"There is Danger in the Land of Plenty!"
(Delivered Thanksgiving Sunday, November 21, 2004 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture is taken from the New King James Version.)
I always greet our Thanksgiving Sunday celebration with a sense of anticipation. I have grown to appreciate 'thanksgiving' as a crucial attitude to possess in our Christian lives all year long; and so, I am excited when we come that particular time of year when we seek to cultivate that attitude toward our loving heavenly Father together. I believe He's pleased when we do so too.
There are lots of passages in the Scripture that help us cultivate an attitude of thanksgiving toward God. This morning, I'd like to draw your attention to one such passage that's found in the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy. It's a very appropriate passage to read before Thanksgiving. But it's also an unusual one; because its purpose is not so much to encourage us to give thanks, as it is to warn us of a serious danger we face in forgetting to do so. In fact, the more we are blessed of God, and the more reasons we have to thank Him, the greater the danger is that we fallen creatures will forget Him - and thus, the more we need to heed this warning.
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The context of this passage is very important to understand. These are words that were spoken by Moses under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. They were addressed to the second generation of the people of Israel after they had been delivered from their bondage in Egypt.
For forty years, the people of Israel had wandered in the desert regions of the wilderness. The first generation - that is, the generation of the exodus - had failed to enter the rich and prosperous land that God had promised them. They failed because they had refused to believe God and were disobedient to Him (Numbers 14:26-35). And now that the first generation had died in the wilderness, the second generation was about to enter in and take possession of the land. The book of Deuteronomy contains God's final words of exhortation to that generation before it entered into the rich land that God was about to give to it.
God was about to give them a land to possess that was remarkable for its prosperity and goodness. He was about to give them many great reasons to be very thankful to Him. And it was at this time that God speaks to His people through Moses and gives them these words of exhortation. Listen carefully; and you'll see that there's much for us to learn about 'thanksgiving' in these words.
"Every commandment which I command you today you must be careful to observe, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land of which the LORD swore to your fathers. And you shall remember that the LORD your God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. So He humbled you, allowed you to hunger, and fed you with manna which you did not know nor did your fathers know, that He might make you know that man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the LORD. Your garments did not wear out on you, nor did your foot swell these forty years. You should know in your heart that as a man chastens his son, so the LORD your God chastens you.
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Someone passed a good story on to me the other day. Apparently, a young man had chosen to become a monk; and he entered into a monastic order that required a vow of complete silence. The brothers to which he joined himself did have an exception to this vow, however. Those who entered the monastery were permitted to speak only two words during their periodic meeting with the head of the monastery.
After ten years, the head of the order called this new monk to himself for a brief interview. "How are you feeling about our order after these ten years, brother?" he asked? And the monk replied with his allotted two words: "Bad food!" With this, the head of the order dismissed him to return to his duties.
After another ten years, the same thing happened again. The head of the monastery called the monk to himself and asked, "So; how are you feeling about things now, brother?" And again, the monk replied with only two words: "Hard bed!" And again, hearing those words, the head of the order dismissed the young monk to resume to his duties.
After yet another ten years, the head of the monastery called the monk to himself and asked, "Tell me, brother; how are you feeling about things at the monastery now?" And the monk handed him his frock and sandals, and uttered only two words: "I quit!" "Well; I'm not a bit surprised," said the frustrated head of the monastery. "You've done nothing for the past thirty years but complain, complain, complain!!"
Well, think of the people of Israel in this passage. They had just come to the end of forty years of wandering in the wilderness. But their situation was quite a bit different from that of the monk's. As former slaves who had suffered horribly under hard bondage in the land of Egypt, they already had much to thank God for. And considering the prosperity He was about to bring them into, they had even more reason to thank God.
And then, think of us! As people today who have been saved from our lost condition in sin, and welcomed into the full covenant blessings of the God of Israel, we also have much to thank and praise God for. Just think of the rich spiritual inheritance that awaits us in heaven through Christ! And what's more, look at all the material prosperity we enjoy today! And consider what we have in things that money cannot buy - friends, family, and wonderful memories! And don't forget the great and abundant food that's coming up in just a few days!! We certainly don't have anything to complain about, do we? We are very rich and prosperous indeed!!
