Preliminary sermon thoughts on Deuteronomy 8:7-18

This coming Sunday is Thanksgiving, so we interrupt the ordinary lectionary readings for a special set emphasising God’s goodness to us and our call to cultivate gratitude to God for his goodness. I think I am going to preach on the Deuteronomy reading. Here are some initial thoughts; I’ll work on them more as the week progresses.

Deuteronomy 8:7-18 (NRSV):

7For YHWH your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, 8a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, 9a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper. 10You shall eat your fill and bless YHWH your God for the good land that he has given you.

11 Take care that you do not forget YHWH your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today. 12When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, 13and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, 14then do not exalt yourself, forgetting YHWH your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, 15who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid waste-land with poisonous snakes and scorpions. He made water flow for you from flint rock, 16and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know, to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good. 17Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’ 18But remember YHWH your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today.

This passage is taken from the Book of Deuteronomy, which is presented to us as a sermon preached by Moses to the nation of Israel as they were about to enter the Promised Land. They had been delivered from slavery in Egypt but then, rather than entering immediately into the Promised Land, they spent forty years wandering in the wilderness as a punishment for their lack of faith and their disobedience (see Numbers 13 and 14). Of the generation that came out of Egypt, now only Moses, Joshua and Caleb are left. The people have had some military victories on the east bank of the Jordan, and are now poised to cross the river and enter the future land of Israel. Moses, however, has been told by God that he will not enter the Promised Land himself; at the age of 120 he is going to die there in Moab, and his successor Joshua will lead the people into their land.

The word ‘Deuteronomy’ means ‘second law’; in this book Moses restates the essentials of the Law that God gave to Israel forty years before on Sinai, and he also reminds them of God’s blessings and exhorts them to remain faithful to Yahweh as they enter the Promised Land. He reminds them that it wasn’t because they themselves were such likely candidates that Yahweh chose them as his people; rather, it was all because of Yahweh’s love for them. So they should not get bigheaded and congratulate themselves on being such an exemplary nation; rather they should cultivate an attitude of remembrance of all Yahweh’s blessings, of thankfulness to him, and of faithfulness to his law. Moses has some real concerns that the easy life of the Promised Land with its increase in prosperity will dull the edge of the people’s love for Yahweh, their dependence on him and their faith in him. These concerns come out loud and clear in today’s passage.

As I think about this passage in connection with Thanksgiving weekend I am immediately reminded of our own prosperity as a society and our forgetfulness of the source of all our blessings. I expect this passage is going to speak powerfully to our situation.

The lectionary reading starts at verse 7, but I think it’s always good to put such a passage in its setting. Here are the first six verses:

1 This entire commandment that I command you today you must diligently observe, so that you may live and increase, and go in and occupy the land that YHWH promised on oath to your ancestors. 2Remember the long way that YHWH your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. 3He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of YHWH. 4The clothes on your back did not wear out and your feet did not swell these forty years. 5Know then in your heart that as a parent disciplines a child so YHWH your God disciplines you. 6Therefore keep the commandments of YHWH your God, by walking in his ways and by fearing him.

This opening paragraph is intended to motivate the Israelites to keep God’s commandments; it is bookended by this concern: ‘This entire commandment that I command you today you just diligently observe, so that you may live and increase…’ (v.1); ‘Therefore keep the commandments of YHWH your God, by walking in his ways and by fearing him’ (v.6). But the central part of the paragraph is a reminder of what God has been up to for the past forty years. This is not just a record of events; it’s an interpretation of those events from the viewpoint of God’s work of molding and shaping and testing his people. What was his purpose? It was ‘to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments’. He first ‘humbled’ them by allowing them to experience misfortune (see the early chapters of Exodus and the Book of Numbers, which have many stories of the people not having enough food and drink and then grumbling and blaming Moses for their difficulties). Gradually they learned to be utterly dependent on God for their daily provisions, and God cared for them by providing them with daily manna from heaven. ‘The clothes on your back did not wear out’, Moses said, ‘and your feet did not swell these forty years’.

What were they intended to learn from this experience?

First, they were intended to learn that spiritual hunger is just as intense and life-threatening as physical hunger. ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of YHWH’ (v.3). We will encounter these words again in the New Testament on the lips of Jesus when Satan tried to tempt him to break his fast by supernatural means. Sometimes physical hunger serves to remind us of our utter dependence on God and his Word, which is a good thing.

