Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
"BEFORE GOD THE CONSUMING FIRE, PEOPLE HAVE NO CLAIM TO ANYTHING BUT JUDGMENT."
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise"
Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Psalm 34:6,7; (as law read Ex 19:10-20:21)
Beloved Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ!
We have in the last number of weeks listened to the Word of God as He gives it to us in Dt 6, 7, and 8. Now that we come today to chap 9, itís necessary first to put this chapter in the context of the earlier chapters.
The people of Israel, weíd learned, stood there on the banks of the Jordan River, ready to cross over into their promised inheritance. First, though, Moses had impressed upon the people in chap 6 who their God was. Lord He was, Jahweh, and that was to say that He was faithful in keeping His Word; never was He whimsical, never did He vacillate, always could His people by covenant know what to expect from this God. In faithfulness to the promises given to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob this God would graciously give His people the land of promise on the other side of the river. Given Who this God was, the people were to love this God with all their heart and soul, to trust Him and obey Him, to teach their children also to know this God well. That was chap 6.
On the other side of the river were dangers threatening the peopleís service to this God. In chapter 7 Moses mentioned the first of these dangers, the danger from the Canaanites themselves. Or, better put, the danger was the Israelitesí own weakness; so inclined did they remain to evil that theyíd not be able to resist the temptations that came with friendships with the Canaanites. To protect themselves from being lured away from the service of their God, the people of Israel were to have nothing to do with the Canaanites, were to destroy them utterly.
The second danger threatening the Israelites was mentioned in chap 8. That was the danger of taking the prosperity of the Promised Land for granted, the danger of forgetting that man lives only by the Word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord. Thatís why the people had to remember the manna of the desert; they should never forget their complete dependence on the Lord their God.
That puts chap 9 into the context of the previous chapters. For in chap 9 the Lord sets out the third danger confronting Israel. This third danger is the pride living in all men, the thought that Ďwe must be doing something right if weíre getting all these blessingsí. Itís the thought that we deserve good things, the thought that our actions are quite acceptable to God, and so He deals with them kindly according to what we deserve. In chap 9 the Lord condemns totally any notion that His people are deserving of any good thing from His hand. This is the thought that requires our attention this morning.
I summarize the sermon with this theme:
BEFORE GOD THE CONSUMING FIRE, PEOPLE HAVE NO CLAIM TO ANYTHING BUT JUDGMENT.
1. Israelís total unworthiness
2. Godís fearful anger
3. Our increased obligation
1. Israelís total unworthiness
I have chosen the first part of vs 3 as the window through which to look at the entire chapter. These words describe who God is, and itís precisely Godís identity as God that condemns the thought that we have any right to His mercy or goodness.
The Lord describes Himself in our text as "a consuming fire," a fire that eats up whatever is in its path. Those in the Lordís path are the Anakim, those persons amongst the Canaanites of great stature, big men, giants. More, these Anakim had built strong defense cities, with walls "fortified up to heaven." These were the people of whom Israel was so frightened when the twelve spies came back nearly 40 years agoÖ (Num 13:31ff). But now, says the Lord, God Himself shall go before Israel as they cross the Jordan into the land of the Anakim, and Heíll be a "consuming fire", and thatís to say that these Anakim shall be destroyed; after all, even "great and tall" people, living in "cities great and fortified up to heaven" have no defense against a "consuming fire". And the result? Israel will be able to drive these Anakim out with no problem and destroy them quickly. And they can themselves settle in the land of promise. Easy.
And therein lies the great temptation. The land of promise would come rolling into their lap. That blessing in turn leads sinful hearts (quickly deceived as we are!) to conclude that we must be better than others who donít receive such a wonderful land, certainly better than the Canaanites who are to be destroyed. Consciously or sub-consciously the thought is there: we deserve this, weíre better than they. Itís that thought of superiority, or being a tad better than others. It leads to being smug within oneself, a bit proud. I think: we can all relate to this thought.
