20 “Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. 21 Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him. 22 “But if you carefully obey his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries. 23 “When my angel goes before you and brings you to the Amorites and the Hittites and the Perizzites and the Canaanites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, and I blot them out, 24 you shall not bow down to their gods nor serve them, nor do as they do, but you shall utterly overthrow them and break their pillars in pieces. 25 You shall serve the Lord your God, and he will bless your bread and your water, and I will take sickness away from among you. 26 None shall miscarry or be barren in your land; I will fulfill the number of your days. 27 I will send my terror before you and will throw into confusion all the people against whom you shall come, and I will make all your enemies turn their backs to you. 28 And I will send hornets before you, which shall drive out the Hivites, the Canaanites, and the Hittites from before you. 29 I will not drive them out from before you in one year, lest the land become desolate and the wild beasts multiply against you. 30 Little by little I will drive them out from before you, until you have increased and possess the land. 31 And I will set your border from the Red Sea to the Sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness to the Euphrates, for I will give the inhabitants of the land into your hand, and you shall drive them out before you. 32 You shall make no covenant with them and their gods. 33 They shall not dwell in your land, lest they make you sin against me; for if you serve their gods, it will surely be a snare to you.”
Like so many others, I have really come to appreciate the music ministry of Kari Jobe. There is a sincerity about her songs of worship that really does lead the listener to a place of praise and gratitude to God most high. For instance, her song “I Am Not Alone” is a song that is beautiful in its simplicity but also powerful in what it says about the Christian’s relationship with the Lord God.
When I walk through deep waters
I know that You will be with me
When I’m standing in the fire
I will not be overcome
Through the valley of the shadow
I will not fear
I am not alone
I am not alone
You will go before me
You will never leave me
In the midst of deep sorrow
I see Your light is breaking through
The dark of night will not overtake me
I am pressing into You
Lord, You fight my every battle
And I will not fear
You amaze me
You call me as Your own
I suppose that every believer at one time or another has needed the reassurance of the central message of this song: I am not alone. Why? Because God has gone before us and God will never leave us.
In many ways, we might say that “I am not alone” is a more than apt summary of Exodus 23:20-33. Having finished the preceding section of laws, the Lord now reminds His children that He will lead them into the promised land, that He will be with them, that, if they obey Him, they will find success there, and that they will never be alone.
God is with His people through His Representative.
The first way that God tells His children He will be with them as they enter the promised land is through what I am going to call His “Representative.” The text itself refers to this figure as “an angel,” though, as we shall see, there is some question as to who this “angel” is.
20 “Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. 21 Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him. 22 “But if you carefully obey his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries. 23 “When my angel goes before you and brings you to the Amorites and the Hittites and the Perizzites and the Canaanites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, and I blot them out
There has been a great deal of ink spilled over the identity of the “angel” here referenced. The salient facts about him are:
- God sends him.
- God sends him on before His people.
- God sends him to guard His people.
- God sends him to bring His people into the promised land.
- He will speak.
- The people must obey him.
- The people must not disobey him.
- The name of God “is in him.”
- If the people obey him, then God will be enemy to their enemies.
- The destruction of Israel’s enemies is linked to the angel’s presence.
On the one hand, we might observe that many of these attributes are consistent with the attributes of those who are clearly and, if the term can be used, merely angelic. Consider, for instance, the attributes of angels presented in the gospel of Matthew alone. In Matthew 1, the angel commanded Joseph concerning what he should do and Joseph obeyed him.
20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him…
In Matthew 13, we see that the angels will be sent ahead at the end of the age as instruments of divine judgment.
49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous
In Matthew 18, we see the protective role of the angels described.
10 See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.
In Matthew 26, we see that angels can be agents of divine wrath if God so chooses.
53 Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?
In all of these we find attributes that are descriptive of the angel in Exodus 23 applied likewise to angels (about whose identity there seem to be less question) in the gospel of Matthew. So is the angel spoken of in our text simply an angel or is he more? Is this angel perhaps an Old Testament appearance of Christ? Or is the angel Yahweh Himself? Old Testament scholar Peter Enns has pointed out some of the evidence suggesting that this is no ordinary angel but possibly Yahweh Himself or some extension of Him.
- In the Pentateuch, “we do not read…about the angel of Yahweh communicating with the people, giving them commands, and so forth, but of God doing so.”
- The role of the angel in Exodus 23 and the role of Yahweh in the Pentateuch “are somewhat interchangeable.”
- The “simple fact that the two are so closely juxtaposed in this section…is a serious step toward equating them.”
- The reference to Yahweh’s name being in the angel “serves to make the equation of the two figures unavoidable.”
- The “curious syntax of verse 22 forces the reader to equate the two: ‘If you listen carefully to what he says and do all that I say…’ Listening to the angel means obeying God.”
