‘Hard Sayings’ Deuteronomy 2:24-37 January 26, 1992
v. 24 Not as before with the three nations whose land God forbade Israel to seize. They will engage in battle, but according to God’s plan. The Lord is telling them what will occur. Peace can still be genuinely offered.
v. 33 God gave the victory, but used means.
v. 34 According to the laws of Holy War as set out in Deuteronomy 20:10-18.
We have in our text this morning two separate instances of a common phenomenon in Holy Scripture, viz. statements which pose great difficulty for us. In the first case, in v. 30, we are told that God hardened Sihon’s heart so that he would not allow Israel to pass through his territory peacefully, because God had determined to give Sihon and his kingdom into Israel’s hand. It is troubling to us to hear that God hardens anyone’s heart, that God himself has anything whatever to do with the sinful, wicked responses of human hearts.
And then, just a few verses later, we come across the account of the utter annihilation which Israel visited upon Sihon’s kingdom. No one was left, not men, not women, not even children.
This morning I want to address the issue of such statements as these in the Bible. I’m not going to deal with these statements themselves — there will be time enough for that in subsequent sermons on subsequent passages of Deuteronomy. I want rather to use these two separate instances of ‘hard sayings’ as an entree into the larger issue of those passages which throw us for a loop when we read them in the Bible. There are, after all, a great many of them of various kinds in the Scripture. Many of them dealing with divine sovereignty and divine judgment as here in Deuteronomy 2, but others raising different issues.
You will remember that folks who had expressed an interest in Jesus’ teaching left him because of some of his ‘hard sayings.’ Indeed, that was his followers word for it in John’s Gospel, chapter 6, verse 60: ‘This is a hard teaching,’ they said. Or, it could be translated, ‘this is a hard word, or saying.’ Well, we have such hard sayings here in Deuteronomy 2 and they may be found liberally sprinkled throughout the Bible.
In light of such passages it is not hard for us to know what Mark Twain meant when he said that it wasn’t the things that he couldn’t understand in the Bible that bothered him, it was the things he could understand. There are troubling things in Holy Scripture, a good many of them.
Now, of course, there is a great deal which can be said in the way of putting such dark and hard sayings into a proper perspective.
I am fully aware that each of them, to be rightly appreciated, must be understood in the context of the whole of Holy Scripture. Every hard saying has its own biblical qualifications and mitigations and explanations. And when they are given their due, the picture is always changed considerably.
What is more, it is not as though it ought to be particularly surprising that in a book which is the revelation of the mind and the ways of the Infinite and Eternal God there should be more than a few things that we find difficult to grasp in one way or another. In the case of these two statements in Deuteronomy 2, for example - statements which are troubling chiefly as seeming to call God’s righteousness into question — why do we suppose that we should comprehend the divine righteousness, when we are clearly incapable of comprehending any of the other characteristics of the divine nature? And all the more ought we to be quick to put our hands over our mouths, when our thinking about such matters is confined and limited not only by our finitude, our creatureliness, but still more by the influences of sin which so profoundly, subtly, and invisibly corrupt our thinking at every level and down to the most basic capacities and tendencies of our minds. It is no accident, after all, that the Bible’s most troubling statements are always those that either reduce us in size or threaten us for our sins.
Like God himself, his Word is at some points high as the heavens and far beyond our ability fully to comprehend, while at other points it walks on all fours and is very near to us. Or, as Augustine put it in his delightfully winning way: ‘Just as there are shallows in Scripture where a lamb may wade; so there are depths in Scripture where an elephant may swim.’
But I want still to face the music this morning and ask what these statements are doing in the Bible. After all, the Lord could have left them out. He could have removed from his revelation that which he knew would pose a problem for many. Some of the most difficult things in Holy Scripture, particularly those hard sayings which deal with what God was and is doing behind the scenes and how it is his purposes which are being worked out in the affairs and the words and deeds of men and women, would not absolutely have to be included in God’s book. He could have said nothing at all about the fact that even the sinful deeds of people are under his absolute control. He could have left that a secret until we were in heaven and able better to comprehend. Other hard sayings, such as this one on the severity, even the ferocity of divine judgment, could have been softened with qualifications which are found elsewhere in the Bible or, indeed, could have been omitted altogether. The Lord doesn’t give us an exhaustive history of Israel’s wars. Why did he think it important to add this piece about the utter annihilation of the kingdom of Sihon and other like statements in the Bible?
There are no doubt more reasons than I know for these hard sayings in the Bible, for their presence in God’s book, for the large number of them, and for their bluntness, but I can supply at least three reasons for them, three reasons drawn froni Holy Scripture itself. And these reasons, taken together, remind us that even the hard sayings are, as the rest of the Bible, ‘God-breathed’, and even they, with the rest of the Bible are profitable to us, able to make us wise unto salvation, and able to cut sharper than any two-edged sword, able to penetrate into the depths of the soul and judge the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.