The Lord is very quick to condemn the thought. Vs 4: "do not think in your heartÖ, ĎBecause of my righteousness the Lord has brought me in to possess this land.í" The Lord repeats it emphatically in vs 5; "it is not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart that you go in to possess their land." And once more in vs 6: "the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness." That repetition is intended as a hammer, to hit the people again and again dead on the head of that stubborn thought that somehow we deserve a blessing. That thought must be crushed, completely. Thatís also why the Lord places over against that self-righteousness the twofold reason why Heís acting as He is, and thatís first "because of the wickedness of these nations," and second because of the promise that the Lord had given to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In a word: Israelís receiving this land has got nothing to do with what the people at the Jordan deserve, for they Ėvs 6- are "a stiff-necked people."
"Stiff-necked." Itís not a complimentary phrase. The picture is of a stubborn animal in front of a cart or plough, whose driver seeks to turn the animal by pulling on the reins and so getting the animal to bend the neck and take the corner; think of how a rider today gets his horse to turn a corner. But the animal here is refusing to yield to the reins, refusing to bend the neck and so turn the corner; heís determined to go his own way. That, says God, is Israel. And therefore definitely not deserving of the oats and molasses Ėlet alone the peace and prosperity- of the Promised Land.
That being said, Moses in the rest of the chapter holds a mirror in front of the people of Israel, and so impress on them how stubborn and self-willed this people really is Ė and therefore totally undeserving of the land of promise. Specifically, Moses reminds Israel-at-the-banks-of-the-Jordan of what happened forty years ago at Mt Horeb, the mountain better know to us as Mt Sinai. Vs 8: "Especially at Horeb you provoked the Lord to wrath, so that the Lord was angry enough with you to destroy you."
What happened? We need here to recall what is written in Ex 19 and 20. When the Lord God made His covenant with the nation of slaves Heíd redeemed from Egypt, He came down in Person upon the top of Mt Sinai. The people in the camp at the foot of the mountain were very aware of Godís presence, for they heard the thunderings and trumpet blasts, they saw the lightnings, saw also the thick cloud on the mountain. More, there was smoke, smoke as of a furnace, because "the Lord had descended upon [the mountain] in fire" (19:18). It was one very awesome experience because a God of such infinite holiness and grandeur was there, there in the presence of people. From the midst of the fire on the mountain God spoke the words of His covenant with the people at the foot of the mountain, told them the wonderful news that He Ėa God of such majesty- was the Lord their God, the one who took them out of Egypt, told them how they could live before Him. They were to have no other gods, Heíd said in the first commandment, were also never to make an image of God in order to serve Him through an image of any created thing (second commandment) Ė after all, how could you make an image of a God theyíd never seen, a God whose greatness made the mountain quake, whose holiness was best portrayed by consuming fire?! Etc.
So taken were the people by the holiness and splendor of the God who spoke to them from this mountain that Ėsays Ex 20- "they trembled and stood afar off" (20:18), and they begged Moses that he please speak with this God, "but let not God speak with us, lest we die" (20:19). You see, beloved: the majesty of it all, having such a God so close: it was too muchÖ. They were so overwhelmed with Godís presence.
Notice now, congregation, what happened next. We donít read anything else in the book of Exodus about the thundering and the trumpet blasts and the smoke that characterized Godís initial coming upon Mt Sinai in Ex 19 and 20. So, in our minds we imagine that the mountain returned to normal. But thatís not true. For I read in Ex 24 that a cloud of glory remained on Mt Sinai (vs 16) and that God from this cloud of glory called Moses to come up the mountain to Him. I also read that "the sight of the glory of the Lord was like a consuming fire on the top of the mountain in the eyes of the children of Israel" (vs 17). That is: the mountain stayed special in appearance; the people on the desert floor could see fire continuing on the mountain, could see the fire of Godís continuing presence. One look to the mountain provided them with evidence that this holy God was with them still!
