‘Our History’ Deuteronomy 4:32-43 March 29, 1992
Some of the most beautiful prose in the whole book of Deuteronomy. The elevated style is the result of the subject matter, the glorious works of Almighty God. We have in vv. 32-40 the climactic conclusion of the historical prologue.
v. 34 Of course, today we would say ‘Yes!’ And speak of the historical events of Christ’s incarnation and cross and resurrection of which these OT events were foretastes.
v. 35 Monotheism: an essential implication oflsrael’s history. They never thought to ask, as people have often since, whether God exists. They had seen him at work!
v. 36 ‘Discipline’ as in a father disciplining his son, as in 8:5. God had established a parent-child relationship between himself and Israel.
v. 38 And, of course, the continued existence of the Jewish people today constitutes one of the most remarkable facts of human history!
vv. 41ff. Not a part of the historical prologue; the record of one matter of unfinished business for the tribes to be left east of the Jordan.
It was to intercede for a friend that the young attorney had taken a boat out to the British fleet anchored in Chesapeake Bay, beyond Baltimore Harbor. And he had been successful. The British commander had consented to allow his friend, who had been captured, his freedom. But, he would not allow the two of them to leave the ship for shore and home until the next day, because at that very moment the British fleet was preparing a great bombardment of Fort McHenry, the only obstacle in the way oftheir entering the harbor and capturing the city, as they had already captured and burned Washington D.C.
Fort McHenry’s guns were no match for those of the British warships and, in fact, could not even reach the fleet. So, when the bombardment began, the British could fire at will at no risk to themselves while the American gunners could do nothing but sit and take the terrible beating, having no targets within their range. It was Tuesday, September 13, 1814 when the bombardment of the fort began and it lasted all day long. The young American attorney, from his vantage point on a British warship, watched with alarm as cannon fire continued relentlessly, hour after hour. Though the fort was some distance away, across the water, he could see it through the smoke and especially see the huge American flag which flew above it — it was fully 50 feet long.
The firing of the great guns continued through the evening and on into the darkness. Now he could not see the fort or its flag, but he knew that it must still be there because the continuing bombardment itself was sufficient proof that the fort had neither surrendered nor been destroyed. And then dawn finally brought an end to an anxious night. We can almost see the young man and his friend peering out from the deck of the warship, staring intently through the smoke and haze, awaiting some sight of that flag still flying…still there:
‘Oh say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed, at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming,
And the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night, that our flag was still there,
Oh say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave?
You were way ahead of me, I’m sure. You knew that the attorney was no other than Francis Scott Key the author of our national anthem, and that our national anthem is his poetic reflection on those anxious hours he spent as a spectator of that great battle of the War of 1812, and his patriotic celebration of the fact that as dawn broke over that smoking harbor, the flag was still there.
I am told that if you go to the visitors’ center at Fort McHenry, after the story is told and while the anthem is being played, a huge curtain opens and through a large window one can see the great flag flying over the fort. I had a minister friend, who had been there, tell me that if that sight doesn’t cause your heart to beat faster, then you’re already dead; you’re just too lazy to lie down!’
Now, why are we Americans stirred by that story? And why do English hearts beat faster at the retelling of the charge of the Light Brigade or the victory of Admiral Nelson at Trafalgar or of Francis Drake over the Spanish Armada? And why do Scottish soccer fans still wave huge banners bearing the legend ‘Remember Bannockburn’, even though that victory over the English happened in the 13th century?
I will tell you why. It is because citizens of those countries think of that history as their personal history. Those victories are theirs in a real way. When our nation goes to war or to the moon, even if we as individuals had nothing to do with either, we feel a part of it and consider our personal fortunes to be riding on the fortunes of our armies or our astronauts. So it was with Desert Storm very recently. Our pulses quickened. That was our army, those our soldiers, our battle to be won or lost.
