In Deuteronomy, Moses takes up the task of explaining the Law to a new generation of Israelites who survived the 40 years of wilderness wandering (Deut. 1:5). In so doing, he recounts the nation’s dealings with God, including their failure at Mount Sinai. His intention is to warn this younger generation not to sin as their parents did and thus to avoid the hot anger of God. It serves as a warning to us also (cf. 1 Cor. 10:1-13). If we are to be wise, we must learn from the experience of others. Who better to learn from than those who met and encountered Yahweh?
In Deuteronomy 9:3, Moses reminds the people that God is a consuming fire. He corrects the notion that God chose them for their righteousness (Deut 9:6-7) and says instead that they have been a “stubborn people” from the start. As proof of this allegation, Moses reminds them of how they broke the covenant on the eve of Moses’ return with Ten Commandments in hand (Deut 9:8). Even before the nation could see the terms they had already agreed to, they had completely abandoned faith in their God and constructed and idol (Deut 9:12). Moses shattering the tablets engraved with the Ten Commandments is a graphic demonstration of that broken covenant (Deut 9:17).
The next verses are especially revealing. In Deut 9:18, Moses says he refrained from eating or drinking another 40 days in order to intercede for the nation. The NASB says, “as at the first.” The NIV says, “once again.” This means he fasted in addition to the 40 days he had already fasted when first meeting with God to receive the Ten Commandments. This shows us how severe the Israelites’ sin was. It would be bad enough if Moses said he fasted for 40 days; but for 40 more days in addition to the fast he had just finished? It is almost inconceivable that a man could survive such an undertaking. It’s almost as though Moses is saying, “I have to completely start over!” Indeed, we see this is exactly the case. For Moses would have to receive entirely new tablets indicating the renewal of an ill-lived covenant (Deut 10:1).
If we ask, “Why did Moses feel the need to fast for an additional 40 days and 40 nights?” the answer is given in the text. For Moses says in Deut 9:19, “Because I was afraid of the anger and hot displeasure with which the Lord was wrathful against you in order to destroy you” (emphasis mine). Notice the bolded words in that verse. There is no mistake here, but the Hebrew is hard to bring out into English. It almost sounds redundant, yet the fact is that there are three different Hebrew words denoting God’s anger here used all at once. You might translate it “the anger and hot wrath with which the Lord raged against you.” In other words, the Lord was really, really mad- so much so that He wanted to destroy all Israel (Deut 9:19).
It is at this point that we must pause and explain. God is not a fuming tyrant. He is not a child throwing a tantrum. God is not a man (Num 23:19), so we cannot come to this text with our human characterizations of Him. What we are witnessing is not out of control anger but instead a form of moral outrage. It is the intense anger you might feel when someone you know and love is senselessly ripped from your side by a person or group of persons dominated by hate. It is the jealousy such that a faithful wife might feel when her husband of twenty years becomes disinterested in their marriage and kids and decides instead to abandon all of it for a prettier woman.
God’s anger is always just, but sometimes we forget how intense it is. Again, consider that God was so angry that He felt inclined to wipe out Israel and start over with Moses (Deut 9:14). That is no small change to God’s plan! These people had supposedly secured God’s grace and were living in His presence. Now God, so betrayed, calls the entire relationship into question and threatens to cast off the people of His promise forever. So angry was God that He wanted to kill Aaron, the nation’s high priest (Deut 9:20). This is meant to shock us! “You mean, Aaron, the man responsible for presenting sacrifices for the nation, the man responsible for appeasing God’s wrath- he is now an object of God’s wrath? No one, except Moses, is closer to God than he is! What hope is there left?”
But by the grace of God, there was hope: Moses intercedes for the people. In Moses we see a model, a prototype of the ideal mediator between God and man. He is the stand-between for God and Israel. For the second time (cf. Gen 18:22-32), we see a picture of one man interceding on behalf of a large group of people. We see a man arguing with God (Deut 9:25-29). His argument is profound in its understanding of God’s nature and His primary motive for His glory; but it also appeals to His grace. They are, “Your people, even Your inheritance which You have brought out by Your great power and Your outstretched arm,” Moses says (Deut. 9:29, emphasis mine).
In Deuteronomy 9:27, Moses tells God to “remember your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; do not look at the stubbornness of this people or at their wickedness or their sin.” Essentially, Moses is saying to God, “Don’t look at their sin. Turn your attention elsewhere. Consider the grace you first gave to our fathers. Remember, and be faithful to us for their sake and for your sake.” This is grace: God’s ability to look past our sin, not counting it against us- all grace! (cf. Ps 130:3-4).
What we learn later in scripture is that God did indeed look past their sin (Rom 3:25); He did remember the covenant He made with Abraham, including the provision made in Genesis 22:8, 14, “The Lord will provide for Himself the lamb,” and “In your seed (i.e. Jesus) all the nations of the earth will be blessed” (vs. 18). Thus, in the midst of God’s anger we find surprising grace.
What can we take away from this passage?
We should learn to fear God’s intense anger and live soberly
Paul gives the Church a similar warning in 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 using Israel as an example. Truly, it is significant that both Paul and Moses saw that there was something to warn their people about. How many ministers today can be said to have warned their people about the dangers inherent within their own religion- of following the great God, Yahweh? Many Christians are unaware of how often warnings slip from the pens of Biblical writers- including the New Testament writers! Any claim that such severe warnings are native to the Old Testament is not borne out by the facts (See Mt 5:22, 6:15, 24:13, Acts 13:43, Rom 11:20-21, Heb. 4:1, 1 Pet 1:17, Jude 21, etc).In light of God’s intense anger, we have much reason to be fearful. Notice that in all the cited passages above, God directs His warning against those who already believed in Him- those supposedly already eternally secure. The entire point of Deuteronomy 9 is to warn professing believers in Yahweh of God’s wrath so that they might avoid His anger in the future. This fear is meant to keep us in the faith– to sustain our salvation, so to speak. God uses means to keep His elect eternally secure and one of those means is the conviction brought about by severe warnings like this one. Rather than rejecting fear as a motive for Christian living, we should take care not to harden our hearts to fear! Fearlessness before God is only spoken of as evil (Rom 3:18, cf. 2 Cor. 7:1).
We should live in thankful fear of His mercy
Thankful fear? Yes. Read Psalm 130:4-5 where the Psalmist thanks God for His forgiveness which is meant to inspire fear. Also, read 1 Peter 1:17-19 where Peter says the reason for our fear is that we know God will impartially judge us, believers, and that we are now even more culpable because we have partaken of redemption by the precious blood of Christ. That is to say, God will not show partiality to us if we reject His blood after once claiming it as our own.In Deuteronomy 9 and 10 God shows surprising grace and forgiveness. He does not bring to pass what He intended to do and does not destroy them (Deut 10:10). Instead He continues exactly where He left off: He reinstitutes the covenant He made with Israel, remakes the two tablets (Deut 10:1-5), reaffirms the special role of Aaron and his tribesmen (Deut 10:6-9), and reiterates that He is a God of love and grace (Deut 10:11, 15, 18 etc.) And you know what? After His surprising demonstration of mercy in the wake of their rebellion, the Israelites would have every reason to believe and fear Him.
“And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good?
 In case there is any confusion, I am not denying eternal security. I am only trying to be faithful to the scriptural text and acknowledging the reality that from a human point of view, if someone rejects Christianity and denies Christ, then they are lost. Of course, we might say those persons were never saved, never Christians, to begin with. But it is also true and Biblical that they have forfeited their only hope of salvation.