16. Redeeming Israel – the Promised Land

Reaching into Redemption Meditations: 16. Redeeming Israel – the Promised Land

Ex 6:6-8 ‘I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians….  And I will bring you to the land I swore with uplifted hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob. I will give it to you as a possession. I am the Lord.’”

 Redemption and the Covenant: In the previous study we considered the fact of the Exodus as an act of redemption. Now we focus more tightly on the wider act of the Exodus for, in the verses above, we see the Lord revealing a two-part plan: a) to deliver Israel out of the slavery of Egypt, and b) delivering them into the freedom of the Promised Land.  He also reveals that this will come about by ‘mighty acts of judgment’ – which we come to know as the ten plagues, and then the destruction of Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea – and then He will enter into a new relationship with them as a people: “I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God.” (6:7) At mount Sinai He speaks about that as a “covenant”, a legal binding agreement.

Awareness and Cooperation: Now the question arises, why does this word ‘covenant’ arise so many times in the Bible? For instance, it is first used with Noah (Gen 6:18 – basically you build an ark, I’ll flood the world but will save you) then Gen 9:9-17 not to flood the world again. Next came the covenant with Abram (Gen 15:18 on) and with Isaac (Gen 17:21) and at various times God referred back to His promise to Abram. Now we have ‘covenant’ arising again but this time it is with the newly constituted nation, Israel, at Mount Sinai, to be a ‘treasured possession’. Now here is my question. We know from seven New Testament references that God’s plan of salvation through Jesus was formulated by the Godhead, before the foundation of the world. Now that plan was going to be operated, if I may put it like this, through the ‘environment’ that was the nation of Israel. So if this plan was in the mind of God from the outset and all the things we are observing are a part of that big over-arching plan, why did the Lord bother to announce it; He was going to do it anyway? The answer has to be because He wanted them and us to be aware of it and in being aware, be an active part of it, cooperating with Him in it all the way along.

Land and People: It is clear from the Lord’s original declaration in Ex 6:6-8 that His plan involves a) them as a people (Ex 6:6,7) and b) Canaan as the land He had promised to the Patriarchs (Ex 6:7,8). For us today that is expressed as a) the Church, the redeemed community of God’s people, and b) the kingdom of God, wherever and whenever and however His will is expressed on the earth through us today. People and purpose. The Promised Land was to be the environment in which Israel existed and revealed their relationship with God. Today we do not have a physical land because the ‘kingdom of God’ is revealed anywhere in the world where the people of God express the reign of God.

God’s Purpose for the Taking of the Land: It is clear from the Lord’s declarations that His intent in respect of the Promised Land also included bringing judgment on the inhabitants, the Canaanites. As the other aspect of it was to give Israel a home of their own, it meant that He wanted to use Israel to bring that judgment on the Canaanites.

Understanding the Judgment on Canaan: Now there is often so much mis-information, ignorance or even confusion about this, that we need to deal with it here. First of all, when we consider God’s instructions to Israel and His statements about His own involvement, we find there are 31 references to the Canaanites being DRIVEN OUT, and only 4 references to them being DESTROYED and only 4 to them being WIPED OUT. God’s overall purpose was that the Land be cleared of the Canaanites and their pagan practices, and that achieved by driving out those pagan inhabitants, so only if they resisted in battle would they need to be overcome and destroyed.

Possibilities: Now those pagan practices could be removed (and that is the objective of the judgment that is Israel on them) by a) the people leaving the Land (hence ‘driven out’) or b) they submit to Israel and become part of Israel – and that we see happening in respect of Rahab (see Josh 2) and the Gibeonites (see Josh 9). When God said He would drive them out, it is clear He means a) using fear (e.g. Deut 2:25, 11:25, Josh 2:9,11, 5:1) and b) using Israel themselves.

Failure & Discipline! Now when you study what actually happened, you realise a) Israel failed to do what they were commanded to do, AND b) the Lord accommodated their failure into His overall plan! This becomes clear when we move on into the book of Judges. Their failure is first recorded in Jud 1:27-36 and He holds them to account over this (see 2:3 which echoes Num 33:55 and is seen in Josh 23:13.) The warning had been clearly given that if they failed to clear the land of its people then, those you allow to remain will become barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides. They will give you trouble in the land where you will live,” (Num 33:55) God had fulfilled His covenant with Abram etc. (see Ex 33:1, Numb 14:23, 32:11, Deut 1:35, 10:11, 31:20,21,23. 34:4, Josh 1:6) and Israel should have trusted Him but didn’t. That was their failure which was now seen in their failure to completely clear the Land. Now He declares, “I will no longer drive out before them any of the nations Joshua left when he died. I will use them to test Israel and see whether they will keep the way of the Lord and walk in it as their ancestors did.”  (Jud 2:21.22)

God’s Persistence: We will see the outworking of this in the next study but what is amazing is that, as can be seen in the way the people grumble leaving Egypt, the way they grumble in the desert on the way to Sinai, the way they turn away so quickly at Sinai, the way they grumble on the way from Sinai to the Land, and their refusal to enter the Land, CONSTANTLY they fail to apprehend the wonder of the Lord’s presence with them and trust Him, and CONSTANTLY they fail to be obedient to Him. Now in Ex 19:5, one of our starter verses above, “if you obey me fully,” is the crucial condition required of Israel but, as we’ve just seen, they fail to do that again and again.  So what is amazing is God’s determination in working this through with Israel. One way or another His is going to redeem them and bring them through to the place where they will indeed be a light to the nations.