- “Sarna points out that he Hebrew word mrb, translated ‘rebel’ in 23:21 with reference to the angel, is regularly used in the Old Testament with reference to rebellion against God.”
William Propp has offered an alternative explanation through the interesting observation that, “in the biblical conception, Yahweh cannot be fully manifested on Earth. But he makes parts of himself accessible to humans as hypostases.” Propp argues that these hypostases “go by many names: ‘Face,’ ‘Name,’ ‘Messenger,’ etc.” He then quotes ibn Ezra’s analogy that “as the moon shines in the reflected light of the sun, so that one could claim that moonlight is actually sunlight, so an angel is and is not God himself.”
While Propp argues that we simply cannot know the exact identity of this angel, he does point out that some believe the angel “connotes a prophet, who like an angel serves as envoy from the divine council (compare 1 Kgs 22:19-23 and Isaiah 6…)” and then says that if this is the case “the obvious candidate is Moses.”
All of these are possible, but I would suggest that we not pass too quickly over the proposal of the church fathers Tertullian and Augustine, both of whom said that the angel of Exodus 23 was Joshua and both of whom pointed that the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua is Jesus. Thus, calling Joshua an “angel” who would lead the children into the promised land meant the establishment of an Old Testament type of Christ to come. Indeed, as Augustine saw it, “[n]o event or action could have a more distinctly prophetical character than this, where the very name is itself a prediction.”
These are provocative proposals, but we must net let our theorizing blind us to the most obvious fact: this Representative who went before Israel meant that God was present with them as He was present in and through the Representative. They were not, in other words, alone.
How very important it is for the believer to grasp this truth today. God is ever and always with you. You are never alone. He is not only with you, He is before you.
Whereas in Exodus 23 the identity of the angel is open to dispute, the identity of the One in and through whom God is with us and goes before us today is not open to dispute. It is Jesus. The Lord Jesus is with His people. He has not and He will not abandon us.
God is with His people through His warnings against following other gods.
God is also present with us in His commands. For the Israelites, the crucial command for their entry into the promised land was the command not to mingle their faith in the one true God with misguided faith in the false gods of the pagans. In order to highlight the importance of this, it is mentioned twice in our text.
24 you shall not bow down to their gods nor serve them, nor do as they do, but you shall utterly overthrow them and break their pillars in pieces. 25 You shall serve the Lord your God, and he will bless your bread and your water, and I will take sickness away from among you. 26 None shall miscarry or be barren in your land; I will fulfill the number of your days.
32 You shall make no covenant with them and their gods. 33 They shall not dwell in your land, lest they make you sin against me; for if you serve their gods, it will surely be a snare to you.”
Why would the children of Israel be tempted to worship false gods, especially after seeing all that God had done to deliver them out of Egypt and bring them through the wilderness to the land of promise? Douglas Stuart makes the very interesting observation that the temptation to worship foreign gods was actually likely bound up with their desire for agricultural success.
Why would Israel be tempted to worship local Canaanite deities? The answer is that once settled in Canaan, they would surely desire agricultural success, which in the ancient world was generally attributed to proper involvement of the deities in the agricultural process through worship. In general, ancient peoples believed that the gods could do anything but feed themselves. Humans therefore had the job of raising food for the gods, which was then “sent” to them through the offerings humans gave in the presence of the gods’ idols. What part did the gods have in this process? They caused the crops to grow and the flocks and herds to multiply. The ancient farmer thought that the gods were absolutely essential to the agricultural process and that the way to involve the goodwill of the gods on behalf of one’s farming was to worship them. The essence of worship was providing food for them in the form of sacrifices. When Israel would arrive in the promised land, the temptation to plant as the Canaanites planted, to cultivate as they cultivated, to harvest as they harvested, and to worship as they worshiped would be almost irresistible since all these were thought to go together as part and parcel of farming in any given locality.
That is a fascinating insight, and likely there is truth in it. After all, the people of God are frequently tempted to syncretism in an effort to become personally successful and affluent. The lure of syncretism is always before us, especially in a pluralistic and religiously diverse society. I particularly love Calvin Miller’s definition of this word.
Syncretism. It’s what happens when Jesus marries the culture, and they return from their honeymoon to la-la land to settle down and raise unholy children.
There is a memorable way of putting it! Syncretism is when the people of God wed themselves to ungodly ideas, powers, or peoples and, in so doing, destroy the purity of their faith by making it an amalgam faith. It was a great danger to Israel, for if Israel abandoned God they also abandoned the power of God, the plan of God, the favor of God, and the presence of God.
