Kevin DeYoung / Feb 12, 2017 / Exodus 23:20-33
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Let’s pray. Oh Lord our God, give us ears to hear your voice. We pray that because it’s true, not simply out of routine: we need your help to even hear, let alone to understand and obey. Give us eyes to see the truth and hearts to take you at your word. Make us as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. Give us the grace to know you more and (no matter what) to follow you all the way home. We pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.
As we continue our long series through the book of Exodus, we come to the end of chapetr 23 this morning. We’ll begin our reading in verse 20:
“Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him.
“But if you carefully obey his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries.
“When my angel goes before you and brings you to the Amorites and the Hittites and the Perizzites and the Canaanites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, and I blot them out, you shall not bow down to their gods nor serve them, nor do as they do, but you shall utterly overthrow them and break their pillars in pieces. You shall serve the LORD your God, and he will bless your bread and your water, and I will take sickness away from among you. None shall miscarry or be barren in your land; I will fulfill the number of your days. I will send my terror before you and will throw into confusion all the people against whom you shall come, and I will make all your enemies turn their backs to you. And I will send hornets before you, which shall drive out the Hivites, the Canaanites, and the Hittites from before you. I will not drive them out from before you in one year, lest the land become desolate and the wild beasts multiply against you. Little by little I will drive them out from before you, until you have increased and possess the land. And I will set your border from the Red Sea to the Sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness to the Euphrates, for I will give the inhabitants of the land into your hand, and you shall drive them out before you. You shall make no covenant with them and their gods. They shall not dwell in your land, lest they make you sin against me; for if you serve their gods, it will surely be a snare to you.” Exodus 23:20-33
Some of you may be planning to go somewhere warm for Spring Break. The great thing about Michigan is that even at Spring Break, there are already many places to go that are warmer than our spring will be!
Imagine you were planning as a family, and you told your kids (let’s use the classic example) that you were going to go to Disney World. You tell them, “Look, kids, this is a gift. Mom and Dad have been saving up for this, and [let’s make it realistic] we’re going to have to drive through the night, but we’re going to Disney World! We’re paying for it. We’ll take care of everything. Isn’t this exciting? Finally, we get to go to Disney World for Spring Break!”
But then you tell them, “There are some rules. You need to listen to Mom and Dad and do as we say. You need to eat when we tell you it’s time to eat, and you need to stare out the window when we tell you to stare out the window—because that’s what we did when we were kids, and we liked it! You need to put down the iPads when we tell you to. If you listen, kids, this is going to be a great trip. You’ll be safe. You’ll get to bed on time. You won’t get sick. We promise you some nice souvenirs. You will have an amazing time. But if you don’t listen to us, it’s not going to be very fun. We are going, and we’ll get there, but you’re going to be tired and cranky. You might get sick, or even hurt. You might have to deal with us not being very happy for most of the week. It will not be a nice experience. So, we have this great trip planned. It’s a wonderful gift from us to you. We just want you to listen to us.”
Would that speech fall under the category of law or gospel? Does the Lord’s speech to his people here fall under the category of law or gospel? It’s obviously in Exodus—the Mosaic covenant; the part of the Bible that we call “the law”—but it’s also good news, isn’t it? We would be wrong to try to place a sharp distinction between the two in a passage like this.
If you tell your kids, “We’re going to Disney World!”, that’s gospel. It’s good news! It’s undeserved, unmerited favor. Then you have some rules, right? You’re not telling them, “You need to do this so that we love you.” You’re saying, “You need to do this if you want the good news to happen for you in a way that you can really enjoy, and that will be good for you.” That’s what this passage is like. They’re going to Canaan. It was a little harder ground and a little harder to figure things out than in Disney World, but it was the Promised Land that God had prepared for them as a gift. He would drive out all the inhabitants (wouldn’t it be nice if you could drive out all the inhabitants of Disney World before you got there?)! But they needed to listen if they were to enjoy it.