In a far deeper way, that personal identification with the history of an entire people is the inheritance of Christians and an important part of their faith. This point is made in a most interesting way in the text we have read. Did you notice the way in which Moses addresses the people of God as if they had been personally participants in the history which he is recollecting.
In v. 33: ‘has any other people heard the voice of God as you have and lived?’
Inv. 34: ‘the things the Lord your God did for you in Egypt.’ Inv. 35: ‘You were shown these things…’
In v. 36: ‘He made you hear his voice…’ and so on, several times more.
Now, as you remember, the people to whom Moses was here speaking were not the adults who had come out of Egypt the night of the Passover nor who had camped before Sinai when God gave the law. All of those, except Joshua and Caleb and their families, had perished in the wilderness during the 38 years since Israel was camped at Sinai. God had judged them for their sin and refused to let them enter the promised land.
The older among those to whom Moses was speaking had been children during those days of the deliverance from Egypt and the two years at Sinai, but many more would have been born in the years since Israel left Sinai and began her wanderings in the wilderness. Moses speaks to them as if they had been personally present at the Exodus and the Mountain even though many of them clearly had not been!
That is a phenomenon often repeated in Deuteronomy and the rest of the Bible. In the first verses of chapter 5 we encounter this way of speaking again. In verse three Moses seems to draw special attention to the fact by saying that God made his covenant at Sinai not with the people who were present there at the time, but with those who would come after them. And in the next verse he foreshortens the history and says to this later generation: ‘the Lord spoke to you face to face out of the fire on the mountain.’ In 7:19 he reminds them that they saw the miracles the Lord performed in Egypt to bring Israel out of bondage there. In 9:7 Moses tells them that they sinned at the foot of Sinai by making the golden calf.
This way of speaking occurs frequently in Deuteronomy, but elsewhere in the Bible also. For example, in Micah 6:4-5, the prophet condemns his generation of Israelites for forgetting how the Lord brought them out of Egypt, even though the people of Micah’s day lived seven centuries after the Exodus.
The Lord is saying that this is our history, our story! It is the story of our lives, if we are Christians, of how we came to be; of our spiritual ancestry. We are a product of that history; we draw our life and the meaning of our existence from it. In all of these ways, what happened there, whether at Sinai or at the cross or the empty tomb or at Pentecost happened to us, what God said there he said to us, what God did there he did for us. It is a family history, our family, for it was, as we read in v. 36, our father who spoke from the mountain top to his children. And we are also his children, they are our brethren.
Moses has a very practical purpose in speaking this way to his contemporaries and, by the Spirit, in speaking this way to us. Reminding us of our history, of our past, he expects us to live according to it. Or, as he says in v. 39: ‘to acknowledge it and take it to heart.’ Which is to say, we are to learn its lessons and live by them. We are to walk forward with one eye firmly fixed on our past stretching back to the very beginning. We move forward by looking backward! Or as Henry Vaughan put it:
O how I long to travel back, And tread again that ancient track….
Some men a forward motion love, But I by backward steps would move.
Now, the question for us this morning is then this: how do we acknowledge and take to heart our history, this history Moses is reminding us of, and all the rest of our history from that day, through the days of the Lord Christ and his apostles, down through the ages of the church to this day of ours? How do we build our lives on this history and draw strength, faith, love, hope, and worship from it?
In the first place, if we are to acknowledge that history and take it to heart, we must learn it. This is the reason why Moses is taking the time to repeat this history in some detail in these four opening chapters of Deuteronomy: so that these events would be fixed in the minds of the people of God. This is why so often in the Bible we are called upon to remember the mighty acts of God in the past, not to forget them, but to fix them in mind. This is why, over and over again, we are commanded to teach our children what God has done: ‘We will not hide them from their children; we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power and the wonders he has done.’ (Psalm 78:4)
There is, of course, much more of that history for us today to learn and master than was the case in Moses’ day.
