Not Because of Israel’s Righteousness
9 Hear, Israel: You are now about to cross the Jordan to go in and dispossess nations greater and stronger than you, with large cities that have walls up to the sky. 2 The people are strong and tall—Anakites! You know about them and have heard it said: “Who can stand up against the Anakites?” 3 But be assured today that the Lord your God is the one who goes across ahead of you like a devouring fire. He will destroy them; he will subdue them before you. And you will drive them out and annihilate them quickly, as the Lord has promised you.
Moses called on the Israelites to see the future occupation of the land as a gift of divine grace, not the result of any righteousness of their own. God was leading Israel into something too big for them. It was a challenge they could only meet if they trusted in God. The cities they would battle against were mighty and the people were great and tall. Yet God had called them to enter into this seemingly impossible battle. The future was open to them if the could learn from the past. He stressed to them to understand that it would be God who annihilated the opposition and they would have to rely on Him for the victory. Just as much as Israel had to understand the impossibility of the battle on their own, they also must understand the certainty of victory in the LORD. It was a battle too big for Israel, but not too big for the LORD. Israel could know both facts: That in themselves, the job was impossible, John 15:“without Me you can do nothing”; but in God the battle could not be lost, Philippians 4:13 “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”.
God was essentially calling Israel to a partnership in winning the battles. He will destroy them does not contradict you shall quickly drive them out and destroy them. God was calling Israel to be workers together with Him,
2 Corinthians 6:1. God did not want the Israelites to show mercy to the Canaanites. He wanted Israel to be a unique army of judgment against the Canaanites and their culture, which was so depraved that it deserved this kind of judgment.
4 After the Lord your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, “The Lord has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.” No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is going to drive them out before you. 5 It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the Lord your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. 6 Understand, then, that it is not because of your righteousness that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people.
The reasons for the conquest of the Promised Land were the immorality of its inhabitants and the promises God made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in Genesis 15:18-21. Israel’s history demonstrated its stiff-neckedness in how they often grumbled, complained, and disobeyed. Israel’s temptation to pride did not come in something they would actually say. Long before we say proud words we think proud thoughts in our heart. Therefore, Israel must not think in their heart that it was because of their righteousness that the LORD has given them the land. Moses hoped they wouldn’t forget their unworthiness before God or think that they deserved His gracious gifts, vs. 7-14.
The Golden Calf
7 Remember this and never forget how you aroused the anger of the Lord your God in the wilderness. From the day you left Egypt until you arrived here, you have been rebellious against the Lord.
In addition to remembering the grace of God, the people also needed to remember how vulnerable they were to apostasy, cha.1:6 -3:29. God’s purpose in reminding Israel of their rebellions against Him was not to discourage them or to make them feel defeated. The purpose was so that they would recognize their own weakness and trust in Him. The Israelites were characteristically stubborn. The same idea is communicated in the New Testament in 1 Corinthians 10:12 “therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.” When we remember our sinful nature, we walk in the poverty of spirit Jesus said was essential to a life of blessing in Matthew 5:3.
8 At Horeb you aroused the Lord’s wrath so that he was angry enough to destroy you. 9 When I went up on the mountain to receive the tablets of stone, the tablets of the covenant that the Lord had made with you, I stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights; I ate no bread and drank no water. 10 The Lord gave me two stone tablets inscribed by the finger of God. On them were all the commandments the Lord proclaimed to you on the mountain out of the fire, on the day of the assembly.
11 At the end of the forty days and forty nights, the Lord gave me the two stone tablets, the tablets of the covenant. 12 Then the Lord told me, “Go down from here at once, because your people whom you brought out of Egypt have become corrupt. They have turned away quickly from what I commanded them and have made an idol for themselves.”
13 And the Lord said to me, “I have seen this people, and they are a stiff-necked people indeed! 14 Let me alone, so that I may destroy them and blot out their name from under heaven. And I will make you into a nation stronger and more numerous than they.”
15 So I turned and went down from the mountain while it was ablaze with fire. And the two tablets of the covenant were in my hands. 16 When I looked, I saw that you had sinned against the Lord your God; you had made for yourselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. You had turned aside quickly from the way that the Lord had commanded you. 17 So I took the two tablets and threw them out of my hands, breaking them to pieces before your eyes.
