I was reading from Deuteronomy 2 in family worship on Lord's Day last - and was caused to reflect on the stiffening of stubborn Sihon, the royal Giant Gileadite.
I was recounting to the family how, as after 38 years Yahweh commanded Israel to march north, God guarded sensitivities of cousins by a two-fold travel policy.
Moses was not to invite or provoke war: instead he was to offer pay & peace in exchange for passage & provisions, as they bypassed God-given territories of blood-brothers Edom, Moab & Ammon (Deuteronomy 2:2-23)
Once Israel forded the Jabbok, by contrast, Amorite land was up for grabs - God's pax is preached, but with provocative effect: like Braveheart met Longshanks, Sihon now fronts up for war. Just as Yahweh foretold, Heshbon's royal heart was hard - no quarter is given ensuring Amorite extermination, Israel's possession, believer edification & Yahweh glorification. This successful transjordanian taster of Canaan was just as pledged to patriarch Abraham (did Edom, Moab, Ammon & even Caphtorite Philistincs not have their God-given land? Then would the LORD not far more surely keep His gracious, homeland, Word?). Moses relives Bashan's Battle of Bannockburn flashpoint in Dt 2:26-34
26 "So I sent messengers from the wilderness of Kedemoth to Sihon the king of Heshbon, with words of peace, saying, 27 'Let me pass through your land. I will go only by the road; I will turn aside neither to the right nor to the left. 28 You shall sell me food for money, that I may eat, and give me water for money, that I may drink. Only let me pass through on foot, ...30 But Sihon the king of Heshbon would not let us pass by him, for the LORD your God hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, that he might give him into your hand, as he is this day. 31 And the LORD said to me, 'Behold, I have begun to give Sihon and his land over to you. Begin to take possession, that you may occupy his land.' 32 Then Sihon came out against us, he and all his people, to battle at Jahaz. 33 And the LORD our God gave him over to us, and we defeated him and his sons and all his people. 34 And we captured all his cities at that time and devoted to destruction every city, men, women, and children. We left no survivors - Deuteronomy 2:25-34
How was Heshbon Hardened?
The natural state of man's heart is one of malfunctioning hardness - minus softening heat of grace, waxy sinful human beings have hearts that remain or turn hard. God's judicial sentence of hardening on a miry millennium of cumulative Amorite sin, doubtless, also played a part - what was true of an Egyptian was also true in Heshbon.
Yet, beyond natural and naughty hardening, if we probe the means God used, it was the Gospel proclamation, preached long before to Abraham, in its National Mosaic phase, that acted as the "red rag to the Bull" not just of Heshbon, but also Bashan, and later Jericho. The offer of God's Peace to the Promised Possessor of Palestine sounded like a threat (not only to its strategic military outpost in Golan but also the trade & taxation from the nearby main toll route): this was the means, preaching of the Good News of the Redeemer of Israel's work, by which Moses lit the fuse of war & goaded Heshbon to mobilize for war, to its earthly & eternal hurt.
The Double Gospel-Effect
Actually, as I think about this more, is this not always the way? It is true that the apostle Paul illustrates the doctrines of election and reprobation using Jacob & Esau and also Egyptian Ruler Pharaoh - Sihon of Heshbon, though specifically noted by Moses, does not get a look in from the former member of the Sanhedrin: yet what is plain for the Gilead Giant is also true of Egypt's Egotist - when the Gospel came to the palace that Yahweh commanded His People be freed, in ignorance and arrogance Pharaoh hardened His heart - instead of compliant repentance & faith the stubborn sandcastle sovereign said "No!"
It is solemn to realize that preaching today sets listeners before God - for good or ill they attend the preaching of Gospel grace. Either they can be hardened by the message that they hear, like Pharaoh or Sihon, or they can be softened like Rahab of Jericho & be saved.
Listen to what she says about the Gospel discovered by Word of Mouth which, like a dove of peace, found a little nest in her heart & made the men swear a binding oath of covenantal faithfulness:
8 Before the men lay down, she came up to them on the roof 9 and said to the men, "I know that the LORD has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you. 10 For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you devoted to destruction. 11 And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the LORD your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath. 12 Now then, please swear to me by the LORD that, as I have dealt kindly with you, you also will deal kindly with my father's house, and give me a sure sign 13 that you will save alive my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death." - Joshua 2:8-13
How can we possibly convey the seriousness and urgency of the public eternal encounter with the event that is Gospel preaching - heaven or hell rests on hearers response: the Rahabs of this world are saved by sovereign softening grace, while the Sihons of this age will be sovereignly left to justly perish in their guilt. This is enough to humble us in dust, lift our lips in thanks, tremble at the truth and marvel "Why, Lord, us?" What magnificent mercy that puts our deserts on Christ!
There are many applications we could make from these texts: let me just mention three...
- Pray that God would open all our eyes & ears, by grace, to help us understand that Testaments Old and New are replete with Gospel truth - may God pardon us for acting like Marcionites (perhaps Professor David Whitla could do a blog on that Early Church topic!)
- Pray that God in His mercy would make our hearts increasingly responsive and tender to the gracious sovereign approach of the Word of the Gospel of Jesus - may the nest be warm and wide to accommodate more truth as we receive the Word of Christ through faith.
- Pray that God in His mercy would soften the hearts of many that are hard, as our wickedness-hardened hearts were once deservedly like theirs too, that they might not rebel like dig-in-heels Heshbon, and instead of drawing up battlelines in hostility to truth we might come meekly, humbly & trembling at the truth - that they & we might rejoice together in God's truth.