Moses had previously addressed God’s goodness to provide for His people since leaving Egypt (Deut 29:2-8), and called for them to commit themselves to the Lord for their own good (Deut 29:9-13) and the good of their children (Deut 29:14-15). Now Moses addresses the consequences of disobedience to the covenant if the people turn away from the Lord and adopt the idols and values of the pagan nations which surround them (Deut 29:16-29).
Moses opens this pericope by calling the people’s attention to those spiritually poor nations who did not know the Lord or His blessings, saying, “For you know how we lived in the land of Egypt, and how we came through the midst of the nations through which you passed; 17 moreover, you have seen their abominations and their idols of wood, stone, silver, and gold, which they had with them” (Deut 29:16-17). Here, Israel’s relationship with God was contrasted with Egypt from which they came, as well as the pagans nations through which they’d recently passed. Israel’s spiritual health and blessings could be seen in comparison to the surrounding pagan cultures. According to Kalland:
- "The statements “How we lived in Egypt” and “how we passed through the countries on the way here” (v.16) provide the locale and historic background for the people’s knowledge of the gods in those places and the nature of their worship. This is evident from the definite reference to the detestable images and idols that they saw among the people there (v.17).”
So that there would be no individual or national corruption, Moses said, “there will not be among you a man or woman, or family or tribe, whose heart turns away today from the LORD our God, to go and serve the gods of those nations; that there will not be among you a root bearing poisonous fruit and wormwood” (Deut 29:18). According to Radmacher, “Every individual man and woman was responsible to the community as a whole for his or her relationship to God. Since the entire community was covenanted to God Himself, every individual had to follow Him…Tolerance for idolatry and pagan practices would always corrupt the community, and therefore the covenant relationship with God.” And Kalland states, “The source of ‘bitter poison’ (v.18) was the person who turned away from the Lord to worship the gods of Egypt and those of the other nations that the Israelites passed through on their journey from Egypt to the plains of Moab.”Choices have consequences, and to worship idols is to sow the seeds of darkness and poison into one’s own heart, which not only corrupts the individual, but negatively impacts others.
The arrogant person who chose idolatry was his own worst enemy and would bring God’s curses upon himself. Moses said, “It shall be when he hears the words of this curse, that he will boast, saying, ‘I have peace though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart in order to destroy the watered land with the dry’” (Deut 29:19). For that person who walks in the stubbornness of his pride and pursues idols without repentance, Moses said, “The LORD shall never be willing to forgive him, but rather the anger of the LORD and His jealousy will burn against that man, and every curse which is written in this book will rest on him, and the LORD will blot out his name from under heaven” (Deut 29:20). God is always opposed to the proud, and as long as recalcitrance persists, there will be no forgiveness. God’s love reaches out to everyone, but when the prideful person rejects the Lord and His love, there is no other recourse to be saved or blessed. Rather, such a one will experience the Lord’s anger, and the curses mentioned in the law of Moses will fall upon him. To have one’s name blotted out from under heaven meant that he would die and not be remembered among his people, which was a grievous matter for those in the ancient world. If Israelites acted like pagans and devoted themselves to idols, they would, by their own decision, experience the same fate that Moses described would be for the Canaanites (Deut 7:24) and Amalekites (Deut 25:19), whose name and memory would be blotted out. Moses continued, saying, “Then the LORD will single him out for adversity from all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses of the covenant which are written in this book of the law” (Deut 29:21). To be singled out for adversity meant God targeted His judgment against the offender to deal with him according to the requirements of the law.
God’s judgment upon the disobedient was a display of His holy and righteous character, but it also had pedagogical value, to help future generations know how not to behave, and to see the consequences of sinful choices. Moses said, “Now the generation to come, your sons who rise up after you and the foreigner who comes from a distant land, when they see the plagues of the land and the diseases with which the LORD has afflicted it, will say, 23 ‘All its land is brimstone and salt, a burning waste, unsown and unproductive, and no grass grows in it, like the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, which the LORD overthrew in His anger and in His wrath’” (Deut 29:22-23). Because of the extreme wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah, God had destroyed those cities, as well as the two neighboring cities Admah and Zeboiim, and He did this as a display of His righteous judgment against them (Gen 19:24-25). Similarly, if God’s severe judgment were to fall upon Israel, it would draw the attention of surrounding nations. Moses said, “All the nations will say, ‘Why has the LORD done thus to this land? Why this great outburst of anger?’” (Deut 29:24). God intended for Israel to know His blessings, which would have testified positively to the surrounding nations (Deut 26:19; 28:1); however, by turning away from the Lord, He would use their destruction as a lesson to those who would see and question their downfall. God’s outburst of anger against His people would come if they violated the terms of the covenant and pursued idols. The surrounding Gentile nations would properly conclude, saying, “Because they forsook the covenant of the LORD, the God of their fathers, which He made with them when He brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Deut 29:25). Breaking the covenant meant that His people “went and served other gods and worshiped them, gods whom they have not known and whom He had not allotted to them” (Deut 29:26). Israel was a theocracy and God was their King, Lawgiver, and Judge (Isa 33:22), and to worship idols and serve other gods was tantamount to treason.