But considering all these things, that's why we need to heed the warning God gives us in this passage - just as much as did the people of Israel. We need to beware; because in all the prosperity we so freely enjoy, there is a danger that we may make the prosperity itself our main focus - and forget about the God who gave it to us.
There is, you see, danger in the land of plenty!!
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This morning's passage teaches us the things that we need to do in order to keep from losing sight of the one who gave all these rich blessings to us. It teaches us what we need to do in order to keep honoring God for His goodness and providential care in our lives.
I'd like for us to pull out some of these principles from this passage this morning. You can sum them all up in four words. And the first of these four words is . . .
1. REMEMBER (vv. 1-5).
If we're going to cultivate an attitude of thanksgiving to God, then one of the most important things we can cultivate is a good memory! Look at how Moses points them back to the things that God had done for them during that forty-year period that was now coming to an end. Look at how he calls them to "remember" the things that happened.
It may seem surprising; but the first thing that Moses calls them to remember is how God "humbled" them. "And you shall remember that the LORD your God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not" (v. 2). Moses starts off by urging them to keep God's commandments in verse 1; and then, He lets them know that the forty year period in the desert was, among other things, a "test" - intended by God to humble them and reveal what was truly in their hearts. God wanted it to be revealed through the hard experience of testing and trials: Would they follow Him and obey Him, or not?
And the whole time long, throughout all that time of testing and in all those hard experiences, God had proven to them that He really was worthy of their trust all along. He revealed Himself to them as their all-sufficient Provider. Moses goes on to say; "So He humbled you, allowed you to hunger, and fed you with manna which you did not know nor did your fathers know, that He might make you know that man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the LORD" (v. 3).
Now, you recognize those words, don't you? Jesus quoted them in the wilderness, when He was tempted by the devil for forty days (Matthew 4:4). Jesus Himself - as God in human flesh - demonstrated trust in His heavenly Father as the divine Provider of all He needed; and He demonstrated that trust through faithful obedience to His Father's commands. God was seeking to do the same thing with Israel during their forty year period in the wilderness.
It wasn't very long after the people of Israel left Egypt before they complained to God that they were hungry. They even said to Moses - in a very faithless way - that they wished they'd stayed in Egypt; and they said that Moses had brought them out into the wilderness to kill them with hunger. And so, God responded. He told Moses, "Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you. And the people shall go out and gather a certain quota every day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in My law or not. And it shall be on the sixth day that they shall prepare what they bring in, and it shall be twice as much as they gather daily" (Ex. 16:4-5).
God caused a food to fall down to the people from heaven. They called it "manna"; which means "What is it?" (v. 31). Every day, they were to gather just enough "What is it?" for that day; but on the sixth day, they were to gather twice as much - enough for two days. God promised to provide twice as much as usual on the sixth day, because the seventh day was the sabbath; and they were not to gather on that day. And just think; for forty years - every week - they had a vivid reminder of God's faithfulness as their Provider, and they had a clear call to obey His command. Moses calls them to "remember" this in our passage this morning.
Moses also called them to remember other ways God provided for them. He reminds them, "Your garments did not wear out on you, nor did your foot swell those forty years" (v. 4). Think of that! Just think of how your clothes would hold up after a while in the desert! In all that time though, they didn't need to get new clothes; and in all that wondering, they never suffered from sore feet. God reminded them of this later on in the Scriptures (Deut. 29:5). Nehemiah even testified to this; when he prayed to God and said, "Forty years You sustained them in the wilderness; they lacked nothing; their clothes did not wear out and their feet did not swell" (Neh. 9:21). God provided wonderfully for them, didn't He? They could even look at the clothes on their back and the shoes on their feet, and see for themselves the testimony of God's provision!
As we read on in this passage, we see lots of additional ways that God provided for them during their forty year journey. Moses reminds them that it was God who brought them out of Egypt, "from the house of bondage" (v. 14). How could they ever forget that?!! He even led them, he says, ""through that great and terrible wilderness" (v. 15) - keeping them in His care, and protecting them from all the dangers of heat, and wild animals, and robbers, and hostile nations. He protected them from "fiery serpents" (Num. 21:6), "and scorpions" (Num. 34:4; where we read of 'The Ascent of Akrabbim', which the NIV translates, "Scorpion Pass"). And when they were thirsty, God even provided water for them from out of the flinty rock (Ex. 17:7; Num. 20:2-13). Look at verses 14-16. We see that, in verse 14, God freed them; in verse 15, He leads them; and in verse 16, He feeds them. Throughout all that forty years, God proved to be their all-powerful, all-sufficient Provider.
