Moses begins his first sermon to the children of Israel. They are camped on the east bank of the Jordan preparing to enter the Promised Land. God tells Moses to speak to them to prepare them to enter and conquer the land. The first sermon he preaches will remind them of the history of their journey from Egypt to where they are now. The story mostly tells of the sin of Israel contrasted with the faithfulness of God. It is how God brought them to this place in the midst of their repeated unfaithfulness and ungratefulness. Moses does not want them to forget all that God has done for them and that they are not responsible for the completion of their journey. The land is theirs because of God’s faithfulness – not because of their righteousness.
This explains why we study the first four chapters of Deuteronomy. Like Israel, we are believers not because we deserve it or earn it – but because God is faithful. Israel’s sinful history closely resembles our own. In studying their behavior we realize we stand before God in spite of ourselves. We are to read about Israel so we do not repeat its mistakes but also to humble us as we see ourselves in its thankless and thoughtless actions.
Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. I Corinthians 10:11-12
Moses – as the author – introduces the book. He says these are the words he spoke to Israel as they were camped in Moab (he gives several place names, but it all is summarized as Moab – vs 5). Notice in verse 3 that he says these are words God told him to speak. It is not Moses’ idea to speak; God has given him the assignment and the words to say.
He makes an interesting comment in verse 2. He says it is eleven days journey from Horeb (Sinai) by the way of Mount Seir to Kadesh-barnea. This seems to be totally random. It is not a continuation of the thought in verse 1 and seems to have nothing to do with verse 3. However, notice in verse 3 that he immediately states the date of when he begins to speak. It is the fortieth year, on the first day of the eleventh month. The reader is supposed to notice the contrast. It is only 11 days journey from Sinai to Kadesh-barnea (the place from which they originally planned to enter the land) but it has taken them FORTY YEARS to reach the entrance to Canaan. He does not explain this here, but it gives us a clue as to the purpose of this first sermon.
He says this takes place after they defeated two kings – Sihon and Og. Those were battles – along with a Canaanite called the king of Arad – where God already showed how He will fight for them and make them victorious (Num 21). Unlike their parents’ generation (who only had one conflict before coming to the entrance of Canaan – Ex 17), this is a battle-tested people ready to invade. In His mercy God has given them concrete examples of His might to reassure them.
Verse 5 tells us the purpose of the sermons is for Moses to expound the Law. He wants to make their history and the Law very clear so there are no misunderstandings as they enter the land. They are a young nation – no one (at least no man) over the age of 59 except for Moses, Caleb, and Joshua – and many of them were not around for the events he is about to recount. God wants the people fully aware of what He has done for them in the past and what He expects of them as they take possession of the land.
He starts their history at Horeb (Sinai). After they had been at Horeb for roughly a year God tells them to journey to Canaan and conquer the land. He says He promised the land to their ancestors – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The land is theirs for the taking. They are to go in and possess the land which the Lord swore to give to your fathers.
This at first seems to be an aside. Right after telling the people what God said at Horeb, Moses decides to talk about the leadership system he set up to handle the huge responsibilities of ruling and judging such a large nation.
Some commentators see this section as a lesson on leadership. It shows the wisdom of delegating and selecting wise men to be in lead positions. It also instructs leaders to fear God instead of man; they must not show partiality because the judgment is God’s.
While the leadership instruction is good – and it is interesting to remember Moses’ words about not fearing man when they decide not to enter the land because they have no confidence they can win – there must be more of a reason to include this story here. It does not seem to be important enough by itself to include in this narrative.
Three reasons seem to be plausible. It could be to show God’s blessing on Israel and His faithfulness to the promise to make Abraham’s descendants into a great nation. Israel is so large it cannot be ruled by just one man. It could also be to show that Moses alone is not responsible for the people’s later rebellion. When they get to Kadesh and refuse to enter the land it does not all fall on Moses, since other men are in leadership positions also. The last reason for including it could be to show that everything is in place for the people to be successful. The structure allows them to be ruled well – God has thought of everything in His preparing them to conquer the land. Ultimately it is impossible to say for sure why Moses includes this in his history (it could easily be for another reason not listed), but perhaps the first reason makes the most sense.
Moses goes back to the story of the journey. They leave Horeb and arrive at Kadesh-barnea (eleven days later?), where Moses tells them to go into the land and take possession of it. He also tells them, “Do not fear or be dismayed” (vs. 21). It is interesting that he says this even before they send the spies into the land. Apparently either he knows they WILL feel this way or they have already expressed that they are frightened by the thought of going in. It does not seem to be a rebuke – he simply encourages them not to be afraid. God rarely faults His creatures for fear as long as they do not lose faith in Him.
