“Lest there should be among you man, or woman, or family, or tribe, whose heart turneth away this day from the LORD our God, to go to serve the gods of those nations; lest there should be among you a root that beareth gall and wormwood; and it come to pass, when he heareth the words of this curse, that he bless himself in his heart, saying,
‘I shall have peace, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart,’
to destroy the moist with the dry. The LORD will not pardon him, but then the anger of the LORD and his jealousy will smoke against that man, and all the curse that is written in this book shall lie upon him, and the LORD will blot out his name from under heaven. And the LORD will set him apart unto evil out of all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses of the covenant that is written in this book of the law (Deuteronomy 29:18-21).
Deep down most of us want our cake and to eat it as well. We can’t.
Moses has established the “words of the covenant” between YHWH and Israel, renewed in the land of Moab (Deuteronomy 29:1). Moses grounds obedience to the Law in terms of the recognition of what YHWH has done for Israel: they saw how YHWH devastated Egypt, rescued them from bondage, etc., but they did not fully perceive what it all meant until the present (Deuteronomy 29:2-4). YHWH has sustained Israel in the wilderness so that they would know He is their God; He gave them victory over Sihon and Og (Deuteronomy 29:5-8). YHWH’s saving and victorious hand is the reason why Israel should keep the covenant so they can prosper (Deuteronomy 29:9). All Israel stands before YHWH that day to enter into that covenant: not just those physically alive and present, but in a real and binding way, those who are not yet alive but will be born or otherwise grafted into that covenant for generations (Deuteronomy 29:10-17). Moses brings up the universality of the moment for good reason: he wants to make sure that no one thinks they have an “out” or an escape, as he explains in Deuteronomy 29:18-21, either in the present or in the future to come (cf. Deuteronomy 29:22-28).
What kind of “out” would people think to have? Moses imagines a person who is standing there at that moment, having seen all YHWH had done for Israel and yet allows his heart to be turned away from Him to serve the gods of the nations (Deuteronomy 29:18). Such a one is imagined to say, in the stubbornness of his heart, that he will have peace (Deuteronomy 29:19). He thinks he will have peace, but Moses says such a one will “destroy the moist with the dry”; a proverbial expression, likely indicating that destruction or difficulty will come to the good as well as the bad in such a circumstance (Deuteronomy 29:19). Moses wants it to be perfectly clear that such attitudes are right out: this person is actually a source of gall and wormwood, toxic to the health of the nation, and upon whom the anger of YHWH will be fully expressed, experiencing the full weight of the curses of the covenant (Deuteronomy 29:18, 20-21). The person may not even be physically present at the moment; even if it is a child of a later generation, the same suffering will take place, and Israel will be as Sodom and Gomorrah, a by-word and parable for the nations (Deuteronomy 29:22-28). Moses wants one thing to be plain: YHWH is not messing around. Do not think that you can present a false front of adherence to YHWH while nursing idolatry and wickedness in the heart. The stubbornness of your heart will be exposed for what it is and it will not go well with you!
Unfortunately all Moses warned about would come to pass: many Israelites pursued the stubbornness of their hearts, served other gods, and it led to exile for Israel and Judah (cf. 2 Kings 17:7-23). The stubbornness of Israel’s heart was evident in the way they treated the prophets YHWH sent to them. They did not listen; they refused to hear; they paid the penalty.
We can all see these things and nod in assent. It is easy to see how they did not hear because they were stubborn in their hearts. But do you really think that they would have really said in their hearts that they would have peace though they walk in the stubbornness of their heart (Deuteronomy 29:19)? Were they really that self-aware?
While there are always exceptions to the rule, in general, most of the Israelites who believed they would have peace despite maintaining rebellion against YHWH through serving idols would not have considered themselves as being stubborn in heart. Moses is “putting words in their mouths” to explain the situation. In reality they are being stubborn in heart, yet they are most likely deceived, thinking that they know better, understand better, or expect that things will be alright because YHWH will surely not abandon His people, etc. (e.g. Jeremiah 7:1-15). They were being stubborn, but they didn’t think that way about themselves!
Walking in the stubbornness of the heart is the perennial danger of the people of God. We easily imagine that “God will understand,” “God surely will not abandon us,” or perhaps even worse, “God will be pleased with this,” despite the fact that what we are doing is contrary to His revealed will and purposes in Jesus Christ. The danger is real; we are easily tempted, when hearing what God has condemned, to try to carve out some exceptions, to make it seem less dangerous, or to otherwise justify our current perspective or behavior. We are tempted to conform to the habits and views of those around us just as Israel was (Romans 12:2); for them it was serving a pantheon of gods and engaging in customs contrary to the Law, while for us it involves the cultural relativism, elevation of empiricism and materialism, and drunkenness through consumerism rampant in our culture. It’s tempting to want to straddle the fence, to act as if we can serve God fully while adhering to these cultural concepts in the stubbornness of our hearts.
God is gracious; we are all dependent on His grace and mercy (Ephesians 2:1-10). But what if God “will not understand”? What if confidence that “God surely will not abandon us” is misplaced? What if we have actually called evil good, and good evil? How will it go for us on the day of the Lord Jesus? Let us learn from the example of Israel, and let us not bless ourselves in our hearts when we should mourn, and seek to perceive the deceptive stubbornness in our hearts so as to root it out and subject ourselves to God in Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry