God's Response to Israel's Evil Return
Moses structured his Song so that “C” correlates with “C2.”
“C” is Deut. 32:15-19, where we see how Israel “forsook the God who made him” and provoked God to jealousy by following after foreign gods. God tells Israel “You neglected the Rock who begot you,” so God in turn “spurned them” as rebellious sons and daughters.
“C2” is Deut. 32:34-38 and is God’s secondary response to Israel’s evil return. The first response, of course, was divine judgment on account of Israel’s refusal to keep its vow in the Exodus Covenant. But now we see a different divine response, based upon God’s unconditional oath under the Deuteronomy Covenant.
Both responses involve divine judgment, but with very different results. God’s response under the Exodus Covenant—that is, the Old Covenant—takes into consideration only Israel’s refusal or inability to keep its vow. We see from history that regardless of how much judgment was heaped upon Israel, this disciplinary tactic did not bring about a change of heart, but only a temporary change in their behavior. Judgment could only attempt to coerce them to comply with the law for a time, but it could not change their hearts.
In C2 we see how God’s judgment under the Deuteronomy Covenant results in an actual change of heart. Deut. 32:34-36 says,
34 Is it not laid up in store with Me,
Sealed up [chatham] in My treasuries?
35 “Vengeance [naqam] is Mine, and retribution,
In due time their foot will slip;
For the day of their calamity is near,
And the impending things are hastening upon them.”
36 For the Lord will vindicate His people,
And will have compassion [nakam] on His servants;
When He sees that their strength is gone,
And there is none remaining, bond or free.
Sealed up in God’s Treasuries
In verse 34 God claims to have a secret weapon in His storehouse, or “treasury,” which He will bring forth as the solution to Israel’s rebellion. He gives us a hint about it, saying it is “sealed up in My treasuries.” The Hebrew word for “sealed up” is chatham, “to seal up, seal, affix a seal.”
This seal was broken in the New Testament, revealing God’s secret weapon. Paul tells us in Eph. 1:13,
13 In Him, you also, after listening to the message of Truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were SEALED [sphragizo] in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise.
The Greek word that Paul uses in this verse is sphragizo, “to set a seal upon, to mark with a seal, to seal.”
Is sphragizo the Greek equivalent to the Hebrew word chatham? Yes, for the rabbinic translators of the Septuagint used sphragizo when translating chatham in Deut. 32:34. The Septuagint was the accepted standard by which Hebrew words and definitions were expressed in Greek. Paul understood this well, because he often quoted from the Septuagint in His gospels.
Therefore, when Paul says we have been SEALED with the Holy Spirit, he clarifies the obscurity in Moses’ Song. The Holy Spirit is God’s secret weapon that He was holding in His treasury, or hidden storehouse. This weapon was to be taken out and utilized under the New Covenant that would turn the hearts of the people.
Moses then says in verse 35, “Vengeance is Mine, and retribution.” This is one of those passages that make some believe that the Old Testament God is different from Jesus Christ, who came to forgive and to give grace to all. But a closer look shows us that the very opposite is true.
First of all, Paul quotes this in Rom. 12:19, where we are told not to take vengeance—at least not in the common way of carnal thinking. Rom. 12:20, 21 gives us the proper way to take vengeance according to the mind of God,
20 But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head. 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Why should we act this way? Is it not because Jesus would do this? Is Jesus not the God of the Old Testament? Yes, this defines the “vengeance” of God. This is the “retribution” of God when “payback time” arrives. Paul was NOT telling Christians to act in a loving manner but expect God to act “vengeful.” Paul was telling us to define “vengeance” in the way that God does and to take “vengeance” in the way that Christ would.
Such vengeance will “heap burning coals” upon the heads of the enemy. In other words, it is as if we lay hands upon their head and administer the Holy Spirit upon them. This is our “vengeance.” We are to “overcome evil with good,” NOT because we are to act differently from God, but because we are to imitate Him in His character and in His actions.
The goodness of God did not change the heart of Israel under the Old Covenant, but it will certainly succeed under the New Covenant. The difference is the Holy Spirit, God’s secret weapon in His war against rebellion and lawlessness.