The story of the spies going into the land recounted in Numbers 13 makes it sound as if the idea is God’s. Here Moses says the people come to him and suggest sending them in. If we compare both stories together it appears that it is the people’s idea which God approves. If that is the case, it is perhaps the first sign of the people’s coming rebellion that instead of simply going up as God and Moses tell them, they first want to send spies in to check it out. True faith simply reacts to God’s promises; tentative faith asks for a second opinion.
Moses says in verse 25 that the spies return and say the land is a good land which the Lord our God is about to give us. It is interesting that he puts it this way since the spies also say (and he points this out later in verse 28) that the people are giants and Israel stands no chance at conquering them. As he retells the story he chooses to highlight the positive side of their report first.
Moses reaches the tragic part of his narrative. After hearing the spies’ report the people refuse to go up. They rebel against the command of the Lord your God (vs. 26). Even more, they grumble in their tents (interesting that he puts it this way – apparently the grumbling is not public so much as it is what the people say within their families – it is likely Moses knows about it because God tells him) and say, “Because the Lord hates us, He has brought us out of the land of Egypt to deliver us into the hand of the Amorites to destroy us” (vs. 27).
The blasphemy and the ungratefulness and the forgetfulness of this complaint are staggering. After all they have been through – the ten plagues, the Passover, the crossing of the Red Sea, the victory over Amalek, the provision of water on several occasions (something to think about – they were at Sinai for almost a year – they apparently had water the whole time – this means God kept water coming out of the rock [enough for hundreds of thousands of people] for over eleven months) – the people can still react in fear by lashing out at God and accusing Him of wanting to destroy them. Even more, it shows a vast ignorance of God – if He wanted to destroy them He could do it at any time. Why bring them all the way here only to have them destroyed by pagans?
Another observation makes what they say even more egregious. What did they do this morning when they woke up? THEY GATHERED MANNA TO EAT. Every day when the dew falls the little bread flakes fall with it (Num 11:9). They have food every day purely because God provides it for them. They ate today because God miraculously provided food for them and with full stomachs they say, “God hates us and wants to destroy us!”
Moses reminds them of what God has done for them. He pleads with them to remember Egypt and how God has provided for them continually in the wilderness. They are almost two years out of Egypt and God has carried you, just as a man carries his son, in all the way which you have walked, until you came to this place (vs. 31).
This situation points to why God often has Israel put up monuments or celebrate feasts to commemorate His mighty works. Regardless of how miraculously He delivers them or provides for them, the people are prone to forget what He has done. It is why a good memory is vital to belief. The selfishness of our hearts causes us to forget how God has provided and blessed in our lives. We naturally have a perspective that demands, “Where are You when I need You?”, rather than, “You redeemed me and I trust You.” It is why communion is so important and why we must develop ways to commemorate all that God has done in the past.
Moses gives commentary as he looks back. He says, “But for all this, you did not trust the Lord your God” (vs. 32). [It is interesting to remember that the people he speaks to were not around or were very young when this happened. They are not the ones who actually rebelled – it was their parents. Even so, Moses speaks as if it were them. Perhaps because this generation has done its own share of rebelling against God (see Num 21-25), Moses labels it with the parents’ sin]. He points out that the One they did not trust is the One who goes before them in the cloud by day and in the fire by night.
This highlights another amazing aspect of the people’s lack of faith. As they complain about God wanting to destroy them and that they have no chance of conquering the giants of Canaan, God’s cloud of glory is over the tabernacle. Exodus 40:34-38 tells us that His cloud rests above the tabernacle when they camp. The cloud that leads them during the day and the fire that leads them at night stay over the tabernacle to show God’s presence there. The people complain that God hates them while they stand in sight of His cloud. The visible presence of God is not enough to give them hope. (When you live every day in the presence of God it is easy to take it for granted – just like the Christian who loses his sense of awe over the Spirit’s presence in his life).
The people are forgetful. The people fear man more than God (even though the giants they fear are still unknown to all but the 12 spies whereas the people SEE God’s presence with them and have experienced the terror of hearing Him speak – Ex. 20). The people are ungrateful. The people are blind – they do not see the tragic irony of complaining about God while eating His manna and seeing His cloud. The people are just like us.
We know Christ redeemed us. We know His Spirit works in us to cause us to believe and leads us in our sanctification. We know we can call the God of the universe ‘Father’. We know we can pray to our Father at any time. We know that every breath we take is a gift from God that has meaning because we are redeemed. We know we have eternal glory waiting for us after this life. We know God loves us.
But with all that (But for all this), we still love the world and doubt God. We still look at what God has done and say to ourselves, “What is in front of me looks better than what God has. God does not love me enough to give me what I really want – I want this instead of God.” We have our own Kadesh experiences throughout our lives. Every time we choose the world and its lusts or become disgusted because we do not get what we think we deserve we rebel in the same way as Israel. When we worry more about how others see us than about obedience, we too refuse to cross the Jordan. “God hates us and brought us out of Egypt to destroy us” – “God does not have my best interests in mind so I must satisfy myself with this sin.”
