The thing I love about grace: it is free. No way could I ever earn or merit the favor of God. The thing I hate about grace? No way could I ever earn or merit the favor of God! This is troubling for so many people. We spend our whole life seeking the favor of others. It is drilled into us from our earliest memories. "Be a good little boy, and Santa will come see you." "If you're good, I'll get you (fill in the blank)." We even use good behavior as an offer of redemption - from a reduced sentence in time-out to one day off for every six good days in prison. We are wired to earn favor. I think this is why people ask questions like "Why do bad things happen to good people?" We have an expectation that if we do good we deserve good, and if we do bad we get what's coming to us. On the surface this is true enough. But there is a deeper theological truth in play. When the Israelites sent messengers to Sihon king of Heshbon all they asked was that they be allowed to pass through the land. A simple enough request I presume. Then we get to the "but." "But Sihon the king of Heshbon would not let us pass by him." Now, if you stop here and read no further you could assume that if you mess with the people of God the God of the people is going to mess with you. Again, a correct assumption. However, you must ask the question, "Why?" Why would Sihon not allow the Israelites to pass through his land. We could list a multitude of different reasons ranging from stubborness to mental shrinkage! The real reason for Sihon not allowing Israel to pass through was God did not want him to. Finish the verse. "But Sihon the king of Heshbon would not let us pass by him, for the LORD your God hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, that he might give him into your hand, as he is this day." (Deuteronomy 2:30) Stop and meditate on this verse. God. Hardened. His. Spirit.
Verses like these tend to be difficult for people because we want to be in control. My wife hates when I drive, and I equally hate her reactions when she rides with me. She always thinks I'm going to have an accident, and I always tell her she's going to cause me to have one. She likes to be in control. So do I. That's why I drive! We want that same secure feeling of control when it comes to God, too. If I'm good, God will bless me. If I give, God will reward me. If I, then God. We fail to realize that it is not "If I, then God." It is "If I, it is because God." There are few truths more damning than this. We hang on the divine mercy of God. If we respond to God, it is because he enabled our hearts to respond. If we reject God, it is because he did not enable our hearts to respond. I love the old adage, "There, but for the grace of God, go I." I believe this is why humility was so central to Christ's message. The Jews had begun to think of themselves as deserving God's grace, of earning divine favor. They looked down on other races (Gentiles) as subordinate because the Jews had the Law, and the prophets, and they sought to measure up to the standard every day. There, but for the grace of God, go I.
There is no logical explanation as to why Sihon would not allow the Israelites to pass through his land. It was only because God had hardened his spirit. I love the way John Piper illustrates this truth from 2 Chronicles 30:
This responsiveness of God to the choices we make causes some people to jump to a very unwarranted "common sense" conclusion. They say: "Well, if God responds to our choices, then what we choose and what God does in response must depend ultimately on us." This is what I call "philosophical" interpretation. In other words, this way of understanding conditional statements in the Bible comes from commonsense human reasoning rather than careful attention to the uncommon ways of God revealed in the text...What verse 12 teaches, in the light of the preceeding context, is that God commanded, "Return to me and I will return to you." Some people did return. Why did they? Verse 12 gives the deepest reason: God gave them a heart to do what he had commanded...It is the closest biblical parallel to St. Augustine's famous prayer, "Command what you wish, but give what you command."
While we have examined that Sihon was obstinate because God hardened his spirit we must also pay homage to the truth that Israel took possession of the land that God gave them. Even their going up and possessing was done because God ordained it, not of their own volition, but of his sovereign grace.
And the LORD said to me, "Behold, I have begun to give Sihon and his land over to you. Begin to take possession, that you may occupy this land." Then Sihon came out against us, he and all his people, to battle at Jahaz. And the LORD our God gave him over to us, and we defeated him and his sons and all his people...The LORD our God gave all into our hands. (Deuteronomy 2:31-33, 36b)
We need to understand that God's ways are not our ways. There are some, if you are even still reading, who bristled at the idea of sovereign grace hardening Sihon's spirit. I was once in your shoes. But God's ways are not our ways. God's greatest concern is for His glory, and His glory is my ultimate good. We believe that God wants our good. On the contrary, we should want God's good. In order to achieve his purpose of delivering Israel to the Promised Land, Sihon's heart had to be hardened, just as in order to deliver Israel from the hand of Pharoah, Pharoah's heart had to be hardened. Perhaps the greatest treatise on this subject came from the hand of Paul in Romans 9:
[T]hough they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad - in order that God's purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls - she was told, "The older will serve the younger." As it is written, "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated." What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means! For he says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharoah, "For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth." So then he has mercy on whom he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. You will say to me then, "Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?" But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, "Why have you made me like this?" (Romans 9:11-20)
God hardened Sihon for the same reason he lifted Israel - because it is his sovereign grace. I would have you consider one final thing. In light of this truth, how should we respond to the Lord? To the one who believes you are entitled, remember that there, but for the grace of God, go you. Be careful not to judge, remembering that if it were not for God's grace extended to you at the cross, you too would be on the path to hell. To the one who believes already that we are dependent upon the sovereign grace of God be grateful in knowing that there, but for the grace of God, go you. Rejoice knowing that God loves you, and adopted you to be his heir. And finally, to the one who does not believe, throw yourself on the altar of mercy, not to appease an angry God who is ready to cast you in to hell, but instead to perhaps receive the divine grace, the unmerited favor of the one, true, God.