Hence, by the mind of Christ, we may understand Deut. 32:35 to mean:
35 Vengeance is Mine, and My retribution will overcome evil with good,
In due time their foot will slip from their rebellious stance;
For the day of their calamity (fall or collapse) is near,
And the impending things are hastening upon them.
The manner in which God takes vengeance under the New Covenant is His secret weapon that is truly effective in changing the hearts of men. There is judgment even under the New Covenant, but it is the judgment of a father, not of a judge. Heb. 12:6 says,
6 For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives.
So in the Song of Moses, we read in Deut. 32:36,
36 For the Lord will vindicate His people,
And will have compassion [nakam, “comfort”] on His servants.
The Hebrew Scriptures often use naqam with nakam as a play on words, because they sound almost identical. As God defines and applies these words, it turns out that they really have almost identical meanings, even though one is translated “vengeance” and the other “compassion” or “comfort.”
The prophet Nahum is named Nakam, and his name means “comforter.” Likewise, Nehemiah, or Nakam-Yah, is “Comforter of Yahweh.” Both prophets reveal the “Comforter,” or Holy Spirit (John 14:26; 15:26, KJV) that was to come to fulfill God’s oath or promise of the New Covenant. The Comforter’s purpose is to bring “vengeance” by overcoming evil with good.
Isaiah 40:1, 2 tells us,
1 “Comfort, O comfort My people,” says your God. 2 Speak kindly to (New) Jerusalem; and call out to her, that her warfare has ended, that her iniquity has been removed, that she has received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
The Hebrew word translated “comfort” is nakam. How is this accomplished? “She has received…double (restitution) for all her sins.” What is the result of such judgment? “Her iniquity has been removed.” In other words, when judgment is administered by the Holy Spirit, the result is that iniquity is removed.
Isaiah is in two sections. Section 1 consists of the first 39 chapters, which correlate with the 39 books of the Old Testament. Section 2 consists of 27 chapters, which correlate with the 27 books of the New Testament. Hence, Isaiah 40 is the opening line of the New Covenant, and it speaks of the Holy Spirit working in our hearts to remove iniquity from our hearts.
Not by the works of Men
When the Song of Moses says that God will “have compassion” (nakam, “comfort”) on His servants, he reveals the secret weapon in God’s treasury—the Holy Spirit—by which our hearts are “sealed up” and secured in righteousness. It will not be by works or by the strength of Israel’s vow to God in Exodus 19:8, for the Holy Spirit is sent after Israel has been proven incapable of obtaining that righteousness by their own strength or will power.
Hence, Moses says in Deut. 32:36, “When He sees that their strength is gone, and there is none remaining, bond or free.” What does he mean? The Hebrew word translated “strength” is yad, “hand,” which denotes men’s works. The tenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet is yod, or yood, which means the same thing. Ten is the number of the law, or specifically, “the works of the law,” as Paul puts it in Rom. 3:20.
So Moses tells us that when the people—whether bond or free—come to the end of their strength, realizing that their works (hand, ability) of the law cannot save them, the Holy Spirit will be sent to do for them what they could not do for themselves. In this way God will fulfill His oath to write the law in their hearts.
The Divine Challenge to False Gods
Moses continues in Deut. 32:37, 38,
37 And He will say, “Where are their gods,
The rock in which they sought refuge?
38 Who ate the fat of their sacrifices,
And drank the wine of their libation?
Let them rise up and help you,
Let them be your hiding place!”
Here God challenges the other gods to do what Yahweh can do. Which other gods has a Holy Spirit that is capable of changing the hearts of men? Israel had “sought refuge” with those other gods, thinking that they could save them. God says, “Let them rise up and help you.” But God’s challenge is met with humiliating silence, for those gods can only command their people to follow their laws and can only discipline them when they break those laws.
Although the laws of those gods differ from God’s law in many ways, all of those other gods follow an Old Covenant method of salvation that proves inadequate in the end. Yahweh’s secret solution to Israel’s lawlessness is thus revealed, the Comforter which no other god possesses. In this way the heart of Israel is changed, along with all men who are filled with the Spirit.