And why did He do this? It was to test them; and to see whether or not they would trust Him and do what He says. It was forty years of intense training in trust of the God who proved - by actual experience - that He never, ever fails. Moses said, "You should know in your heart that as a man chastens his son, so the LORD your God chastens you" (v. 5). This is what they were being commanded to "remember".
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ; have you learned yet, through past experiences, how trustworthy God is? When trials come up in your life, do you take the time to "remember"? That's an important skill to have when it comes to cultivating a spirit of thanksgiving to God.
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This leads us to another word that sums up what we need to know in order to cultivate an attitude of thanksgiving to God . . .
2. OBEY (vv. 6-9).
We've already seen this in our passage; haven't we? That's how it starts out: "Every commandment which I command you today you must be careful to observe, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land of which the LORD swore to your fathers" (v. 1). That was why God was calling them to remember all that He did for them in the past.
He picks up that same theme in verse six: "Therefore you shall keep the commandments of th LORD your God, to walk in His ways and to fear Him" (or "reverence Him"). And do you notice that word "therefore"? Do you know why He urges them to obey His commandments faithfully? It was because of all that He was about to do for them.
When I read the description of the land that He is about to give them, I find myself getting thrilled. It sounds like a paradise!! "For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, that flow out of valleys and hills; a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey; a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing; a land whose stones are iron and out of whose hills you can dig copper" (vv. 7-9). What a blessing that must have been to a people who were in slavery for so many years! Plenty of water! Plenty of produce! Plenty of natural resources! What a wonderful gift God was giving them!! What a rich blessing He was pouring out on them!! And it was all a free gift of His rich grace!!
And all that rich blessing was being presented to them as the reason why they were to obey Him. Think of that!! They weren't called to obey Him in order to receive all this - as if they were earning it. They were called to obey Him because He was already freely giving it to them. They were to obey Him as a response to His grace toward them.
That's the proper order of things with us too. The apostle John tells us, "We love Him because He first loved us" (1 John 4:19). We never earn His love for us by our love toward Him. Our love to Him is always a response to the fact that He first loved us. And how do we love Him? ". . . This is the love of God, that we keep His commandments" (5:13). We show our love in gratitude to Him by obeying Him.
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So; here are two words that sum up what we must do in order to cultivate a proper response to God's goodness to us: we must "remember" and we must "obey". And now, here's a third . . .
3. THANK (v. 10).
We see this in verse 10. And boy - does this ever relate to Thanksgiving Day!! "When you have eaten and are full, then you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land which He has given you." (We tend to thank God before we start our meal; but someone pointed out to me the other day that, here, we're called to thank Him after we've eaten!)
The word that Moses uses, here translated "bless" (bărak), is related to the Hebrew word for "knee" (berek). To "bless" in this sense means to "adore with bended knees".1 This isn't simply some ordinary "table grace" kind of blessing. This is nothing less than an expression of worship! It's acknowledging that God truly is our good Provider, who not only meets our daily needs but pours out on us riches beyond our wildest dreams - and then demonstrating that acknowledgement by responding appropriately in worship!!
One of the implications of blessing God in response to His goodness to us is that it's good and proper for us, as God's people, to enjoy the riches He pours out on us. He takes pleasure in our enjoying the good things He gives us. Read on in this passage. You find that the people of Israel are permitted to 'eat and be full' (v. 12); to build 'beautiful houses' and 'dwell in them' (v. 12); to multiply 'herds' and 'flocks' (v. 13); to multiply 'silver' and 'gold' (v. 13); and even to see all that they have 'multiply' (v. 13). An abundance of food, houses, money, and things! Sounds like life in America; doesn't it?
But note that what is told to us in verse 10 is a command! In response to all of it, ". . . You shall bless the LORD your God . . ." Obviously, one of the great needs in cultivating a thankful spirit is that we actually DO thank God!