How, now, should that reality affect the people? Moses went up to God on the mountain, to that consuming fire on the mountain. Given Who God was, Moses remained overwhelmed by Godís nearness, and that is why he acted as he did. How? Says Moses in vs 9 of our chap:
"When I went up into the mountain to receive the tablets of stone, the tablets of the covenant which the Lord made with you, then I stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights. I neither ate bread nor drank water."
Why eat no bread, drink no water? That, brothers and sisters, is because Moses was so overwhelmed in the presence of God. If in Ex 19 the coming of God meant that certain restrictions had to be placed on normal human activity (vss 10-15), how much more are restrictions in place in the very presence of God!
But what, now, about the people on the desert floor? With the God of glory so close Ėthe consuming fire is visible on the mountain (cf Dt 9:15)- what are the people doing? Showing the same sense of awe and self-restraint as Moses? O horror of horrors, no! There is no awe, there is no fear, there is no regard for the majesty of God! When God first revealed His grandeur not even six weeks ago ĖEx 19 & 20- the people had been so impressed with Godís magnificence that they begged Moses that God not speak with them lest they perish. But now, not forty days later Ėwhile the fire of Godís presence remained on the mountain beside them!- they gave themselves to the sin of the golden calf (Ex 32). What contrast in behavior with Moses on the mountain! He didnít eat and drink out of deference to the holiness of the God in whose presence He was, but the people below gave themselves to eating and drinking, and rose up to play also (Ex 32:6) Ė and meanwhile gave themselves to crass disobedience of Godís second word of the covenant, the command to make no images of God in any way. God had spoken, had told His people-by-covenant how He Ėholy God that He was; see how the mountain quaked and smoked!- wanted them to live before Him. But while the fire of God remains visible on the mountain for Israel to see, this people transgress blatantly His holy command! Talk about rebellious! Talk about stiff-necked! This people was so thick they wouldnít learn! And shall they now think that their righteousness prompted God to give them the land?! Not a chance, not a chance!
Tell me, beloved of the Lord: do you think that human nature is today any different than Israelís depravity was? To put the question differently: do you think that you are a better person than the Israelites were? Have you more regard for God as God? And so more deserving of Godís blessings?
Before I pursue that thought further, though, we need first to consider Godís response to His peopleís transgression. Thatís our second point:
2. Godís fearful anger
God on the mountain, vs 12, saw what the people down below were doing. His response? This: He disowns the people! Read what He says. "Arise," He says to Moses, "go down quickly from here, for your people whom you brought out of Egypt have acted corruptly." Recall: when God came down upon Mt Sinai six weeks earlier to make His covenant with Israel, Heíd spoken from the midst of the fire and smoke, and told Israel that "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt." That was covenant language; God bound Himself to this people, declared He was their God and therefore they His people. But not anymore! If Israel shall thumb their nose against God in disobedience to His covenant commands even while His holiness is evident on the mountain beside them, God wants nothing more to do with this people; so jealous is He. Vs 14: God wants to destroy them, "blot out their name from under heaven." And Heíll make a new beginning with Moses; through Mosesí offspring Heíd fulfill the promises made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Read carefully, congregation, what God is saying here. And remember that this is your God who speaks. So angry, so upset is He with this rebellious people that Heíll destroy them more radically than He destroyed the world with the flood! In the flood eight people were saved; here God plans to destroy the whole nation bar one Ė Moses. With the flood God did not destroy the names of the people who perished; from Genesis 5 and 6 we know this and that about the generations who drowned. But here God says He wants to "blot out their name from under heaven," and thatís to say that not a soul in coming generations would know about Israel; so angry was God with this people! Let no one under estimate Godís reaction to sin!!
