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A Forgetful People – Learning from the Mistakes of the Israelites

Updated: Mar 6, 2022

Have you ever watched a little kid opening birthday presents? It’s pretty amusing. And enlightening. Their fascination with each gift typically lasts until the next gift is placed before them. In the excitement of the new gift—or the longing for the new gift—the old gift is quickly discarded and forgotten.

That reminds me of the Israelites.

I recently started a read through of Exodus where I went over large chunks at each sitting, hoping to wrap my mind around the whole flow of the story.

A discouraging pattern soon revealed itself:

  1. Israelites are in need and start complaining

  2. God provides miraculously and they witness His glory

  3. Israelites are grateful and vow undying faithfulness

  4. Life gets tough again and the Israelites again are in need

  5. Israelites forget about God’s faithfulness and start complaining

It amazes me how quickly the Israelites could reach that turnaround. Within days of God performing wondrous deeds on their behalf, they became convinced that He had forsaken them. The worst incident had to do with the golden calf. Growing up, I always thought the golden calf incident happened before the Israelites had received God’s commandments, so while it was terrible, maybe there could be some explanation (though not excuse) in ignorance and in a culture that had been steeped in the worship practices of the Egyptians for centuries.

But the Israelites had already confirmed the covenant. When they arrived at Mount Sinai, Moses went up on the mountain to speak with God and the Lord sent him back to present the terms of the covenant to the Israelites. They responded, “We will do everything the Lord has said.” (Exodus 19:8)

They knew.

Then after being warned by Moses to consecrate themselves for three days and set a limit around the mountain to keep them safe, they saw the Lord descend on the mountain in fire and smoke.

When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.” The people remained at a distance while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.” (Exodus 20:18-21)

Only after Moses explained God’s laws and the people once again affirmed their commitment to the covenant, did Moses make the trip up onto the mountain by himself. He remained there for forty days and forty nights. During his absence, the Israelites began to get restless. Even after witnessing the glory of the Lord, crossing the Red Sea on dry ground, and experiencing the plagues in Egypt, it only took forty days for them to fall astray.

They asked Aaron to give them a god, so he made them one. He melted down the gold they had taken from the Egyptians and fashioned it into a lifeless idol. Just like all the gods of Egypt who had been proven worthless against the might of Yahweh.

“Here is your god, O Israel, who led you out of the land of Egypt.”

And the people worshiped it.

After confirming their desire to obey God’s covenant and be his people. Afterwards! Time and again on their journey out of Egypt, they had seen God’s protection and provision, but they took it for granted. They were so focused on their immediate wants that the grace they had been shown a thousand times over in the past paled in comparison to what they felt they needed now.

When the Lord finally led the Israelites into the Promised Land, He parted the Jordan River before them and instructed Joshua to take twelve stones from the riverbed and create a monument. It would serve as a reminder. Why? Because they were a forgetful people.

Sadly, it strikes me that we are often the same. I don’t know about you, but I can lose sight of the bigger picture very quickly. Caught up in the roller coaster ups and downs of life, I forget to hold onto the reminders of God’s faithfulness and promises. Like the Israelites, I can turn from standing in God’s presence one moment to seeing nothing but desert surrounding me on all sides.

So how do we remember? How do we learn from the mistakes of the Israelites? I think it starts with intentional action and creating visible reminders, like the monument that the Israelites built after crossing the Jordan. Maybe it doesn’t need to be twelve stones. Maybe a journal entry will suffice. Maybe it’s a sticky note with a date posted on your wall or a picture taped to your fridge. Maybe it’s telling a friend so that they can praise God with you.

Whatever it is, tangible reminders help keep us forgetful people focused. It is a good thing be intentional about marking and commemorating those times in our lives where God’s grace and faithfulness are clearly seen, so that we will not forget.

And in remembering, we can be faithful to give God praise.

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