Beginnings (Part 1)
July 23, 2017 Series: Tracing the Shadow of the King
Passage: Deuteronomy 31:16–32:43
Okay, so we’re going to spend a lot of time (over the next several years, Lord willing) in the book of Samuel. And I’m thrilled, because I don’t think there’s a story like this in the Scriptures. The story of King David is packed with meaning, and it’s always pointing forward - brushstroke after brushstroke painting a portrait of Jesus - the mighty and humble King, surrounded by a loyal people and a good kingdom. This story is a shadow of Jesus. But - and I know this isn’t as significant or important as those things - it’s also just a really fun story to read. I mean - guys - there are witches in this story. Right? There are witches and giants and war cries. There is conspiracy and madness and political revolution. There are great battles and heroic victories and thrilling escapes from death. There are moving friendships and edge-of-your-seat last stands and powerful songs of victory. In this story mighty men lay down their lives for a humble king. In this story God moves among his people and among his enemies in striking and terrifying and brilliant and beautiful ways.
So I get it, right, all the stories in scripture are true and moving, and all of them represent one paragraph in the greatest story that will ever be told - the story of the rescue of the people of God in Christ. But this one is one of my favorites. And that’s because it’s just good reading.
Anyway, so we’re going to spend a lot of time in this story, and I want to be very careful to give you all the tools you need to understand it. This is a story that happens to be right at the center of the history of God’s people. And to understand chapter two of any story, you have to have read, have understood, and be able to recall chapter one. Everything that happened to God’s people prior to the first page of the Samuel story influences dramatically how you should read the Samuel story. There are allusions, there is irony, there are pointed rebukes that you cannot understand unless you remember how they got here, and what God’s done for them, and how they’ve responded.
So open your bibles to Genesis, chapter one. Just kidding.
We’re not going to step-by-step, page-by-page trace the full history of the people of God this morning, but what we are going to do is take a look at the state of the nation of Israel, and spend a bit of time exploring how they got there. Who are the people of God at this moment, right at the threshold of a kingdom? What to they believe in? How do they relate to God? How do they behave? What are they struggling with? What are they hoping in?
And look, this is going to be difficult stuff. The people of Israel are nowhere good right now, and they've made a bad situation worse. But next time we’re going to dive into the first paragraphs of Samuel, and that story is loaded - absolutely loaded with hope. But you don’t get it - you won’t get it - without recalling vividly the desperation of the people of God.
So what I want you to do is turn to the last chapters of Deuteronomy. Turn to Deuteronomy 32.
We’re going to read from there in a moment, but before we do so I want to briefly touch on major milestones in the Exodus of God’s people.
Okay, so almost everybody remembers that the people of Israel were slaves, right, because of Charleton Heston and that weird Disney movie in the late 90s with Val Kilmer. Anyway, so the people of God were slaves, in the land of Egypt for nearly 400 years. They were - every one of them - great great great grandsons and granddaughters of Abraham, to whom God made a promise. And the ruler of Egypt - Pharaoh - hated the people of Israel and ordered that their children be slaughtered. So that’s terrible, right, but by a miraculous series of events one of these Israelites becomes his step-grandson. And for nearly 40 years young Moses grew up a prince. And he was rich and powerful for a while, but he lost his cool on a few racist Egyptians and was exiled into the wilderness.
So this is where I want to begin. Close your eyes and imagine Moses, speaking with the bush on fire? God was there, in that bush, speaking with his prophet about his people. God was there, and he saw, and he remembered the promise he made. God remembered his people and he kept his promise to Abraham, to preserve a people for his name’s sake, a people from whom would arise the Son of Abraham who would bless the nations. He saw his people suffering, and he moved and he spoke and he sent.
The LORD said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. And now, behold, the cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them. Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.”
And God did what he said he was going to do. He swept through the powerhouse nation of Egypt and he rescued his people from slavery. He moved with strength and terrible power. He moved and he worked to broadcast to the world that his purposes for his people will not be thwarted by the cruelty of man. This people - this slave nation - they saw his might on display over and over again. This people saw him move in power through his prophet, and they marveled. They saw a river turned to blood, they saw the sky full of locusts, and they heard the angel of death. And in a final, sweeping act of rescue, God split a sea and escorted his people across dry ground to freedom. Just as they reached the other side, the army that chased them through the desert in order to carry them back to slavery were swept away in the waters forever. Think about that moment. God says, “No more,” and in a moment the raging army is swept away by the calming rhythm of sea shore. Think about how that must have felt. Do you remember the songs these slaves shouted in victory on the other side of the Red Sea?