Moses relates that as he went down the mountain he saw the cause of Godís anger: "I looked, and behold, you had sinned against the Lord your God Ė had made for yourselves a molded calf!" Thatís why Moses smashed the two tablets of the covenant before Israelís eyes (vs 17), and thatís to say that because they with their sin had broken their covenant with God, God also broke His covenant with Israel. And what, now, what would stop God from doing what Heíd said Heíd do Ė destroy this people, blot them out and make a new nation out of Moses? One thing: Moses Ėvs 18- "fell down before the Lord, as at the first, forty days and forty nights; I neither ate bread nor drank water." That is: in the presence of the people who thumbed their noses at the holiness of God, who thought they could serve this God in their own self-chosen fashion, who thought they could party in the presence of His awesome majesty, Moses displays the attitude that is fitting for sinners in the nearness of such a God. On his face, another forty days and forty nights, with nothing to eat, beseeching this God to have mercy, have mercy! And see, God listened to the intercessor, listened to his pleas for both the people and for Aaron.
Why did God listen? Why did the Lord not give full vent to His anger and destroy this stubborn people? In vss 25-29 Moses tells Israel what his prayer was throughout those forty days. In no way did Moses plead for mercy on the grounds that the people were quite decent after all, or that this sin was actually just a once-off deviation from their normal respect for God, or they didnít mean it quite so seriously as God took it. Nor did Moses argue that the people were so young in the faith, and that maturity in the service of the Lord would solve the problem. Moses knows that the people are sinful, and they remain inclined to all evil, and so itís simply wrong to ask God to look at any good thing in the people Ė for there is no good with them and never will be either, of themselves. How Moses intercedes for the people then? Vs 27: "remember Your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." That is: remember, Lord, the promise You gave to them. You must, Lord, stand by Your word! And what shall the Egyptians say if You destroy this people in the desert? They shall simply interpret that as weakness on Your part, and theyíll laugh You to scorn, will ridicule Your reputation. For the sake of Your own reputation, Lord, You must have mercy on this people and give them the land of promise.
That was Mosesí prayer. Not the merits of the people featured in His prayer, for they had no merits. His prayer was rather built around the theme of Godís glory Ė "Hallowed be Your Name." And see, vs 19, "the Lord listened to me at that time also."
Israel stands on the banks of the Jordan, ready to enter the Promised Land. The land shall fall easily into their hands because "the Lord your God is He who goes before you, a consuming fire." That fire should have destroyed Israel in their sin with the golden calf, but the anger that Israel deserves the Canaanites will receive; they will perish in His angerís blaze. And Israel? Let them never think that they deserve less than destruction! Were it not for Mosesí intercession, they would have perished long before the Canaanites.
What attitude, then, must characterize Israel on the banks of the Jordan? What attitude must go with them into the Promised Land? The only fitting attitude is humility, a deep awareness of own depravity. Such an attitude takes seriously the command of vs 7, the command to "remember," and the command "do not forget"! Israel must act in a fashion consistent with remembering Godís holiness in the face of their sinfulness, act in a fashion consistent with remembering their sinfulness in the face of Godís holiness.
At the end of the first point I asked you whether you felt you were better people than Israel was, more deserving of Godís blessings. At the end of the second point I add a question: would God respond to your sins with equal passion as He did to Israelís? Those two questions bring us to our third point:
3. Our increased obligation
Dt 9, brothers and sisters, is Old Testament material. But that does not mean that we can close Dt 9 and learn no lessons from it. As it is, the Holy Spirit, for the benefit of Christís New Testament church, has drawn out the instruction of Dt 9 in the words of Hebrews 12.
In the earlier part of his letter, the author of the letter to the Hebrews told the Christians he addresses about the results of Christís work on the cross. Sinners, he says, are reconciled to God, yes, so reconciled that these sinners may boldly and freely come into Godís presence in prayer (10:19f). That is, these Christians have, through the blood of Christ, entered into the Land of promise, are heirs of life eternal. We understand that with these words the author of Hebrews is stating that circumstances have changed since the days Israel stood on the banks of the Jordan. The New Testament church is richer, far richer, than Israel of old, because we are permitted for Christís sake to come into Godís very presence in prayer. In fact, the Holy Spirit has been poured out, and that is to say that the great God of Ex 19 & 20 has made His home in our hearts. Talk about God being close by!