This leads to the second thing: they are to interpret their experiences of the past forty years as the discipline of a wise parent. ‘Know then in your heart that as a parent disciplines a child so YHWH your God disciplines you’ (v.5). The Old Testament wisdom writers commonly interpret suffering in this way. A wise parent doesn’t make everything easy for a child, but allows them to experience hardship in order to grow in strength and resourcefulness; a wise parent doesn’t allow a child to get away with behaviour that will be harmful to them or to others, but imposes consequences, so that the child will learn to turn from evil and do good. This is what has been going on in the wilderness; the suffering of the past forty years has in fact been a gift from God, an act of loving discipline, teaching the people to turn from evil, to trust entirely in Yahweh for their daily needs, and to walk in his ways.

Third, they are intended to learn to ‘keep the commandments of YHWH your God, by walking in his ways and by fearing him’ (v.6). Nowadays the idea that one should fear God has gone out of fashion; we prefer to emphasise the love and gentleness of God, rather than his anger and judgement. But throughout the Bible the ‘fear of the Lord’ is seen as a good thing, not a negative thing; it is even seen in the wisdom literature as ‘the beginning of wisdom’. It means having a proper view of God, the creator of all that exists, and of our own relationship with him. Nowadays we know about the vast distances of interstellar space and the vast length of time, and our own comparative smallness and the shortness of our life. Our very existence, every breath we take, is in the hands of God, so we ought to cultivate a proper awe and respect for him, and determine to live our lives to please the One whose opinion really matters rather than ‘fearing’ the disapproval of the people around us.

And so we come to our passage for this Sunday:

7For YHWH your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, 8a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, 9a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper. 10You shall eat your fill and bless YHWH your God for the good land that he has given you.

Note the emphasis on the activity of YHWH in this paragraph. It is not that Moses and Joshua are such superb military leaders and that the Israelites are better soldiers than the nations whose land they are about to dispossess. No, ‘YHWH your God is bringing you into a good land…You shall eat your fill and bless YHWH your God for the good land that he has given you’ (7, 10).

The land is described in mouth-watering detail for a people who have been wandering in an arid desert for the past forty years. In contrast to the dryness of the desert, this land has flowing streams and springs and underground waters, and as a result it overflows with fertility: wheat and barley for bread, vines for wine, figs and pomegranates and olive trees and honey and so on. It has abundant natural resources, iron and copper (so necessary for making armour and weapons for the people to be able to protect themselves, and also for making pots and cauldrons, ploughs and pruning hooks and other agricultural implements). Everything necessary for ‘shalom’ – peace, well-being, prosperity – will be found in abundance in this new land they are about to enter. And they are to enjoy it – ‘eat your fill’ – and be grateful to God for it – ‘bless YHWH your God for the good land that he has given you’.

We also in Canada enjoy a land literally overflowing with natural resources. The vast prairies supply bread not only for ourselves but for people far from our shores; we have fruit growing regions, areas where grapes can be grown for wine making, and of course we have vast mineral wealth as well, not just in terms of metals and diamonds but also oil, gas, coal and so on. Moses would want to remind us that we did not create these things ourselves; they do not ‘belong’ to the Province of Alberta or the people of Canada or the individuals who kid themselves that they ‘own’ the land the resources are found on (though it was there before they were born and will still be there after they die); they belong to God and come to us as his gift, to enjoy, to use wisely, and to share with those who are in need.

‘You shall eat your fill and bless YHWH your God for the good land that he has given you’ (v.10). I note that Moses does not waste a lot of time in this passage trying to make people ‘feel thankful’. Thankfulness is not a feeling; it is a decision, an attitude of mind that we cultivate. It is a habit that we grow. If we pause before every meal, not just to rattle off a quick grace without thinking of what we’re saying, but to truly acknowledge God’s goodness to us and to ‘bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you’, then this habit will eventually lead to an attitude of thankfulness, of acknowledgement of God’s goodness to us, and a ready desire to acknowledge our total dependence on God and God’s provision. Moses’ view does not seem to be that feelings lead to thanksgiving; rather, acts of thanksgiving lead to an attitude of continual thankfulness (I was about to write ‘an attitude of gratitude’ but that sounds too corny!).

11 Take care that you do not forget YHWH your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today. 12When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, 13and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, 14then do not exalt yourself, forgetting YHWH your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, 15who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid waste-land with poisonous snakes and scorpions. He made water flow for you from flint rock, 16and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know, to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good. 17Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’ 18But remember YHWH your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today.

