How are we to respond to trials? How do we know when God is behind a trial? What does God want us to learn through a trial? What is the proper response to prosperity and blessing? How do we know when our prosperity is from God? What brings us closer to God – trial or blessing? Which is more threatening to our spiritual success – hard times or good times?
Moses answers these questions for us in his discourse in this chapter. He reminds the people again what they are to remember as they enter the land and after they settle it. But in so doing he gives an excellent lesson on how God uses trials and prosperity to teach His people and keep them close to Him. God wants all things in life to draw us to Him and uses both good times and bad times to show Himself to us. However, our sinful and selfish perspectives have the ability to lead us away from God in response to the very circumstances He sends to bring us to Him.
The first six verses of this chapter discuss trials and discipline. In these verses Moses explains the purposes of the rough times the people have experienced over the last forty years. What at first appears to be harsh treatment at the hands of God is actually a measure of His grace and love.
He humbled you and let you be hungry
Moses begins by again stressing the terms of the covenant – obey and live. The people must carefully obey God’s commandments and statutes in order to live and prosper in the land they are about to enter. If they obey they will live and multiply. Moses has said this or similar things numerous times in his sermons to this point.
In verse 2, however, he changes direction and begins a different approach. After telling the people they must remember what God has done for them, he explains that God had them live in the wilderness over the last four decades that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. The time in the wilderness was not simply to allow the generation who refused to enter the land to die – it was also to test the current generation and make sure they would obey. God kept them in the wilderness to show what was truly in their hearts.
It is interesting that Moses says God tested them to see if they would obey Him. Does God need to test His people to find things out about them? Does God not know how things will come out? Perhaps the testing was really to show the people themselves what was in their hearts. He wanted them to understand their weakness and their need for Him. Without testing they would not realize their dependence.
Dependence is what Moses refers to when he says God humbled them in the wilderness. They were completely dependent on God’s provision in a land that did not have food or water – they had no way to provide for themselves. Moses expands on this in verse 3 when he says God humbled you and let you be hungry and fed you with manna. He not only tested them but He actually put them in circumstances that forced them to humbly depend on Him. He made sure they had no food – He LET them be hungry – just so He could provide it. He intentionally put them in a bad situation just so He could bail them out.
This is an amazing glimpse into God’s interactions with His people. God pulls away the curtain and tells them, “When you found yourself in the wilderness with no food and no possibilities for getting any it was because I wanted you there. I WANTED you to be in a hopeless situation that forced you to turn to Me. I wanted you to depend on Me so I could glorify Myself by providing for you.” GOD made sure they were hungry so He alone could feed them. God so wants His people to depend on Him that He will send circumstances to make sure they do.
Is it difficult to reconcile what God says here with our perception of Him? Is it uncomfortable for us to think that God let His people go hungry just so they would turn to Him? Does it kind of seem manipulative or selfish? A western perspective of God likes to think that He does not directly cause things like hunger but simply meets the need when it arises. It may be hard to accept that God effectively tells Israel, “You were hungry because I wanted you to be hungry.”
If we are uncomfortable with a God who leads His people into hard trials then we are uncomfortable with His provision and sovereignty. In the truest sense His provision of food for them using manna was no different than if He would have led them through a land overflowing with food – either way they ate only because of Him. The people were dependent on God even before they became hungry – their hunger simply made them realize it. By making them hungry God brought them to Himself.
In that way the hunger God allowed was actually a measure of His grace. He made them hungry so they could be filled by Him. He made them realize their weakness so they would go to Him for His strength. Thus by seeing their weakness they ultimately became strong. This is what Paul refers to in II Corinthians 12:9-10 – And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong. So we can look at difficult times in our lives as God’s grace – as God’s vehicle for making us cling to Him and desperately seek Him. And if that is the case, then trials can ultimately be reassuring (from a certain standpoint). Our lives are not made up of random circumstances or chance happenings. Good times and bad are from our heavenly Father and come along to bring us closer to Him. That is not to say that we blame Him for the ramifications of sinful choices, but we know that nothing happens outside of His plan and control. And regardless of the cause of the trials in our lives, EVERYTHING has the intent of bringing us to Him and increasing our understanding of our reliance on Him. Trials show us our weaknesses which push us to rely on His strength which makes us stronger than we ever would have been on our own.
This assumes, of course, that we respond to hungry times appropriately. We know from their history that the people of Israel typically did NOT respond with humble dependence but with sinful complaining and despair. Trials do not bring us to God if we let our expectation of continual happiness dictate our response. If we see the default setting for life to be perpetual comfort for us then we will not respond to the tough times God sends with dependence on Him but with indignation over having to endure what is not fair. In this case what is supposed to drive us to God may actually keep us away. And in this case it could be that God keeps us under the trial until we finally understand that we are to run TO Him rather than pout and run away. OR until we eventually give up entirely as our true world view is exposed.