Lessons for Us? We must, as we’ve said before, never be casual about sin and never settle for a path that leads us away from receiving all that the Lord has on His heart for us. It is important that we do not live our lives based on our emotions that will go up and down. Growing ‘in Christ’ means we come to rely on the truths of the Gospel, the things we are considering here. However, there are in all this, two things that are really encouraging.

Redeemed from godlessness: The first is that the Lord will not give up on us just because we make a mess of life. In fact the truth is that many of us came to Christ because we realized what a mess we were making of life on our own, and we recognized our godlessness – yet on our own we were incapable of changing that. It was when we called out to Him that we found He was there for us and all of our mess didn’t matter. He died to redeem us from our mess.

Redeemed from the failures: The second thing is that although we may continue to get it wrong, and we continue to ‘trip over our feet’, the Lord is there constantly working to get us through to the end where we can come confidently face to face with Him in eternity. Yes, this account of Israel entering the Promised Land and yet not fully taking it, so often epitomizes our lives. We’ve entered the new life in the kingdom of the Son (Col 1:13) and yet how imperfectly we live it sometimes. But not only does the Lord not give up on us, He perseveres in His project which is to change us and see us through to the end, and that is where discipline comes. He will, like Israel in the imperfectly taken land, use the things we tolerate – against us – to help change us! Those things we think are OK, so we don’t get to sort them out, He will use to discipline us until we see what is going on and take steps to completely remove them from our lives. This process is life-long, and it is what theologians call sanctification.

7. Covenant Reassurance

Meditations on “Fear Not”:  7. Covenant Reassurance

Gen 26:24    That night the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am the God of your father Abraham. Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bless you and will increase the number of your descendants for the sake of my servant Abraham.”

Life had been somewhat tumultuous for Isaac. For twenty years he had failed to be a father and his prayers seemed to go unanswered. Then his wife conceived and bore him twins, twins who will be in constant competition, one of them a schemer and the other oblivious of the significance of his family background. Then his father died, and he is now the patriarch, wandering in Canaan. A famine comes, and he goes to Gerar, in the south, where he gets in trouble with the king, just like his father had done before him. Eventually, “Abimelech said to Isaac, “Move away from us; you have become too powerful for us.” (v.16) Affluence can make others insecure.

So he wanders the Land with his flocks and herds and finds shortage of water so, “Isaac reopened the wells that had been dug in the time of his father Abraham,” (v.18) but the locals claim the water is theirs, and this is repeated again and again, until, “He moved on from there and dug another well, and no one quarrelled over it. He named it Rehoboth, saying, “Now the Lord has given us room and we will flourish in the land.” (v.22) He has every right to feel insecure and wonder whatever is going on in his life, but then the Lord turns up.

That night the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am the God of your father Abraham. Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bless you and will increase the number of your descendants for the sake of my servant Abraham.” And so we find another, “fear not’ or ‘do not be afraid’ situation, but what is the reason he is given not to be afraid?  It starts out simply, “for I am with you.”  Yes, but what does that mean? You are with me, but my life circumstances are confusing and questionable.

Ah, we need to see the words before that: “I am the God of your father Abraham.  Ah, this starts to make sense. His father would have told him of all the dealings he had had with the Lord, the unseen One who had called him to leave his homeland and travel nearly a thousand miles to Canaan, with a promise that He would end his childlessness and make him into a great nation (Gen 12:2) and would give them this land (Gen 12:7). Then there had been a most solemn covenant made (Gen 15:9-20) that the land would be for his descendants.

There it was, a solemn covenant, a solemn promise accompanied by ritual, whereby the Lord declares this land will belong to the descendants he is yet to have. Once made it will stand and so Isaac will know of it and his children will know of it and their children and children’s children will know of it. That is why, Isaac, you can rest and be at peace in the midst of these confusing circumstances and not be afraid of them, of kings, of the peoples of the land, and of the future. The present circumstances may appear confusing, but God has promised a good outcome.

Similarly, for you and me, we have a new covenant (Lk 22:20), promised centuries before, (Jer 31:31) and now part of New Testament teaching (e.g. 1 Cor 11:22, 2 Cor 3:6, Heb 8:6,8,13, 9:15, 12:24) that Jesus died on the cross to take our sins to enable us to be justified and become Holy Spirit empowered children of God. That is our covenant in which we can be secure, so that whatever the circumstances, we know these truths do not change and thus we are part of God’s family and God is for us in them. Hallelujah!

37. The Second Covenant of the Old Testament

Meditations in Hebrews 8:   37. The Second Covenant of the Old Testament

Heb 8:8b   “The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.