Sometimes we put a hard line between gospel promises and law warnings, when there is often an intermingling of the two. Warnings can be a part of good news. Here’s a line from the Canons of Dort. It’s in a section that talks about assurance—how we know that God will cause us to persevere to the end, and how he makes that preservation possible. It says this:
And, just as it has pleased God to begin this work of grace in us by the proclamation of the gospel, so God preserves, continues, and completes this work by the hearing and reading of the gospel, by meditation on it, by its [that is, the gospel’s] exhortations, threats, and promises, and also by the use of the sacraments. Canons of Dort
I pulled that section out because even Reformed people often want to say that “gospel” is an iron-clad category which does nothing but make promises. There’s certainly a sense in which you can make that case—Paul gives the very heart of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15: a message of good news about the death and resurrection of Christ for the forgiveness of our sins—but “gospel” can also be used in a broader sense. Here, this confessional document tells us that the gospel has exhortations, threats, and promises wrapped up in all of the good news of life in Christ. In the same way, there are exhortations, threats, and promises wrapped up here in this good news of getting to Canaan. Let’s look at each of those in turn.
Do you see a number of exhortations here? They begin in verses 20-21: “ Behold, I send an angel before you…Pay careful attention to him…” That’s an exhortation! “I exhort you to pay attention and to obey his voice.”
Look at all of the personal pronouns in verse 21: “Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him.” We’ve been looking at a series of laws, but do not forget that Biblical law is always personal, because it comes from a personal lawgiver. In this case, there’s an angel going before them. They are exhorted to be obedient, not just to a law, but to a personal being—this angel who will lead them.
If you’re leaving your kids at home for a bit, you may put a series of instructions on the refrigerator: “I want you to go to bed at this time. Here’s where you’ll find the food. Here’s when you need to take the dog for a walk.” Those laws, though they appear in black and white letters on a sheet of paper, are more than just a sheet of paper. That piece of paper appeared from somewhere. It didn’t just float down, disconnected from a personal will and being. A mom, a dad, a grandma, a grandpa, or someone else who loves them wrote those laws and put them there for their good.
God is reminding Israel, “You are not just being obedient to a series of laws.” Sometimes we talk that way: “Religion is about a relationship, not about rules.” Well, where do the rules come from? They come out of a relationship! And if you have any kind of relationship worth anything, there will be some rules: about how friends treat each other, how a husband and a wife love each other, or how children and parents relate to each other. It’s not that one is good and the other is evil. The two are meant to go together. These laws come from somewhere.
As they’re led out, they are to listen to this angel. Who is this angel who is leading them all of a sudden? Well, he’s not a man. Some have thought that it could be Moses (or later, Joshua), God’s messenger. But it’s more than just a normal, created angel. This angelic being is divine. Verse 20: “I send an angel before you to…the place I have prepared.” Verse 21: “Listen to him.” Those makes it sound like YHWH and the angel are distinct. But then you get to verse 22: “…if you carefully obey his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries. When my angel goes before you and brings you to [all of these nations] and I blot them out…” It continues like this throughout the entire passage, going back and forth between “he” (what the angel will do) and “I” (what the Lord will do). There’s an interchange and interplay between the two. You can’t just say, “Well, that angel is someone other than the Lord.”
In some mysterious way, it’s the angel of YHWH, who is also YHWH. This is a divine being. Look at verse 21: “…do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression…” Who can pardon transgressions? Who can forgive sins? Didn’t Jesus himself say in Mark 2, “Who can forgive sins but God?” I remember taking a Muslim friend that I had to Christianity Explored many years ago. They were doing that passage, and he had no problem with Jesus doing miracles and being born from a miracle, but he caught that right away: “That can’t be right! Only God forgives sins! Only God has that authority! What is Jesus doing with that?”
