No one earns Canaan. No one deserves the Promised Land. This is the message Moses wants to convey to the people with this part of his sermon in Chapter 9. He goes to great lengths to make sure they know their upcoming conquest has nothing to do with them. It is all about purging the wickedness from the land and about fulfilling the covenant God made with their forefathers. They have done nothing to earn their blessing and as a matter of fact have done much to lose it – which Moses illustrates by pointing to signature events in their past. God will give them the land in spite of their conduct rather than because of it.
Israel in this chapter is a picture of the believer. No one deserves salvation – no one earns paradise. We are saved in spite of our conduct, not because of it. And that fact should never be far from our mind. Moses wants the people to remember their sinfulness so they will more readily appreciate God’s mercy. In the same way we must remember all that we have been forgiven to better understand our redemption. God grants us entry into His presence by removing our transgressions from us as far as the east is from the west (Ps 103:12). We, on the other hand, must never forget the sinful state that required such a removal.
Moses begins this section with encouragement. Israel is about to enter the same land that so scared the prior generation. The same giants are in the land as were in it 38 years ago. The sons of the Anakim are the ones who caused the spies at Kadesh-barnea to say they (the spies) were like grasshoppers in our own sight (Num 13:33). This is why Moses says the people are familiar with the exclamation, “Who can stand before the sons of Anak?”
The Anakim, however, will be no match for the consuming fire that goes before Israel to destroy them and subdue them so that you may drive them out and destroy them quickly. The land is full of powerful people who will nonetheless be destroyed by the power of Yahweh. Moses says nothing about the might of Israel giving the people confidence – it is the power of the One who goes before them that ensures victory.
Moses expands the point that it is all about God by stressing to the people in verses 4-6 that they will be successful in the land by no virtue of their own. He first tells them, “Do not say in your heart when the Lord your God has driven them out before you, ‘Because of my righteousness the Lord has brought me in to possess this land.’” He then makes the point again – “It is not for your righteousness or for the uprightness of your heart that you are going to possess their land.” And then – just in case they have missed it so far – he makes it AGAIN – “Know, then, it is not because of your righteousness that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess.” THREE times in a row he tells them that they do not in any way have a claim on the Promised Land. When he makes the point the third time he throws in additional commentary – “…for you are a stubborn people” – just for good measure.
The people will conquer the land for two reasons – to punish the wickedness of the current residents and to fulfill the covenant God made with the patriarchs. The people and their conduct have nothing to do with what God is about to give them. The land is promised – not earned (hence the name – “Promised Land” not “Earned Land”). And they will receive it as a gift instead of as a just reward. As a matter of fact, justice would require the same fate as the Canaanites – Israel is just as obstinate and just as prone to sin and just as deserving of God’s wrath.
God, however, has brought them through their rebellion to this place and will fulfill His covenant regardless of their actions toward Him. They are His chosen people not because of their righteousness or because of their size and might (7:7-9), but because God decided to love them and make them His. Since their status depends on God and not them, it cannot change even in light of their stubbornness and rebellion.
As if telling them three times about their sinfulness is not enough, Moses illustrates their rebelliousness and unworthiness to enter the land by retelling for them the golden calf incident. He is so intent on hammering home his point that he gives them a specific instance of just how bad they were over the last four decades. It is interesting to remember that the people he now talks to either were not alive or were very young when this particular event happened.
He begins by telling them how important it is to remember just how sinful they were. He says, “Remember, do not forget.” In the last chapter he stressed how important it is for them to remember God’s provision after they settle in the land. Here he says they must remember something else too – their sinfulness. Just as important as remembering how God took care of them in the wilderness is remembering how merciful He was to them. They could not have survived without God and that must not be forgotten even after they have the abundance of Canaan. But they also did not deserve to survive which also must not be forgotten. If they do not remember their sinfulness they will not remember or appreciate His mercy.
At the end of verse 7 Moses effectively states the thesis for what he is about to prove with his story. “…from the day that you left the land of Egypt until you arrived at this place, you have been rebellious against the Lord.” This is an objective description of two generations of Israelites. The following story of the golden calf happened when the current generation’s parents were in charge, but it just as easily could have been them making the same choices. Nothing has really changed from the time they crossed the Red Sea until now – they have always rebelled.
This is apparently why Moses does not mention anything about who was actually at Sinai – he simply addresses the story to ‘you.’ Even at Horeb (Sinai) you provoked the Lord to wrath, and the Lord was so angry with you that He would have destroyed you. These people were not there, but they would have acted the same way given the same circumstances. This is an illustration of their rebellion just as much as it is of the generation no longer around.
Moses tells the story from his point of view – a slightly different rendition from what is in Exodus 32. In reading this we get to see what he was thinking and how he responded to the different actions of the people and God. Moses explains what he did during what was probably the people’s darkest moment in the wilderness (along with their refusal to enter the land at Kadesh-barnea).
