Sometimes, in a particular season of life, a passage or book of the Bible can grab hold of you and wrap its words around your soul. For me that book is Deuteronomy. For several years now it has been a faithful companion, its thinly veiled beauty stirring my heart and giving me a clearer picture of the God I have claimed to know.
I love it because it pulses with the hope of a new beginning. The Israelites are almost there. Egypt is finally behind them and the wandering has come to an end. The home they sang about when slavery broke their backs and bent their heads is so close they can almost touch it. Anticipation runs high as the dying flame of hope bursts into life once more.
As they stand there, poised between the dream and the reality, Moses tells the old tale once more. The story of a God who made a promise and then kept it against all the odds. A God who heard the cries of his people and rescued them, freeing slaves and making them sons.
Then, from the heart of this God to the heart of his people comes a plea to choose to live in the fullness of all that he is and all that he has done. Pursue me. Love me. Obey me. Make me your starting point, the goal of your journey and your strength along the way. Anchor yourselves in my words and my commandments so that you will know me and live like you are mine. Let me fight for you and guide you and hold you in my arms. Let me show you how I love you. Believe that you are the treasured children of the Most High God and then live like it is true. Choose life.
Heady with anticipation, the promises come quickly to their lips. Hearts full of all that he offers, they forge ahead into the Promised Land.
I love it because in many ways it is my story. I have stood there on the border so many times, awestruck by the goodness of a faithful God. Tired of wandering, and ready for so much more. Faith is strong, hope is real, and the promises come easily.
I need the story because it reminds me how easy it is to forget. Recently, I began to read the book of Lamentations. The contrast is astonishing. From the first verse it is a discordant wail that jars against the hope of Deuteronomy. A dark mirror image of all that could have been. Deathly silence in streets that should have been alive with worship. Mourning where there should have been feasting. All that was precious consumed by the effort to simply survive.
I find myself wondering how such a thing is possible. How does the drumbeat of hope and purpose that echoed across the plains of Moab become the anguished cry of Lamentations? After all that they have seen, how could they not be so consumed by Him that nothing else could steal their hearts?
Then I remember that the ground I stand on is so much richer than the plains of Moab. Even the stunning picture of God’s heart, running through Deuteronomy, pales beside the image of that same God hanging on a Roman cross, crushing the darkness of Lamentations with the weight of his love. How could I not be so consumed by Him that nothing else can steal my heart?
Yet so often I find myself walking in my own deserted streets. Restlessness where there should be peace. Anger where God longs to pour in his love. Stagnant pools fed by my own imagination instead of the renewing that comes from his word. Weariness where he longs to give me rest.
That’s when the anguish of Lamentations becomes my own. Then, just as the fingers of despair and guilt begin to tighten their grip, I remember a little verse in Deuteronomy 31 v.21 which astonished me when I first read it. It says “I know the intent which they are developing today, before I have brought them into the land which I swore. (NASB)” What did he know? He knew that the inevitable would happen. That good intentions would become bad choices. That the fire of passion would be dulled by the daily grind of life and that someday they would look around and realize their story had not turned out the way they thought it would.
He knew that they would take the gifts he gave them and twist and shape them into something they were never meant to be. He knew they would turn away and reject him, that those chosen to bear his image would instead deface it before a watching world.
He knew and yet he loved them.
Even as I make my promises, he knows that I will fall more often than I stand. He knows that my heart can be weak and that pain can take its toll on my resolve. He knows there will be times when I will stay silent rather than stand up and take his name. He knows that there is an inevitability to my story that every part of me wants to deny.
He knows and yet he loves me.
Not only that, knowing all that I am, he offers me the choice again. Pursue me. Love me. Obey me. Make me your starting point, the goal of your journey and your strength along the way. Anchor yourself in my words and my commandments so that you will know me and live like you are mine. Let me fight for you and guide you and hold you in my arms. Let me show you how I love you. Believe that you are the treasured child of the Most High God and then live like it is true. Choose life.
Then, once more, he fills my empty streets with singing and offers living water to my thirsty soul, reminding me that the steadfastness of his heart will always be greater than the waywardness of mine. That hope alone urges me to make the promises again and take another step in the direction of home.
Heidi Johnston is the author of Life in the Big Story and is currently the Rabbit Room’s only Irish contributor. She studied law at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and now, amongst other things, teaches a class on “Poetic and Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament” at Belfast Bible College. Heidi is passionate about getting people to engage with the Bible and has a fascination with the book of Deuteronomy.