by J. Reid
Sometimes I like to ask my boys if God can do anything. By now, they understand enough theology to answer that God can do anything He wants to do, or that God can never act against His character. The immutability of God according to His unchanging character is good news for the people of God. If God were not immutable or if God could lie, remembering the God of the past would hold little significance for the believer in the twenty-first century. God would be just another capricious deity and the life of faith would be little more than a guessing game with eternity hanging in the balance. For this reason, our confidence in the Word and the reasons to remember Him are deeply rooted in God’s unchanging character.
In an age of information and trending topics, the present can seem more relevant than the past. With all the advancing technologies, it can be easy to think that the past represents a step backward. From a biblical perspective, however, the future informs the past and the past informs the future and everything in between. The early chapters of Genesis, for example, are not fully comprehended without the final chapters of Revelation, forming one comprehensive goal for creation from a sovereign God.
One of the primary texts about the importance of remembering God is Deuteronomy 8, which belongs to the larger context of the exodus event. In the face of Israelite slavery in the early chapters of Exodus, the promises God made to Abraham appear threatened (Gen. 15:13–16), resulting in a fundamental question about whether God can deliver His people from Egyptian bondage (Ex. 9:13–16). After numerous signs and wonders, the Israelites leave the land of their slavery by a miraculous deliverance through the Red Sea (chap. 14). In the wilderness, the people learn that Yahweh, the Warrior who delivered them from Egypt, is also their provider, as they receive manna from heaven and water from the rock (Ex. 17; 1 Cor. 10:1–5). Upon their arrival at Sinai, however, there is a shift in the narrative that results in a fundamentally different question being asked. At Sinai, in the face of the holiness of God, the question becomes whether God can deliver His people from Himself (Ex. 19; 33:20; Lev. 10:1–3).
Standing at the foot of Sinai, the people are warned not to go up to the mountain or even to touch it. There are flashes of lightning, peals of thunder, and a great booming voice (Ex. 19). The people are terrified and beg that God cease to speak directly to them (20:18– 21). They realize their need for a mediator, someone to stand between a sinful people and a holy God, who is of purer eyes than to look upon evil (Hab. 1:13). Essentially, the people request a prophetic mediator to speak God’s words to them. In response to this request, Moses states, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin” (Ex. 20:20). Moses’ response can seem a bit puzzling, but essentially, he is assuring the people that God is not going to kill them while warning them never to forget their encounter with their God.
With the second giving of the law in Deuteronomy, the Lord comments on the people’s response at Sinai:
And the LORD heard your words, when you spoke to me. And the Lord said to me, “I have heard the words of this people, which they have spoken to you. They are right in all that they have spoken. Oh that they had such a heart as this always, to fear me and to keep all my commandments, that it might go well with them and with their descendants forever!” (Deut. 5:28–29)
In essence, God declares that the people are right to request a mediator and that He longs for them never to forget what it means to stand as sinners before a Holy God.
The exodus event and the wilderness wanderings form the context of the encouragements to remember and the warnings against forgetting found in Deuteronomy 8. Deuteronomy 8:1 commands the people to keep all of the commandments that the Lord has given them. In verses 2–11, the people are to remember the ways in which the Lord provided for them through various trials. These trials primarily relate to their daily care and provision. The trials that the people faced while wandering through the wilderness were intended to teach them lessons about God. Their garments did not wear out. Their feet did not swell. They ate manna from heaven. The provision of food in the wilderness is echoed in the Lord’s Prayer when we say, “Give us this day our daily bread.” This pattern of receiving daily bread was intended to instill in the people of God the truth that “man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (v. 3). This principle is reinforced even in the ways in which the manna was provided (Ex. 16). For five days, a single portion was to be gathered by the people and any that was stored overnight would not be edible the next morning. On the sixth day, the people were to gather enough for two days to prevent them from performing unnecessary work on the Sabbath. Unlike the other days’ manna, this manna remained fresh overnight. The entire process emphasized the Lord’s provision and illustrated that the pathway to blessing is through faithful obedience to His commands. All of this points to the importance of trusting the Lord for His faithful provision rather than looking to human efforts or labor. The Bible consistently teaches the futility of human toil apart from the blessing of God (Ps. 127; Matt. 6:25–34).
The importance of placing one’s trust in the Lord alone for even basic human needs is seen when Jesus, during a forty-day fast, quotes Deuteronomy 8:3 when tempted by Satan to command the stones to turn into bread (Matt. 4; Luke 4). The trials that the Israelites faced were intended to teach them to depend upon the Lord and to trust Him through every trial, knowing that the Lord disciplines those He loves as a father disciplines his son (Deut. 8:5; Heb. 12:7–11).
Deuteronomy 8:11–20 points further to the danger of forgetting the Lord in times of security and prosperity. The dificulties that the Israelites faced while learning to trust the Lord through every trial were impetuses for remembering the Lord in times of prosperity. The Lord said He was bringing the people out of the wilderness and into a good land flowing with milk and honey. The particular danger highlighted in the text is that the Israelites might look around, see their prosperity, and conclude that they had accomplished all of this by their own abilities. It is not merely in the face of trials that the call to remember is relevant—there is a real danger of forgetting when we experience success.
Beware lest you say in your heart, “My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.” You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day. And if you forget the LORD your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish. Like the nations that the Lord makes to perish before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of the LORD your God. (Deut 8:17–20)
Among the sins related to forgetting God, idolatry is highlighted. Such forgetfulness leads only to the downfall of the people (Ps. 78:8).
Deuteronomy 8 provides encouragement to remember the Lord in the face of trials and suffering, providing a greater context in which to understand the Lord’s mysterious providence. In the face of trials, one can be tempted to think that the Lord has forsaken His people, but by remembering the Lord and His purposes as revealed in His Word, one can take heart and see trials as opportunities to trust the Lord rather than causes to doubt His goodness (Ex. 14:10–14; 2 Cor. 1:3–11; James 1:2–4). Times of sorrow, however, do not represent the only context in which Christians are in danger of forgetting. The Bible also warns against the danger of forgetting God in times of prosperity, presenting a single solution for two very distinct contexts of temptations faced in the Christian life. If we understand the discipline of remembering God to be applicable to times of prosperity and times of suffering, then it is applicable to every phase of the Christian life.
But what do Israelites standing at the foot of Sinai have to do with us? In reference to the Israelites’ response to God at Sinai, Deuteronomy 18 foretells the coming of another prophet like Moses. In Acts 3:11–26, Peter connects this promise to all the prophets who pointed to the work of the Lord Jesus Christ, demonstrating that the finished work of Jesus Christ is the means by which God delivers sinners, ultimately bringing them into perfect fellowship with Himself. So why remember? Because God never forgets a promise but through Jesus Christ remembers the sins of His people no more (Pss. 32; 78). Since God is the same yesterday, today, and forevermore, we can look to the faithfulness of God in the past to find courage to live humbly and faithfully in the present, confident in the hope of future glory secured for us by Jesus Christ.