I’m writing from my hospital room, post surgery. I’ve had to get ready for a knee replacement for the last several days, and today was the day, coming along a year sooner than I expected.
When I got so I couldn’t walk for more than 15 minutes at a time, I realized I had only two choices: surgery or my rocking chair, and really, only one of those was acceptable.
This is something like the choices we find today in Deuteronomy. There’s really only one that makes any sense.
In the reading for yesterday, God’s people divided up and stood on top of facing mountains—six tribes on Mount Gerazim and six on Mount Ebal. Moses and the Levites stood in the valley between them, pronouncing blessings and curses, while the people basically said, “Yes, and so be it,” with every “Amen,” De 28.
In the first 28 chapters out of 34 that make up Deuteronomy, God speaks, instructing the Israelites about how to live in the promised land they’re about to go in. He’s already given them the bottom line of his law in the Ten Commandments in Exodus, but he spends a lot of time in Deuteronomy fleshing out the details of that bottom line.
In today’s reading, Moses summarizes God’s 28 chapters of warnings into two succinct chapters, 29 and 30. He tells them what will happen if they disobey God’s words and the blessings they’ll have if they obey them.
But I’m looking for an even more basic, bottom line for today’s comments since my leg’s pain block may wear off any minute, and here’s what I found—four words: obey, heart, soul, and love. They pop up 19 times in the 19 verses of this last summary in chapter 30.
While God often spells it out for us in his word with descriptive language that piles up image upon image, what grabs my attention today—and maybe it’s because I’m anesthesia-buzzed and can’t think much—is how simple and direct he is. He repeats these four words often, as if deliberately for effect, to drive his point in.
And this is what he’s getting at: obeying God with all their hearts and souls is the way to express love to him and to live. Moses says it this way, “so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul and live…you will again obey the Lord and follow all his commands I am giving you today,” 30:6,8.
This is God’s style, isn’t it? After all, Jesus said the greatest commandment was to, “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength,” and he quotes Deuteronomy 6:5 when he said it. It’s a brilliant distillation of what all of God’s laws were getting at—loving God with all that we are.
I’m ready to move on, but a question reaches out through the Percocet: what about those times when I don’t obey God or love him with even all my hang ups and hang nails, much less with everything I am?
What about sin, both accidental and intentional? Because this scenario here sounds a whole lot like “obey all his commands, and you’ll be pleasing to him.” And isn’t that right? Doesn’t God want us to perfectly obey him? (Though it sure sounds a lot like what the Pharisees’ believed, those who hated Jesus and plotted to kill him.)
What’s confusing for me is that God says these very same words next, “The Lord will again delight in you…just as he delighted in your fathers, if you obey the Lord your God and keep his commands and decrees that are written in this Book of the Law and turn to the Lord your God with all your heart with all your soul,” De 30:9-10.
If it’s literally true—that we must obey all God’s commands to have a relationship with him—then, honestly, who can do it?
How can it be that the God who made us for a love relationship with himself has a standard for his people—for you and for me—that we cannot live up to? How can a relationship between us ever be established?
I look back in the passage for clues, and I read again in verse 9, “…just as he delighted in your fathers.” Right away, I’m thinking, You’ve got to be kidding, God. From what I’ve read in the Old Testament this year, God hasn’t often delighted in the fathers of these people because of their obedience. It’s nearly always been in spite of their disobedience.
They’ve tested and tried him most of the way to their promised land and then, flat out refused to go in, and still, he continues in relationship with them. The entire book of Numbers was about just that very thing, (for that story, see March 23–March Madness).
So if it wasn’t for their obedience to his words or for loving only him without idolatry mixed in, for what reason had God “delighted in their fathers”?
He delighted in them for the same reason he delighted in the very first man and woman. God knew before creation that Adam and Eve wouldn’t obey him, but he created them anyway. If their love relationship with God depended on them, they surely couldn’t be delightful, because they disobeyed him.
It was simply because God loved them that he delighted in them. It depended on God, not on man or woman. This is the reason God loves anyone: because he just does, because God is love. Paul says it this way, it’s “because of his great love for us that God made us alive…we who were dead in sin. It’s by grace you’ve been saved,” 1 Jn 4:10, 16; Eph 2:3-5.
God’s plan to save them was that one day a man from Eve’s “offspring” would come and undo what Adam had done. He’d crush Satan’s head by obeying God rather than listening to Satan, Ge 3:15.
