Have you ever been tempted to doubt God’s promises/goodness? Have you ever felt that God has not kept up his end of the covenant? The Israelites might have been feeling that way since they have left Egypt, they haven’t received the land they were promised. They have been wandering in the wilderness, but let us see what God reveals to them here. What is helpful for us to remember as we read these laws is that God calls his people to remain faithful to himself even as he faithfully fulfils his covenant that he made with them. Through Jesus Christ, God promises to bring his people home to himself.
(A) God’s Promise and Care (Exo 23:20-22)
This section suddenly switches to instructions about the conquest of Canaan, the promised land. The context is important to understanding this set of instructions. In Exo 3:17, God promised to give them land before he brought them out of Egypt. But at Exo 23, the people have been at Mt Sinai for a while. Having given them the civic law and even the ceremonial law (in the form of the feasts) briefly, God brings up the matter of the land again. If you were an Israelite, this could be the high point of God’s promise, God giving them a land flowing with milk and honey.
Exo 23:20-22 begins with a mention of an angel. Our culture may have different notions about what angels are, but an angel in the Bible is basically a messenger. Exo 23:20-22 gives us some specific details about this messenger:
Sent by God, i.e. carries out God’s orders
Meant to guard the Israelites on their way and to bring them to the place that God has prepared
Israelites are to obey his voice and not rebel against him
He will not pardon sin/transgression for God’s name is in him: He is God’s representative, and reveals what God wants for his people. God does not take sin lightly, and neither does the angel who represents him.
What the angel says, is what God says such that if the Israelites obey the angel’s voice, they are obeying God, and if they rebel against the angel, they are rebelling against God
With obedience, God promises to be on their side and He is an enemy to their enemies and an adversary to their adversaries
Now, this is not the first time that angels have appeared. He doesn’t leave them alone in the wilderness (c.f. Exo 14:19) after he brought them out. They are not able to figure out on their own what they are to do after being saved from slavery. In fact, they are going into war with different people groups to enter into the land promised to them. Do we see God’s care in providing for his people here? What comfort it is that God gives his presence to lead them into war!
How is God with Christians today? Jesus promises in Matt 28 that he will be with his followers to the end of the age, and we know this to be true today as Christians are sealed with the promised Holy Spirit (Eph 1:13). This Spirit is our guarantee in Christ. God was with His people in the OT in the form of an angel, and with us today, we have His Spirit.
(B) God’s Perfect, and Victorious Salvation Plan (Exo 23:23, 25b-31)
God promises to do a number of things for the Israelites:
God will blot out the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites, and Jebusites (Exo 23:23). Before we gloss over it, let’s pause and consider what being written here. God promises to defeat not just one, but six nations that are certainly stronger than Israel. This is no small feat!
God will bless the people’s food and drink and take sickness away (Exo 23:25b). God says that He is their healer in Exo 15:26. There is great blessing in being healthy then and even now. Everyone knows how bad it feels to be impaired and sick. God promises to heal them.
God promises to multiply them in number with no miscarriages or barrenness (Exo 23: 26). God will give them longevity. God promises no more disappointment from having a child die before birth. Miscarriages and barrenness are painful things that God promises to take away. This is not a small promise! And in this promise, God is removing suffering.
God will send his terror before them and throw into confusion their enemies (Exo 23:27). Their enemies will retreat. God promises to act and their victory seems so easy!
God will send hornets before them which shall drive out the Hivites, Canaanites and Hittites (Exo 23:28).
God will give them land from the Red Sea to the Sea of the Philistines, from the Wilderness to the Euphrates (Exo 23:31). God promises a large area of land. This is not a small promise of land, but a generous and vast one
God seems to be promising the perfect life. God promises children, land, the provision of food, the removal of sickness. It is clear from our passage who the actor is in all of this. It is God himself who acts on behalf of the Israelites. We can count the number of times “I will” is mentioned in our passage today. And the Israelites don’t seem to be doing anything. Yes they will go to war, but God will give them the victory.
Yet, though God seems to be promising them their best life, this doesn’t really happen. They enter a period of waiting and even disappointment. The God who promised to work for the Israelites has also promised to work in our lives today. Even as Israel was in between coming out of slavery and heading to the promised land, Christians too find themselves in between placing their trust in Chist, and waiting for Jesus’ second coming.