“I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously;
the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.
The LORD is my strength and my song,
and he has become my salvation;
this is my God, and I will praise him,
my father's God, and I will exalt him.
The LORD is a man of war;
the LORD is his name.
“Pharaoh's chariots and his host he cast into the sea,
and his chosen officers were sunk in the Red Sea.
The floods covered them;
they went down into the depths like a stone.
Your right hand, O LORD, glorious in power,
your right hand, O LORD, shatters the enemy.
In the greatness of your majesty you overthrow your adversaries;
you send out your fury; it consumes them like stubble.
At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up;
the floods stood up in a heap;
the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea.
The enemy said, ‘I will pursue, I will overtake,
I will divide the spoil, my desire shall have its fill of them.
I will draw my sword; my hand shall destroy them.’
You blew with your wind; the sea covered them;
they sank like lead in the mighty waters.
“Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods?
Who is like you, majestic in holiness,
awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?
You stretched out your right hand;
the earth swallowed them.
“You have led in your steadfast love the people whom you have redeemed;
you have guided them by your strength to your holy abode.
The peoples have heard; they tremble;
pangs have seized the inhabitants of Philistia.
Now are the chiefs of Edom dismayed;
trembling seizes the leaders of Moab;
all the inhabitants of Canaan have melted away.
Terror and dread fall upon them;
because of the greatness of your arm, they are still as a stone,
till your people, O LORD, pass by,
till the people pass by whom you have purchased.
You will bring them in and plant them on your own mountain,
the place, O LORD, which you have made for your abode,
the sanctuary, O Lord, which your hands have established.
The LORD will reign forever and ever.”
That was a bright day in the history of Israel. A whole generation singing praises. Notice that they aren't merely celebrating the victory of that moment. This song pivots from a reflection upon that momentary victory, sure, but it doesn't stop there. This victory is evidence of something. This victory - the great armies of pharaoh washed away in the sea, swallowed by the waters - this victory says something about God. It says that he’s powerful. It says that he will deliver his people. And not only that. Notice how joyfully they look forward to the promised land. They say, “Look, God’s enemies are trembling because they've heard of his power, his protection of his people.” So much confidence in God is on display in these words. So much confidence in God’s character, and so much hope in the future.
But a lot has changed since that moment. As soon as hunger hit hard, and thirst loomed, they lost what semblance of faith they claimed. And when God’s prophet stepped away for 40 days, they fashioned idols and celebrated their idolatry with orgies. An entire generation perished in the wilderness in 40 years because they couldn't trust God for 40 days. And Moses, God’s ambassador to see his people rescued, watched an entire generation perish because of faithlessness.
But there’s hope, right!? A new generation, confident in God’s ability to deliver on his promises, is about to cross over into the promised land. They were literally raised in the wilderness, eating bread from heaven, drinking water from rocks. There clothes never wore out. No generation has seen the provision and sustaining work of God like this one. And this is the generation that will taste the milk and honey of the promised land.
Surely, this is the happy ending, right?
Turn to Deuteronomy 31:14.
And the LORD said to Moses, “Behold, you are about to lie down with your fathers. Then this people will rise and whore after the foreign gods among them in the land that they are entering, and they will forsake me and break my covenant that I have made with them. Then my anger will be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them and hide my face from them, and they will be devoured. And many evils and troubles will come upon them, so that they will say in that day, ‘Have not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us?’ And I will surely hide my face in that day because of all the evil that they have done, because they have turned to other gods.
“Now therefore write this song and teach it to the people of Israel. Put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me against the people of Israel. For when I have brought them into the land flowing with milk and honey, which I swore to give to their fathers, and they have eaten and are full and grown fat, they will turn to other gods and serve them, and despise me and break my covenant. And when many evils and troubles have come upon them, this song shall confront them as a witness (for it will live unforgotten in the mouths of their offspring). For I know what they are inclined to do even today, before I have brought them into the land that I swore to give.” So Moses wrote this song the same day and taught it to the people of Israel.
----Skip down to verse 30----
Then Moses spoke the words of this song until they were finished, in the ears of all the assembly of Israel:
“Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak,
and let the earth hear the words of my mouth.
May my teaching drop as the rain,
my speech distill as the dew,
like gentle rain upon the tender grass,
and like showers upon the herb.
For I will proclaim the name of the LORD;
ascribe greatness to our God!
“The Rock, his work is perfect,
for all his ways are justice.