We concluded the previous study at verse 6 noting, “the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, and it is founded on better promises.” It speaks about Jesus’ ministry as mediating or administering a second covenant that God promised in the Old Testament. In fact the writer is going to take up to a passage in Jer 31:31-34 which contains those ‘promises’ he has just referred to.

A Faulty Covenant:  But before he does that, he paves the way for it : “For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another.” (v.7)  i.e. the fact that a second covenant is mentioned indicates that the first was inadequate or, as have quoted from the Message version a couple of times, ‘not up to the job’. This is made clear as he leads in to the Jeremiah passage: “But God found fault with the people and said….” (v.8a) i.e. the old had been kept by God but had been broken by the people. It was clearly not up to the job of helping the people maintain a relationship with the Lord.

The OT Quote:  “The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.” (v.8b) There it is, a bald statement of intent. The “time” which was coming would in fact turn out to be somewhere a little over 500 years, the period from Jeremiah’s prophecy to the death of Christ. Then he distinguishes the new form from the old: “It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not remain faithful to my covenant, and I turned away from them, declares the Lord.” (v.9)  The old had been established at Mount Sinai after He had delivered them out of Egypt (To see this in detail go to our series on the Exodus)

The Nature of the New Covenant: He (our writer quoting Jeremiah) now explains how the New Covenant will be so different: “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” (v.10) The new will be all about an inner working. No longer will His people just be keeping external rules, but they will be changed from the inside. Their minds and their hearts will be truly changed. They will contain the will of God. It is left to other prophets to spell out that this will be because of the work of the Holy Spirit who will come into every new believer at the new birth, and witnessed on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2) and in the house of Cornelius (Acts 10). This inner transformation will knit them to God and so when He says “I will be their God and they will be my people”, He means they will truly by His people by hearts knitted to His, not merely by following a set of rules. That is how the two covenants are so different.

The Inner Transformation: He continues to explain the significance of this inner transformation: “No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, `Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” (v.11)  This covenant will not rely on outward teaching (as Moses did with Israel) but the indwelling Holy Spirit will teach each of us individually. How can such a thing come about? “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (v.12) The work of Christ on the Cross will mean that our failures, our transgressions, our sins have been forgiven and when we come to him we will have them forgiven and removed. The moral reason why the old people could not stand before a holy God has been removed. Christ has dealt with our sins.

Replacement: He concludes with this ‘dam-buster’ of a conclusion: “By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear.” (v.13) The Old Covenant is now outdated,  superseded,  outmoded and so will soon disappear! In that last comment he was perhaps speaking prophetically because in AD70 when the Temple was destroyed it ended the sacrificial system for ever. The Temple was the only place where sacrifices could be offered and as that has gone sacrifices cannot be brought. It was as if God was sealing off that period of history.

The Power of the New Covenant: The first big difference between old and new covenants was that the old system of sacrifices was merely typifying what Jesus would one day do, provide a real and genuine way of sins being properly dealt with according to justice. The second big different is that in the Old Testament (Covenant) the Holy Spirit would just come upon individuals to empower them for specific tasks. In the New the Holy Spirit comes an indwells EVERY believer.

In the Old Testament the prophet Joel said, “I will pour out my Spirit on all people.” (Joel 2:28). In the New Testament, Jesus said, speaking of the Holy Spirit, “he lives with you and will be in you.” (Jn 14:17). The apostle Paul taught, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?” (1 Cor 3:16,) and, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” (1 Cor 6:19)

The teaching is clear an unequivocal, God lives IN every believer and so the difference is that in the Old, teaching was done by rabbis while in the New it is by the Holy Spirit (but we reinforce that by our own ‘rabbis’ !!!) But this is the thing, if you ask Him, HE will bring His word alive and He will teach you all things. That is the wonder of this new covenant. Yes, we do have our teachers (and that is right) and we do have our books (as expressions of the teachers) but above all that we each have the Holy Spirit within us and He, said Jesus, “will teach you all things.” (Jn 14:26) Hallelujah!

66. The Covenant Confirmed

Meditations in Exodus: 66. The Covenant Confirmed

Ex 24:3,4  When Moses went and told the people all the LORD‘s words and laws, they responded with one voice, “Everything the LORD has said we will do.” Moses then wrote down everything the LORD had said.

In the previous meditation we observed the structure of Exodus at this point: chapters 20-23 – the Ten Commandments and the basic Law, chapters 25 to 27 – instructions how to build and establish the Tabernacle, and chapters 28 and 29 about establishing the priesthood. Sandwiched between the general law and the Tabernacle instructions we noted were two highly significant incidents and we looked at the first one, the encounter of the elders with the Lord. Before that actually happened we have the incident of the affirming the covenant.

Remember what has already occurred. The Lord had declared the outline of the covenant: if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’” (Ex 19:5,6) i.e. obey me and you will be mine (and implied in that – I will bless you). When Moses told the people this, “The people all responded together, “We will do everything the LORD has said.(Ex 19:8) Thus the people have already agreed to the outline. Then the Lord shared with Moses His law for the community.