First, hard sayings such as these in Deuteronomy 2, have the virtue of provoking us to think! One of the Lord’s very obvious intentions in giving us the Bible is to make us think and think deeply about him, about our lives, and so on. The Lord gave us minds for that purpose. He commands us to worship him with our hearts, souls, strength, and mind. So it should not be surprising that the Bible, as the Word of God, is a book that requires thinking. There is much in it which, as Peter said of some things in Paul’s letters, is difficult to understand. No impossible, but difficult!
In Proverbs 25:2 we read: ‘It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings.’ And that is just what God intends us always to be doing: searching out matters, especially those matters of greatest importance, those matters of Holy Scripture.
Pascal, one of the deepest thinkers the church of Jesus Christ has ever produced, said, ‘From his deepest foundations upwards man is made to think. His whole manhood, his whole duty to God and to man, is simply to think about God and about man and about himself as he ought to think. That is the whole obligation and merit and dignity of man.’
But, if the truth be told, we usually do not think, or, do not think hard and deeply about these most important things. We are nowhere more lazy, as a rule, than in our thinking. We don’t think, as St. Teresa urged us to think, for example, about ‘the terrible hurt that your mind has received from the fall.’ And so we don’t finally come to see in how many ways and how profoundly our thinking has been corrupted by sin and thus, how carefully and seriously and meticulously how with conscious dependence upon the Spirit of God we must think, in order to think rightly about things.
In no day more than ours have Christians contented themselves with so little real thought. If I gave you, brothers and sisters, some of the books which in other days were standard reading in the homes of even the simplest of Christians, a goodly number of you would put them down after a few pages saying, ‘That’s too deep for me! I can’t get anything from that!’ It is demoralizing to consider what it must mean for this generation of Christians that ‘as a man thinks, so is he.’ Are we really that superficial, that shallow, that light and frothy and weak?
Yet, if you search the Scriptures, you will find over and again that the godly, those who have the strongest faith and deepest lives are always people who thought long and hard about many things. They meditated, as the first Psalm has it, they pondered the Word of God, Holy Scripture, day and night, trying to get to the bottom of its depths.
And I have no doubt that one great reason why the Bible contains as many hard sayings as it does, is simply to jolt us out of our intellectual doldrums and lethargy and provoke us to thought! That is what these sayings do, they always do that! And that must have been the Lord’s purpose. It is worrying to think how little deep thought we would ever give to our faith and to the Bible’s doctrines, were it not for such statements as these scattered about the pages of the Bible.
The true Christian’s response should be that of Bernard of Clairvaux, who, when faced by one of these troubling and confusing statements in the Bible, said, ‘What is difficult to understand, should be delightful to inquire into.’ Hard sayings make us think. And God wants us to think, and has made it important that we should spend our lives thinking hard and long and deeply about all his Word. It is out of such thought that a life of spiritual substance comes.
Second, hard sayings such as these in Deuteronomy 2, have the virtue of strengthening faith. Faith is very much a matter of mind as it is a matter of heart and will. And, accordingly, faith can be tried, tested, and strengthened intellectually as in other ways.
The Lord tests our faith, as we know, by sending us difficult circumstances: illness, or disappointment in some hopes we had, or a financial setback, or trouble in a relationship we have with another. These circumstances test our faith because when we find ourselves in them we must choose either to fret and stew and look to ourselves or look to the Lord and trust him for his promised help and provision. When we do the latter, our faith grows stronger for having weathered the test and for having had proved to us, once again, that it is right to trust God, he keeps his Word, God’s promises are all and always ‘yea and Amen.’
But, the Lord also tests our faith intellectually, by forcing us to reckon with realities, with truths, which we find difficult to accept. When faced with such hard sayings, we either, in one way or another, subject his Word to our own thinking and pass judgment on God and his ways, or, bowing before the Lord we acknowledge that, though we cannot comprehend it, if God has said it, it must both be true and right.
Holy Scripture is full of examples of faith being tested in this way. The prosperity of the wicked and the troubles of the righteous is one such test. Will we believe that God is, indeed, on his throne and that, as he promises, the righteous will prosper and the wicked will be no more? Or, will the evidence of our own observation cause us to conclude, instead, that in one way or another God’s Word does not describe things as they are in the real world and is not a reliable guide to reality.
And such hard sayings as we have here in Deuteronomy 2 are another case in point. Will we believe that God is infinitely pure, unstained by sin in any way; that he is neither tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone? As his Scripture says! Or will we reason that God’s sovereign disposal of even the hearts and minds of mankind, as here he hardens Sihon’s heart, must impeach the divine purity and make of God a partner in sin?
Will we take God at his word, or will we not? That is the test such a hard saying puts to our faith. Will we come to his revelation in Holy Scripture without a mind of our own, or will we require that he explain himself to us or that his incomprehensible mysteries submit themselves to our minds? Will we listen to the voice which says to us: ‘Be still and know that I am God,’ and gladly acknowledge that there is much beyond our power to comprehend and so rest in the confidence that God will be proved true though every man a liar? That is the test such hard sayings put to our faith and that is the way faith becomes stronger and truer and purer in its mental or intellectual aspect. Until, at last, we live each day in the certainty that everything we read in Holy Scripture is absolutely true, absolutely to be believed, absolutely to be practiced and trusted in, even though much is beyond our full comprehension.