Trials from God always stem from His grace – even when they are brought on by our disobedience. All things work together for good. Our response, however, ultimately determines their success or failure in making us more useful for His kingdom and a source of glory for Him.
Man does not live by bread alone
At the end of verse 3 Moses says something that at first seems hard to understand. He says God let them be hungry and provided manna that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord. They did not have bread so God provided manna to make them understand that His words are more important than food. This seems counterintuitive – would not providing food reinforce to them that food is what is paramount to their survival? What does Moses mean?
What he seems to mean is that God held back food to make them realize not only their physical needs but their spiritual needs as well. Without God they had no food and no hope. Even more, God’s extraordinary solution to their hunger showed them the importance of trust and obedience. God provided food for them in a way that left no doubt as to His miraculous provision – manna had never been seen before by anyone. It drove home that their real need was to trust the One who provided it and obey His commands. Food is necessary for life but life without the word of God is ultimately empty and meaningless. Obedience to God’s word and trusting Him are the foremost responsibilities of God’s people and are the keys to truly living as God intends.
When the people were hungry in the wilderness, they cried out for food and God gave them manna as His choice gift to meet their daily needs. Without it they would have perished physically, but if they had also been denied even more satisfying food, they would have died spiritually. The manna would feed their earthly bodies, but nothing more. They were spiritual people, with a capacity for receiving the most necessary food of all, God’s word. Only as they made an obedient response to that word could they truly ‘live’. God spoke to them in the desert and it was that which kept them truly ‘alive’. By His word He presented them with great, unchanging spiritual realities, essential both for this life and for eternity. To eat and drink is merely to exist; only as men and women receive and obey God’s truth can they really ‘live’ as God intended – lives which bring them lasting satisfaction and eternal security. In order to make us aware of the priority of spiritual over material values, God sometimes temporarily ‘holds back’ physical necessities to remind us of the supremacy of spiritual ones. – Raymond Brown, The Message of Deuteronomy
It is helpful to keep in mind how Jesus uses this passage to answer the first of Satan’s three temptations when Jesus is in the wilderness. Satan comes to Jesus after He has not eaten for 40 days and tempts Jesus to turn stones into bread so He can eat. Jesus answers Satan by quoting the end of verse 3 – “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God’” (Matt 4:4). Satan’s temptation is for Jesus to take His provision into His own hands instead of trusting God. He ultimately wants Jesus to worry more about His physical needs than about His faith. Jesus uses the Deuteronomy passage to show that Satan’s challenge is sin – nothing is more important than trusting God and obeying His word.
The Lord your God was disciplining you
Moses goes on to point out another aspect to their wanderings in the wilderness. Throughout the four decades of nomadic existence in a harsh land their clothing did not wear out and their feet did not swell (in 29:5 Moses says their sandals also did not wear out). God supernaturally provided for their every need – He took care of them in a way that left no doubt as to the source of their care. Even though they were being punished for their disobedience in not entering the land God never left them and never stopped providing for them. He stayed with them throughout their long punishment.
God’s provision and presence prove that their time in the desert was a time of discipline from Him. He made them wander for four decades to discipline them just as a man disciplines his son. He did not allow them to disobey without ramification – to do so would show a lack of love or concern. He loved them and so disciplined them – just as a father loves a son he punishes. The purpose of the discipline was to bring them back to obedience – back to what ultimately was for their best. Thus even trials that are a result of sin serve the purpose of bringing God’s people back to Him. Discipline is also a matter of grace.
In verse 6 Moses outlines the correct response to God’s discipline or the threat of it. He says, “Therefore (because you know God disciplined you), you shall keep the commandments of the Lord your God, to walk in His ways and to fear Him.” That God will discipline His people when they disobey should motivate them to obedience. If they know God will not allow disobedience to go unpunished they should be careful to observe His commandments. They should fear the God-directed ramifications of their sins. This verse also instructs us how to respond to God’s trials generally. The correct response to trials and discipline is obedience. In times of distress when nothing makes sense or when the way ahead is shrouded in darkness or when we have no ability at all to change our circumstances, we must obey. When we have no guidance and no answers, we must obey. We can never use hard times as an excuse for disobedience (“What does it matter anymore? I think I will just _____.”). If nothing else, we know we can do one thing – we can obey the commandments of our heavenly Father. Obedience is the right response to any circumstance.