These words from Deut. 32, like some other Scripture phrases, have been so often used in warning sinners that their original application to the people of God has been almost overlooked. They might well serve as a title for this last grand song from the pen of Israel’s most notable leader. In this farewell message, he seeks with all the yearnings of his great heart to warn the nation of its coming disasters. Alas, his efforts were futile, as their after history so clearly proves. If, however, the first custodians of this song possessed and perused it to little profit, that should not prevent our laying to heart its weighty lessons.
Before pointing out some of these lessons, it might be interesting to consider that Moses gave Israel a song at the commencement of their wilderness journey. Now, when their pilgrimage is at an end, they receive another from his pen. The former celebrates their victory over the Egyptians and shows how the Lord deals with His foes; the latter describes the fickleness of Israel and demonstrates God’s way with His own. At the Red Sea the Israelites were assured of an entrance to the Promised Land, at Mount Abarim they were told of their scattering from it. The character of God in both compositions is alike; He is a holy and powerful God, of warrior mien, Who will contend with the rebellious whether they be Egyptians or Israelites.
Now, to confine our attention to Deut. 32, we cannot fail to notice that this song describes Israel’s history, as seen in the purposes of God, from their insignificant beginning until they are the joy of the whole earth in Millennium times. Its language, enriched with figures taken almost exclusively from wilderness imagery, has rendered it one of the most sublime and attractive pieces of Hebrew poetry. In it, God is pictured as a Rock, stable and firm; as an eagle training her young; as a father watching his family; as a husband espoused to his wife; and as an unconquerable warrior; while Israel is portrayed as tendei grass, as helpless fledglings, as a stubborn ox, and as an unfaithful wife.
The Lord's twofold purpose in teaching the nation this song was, to make them dread departing from Him. and to remind them, when enduring the bitterness of captivity, that He would be as faithful to His promises of mercy as to His threatenings of judgment. We need not, therefore, be surprised that the later prophets, especially Isaiah, made good use of this song when they sought to recover Israel from their rebellion. See Isa. 1, etc.
GOD AND HIS CHILDREN (vv. 1-6).
The song being addressed to the Heavens and the Earth, suggests that even if Israel refused to hear, these two universal witnesses would testify to the fulfilment of its contents. It is true heavenly ministry, comparable with falling rain and distilling dew—not a hurricane nor a hail shower which is often more harmful than helpful, but a gentle drizzle which brings refreshment to the withered herbage. The need for such enlivening and refreshing messages never was greater than at the present time, but let us be clear as to the character of such ministry. In reading through this song we cannot but be impressed with its faithful warnings, its stern rebukes, and its unvarnished exposure of sin. May we not manifest our ignorance of the mind of God by slighting wholesome teaching when it pricks our consciences!
Moses continues this song by sharply contrasting the character of God with that of His professed family. Such was the difference between the great, righteous, faithful, upright One, and the corrupt perverse nation of Israel, that evidence of relationship was scarcely to be found. What right had they to call Him “ Father ” when their practices were no better than those of the heathen, and when they sacrificed to demons and not to God? The New Testament abounds with passages which make it unmistakably clear that all truly born again souls reproduce the nature of their Father; and with equal positiveness it affirms that where this is lacking, we have no authority for believing that the person involved is really saved. (See especially 1John, ch. 3). Is it not alarming to find many in our day who claim to be the Lord’s, yet who are destitute of the love of God in their hearts (Rom. 5:5), of righteousness in their dealings (I John 2:29), of appetite for the Scriptures in their souls (1Peter 2:2), and of works of faith in their lives (James 2:17); or have we become so used to such cases that we no longer feel exercised about their eternal welfare!
REMEMBRANCE OF PAST MERCIES (vv. 7-14).
When the people of God “ Remember the days of old ” (v. 7), and reflect upon His goodness, it often proves effectual in bringing about their restoration. His dealings in grace in the past encourage us to make fresh claims upon His bounty. When the Israelites were down in Babylon the remembrance of Zion melted them to tears (Ps. 137:1). In Heb. 10:32 the saints who had become lax in spiritual things were enjoined to remember the former days, and the Ephesian assembly was reminded by the risen Lord of its first love from which it had fallen (Rev. 2 :5). These and kindred passages show that when the heart has grown cold it is good to recall the past.
“ Back to His dear loving arms do I flee,
When I remember that Jesus loves me.”