When Moses went and told the people all the LORD’s words and laws, they responded with one voice, “Everything the LORD has said we will do.” Moses then wrote down everything the LORD had said. (v.3,4) Again, note the order: Moses conveys to the people all the Law that the Lord has imparted to him. Now I don’t know what you are like at remembering four chapters’ worth of Law but it is quite a task but perhaps it has been such a vivid encounter with the Lord that every moment and every word is firmly etched in his memory. So he tells them what God has said and as one they say, we will do it. He then writes it all down to ensure it can be remembered and passed on to future generations. So twice Israel have affirmed their agreement to this covenant. The first time had been an agreement in principle and the second one had been an agreement in detail. The reality is that when you look at the Law contained in these chapters there is nothing onerous about them – they are simply wisdom for a peaceful and harmonious community.

So far, quite clear. Israel go to bed as a covenant people but covenants in those days in that part of the world were often accompanied by a blood ritual. Remember the time when the Lord and Abraham sacrificed and made a covenant, animals and birds were cut in two and placed on the ground with a pathway between them so the participants of the covenant would walk the path of death and life (see Gen 15:9-11) – death created a path to be walked to signify a new life together.

Moses’ blood ritual involves an alter: He got up early the next morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain and set up twelve stone pillars representing the twelve tribes of Israel. Then he sent young Israelite men, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as fellowship offerings to the LORD. Moses took half of the blood and put it in bowls, and the other half he sprinkled on the altar. (v.4-6) It is not clear exactly how this was done but the stones clearly represented each tribe, and young men were used because it required a lot of energy to bring and sacrifice (twelve) bulls. It is not clear how many bulls but many assume one bull per tribe. The ceremony appeared to have a twofold purpose. The burnt offerings seem to be signs of submission to God or signs of worship, but the bulls indicate fellowship or unity or friendship with God, given to bless Him.

The activity involving the blood of the bulls is also unclear. Half of the blood was sprinkled on the altar – presumably representing giving it to God – and the other half was just kept in bowls – presumably representing keeping it for the people, because we subsequently read, “Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.” (v.8) Animals were killed and their blood, representing lives given, was shared between God and the people. A gory mess but at the end of it there would be a sense of unity with God in this covenant agreement.

We should note that this sprinkling of the people did not take place until after Moses, took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, “We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey.(v.7) Note this was the third time they had affirmed the covenant.  Hence Moses’ words we noted above, This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.” (v.8) The blood sprinkled on the people was like signing a letter in blood except in this case it was a living agreement with living people who were marked by the blood.

At the Last Supper we read, “Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mt 26:27,28) The wine figuratively pictured his blood and by drinking it they (and we) demonstrated their unity with the Lord in the covenant. The shedding of his blood, of course, took place on the Cross. With the establishing of this new covenant we enter into a new relationship with the Lord in which we surrender our lives to Him, to live obediently to Him from now on, and because of Jesus’ death acting as a substitute for us, we are cleansed and forgiven in God’s sight. This is the new covenant.

As we go on we will have cause to remember these times of covenant affirmation, first to the general principle, second to the words recounted by Moses and then thirdly when Moses read them from the document he had compiled and their affirmation was accompanied by a blood sealing. There can be no doubt that Israel have entered this covenant with their eyes open and with full understanding.  The awful significance of this will be seen as we progress.

Perhaps we should remember Solomon’s teaching: “When you make a vow to God, do not delay in fulfilling it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow. It is better not to vow than to make a vow and not fulfill it. Do not let your mouth lead you into sin.” (Eccles 5:4-6) Nevertheless I would always add, if you have made a foolish vow that is clearly wrong (such as Jephthah’s vow in Jud 11:30,31) it is better to reply on the Cross than add to your folly by further sin. Serious stuff that can have serious consequences. Be careful.

61. Covenant Commitment

Part 7: The Divine Encounter at Sinai

Meditations in Exodus: 61. Covenant Commitment

Ex 19:7,8   So Moses went back and summoned the elders of the people and set before them all the words the LORD had commanded him to speak. The people all responded together, “We will do everything the LORD has said.” So Moses brought their answer back to the LORD.

And so we now come to a new phase in the life of Israel. They have been delivered out of Egypt and they have traversed the desert, down through the Sinai Peninsular until they have reached that same mountain where the Lord first revealed Himself to Moses at the burning bush. I would pause at this point and have to ask a question or two. This series is about the Exodus; how far do we go?  We have seen the actual Exodus and their desert travels out of Egypt and down to Sinai. Might we say this is the end of the Exodus?

No, I believe we need to go on and see the big picture that will conclude when they actually go to enter the Land. The Lord’s intent was declared right at the beginning of His encounter with Moses: I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey–the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites.” (Ex 3:8) That was the Lord’s goal, the end play, if you like, of the Exodus. Now I am also aware that we are about to plow into large swathes of Law but I am going to restrict our studies to the historical incidents, having dealt with the Law in a completely different set of studies (see ‘Lessons from the Law’)

So they have arrived at the mountain and, as we saw in the previous study, Moses instinctively(?) goes up on the mountain, perhaps to the place where he had previously met the Lord and the Lord declared His intentions about the future of Israel – a covenant or agreement between Himself and Israel. He would bless them and make them a special people if they will obey Him. It is really that simple. So now we pick up the story.