A God of faithfulness and without iniquity,
just and upright is he.
They have dealt corruptly with him;
they are no longer his children because they are blemished;
they are a crooked and twisted generation.
Do you thus repay the LORD,
you foolish and senseless people?
Is not he your father, who created you,
who made you and established you?
Remember the days of old;
consider the years of many generations;
ask your father, and he will show you,
your elders, and they will tell you.
When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance,
when he divided mankind,
he fixed the borders of the peoples
according to the number of the sons of God.
But the LORD's portion is his people,
Jacob his allotted heritage.
“He found him in a desert land,
and in the howling waste of the wilderness;
he encircled him, he cared for him,
he kept him as the apple of his eye.
Like an eagle that stirs up its nest,
that flutters over its young,
spreading out its wings, catching them,
bearing them on its pinions,
the LORD alone guided him,
no foreign god was with him.
He made him ride on the high places of the land,
and he ate the produce of the field,
and he suckled him with honey out of the rock,
and oil out of the flinty rock.
Curds from the herd, and milk from the flock,
with fat of lambs,
rams of Bashan and goats,
with the very finest of the wheat—
and you drank foaming wine made from the blood of the grape.
“But Jeshurun grew fat, and kicked;
you grew fat, stout, and sleek;
then he forsook God who made him
and scoffed at the Rock of his salvation.
They stirred him to jealousy with strange gods;
with abominations they provoked him to anger.
They sacrificed to demons that were no gods,
to gods they had never known,
to new gods that had come recently,
whom your fathers had never dreaded.
You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you,
and you forgot the God who gave you birth.
“The LORD saw it and spurned them,
because of the provocation of his sons and his daughters.
And he said, ‘I will hide my face from them;
I will see what their end will be,
for they are a perverse generation,
children in whom is no faithfulness.
They have made me jealous with what is no god;
they have provoked me to anger with their idols.
So I will make them jealous with those who are no people;
I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation.
For a fire is kindled by my anger,
and it burns to the depths of Sheol,
devours the earth and its increase,
and sets on fire the foundations of the mountains.
And I will heap disasters upon them;
I will spend my arrows on them;
they shall be wasted with hunger,
and devoured by plague and poisonous pestilence;
I will send the teeth of beasts against them,
with the venom of things that crawl in the dust. Outdoors the sword shall bereave,
and indoors terror,
for young man and woman alike,
the nursing child with the man of gray hairs.
I would have said, "I will cut them to pieces; I will wipe them from human memory,"
had I not feared provocation by the enemy,
lest their adversaries should misunderstand,
lest they should say, "Our hand is triumphant,
it was not the LORD who did all this."'
"For they are a nation void of counsel,
and there is no understanding in them.
If they were wise, they would understand this;
they would discern their latter end!
How could one have chased a thousand,
and two have put ten thousand to flight,
unless their Rock had sold them,
and the LORD had given them up?
For their rock is not as our Rock;
our enemies are by themselves.
For their vine comes from the vine of Sodom and from the fields of Gomorrah;
their grapes are grapes of poison;
their clusters are bitter;
their wine is the poison of serpents and the cruel venom of asps.
"'Is not this laid up in store with me, sealed up in my treasuries?
Vengeance is mine, and recompense,
for the time when their foot shall slip;
for the day of their calamity is at hand,
and their doom comes swiftly.'
For the LORD will vindicate his people and have compassion on his servants,
when he sees that their power is gone and there is none remaining, bond or free.
Then he will say, 'Where are their gods,
the rock in which they took refuge,
who ate the fat of their sacrifices and drank the wine of their drink offering?
Let them rise up and help you;
let them be your protection!
See now that I, even I, am he,
and there is no god beside me;
I kill and I make alive;
I wound and I heal;
and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.
For I lift up my hand to heaven and swear,
As I live forever,
if I sharpen my flashing sword and my hand takes hold on judgment,
I will take vengeance on my adversaries and will repay those who hate me.
I will make my arrows drunk with blood,
and my sword shall devour flesh-
with the blood of the slain and the captives,
from the long-haired heads of the enemy.'
"Rejoice with him, O heavens;
bow down to him, all gods,
for he avenges the blood of his children and takes vengeance on his adversaries.
He repays those who hate him and cleanses his people's land.".
So this is an interesting moment in the history of God’s people, because on the face of it, you really would expect a bright season, a warm season. This is a faithful generation, right? This is the generation that trusted God to escort them to the promised land, to deliver them from their enemies. This is the people who longed for the land of milk and honey - who literally grew up eating bread from heaven. If anyone would trust God, if anybody were to begin a legacy of faithfulness, it was these guys.
