WILDERNESS: The Seven Most Distressing Words in the Bible


May 20, 2020

Exodus 33:1-6 (NIV)

1 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Leave this place, you and the people you brought up out of Egypt, and go up to the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ 2 I will send an angel before you and drive out the Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. 3 Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go with you, because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way.”

4 When the people heard these distressing words, they began to mourn and no one put on any ornaments. 5 For the Lord had said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites, ‘You are a stiff-necked people. If I were to go with you even for a moment, I might destroy you. Now take off your ornaments and I will decide what to do with you.’” 6 So the Israelites stripped off their ornaments at Mount Horeb.


But I will not go with you,

Those are easily seven of the most distressing words in the whole bible. They are the outcome and impact of sin. Internalize them a bit and let them settle over you.

But I will not go with you,

God promises them the grace and help of a delivering Angel, and all the blessings of the “promised land,” but he opts out of going himself. Is this some kind of punishment? No. It is actually an enormous mercy.

But I will not go with you, because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way.

The presence of a holy God in the midst of a sinful people is a recipe for disaster. It is as though God were saying, “Better that you go without me and live than go with me and die.” 

It brings us back to our conversation about sin. I think we all have a lot of unlearning and relearning to do when it comes to our understanding of sin. I will speak for myself. I have mostly thought about sin in the same way I think about crime. With a crime all the focus is around the accused and the law. What did he do? How did he break the law? What was her intent? What was the motive? How should they be punished? 

As a result, we tend to think of mercy as a “get out of jail free card,” and grace as an expungement of the crime from our record. And this is the gospel truth, as far as it goes. It just stops way too soon. Why? Note the focus of this analysis: Me, myself, and I. Sin is defined as my failure, so salvation gets defined as my freedom. 

But what about the effects and impacts of my sin?

With sin, our tendency is to focus on the breaking of the law and how we get over “our problem” of having broken it. There is almost no thought given to this question: How did it break the lawgiver? Why does my sin grieve the heart of God? Even less thought goes into this question: How does my sin destroy my relationship with God? How does my sin damage other people’s relationship with God; not to mention how does my sin harm other people? 

When people like you and me, who mostly live in the United States of America, read the Bible, particularly as it speaks on sin and atonement, our question is how do we stay out of the doghouse or jail or worse, hell—which is another way of saying eternal jail. I believe God wants us to read the Bible with this primary question: How do we live in the presence of the one true, holy, and loving God in the wilderness?

The grace of God is not that he pardons our sin and keeps us out of hell-jail. The grace of God is that he loves us so much he desires us in his presence all the time, constantly, now and forever—world without end, Amen. It’s why the blood of Jesus speaks a better word. It’s why the Cross is not a transactional escape from death. It is life itself.

The life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus is not a transactional eternal benefits package. He is the forever embodied divine union of the holiness of God and the love of God. His life means death to the foes of God and his death means life to the friends of God; those being absolutely anyone, without exception, who will follow Jesus in his baptism of the Father’s Love and receive the gift of the Spirit of Holiness. This is the Resurrection Life of the Body of Christ—a people enveloped by the promises of God, saturated by his presence and filled with his power—which is a love whose holiness makes demons flee and a holiness whose love raises the dead—even me. 

But I digress. Or maybe not. 

God seemed to give the Israelites just what they wanted—the promised land without the pain of his presence. Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go with you, because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way.

Notice their response. They grieved.

When the people heard these distressing words, they began to mourn and no one put on any ornaments.

The Israelites did not want God’s promise without his presence. They decided that day that the presence of God was even greater than his promises. And that, my friends, is the whole nutshell. From the Garden of Eden to the present day, the essence of all sin is this: We want the promises of God without the presence of God. This is the miraculous mystery of the atonement of Jesus Christ—God will suffer unimaginable pain to keep his promise and gift us with his presence anyway. In the end, his greatest promise turns out to be his presence. That’s who we are dealing with out here in the wilderness. 


Father, reveal to me the deeper wisdom of your will and ways in the wilderness. I am undone by your mercy and remade by your grace. I am in awe of your humility that you would die in my place. I’m awakened by your glory, radiating from your face. I’m enamored by your goodness. And your presence, Lord, is even greater than your promises. In Jesus name, Amen.


So how about it today? What is going in you?

P.S. You are going to get a second email from me today. You are going to want to open that one. I am excited about it. It’s kind of a dream for me. 

For the Awakening,
J.D. Walt

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