The choice of ongoing sinful actions would have very negative consequences for God’s people, as it would bring His judgment upon them, and rightfully so. Moses said, “Therefore, the anger of the LORD burned against that land, to bring upon it every curse which is written in this book; 28 and the LORD uprooted them from their land in anger and in fury and in great wrath, and cast them into another land, as it is this day” (Deut 29:27-28). According to Radmacher, “The nations were supposed to learn about God’s grace from Israel’s example; what a shame if they were to learn of His wrath instead!” It is true that God did display His anger among His people, and this because they repeatedly turned away from Him and pursued sin and idolatry. However, because it’s His nature, God was very slow to become angry with His people (Ex 34:6; Num 14:18; Neh 9:17; Psa 86:15; 103:8; 145:8-9; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2), and He was quick to forgive and show kindness when they humbled themselves, even in the slightest way (Neh 9:9-33). For example, King Ahab was a wicked ruler who reigned over Israel for twenty-two years (1 Ki 16:29), and Ahab “did evil in the sight of the LORD more than all who were before him” (1 Ki 16:30). By the end of Ahab’s life, it is written, “Surely there was no one like Ahab who sold himself to do evil in the sight of the LORD, because Jezebel his wife incited him. 26 He acted very abominably in following idols, according to all that the Amorites had done, whom the LORD cast out before the sons of Israel” (1 Ki 21:25-26). However, even wicked Ahab, after hearing God’s judgment against him (1 Ki 21:20-24), responded in humility and “tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and fasted, and he lay in sackcloth and went about despondently” (1 Ki 21:27). And God, because He is quick to show grace and mercy, turned from His anger against Ahab, saying to His prophet Elijah, “Do you see how Ahab has humbled himself before Me? Because he has humbled himself before Me, I will not bring the evil in his days, but I will bring the evil upon his house in his son’s days” (1 Ki 21:29). Even the most wicked, as long as they have breath, may taste the Lord’s goodness if they humble themselves before Him. God has certainly been patient with us (2 Pet 3:9).
Moses closed out this pericope, saying, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law” (Deut 29:29). Concerning this verse, Peter Craigie notes, “The law placed upon the people the responsibility of obedience, the result of which would be God’s blessing in the land they were going in to possess. This general principle was clearly revealed; obedience would lead to God’s continuing blessing, but disobedience would bring about the curse of God. To go beyond that and speculate about the future things (the secret things) was not man’s prerogative.” As Christians, we possess God’s Word to us, which provides particular insights into realities we could never know, except that He has spoken and His Words have been inscripturated (2 Tim 3:16-17). Charles Swindoll notes:
- “God keeps some knowledge to Himself. There are people who will tell you that they have access to this knowledge, claiming that God has given them a special revelation of His teaching. But God never contradicts Himself. The things He holds in secret are not a different truth that will erase the things we now know. They are simply things that only the Lord, in His infinite wisdom and power, can know. Everything that is essential for life has already been stated in God’s Word. We do not have need of any ‘extra’ revelation. It is enough to be accountable to all that He has already told us within the pages of this Book.”
Sadly, we know from Israel’s history, that the majority in Israel, from the leadership down, chose to turn away from the Lord and to walk in the stubbornness of their own hearts. And if we’re honest, this is the history of us all.
Historical Review of Israel
Factually, we know that after Moses died, God brought the Israelites into the land of Canaan under the leadership of Joshua (Deut 31:23; Josh 1:1-9), and there the land was divided, giving a portion to each of the descendants of Jacob. After Joshua died (Josh 24:29-31), Israel failed to obey the Lord and did not drive out the Canaanites as He’d instructed (Judg 1:20-21; 28-33; 2:1-4). By allowing the Canaanites to live among them, the Israelites were influenced by their pagan values and, over time, were corrupted by them. These sinful choices had an impact on their children—the third generation of Israelites since the exodus—and they turned away from the Lord and radically pursued idols, thus provoking the Lord’s anger (Judg 2:10-12). This went on for roughly 300 years as Israel fell into a pattern of idolatry (sin), after which God would send punishment (suffering), then the people would cry out to God (supplication), Who would relent of His judgment and send a judge to deliver them (savior), then the people would obey God for a time (service), and then fall back into idolatry (sin). The period of the Judges was generally marked by people who did not obey the Lord, but “did what was right in their own eyes” (Judg 17:6; 21:25).