We might not find ourselves in physical battles but spiritual ones. We may be frustrated that we want to read the Bible but find no joy. Or that we want to share the gospel and no one wants to listen. Or that you put time in ministry but nothing seems to happen. Fighting to love God more each day can be difficult. Phil 2:12-13 tells us that it is God who works in us both to will and to work for his good pleasure. There is no doubt that God is working today to fulfil his promises to his people. He is the main actor, and we have to see and recognise it to depend on his work, not ours.
How will God defeat Israel’s enemies? God will not drive them out in one year lest the land is empty and the wild beasts multiply against them (Exo 23:29-30). He will drive them out little by little; the victory will not come all at once. God is so kind to reveal this to them. It’s like God is revealing insider information. Can you imagine how easy it would have been for them to lose heart in the wilderness going through battle after battle? They might be tempted to give up when they see that they have to fight. God in his kindness tells them from the start that this is going to be gradual and even gives them his reason for doing so. He is not an uninvolved God, but one who cares deeply for his people. He makes it easier for them to trust him.
We are generally an impatient bunch of people. The world is all about instant results. We love instant gratification. How often do we praise a restaurant because of their speedy service staff? We like to have what we want when we want it, not any later. This can happen to us even in our spiritual life where we can get frustrated with the sin that we commit again and again, the seemingly fruitless ministry that we commit so much time and effort in or why isn’t my church growing faster. But here, God tells his people his perfect and wise plan of bringing them into the Promised Land little by little. It could be that today that God is also working out his plan for our lives little by little.
God is working, and He will not be rushed. He has His reasons for working as He is. What are you waiting for? Is it the things that this world offers or God himself? Take heart because God will succeed in what He wants to do.
(C) God’s Warning against Idolatry (Exo 23:24, 32-33)
God also gives instructions to the Israelites to follow when they have entered the Promised Land. The Israelites are not to bow down to the gods of their enemies nor serve them, not do as they do but they are to destroy their altars (Exo 23: 24). They are not to worship as their enemies worshipped.
These verses go a bit further. It is not just about vertical relationships only, but also about the horizontal relationships with the people of the land. The Israelites must not make a covenant with them and their gods. The foreigners cannot dwell in the land (Exo 23:32-33). God gives a very sweeping and comprehensive command. It is total eradication of all that is in the land before that.
The reason God gives is that these foreigners will make the Israelites sin or rebel against God. God describes idolatry to be a snare. It is a trap that lures you in with goodies, promising you pleasures, but leaves you broken and empty. God knows that his people are prone to worshipping other gods. God knows that these things could happen if His people coexisted with these other religions and gods.
We too are prone to sin against God in idolatry. God commands for total eradication of their enemies and their gods. We know that the Israelites did not follow this and they sinned repeatedly against God. We too must deal with sin with the same seriousness. If we just tolerate a little, it will trap us in. We are all sometimes tempted to cut corners in our obedience, justifying our sins. We tell ourselves that a little lie won’t hurt, a little gossip can be enjoyable or just taking a lustful glance is okay. God here demands full obedience, who can do this? Do we treat sin as the Bible teaches us to?
These instructions also pose a problem for us. Who will, and can fully obey God’s commands? Who has God sent to lead his people to himself? Jesus Christ is the sinless one that God has sent (Heb 1:1-4). Heb 1 tells us that Jesus is the radiance of the glory of God, and the exact imprint of his nature. When you look at Jesus, you’re looking at God. He is superior to angels as the name has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
1 Pet 2:22-24 tells us that Jesus was the one who is sinless, who perfectly obeyed God’s commands against idolatry, and he bore our sins when he died on the cross. Even as we read about God’s work to bring the Israelites to the Promised Land, we know that God has sent Jesus Christ to bring those who trust in him to himself. In Christ, we see the promises of God fulfilled and secured.
We are to know the finished work of Christ, and yet be serious about God’s warning against idolatry. Hear what John Piper says about idolatry: “ want to slam the door shut on the assumption that you can have Jesus as your greatest treasure, and yet have all your heart and emotions and affections cleaving to another reality for satisfaction.”
This warning against idolatry is not an easy one. It is difficult. If you find yourself in your heart today cleaving on to another reality for satisfaction. Maybe you’re looking forward to the weekend or holiday because it’s fun. Maybe you’re looking forward to the next meetup. Or looking to save up enough money to buy something. All of these things are idolatry and these will trap us and leave us empty. Do you believe that idolatry is a snare? Have you been left broken and empty by it? How can we take comfort that we have Christ as our perfect sinless saviour today?