This progress in Godís redeeming work is the reality to which the apostle refers in Heb 12. He says in vs 18 that "you have not (like Israel of old) come to a mountain that may be touched and that burned with fireÖ," so that all who saw it trembled with fear Ė including Moses. (We understand: thatís a reference to the events of Mt Sinai, Ex 19.) Rather, vs 22,
"you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenantÖ."
Notice the piling up of phrases here. I canít go into detail anymore, but suffice it to say that all these terms - the heavenly Jerusalem, the company of angels, those registered in heaven, God the judge- are all references to heaven. Thatís the blessed result of Christís work on the cross; sinners have in principle been brought to heaven. Paradise restored!
But what, now, are the consequences of this progress in Godís saving work? The people of Israel at Mt Sinai quickly got used to Godís nearness on the mountain; after some days they took little notice of that heavenly fire, and thought to serve God as they saw fit. But how angry, how terribly angry was God; so angry was He that He was ready to destroy them even more radically than He destroyed the world with the flood. Given that the Hebrew Christians are now closer to God still, "see that you do not refuse Him who speaks!" says the apostle in vs 25. After all, God hasnít changed; vs 29: "our God is a consuming fire!" So it is for us to listen to His every word, His every command. And do it!
We like to think that God is not so quick to get angry on account of our sin. We like to think that somehow God overlooks our sins, or those sins arenít so bad; in any case, weíre still deserving of the blessings we receive. But the Lord is so very emphatic, beloved, that it is not so. Let no one narrow the distance between holy God and sinful people, as if weíre not so depraved or that God is not so holy; God remains God, majestic in holiness, fearsome in His splendor Ė and we inclined to evil and therefore very deserving of His holy anger Ė destruction. Thanks to the work of Jesus Christ Ėhow rich we are!- you and I have received a place in His presence; how close weíve come to this God. But He remains a "consuming fire," and so itís for us to be very particular in how we serve Him; anything less than perfect obedience meets with His holy displeasure. If the Anakim couldnít stand before that consuming fire, how do you think you will? If God was ready to destroy the Israelites at Mt Sinai, why should He be more tolerant of the sins of those who have seen His grace in Jesus Christ?
Next week, the Lord willing, the Lord will place His table before us again. Heíll command us to come to His table, and thatís to say that He tells us to come into the presence of God. Yes, for Jesusí sake we can eat in His presence, and we can drink also; the Lord would not have us to fast, since Christ has paid for sin. But we understand: approach the table next Sunday with the thought that somehow we deserve to attend Ė no, beloved, that will never do! We may not get used to Godís presence, as Israel got used to the fire on the mountain. God has made us richer in Christ than Israel was, and thatís why itís for us to stand in awe of Him even more than Israel had to! That reality, beloved, puts the self-examination of the Lordís supper form into itís proper perspective. I quote from the Lordís supper form:
"First, let everyone consider his sins and accursedness, so that he, detesting himself, may humble himself before God. For the wrath of God against sin is so great that He could not leave it unpunished, but has punished it in His beloved Son Jesus Christ by the bitter and shameful death on the cross."
God is a consuming fire; His wrath against sin is so great that He had to punish it. Then yes, thereís the glorious gospel that He has punished our sins in the bitter and shameful death of His Son on the cross; let us believe it! But take the gospel for granted we may not, and act as if Godís forgiving grace is the most normal thing in the world we may not either. We need awe for God, a godly fear of His God-ness, and that implies a keen awareness of our sins and accursedness, it requires a detesting of the self and so deep humility in the presence of this God. Remember: itís recognizing how great our sins and misery are that leads us to appreciating how great Godís deliverance is in Jesus Christ, and that in turn prompts thankfulness to God with our entire life.
Your God, congregation, remains a consuming fire. On the last day all the world shall know it; Peter tells us that when Christ returns "the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up" (II Pet 3:10). Only through faith in the blood of Jesus Christ shall we escape that burning. That means that we take God seriously today, esteem this God very highly Ė and therefore live before Him in holiness befitting His nearness. Amen.