There is a danger that comes with prosperity, and it’s one that we’re in the middle of in our modern society in western Canada. Despite our recent economic downturn, we still live in one of the most prosperous societies on the face of the earth, in an age that is more prosperous than any other in recorded history. Think of all the luxuries that we enjoy that our grandparents never even dreamed of (and yet they were apparently just as happy as us!); think of all the modern conveniences that we consider to be necessities of life, that even twenty or thirty years ago were thought of as being only possible for the very rich. As I write these words I am sitting in a coffee shop sipping a lovely cup of gourmet coffee, typing on a personal computer and accessing the Internet at the same time. I take all these things for granted, but in fact I was in my thirties before I considered myself rich enough to go out for coffee regularly, and it’s only twenty years ago that I bought my first personal computer.

What’s the danger in all this prosperity?

 ‘Take care that you do not forget YHWH your God…do not exalt yourself, forgetting YHWH your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’

The temptation, quite frankly, is the age-old sin of pride. We can look around at our luxuries and the splendour in which we live and say to ourselves, “I did all this. I don’t have to thank anyone for this; I’m the one who went out every day and worked my butt off to get this stuff. Never mind all this thankfulness business; if there is a God, he helps those who help themselves, and I’ve certainly helped myself”. We can see ourselves as the authors of our own prosperity, forgetting who it is who gives us air to breathe and water to drink and food to eat, and who has designed our bodies to renew themselves, to resist infection and fight disease and heal themselves from injury and so on.

There is another temptation, of course, which Moses does not address in this section: the temptation to make the wealth itself into our god. Instead of realizing that we do not live on bread (or luxuries) alone, but on every Word that comes from the mouth of God’, we can look to our possessions to give us security and satisfaction and a sense of meaning and purpose in life – in other words, we can turn them into an idol, a false god. Moses addresses the issue of false gods in the last two verses of the chapter, which are omitted in Sunday’s reading:

19If you do forget YHWH your God and follow other gods to serve and worship them, then I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish. 20Like the nations that YHWH is destroying before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of YHWH your God.

I would guess that this is the most relevant and pertinent danger for us today. Jesus warned us that a person’s life does not consist in the abundance of their possessions (Luke 12:15), but today we have an enormous advertising industry dedicated to convincing us that that’s exactly what our life consists of! Paul told us that ‘godliness with contentment is great gain’, but the last thing the modern god of the economy wants us to cultivate is an attitude of contentment, because where people are content there are no more markets to sell things (a new version of the iPhone, a bigger house, a car with more bells and whistles on it, a better guitar…). As someone said, we were created to love people and use things, but so often today we are taught to love things and use people.

How do we guard against this danger? I would sum up Moses’ message here in three words or phrases:

‘Remember’. Look back on the history of our nation – think of where we have come from. So many people before us did not live with anything like the level of prosperity that we enjoy. Look back on our own lives too, and think of all God has given us (that we did not create for ourselves or earn by being such exemplary candidates for God’s affection!). Looking back on God’s work of providing for us, protecting us, disciplining us, molding us, will help us to cultivate a sense of gratitude for God’s goodness to us.

‘Bless the Lord your God’. Don’t wait for a feeling of gratitude; instead, cultivate the habit of thankfulness. This is done not only be being sure to thank God for our food before every meal (although this is important), but also by being sure to include a healthy dose of thanksgiving into our personal prayer life. When we pray, how much time do we spend in thanksgiving? Do we ‘count our blessings, name them one by one’ and thank God for each of them on a regular basis? And in our prayer times in church, what is the proportion of prayer requests to prayers of thanksgiving? Choices lead to habits, habits lead to character, character leads to a different future.

‘Obey’. ‘Keep the commandments of YHWH your God, by walking in his ways and fearing him’ (v.6). These are not just the personal commandments (don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, don’t covet), although these are important, but also the commandments about the sort of society God wants to see. The Mosaic law includes things like not reaping your crop right to the edge of your field but leaving some for the poor to gather so that they don’t starve – making sure that the court system is not biased or corrupt – returning all land to its original owners every fifty years so that you don’t get the growth of a privileged class and an ever-increasing gap between rich and poor, and so on. God cares about personal holiness, but he also cares about communities marked by justice and compassion.

That’s it for now. Time to turn to the commentaries to see what they have to say.

 

 

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About Tim Chesterton

Family man, pastor, storyteller, musician, songwriter. E-mail me at timchesterton at outlook dot com
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