THE DIVINE PROMISE OF GUIDANCE AND VICTORY MOTIVATES OBEDIENCE TO THE BOOK OF THE COVENANT IN LOYAL WORSHIP — DESPITE THE THREAT OF IDOLATRY
This is the Epilogue of the Book of the Covenant. It offers compelling motivation to obey the commandments of the law to secure the promised blessing and victory in the land. The divine presence in the person of the Angel of the Lord will accomplish the ultimate victory – which involves protection, guidance and the expelling of all enemies from the land.
John MacKay: When the great kings of the ancient world entered into a treaty with their vassals, after they had stated what they required their vassals to do, they presented the blessings that would flow from obedience to the treaty and the curses that would result from disobedience. Here the Lord follows a similar course, but with two different emphases: the major focus is not on the people’s obedience, but on the Lord’s provision for them, particularly the presence of his angel; and the blessings that are bestowed on those who are obedient to the covenant and loyal to its King are stressed with the potential curses on disobedience only being implied.
John Oswalt: Yahweh committed himself to provide four things for his people. First, he promised his immediate presence, guiding and protecting them on their journey (23:22). Second, he promised to destroy all their enemies (23:22–23, 27–28). Third, he promised health, fertility, and long life (23:25–26). Fourth, he promised to establish them in the land (23:29–31). While some of these promises are stated in unconditional terms—“My angel will go before you and bring you into the land … I will destroy them completely” (23:23); “I will send my terror … I will make all your enemies turn and run” (23:27–28); “I will fix your boundaries … I will hand over to you” (23:31)—there is still a necessary condition that runs throughout. Sometimes it is stated explicitly—“if you are careful to obey” (23:22); if “you … serve only the Lord” (23:25); “if you serve their gods” (23:33)—and it is always at least implicit. If Israel broke its covenant with Yahweh on this most crucial of points, the worship of other gods, the covenant would be effectively nullified. To do such a thing is to rebel (23:21). As demonstrated by such passages as 1 Kings 12:19; 2 Kings 1:1; 3:5, 7; 8:20, 22 this term had a technical connotation of covenant-breaking. If the people broke the covenant with this behavior, Yahweh would have no more obligations to them.
This pervasive air of conditionality, however, cannot wipe out the unconditional thread that runs throughout these promises. God will give them the land; he will destroy their enemies; he will give them posterity in the land. This issue of God’s faithfulness against all the odds will be one of the great themes of the Old Testament. For the people would break all their promises; they would rebel against him and his covenant again and again. Yet his determination to save them and the world by bringing as many as possible into a life-giving relationship with himself has won out again and again. The key to understanding this point is to recognize the intermingling of individual and community in the Old Testament. The fact that God will be faithful to his covenant to create a people for himself is not a guarantee to every individual under the covenant. Individuals who rebelled would experience the results of that rebellion, as that generation was to learn to its sorrow. But not every individual would rebel, and out of that remnant, God would forge a people again and again. The same is true of the church today. The church of Jesus Christ will survive and triumph because God keeps his word. But that does not mean that every individual who was ever once a faithful member of Christ’s church will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.
I. (:20-23) PROMISED GUARDING AND GUIDING TO REACH THE PROMISED LAND – CONTINGENT ON OBEDIENCE
A. (:20) Promised Guarding and Guiding
“Behold, I am going to send an angel before you
to guard you along the way,”
MacArthur: The key to victory in the upcoming takeover of the Land would not be Israel’s military skill but the presence of this Angel, who is the pre-incarnate Christ.
David Thompson: So God is promising that His angel, who is specifically Jesus Christ, is going to protect them and lead them. Just think of this. It is possible to actually have Jesus Christ as your Personal guide through life. In fact, it is interesting that when Jesus was here, He specifically said that he had protected and guarded His own and not one of His own perished (John 17:12). This is a great motivation for obeying the Word of God. When we choose to obey the Word of God, we have the personal protection and the guidance of God.
“and to bring you into the place which I have prepared.”
B. (:21) Contingency of Obedience
“Be on your guard before him and obey his voice;”
Douglas Stuart: Success requires obedience. The people could not hope to enjoy God’s benefits, including his abiding protection, if they tried to make decisions on their own. Would they be so stupid and headstrong as to try to arrange for their own invasion of the promised land rather than following faithfully his leading? Absolutely. That was exactly what they eventually did after learning that they might not be able to enter the promised land as soon as they hoped by reason of their own lack of courage (Num 14:41–45). Knowing their capability to disobey, God reminded them sternly that only through obedience to his leadership and his word would they prosper in the conquest of Canaan.
2. Don’t Rebel
“do not be rebellious toward him,
for he will not pardon your transgression, since My name is in him.”