In this portion, Moses surveys the Lord’s dealings with His people, and shows that from the beginning God gave them the first place in His plans and purposes. The other nations were made subservient to this scheme and knew nothing of redeeming grace, but Israel were His purchased inheritance to render to Him the portion which a corrupt world failed to give. Their stay in Egypt was terminated by the providential dealings of God. Like the parent eagle. He stirred their nest until they were glad to be free to fly into the desert where He alone could sustain them. In the wilderness they experienced the almighty power of His pinions beneath them and the shadow of His presence above them. Not only were the bare essentials of life provided, but the very choicest of good things were supplied by the liberal hand of their bountiful Emancipator.
When we here read of Israel’s blessings we cannot but think of God’s dealings in grace with us. His purposes toward us go back, not only to Adam but to the dateless past. We, too, can remember the time when our nest was stirred up and we were liberated from bondage worse than Egyptian, to tread the path of faith with His unfailing wings beneath us. The butter, honey and wine of the promised land are but faint pictures of our spiritual blessings in the heavenlies in Christ, set forth in Ephesians and other New Testament Scriptures.
DEPARTURE FROM GOD AND ITS RESULTS (vv. 15-30).
Israel’s apostasy began, like most others, with ungratefulness. The figure of a fat ox kicking its owner illustrates their rebellion against the Lord after they had tasted the fruits of Canaan. Their hearts, estranged from Him, began to go after idols, which consequently received the portion due to Him alone.
Let us guard our affection for Christ, for if the heart be not fully satisfied with Him it will readily put some other object in His place. The idol may be our families, our home, our companions, our wealth, or even so called harmless sport; but whatever it is, it will be our ruin unless we have grace to repent.
From verse 19 Moses portrays in the most solemn terms the tragic outcome of Israel’s departure from God. It must have been painful for him to think that the future of such a favoured people should be so black. The face of God hidden, His arrows spent upon them, and their being scattered to the corners of the earth, were the terrible consequences of their sin. It was little wonder that their dying leader, as he foresaw all this evil, exclaimed, “ O that they were wise . . . that they would consider their latter end! ”
Departure from God and His word may be viewed lightly by some, but its seriousness can only be ascertained when we consider its end. If, for example, a Christian were to disobey the Scriptures and marry an unconverted partner, who could tell the sad results which will inevitably accrue? Indeed, if only a fraction of the cost involved were realized, it would be sufficient to halt any who might venture on such a perilous course. Other wrong steps, in private life, might be mentioned, to which the same principle would equally apply, but we shall leave these for the reader's own consideration.
We must bear in mind that in assembly life also God always punishes departure from Himself and His Word; let us not, therefore, be so foolish as to imagine that we can drift into laxity and not reap the consequences. What will be the end, for instance, if strange children are brought into fellowship? What untold trouble might they ferment, especially if they are pushed into positions of leadership, to the grief of godly saints and possibly the ruin of their own souls? Have we yet pondered what the end will be of the present desire on the part of some assemblies to mix with denominations? Will not the outcome be that eventually such churches will become little better than missions? Have we lost our hatred for clerisy with all its attendant evils, so that now in some circles association therewith is viewed with complacency and even pleasure? Have we considered the loss of power in many meetings, partly due to the increased tendency to substitute human arrangements for the sovereign leading of the Holy Spirit? Would it not be our wisdom to consider these and other indications of departure from God, and to seek grace to return to Him ere their consequences befall us!
REPENTANCE AND RESTORATION (vv. 31-43).
There is a close similarity between the principles upon which God saves sinners and those upon which He restores erring saints. The reason that many talk of being restored, yet give no evidence of radical or lasting change in their lives, is that they have not been the subjects of God’s dealings at all, but rather of human persuasion or emotional excitement.
There are three simple, yet important conditions of restoration suggested in these verses that are worthy of our earnest attention. First, God’s backsliden people are to be taught the vanity of all false objects of worship—“ Where are their gods whom they trusted . . . let them rise up and help you ” (vv. 37-38). Secondly, they must learn their own helplessness—“ when He seeth that their power is gone ” (v. 36). Thirdly, they will have to realize that their forgiveness is based upon the atonement— “He will be merciful unto (lit. make expiation for) His land and to His people ” (v. 43). No object that displaces God will deliver us in times of trouble, so whatever our circumstances may be we ought to cleave to Him alone. Neither can we find within ourselves any help for our souls, for we are as helpless to restore as to save. It was when Jonah fainted and condemned lying vanities (idols) that he experienced deliverance. We must also bear in mind that the precious blood of Christ is the only ground of pardon, and its virtue avails for all who repent of their sin and seek forgiveness from Him who delighteth in mercy.