We have all of that history to know, to be sure, but also all that has transpired since, through the rest of the OT, through the epoch of Christ and his apostles, and down through the generations of the church to our own day. If you think it important as an American to know what happened in 1776 or between 1861 and 1865, how vastly more important it is for Christians to know what happened in 701 B.C. or A.D. 386 or 1517 or between 1643 and 1648.
The Christian who wishes to live the Christian life to the full, with richness and power, with a vitalizing faith will avidly and eagerly learn his or her history from beginning to end. It is a wonderful history, far grander than that of any mere country, peopled by far nobler individuals, full of far more thrilling events. It should be a study as easy as any to devote oneself to. One of my favorite illustrations of the mastery of this history is the story told about Andrew Bonar, the saintly Scottish pastor and author, who in his old age would sometimes lose his bearings.
‘One day, not very long before his death, a gentleman met him in Howard Street [Glasgow], and found that he was quite confused as to where he was. He kindly put him on the right way, and as they parted Dr. Bonar thanked him and said, “I’ve just been thinking that I have been like Peter when the angel took him out of prison. Poor man, he did not know where he was [either].'” [Diary and Life, p. 503]
It is a wonderful and comforting thing to have your history as present to your mind as that; to be able immediately to liken your circumstances to those of, say the Apostle Peter, and to take comfort in that similarity. But, few Christians can do that today, because they do not know their history. First it must be learned.
Second, if we are to acknowledge our history and take it to heart, we must come to see it as our own, identify with it. It is not enough to know the history of God’s works as the Bible narrates them or to know the history of the church since Bible days. There are scholars who know that history very well, much better than you or I, but whose knowledge does them no spiritual good.
No, what is necessary is that this history be embraced as our family history, our roots, in a far more profound way and more important way than, say, the history of the Rayburn family or your family, as it may be traced back through a family tree. The faithful saints of biblical days and beyond, the events by which the Lord God delivered them and used them and vindicated their faith, the great moments in which the gospel advanced with power in the world, the Christians whose sterling lives of purity and love have ennobled the world, these are your roots if you are a Christian, this is your ancestry, in a far better and deeper and truer sense than the line of blood you may trace in your family history.
Alexander Whyte used to recommend to his hearers that they read the Bible so that it shall be autobiographic of themselves. And so should you, for it is your life, your history, your story, your salvation, which is being related in it, and in the history of the church since Bible times.
One of my great interests as your minister has been to give you late 20th century American Christians a sense of your roots, stretching back through church history, to Christ and the apostles and the early Christians, and back into the OT. Your sense of identity, of self-esteem, of privilege, of duty and obligation, the standards you set for yourself, the hope with which you seek by God’s grace to meet those standards in your life, all of this depends very greatly on the sense of oneself a Christian gets from seeing himself as part of this great and ancient story and family.
If African Americans found hope, pride, and inspiration in Alex Haley’s Roots, how very much more should we Christians of whatever race or ethnic background find it in the grand history of our spiritual family and still more of our Father and his great and wonderful works on our behalf. That was our father whose voice thundered at Mount Sinai and who summoned, as with the voice of a child, Augustine to himself in that garden of an Italian villa in the year 386. Martin Luther, Bernard of Clairvaux, Augustine, Justin Martyr, the Apostle Paul, and Elijah are more profoundly and eternally our brothers, our spiritual flesh and blood than any mere blood relative in this life. Amy Carmichael, Sarah Edwards, St. Teresa, Monica, Abigail, Hannah and Ruth are more profoundly and eternally our sisters, our spiritual flesh and blood than any mere blood relative in this life. Their story is our own family history. So is the Exodus, the grandeur of Solomon, the exile and return, John the Baptist, Christ’s ministry, death, and resurrection, Pentecost, the triumph of the early church, the glorious tradition of Christian martyrdom, the great missionary advance of the 19th century, and so on down to our own historical moment.
The man or woman who sees himself or herself standing in the midst of that history and knowing himself or herself to be a part of it, is going to live a Christian life deeper, richer, and stronger than would otherwise be the case.