This angel, who is spoken of in the same breath as YHWH himself and forgives sins as only God can forgive, is clearly some divine being: the angel YHWH who is YHWH. Go back and look at Exodus 3, where Moses came to the the burning bush. An angel of the Lord appeared to him there, and when Moses said, “Who is it?”, the Lord said, “‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.” It’s the same dynamic: an angel of the Lord appeared to him, but when Moses gets down to it, he realizes that this angel of the Lord is (in some mysterious way) the Lord himself. “When you listen to my messenger,” God says, “you are listening to me. My name is in him. My authority is there. You cannot separate this manifestation of my presence from me.”
Then go to verse 24: “…you shall not bow down to their gods nor serve them…but you shall utterly overthrow them and break their pillars in pieces.” God’s not telling them to break into people’s homes and loot. As they entered into this land, it was inhabited by unbelieving people who worshiped all manner of gods, as they would have in the Ancient Near East. There would be these pillars, statues, and altars erected throughout the countryside to other gods and goddesses. As they took this over, the temptation would be to say, “It’s already here. Why don’t we just use it to offer to YHWH?” Or, “What does it hurt to throw some meat on there for Asherah?” “Why don’t we put a little grain offering there for Baal?” The Lord says, “Don’t worship their gods. Don’t do what they do. Don’t use their religious artifacts, but tear them down.”
Remember how we talked, months ago, about why this idolatry was so pervasive and tempting. It was thought that the gods could do virtually anything except feed themselves. They could change the weather, bless you with children, give you victory over armies, or make your crops and herds multiply, but they couldn’t feed themselves. The way to get them to do stuff for you, then, was to feed them, and the way that you fed them was through sacrifices on the altar. When you put it there, in some magical sense, even though the food was burned up on the altar as it was offered, the gods themselves were fed. And when you fed them, then they’d work for you. It was everywhere. It was completely normal. That was how you did things.
It’s like if you were going to inhabit a new land, and the Lord said, “When you get there, no cars. I’m not talking about a cool hipster place in the cities where you don’t need a car. Just no cars.” “What do you mean, no cars? Everyone drives a car. That’s how everything is done!” “I don’t care. You’re not like them. Don’t drive a car.” Or the Lord says, “No credit cards. You can’t use them.” It was that commonplace. “Who doesn’t offer food to a plurality of gods to get them to do things?”
It was ordinary, and seemed essential. That’s the attraction of idolatry. If you look at something and say, “That’s just weird and goofy,” then it’s not really a temptation. It’s not our particular temptation in 21st century America to find altars and sacrifice food to gods, but any number of things—normal ways of doing business and climbing ladders, normal methods of entertainment, normal ways in which the academy works, etc.—all seem completely ordinary. But the Lord says, “You’re going to be different. It’s going to be hard to be different. But ‘little by little I will drive them out before you…’”
You could do a whole sermon (and I won’t) on some lessons here about the Christian life and victory in that life. We see in this passage that victory comes from God, since God is clearly driving them out. Yet we also see that it comes from our own effort: “…you shall drive them out before you.” How does sanctification work? How does walking with God work? Does God do the work and we don’t do anything? No, we also do the work.
And how does that happen? It happens little by little. In this case, it was God thinking of his people: “If I just drove out all the people from the land, by the time you scattered and inhabited it, it would be grown over with thorns and thistles, beasts would be multiplying, and the place would be inhospitable for you. I’m going to do this little by little,” just like he does for each of us in the Christian life. Isn’t it nice when he just comes, and a sin that you’ve been dealing with is gone? When you just don’t have that temptation anymore? We hear stories like that: “Marriage bad!” Tomorrow: “Marriage good!” That’s not normally how it works, though. It’s almost always little by little: “I’ll drive them out. As I go before you, as I work and you work, little by little, you’ll have victory.”
Verse 25 gets to the heart of the matter. “You shall serve the LORD your God…” That’s the exhortation. Remember, when Moses stood before Pharaoh and delivered the message from the Lord, he didn’t just say, “Let my people go!”, although that’s how we remember it. No, he said, “ Let my people go, that they may serve me…” God wasn’t just saying, “I’ll get the Egyptians off your backs.” He was saying, “You need to exchange masters. Egypt is not the master for you. I am the master. You don’t serve them, because I’m freeing you. Come into the wilderness, and I will teach you my ways, that you might serve me.” It’s always one for the other.