Israel’s restoration, like all others, will have far reaching effects upon the world. Its peace, prosperity and salvation ail await the recovery of God’s earthly people. “ What shall the receiving of them be but life from the dead”? (Rom. 11:15). And would not our own restoration result in much blessing to the unsaved around us? Well might our prayer be, “ Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation . . . Then will I teach transgressors Thy ways, and sinners shall be converted unto Thee” (Ps. 51:12-13).
The Series, “Satan and God's Assemblies,” will (D.V.) be continued in No. 6.
“Come out from among them and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing” (2 Cor. vi. 17).
It is well to note that these words are quoted by the Apostle from Isa. lii. 11, a prophetic utterance referring to Israel in a day, yet future, when she will rise and shake herself from the dust of Gentile oppression, and. cleansing herself from all pollution, shall gather unto the Lord Himself in her own land in fulfilment of the prophetic word in Ps. 1:5. “ Gather my saints together unto me.” As applying to the Corinthians, it meant a clean separation from the corrupting mass of Corinthian wickedness, in the midst of which God had placed them as a temple wherein He Himself might dwell. To show how utterly contrary Christianity is to the abounding evils with which they were surrounded, the Apostle sets forth quite a list of things diametrically opposed, as righteousness and unrighteousness, light and darkness, Christ and Belial, believers and unbelievers (R.V.), the temple of God and Idols. No fellowship, no communion, no concord, no part, no agreement can exist between these utterly opposed and conflicting elements, and no more can Christianity have fellowship with the abounding evils of the Corinthian unbelievers. Hence the injunction : “ Come out from among them and be ye separate and touch not the unclean thing.”
As applying to present-day conditons, the necessity for this call to separation is not so readily perceived by many. We in this land see no heathen temples filled with idols, in the worship of which the most abominable and filthy practices are indulged, as at Corinth. We live in a so-called Christian land, where the Scriptures receive a nominal assent, and where the majority profess to be disciples of Christ and worshippers of God.
But we learn from 2 Tim. iii. that what we see around us to-day is merely “ a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof.” No one who reads Paul’s inspired description of the last days here can fail to see his prophecy fulfilled before our very eyes. And the attitude to be assumed by the believer towards this “form” is given in the word : “ From such turn away.”
This evil thing with which we are surrounded is corrupt Christendom: worse, we believe, in God's estimation, than Corinthian idolatry or Roman paganism. Large congregations of people of whom, perhaps, not ten per cent, know God by a saving faith, call themselves churches, and are presided over and ministerd to by men, possessed of a degree of worldly learning, but, in most instances, strangers to grace and to God—knowing nothing of that which alone can fit them for heaven themselves, or enable them to point others to Christ. But, as in days of old, the people “ love to have it so,” and thus the soul-destroying farce goes on, and the sad thing about it is that many of the Lord's people are led away from His true centre of gathering to associate themselves with this God-dishonouring thing.
But this is not new, it was so in the days of Jeroboam, the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin, by leading them away from the divine centre of worship, after an order of things of his own devising. He changed the divinely-appointed time of the Feasts, as also the divinely-appointed place for the feasts to be kept, and he made priests of the lowest of the people who were not Levites. “ Whosoever could consecrate himself with a bullock and seven rams ” could become a priest in Jeroboam’s order of things (2 Chr. xiii. 9).
Now history repeats itself. It is Jeroboam’s order of things we have around us in Christendom to-day. The feast day is changed to suit man’s convenience. Instead of the first day of the week, as observed by the Apostles and early disciples, it is now once a month or once in six months, as deemed advisable.
The centre of gathering is changed. Man-given names are now the rallying centre, as Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Baptist, Methodist, whereas the divine centre is Jesus. “ Where two or three are gathered together in My Name, there am I in the midst of them ” (Matt, xviii. 20).
The order of priesthood is changed. The divine idea of priesthood is that all believers, and only believers are priests, but, as in Jeroboam’s apostate system, so is it in apostate Christendom; unconverted young men are pushed forward for “ the ministry ” as a profession; empty and powerless hands are eventually laid on their heads and thus they become “ ordained ministers ”!
The form of worship and ministry is changed. In the scriptural order (I Cor. 14) the Holy Spirit in the Church was left at liberty to raise up and speak through whomsoever He pleased; but His place and authority are usurped in Christendom by the “ one man,” through whom God must speak, if He will speak at all. Thus, in every detail, man's order has supplanted God's order, and the sham goes on, and souls are led to ruin. Shall true children of God lend countenance to, or remain in connection with such a system? Rather let us hasten to obey the divine call : “ Come out from among them, and be ye separate, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, and will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty.”