Third and last, to acknowledge our history and take it to heart, we must actually put it to use. This is what Moses wants these believers to do. He wants them to consider the past and from it draw courage to face the challenges of the conquest of the promised land, to draw fear of God and a solemn determination to keep his commandments, to draw thanksgiving and hope and love and joy and a sense of the great obligation to pass this history on to one’s children.
And that is what you must do with your history as a Christian. If it seems to you that you are in some bondage from which there is no escape, then cast your mind back to the thousands of moments in your past when our brethren felt similarly and the Lord delivered them. The Israelites in Egypt, or during the period of the judges, or when Goliath was threatening Saul’s army, or when Sennacharib had Hezekiah bottled up in Jerusalem like a bird in a cage, or when Daniel was cast into the den of lions, or when Peter or Paul were cast into prison. In every case the Lord brought them out of darkness into light. Can he, will he not do the same for you, as he has promised? If you find yourself before a powerful temptation, hark back to the shame and ignominy of David or Peter when they fell, or to the glorious triumph of Joseph or Daniel or Blandina or Felicitas who stood firm in Christ’s name.
Or, is it that you are in desperate need of some provision and you cannot see where it could come from? Cast your mind back over your family history, to the manna which fed Israel in the wilderness, or to the raven that brought Elijah his food, or the child that God gave Hannah, or to the jar of oil which never ran out, or to the large jugs of water which the Savior made into wine at Cana, or to the Philippians who provided for Paul during his imprisonment in Rome, or to the early martyrs who found the Lord supplying unimaginable strength and courage to face their deaths with Christian honor, or to Luther whom the Lord provided with an earthly prince to protect his life, or to a brother like Armando Valladares whom the Lord provided for through more than 20 long years of brutal imprisonment.
I say, a Christian man or woman who knows our history, our remarkable history as Christians, will be a Christian who finds hope, and strength, and joy when others see nothing btit darkness. They will have a far higher and truer view of God, a far nobler view of the Christian life they have been called to live, a far deeper desire to live it to the glory of God, and a far better sense of how and why that is to be done! Over and again they will put their own history to use, applying its lessons to their own circumstances, putting their own circumstances in this larger and truer perspective.
If the story of Fort McHenry can make an American citizen more devoted to his country, more proud to be an American, how much, much, much more the infinitely greater history of the family of God in the world will do good to a Christian who knows that history, knows it to be his or her own history, and who puts it to use in daily life, applying its lessons, being nerved by its grand exploits, and being thrilled to the greatness of God’s ways and works through it all.
It is a far far greater thing to be a Christian than to be an American. It is a far greater privilege to have a Christian’s roots and a Christian’s history than to have an American’s. And those roots and that history will do a Christian far far more good and be far more help than American history to an American citizen.
In conclusion suppose, for example, that your struggle today, this moment, is a near despair in your heart because you cannot seem to get above your sins. You love Christ and want to serve him, but over and again you find yourself doing what you do not want to do and failing to do what you know you ought to do and in your heart of hearts you want to do. There is a bitterness of defeat in your heart because you, against all the truest wishes of your soul, are not living worthy of the grace you have received.
Ah, but cast your glance back through your family history. To even the great Moses failing to enter the promised land for his sin, to David’s anguished confessions of his great and continuing sinfulness, to Paul’s heart-breaking ‘O wretched man that I am’ because of the sin he cannot seem to escape, to Augustine, to Bernard, to Luther, to Samuel Rutherford, to Jonathan Edwards, to Jim Eliott, and a host of other brothers and sisters, who loved and served Christ splendidly, grandly, but who all the while bemoaned and wept over the continuing sinfulness of their hearts. That history, your history, tells you in a way nothing else can, that all of that bitter warfare going on in the darkness of your heart, all of that acrid, choking smoke of battle in your soul, all of the anguish through the long night of sin, all of the longing and looking for the morning: that isn’t proof that you are not a Christian or have been defeated; far from it. It is rather the surest and the most certain evidence that your flag is still there!