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Friday, June 5, 2015

Choose Life: Covenant Restoration - Deuteronomy 30

Introduction

      Last week, we studied Deuteronomy 29. In that chapter, Moses began his last speech to the Israelites before they crossed over the Jordan River into Canaan. He exhorted them to enter the covenant with the LORD. Moses expressed the blessings and curses for faithfulness and unfaithfulness to the LORD God. He reminded the Israelites of God’s hand of protection over and provision for them. Moses reminded them of their history with the LORD. He expounded on what would happen to the boastful person and nation and to the Promised Land if the Israelites – person, tribe, or nation - chose to go their own ways instead of the LORD’s ways. In Deuteronomy 29:20, Moses used a hyperbole when he said, “The LORD shall never be willing to forgive him, but rather the anger of the LORD and His jealousy will burn against that man and every curse, which is written in this book, will rest on him and the LORD will blot out his name from under heaven.” [NASB] We learned Moses used this hyperbole to catch the Israelites’ attention and remind them of God’s anger, wrath, greatness, and judgment on people who walk away from Him. When people walk in their own ways and not the LORD’s they tend to minimize the greatness and power of the LORD in their minds. Moses caught the Israelites’ attention here so he could remind them of another thing about the LORD God. Deuteronomy 30 tells us this other thing about the LORD.

As we read this chapter, we should notice two distinct parts – restoration and covenanting – compose it. Verses 1-10 consist of the restoration part of the chapter. Verses 11-20 consist of the covenant-making part of this chapter.

Restoration

Because God created humankind with the ability to reason and gave them free will to choose for themselves what actions they would do and thoughts they would think, the possibility of turning away from God is real. God knew, because of His omniscient foreknowledge, the Israelites would turn away from Him and His ways; they would break their covenant with Him. Moses showed to the Israelites God knew they would turn away from Him. Verse 1 tells them God’s blessings and curses will come upon them, even the curse of banishment from the Promised Land. When the Israelites lived in foreign nations as part of the curse, they would remember their covenant with the LORD – His blessings and curses – and would desire to return to the LORD (Deut 30:2). After experiencing God’s punishment of banishment and then remembering the LORD and His goodness, the Israelites would return to and obey the Him with all their heart and soul, just as Moses taught and commanded them before they crossed the Jordan River. Moses said, when they did this, the LORD would restore them from their captivity (Deut 30:3). After using the hyperbole in Deuteronomy 29:20 in which Moses said the LORD would never forgive them, he said in verse three, the LORD would have compassion on the Israelites and gather them from among the nations in which He scattered them.

God’s compassion and mercy for the Israelites was not a new idea. Moses told the Israelites God would accept and forgive them when they turned away from Him at the beginning of Deuteronomy in Deuteronomy 4:26-29. Right after the Israelites agreed to the covenant at Mount Sinai when God gave them the Ten Commandments, Moses taught them about God’s compassion and mercy. He would receive the Israelites again as His children when they turned back to Him and repented. We have read of God’s mercy and compassion happening in just this way in Jeremiah 32:37 and Ezekiel 34:13 when the banished Israelites returned from captivity.

Understand, too, from verse four, God would bring the Israelites back from the farthest ends of the earth. It did not matter to God how far away the Israelites’ lived or how much they sinned, His compassion and mercy extended to cover them because He loved them. His love was so great for them that He re-established His covenant with them. Moses said the returning Israelites would possess the Promised Land again. They would prosper and multiply, even more than their fathers. This recalls to us the blessings outlined in Deuteronomy 28, 7:13, and 13:17. We see from history through Jeremiah 29:14 and 30:3 God faithfully fulfilled this promise for the Israelites after their captivity. God wanted to re-establish the Israelites as His people as He intended from the beginning. His love for them did not end.

In verse 6, we read something altogether new. Moses said, “Moreover the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the hearts of your descendants to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul so that you may live.” [NASB] Other places in the Old Testament where Bible writers mentioned circumcision those verses command the people to circumcise themselves. In no other place in the Old Testament do we read of God circumcising people. Remember, circumcise comes from the Hebrew word muwl and means to cut or cut off. By circumcision, Abraham and his descendants confirmed their covenant with Yahweh God. This became the identifying mark of male Jews. In all but two Old Testament passages, when writers mentioned circumcision, they spoke of circumcising the flesh. This being said, just one other passage in the Old Testament speaks on circumcising the flesh, Jeremiah 4:4. So Deuteronomy 30:6 is the only place in the Old Testament where God is said to circumcise the people’s hearts. What did Moses mean when he said this? He taught something new and deeper to the Israelites than they previously heard. Their covenant was not to be just an outward sign –actions - but an inward sign. Inward signs occur as changes to a person’s character or heart. Circumcising a heart then meant God cut off and purged the wickedness and evil of their hearts. The Israelite men circumcised themselves in covenant to God as per the Abrahamic covenant. They could not re-circumcise themselves. A better circumcision, one to remove the stain of evil and wickedness, had to occur. Spiritual circumcision is of what Moses spoke in this verse and only God can spiritually circumcise a person to remove their sin and wickedness. Only God can affect the change in a person’s heart to remove wickedness. When He does, His characteristics fill the circumcised heart because when a person submits to heart circumcision they turn to the LORD to love and obey Him with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. That is what the word “heart” (lebab) means in its original Hebrew text. With a person’s turning to God, God’s circumcision removes the evil, and the person’s vow to be God’s child allows the person’s inner-self to be changed by the love of the LORD. This circumcision of the heart that affects change in one’s heart and character is about what Jesus taught in the New Testament. The Israelites became aware for the first time in Deuteronomy 30 that being God’s people requires and effects a change in a person’s heart and attitudes.

