“See now that I, even I, am He, and there is no god beside Me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of My hand” (Deuteronomy 32:39).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
The Lord contrasts the worthlessness of the false gods and idols that many of the people of Israel had been worshiping with the greatness of Himself. “See now that I, even I, am He, and there is no god beside me” (v 39). The repetition of “I” by the Lord here is emphatic! That is, “I and only I am God. There is no other God.” This is the name by which God revealed Himself to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM,” in Exodus 3:14.
The Lord is the living God, the only true God, which He reveals in His Word and in His actions, and which the people of Israel had experienced, seen, and heard. The Lord reminds them, “I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of My hand” (Deuteronomy 34:39). The Lord is God and He alone holds absolute power over His creation. There is no one and no thing as powerful as the living God.
God had certainly proved that! Over the past 40 years, as Moses was recording God’s words of our text, the Lord had constantly demonstrated His almighty power on Israel’s behalf. He had killed the firstborn of Egypt to bring His people out of slavery, but he had saved His people by passing over the homes of those marked with the blood of the Passover lamb. He had killed Pharaoh and his army in the waters of the Red Sea but had saved His people by parting the sea and allowing them to pass through on dry land. He had struck the people down when they continuously grumbled about lack of variety in their diet but had given life by providing food and water in the desert. God had wounded Israel herself by sending venomous serpents when they had murmured, but He had healed them when they looked in faith to the bronze serpent raised up on a pole.
Time and time again, the Lord had shown that He was the mighty God. No God of the Egyptians or Amalekites or Canaanites would ever be able to deliver their people out of His hand. Who would ever mock Him?
God knew—and Moses knew—that all too soon God’s own people would. They now stood on the edge of the Promised Land. Moses was soon going to die and be replaced by a new leader. And so quickly the people would begin to choose for themselves other gods. Our text is from a song Moses gave the people, one last reminder of the foolishness of deserting God, for the Lord is not mocked. Rather, the Lord Himself mocks all false gods and seeking any refuge in them. “Where are their gods, the rocks in which they took refuge, who ate the fat of their sacrifices and drank the wine of their drink offering? Let them rise up and help you; let them be your protection!” (v. 37-38).
By pointing out the inabilities of these false and foreign gods, the Lord is focusing the people on what He has done and what He will do. We see this same move in the ten plagues as the Lord prepares to bring His people out of Egypt. Every plague is directed toward one of the gods of Egypt, even including the death of the son of the god Pharaoh. Then for good measure, the Lord kills the false god Pharaoh in the Red Sea, too.
God’s prophets often have a little fun mocking the gods that men make for themselves, too. As the prophets of Baal called to their god, “O Baal, answer us!”, Elijah taunted, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened” (1 Kings 18:26-27).
Isaiah goes on a riff about the folly of idolatry. The ironsmith takes a fine piece of iron that would have made a good axe and turns it into a worthless idol. The carpenter takes a piece of wood, burns half of it in the fire to roast a little meat and to give him momentary heat. The other half, he carves into an idol and bows down to it (Isaiah 44:9-20).
Through Jeremiah, the Lord mocks those who cut down a tree, decorate it with silver and gold, nailed in place so it cannot move. These idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field that cannot speak, cannot walk, and need not be feared for they can do neither evil nor good (Jeremiah 10:3-5). It’s laughable that people trust things so flimsy.
Except that we do, don’t we? We trust ourselves. We trust our talents and skills. We trust our paycheck and 401k. We trust our family ties or private accomplishments. We trust in our patriotism, political leanings, or cultural heritage. We look for health and safety in the opinions of experts and the advancements of medical science. We place our hopes the titans of technology and look to social media influencers for validation. The pantheon of our gods would put the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans to shame.