Are you thankful to God for the riches that He has poured out on you? Do you express that thanks to Him? Do you worship Him in your thanks? Do you do more thank simply "think" thanks to Him; but do you actively, openly, verbally thank and praise Him?
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Sadly, so many do not. They ignore the one who gives to them as they enjoy all His blessings. This leads us to a final word that sums up what we need to do in order to properly respond to God's blessings to us. It's a surprising one:
4. BEWARE (vv. 11-20).
You see; there's a danger in the land of plenty. That danger is that, in the midst of the plenty, we would forget the God who so richly blesses us and think that it's all our own doing.
This warning to "beware" reminds me of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, as he was presented to us in the book of Daniel. God made him the greatest king in all the world in that day. He once strutted high upon his royal dwelling place - overlooking his vast kingdom; and he grew very prideful and dared to say, "Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for a royal dwelling by my mighty power and for the honor of my majesty?" (Dan. 4:30). God's answer to him was that it most certainly was not!! And God demonstrated it by taking his authority from him, and making him crawl around like an insane animal for seven years - until he repented and gave glory to God.
We, too, need to beware when we are the recipients of God's rich blessing. And what we must do to "beware" is really covered in the other three key words we find in this passage. If we "remember" God's past goodness to us, "obey" His commandments to us, and "thank" Him for all the riches He pours out on us, we will be doing what we need to do to truly "beware" of this "danger in the land of plenty". You can see this very clearly in the verses that follow.
In verse 11, for example, Moses says, "Beware that you do not forget the LORD your God by not keeping His commandments, His judgments, and His statutes which I command you today . . ."; and there, we see the need to obey to God. In verse 17, he says that we're to beware, lest you forget, "then you say in your heart, 'My power and the might of my hand have gained me this wealth"; and there, we see the need for actively thanking God. In verses 19-20, he says, "Then it shall be, if you by any means forget the LORD your God, and follow other gods, and serve them and worship them [which would be a misplaced "obedience" and "thanks"], I testify against you this day that you shall surely perish. As the nations which the LORD destroys before you, so you shall perish, because you would not be obedient to the voice of the LORD your God"; and there, we see the need for remembering God's past demonstrations of His greatness and faithfulness to us.
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There are many lessons for us in this passage concerning Thanksgiving. But let me close by drawing out just a few key concepts that are expressed in it. I believe these key concepts are what will enable us to truly "remember" God, "obey" Him, "thank" Him, and "beware" of the dangers when we enjoy the rich goodness He has poured out on us.
First, let's keep in mind what the hard times are for. They are intended to humble us and train us to trust Him so we can truly enjoy His rich blessings. Verse 16 says that, on the way to blessing, God allowed the people to hunger and depend upon Him for daily manna; "that He might humble you and that He might test you, to do you good in the end - " If we allow Him to take us through the humbling process through trials - allowing Him to wean us of our sense of self-sufficiency and to teach us to depend on His sufficiency instead - we will be embracing the right frame of mind to enter into the full enjoyment of His blessings. "Therefore," Peter writes, "humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you" (1 Peter 5:6-7).
A second important thing to keep in mind is who the rich blessings of life come from. They do not come from ourselves or our own efforts, but only from God. Verse 18 says, ". . . Remember the LORD your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth . . ." Even if we earn our wealth by our own labors or our own creativity and ingenuity, we must never forget that it was God who gives us the strength for our labors or the wisdom for our plans. We are always ultimately dependent upon Him. Paul wrote to the Corinthians and said, "For what makes you differ from another? And what do you have that you did not receive? Now if you did indeed receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?" (1 Cor. 4:7).
And finally, it's important to keep in mind that - just as He is able to give us the rich blessings of life to us when we trust Him - He is also able to take the rich blessings of life away if we ignore Him. We find this in verses 19-20; where Moses warns that if the people forget God and turn away from Him to other gods, "I testify against you this day that you shall surely perish. As the nations which the LORD destroys before you, so you shall perish, because you would not be obedient to the voice of the LORD your God." God was not being harsh and mechanical in saying this. Rather, He was being very 'fatherly': "You should know in your heart that as a man chastens his son, so the LORD your God chastens you" (v. 5).
By God's grace, may we keep these things in mind; and thus avoid the danger that comes from living richly in the land of plenty!
1Brown, Driver, Briggs, pp. 138-139.
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