Do You Have a Stiff Neck Today? (Deuteronomy 9:7-29)

No, I’m not talking about sleeping poorly on the wrong mattress or having the incorrect pillow for spinal alignment. On quite a number of occasions in the Old Testament (and once in the NT), the nation of Israel is called “a stiff-necked people.”

The meaning of this term actually comes from the world of ancient agriculture. The Hebrew term literally translated means “hard of neck.” The primary animal used in agriculture and for a host of other heavy-duty tasks was an ox. The animal was given direction with an “ox goad,” which was a sort of light pole. A tap on the neck would indicate which direction the beast was to turn. And any ox that was resistant to direction was spoken of as “stiff-necked.”  Therefore you can see the obvious allusion to any person/people/nation that is resistant to being directed by God.

This passage is essentially a validation of the final statement made in the reading from last Friday … from 9:6 where Moses said, “Understand, then, that it is not because of your righteousness that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people.”  So, Moses, what do you really think about the Israelites? I confess that I actually did a LOL when I read this again!

Just in case someone might presume that Moses was overstating the situation, consider the following list of epic failures of the Israelite nation as given in today’s reading.

–          At Horeb – This was Mt. Sinai where Moses was gone for 40 days getting God’s Law. When Moses came down from the mountain, there was the whole nation worshipping a golden calf.

–          At Taberah – Here the Israelites complained about their hardships to the extent that the Lord in his anger caused fire to consume some of them on the outskirts of the camp.

–          At Massah – This was the place where the Israelites were so angry and thirsty that they were ready to stone Moses … and God had Moses strike the rock to bring water from it.

–          At Kibroth Hattaavah – Here the Israelites suffered a plague sent from the Lord for their complaints about insufficient variety in their food. The quail were sent, but so was the pestilence for their moaning.

–          Kadesh Barnea – This was the big one!… the final straw. Here is the place where the Israelites rebelled against going up to conquer the Promised Land.

Wow, that is quite a list! That is a lot of rebellion and disbelief.

I have to laugh at one of our long-time church leaders who I know has on certain occasions — when someone was complaining to him about how we are too much this, or not enough of that – stepped back from them several steps without commenting. “What are you doing,” he is asked. And he says to them, “I’m stepping back because I don’t want to fall into the hole created when God opens up the earth to swallow you for complaining!”

Expressing legitimate concerns for the betterment of a situation – whatever it may be at home or church – is legitimate. But outright complaining and rebelling against the riches of God’s goodness and grace is just plain wrong. Let us not look to anyone else for application of this; let us each look only to ourselves to be revived.

Deuteronomy 9:7-29

Remember this and never forget how you aroused the anger of the Lord your God in the wilderness. From the day you left Egypt until you arrived here, you have been rebellious against the Lord. At Horeb you aroused the Lord’s wrath so that he was angry enough to destroy you. When I went up on the mountain to receive the tablets of stone, the tablets of the covenant that the Lord had made with you, I stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights; I ate no bread and drank no water. 10 The Lord gave me two stone tablets inscribed by the finger of God. On them were all the commandments the Lord proclaimed to you on the mountain out of the fire, on the day of the assembly.

11 At the end of the forty days and forty nights, the Lord gave me the two stone tablets, the tablets of the covenant. 12 Then the Lord told me, “Go down from here at once, because your people whom you brought out of Egypt have become corrupt. They have turned away quickly from what I commanded them and have made an idol for themselves.”

13 And the Lord said to me, “I have seen this people, and they are a stiff-necked people indeed! 14 Let me alone, so that I may destroy them and blot out their name from under heaven. And I will make you into a nation stronger and more numerous than they.”

15 So I turned and went down from the mountain while it was ablaze with fire. And the two tablets of the covenant were in my hands. 16 When I looked, I saw that you had sinned against the Lord  your God; you had made for yourselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. You had turned aside quickly from the way that the Lord had commanded you. 17 So I took the two tablets and threw them out of my hands, breaking them to pieces before your eyes.

18 Then once again I fell prostrate before the Lord for forty days and forty nights; I ate no bread and drank no water, because of all the sin you had committed, doing what was evil in the Lord’s sight and so arousing his anger. 19 I feared the anger and wrath of the Lord, for he was angry enough with you to destroy you. But again the Lord listened to me. 20 And the Lord was angry enough with Aaron to destroy him, but at that time I prayed for Aaron too. 21 Also I took that sinful thing of yours, the calf you had made, and burned it in the fire. Then I crushed it and ground it to powder as fine as dust and threw the dust into a stream that flowed down the mountain.