The ultimate idolatry is pride, wanting to be God, not listening to God, and that is the very essence of every sin. In the Large Catechism, Luther taught that the First Commandment was first and foremost of the Ten Commandments, and that if we could keep the First, then we could keep all the others:
This is exactly the meaning and true interpretation of the first and chief commandment, from which all the others must flow and proceed. So this word, “You shall have no other gods before Me” [Exodus 20:3], in its simplest meaning states nothing other than this demand: You shall fear, love, and trust in Me as your only true God. For where there is a heart set in this way before God, that heart has fulfilled this commandment and all the other commandments. On the other hand, whoever fears and loves anything else in heaven and upon earth will keep neither this nor any of the commandments. So then all the Scriptures have everywhere preached and taught this commandment, aiming always at these two things: fear of God and trust in Him. The prophet David especially does this throughout the Psalms, as when he says “the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear Him, in those who hope in His steadfast love” [Psalm 147:11]. He writes as if the entire commandment were explained by one verse, as if to say, “The Lord takes pleasure in those who have no other gods.”[i]
We each act out our sinful natures by sinning in thought, word, and deed and are guilty of breaking not only the First, but all of God’s Commandments. We’ll cheer our own political candidate, but fail to pray for, honor, and obey those elected leaders we disagree with. We run down the co-worker we don’t get along with, failing to see their words and actions in the best possible light. We’ll look at the nice house on the other side of town and think about how unfair it is that we don’t have one like it. We’ll gaze a little too long and longingly at that gorgeous man or woman who isn’t our spouse. We’ll justify skipping church because we have a conflict in our schedule. We’ll promise to remain faithful to God and His Church until death and then bolt at the first sign of conflict.
But the Scriptures teach that such idolatry always results in death. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23a). “The soul who sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:4b). Judgment Day is coming, and God will administer judgment in regard to sin. He will wound, no, kill all who deny Him—and no one will be able to deliver out of His hand.
How then shall the Lord be toward us who have failed to fear, love, and trust in Him above all things (v 39)?
Well, that depends. Will we see “[our] power is gone” (v 36)? More specifically, will we see that we have no power to resist Him, no power to make our own way or to deal with other gods, that we ourselves make sorry gods? Will He see repentance of all our idolatry?
If so, then Moses writes, “The Lord will vindicate His people and have compassion on His servants, when He sees that their power is gone” (v 36). He kills, but He also makes alive; He wounds, but He also heals. That, Luther says, is a perfect summary of the Law and Gospel.
Yes, the wages of sin is death—that’s Law—but there’s a second part to that verse that is Gospel: “but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23b). And in God’s economy, the Gospel is always the final word. God has had compassion on us, His servants, by charging our sin to Jesus and then making Him the sacrifice in payment for the guilt of our sin.
Jesus rode in on the donkey to the shouts of “Hosanna!” and “Blessed be the One who comes in the name of the Lord.” But the cheering of Palm Sunday would soon be replaced by mocking: soldiers blindfolding Jesus and asking, “Prophesy, who struck you?” Herod mocking him with purple robe; Jewish rulers scoffing at the cross, “He saved others; He can’t save Himself. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down from the cross that we may see and believe” (Mark 15:31-32); the impenitent thief: “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39).
God is not mocked; He could have stricken all of them dead with a word. Instead, He speaks with compassion: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). And to the penitent thief who saw his power was gone, “Today, you will be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:
On the Last Day, the Lord will vindicate His people, that is, when He brings judgment on those who despise Him and have left off following Him. On that day, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10). “Each of us will give an account of himself to God” (Romans 14:12). Those who have mocked the Lord or rejected His grace “will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:46).
The Lord will have compassion on His servants, on you and me, who have believed on His name. The compassionate God sacrificed His Son to redeem us from our sin and to provide for us the gift of everlasting life. We are saved from the guilt of our sin by the grace of God. May He bless us in the most holy days ahead as we hear and receive again the Passion—and compassion—of our God.
Go in the peace of the Lord and serve your neighbor with joy. You are forgiven for all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Ronald M. Garwood, “God Is Not Mocked”, Concordia Pulpit Resources, Volume 23, Part 2, February 17-May 19, 2013, Series C. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, p. 25-26.