This is just how the Lord Jesus used hard sayings to test faith. In the 6th chapter of John, for example, what was one man’s meat was another man’s poison. Many turned away from the Lord because of his hard sayings; but the faith of his true disciples was made the stronger by that same teaching and, if asked whether they would leave him too, Peter said, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.’
Do we really trust the Lord and his Word or do we really trust ourselves and our own thoughts. Well, the best way to find out is at those points where it is not an easy thing to trust the Lord and to believe what he has said. And the best way to a sturdier faith runs directly through those points scattered as they are throughout Holy Scripture. A faith tempered in those fires has steel and iron in its blood!
Third, and last, hard sayings such as these in Deuteronomy 2, have the virtue of humbling us. It is before passages such as these and many others like them, passages which confound us and confuse us and cause us to stumble that we come face to face with our severe limitations. We really can understand so little. We have but the vaguest notion of God and see only the outskirts of his ways. We see but the tiniest tip of reality and understand so little of how everything is interwoven with everything else in an infinitely complex texture that God understands perfectly and sees all at once, while we find it impossible to comprehend even the idea of such a mastery.
We find our objections to this or to that; we imagine that we have uncovered a great problem. But all we have really done is demonstrate our inability to grasp but a little bit of the truth at one time, while God has it all as one perfect whole in his mind. ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ Or, better than Shakespeare, the Lord himself speaking through Isaiah: ‘My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’ Or, the Apostle Paul: ‘Who are you, 0 man, to answer back to God.’
When the Almighty begins to speak, as he does in his Word, when the infinite and eternal God, who knows the end from the beginning, and who brings to pass everything according to the counsel of his will, begins to communicate his mind to mere creatures, the work of his hands, do we really imagine that we are going to be able fully to understand all that he says. Is it not the case, for example, that some of what parents must say to their children, the hard sayings that they must utter from time to time, are not fully understood, simply because the child is too small and too young and knows too little of the whole truth to appreciate fully what has been said?
How much more when God opens his mind to human beings! How natural, how inevitable, and how good and right that we should feel ourselves incompetent to measure the height and the depth of God’s ways and that we should love to admire and worship a God whose wisdom reaches to the heavens. The Bible would not do us nearly as much good as it does if it did not regularly humble us and cause us to put our hands over our mouths and confess in our hearts that the Lord is God, it is he that has made us and not we ourselves.
Alexander Whyte says somewhere that ‘there is no book in all the world that demands such a combination of mental gifts and spiritual graces to understand it aright as the Bible.’ Well, that is absolutely true. But it is also true that the Bible itself is always cultivating in us those same spiritual graces and mental powers so that we may be ever growing in our understanding and appreciation of the Lord, whose word the Bible is. And the harder sayings of Holy Scripture have their part to play in that good work: making us more practiced hard thinkers about deep and important things, strengthening our faith in the veracity of God, and stripping us of the pride which so often bedevils a true understanding.
What then is to be our attitude when we come across hard sayings such as these in Deuteronomy chapter two? Like many commentators on the Bible, we could try our best to reinterpret them so that they are actually soft sayings in disguise. But this is a form of unbelief and hardly does justice to the fact that God has sprinkled his Book with such statements for some good reason.
Or, we could revel in them, like some Christians I know, for whom the hard sayings are their favorite part of the Bible. There was a Polish theologian who taught in Holland in the early 17th century who was like that. He was rebuked by the famous Synod of Dordt for his propensity to teach hard doctrines in a hard and unfeeling way.
Or, much better, we could believe them as the Word of God but recoil from them as too painful to think about. I think of John Duncan, the famous Rabbi Duncan, the highly eccentric, deeply emotional, very learned professor in the Free Church of Scotland in the mid-19th century. In all his long ministry, he never once preached on hell. He knew he would not have been able to get through the sermon without breaking down.
Or, better still, we could do what our Savior, the Lord Christ did, who probably uttered more hard sayings than any other figure in Holy Scripture. He was the truth, and so he spoke the truth, he described reality with its darkness as well as its light, with its deep mysteries as well as its happy simplicities. With these hard sayings He made people think, and he tested their faith, and he humbled those who were his true disciples. But, still, we cannot fully comprehend all that he said or easily reconcile some statements with others. That is as it must be when mere human beings must think God’s thoughts after him.
But we can take all of the Lord Christ’s hard sayings from his lips with a confident faith both that they are all true and that, mysterious as much may remain, all is yet as it should be in God’s universe. For after hearing him say, for example, that the Father revealed the truth to babes and hid it from the wise and learned, for such was his good pleasure, we nevertheless see him weeping over Jerusalem and calling to her: ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.’
Such a Lord and Savior will not lead us astray, even when he must, for our own sakes, sometimes tell us things very difficult for us to understand or accept!