Moses begins the story. He was on the mountain for forty days and nights without having to eat or drink because he was in the presence of God (Man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord – 8:3). While communing with God he received the tablets of stone with the Ten Commandments written on them. He not only heard the worship laws and statutes but also received a symbol of the new covenant literally written in stone.
From the Exodus account we know that the people began to panic after Moses was gone for so long. They had just witnessed what it was like to be in the presence of God (Ex 20) and so assumed that Moses could not be alive after having been on the top of the mountain for so long. It was their panic at being alone in the wilderness that made them ask Aaron for an idol (they were familiar with idols from their time in Egypt). They wanted a representation of Yahweh that would reassure them that they were not without a leader.
It is noteworthy that Moses carried a visible symbol of the covenant down the mountain only to find the people breaking the covenant by worshiping their own visible symbol of Yahweh. After he came down the mountain and saw what the people were doing, he threw the tablets down and broke them into pieces to symbolize the broken covenant. He then ground the golden calf – your sinful thing – into dust and threw it into the brook that came down from the mountain (and made the people drink the polluted water – Ex 32:20).
The Exodus account makes it sound like Moses pleaded for the people before going down to the camp. Here Moses says he pleaded for them after seeing what they were doing. Perhaps it was both. Exodus 32:30 says that Moses returned to God after he came down the mountain to ask Him to forgive the people, so maybe he convinced God to spare them initially while still on the mountain and then went back to God after realizing the extent of what they did. Here he says he actually spent another 40 days and nights interceding on the people’s behalf. It is hard to know if this is a 40-day period not included in the Exodus account or if it is a reference to the second time on the mountain where he received the second copy of the tablets (as described in Exodus 34 and Deuteronomy 10). What seems to make sense is that he spent 40 days pleading for the people – as he says in verses 18 and 25 – and this is what is described briefly in Exodus 32:30-34. Thus Moses had three 40-day periods with God: the first time on the mountain receiving the statutes and the first copy of the tablets – then 40 days interceding on behalf of the people – followed by a third time on the mountain receiving the second copy of the tablets.
The other information in this story not included in Exodus 32 is what Moses says about Aaron. He says God was angry enough at Aaron to destroy him. This is not surprising since Aaron had abdicated his leadership responsibility and his role as high priest in making the golden calf (and then lied about it – Ex 32:24). Moses therefore included Aaron specifically in his intercessory prayers and saved his life.
Moses wraps up his illustration of the people’s rebelliousness by reminding them of three other occasions where they sinned against God (vs. 22). He then gives one last example which is perhaps the worst incident of all – when the people refused to enter the land at Kadesh-barnea. All these events prove what he said initially and what he says to conclude (24) – “You have been rebellious against the Lord from the day I knew you.” Verses 7 and 24 bookend the stories with the same thesis – the people are and always have been rebellious.
Thus Moses states the people’s unworthiness to enter the land three times – tells them twice that they are rebellious and once that they are stubborn – and cites five different examples of their sin and rebellion. He does not mince words and does not spare their feelings. The most important thing is what he says at the beginning of verse 7 – “Remember, do not forget how you provoked the Lord your God to wrath in the wilderness.” They are about to conquer the land not because of their righteousness but because of God’s mercy and faithfulness. They are no better – in terms of rebellion – than the Canaanites they are about to displace.
This stark realism is one of the most compelling features of biblical teaching. The Scripture does not spend time flattering a few special favorites. Sins is sin whoever commits it. Although the Israelites were His ‘chosen people’, the Lord did not overlook their iniquities. Their election was an example of His grace, not a reward for their works. Christians are equally aware of all that they owe to God. They are accepted by Him on the basis of His immense generosity, not on account of their religious practices or moral achievements. Salvation is a totally undeserved gift, not a spiritual reward. – Raymond Brown, The Message of Deuteronomy
So what is the lesson for us from this story? We must remember our sin in order to appreciate our redemption and God’s mercy. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:3). What He meant was that the believer who understands all he has been forgiven will not be proud or stuck on his own merit. He will fully appreciate his redemption and his presence in God’s kingdom. He will love God more because he knows he has no righteousness to stand on – he deserves nothing but wrath but instead has paradise. He deserves to be treated like a Canaanite but instead gets Canaan itself (the difference between heaven and hell is grace – not works).
This remembering contrasts directly with what God does with our sin. God removes it from us as far as the east is from the west (Ps 103:12). He says to us, “I, even I, am the one who wipes out your transgressions for My own sake, and I will not remember your sins” (Isaiah 43:25). God does not remember our sins and instead justifies us fully because of His Son’s death and His mercy. Because Christ’s death paid for ALL sins, God can forgive us and remove them entirely from us.
Our job is to remember what has been removed. This does not mean we remember so we can brood or stay discouraged over what God has forgiven. But it is so we can remember all that God has done for us and how He saves us every day from our sinful state. Sin is defeated but we need to remember its role in our life in order to appreciate the victory – and what it took to defeat it. Salvation is a gift. Paradise is a gift. No one earns Canaan and no one earns heaven. We enter the land because it was PROMISED – not because we deserve it.