Israel’s history changed during the time of Samuel, who was the last of Israel’s judges. The people of Israel cried for a king because they wanted to be like the other nations (1 Sam 8:4-5). God gave them their request (1 Sam 8:22), and Saul became the first king in Israel (1 Sam 10:1). Though Saul started well, he quickly turned away from the Lord and would not obey God’s commands. Saul reigned for approximately 40 years and his leadership was basically a failure (1 Sam 13:1; cf. Acts 13:21). Later, God raised up David to be king in Israel (1 Sam 16:1-13), and David reigned for 40 years and was an ideal king who followed God and encouraged others to do the same (1 Ki 2:10-11). God decreed David’s throne would be established forever through one of his descendants (2 Sam 7:16; Psa 89:3-4), and this is Jesus (Luke 1:31-33). Solomon reigned for 40 years after David (1 Ki 2:12; 11:42-43), and though He was wise and did many good things (ruled well, built the temple, wrote Scripture, etc.), he eventually turned away from God and worshiped idols (1 Ki 11:1-10), and the kingdom was divided afterward (1 Ki 11:11-41). The nation was united under Saul, David, and Solomon.
Israel—the northern kingdom—had 19 kings throughout its history and all were bad, as they led God’s people into idolatry (i.e. the “sins of Jeroboam” 1 Ki 16:31; 2 Ki 3:3; 10:31; 13:2). The ten northern tribes came under divine discipline because of their idolatry (2 Ki 17:7-18) and were destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 BC. Judah—the southern kingdom—had 20 kings throughout its history and 8 were good (some more than others), as they obeyed God and led others to do the same (they were committed to the Lord like David, 1 Ki 15:11). However, Judah repeatedly fell into idolatry—as the 10 northern tribes had done—and, because of their disobedience (Jer 11:6-11; 22:8-9), they were eventually destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC. The dispersion of Israel was promised by God if they turned away from Him and served other gods (Deut 28:63-68). Since the destruction by Babylon, Israel has been under Gentile dominance known as “the times of the Gentiles” (Luke 21:24; Rom 11:25). After a temporary regathering under Ezra and Nehemiah, Israel continued under Gentile dominance with the Medes & Persians, Greeks, and Romans. Because of their rejection of Jesus as Messiah, God disciplined Israel again in AD 70, and the Jews were scattered all over the world (Jam 1:1; 1 Pet 1:1). Israel’s current state is one of judgment (Matt 23:37-39), and a “partial hardening” (Rom 11:25). Israel will be restored when Messiah returns to establish His kingdom on earth (Rev 19:11-21; 20:4-6).
As Christians, God calls us to holy living (1 Pet 1:14-16), and to serve as lights in a sin-darkened world (Matt 5:14-16; Eph 5:8-10). Such a life is based on good choices we make, as we daily learn God’s Word (2 Tim 2:15; 1 Pet 2:2; 2 Pet 3:18) and walk by faith (2 Cor 5:7; Heb 10:38; 11:6). And, if we turn away from the Lord and commit egregious sins, or a lifestyle of ongoing carnality (1 Cor 3:1-4), then God will administer corrective suffering to bring us back into His will (Heb 12:5-11).
Living in a fallen world that is currently under Satan’s rule (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11; 2 Cor 4:4; 1 John 5:19), it is imperative that we live wisely (Eph 5:15-16), choose our friends carefully (2 Cor 6:14), and not allow ourselves to be corrupted by Satan’s world-system. And when we sin, it’s important that we keep short accounts and confess our sin regularly (1 John 1:9), are filled with the Spirit (Eph 5:18), and resume our walk with the Lord (Gal 5:16). In this way we will glorify God and be a blessing to others.
 Earl S. Kalland, “Deuteronomy,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), 182.
 Earl D. Radmacher, Ronald Barclay Allen, and H. Wayne House, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary (Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers, 1999), 264.
 Earl S. Kalland, “Deuteronomy,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 3, 182.
 Earl D. Radmacher, et al, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary, 264.
 Peter C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976), 360–361.
 Charles R. Swindoll, The Swindoll Study Bible, (Carol Stream, Ill. Tyndale House Publishers, 2017), 245.