And he would undo death by dying and rising, thereby proving his power over death and sin. This is what Jesus did by living a perfect life among men and women, and by dying on the cross, and by walking out of his grave and into life again, 1 Co 15:24.
We see this same God-love when the Israelite fathers complain that God’s out to get them in the desert. God sends snakes to bite them as discipline, but they’re saved from dying simply by looking at a bronze snake God tells Moses to mount on a stick. God doesn’t require that they do penance or make sacrifices to please him to live. They only have to look with faith at the symbolic snake that Moses holds up, Nu 21:9.
We know that the One who would one day come to save is Jesus. Jesus himself would say that the snake-on-the-stick symbolized him. But only turn and look? Not get yourself together first? Yep. Repentance means simply turning—or returning—to God, not getting yourself cleaned up first, NIV Study Bible; Nu 21:8-9; Jn 3:14-15.
When the Israelites divide and head up the two mountains to “amen” the blessings and cursings, the blessings were repeated facing Mt Gerazim and the cursings were said facing Mt Ebal, De 27.
Afterwards on that same day, God tells Moses to build a stone altar and plaster it and to write his laws on it. An altar was the place animal sacrifices for sins were made, so an altar was a place to get right with God, the place to confess and repent before him and be forgiven, De 27; Josh 8:20-32.
God knows they won’t keep the promises they’ve made, so on that very same day, he wants them to know what to do to get right with him when they fail. So he has them build an altar. He tells them, in effect, to remember they’ll need to repent and be forgiven again and again.
Even though they’ve just repeated God’s laws and sincerely dedicated themselves to obey all his words, to Nike up and just do it, God instructs them to build an altar.
Sin and disobedience have never been a surprise to God. Jesus wasn’t Plan B if man failed. Jesus was God’s Only Plan to save men and women who he knew would most certainly fail. God created the world knowing he would one day have to die to save it.
What’s more, God doesn’t tell them to build the altar for getting right with God on lush and verdant Mt Gerazim, an obvious place of his blessing, where creeks run freely as does the abundant, wild game. God tells Moses to build the altar on Mt Ebal, a desolate place, a mountain of nothing but bald rock and emptiness, an obvious place of barrenness and cursing, (enduringword.com/bible-commentary/deuteronomy-27).
In his great love, God chooses this special altar to be built at the place where atonement is needed, where people sin and must stand in their own broken place without God’s blessing and say “amen” to all the penalties for disobedience that they deserve—on Mount Ebal, the mount of cursedness, Josh 8:30. This is a picture of God’s loving provision for us—of God doing what we most need in the depths of our inability and need with the sacrifice of his Son, so that we can be forgiven and come to him.
Because Jesus came to the wasteland—to the down-and-out, the sick and hungry, the whores and crooks— to reveal himself, to teach, to heal. And he came to save by dying on God’s altar, the cross, where he—God’s Word made flesh—innocently hung. Jesus kept all the law with all his heart, but he bore the curses of God for those who didn’t and don’t. And by rising from the dead, he came to open the way to God so that all who believe and want to, can come in, De 21:23; Is 53; Jn 1:1-2, 14; Jn 14:26; 1 Pe 2:22.
Does God still want obedience from us with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strengths? You bet he does. When we believe, Jesus enables us by his Spirit to become the obedient children of God that he’s always had in mind for us to be, Ro 8:9-17.
But God also has our backs. Jesus has already done the heavy lifting—his obedience has already been credited to us. We are free to love and obey him in gratitude for his love, not in order to be loved. After all, “We love because he first loved us,” 1 Jn 4:19, Ro 4:18-24.
What’s more, God says he will give his people new hearts that will obey him, “The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants so that you may love him with all your heart and soul—and live,” De 30:6.
God knows that if he left salvation up to us, we just wouldn’t come. So he gives us what we need—new hearts that want to seek him, his Spirit to fill and enable us, and his Son whose goodness counts for us, De 30:6.
Is there anything God hasn’t done or won’t do to make us holy and wholly his?
I can’t think of one.
My take away today is the gift God gives of his great love and the choice he puts before us of accepting or rejecting it.
There are only two ways to go—God’s way or my own—and really, like my knee replacement, there’s only one way that makes any sense.
God makes his offer of life and love to every person on earth who wants it. It’s God’s kindness, after all, that leads us to repentance. The choice is left to us, Ro 2:4-8.
“This day I call heaven and earth against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.
“Now choose life so that you and your children may live. and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life…”
God, I want all of us to choose life and live as your kids. Please do whatever it takes to bring us all in.