Christendom—the mother, Rome, with all her daughters—is ripening fast for the awful judgment awaiting it (Rev. 19). “Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues ” (Rev. xviii. 4).
Your letter about the assembly electing its oversight was duly received, and in reply I now make the following observations:
The term “oversight" is never used in scripture to designate any body of brethren taking the lead in assembly life. The word refers exclusively to the work of an overseer (1 Peter 5 :2; 1 Thess. 5:13). If the idea of “work” rather than “office” were kept in view, there would be less aspirants for the so-called “ oversight.” Officialdom is foreign to those principles which govern the Christian assembly. “ Over you,” in 1 Thess. 5:12, is really, “ take the lead among you.”
In the early church, choice of elders was made by the apostles or their delegates, but this was clearly foundation ministry which ceased with the passing of the apostles. Even when there was apostolic choice of elders, some time for evidence of character was allowed, as in Acts 14:23, where probably at least six months passed before choice was made on the return journey of the apostles. Ordination as in modern times in Christendom is never in view. The original for “ordained” in Acts 14: 23, is the same as translated "chosen” jn Acts 10.41, and is so translated by J.N.D. and other revisers. “Ordain” in Titus 1:5 is “appoint” (“not formal ordination, but appointment for the recognition of the churches, of those raised up and qualified by the Holy Spirit, and who had given evidence of this in their life and service . . . ”—W. E. Vine). It should be noted that, as a delegate, Titus had the authority and instruction of the apostle. With the completion of the Holy Scriptures, sufficient guidance from God is now given on all matters affecting church life and order. Before the completion of the Scriptures, the mind of God was communicated to the early church by the apostles and prophets.
True overseers are made by God (Acts 20:28), and acknowledged by the assembly (1Thess 5:12,13). It seems out of place for the flock to select the shepherds; but healthy sheep respond to, and will follow those who tend and feed them. The example is in John 10:4. Those accepting “office” under the human expedient of an election are sure to be the popular and plausible, whose only concern is place and authority. In the things of God, heart condition rather than outward appearance is what really matters (1 Sam. 16:6-7), and if godly order is to obtain in the assembly, then the choice of overseers must be left to God. Perhaps there is no other work for God to-day about which He has been more careful to specify the requisite qualifications, than that of the overseer; and, without elections, the people of God should have no difficulty in recognising and following their God-appointed guides (Heb. 13:7,17,24; 1 Tim 3, Titus 1:5-9). The idea of “office” or “rule” is not in the original text, the overseer being regarded always as “among” or “before” the flock for an example.
Alas, it is still true that “every shepherd is an abomination unto the Egyptians” (Gen. 46: 34), and to those who prefer Egyptian fare.
I trust that these thoughts will be a little help. Please feel at liberty to write fully about any point which is not too explicit.
There is such a thing as being “ ashamed before Him at His coming” (1 John 2:28). We all know how true it is in earthly matters, that one may be ashamed before a master at his return. If a servant has received a certain work to do, and neglects to do it, he will surely be ashamed when his master returns. If an absent lover comes to find his betrothed in the company of his enemies, she would certainly be “ ashamed before him at his coming.” So it will be with those who bury their talents, committed to them by their Lord, to be used for Him during the period of His absence, and fritter away the precious hours, in getting unto themselves worldly honour and earthly gain. What a loss will be theirs in that coming day! If it were possible that regret could enter the portals of the eternal glory, how many would mourn the manner of their lives down here, they were of so little value to Christ! They may have been a positive dishonour to His Name, and a hindrance to His truth. How can they be aught else than ashamed—“ashamed before Him at His coming?” And the worldly backslider going hand-in-hand with the enemies of the Lord, making common cause with those who “ crucify the Lord of glory,” he, too, will be “ ashamed before Him at His coming.” May it be ours rather, so to walk, keeping our garments clean, unspotted from the world, diligent in His service, waiting for His return, that we may have an “entrance ministered to us abundantly into the everlasting kingdom.” This is our Lord’s desire, this is the purpose of our Hope. It is to purify us, to keep us separate from the world. Alas! how little we see of its power, even among those who speak and sing about it; and the greater number of those who say they are the Lord’s do not even hold the truth in theory, but are looking—if for anything—for the world to be converted, and made more comfortable for them. They say this will be brought about through the preaching of the Gospel, but as a rule those who so speak are not among the most zealous in spreading the good news. When “the Hope” is burning brightly in our hearts, it is then that with heart and voice we echo forth the Gospel’s sound.
“ Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ; Who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto Himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.” (Titus 2:13,14).