God curses the people for their unbelief. He swears to Moses that not one of these men, this evil generation, shall see the good land which I swore to give your fathers (vs. 35). Numbers 14:29 tells us that no one who is 20 years old or older will enter the land. The ones who will enter are the very children the people referenced (not in this passage but in the Numbers narrative) in their refusal. They said they did not want to see their children perish and God tells them the children will be the only ones who will not perish (and the children are the ones Moses now addresses). Only Caleb and Joshua of this generation will see the land.
Moses also says – looking back – that God was angry with him on account of the people. As we studied in the introduction to Deuteronomy, the event that precluded Moses’ entry into the land happened 38 years after Kadesh. Moses seems to say that the rebellion at Kadesh ultimately caused his sin because if the people had obeyed he would not have faced the incident that caused it. It is worth noting that his sin took place only 10 months ago (if the calculation of time listed in the Introduction notes is correct), which means the people he now addresses are truly to blame instead of their parents.
The people react to God’s curse and actually make things worse. After Moses tells them they must head back into the wilderness to die and that none of them will see the Promised Land, the people seem to repent. They say, “We have sinned against the Lord; we will indeed go up and fight, just as the Lord our God commanded us” (vs. 41). The people then ready themselves for war and begin to enter the land.
God tells Moses to turn them back. Moses tells them not to go because God is not going with them. They are about to enter the land and fight alone and they will be defeated. God has already decided their fate and they cannot reverse it. Going up alone is suicidal – without God the people stand no chance against the Canaanites.
The people ignore the command. Moses uses the same terminology as in verse 26 – they rebel against the command of the Lord. Whereas they would not listen when God told them to go up with Him, now they will not listen when He tells them not to go up without Him. In both cases the people’s selfishness rules. What they want is much more important than obedience (which is what sin ALWAYS comes down to – what I want right now is more important than my responsibility to obey).
Their actions show their repentance was not sincere. If they were truly repentant they would stop as soon as they hear God is not with them. True repentance is marked by obedience. Instead, they show by their further rebellion that they are reacting to the punishment – not the sin. The punishment God handed down was too harsh. They do not want to spend the rest of their lives in the wilderness. Thus they seek to reverse the sentence, not remedy the crime. The one who is truly repentant hates the sin, not just its ramifications.
Notice something at the end of verse 41. Moses says when the people decide to enter the land they regard it as easy to go up into the hill country. This is incredible. The same people who only yesterday (we know from the Numbers account that this takes place the next morning) were crying about God bringing them here to destroy them at the hands of the mighty and powerful Canaanites now say it is easy to go into the land and conquer it. This makes absolutely no sense. It is a vivid illustration of what sin does. Sin makes us insane. There is no other explanation for how Israel can hold two completely contrary thoughts in its head and say both are true. “The people will kill us and we have no chance – let us gird on our weapons and take over because it will be easy!” We must never underestimate the power of Sin to darken our thinking and cloud our rational sense. The sinful mind can look directly at something obviously self-destructive and say, “That is the way for me.”
The result of the people going up without God is easy to predict. They are routed by the Amorites. Afterwards, the people weep before God (vs. 45) – presumably showing their repentance. However, the Lord did not listen to your voice, nor give ear to you. It is too late. They had their chance at obedience and they chose rebellion. It is too late to reverse the effect of that rebellion. God is still their God and they are still His people, but the ramifications of their disobedience are set. God forgives but He does not often take away the consequences of sin. We must never take the attitude of, “Forgive me for what I am about to do.” Sin is not something God takes lightly – His Son had to die to conquer it – and we must fight continually against falling into the Enemy’s trap of discounting its effects.
Verse 46 seems to imply the people stay at Kadesh most of the next 38 years (see also Num 20:1 and 33:38 and explanation in the Introduction notes). This means the nation lives in the spot of its darkest hour for almost four decades for the sole purpose of waiting for a generation to die. They live within site of the Promised Land without being able to go into it – and do so until they die. There is no way to overstate the awful ramifications of sin.
The backslider in heart will have his fill of his own ways, but a good man will be satisfied with his.
Wisdom shouts in the street, she lifts her voice in the square; at the head of the noisy streets she cries out; at the entrance of the gates in the city she utters her sayings: “How long, O naïve ones, will you love being simple-minded? And scoffers delight themselves in scoffing and fools hate knowledge? Turn to my reproof, behold, I will pour out my spirit on you; I will make my words known to you. Because I called and you refused, I stretched out my hand and no one paid attention; and you neglected all my counsel and did not want my reproof; I will also laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your dread comes, when your dread comes like a storm and your calamity comes like a whirlwind, when distress and anguish come upon you.” Then they will call on me, but I will not answer; they will seek me diligently but they will not find me, because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the LORD. They would not accept my counsel, they spurned all my reproof. So they shall eat of the fruit of their own way and be satiated with their own devices. Proverbs 1:20-31