I wonder if you hear this as often as I do: it’s common today to hear Christian-sounding messages in nice quotes on your Facebook page, or to read them in books, or to see them in an inspirational clip of some Christian teacher. So often, the message goes something like this: “Listen, you’re beautiful. Stop striving and trying to measure up. You don’t have to please everyone. You don’t have to drive yourself crazy. Look at yourself: you’re beautiful and smart. God loves you.” The message resonates, and people are like, “Oh, yes.”
It resonates because a lot of it’s true. It’s good to say that God loves you, that you don’t have to measure up to everyone, and that you’re beautiful. But do you see what’s missing? Two things: repentance and worship. Often that message comes as one of self-actualization in Christian lingo. It’s a message to look in the mirror and know that you are okay. Deep down, we all want to know that we’re okay—that it’s fine if our house is a mess, that our kids don’t have to be perfect, and that we don’t have to lose another thirty pounds or make more money. We all want to know, at the end of the day, that we’re okay.
The gospel gets there, but there’s repentance at the front end and worship at the back end. God says, “Serve me. I set you free to do that. I’m bringing you to the Promised Land. Listen. Pay attention. Obey.”
Verse 32 says, “You shall make no covenant with them and their gods.” Covenants are in the background everywhere here. Actually, it’s not just the background, but also the foreground. Look at Exodus 24:7. I’ve referenced this before: “Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people.” The section of laws following the Decalogue is the book of the covenant.
A covenant is an agreement between two parties (essentially, a contract). The covenant is underneath and surrounding this entire book. If you were here months and months ago, you’ll remember the end of Exodus 2, where God’s people cry out to the Lord: “And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.” This whole book has been about the covenant. God had a covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and he would not forget his people. He had promised 400 years ago that he would multiply their offspring, and he had. Not only that, but he had promised to give them land. Even further, he would be their God and they would be his people. He promised all of that, and God has not forgotten his covenant.
So he says, “I’m in covenant with you. Every time you circumcise a son, it’s an indication that you’re in covenant with me. So, don’t make a covenant with these people or their gods.”
In the ancient world, covenants followed a certain pattern. One of the things that you always find in ancient covenants is that the stipulations are followed by blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience. That’s what we have here: blessings and curses.
Now, this little section is much lighter on the curses than what we’ll see later in the Mosaic covenant. If you keep your finger there and flip over a book to Leviticus 26, just look at the headings in your Bible. Leviticus 26 starts with 13 verses of “Blessings for Obedience”. Then it says, “Punishment for Disobedience”, and that covers verses 14-46. There are quite a bit more threatenings there! If you go over two more books to Deuteronomy 28, you’ll see the same thing. It begins with 14 verses under the heading “Blessings for Obedience”, and then it says, “Curses for Disobedience”, which go from verse 15-68, so there are quite a lot of threatenings and curses. We see the same thing in miniature here in Exodus 23, although there are just hints at some of the bad things that will happen to them if they enter into covenant with other gods.
You know what else is a covenant in the Bible? Malachi says marriage is a covenant. It’s helpful for us in understanding our relationship with our spouses to understand our relationship with God. When you make a vow and get married, you forsake all others. Isn’t that what you promised? The very nature and heart of marriage is to make an exclusive covenant with one another.
That’s why, as marriage continues to be redefined, it’s redefined out of marriage itself. Marriage is an exclusive covenant between a man and a woman, not an open arrangement. What would happen if you decided that the words “forsaking all others” no longer applied to you—that you could enter into covenant with others and have the covenant sign (i.e. the sexual act) with other people? Would your spouse say, “That’s okay. I’m a pretty easy-going person”? Or would he or she be angry and jealous, and have every right to be so?
