Moses is speaking to the people of Israel, reviewing their history before they cross the Jordan into their future, and reminding them of the commands of the Lord which will be so vital for their survival.
Moses tells them, "Make sure that you obey the Word, because that's going to be your secret to life and survival." He also reminds them not to forget what's happened in the wilderness these past forty years.
Many times, we think of the forty years in the wilderness as simply punishment for unbelief. Certainly it was for those who doubted and died in the desert. But its purpose was more than two-dimensional. Here we see another reason for those years:
Deut. 8:2 "...God has led you in the wilderness these forty years, that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not."
For this generation, the wilderness years were a test to show what was in their hearts - whether they would stay true to the Lord. This has immense practical application for us as well. You see, if you've been a Christian, you know that there are times in your life when you feel helpless and lost - even like you're wandering in circles.
Have you considered that these times might be for the purpose of showing where you are in the Lord? That the reason for the times of desert dryness is to see how you'll respond?
The true nature of relationships is always revealed during tough times. Some are shown to be strong, others proven to be shallow. There are people who say they love you, but bail out at the first sign of trouble. Others stay with you through thick and thin. Some demonstrate that they are simply "fair-weather friends," while others are at your side no matter what.
Our relationship with God is proven at these times as well. While many people give up on the Lord during difficulties, we must be those who sing, "Forever my heart is Yours," and mean it. Truly, trying times are tests that show our true heart. Our real feelings for the Lord are revealed in adversity and troublesome times. Will you adhere to Him or abandon Him? Will you draw near, or run away?
Although God allowed His people to be in that difficulty, He also provided for them miraculously. When the people were hungry and lacking food, the Lord said,
Ex. 16:4 "Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you..."
He did just that. But the people had no idea what it was.
Ex. 16:15 When the sons of Israel saw it, they said to one another, "What is it?" For they did not know what it was. And Moses said to them, "It is the bread which the LORD has given you to eat.
Ex. 16:31 The house of Israel named it manna, and it was like coriander seed, white, and its taste was like wafers with honey.
"Manna" comes from the Hebrew root "maw," meaning, "what?" "Manna" literally means, "What is it?"
They didn't know what it was. It certainly wasn't the provision they were expecting. In Egypt they'd eaten fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic (Num. 11:5). They probably would expect provision along these lines. But it was...
Deut. 8:3 ...manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know...
God's provision is not always given in the manner with which we expect. Oftentimes, while we're waiting for the expected answer, the Lord surprises us with something totally different.
That is why we need to stop looking for the provision itself and start looking to the promises of the Provider. That was the lesson they were supposed to learn from the manna. Moses said that the reason for their hunger, and the reason for the miraculous provision were...
Deut. 8:3 ...that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD.
Don't look for Egyptian fish. Don't look for an Arby's in the wilderness. Simply trust that what the Lord has spoken, He will do. You can know that if the promise is made, it will be kept. You can live on that.
It was while applying this very same principle that Jesus quoted this verse:
Matt. 4:1-4 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He then became hungry. And the tempter came and said to Him, "If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread." But He answered and said, "It is written, 'MAN SHALL NOT LIVE ON BREAD ALONE, BUT ON EVERY WORD THAT PROCEEDS OUT OF THE MOUTH OF GOD.'"
Jesus was hungry and could have easily thought, "stones to bread. What a great idea! After all, I've been watching for the provision - this must be it!" But because Jesus was looking to the promise of the Provider, rather than the provision itself, He refused. He knew that the Father would care for Him, and in fact, the provision was coming soon. We read that after the devil left Him...
Matt. 4:11 ...behold, angels came and began to minister to Him.
Jesus chose to live on the Word of God, rather than on bread alone.
Along the same lines, God will often provide in the opposite way we're expecting. In other words, instead of providing, He will often prevent the need for provision.
What do I mean? Well, no doubt the Israelites must have thought, "What are we going to do for clothes? I don't have enough to last for forty years in the desert!"
But instead of miraculously providing changes of clothing, the Lord simply made their clothes indestructible. Their clothing didn't wear out.
Or they could have thought, "What happens if I get a medical problem that keeps me from walking? I'll be in a terrible situation then." But once again, instead of providing doctors and medication, the Lord simply kept their feet from swelling.
As I look back on my Christian life, I can see that God has always either provided, or prevented the need for provision. He will provide a doctor, or make sure that your feet don't swell.
Now we see another dimension to the wilderness wandering: discipline.
As difficult as it is for some to accept, God does discipline His people. But the important thing to remember is that when He disciplines us, He's proving that He loves us. The proverb says,
Prov. 13:24 He who withholds his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him diligently.
