"...but what do I know?"
It's a question that often welcomes itself into my mind, usually at the tail end of a series of thoughts I've just had or judgments I've made. Can I really be sure of that answer? Did I truly assess that situation correctly? This question can be applied to any number of circumstances, and often carries with it a scent of false humility. Either I want to feign a meek nature so as not to sound arrogant, or I am backsliding from truth out of fear of man, or being wrong, or both.
We (or maybe just me) sometimes throw around that little question to keep from committing to absolute statements, but the Bible is alternatively committed to knowing what we ought to know. There are many examples in Scripture to convey this, but there is a bold statement found in Deuteronomy that I am especially impressed by for the way it cuts right to the chase, and right to the heart.
In Deuteronomy 4, Moses is speaking to the people of Israel as they near the Promised Land. Soon, Moses' leadership, and his life, will come to an end. He is recounting the history of Israel's journey -- their rebellions and failures, God's steadfastness in the face of these failures, and the Commandments which God has spoken to Moses and his people, which will form the basis of the laws Moses will give his people as instruction for how to live life after the wilderness.
Looking back, it is clear that there have been many truths that the Israelites did not, or would not know -- at least not well enough to trust God to make the trip out of Egypt short. This is so much the case that Moses has to use his time recounting all of what has taken place in the exodus, and all of the wandering in the wilderness, to remind and persuade Israel to finally trust God when they enter the Promised Land. It is as if Moses is saying, "If you didn't know, now you should know."
Looking forward, there will be many things to know. There will be the laws, the Commandments, and all of the history of Israel's journey. There will be a new land to know, and the fear of entering into it. There will be the security of knowing that as the nation of Israel takes possession of this new land, that God has orchestrated every detail of their painful past to allow them to be there and behold the glory and sovereignty of the Lord.
But in a moment of transition, where history is already behind and the future is not yet present, there is today, where Moses tells the Israelites what they must know first and above all other truths.
"...know therefore today, and lay it to your heart, that the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other." (v. 39)
In this moment, that is what the people of God must know. Before what to do, and how to live, and the sight of the Promised Land into which they would be delivered, they must first know that there is no other besides the Lord God, in heaven or on the earth.
Simple, direct, and yet profound. Moses says, "lay it to your heart." We see throughout Deuteronomy the concern over the state of the heart, both to know and believe the Lord and to hold fast to his commandments. If things are "to go well" as the Lord's words say throughout the speeches of Moses, then the Israelites must take first concern over knowing in their hearts the truth of who God is. The wisdom of Proverbs urges, "Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life" (4:23). Moses speaks with the same urgency for vigilant heart keeping, which will lead to vigilant keeping of commandments.
The beautiful truth is that the Israelites can know that the Lord is God. We see through the first 4 chapters of Deuteronomy how much mess has been created by not knowing, or by forgetting, or by refusing to know. Reading this so far removed from the account and having the full picture, it is tempting to wonder how on earth they could not know the sovereignty of God, that he keeps his promises and works everything, even in the midst of sin and rebellion, to the good of his people and to his own glory. And yet, knowing too personally and painfully the great limitations of the human heart and mind, I can picture a little hand going up in the crowd, asking, "...but how can we know?" And if I were there, I can imagine far too easily that the little hand would be mine.
So how can they, God's people, know that he is the Lord and that there is no other besides him? Because of the history which Moses has recounted. His speech to the Israelites was not simply to remind them of their own past failures and misjudgments about God. Moses' testament shows three ways that they can know that the Lord is God.
1. Because of God's revelation to his people. Moses recounts how God led the Israelites out of Egypt to rescue them from Pharaoh. He notes that the plagues, "great deeds of terror, (Deut. 4:34)" were revelatory works that God used so that both of these nations would know that "the Lord is God...there is no other" (Deut. 4:39)." In a greater moment of revelation, the greatest until the coming of Christ, the Lord revealed himself to Israel at Mount Sinai. Here, in Deuteronomy, Moses reminds the people of this great sight, and asks them, "Did any people ever hear the voice of a god speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have heard, and still live? (4:33)" God's glory, sovereignty, and exclusive power can be known as reality because he has revealed himself to his people.
2. Because of God's love for his people. As Moses prepares God's people to occupy the Promised Land, he remembers God's love for the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and connects this love to the people before him. Remembering God's covenant, Moses declares that the promises of God are no less true or applicable to the Israelites as they emerge from the wilderness. "The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. Not with our fathers did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today. (Deut. 5:2-3)" In reality, the Lord's covenant to Moses was made to an earlier generation, yet Moses claims this steadfast love of God for his people both yesterday and today. In the fulfillment of his promises, God's faithfulness to his people is confirmed, and he is not only God, but "the Lord our God," of all generations past, present, and the ones to come.
This also points forward, to the new covenant ushered in by Jesus. John 3:16-18 speaks again to the exclusivity and incomparable nature of God and of his Son. In the context, the knowledge of Christ as the son of God and as having been sent by God because of God's love for his people would have shaken the very understanding of the love of God. At this time, those listening would have known only of God's love for the people of Israel. Yet, John tells us the love of God expressed through the sending of His only Son is available to everyone, so long as they would believe Christ to be who He claimed to be. That is, to "know therefore today, and lay it to your heart, that the Lord is God, in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other."
3. Because of God's Word to his people. As mentioned before, Moses' words address first the importance of a heart focused on God and God alone. He has recounted the history of God's people as they journeyed through exile, recalling through his words the very live story of God rescuing and delivering his people. Moses possesses both the words and laws given to him by God to speak to his people. As he testifies, he is able to call upon what transpired among generations before, what God has done in the eyes of his people now, and what he commands for the future as he fulfills his promises to Israel.
Again, we see the picture of Christ foreshadowed. During his time on Earth, Jesus conveys truth from the Father, embodied in his nature as the Son of God, as well as specific commandments for his people. As the Word made flesh, Jesus knows and speaks to the former promises made by God, and proclaims that he is now the fulfillment of them all, again showing the power and sovereignty of God through revelatory works. Ultimately, we see the love of God in the sacrificial act of Christ's death on the cross as the great exchange for our sin. Christ, the messenger, is one with the sender, the Father.
A reading of the early chapters of Deuteronomy shows us that Moses' commandment to know that the Lord is God is not made in vain. We are meant to know God, his glory and sovereignty, and his great love for his people. For all of the ways that we often wish God would show us something -- what to do in a situation or how to answer a question we ask of life -- he has used his power to do something much greater. He has revealed himself. We can know his power, his incomparable nature, as certain because of what we have read, heard, and seen. This "we" unites us with generations past, who have seen works and wonders that our eyes have not, but this makes them no less true for us today.
As people who know of God's enduring love, and who have known it fully in Christ, we can do as Moses declared to the Israelites as they waited to enter the Promised Land: "...and ask from one end of heaven to the other, whether such a great thing as this has ever happened or was ever heard of. (Deut. 4:32)" The truth of God that we lay to our hearts is not one formed by man or any other being in creation, but by the God who is beyond all created things, beside whom there is no other.