We are tempted to see subtle syncretism as spiritual sophistication in our religiously diverse culture. More than a few “progressive” Christians and denominations have sought intentionally to take the edge off of the idea of Christianity as the truth. But let us be perfectly clear: calling Jesus a way instead of the way is neither sophisticated nor progressive. It is, in fact, grotesquely regressive and damaging. It does neither us nor our neighbors a service. On the altar of sophistication and affability we sell our souls to the gods of the age. In so doing, we lose the favor of God Himself. This is not a trade worth making.
Our God is a jealous God. He will not tolerate the divided devotions and affections of His people. He has made us for Himself and only for Himself. The warning to Israel is likewise a warning to us. We dare not forget or turn away from what ought to be our first and only love!
God is with His people through His acts of judgment against evil powers.
Another way that God is with us is through His acts of judgment against evil powers. For Israel, what this looked like was God attacking the enemies of His people ahead of them to insure victory for them.
27 I will send my terror before you and will throw into confusion all the people against whom you shall come, and I will make all your enemies turn their backs to you. 28 And I will send hornets before you, which shall drive out the Hivites, the Canaanites, and the Hittites from before you. 29 I will not drive them out from before you in one year, lest the land become desolate and the wild beasts multiply against you. 30 Little by little I will drive them out from before you, until you have increased and possess the land. 31 And I will set your border from the Red Sea to the Sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness to the Euphrates, for I will give the inhabitants of the land into your hand, and you shall drive them out before you.
God’s attack upon the enemies of His people consisted of the following:
- sending His “terror” upon them
- throwing them “into confusion”
- making Israel’s enemies “turn their backs” to them
- sending “hornets” before His people to drive out the inhabitants of the land
Peter Enns suggests that the “terror” spoken of in verse 27 “is not some personification of Yahweh or the angel, but the report that Canaan will hear of Yahweh’s dealings with the Egyptians.” To support this, he points to the song of Moses in Exodus 15 in which we find the following:
14 The peoples have heard; they tremble; pangs have seized the inhabitants of Philistia. 15 Now are the chiefs of Edom dismayed; trembling seizes the leaders of Moab; all the inhabitants of Canaan have melted away. 16 Terror and dread fall upon them; because of the greatness of your arm, they are still as a stone, till your people, O Lord, pass by, till the people pass by whom you have purchased.
That might be so, at least to some extent. Surely God’s reputation and the story of His deliverance of Israel out of Egypt would have gone ahead of His people and terrified the inhabitants. Even so, the phrase likely means more than that. God’s attack upon the pagan people’s undoubtedly also had a physical dimension. The imagery God uses clearly suggests that, even if psychological confusion and demoralization was itself employed (which would also seem to be a clear inference from the imagery).
In short, the people of God needed to move forward in obedience and with courage to confront those in the promised land, but God was at work demoralizing and weakening them in anticipation of Israel’s arrival. While, interestingly, God reveals that the conquest would be incremental (“little by little I will drive them out”), victory was insured if His people would be obedient to Him.
For God’s people today, there is comfort in the fact that the Lord God will set things right, that the right and righteous judgment of God will now allow evil to stand unchecked, and that, ultimately, justice will be done upon the earth. The judgment of God is a part of the truth of the gospel, even if the world finds such ideas laughable. For instance, Tertullian wrote, “We get ourselves laughed at for proclaiming that God will one day judge the world.”
So be it. Our text and countless others like it reveal that the just judgment of God is real and, one day, all injustices will be dealt with before the throne of His majestic and sovereign power. For the believer, this should not lead to any kind of desire for the judgment of the wicked. We who have received the grace of God should never desire such. On the contrary, the promise of divine judgment should lead us, as it leads the Lord Himself, to call people to repentance. For instance, in 2 Peter 3, Peter writes both of the reality of coming judgment and of God’s desire for humanity to repent before it comes.
9 The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.
God is with His people, even in the promise of coming judgment. We are not alone. We will not be left alone. The day will come when the Judge sets the world right, destroying the old and bringing in a new heaven and a new earth. That is our promised land. That is our Israel. And as we journey toward this promised land, our Savior and King goes ahead of us, beckoning us to follow, calling us to take up our cross.
We are not alone.
The Lord Jesus, He is with us.
For this, we praise His holy name.
 Peter Enns, Exodus. The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), p.471, n.1.
 William H.C. Propp, Exodus 19-40. The Anchor Bible. Vol.2A. (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2006), p.288,287.
 Joseph T. Lienhard, ed., Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Gen. Ed., Thomas C. Oden. Old Testament, Vol. III (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), p.119
 Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus. The New American Commentary. Vol 2. Gen. Ed., E. Ray Clendenen (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2006), p.525.
 Calvin Miller, O Shepherd, Where Art Thou? (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006), p.35.
 Peter Enns, p.472.
 Jones, Brian (2011-08-01). Hell Is Real (But I Hate to Admit It) (p. 20). David C. Cook. Kindle Edition.