12 February, 2017

Deuteronomy 32:29—“O that they were wise, that they understood this …”

For they are a nation void of counsel, neither is there any understanding in them. O that they were wise, that they understood this, that they would consider their latter end! How should one chase a thousand, and two put ten thousand to flight, except their Rock had sold them, and the LORD had shut them up? (Deut. 32:28-30 KJV).

This text is used to support the doctrine of a general, well-meant offer of grace and salvation on the part of God to all men, including the reprobate, and also the notion that God, in Himself, has an unfulfilled or ineffectual desire, will, wish and want for something to have occurred that didn’t—inferred from the first two words, “O that …”


Rev. Matthew Winzer

[Source: “Murray on the Free Offer: A Review,” in The Blue Banner, vol. 9, issues 10-12 (October/December 2000).]

“O that there were such an heart in them, that they would fear me, and keep all my commandments always, that it might be well with them, and with their children for ever!” (Deut. 5:29). “O that they were wise, that they understood this, that they would consider their latter end!” (Deut. 32:29). “Oh that my people had hearkened unto me, and Israel had walked in my ways!” (Ps. 81:13). “O that thou hadst hearkened to my commandments! then had thy peace been as a river, and thy righteousness as the waves of the sea” (Isa. 48:18).

“The purpose of adducing these texts is to note the optative force of that which is expressed;”33 and the subsequent burden of the report’s exegesis of these texts is to show the validity of the A.V. rendering of them in the optative mood. As there are good grounds for accepting this rendering, there is no need to give a detailed analysis of the exegesis. It is the conclusion being drawn from the rendering which is pertinent to this review. That conclusion is stated thus: “there can be no room for question but that the Lord represents himself in some of these passages as earnestly desiring the fulfilment of something which he had not in the exercise of his sovereign will actually decreed to come to pass.”34

It is undoubtedly true that the Lord represents Himself in this manner. The question is, what is the nature of this representation? Prof. Murray did not offer any comment by way of substantiating a literal interpretation of the wording of these texts. Which is somewhat disappointing in view of the fact that John Calvin understood three of these four texts to be God speaking “after the manner of men.” As his comments pertinently state the case for a figurative interpretation of the wording, it might be appropriate to quote these in answer to the report’s assertion that these texts bear upon the point at issue.

In a sermon on Deuteronomy 5:29, he says: “God therefore to make the people perceive how hard a matter it is to keepe the lawe, sayeth here, I would fayne it were so ... True it is that here God speaketh after the maner of men: for he needeth no more but wish things done, all things are in his hand.” And a little later on the same text, “And why then doth he pretend to wish it in this text? It is bicause he speaketh after the maner of men, as he doeth in many other places. And (as I said afore) it is to the ende that when there is any mention made of walking in obedience to Godward, we should understand that it cannot bee done without hardnesse, and that our wits should be wakened to apply our selves earnestly to that studie.”35

On Psalm 81:13, he comments “The Hebrew particle ... is not to be understood as expressing a condition, but a wish; and therefore God, I have no doubt, like a man weeping and lamenting, cries out, O the wretchedness of this people in wilfully refusing to have their best interests carefully provided for.”36 Similarly, on Isa. 48:18, “This is therefore a figurative appropriation of human affections.”37

The appeal to these texts really proves too much. For the optative mood, while it may be restricted to a simple desire or wish, oftentimes carries the connotation of longing after, and that in a mournful way when it is an unfulfilled longing, as the comment on Ps. 81:13 indicates. Hence, the texts beckon the reader to understand the expressions as God speaking after the manner of men. As David Dickson has qualified, the lamenting of God for His people’s misery “is not to be taken so, as if there were in God any passion or perturbation, or miserable lamentation: but this speech is to be conceived, as other like speeches in Scripture, which are borrowed from the affections of men, and are framed to move some holy affection in men, suitable to that affection from which the Lord taketh the similitude.”38 Such expressions, then, are intended to instruct the hearers as to what their passion ought to be, not to indicate that God is characterised by such passions Himself.

