For students of Scripture, the history of Israel is a familiar section in the grand story of redemption. The twelve tribes of Jacob were stuck in a foreign country, under the whip of a cruel and paranoid Pharaoh. But after rescuing his people from Egypt with many powerful signs and wonders and taking them through a long wilderness, God established his people safely and securely in their land.
Yet, there’s an important piece to the chronology that we can’t leave out. Prior to their entrance into the land, God entered into a covenant with Israel. The covenant stipulated conditions that both God and the people were required to fulfill. If the people obeyed his voice and kept his law, God would pour out great blessing upon their families, their economy, and provide political stability for the nation as a whole. If Israel disobeyed the Lord, stiffened their neck, and rejected his law, God would bring devastation upon their families, their economy, and their nation.
And we all know what happened.
The Heart of the Matter
But do we, really? What was the root cause of all their woes? God had given them a clear word, straightforward commandments, and a sacrificial system to provide atonement for their sins and mistakes. What was the problem?
One might suggest the problem was that the Mosaic covenant didn’t address the heart, it only addressed Israel’s outward conduct. As a result, the people were only concerned with external behavior rather than inward worship, so as time wore on, Israel soon lost interest in maintaining external commitment to God’s law and fell into idolatry.
Well, the trouble with that suggestion is that Mosaic covenant did address the heart. In fact, Israel’s obedience was to flow from a heart of love for God. Indeed, loving God was one of the stipulations of the covenant. “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut 6:4); “You shall therefore love the LORD your God and keep his charge, his statutes, his rules, and his commandments always” (Deut 11:1; cf. 11:13; 13:3). The tenth commandment related directly to the heart: “You shall not covet…” (Ex 20:17).
The Deepest Problem
But what happens when the heart is dead, corrupt, rebellious, and hard? Telling a rebellious heart to love what it naturally hates will only cause greater rebellion, as we learn in the subsequent narrative.
To be sure, the heart was Israel’s problem, but you can’t fix that problem by merely addressing it. Nor is it enough to inform the people that they needed to change their hearts.
And now, Israel, what does the LORD require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good?….Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubbornDeuteronomy 10:12-13, 17; emphasis added
Think of it, if the heart is the source of all of Israel’s evil, then how can it do the work of changing itself from evil to good, or, to borrow the language of Deuteronomy 10, from uncircumcised to circumcised?
Answer? It can’t. That’s why God addresses the issue of a circumcised heart twenty chapters later. Only this time, he will do the circumcising.
And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live(Deuteronomy 30:6
The solution to Israel’s problem wasn’t for them to spruce up their inward life and to muster up love for God. No, their situation was far more desperate. They needed a heart transplant, and only God could do that kind of work.
The Need for Something New
By allowing them to taste the inflexibility of the law and their inability to keep it, God was showing Israel (and the world) that they needed a new covenant in which God would, on his own and without cooperation from his people, remove their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh that would love God and keep his law (Jer 31:31-33; Ezek 36:26-27).
God was preparing Israel (and the world) for the New Covenant gospel.
It is precisely for this reason that the New Testament speaks of our regeneration as a circumcision of the heart (Col 2:11-14). Those who believe in Christ and his work on the cross have been the recipients of this New Covenant work that God promised his people centuries ago (Heb 8:8-13).
The solution to our sinful condition isn’t to clean up our lives, even our inward lives. The solution isn’t even to try to love God more. The only solution to our corrupt, depraved, hard-hearted condition is to experience the radical heart-change of regeneration, performed by God alone, apart from our works, through faith in Jesus (Eph 2:1-8; Titus 3:3-7). Praise God that he provides such change in the New Covenant gospel!