So Moses went back and summoned the elders of the people and set before them all the words the LORD had commanded him to speak. (v.7) Now be very clear about this; Moses conveys to the elders exactly what the Lord had said. There can be no mistaking it, it is very clear. Now observe the response: The people all responded together, “We will do everything the LORD has said. (v.8a) The people were very positive, which is excellent, and we will go on to see that a number of times they reiterated their commitment to the Lord. So Moses brought their answer back to the LORD.(v.8b)

So Moses goes back up the mountain a second time to meet with the Lord. The Lord could have spoken with Moses at the bottom of the mountain in front of the people but by this constant going back up on the mountain there is a sense of the Lord being divided off from the people and we are going to see how that feeling is about to be accentuated. So Moses goes to tell the Lord what has happened (as if the Lord didn’t know!!!) but before he can speak, The LORD said to Moses, “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, so that the people will hear me speaking with you and will always put their trust in you. (v.9a) This is the Lord doing all He can for Moses and his people to make very clear what is going on – this is a close encounter of the divine kind, a real encounter that the people will be able to hear; they will hear God’s words spoken out loud.

I believe the Lord only speaks out loud on very special occasions – and this is clearly the most special of occasions. Then Moses told the LORD what the people had said.(v.9b) Yes, the Lord would have known that the people had said, but there is this expression of personal interactive communication so that Moses is seen as the mediator between God and His people.  Some of the things that are going on here almost appear staged so that a point will be made and remembered. If Israel had any doubt before, it should be quite clear now that Moses has a very personal relationship with the Lord.

So now the Lord gives Moses some instructions to pass on to Moses that are clearly designed to lay down a new understanding about the Lord: And the LORD said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes and be ready by the third day, because on that day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. Put limits for the people around the mountain and tell them, `Be careful that you do not go up the mountain or touch the foot of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death. He shall surely be stoned or shot with arrows; not a hand is to be laid on him. Whether man or animal, he shall not be permitted to live.’ Only when the ram’s horn sounds a long blast may they go up to the mountain. (v.10-13)

Now what is going on here. Well, we have just seen the elders of Israel agree to the covenant that the Lord proposes but it almost seems to come too easily. Perhaps it is the same feeling that it seems that many (young) Christians have, that God is ‘their friend’ or ‘their buddy’, i.e. well, God has made Himself known to us and we are clearly a special people, He’s for us, we’re for Him and everything is at peace in the world. So in some senses I believe that is healthier than the opposite extreme that God is a ‘hard man’ who is only looking for an excuse to punish us. Both extremes are wrong.

Yes, we do have an intimate relationship with the Lord but we should never be casual about it and it is that, I would suggest that is behind these instructions to Israel now. For us today it needs to be more of an attitude than a series of actions as seen here. But what do we see here?  First, there is a call to personal preparation to meet God; see the language – ‘consecrate, wash’ i.e. cleanse yourself as far as you are able. Do what you can to be in a right attitude when you approach the Lord.  Second, there is a warning to keep a respectful distance. This is almighty and all-powerful and all-wise and all-knowing holy God that we are talking about. Never ever reduce Him to buddy status.

In respect of God we have no rights, we cannot demand anything, but the truth is that He has initiated the possibility of relationship and so, third, there will be times of intimate closeness but they will be when God decrees. When a divine ‘ram’s horn’ is blown we may draw close. For us today it is when the Holy Spirit comes. Then is the time to know the wonder of divine intimacy, but not before. Jesus died to bring this possibility about; let’s not be casual about it. Reverence and respect, yes, but amazingly the New Testament tells us that we can now call him ‘daddy’. Amazing! Wonderful! Hallelujah!

21. Obedience

Meditations in Deuteronomy : 21 :  Blessings of Obedience

(Focus: Deut 7:12-16)

Deut 7:12,13 If you pay attention to these laws and are careful to follow them, then the LORD your God will keep his covenant of love with you, as he swore to your forefathers. He will love you and bless you and increase your numbers.

Remember the context. Drive out the inhabitants of the Land and their religion (7:1-6) for you are a holy, unique people. God chose you to be this because He loves you (7:7-11) so hold on to His laws. Note the inter-linking of Moses’ argument: you are a specially chosen, holy people, so have nothing to do with the people in the Land, but instead live the lives that God lays out for you in the Law. Remember we also said that everything Moses says here is to encourage Israel to follow that Law in the centuries to come. Now he gives them an additional motivation – the good that will come if they do follow the Law that God has given them.

He starts with this general call that we have noticed before: If you pay attention to these laws and are careful to follow them.” (v.12a) Paying attention means making sure they hold a central place in your life as a nation, and that means more than merely paying lip service to them; it means carefully following them. Now that is the condition for what follows and we need to remind ourselves that it IS a condition and without it the following will NOT happen!

