In Deuteronomy 4, after having warned the people not to make or worship false gods, Moses declared that “…the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God” (v.24). In the minds of many people, this is a typical Old Testament description of the God of Israel. It is popular to convey an image of a vengeful, mean, angry God, who enjoys destroying pagan nations while they are simply minding their own business and hurting no one (other than the humans they were sacrificing to their false gods, of course.) The next few verses would seem to bear this out, as Moses described what would happen after the people entered the land of Canaan and succumbed to the idolatry that plagued the land. God’s anger would quickly be kindled (v.25), and severe judgment would fall upon the Israelites. They would not remain long in the promised land (v.26), but would be scattered among the Gentile nations (v.27), where they would be surrounded by the idolatry they had chosen (v.28). The threat of such a violent tearing away of the people from Canaan was shocking, for God had committed himself to give the Israelites that land. From this dire warning, we might be tempted to believe that the God of the OT is capricious and petty, after all, but Moses’ next words to the people reflect a very different view of God.
God would never abandon his people whom he had chosen, and even when they were scattered in a foreign land, he would not be far from them (v.29). He knew that they would repent of their sin and once again obey him (v.30), and the promise of v.31 provides a very remarkable picture of God. Though his blessing may be removed, and his wrath poured out on them, he would never leave them. Even though they may be scattered and defenseless, he would never allow them to be completely destroyed. His faithfulness to keep the covenant he had made with their fathers was not based on their obedience but on his eternally compassionate nature. Only a merciful God such as this would create man, knowing he would rebel against his love. Only a merciful God such as this would choose the Israelites to be his people, knowing they would turn to idols. Only a merciful God such as this would choose Gideon to be a warrior, Samson to be a judge, David to be a king, Jeremiah to be a prophet or Joshua to be a high priest. Only a merciful God such as this would endure Nathanael’s prejudice, the disciples’ little faith, Peter’s denials, Thomas’ doubts, Paul’s rampage, and John Mark’s immaturity. Only a merciful God such as this would die for a sinner such as I.