Besides showing compassion on the Israelites, accepting them back into His mercies, and circumcising their hearts, God would punish their enemies, those who hated and persecuted them (Deut 30:7). Remember in Deuteronomy 7:15, we learned the enemies of the Israelites - those who led them into captivity and hurt them - were God’s enemies. So Moses said when His children returned to Him, He would avenge them against their enemies. God loved the Israelites, would receive them back to Him, and would pursue their enemies - their masters in other lands.

With verses 8-10, Moses reminded the Israelites what blessings covenanting with God gave them. He reiterated the basis of the Sinai covenant and expanded in less detail the blessings of covenanting with God. He said,

You shall again obey the LORD and observe all His commandments, which I command you today. Then the LORD your God will prosper you abundantly in all the work of your hand, in the offspring of your body and in the offspring of your cattle and in the produce of your ground for the LORD will again rejoice over you for good just as He rejoiced over your fathers. (Deuteronomy 30:8-10 [NASB])

Deuteronomy 28 spells out the blessings and curses that Moses mentioned in this chapter. Notice a causality “if…then” relationship is in these verses. Verses 8 and 10 say, “You shall again obey” and “If you obey.” Verse 9 says, “Then the LORD your God will prosper you.” For a person’s repentance, return to the LORD, and resultant obedience, the LORD would reinstate the blessings of His covenant with the person(s). Until the person or people returned to the LORD, the person(s) would experience the curses of the covenant. Moses said the LORD would again covenant with them. When the LORD chose them, He set them aside, consecrated them, and made them a holy people for Himself. He wants none of His children to be lost and welcomes back any person who returns to Him with a repentant heart. David, Solomon, and John each recognized God’s compassion and mercy reached to His children who sinned and repented. David made this statement of faith in Psalm 32:5 and Solomon in Proverbs 28:13. John said, in one of his most famous quotes, 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Moses scared the Israelites with his the use of the hyperbole in Deuteronomy 29:20. In chapter thirty, he taught and reminded them God always wants them to return to Him. God promised He would cleanse their hearts from wickedness.

Choose Life

After Moses told the Israelites that God would accept His repentant child and renew His promises to them, he taught them the covenant of God was not too great they could not keep it. In verses 11-13, Moses said,

For this commandment, which I command you today, is not too difficult for you, nor is it out of reach. It is not in heaven that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us to get it for us and make us hear it that we may observe it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea that you should say, ‘Who will cross the sea for us to get it for us and make us hear it that we may observe it.’ [NASB]

The word “difficult” in verse eleven comes from the Hebrew word pala. It means to be beyond one’s power or to be too difficult or hard. Moses said God’s commandments were not beyond the power of each person. He said His commandments are not too far away to reach them. God’s commandments are not so far away only people in heaven might attain to them by obedience. They are not so far beyond where they could see the end of the ocean they could not listen and obey them. Their purpose is understandable. The commandments’ scope is reachable. Their completion is do-able. Moses said in verse fourteen, God’s commandments are near – in their mouths and hearts. God put them there when He circumcised their hearts. He would require nothing too difficult from the Israelites because He chose them to be His people, not to make them struggle and fail. God wanted to be in a relationship with the Israelites and all humankind from the beginning of creation.

Because of this, therefore, Moses said, “Choose life” (Deut. 30:19). Choosing life - choosing the LORD - was the crux of what Moses said in the last six verses of this chapter. He expanded it so the Israelites would remember every part of their covenant with the LORD. Moses told them, placed in front of them, and spelled out every part of the covenant – life, prosperity, death, and adversity (vs. 15). Those reflect both sides of the covenant – blessings and curses. Moses told them what God required the Israelites do to stay in covenant with Him. They had to love the LORD God, walk in His ways, and keep His commandment, statutes, and judgments (vs. 16). This meant they had to love God by living a way of life He stipulated to them and obeying His commandments, statutes, and judgments. Earlier in Deuteronomy, God’s blessings to the Israelites for staying faithful to their covenant with Him was possession of the land, prolonged life, increase in their numbers, and blessing of the work of their hands. God promised these same blessings to them for covenant faithfulness when they returned to Him.
Moses told the Israelites God’s compassion did not mean He would not punish/curse them in the future if they broke their covenant with Him. They could not expect God’s love to overlook their unfaithfulness. His love for the Israelites was so great He would not let them go unpunished for sin. God, like any parent, because of His love for His children had to discipline/punish them when they went astray. If He did not, the Israelites would not become good and right people. They would become worldly and evil without correction. God’s curses within the covenant provide the discipline/punishment of disobedience to God and His covenant. Moses expressed this in an “if…then” statement in verses seventeen and eighteen. He told the Israelites if they turned their hearts from God, disobeyed Him, and worshipped and served other gods, God would make them perish. They would not experience the blessings of a covenant relationship with God. The Israelites would experience God’s curses, the reverse covenant to the one God intended for them. They could not say they did not know these requirements because Moses taught them in Deuteronomy 4, 8, 28, 29, and, now, in chapter 30.

