Upheld by everlasting Arms

For those of us who are pastors, one of our regular responsibilities is to use scripture to minister to the specific needs of our people. This should never merely be spiritual equivalent of offering placebos to those who are struggling – a kind of psycho-spiritual pick-me-up to make them feel better about themselves. Quite the opposite, the verse or passage we may read to our members should be explained and applied in a way that shows them there is substance in the words offered to them.

One such verse is found in Moses’ final words to the Israelites at the end of Deuteronomy. As he faces the sobering reality that he himself will not enter the Promised Land, but only see it from a distance (Dt 32.48-52), he addresses the tribes of Israel with words of blessing (Dt 33.1-29).

These were poignant words both for the man of God and for the people he had led through the wilderness these past 40 years. Together they had faced all manner of fears and challenges, yet through it all God had been true to his promise and now they were within sight of Canaan. The people were on the verge of entering the land, but Moses could only see it from a distance. Yet, whatever personal sadness he may have felt under the circumstances, Moses could rest in the knowledge that the future of Israel was secure in God’s care.

This comes out quite pointedly in the way Moses blesses the 12 tribes. The blessing for each tribe is custom-made. God does not offer one-size-fits-all blessings to his people; but, rather, tailors them to their circumstances and need. But what is so striking about these blessings is the ‘bookends’ between which they are sandwiched. They speak of the very essence of the God from whom these blessings flow. In that sense the spotlight is not focused so much on the detail of each tribe’s benediction; but the God who gave it – in particular, his love and care for his people Several things are worth noting about how Moses describes God in relation to the blessing he confers on his people (Dt 33.26-27).

The God who is One-of-a-Kind

Moses says of this God, ‘There is no-one like the God of Jeshurun’ (Dt 33.26). This was an unusual way to speak of God, at least from where we stand. However, ‘Jeshurun’ was a kind of pet name God used for his people Israel – one that spoke of the special relationship he enjoyed with them. So for Moses to say there was no-one – no other god – who was like the God of Israel was a reminder to them that he was and is unique.

The name ‘Jeshurun’ meant ‘upright one’. It clearly harked back to Abraham as the Father of Israel who ‘believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness’ (Ge 15.6). His ‘righteousness’ [uprightness] was not earned by his own good works; but imputed by an act of divine grace. In that sense, Yahweh was immediately set apart from all the other gods and demigods of the Ancient Near East. He alone freely provided what was needed for salvation; whereas all his pretended rivals expected it to be earned.

Moses had more in mind when he said of God, ‘Who is like him?’ He was thinking about the fact that the gods of the nations were nothing more than variations on a theme. They were parochial – gods of fertility, war, commerce and every conceivable sphere of life. But Israel’s God was the God of life in its totality. Furthermore, the gods of the nations were nothing more than exaggerated expressions of humanity in its different forms – with all its faults and foibles. Not so with the God of the patriarchs. He was utterly unique.

At the beginning of their wilderness journey, Moses had embedded this truth into the liturgy of Israel through the great ‘Shema’ – ‘Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God is one’ (Dt 6.4). This was not a tantalising early allusion to the Trinity; but to what theologians call, ‘the unity of God’. That is, his uniqueness. So, just as Israel was assured of the uniqueness of God in his care for them; so too for his people through the ages. He truly is ‘one-of-a-kind’.

The God who is a Refuge for his People

Moses speaks of God as being his people’s ‘dwelling place’ or, ‘refuge’ (Dt 33.27). He uses identical language in the psalm that he probably penned from a personal perspective at the same time as he spoke these words to Israel (Ps 90.1-2).

It is a vivid word picture of the kind of security that God alone is able to provide. For Israel this had been very real over the preceding 40 years. God had literally made his presence felt by means of the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. Far from caring for them remotely; he bound his presence to them personally.

Moses presses this point home by reminding his listeners that Yahweh is ‘the eternal God’ and that he supports them by means of his ‘everlasting arms’ that are underneath them. Even the children who heard those words that day got the message! Memories of their own fathers’ strong arms and the sense of safety they felt in their grip said it all. The God who is immense and glorious is the God who is gentle and kind in his dealings with his people. In a very special way this points us to Christ as we meet him in the Gospels. He is the One whose power extended over the winds, waves and even demons; yet he could say to the weak and fearful, ‘Come to me and rest’.

The God who will overthrow the Enemy

At face value the final clause in Moses’ words about God seems to jar with what is promised about rest; but, in reality, it is an integral part of it. ‘He will drive out your enemy before you, saying, “Destroy him!”’ (Dt 33.27).

From the immediate vantage point of where Israel was at that time, Canaan was before them; but it was still under the control of their enemies. Only under the leadership of Joshua, Moses’ successor, would the land be conquered and its cities secured – all manifestly through God’s personal intervention.

This clearly picks up on the very first glimpse of the gospel in Genesis. The saving liberation promised through the Seed of the Woman would only be secured by his crushing the head of the serpent (Ge 3.15). The New Testament makes no attempt to play down this element of the gospel. John the Baptist announces it as he heralds the coming of the Servant of the LORD (Mt 3.10-12). But it is John the Evangelist who explicitly states that ‘the reason Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work’ (1Jn 3.8). This he did when, as apparent victim, he became the Victor, declaring his triumph over Satan once and for all.

The words Moses spoke to Israel on the borders of the Promised Land were precious in terms of the assurance they gave for Israel’s future. But they are brought into sharper focus with the coming of Christ. In the words of Fanny Crosby’s well-known hymn,

Safe in the arms of Jesus,

Safe on his gentle breast.

There by his love o’ershaded;

sweetly my soul shall rest.

The everlasting arms that were pinned to a Roman gibbet on Calvary underpin the security of all who put their trust in him for eternity.

 

Mark Johnston

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