Have you ever bitten off more than you can chew? Maybe you’ve done it literally, but I’m thinking more along the metaphorical lines. Have you ever agreed to do something only to discover the commitment far surpassed your ability? As you struggle with the task, and eventually fail at the task, you ask yourself that wonderful question: “What was I thinking?”
That is the way I look at Exodus 19:8. The Israelites are gathered around Sinai, receiving the Law of God- entering into covenant with their glorious God- and they declare “All that the LORD has spoken, we will do!” When I read that verse, I ask myself “What were they thinking?”
What do you think of that statement? It sounds like a great declaration of commitment, doesn’t it? It sounds like something we would expect a good Christian to say. But, when we think about Israel’s history and how miserably they failed to do the very thing they committed to in Exodus 19, the statement seems incredibly foolish.
The entire of history of the nation reveals their inability to do what they declared that day at Mount Sinai. Their history is failure after failure after failure.
However, I’m really glad this foolish statement is recorded for us in the Bible. It, along with the history that follows, serves as part of a Divine Object lesson. It teaches us about our nature (our inability), God’s nature (the amazing holiness and obedience His character demands), and our desperate need for the Gospel (because of the colossal difference between these two natures).
It shows us why we too misplace our confidence, why we too put our trust in our own ability and wisdom instead of in God. And when we understand this statement in the light of the totality of the scriptures, it serves to teach us how we can overcome this temptation to put our confidence in ourselves.
So, what was wrong with Israel’s statement made that day at Sinai?
First, it revealed something about them that is often so true of us. We often overestimate our nature.
They did. Look again at their statement: “All that the LORD has spoken we will do.” Or as the NIV has it “We will do everything the LORD has said.” But in just a few short chapters we see the foolishness of these words.
You remember chapter 32, right? There you find Moses, up on the mountain, still receiving the full instructions, the Law from God. And what is going on while Moses is up on the mountain? What are these “we can do it” people up to?
Now when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people assembled about Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who will go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Aaron said to them, “Tear off the gold rings which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” Then all the people tore off the gold rings which were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. He took this from their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool and made it into a molten calf; and they said, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 32:1-4)
How well are they doing at keeping their declaration? Moses hasn’t even gotten off the mountain and they’re breaking God’s law and violating His covenant with them!
And this is the story of Israel’s history. This scene of the golden calf (of blatant disobedience) just keeps repeating itself throughout the Old Testament.
Do you remember what eventually happened to this group that gathered around Mount Sinai and made this declaration? Did they make it into the Promised Land? No. Because of their continual disobedience, they died in the wilderness as God’s judgment for not being obedient to Him!
But they aren’t the only ones who find their heart filled with rebellion that manifests itself in blatant disobedience, are they? This powerful narrative serves to remind us of our own inability, a point the rest of Scripture pulls no punches in backing up.
Do you remember these words of our Savior?
I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. (John 15:5)
Jesus is teaching us about our own inability, even as believers. We can obey, we can do what is right and please God, only when we trust in Him and rely on Him.
When we think we’ve got it handled by ourselves, we are in for a world of hurt!
But why do we fail so miserably? Why can’t we trust in our own ability? Why did Israel (and many, many others) fail when they relied on their own strength?
We overestimate our own ability because we underestimate our heart.
Here, we need to let Jeremiah speak: “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).
The prophet tells there is something seriously wrong with our nature; we have a damaged heart and it cannot be trusted. It wants its own way, trusts in its own wisdom, and believes it is able to deliver. And when we trust it, when we underestimate its wickedness and overestimate its ability, that is when we find our mouth has made a guarantee that our ability just can’t back up.
Israel’s failure looks an awful lot like mine. It begins when I think that, in my own strength, I can do it.
In the next post, we’ll continue exploring this topic of the foolishness of spiritual self-confidence, moving our attention from an overestimation of our nature to an underestimation of God’s.