John MacKay: In the light of Mark 2:7–10 (“Who can forgive sins but God alone?”), the angel is divine. This is what is in effect said in the phrase “my Name is in him”. ‘Name’ represents the revelation of the character and attributes of God (6:3; 34:5). It is virtually a synonym for God’s effective presence. Such an idiom was not exclusively Hebrew. In Mesopotamia the name of the god was frequently used as an expression for the god himself. Here we have a unique dignity accorded to the angel as manifesting all that God has made known regarding himself. That is why the angel can command complete obedience and trust: his presence is the equivalent of the presence of the Lord himself.
Gispen: Forgiveness and retribution are the two aspects of the Lord’s revelation of Himself as the God of the covenant (cf. Nah. 1:2-3).
C. (:22-23) Leadership of the Angel of the Lord Secures the Victory
1. (:22) Obedience Makes the Lord the Adversary of Your Enemies
“But if you will truly obey his voice and do all that I say,
then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries.”
Douglas Stuart: By reason of human imperfection, this kind of expectation is hard to follow, and it is not difficult to predict that Israel might fail to keep these commands fully. In effect, then, a need for divine grace was created implicitly by such demands, a grace that would allow for complete forgiveness and would provide for the complete presence of God among and within believers.
2. (:23) Victory Assured by the Leadership of the Angel of the Lord
“For My angel will go before you and bring you in to the land of the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hivites and the Jebusites;”
Douglas Stuart: The special emphasis here is on God’s presence: the promises made are all ways of saying “I will be with you, right there as you travel toward the promised land, right there as you begin the conquest, right there as you fight, right there as you settle in.
“and I will completely destroy them.”
Alan Cole: I blot them out cannot be the correct translation of the verb, or it would contradict the verses below, which suggest a gradual reduction. Some lighter meaning is required, perhaps ‘make them disappear’.
II. (24-33) PROMISED VICTORY OVER THE ENEMIES IN THE LAND
A. (:24-25a) Two Human Requirements for Victory Associated with Loyal Worship
1. (:24) Reject Idolatry
a. Prohibition of Worshiping Idols
“You shall not worship their gods, nor serve them,
nor do according to their deeds;”
G. Campbell Morgan: Concerning the people to be driven out, it is worthy of note that this paragraph shows that ‘their gods’ were their undoing. Everything in the life of a man or a nation depends on the character of its worship.
b. Props for Idolatry Must be Destroyed
“but you shall utterly overthrow them,
and break their sacred pillars in pieces.”
2. (:25a) Serve the Lord
“But you shall serve the LORD your God,”
B. (:25b-26) Four Physical Blessings Associated with Victory
1. (:25b) Material Provision
“and He will bless your bread and your water;”
2. (:25c – 26a) Health
“and I will remove sickness from your midst.”
3. (:26a) Fertility
“There shall be no one miscarrying or barren in your land;”
4. (:26b) Longevity
“I will fulfill the number of your days.”
Douglas Stuart: As a result of proper worship (exclusively of Yahweh and exclusively according to his standards), there would ensue abundance of food and rain (“his blessing will be on your food and water”), health (“I will take away sickness from among you”), fertility (“none will miscarry or be barren in your land”), and long life (“I will give you a full life span”).
These blessings can be considered reiterations of the original blessing to Abraham (“I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you,” Gen 12:2). This sort of blessing is repeated often in the Mosaic corpus (e.g., Gen 26:3, 24; Num 6:27; Deut 7:13; 15:6, 10, 18; 16:15; Deut 28:28) and is to be distinguished from the restoration (eschatological) blessings of the covenant, whose fulfillment follows the curse era of the exile. In other words, these are pre-exile blessings, promises for the first era of Israel’s history, that of their life in the promised land prior to their rejection and exile. The restoration blessings (e.g., Lev 26:40–45; Deut 4:29–31; 28:1–13; 30:1–10) are commonly reflected in the prophetical promises of the new age as a future hope after the exile. These original promises for Israel in the land were, however, for the prophets something that was either coming to an end in their day or had ended already before the exile, depending on the time of the prophet.
C. (:27-31) Three Divine Keys to Victory
1. (:27-28) Unleashing the Terror of the Lord
a. (:27) Creating Terror and Confusion
“I will send My terror ahead of you, and throw into confusion all the people among whom you come, and I will make all your enemies turn their backs to you.”
b. (:28) Clearing the Land of All Enemies
“And I will send hornets ahead of you, that they may drive out the Hivites, the Canaanites, and the Hittites before you.”