But God calls it, from the outset. They’re not going to make it. They’re going to be okay with the sin of their neighbors, at first. And that thing is going to evolve. Their comfort with the rebellion of their neighbors is going to turn into a craving. And that craving will give birth to idolatry. And after a time, these people - though rescued by the powerful hand of God, though sustained by the powerful work of God - these people will be indistinguishable from their neighbors. They will craft idols, and they will bow to them. They will begin to believe that they have the stuff that they have not because God gave it to them, not because he cares for his people and gives them good things. They look around and they see what's popular, what's contemporary, what's relevant to neighboring cultures. They have good things, too. Maybe we’re mistaken, assuming that God is the giver of all good things. Look over there! They worship Dagon, and (look!) they've got drink and sex and feasts. Look, we sure were close-minded before - to believe that everything was made and everything is sustained by one God. To believe that he’s the only one - and that the life or death of all people hinge upon their relationship to him. Open-mindedness has set in. Open-mindedness has become the ruin of the people of God. Because at some point they looked around and they considered their options.
At some point they saw that these people not only had food and shelter and milk and honey, but they had temple prostitutes and drunken feasts. They weren't constrained by their God. I mean, they had lots of gods, none of whom were quite as repressive as the God of Israel. Those gods were tucked away in a temple somewhere.
The people of Israel looked around and considered their options. They ignored the truth. They didn't stand firm. They didn't courageously stand and tell the neighboring nations, “No, God has no equal. He created and he sustains. You may have drink and sex and you may enjoy rich foods while the poor among you perish, right now, for a few moments. But your life hinges upon your relationship with the God of Israel. Beware. He vanquishes his enemies. Tread carefully, he will by no means pardon the guilty.” No. That’s not what God’s people did. They were shortsighted cowards who turned away from the God who made them, who saved them, who sustained them.
When that happens - when the people of Israel shed the constraints of the Law and wear the culture of their neighbors, God will not stand by to passively watch his name defamed. He will not allow his people to devolve into the wretchedness of this violent and wicked humanity. They will feel - tangibly feel his wrath. And that wrath is terrifying.
So God says to Moses, “Write down the words of this song, and sing it to the people.” Sing it so they’ll remember. Because when they’re knee-deep in the idols and the sex and the violence of their neighbors - they will be punished. And when they’re crying out, “God has forgotten us,” I want them to remember this song.
Take a look, once more, at the song that God gave to his people. You’ve probably already noticed, but I want you to look closely once more and see what I think is a very simple structure. And this structure is helpful because it sort of outlines the terms of God’s relationship with his people, and how that relationship fell apart.
Glance again at the song and follow the structure.
First movement: Look at who God is. Look at him. He’s great. His work is perfect. All of his ways are just. He is faithful and does not sin. He is just and upright.
Second movement: Look at how you’ve responded to him. You have been corrupt. You are no longer his children, because you are crooked and twisted. You are foolish and senseless.
Third movement: Remember how well he cared for you? He found his sons in a desert, in a wilderness. He encircled him, he cared for him, he kept him as the apple of his eye. He spread his wings over you like an eagle. The LORD guided his son, just the LORD. Only the LORD was there to save his son. He gave him good food, and milk, and honey. He gave him everything he needed.
Fourth movement: You’ve forgotten your savior. The people of Israel turned away from their father, their giver, their sustainer. They chased after lifeless idols, chunks of wood, bits of metal. They weren’t there with them in the desert, nourishing them, protecting them. Yet these people pour blood out to strange gods.
Fifth movement: God turns his face away from his people, and leaves them to the ruthless nations whose culture they crave. God is angry because his people have forgotten him, rejected him. He will send beasts and arrows and famine, because God is too good to let his people forget what they once took for granted.
Sixth movement: The people would be cut off forever, yet God’s vision for his glory culminates in the rescue of a worthless people. In their darkest hour, God will restore his people. He who kills will make alive. He who wounds will bind up. And God will vanquish the enemies of the people of God and restore their land.
So this song is a reminder for a people ruined by their own rebellion. This song is fire-branded into their memory so that they’d know why they were hungry, broken slaves without home nor hope. This song is given to teach them that they are where they are because they had forgotten their God and turned to the idols of the nations.
And that’s what they did.
Last passage. Turn with me to Judges, chapter 2.