22 You also made the Lord angry at Taberah, at Massah and at Kibroth Hattaavah.

23 And when the Lord sent you out from Kadesh Barnea, he said, “Go up and take possession of the land I have given you.” But you rebelled against the command of the Lord your God. You did not trust him or obey him. 24 You have been rebellious against the Lord ever since I have known you.

25 I lay prostrate before the Lord those forty days and forty nights because the Lord had said he would destroy you. 26 I prayed to the Lord and said, “Sovereign Lord, do not destroy your people, your own inheritance that you redeemed by your great power and brought out of Egypt with a mighty hand.27 Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Overlook the stubbornness of this people, their wickedness and their sin. 28 Otherwise, the country from which you brought us will say, ‘Because the Lord was not able to take them into the land he had promised them, and because he hated them, he brought them out to put them to death in the wilderness.’ 29 But they are your people, your inheritance that you brought out by your great power and your outstretched arm.”

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Pretty Good in Your Own Eyes, Eh? (Deuteronomy 9:1-6)

We live in the participation trophy era, where everyone is a winner simply for showing up. Everyone is good, and nobody is really bad. Youth sports get hit pretty hard with this criticism, though I understand the desire to encourage children to enjoy an activity before they face the pressures of performance. Yet I’ve seen this extreme grace extend pretty far into adolescence, and not just with sports. I’ve also observed it with such events as music competitions – where everyone gets a score of very good, excellent, or superlative. So the people who finished last weren’t losers, they were just the least of the very goods! It feels so much better that way!

Instead of picking on my runners I coached for this illustration, I’ll pick on myself. I was a good runner in high school, but I was on a very mediocre cross country team in a very small school. For some reason, our coach thought it would be a great and expansive experience for us to run against one of the better New Jersey public schools. And for some other reason I cannot imagine, this school invited us to run against them at their homecoming football game. When we got there, I have to say that I had never seen a school so large in my life – with an enrollment of about 3,000 students. We lined up to start the race at the beginning of halftime in this gigantic football stadium with thousands of people in attendance. I had never seen such big guys on a cross country team before. There were 39 of them, and 7 of us! I was a freshman on varsity – the last of our top 7 guys who were the only ones taken on this trip. I thought I was pretty good. However, I placed 46th that day in front of thousands of people. The race finished with a final sprint down the middle of the field from one goalpost to the other. I didn’t hold up the game or anything, and I actually ran a decent time; I was just out of my league completely. Everything about the other team and school had the appearance of giants!

In our passage today, Moses gives this new generation the facts about the situation they are facing. They are going into a land where the people are indeed as big as their reputations, and their cities surrounded by walls were such as to appear to reach the sky. Everything about the human circumstances spelled certain doom for Israel – the Canaanites were too big, strong, and well-fortified to be defeated. BUT, the Israelites had the Lord to go before them, and that would render their victory as swift and certain.

Moses also warns the people against the natural sense of pride and arrogance that might follow these victories. In no way should the people think that it was because of their righteousness that God was doing this. No, not at all; they deserved the opposite. Rather it was because of the wickedness of the Canaanite peoples, the covenant promises of the Lord to Abraham and the patriarchs, and simply because of God’s grace.

I speak often in these devotionals and in my sermons about timeless truths and principles. Another of these is the tendency that we may believe, even in our generation, regarding our salvation in Christ – the inclination to think that we are in some fashion worthy of the gift of eternal life. It is certainly not likely to be so bold as to believe we are really not that bad, but perhaps rather it is a notion that we were so smart as to receive Jesus Christ. No, no… that’s not how it works. As it says in Titus 3:5, “he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.” It is always a gift of grace. Don’t be fooled. Revive your view of God’s grace.

Deuteronomy 9:1-6

9:1  Hear, Israel: You are now about to cross the Jordan to go in and dispossess nations greater and stronger than you, with large cities that have walls up to the sky. The people are strong and tall—Anakites! You know about them and have heard it said: “Who can stand up against the Anakites?”  But be assured today that the Lord your God is the one who goes across ahead of you like a devouring fire. He will destroy them; he will subdue them before you. And you will drive them out and annihilate them quickly, as the Lord has promised you.

After the Lord your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, “The Lord has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.” No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is going to drive them out before you. It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the Lord your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Understand, then, that it is not because of your righteousness that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people.