Douglas Stuart: Four kinds of curses (predictions of disaster), known from the covenant curse collections in the covenant sanctions passages of Lev 26 and Deut 28–32, are mentioned here as God’s methods of subduing the Canaanites in order to make possible Israel’s conquest of the promised land. They are terror/fear, confusion/helplessness, defeat in battle, and attack by wild animals/insects. The principle we have noted before applies here as well: whenever a few of the dozens of types of covenant curses are mentioned, the reader is expected to understand them as samples of the full range of curses that will actually be unleashed. We should therefore not take these four types of curses as the only or even as the primary sorts of afflictions God used to cow the Canaanites into submission, nor should we be surprised if no specific mention is made of them in the book of Joshua, where the actual conquest accounts are provided. Mentioning these four is a way of saying, “I will use whatever it takes to cause the Canaanites to be unable to resist your conquest of their land.” Somewhat similarly, only three of the usual six or seven nations native to the land of Canaan are mentioned in v. 28, in contrast to the six listed in v. 23. Again this is typical of the sort of synecdoche commonly seen throughout the Old Testament.
John MacKay: It may refer to actual stinging insects, and Jewish tradition tells of two plagues of hornets, one in the time of Moses and the other in Joshua’s day. But many think it may well be a metaphorical use that refers to the fear and panic mentioned in the preceding verse. In that case it would involve a vivid comparison. Just as people scatter in confused alarm before a swarm of hornets, so the reports of the Lord’s effective action on behalf of his people would lead to their enemies becoming unwilling and unable to stay and fight them.
Wiersbe: The Hebrew word is similar to the word for Egypt, so some students believe that the reverence is to the Egyptian armies that frequently invaded Canaan before the Jews arrived. In Isaiah 7:18, Egypt is compared to a fly and Assyria to a bee.
2. (:29-31) Driving Out All Enemies Gradually
a. (:29) Explanation from a Negative Perspective
“I will not drive them out before you in a single year,
that the land may not become desolate,
and the beasts of the field become too numerous for you.”
b. (:30) Explanation from a Positive Perspective
“I will drive them out before you little by little,
until you become fruitful and take possession of the land.”
John Oswalt: The explanation that God would not destroy the inhabitants of Canaan “in a single year” (23:29–31) suggests that he wanted to wean Israel from a dependence on instant results and to return them to a more normal experience of life. Surely, the God who had devastated Egypt and her chariot forces with a few stunning strokes could have so intervened in the normal course of affairs that the Canaanites would have simply ceased to exist while the land remained cultivated and wild animals were kept in check. But that is not the usual way in which God manages his affairs on earth. Usually, he allows matters to develop in slower and more involved ways, incorporating the full participation of human agency. He had used the more direct and immediate means in connection with the Exodus and Sinai because of the critical importance of those events. But he values human involvement too much to make that his normal mode of operation. So he told the people in this context to prepare for that new state of affairs. He would be no less involved in the events, and ultimately the Canaanites would only be defeated because of his involvement, but there would be a much greater proportion of human causality engaged in the future.
Philip Ryken: This teaches us something important about the Christian life. It is not always God’s plan to give us instant and total victory. Usually our spiritual progress comes little by little. However, even this can be for our benefit. We would prefer to be sanctified right away, without any struggle. But for many merciful reasons, God does not allow this to happen. He wants us to learn how to depend on him in ways we never would unless we had to persevere through the gradual conquest of our sin.
James Jordan: So that the wild beasts would not multiply in a deserted land, god promised to drive the Canaanites out little by little (v. 29-30). Man was created to take dominion over the animals, and even the dominion of wicked Canaanites was preferable to complete wildness.
3. (:31) Protecting the Boundaries of the Land from Enemies
“And I will fix your boundary from the Red Sea to the sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness to the River Euphrates;
for I will deliver the inhabitants of the land into your hand,
and you will drive them out before you.”
Gispen: Verse 31 contains a promise concerning the extent of Israel’s future territory: from the Red Sea to the Sea of the Philistines, i.e. the Mediterranean, and form the desert, the southern steppe, to the river, i.e. the Euphrates (cf. Gen. 15:18). And this is possible only because the Lord would give the inhabitants into the hands of the Israelites, so that they could drive them out.
D. (:32-33) Two Fundamental Principles of Maintaining Separation
1. (:32) No Concessions to Allow Them to Live in the Land
“You shall make no covenant with them or with their gods.”
MacArthur: International diplomacy, with its parity or suzerainty treaties, was not an option open to Israel in dealing with the tribes living within the designated borders of the Promised Land (Dt 7:1, 2). All these treaties were accompanied by the names of the nations’ gods, so it was fitting to deliver a charge not to make a treaty (covenant) with them, nor to serve their pagan gods. The situation with other nations outside the land being given to Israel was different (cf. Dt 20:10-18).
2. (:33) No Comingling Due to Threat of Idolatry
“They shall not live in your land, lest they make you sin against Me;
for if you serve their gods, it will surely be a snare to you.”
John MacKay: While the Israelites might not have initially appreciated that the presence among them of those worshipping false gods constituted a real danger, the situation was extremely serious. The aggressive nature of false religion, appealing as its does to the fallen nature of mankind, would imperil the loyalty of Israel to Yahweh. Nothing was to be allowed that would break or diminish the essential link between the Lord and his people.