I wasn’t at the Ravi Zacharias event at the Breslin. It looked like it was packed, and I heard it was very good. Someone told me that someone else asked a good question that went something like this: “Why would I want to serve the God of the Bible—particularly the God of the Old Testament, who just seems angry and jealous all the time? I don’t like that in other people, so why would I want that in my God?”
One of the ways to answer that is to say, “What if, instead of thinking about God as a temperamental teenager who’s angry, jealous, and out of control, you thought of him as he describes himself: as a fiercely loyal husband? Then you understand why he might be angry and jealous: because he has entered into a covenant with his bride, and that bride has proven over and over to be faithless. When we are faithless, there are consequences.”
God is not a god to be trifled with, and this is not a covenant to be broken lightly. As he says in verse 21: “…do not rebel against [the angel of YHWH], for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him.”
This whole section, which has more promises than threats, ends with a warning: “They shall not dwell in your land, lest they make you sin against me; for if you serve their gods, it will surely be a snare to you.” What’s a snare? In their context, it was a trap that you would set for an animal—usually a little trap for moles, woodchucks, or rats.
I tried to catch a rat one time. It used up every last bit of manhood I had. I would put out one of those little squares of really sticky goo and throw some peanut butter down on there. Sure enough, as I kept looking, both hoping it would be there and hoping it wouldn’t, there was this rat, with a long tail. In a house. That’s not where they belong! They belong in the sewers with ninja turtles and the like! But there it was, in a little snare made of nothing but sticky goo, and it couldn’t get out. We also put out traps to get woodchucks and other little varmints. They’re just little traps, but they get into it, and it clamps down. It just takes a little snare—a little bit of sticky paper, or a little clamp on your foot—and you’re stuck in big trouble. God says, “When you get to the land, you have to be very careful, because there are little snares all throughout there.”
It’s not often big things. Big things would be easy. “Today, we want everyone to worship the devil! Sign up here!”—would be easy to spot. But it doesn’t come like that. Little snares are the way of the world. Listen, the greatest danger we face from the world is not that our rights would be abridged, our livelihoods destroyed, or our possessions, jobs, reputations, or even families opposed. The greatest danger from the world is the world itself: that we would follow the way of the world instead of being faithful to God. We live in a time of great fear. It doesn’t matter if you’re on the right or on the left; it’s all fear of what’s going to happen. But here’s the thing most to be feared as Christians: all the snares and all the traps of the evil one in the world—all the ways in which sin is made to look normal and righteousness is made to look strange.
Do you see all the promises here? God promises the angel of the covenant in verse 20: “I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared.” Verse 23: “’I [will] blot them out’ [that is, the nations inhabiting the land] to prepare a place for you.” Don’t let this go by too quickly. This is a massive promise. YHWH is promising to be with them, and that’s the most important promise of all. I love how one commentator put it. “The angel would go ahead of them, not merely go along with them.” That makes all the difference. “Is the angel of YHWH here?” “Yeah, I saw him today. He was somewhere around here! He’s taking up the rear and figuring stuff out.” “Well, that’s nice.” No, “Where’s the angel of the Lord?” “He’s out ahead of us, clearing the way. He’s making a path. He’s making sure that we get there.”
The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them. Psalm 34:7
Then there are promises of the blessings of the covenant. Verse 22: “If you obey, ‘I will be an enemy to your enemies…’” Isn’t that what God said to Abraham all those centuries ago? “’…him who dishonors you I will curse.’ If they mess with you, they’ve got to mess with me.”
Then, in verses 25 and following, he gives them a series of blessings: no miscarriages, no infertility, and no early deaths. “I will confuse your enemies and make them run away. I will send hornets before you to drive them out.”
God gives a list of the nations here. It’s just a sampling of all the Canaanite people who would be in the land. He tells them, “I will look out for you so well that I’ll do this little by little, so that the land is in good shape when you get there—and I will set the borders for you. ‘ I will set your border from the Red Sea to the Sea of the Philistines [the Mediterranean Sea], and from the wilderness [the Negev] to the Euphrates…’” In our terms, this is like him saying, “I’ll give you the land from New York to San Francisco, and from Maine to California—from sea to shining sea.”