When understood in this way, the covenantal language of the text comes to the fore, thereby enabling the interpreter to see the true intent of such passages. That these verses ought to be understood covenantally is clear from their context and terminology. Deut. 5:29 is Moses’ rehearsal of the covenant ratified at Mt. Sinai (Horeb in the book of Deuteronomy) for the benefit of the new generation which is about to enter into the promised land. 32:29 is the song of Moses which calls upon the heavens and earth to act as witnesses in the covenantal relationship which the Israelites bear to the Lord. It abounds in metaphorical language for this very reason. Nobody takes the language literally with regard to the Lord being a Rock, verse 4, or fearing the wrath of His enemies, verse 27. Why, then, is a literal import inconsistently suggested for the optative mood in verse 29? Both Ps. 81:13 and Isa. 48:17 refer to the hearers in the covenantal designation of “Israel;” with the former of these adding the words, “my people,” and the latter the words, “thy God.” And both similarly proceed to recount the promises of the covenant which the hearers have failed to become partakers of through their disobedience; the former speaking of the subduing of Israel’s enemies (Ps. 81:14), and the latter of the multiplication and preservation of her people (Isa. 48:18).

It is the covenantal nature of these speeches which required the adoption (ad extra) of human thoughts and affections on the part of God in condescension to His people. In the covenant, God identifies Himself and His cause with the welfare and cause of His people. The enemies of His people become His enemies, the successes of His people become His successes, and the failures of His people become His failures, as the language of Deut. 32:27 signifies. The Almighty power of God becomes conditioned on the people’s obedience or disobedience. At the building of the tabernacle, and later of the temple, His omnipresence becomes confined to the place where He puts His Name. Even His knowledge is sometimes represented as being limited to this special relationship which He has established with His people, and He is portrayed as repenting and changing His mind when He discovers that His people have acted in this or that way.

Such language does not reflect upon the nature of God, but only indicates the nature of the covenant relation with which God condescends to act in accord. Given the unchangeable and unconditional perfection of the Almighty, it is obvious that these types of Scriptural references are to be understood as His condescension to the weakness of man’s capacity, as when the apostle spoke after the manner of men because of the infirmity of his hearers’ flesh, Rom. 6:19. Thus, when God represents Himself as repenting, or of being unable to do anything more to procure the people’s obedience, or expresses a desire for that which is contrary to His purpose, the language is to be understood anthropopathically, not literally.

Furthermore, the covenantal context of the speeches should enable us to see the error in the report’s conclusion that God has not sovereignly willed what He here desires. The apostle to the Gentiles informs us that to the Israelites belong “the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises” (Rom. 9:4). His purpose was to assure his readers that the failure of certain individual Israelites does not mean that “the word of God hath taken none effect. For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel” (verse 6). Divine inspiration here teaches an infallible rule for interpreting both the Old Testament promises to Israel and the divine expression of desire that those promises be fulfilled. It is that these promises were made to Israel corporately, not individually. They were made to Israel as elect, as Paul’s subsequent teaching on election and reprobation demonstrates. So that the one in whom these promises are not fulfilled cannot be regarded as belonging to the true Israel, for “the children of the promise are counted for the seed” (verse 8). Thus, the divine expression of desire for His commandments to be obeyed and for His promises to come to fruition is not an unfulfilled desire at all. For God undertakes on behalf of elect Israel to put His laws into their minds and to write them in their hearts, so that the promise to be their God and to bless them as His people comes to fruition (Heb. 8:10).

So the report’s conclusion from these texts is inadmissible on two accounts. 1. Because the language employed is not to be regarded literally, but figuratively, in accord with its covenantal context, as God speaking after the manner of men; and 2. Because the expression of desire is not with reference to a matter that shall be left unfulfilled, for God’s sovereign grace ensures that His word of promise is not rendered ineffectual.


34. Collected Writings of John Murray, Volume 4 (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1982), p. 119.

35. John Calvin, Sermons on Deuteronomy, Facsimile of 1583 edition (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1987), p. 260.

36. John Calvin, ‘Commentary upon the Book of Psalms,’ in Calvin’s Commentaries, Volume 5 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1989), 2:323.

37. John Calvin, ‘Commentary on Isaiah,’ in Calvin’s Commentaries, Volume 8 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1989), 1:487.

38. David Dickson, Commentary on the Psalms (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1985), p. 57.



More to come! (DV)

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