18 Then once again I fell prostrate before the Lord for forty days and forty nights; I ate no bread and drank no water, because of all the sin you had committed, doing what was evil in the Lord’s sight and so arousing his anger. 19 I feared the anger and wrath of the Lord, for he was angry enough with you to destroy you. But again the Lord listened to me. 20 And the Lord was angry enough with Aaron to destroy him, but at that time I prayed for Aaron too. 21 Also I took that sinful thing of yours, the calf you had made, and burned it in the fire. Then I crushed it and ground it to powder as fine as dust and threw the dust into a stream that flowed down the mountain.
This recalls the events at Mount Sinai, where Israel worshipped a golden calf when Moses was gone a long time on the mountain, receiving the law from the LORD in Exodus 19-32. Moses had gone up the mountain and did not eat or drink water for 40 days. Typically a person cannot go more than 3 days without water and survive. God supernaturally preserved Moses during those 40 days. God initiated the covenant with His people and gave Moses the law. The original tablets of the law Moses received on Mount Sinai were actually written by God Himself and contained the Ten Commandments “all the words which the LORD had spoken to you on the mount from the midst of the fire in the day of the assembly”, found in Exodus 20. With God’s approval, Moses taught the Law to the people.
However, in Moses’ absence the people reverted to their old ways and created an idol to worship. A golden calf! And God was angry with them. God told Moses of His desire to wipe out Israel in judgment, and to start over again with a new nation, descended from Moses himself. The burning fires on Mount Sinai were physical representations of the glory of God and His holy presence. The mountain began to burn when Israel first came to Mount Sinai in Exodus 19:18. Those fires had burned for 40 straight days, and they burned at the very time Israel made the golden calf and began to worship it. Moses broke the tablets, in zeal for God’s honour, and by direction of God’s Spirit, to signify to the people, that the covenant between God and them contained in those tables was broken and made void, and they were now cast out of God’s favor, and could expect nothing from him but fiery indignation and severe justice. Moses again lay prostrate before the LORD and did not eat or drink for 40 days. He was afraid for the people and God’s desire to wipe them out. “For I was afraid”:The Hebrew word here is a rare word, translated in the Septuagint by the strong word ekphobos, which means “exceedingly frightened” or “stricken with terror.” When he saw the sin of Israel and knew the holiness of God, Moses was very afraid for the sake of the people of Israel. Moses prayed specifically for Aaron’s sin, detailed in Exodus 32, which was so bad, that he surely would have been destroyed by the LORD except Moses prayed for him. This shows both the prevailing power of Moses’ prayer and the great love in the heart of Moses. Moses burnt the idol, ground it up, and sprinkled it in the people’s drinking water for three reasons.To show this god was nothing and could be destroyed easily.To completely obliterate this idol.To make the people pay an immediate consequence of their sin.
22 You also made the Lord angry at Taberah, at Massah and at Kibroth Hattaavah.
23 And when the Lord sent you out from Kadesh Barnea, he said, “Go up and take possession of the land I have given you.” But you rebelled against the command of the Lord your God. You did not trust him or obey him. 24 You have been rebellious against the Lord ever since I have known you.
Moses reminded the Israelites of their earlier acts that provoked God to wrath at at Taberah, at Massah and at Kibroth Hattaavah, and Kadesh Barnea. Israel’s disobedience to God began with their unbelief. They did not believe God loved them and was mighty enough to bring them into the Promised Land.
25 I lay prostrate before the Lord those forty days and forty nights because the Lord had said he would destroy you. 26 I prayed to the Lord and said, “Sovereign Lord, do not destroy your people, your own inheritance that you redeemed by your great power and brought out of Egypt with a mighty hand. 27 Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Overlook the stubbornness of this people, their wickedness and their sin. 28 Otherwise, the country from which you brought us will say, ‘Because the Lord was not able to take them into the land he had promised them, and because he hated them, he brought them out to put them to death in the wilderness.’ 29 But they are your people, your inheritance that you brought out by your great power and your outstretched arm.”
This prayer of intercession from Moses is described more fully in Exodus 32. Moses asked for mercy upon Israel because of God’s past faithfulness to the patriarchs. Moses took God’s judgment seriously. Nevertheless, he did not resign himself to God’s justice but appealed to God’s faithfulness, mercy, and honor. He reminded God of His redemption of the Israelites from slavery, His promises, His reputation among all the nations, and His election of Israel.
We can seek the mercy and power of God through prayer by praying with the same heart and by pleading the same reasons before the LORD. Prayer on solid reasons like these is far more effective than merely casting wishes up towards heaven. Because of God’s past faithfulness to us. Because of His past faithfulness to our forefathers. Because of His glory and reputation among the nations. And because we are His people. Keeping these things in mind is also a way to refine our prayers. When we pray only for the things consistent with God’s glory, we have our hearts set on the right things. Amen.