The blessing of obedience is first simply stated generally: “then the LORD your God will keep his covenant of love with you, as he swore to your forefathers.” (v.12b) i.e. you do your side of the covenant and the Lord will do His. Note again it is described as a covenant of love. It is God’s way of being able to express His heart of love to this people. Now when God speaks about His love these aren’t just words, for God will DO specific things to bless Israel. This is so obvious when we read it, that we need to slow down and take it in.

First, “He will love you and bless you and increase your numbers.” (v.13a) Humanly speaking there is no reason why they should flourish but God is going to decree blessing for this people and its outworking is going to be clearly visible. It is NOT merely a natural thing for it could so easily be the opposite. But this ‘increasing in numbers’ is going to happen in specific ways: “He will bless the fruit of your womb, the crops of your land–your grain, new wine and oil–the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks in the land that he swore to your forefathers to give you. You will be blessed more than any other people; none of your men or women will be childless, nor any of your livestock without young.” (v.13b,14) God’s blessing, His decree of good, is going to affect the way women conceive, the harvest, and their herds and flocks, i.e. all life is going to be blessed.

Now we need to realise that this is God’s enabling, it won’t happen without Him. It doesn’t take a very clever person to look at the way our world works to realise that infertility, cattle disease and poor crops are not unusual. In a Fallen World, as we so often say, things go wrong, but for Israel, if they hold fast to the Lord, things will not go wrong. To the contrary, things will go very right because God has decreed that it will be like that and when He speaks, it is done. Now we have just said that all Israel need to do is hold fast to the Lord, and the way that they do this is by holding on to and keeping all the laws and instructions that God has given them.

These laws will enable to them to live in peace and harmony within the nation and in so doing, they will be demonstrating their love for God. Keeping close to Him means that His life can be imparted to them and that is then seen in the ways we have just read. The laws in themselves will not bring about those things, but the blessing of God will come when they do live like that, demonstrating His wisdom to the rest of the world, and then revealing His blessing on them to the rest of the world. Possibly the best example of this working out is the Queen of Sheba coming to view the blessing that God has bestowed on Solomon and Israel, and we read when she saw it, “she was overwhelmed.” (1 Kings 10:5) and went on to declare, “Praise be to the LORD your God, who has delighted in you and placed you on the throne of Israel. Because of the LORD’s eternal love for Israel, he has made you king, to maintain justice and righteousness.” (1 Kings 10:9) She understood the source of Solomon’s blessing!

Those are the positive sides of God’s blessing, but it also comes in another way: “The LORD will keep you free from every disease. He will not inflict on you the horrible diseases you knew in Egypt, but he will inflict them on all who hate you.” (v.15) Not only will they be fruitful but the Lord will also keep them healthy and they will not suffer the diseases that come in this Fallen World that others suffer. Those who hate and oppose them will suffer those things, but not Israel!

So, Moses returns to his original theme of obedience and especially in respect of dealing with the inhabitants of the Land: “You must destroy all the peoples the LORD your God gives over to you. Do not look on them with pity and do not serve their gods, for that will be a snare to you.” (v.16).  This is the command and failure to keep it will mean loss of the blessing that we have just considered.

It maybe that we who are Christians today need to realise afresh the blessings that are promised us in the word of God in return for our obedience. As you read the New Testament, look for it.


8. Call to Obedience

Meditations in Deuteronomy : 8:  Call to Obedience

(Focus: Deut 4:1-10)

Deut 4:1-4 Hear now, O Israel, the decrees and laws I am about to teach you. Follow them so that you may live and may go in and take possession of the land that the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you. Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the LORD your God that I give you. You saw with your own eyes what the LORD did at Baal Peor. The LORD your God destroyed from among you everyone who followed the Baal of Peor, but all of you who held fast to the LORD your God are still alive today.

Very well, we now start to move away from the historical reminders (although history as an anchor will keep appearing!)   There are a number of significant issues brought up in what Moses now goes on to say and we’ll take them as instructions:

1. Listen and take note! “Hear now, O Israel, the decrees and laws I am about to teach you (v.1a) i.e. Israel, this is important so please make sure you are listening. Please understand that what I am about to share, you need to LEARN, i.e. not merely hear as information, but you need to absorb it and understand it!

2. There are Consequences! “Follow them so that you may live and may go in and take possession of the land that the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you” (v.1b) The corollary obviously is if you don’t obey you will be in big trouble and won’t be able to enter the land that has been promised to you!

3. Don’t alter them! “Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the LORD your God that I give you.” (v.2) i.e. hold on to them exactly as they are, don’t change them at all but just obey them.

4. Remember Consequences of Disobedience! “You saw with your own eyes what the LORD did at Baal Peor. The LORD your God destroyed from among you everyone who followed the Baal of Peor, but all of you who held fast to the LORD your God are still alive today.” (v.3,4)  This refers back to how some of them had allowed themselves to be seduced by Balaam’s strategy and some had married Moabite women and were subsequently put to death. Disobedience leads astray and ends in death!