The Israelites could not say they did not make a covenant with the LORD God. Moses told them heaven and earth - all of creation - provided a witness and could give testimony of their covenant with God. Should the Israelites say they did not understand there was a penalty for unfaithfulness, Moses explained again God would give blessings and curses for their covenant faithfulness or unfaithfulness.
Next, Moses issued an imperative to the Israelites. In verse 19, he said, “So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants.” He explained once more what expectations God included in their covenant – love of the LORD, obedience to His voice, and holding fast (clinging) to Him. They would have life, remain alive, and have descendants if they fulfilled these things. In addition, they would live in the Promised Land He swore to give to their forefathers – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – and be prosperous.

Recap

The Israelites stood at the edge of the Jordan River soon to cross it. During the exodus wandering years, the current Israelites were too young or unborn so could not agree to the covenant with the LORD as their parents and grandparents did. By the time they stood on the brink of crossing the Jordan to take possession of the Promised Land from the LORD God, they each needed to enter the covenant with the LORD. In Deuteronomy 29 & 30, Moses spoke to the Israelites of God’s covenant with them. It contained the basic sections of the Sinaic covenant and added God’s oaths of blessings and curses for covenant faithfulness and disobedience. The receipt of the land came from God’s covenant with Abraham. The possessing of the land, prolonged life in the land, and the prosperity of the work of their hands came from this covenant with the LORD in Moab. Moses spelled this out four times in 30:5-6, 8-10, 15-16, &20. In these verses, Moses explained the blessings of staying in covenant with the LORD. In verses 17-18, Moses disclosed to the Israelites the curses of God for those who turn away from Him and His commandments.

One difference we recognize in this chapter from any other about covenanting with the LORD is the LORD was the one who would “make the covenant” (cut the covenant) by circumcision this time. When God circumcises a person’s heart, He cuts away the wicked to purge the person of evil, those things the person did contrary to God’s commandments, laws, and statutes. This circumcision provided spiritual renewal. In the Abrahamic covenant and later covenants, the Israelites physically circumcised their men as a sign of their covenant with the LORD God. Because the Israelites could not physically circumcise themselves again and because their act/sign of covenanting was not good enough, God performed the circumcision to make the covenant with them. Only God could provide the circumcision beyond the first time. That is what God said He would do if the people returned to Him and His commands with love and obedience while forsaking their worship and service to other gods. This new and better circumcision removed the evil from their hearts and places God’s thoughts and ways in them. This was a spiritual circumcision.

Relevance and Conclusion

We know much of the Israelites’ history. They were unfaithful to their covenant with the LORD God. The Assyrians and Babylonians overran the Israelites. They dispersed the Israelites to foreign lands and nations. These captors enslaved some. Most of the Israelites suffered for their unfaithfulness to the LORD. Yet when they cried out to the LORD and returned to Him, He was faithful to them, listened their cries, and restored them to the Promised Land. This cycle has continued through the last 3400 years.

The Israelites are not alone in their faithlessness to the LORD. Many in the world have made commitments to the Lord. Quite a few have failed in those covenants. Just as the LORD God promised He would forgive and cleanse the Israelites who returned to Him in love and obedience, He will forgive and cleanse us today, too. One John 1:9 states this when it says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” [NASB] David sinned against the LORD God, but God considered him a man after His heart. He knew the LORD well. David experienced God’s grace and forgiveness. From experience, he said,

The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness. He will not always strive with us, nor will He keep His anger forever. He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear (revere) Him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us. (Psalm 103:8-12 [NASB])

      We each have to make a decision today, and tomorrow, and the next days. Will we remain in or return to our covenant we made with God? We find it hard to admit our failures and ask forgiveness. We must realize God is gracious toward us. He will not remind us over and over of our past sins. Satan does that to make us feel small and guilty. God is merciful. He wants none of us to have to live with sin and guilt or to live without His love. God wants to be in a relationship with each of us. He created humankind for that purpose. God created us with free will, therefore, He knew we would sin and turn away from Him. Because He knew this, He had a plan to bring us back into relationship with Him – mercy, grace, and salvation through Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection.
God wants everyone to return to Him.
He calls each of us by name.

What will your answer be to Him?