And the writer of Hebrews reminded us,
Heb. 12:5-6 "...DO NOT REGARD LIGHTLY THE DISCIPLINE OF THE LORD, NOR FAINT WHEN YOU ARE REPROVED BY HIM; FOR THOSE WHOM THE LORD LOVES HE DISCIPLINES AND HE SCOURGES EVERY SON WHOM HE RECEIVES."
Another aspect of the disciple of the Lord is, "How can we recognize when the Lord is disciplining us?" We can get an idea of how He does from His Word. Remember that back in chapter four we were told,
Deut. 4:36 "...He let you hear His voice to discipline you..."
There are times when the discipline will come in the form of God's Word - aimed directly at our hearts.
Or, as here, we see that the difficulties, the hunger, and humbling that they experienced during the forty years of wandering in the wilderness was discipline from God. Thus, there are times when discipline from God comes in the form of difficult circumstances.
Another form of discipline is seen in 1Corinthians 11. Paul rebuked the Corinthians for having a casual and irreverent attitude when they took Communion. He said,
1Cor. 11:29-32 For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly. For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep. But if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world.
Some had died, others were sick or weak. This is yet another way that the Lord may bring discipline to us at times.
Now, I don't believe that every time you're sick or in difficulty that God is disciplining you. But situations like that are always a good opportunity to examine your heart and walk. See if it may be discipline.
That is, after all, the purpose of God's discipline in our lives - so that we will repent and have a better walk with Him. Hebrews twelve says,
Heb. 12:10-11 ...He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.
Discipline's purpose is growth - fruit in our lives. Holiness and righteousness. That's why...
Prov. 13:1 A wise son accepts his father's discipline, but a scoffer does not listen to rebuke.
We can see how silly it is to get angry at God for disciplining us. It's for our benefit.
Prov. 15:32 He who neglects discipline despises himself, but he who listens to reproof acquires understanding.
Thus, God disciplines us because He loves us, and wants us to respond with acceptance and repentance. Jesus said,
Rev. 3:19 "Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent."
So Moses tells them to stay close and obedient to the Lord. But He also warns them of what could (and eventually did) happen:
Deut. 8:10-11 "When you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land which He has given you. Beware that you do not forget the LORD your God by not keeping His commandments..."
That is always the danger of things going too well - we get too comfortable, and grow too forgetful. The fear of Agur comes to pass. You recall that he prayed,
Prov. 30:8-9 ...Feed me with the food that is my portion, that I not be full and deny You and say, "Who is the LORD?"
He knew that if he got too comfortable, he would not rely on the Lord. Moses knew the same thing, and warned them. This has always been a problem for the people of God. Because God wants to bless them abundantly, yet with abundance comes forgetfulness and independance. Jesus told the church in Laodicea,
Rev. 3:15-17 "I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth. Because you say, 'I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,' and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked"
How's life going lately? Are you comfortable? Things all working out the way you'd hoped? Bills are paid, family's good, job is secure? Make sure that you don't wander away from the Lord during this time of abundance.
If they forget the Lord, they will certainly perish. They are told, "Hey! Reminder! God did this, not you! All these provisions were miracles, not coincidences! Your protection was not from your strength, but from your God!"
Moses reminds them of several miracles in their recent history. We have reviewed the miracle of bread from heaven, and several times recently we have been reminded of the miracles of water from the rock. In either case, it would have been impossible for the Israelites to endure on their own.
Additionally, Moses gave them another example of when they faced impossible odds: the time when fiery serpents were biting the people. This happened in Numbers 21.
Num. 21:4-6 ...the people became impatient because of the journey. The people spoke against God and Moses, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this miserable food." The LORD sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.
Even in the midst of judgment, God made provision. He said,
Num. 21:8-9 ..."Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live." And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived.
Nice little footnote in Israel's history, that might have been largely forgotten, had not Jesus told Nicodemus,
John 3:14-15 "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life."
The idea that leads up to John 3:16 is this: that serpent Moses lifted up was a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ!
You see, bronze is the metal which symbolizes judgment in the Bible. For example, the altar of sacrifice, where sins were judged, was made of bronze. When Christ returns to judge the world, He is described as having feet of burnished bronze.
Secondly, the serpent is a symbol of sin. It was the way sin entered the world in Genesis, it is the way sin was punished in Numbers.
Thirdly, the standard was a wooden pole with a crosspiece to display the flag of the various tribes.
So the picture being painted here is that Moses was lifting up a representation of sin being judged on a cross. Whoever was bitten by the judgment and dying for their sin could look to it in faith and be healed! Whoever was bitten and refused to look would die in their sins.
What a perfect example Moses is using! They would have died of starvation if not for God's provision of manna. They would have died of thirst if not for God's provision of water from the rock. They would have died of snakebite if not for God's provision of the bronze serpent. And all of us would die in our sin if it were not for God's provision of His Son Jesus Christ