5. These are for the nation’s future: “See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the LORD my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it.” (v.5).  You have already received them once from me and so this is simply going to be a reminder of what you must hold on to for the rest of your history.

6. These will God’s wisdom to the rest of the world: “Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the LORD our God is near us whenever we pray to him? And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?” (v.6-8)  These laws are God’s design for mankind.

7. Don’t forget them but pass them on! “Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them. Remember the day you stood before the LORD your God at Horeb, when he said to me, “Assemble the people before me to hear my words so that they may learn to revere me as long as they live in the land and may teach them to their children.” (v.9,10) The biggest threat to your future is that you forget them – don’t!

He is going on to do another historical reminder in a moment, but we’ll pause at this point just to take in these preliminary commands. Scan back over these things and see that they are different facets of the same thing – a call to hear, take in, understand, obey and hang on to all the laws that God has conveyed to them through Moses. There is literally no greater threat to their future than they don’t do this. The covenant agreed at Sinai required “if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession.” (Ex 19:5) and the laws that were subsequently conveyed were referred to as the covenant: “When Moses went and told the people all the LORD’s words and laws, they responded with one voice, “Everything the LORD has said we will do.” Moses then wrote down everything the LORD had said. …Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, “We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey.” (Ex 24:3,4,7)  There had been, subsequently, other laws added and these collectively form the covenant with God. They are, very simply, the ways God wants them to live to come back in line with His original design for mankind and in so doing, they will reveal this to the rest of the world. We too, are now to reveal the Lord to the rest of the world. That is our calling. May we fulfil it!

25. Gathering/Scattering

Meditations in Ecclesiastes : 24 :  A Time for Gathering or Scattering

Eccles 3:5 a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain,

Probably in life, stones are something you’ve never really thought about. They are a background feature, if you like, that almost get missed. For a gardener, stones can be a blessing or a bane. We can take them and build a rockery, or put them down to form a base on which we build a shed, but in the midst of the flower bed or a lawn they can be a real nuisance and need to be removed. Isaiah spoke of the need to get rid of, or scatter stones: He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines.” (Isa 5:2) This was God clearing the ground so that Israel could grow and flourish. Travelling around the country you may see dry-stone walls, mile after mile of walls made by these stones wedged together. In old towns we may take for granted the buildings that have been put together with stone. Stone and stones are there all around us and most of the time we don’t see them.

In Old Testament times, piles of stones came to have greater significance than we might think. See here with Jacob: So Jacob took a stone and set it up as a pillar. He said to his relatives, “Gather some stones.” So they took stones and piled them in a heap, and they ate there by the heap. Laban called it Jegar Sahadutha, and Jacob called it Galeed. Laban said, “This heap is a witness between you and me today.” That is why it was called Galeed. It was also called Mizpah, because he said, “May the LORD keep watch between you and me when we are away from each other.” (Gen 31:45-49) This pile of stones became a memorial. The first two names given to it, in Aramaic and Hebrew respectively, mean ‘witness heap’ and the last one, ‘watchtower’.  This pile of stones was to act as a reminder of a family relationship and that they were now under God’s watchful eye. Similarly when Joshua took the people into the land crossing the Jordon, the Lord instructed him, Choose twelve men from among the people, one from each tribe, and tell them to take up twelve stones from the middle of the Jordan from right where the priests stood and to carry them over with you and put them down at the place where you stay tonight.” (Josh 4:2,3) so that, In the future, when your children ask you, `What do these stones mean?’ tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.” (v.6,7) Again this pile of collected stones were to remind people in the days to come of the Lord’s covenant with them and what He had done for them taking them through on dry land. Piles of stones thus came to be monuments or reminders of a relationship.

Thus be can see now how the parallelism works – and a time to embrace”. Embracing is a sign of unity, of harmony, of relationship. In other words, there are times when it is right to build relationships and create signs of relationship. The smallest precious stone on the finger of a young woman is a sign that a young man has covenanted to join himself to her. Many churches have ‘membership’, a formal sign of wanting to join together and be a committed part of this local body of God’s people. When we join a team to work together, there is this same sense of committing to something. If we’d lived in Jacob’s day we’d have each gathered a stone and made a pile as a reminder of the point in time when we came together to work together in relationship.

But then there is a time to scatter stones. If the gathering together of stones was a sign of a relationship being built, the scattering of the stones is a sign that the relationship has come to an end. If it is a marriage that is a tragic thing for God’s intent was that it should be a lifelong commitment. At other times there are unhappy disagreements and a parting of the ways. That happened to Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:36-39) and, sadly, it sometimes happens with us. But there are other times when it is just right to move on and although the relationship may continue in the hearts of the two parties, for practical purposes it is ended. This is life. There are times for such relationships to come together, blossom and flourish, and then there are times with the circumstances of life, when it is time to part. There may be a final embracing, but thereafter it is a time to refrain. This is life, this is what happens.