He also promises them food, rain, health, fertility, long life, military success, and national success. Let me hasten to add that these are promises for people in the Mosaic covenant, and they were promises on a national scale. If you know your Bibles, you know that even in times of obedience, Naomi lost her sons, and Ruth lost her husband. This is not a promise that every single one of Israel’s two million people would never have anything bad happen to them. It was a general sense that, within the nation of Israel, as compared to the nations, there was going to be fruitfulness and favor.
Some of us come to this and say, “Wait a second! I’d like to sign up for this. I know some people who died way too young. My husband and I haven’t been able to have kids. We’ve had more miscarriages than I can count. Am I not getting the blessings of the covenant?” Remember both that this was a national covenant, and that this Mosaic covenant has been superseded by the new covenant. If you think, “Well, I kind of like the Mosaic covenant. I would like to get some of that,” you do get all of that, but you get it later.
Israel later forfeited this Mosaic covenant, and was sent off into exile. They would get a new covenant recapitulation of all the Abrahamic promises, but it’s now transposed to a different key, looking forward to a different land, and a farther out promise—not just that a nation would have favor somewhere in Palestine, but that each and every one of us who knows the Lord would have this greatest blessing. God will be our God, we will be his people, and we are going to the place where there are no more tears or suffering, and the Lamb is its lamp.
This whole section, on the other side of the cross and Pentecost, should set our minds thinking of Canaan—but not this Canaan. The Promised Land. Our Promised Land. The New Heavens and New Earth. How do we get there? How do we get these blessings? How do we inherit these promises which seem so foreign to us when we can seem so far removed from this favor from the Lord?
Many people think that the angel was some kind of pre-incarnate manifestation of Christ—that Christ, prior to becoming a man, showed himself as an angelic being, and that’s why YHWH can refer to him as someone other than him and yet him. That could very well be the case, but we can’t know for sure. Even if it isn’t Christ in divinely angelic form, we certainly see here a prophetic foreshadowing of the work of Christ.
Have you had some of the things that Jesus said to his people run through your mind (I hope you have)? In John 14:2, his disciples are sad because he’s going to die, be raised to life, ascend into heaven, and send the Holy Spirit, and they can’t make sense of all of it. Remember what he says to them? “I go to prepare a place for you.” That sounds kind of like verse 20. “I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared.”
This Christ doesn’t just show us the way and make the way. In John 14:6, he says that he is the way! “How do I get there?” “Not just with me, but through me and in me, by believing in me.” What about verse 21, where it says, “…my name is in him.” Jesus, in the high-priestly prayer in John 17, speaks of “the name that you have given me”—the name of the Father, this divine name of God, here now in the Son.
Remember what Jesus says after that in John 17:12? He speaks of how he will guard and protect his own. More than that, we know from the rest of the New Testament that this Messiah not only made the way and was the way, but bore the curses for our sake, that we might know Abraham’s blessing! Whether or not this angel is a preincarnate manifestation of Christ, it is meant to cause us to think of Christ, the one who would come centuries later and say, “I’ll prepare a place for you. I’ll be the way. I’ll guard you. I’ll not just go along with you, but I’ll go ahead of you and bring you there by my own promise. I’ll bear all of the curses myself.”
God has sent his Son, and his Son says, “Listen to me.” Is that law or gospel? It sounds like a lot of good news to me that God has sent his Son. And he says, “Pay attention. Listen. Trust. Obey. Let me lead you safely to the other side.”
Let’s pray. Father in heaven, we give thanks for these great and precious promises. Stir us up, for some here may think far too much of this world and far too little of the life to come. Be a comfort for all of those here who are looking with such eager longing for these blessings and promises, and for this inheritance—for a place to finally call home in our Promised Land. We thank you that you will lead us there. In Jesus we pray, Amen.
Transcription and editing provided by 10:17 Transcription
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