And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals. And they abandoned the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. And they provoked the LORD to anger. They abandoned the LORD and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth. So the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers, who plundered them. And he sold them into the hand of their surrounding enemies, so that they could no longer withstand their enemies. Whenever they marched out, the hand of the LORD was against them for harm, as the LORD had warned, and as the LORD had sworn to them. And they were in terrible distress.
Then the LORD raised up judges, who saved them out of the hand of those who plundered them. Yet they did not listen to their judges, for they whored after other gods and bowed down to them. They soon turned aside from the way in which their fathers had walked, who had obeyed the commandments of the LORD, and they did not do so. Whenever the LORD raised up judges for them, the LORD was with the judge, and he saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge. For the LORD was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who afflicted and oppressed them. But whenever the judge died, they turned back and were more corrupt than their fathers, going after other gods, serving them and bowing down to them. They did not drop any of their practices or their stubborn ways. So the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he said, “Because this people have transgressed my covenant that I commanded their fathers and have not obeyed my voice, I will no longer drive out before them any of the nations that Joshua left when he died, in order to test Israel by them, whether they will take care to walk in the way of the LORD as their fathers did, or not.” So the LORD left those nations, not driving them out quickly, and he did not give them into the hand of Joshua.
So the book of Judges is pretty cool because conveniently located right there at the beginning of is a roadmap that tells you what is about to happen. And this passage is that roadmap. There is a pattern that develops in the lives of the people of God, a pattern so clear and so definitive that the author of Judges lays it out here right at the beginning as a template. This is how the people of Israel related to the God of Israel. And what’s fascinating about this text is that it follows the structure of the song that God gave. You will turn away and chase after idols, and I will give you up to the nations. And you will be defeated in battle, and you will hunger and thirst in famine, and you will be enslaved. You will have nothing. And then I’ll send rescue.
And this pattern repeats itself over and over again. Israel sees the deliverance of God over and over again. And yet Israel turns away over and over again. And so God gives them up to the nations over and over again. And they cry out over and over again. And God sends rescue.
So as we’re reading this, you’ve got to feel the profound foolishness of the people of Israel. They are fools, aren’t they? I mean, they’re really really really, profoundly, unbelievably foolish. So even if they had no real enthusiasm for God, no real excitement about worshiping him, surely, I mean surely they’d decide at some point that what they were doing wasn’t working. Right? I mean, how could they keep turning from God, over and over and over and over, even though he was their only source of hope? How could they keep turning away over and over and over even though his wrath is real, and his vengeance is inevitable?
How could they see the provision of God so clearly, dining on the fruits of the promised land, in their nice homes, surrounded by well-clothed families. How could they step over their threshold without remembering that they could be in the desert, they could be enslaved, they could be lost and perishing. But God was there. And God rescued them from slavery and he escorted them through the wilderness into the promised land. God is the reason they have what they have. God is the reason they’re feeling full and loved and cared for.
I mean, how could you be so well provided for, so clearly cared for, and turn to the world because what you have isn’t enough? How could you have SO MANY MILESTONES that direct your attention to God’s gifts and his provision and his protection and yet turn to the world because it isn’t enough?
I mean, how could you? How could you?
Are you starting to feel the sharp edges of the history of God’s people? Because this people is you.
You were given life. You were given life and breath and a job and a home. The skies and the trees and the birds around you shout the beauty and power of God to you Every. Single. Day. You sit in your air conditioning wearing your nice clothes and surrounded by your smiling family and yet you turn to the world because that isn’t enough.
Their problem is our problem.
Look, nobody knew so tangibly the provision and sustenance of God like the people of Israel. The problem wasn’t that they didn’t know clearly enough that God is big enough and strong enough to take care of their needs. This isn’t a knowledge issue. The problem wasn’t that they couldn’t remember exactly who God was, or exactly how instrumental he was in caring for them, in sustaining them. The problem wasn’t with the promised land, or the milk and honey, or the plentiful harvest. This isn’t a felt-needs issue. They turned away over and over and over and over again because they were broken. And they needed rescue, real lasting rescue.
Look, it wasn’t that they needed another opportunity. I mean, how many opportunities are recorded in the book of Judges? They turned away again and again and again. And no matter how miraculous their rescue, it wasn’t enough. This people was broken, and they needed rescue. The law wasn’t enough to keep them. Moses wasn’t enough to keep them. Joshua wasn’t enough to keep them. The judges weren’t enough to keep them. They need rescue, of the highest order.
They need a king. We need a king.