I have referred in previous meditations to life being a kaleidoscope where you tap it and the colours and shapes change. Edith Schaeffer in her book, What is a Family?, uses the picture of a changing mobile – the sort of thing you see in a child’s nursery that hangs there, moving, perhaps catching the light, held by the various strings but otherwise constantly moving. That is a good picture. We knit to our partner and a relationship is established. Children come along and new tiny, fragile relationships are created – and there is lots of ‘embracing’. They grow up and become teenagers and often there is a refraining from embracing as they learn to be an individual, and once they are through that, they too start forming a new relationship and we embrace them again in celebration and one day as grandparents we will embrace their new generation as well. It’s a constantly changing mobile, a changing kaleidoscope, this life. Sometimes joyous, sometimes sad, but never the same. 

12. God of Righteousness

Lessons from Israel: No.12 : God of Righteousness

Ex 4:24-26 At a lodging place on the way, the LORD met Moses and was about to kill him. 25But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it. “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me,” she said. 26So the LORD let him alone. (At that time she said “bridegroom of blood,” referring to circumcision.)

We move on now to a rather strange incident in the life of Moses. His interview with the Lord has come to an end and so goes back to Jethro his father-in-law and asks permission to go back to his people in Israel (v.18) and Jethro sends him on his way with his blessing. We then have a little recap which explains Moses next actions: “Now the LORD had said to Moses in Midian, “Go back to Egypt, for all the men who wanted to kill you are dead.” So Moses took his wife and sons, put them on a donkey and started back to Egypt. And he took the staff of God in his hand.” (4:19,20). Now we mention that because, as at the end of the conversation at the burning bush, it appears that he is on reasonable terms with the Lord. The Lord has sent him on his way with a reassurance of safety, and so Moses takes his family and sets off. Now in doing this, he is indicating his acceptance of the Lord’s task for him – and that is significant. Up until then he had been on a different footing, but that fact that he takes on the task changes everything.

Sometimes in Scripture there seems a vast understatement or lack of detail and verse 24 is such a verse: At a lodging place on the way, the LORD met Moses and was about to kill him.” Now, we aren’t told how the Lord met him and how He was about to kill him. The fact that his wife was able to take remedial action suggests that Moses was struck down with an illness that was getting progressively worse. A question that naturally will come to mind here is, why should the Lord want to kill Moses, and the answer from those who know the Lord and understand a little of His ways, is that He doesn’t!

Parallel situations that we might consider that shed light on such a time are, first of all, Abraham being asked to sacrifice Isaac (Gen 22) and, second,  the Lord’s anger on Mount Sinai when Israel made the golden calf (Ex 32 esp. v.10). It is clear that in neither case did the Lord want the outcome that was apparently being suggested. In the former case He wanted Abraham to show his willingness, and in the latter case He wanted Moses to plead for his people. So what is the point of the Lord looking like He is apparently going to kill Moses?  Now if He had wanted to do that, He could have done it instantly but instead, as we have already noted, He gives time for remedial action to be taken.

So what was it that saved Moses’ life?But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it. “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me,” she said.” The next verse indicates that she referred to circumcision, meaning you are a son of the covenant and your sons should also be sons of the covenant. So what was the covenant that she referred to? That between God and Abraham: “This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised,” (Gen 17:10) which was supposed to be for all following generations as well. Moses had obviously been circumcised as a baby as part of the family of Israel and he should have circumcised his own boys, but obviously he had felt that he no longer had any link with Israel and so had not bothered.

As he makes his way back to Egypt, he is coming on the Lord’s terms and is coming as an Israelite and is required to come in righteousness, conforming to all that had been agreed in the past about Israel. Moses cannot enter into the work of God on his own terms. No, he is an Israelite, part of the covenant people of God and he should be doing all he can to conform to all that that means. If he tries to enter the will of God on his terms, death awaits him. He can only enter on the agreed terms. Now whether Moses told his wife to circumcise their son or she heard from the Lord directly is unclear, but whatever it is, she carries out this act of separation. It is separation of a small piece of skin but it is also a recognition that this boy is being separated off to the people of God. Touching Moses’ feet with the skin is a form of identification of the dying man with the covenant of God and it is on that basis that the Lord lifts His hand off Moses and he lives.

This was simply God’s way of emphasizing to Moses that he goes as God’s ambassador and therefore he should go righteously. Righteousness simply means conforming to all of God’s laws for His people. The law here is simply the sign of a covenant agreement between God and His people. Moses (and his family!) goes as a representative of the covenant people and he himself must therefore conform to that covenant. For us this concept of covenant may not be very significant but it was basically God saying to the family of Israel, you are my family. Today the New Testament speaks about us being the children of God (Jn 1:12,13, 1 Jn 3:1,2) or members of God’s household (Eph 2:19) and the emphasis is on the relationship with God, which goes as far as us being able to call him ‘daddy’ (Rom 8:15, Gal 4:6).

David displayed great awareness of the significance of this covenant relationship when he came against Goliath and asked, “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?” (1 Sam 17:26). He’s saying, why are you allowing this character who has no relationship with God to dominate you, the people who do have a relationship with God? The relationship is all important, and that is something that Moses is having to learn the hard way. No, this is not a strange little incident; this is a very significant little incident, and we would do well to learn from it.