offices of the Holy Spirit is graciously bringing the things of Jesus to our remembrance, thus reminding us of our need of His saving work. We are often ready to imagine that our righteousness has obtained for us the special favor of the Lord; however, on the Last Day of judgment, all the world will be proved guilty before God. But there is One Who pleads for us before the mercy-seat! He not only fasted (as Moses did), but He also died upon the cross for our sins. Through Him, we may approach the throne of grace, even though we are self-condemned sinners; and we may freely partake of His free gift of undeserved mercy and eternal life!
Blessed Jesus! We are sinners by nature, but You are the Lord our righteousness. Most gladly will we refer all the victory, all the glory, and all the praise to Your arm, which alone brings salvation! Amen.
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illustration by A. Sargent | Wikimedia Commons