The Reputation of God
May 14, 2024

In the ninth chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses recalls the journey the Israelites took across the wilderness. He reminds them of all their sins and rebellion and of God’s faithfulness to them despite their sins. When he recounts the time when Aaron led the people in the worshiping of the golden calf, he reminds them of God’s anger and how he responded to God: 

Thus I prostrated myself before the Lord; forty days and forty nights I kept prostrating myself, because the Lord had said He would destroy you. Therefore I prayed to the Lord, and said: ‘O Lord God, do not destroy Your people and Your inheritance whom You have redeemed through Your greatness, whom You have brought out of Egypt with a mighty hand. Remember Your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; do not look on the stubbornness of this people, or on their wickedness or their sin, lest the land from which You brought us should say, “Because the Lord was not able to bring them to the land which He promised them, and because He hated them, He has brought them out to kill them in the wilderness.” Yet they are Your people and Your inheritance, whom You brought out by Your mighty power and by Your outstretched arm. (Deuteronomy 9:25–29, KJV)

This is a bold prayer. Moses goes to the Lord in a posture of complete humility and begs Him not to destroy the Isrealites for their sin. But his line of reasoning always shocks me. He says that God should not destroy His people because of what the Egyptians might think. If God destroyed His people, the Egyptians would say that He was not capable of bringing them into the promised land, and that He was a hateful God. Moses is arguing that God needs to preserve His reputation.  This seems counterintuitive. Why would God, who made all men, care about preserving His reputation? Why would He care what the Egyptians thought of Him?

Asaph echos a similar sentiment in Psalm 79:8–10 when he writes:

Oh, do not remember former iniquities against us! Let Your tender mercies come speedily to meet us, For we have been brought very low. Help us, O God of our salvation, For the glory of Your name; And deliver us, and provide atonement for our sins, For Your name’s sake! Why should the nations say, “Where is their God?”

He is asking God to deliver “for You name’s sake.” He is telling God to protect His own name, His own reputation among the nations. He is reminding God that people will say He is not a present God if He doesn’t forgive His people. He is asking God to bring glory to His own name, and suggesting that the way He would do that is by gaining the praise of men.

This is wildly confusing because we know that God does not need the praise of men. God does not need a good reputation. He created us. Why would it matter to Him what we think of Him? Why would God care what the wicked nations are saying about Him? This seems like a weak argument to an omnipotent, self-sufficient God. It almost sounds as if Moses and Asaph are implying that God needs man, which flies in the face of the the doctrine of Divine Aseity, a Christian doctrine summarized well in the Westminster Confession of Faith: “God has all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of Himself, and is alone in and unto Himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of any creatures which He has made, nor deriving any glory in, by, unto, and upon them.” Of course God does not need anything from any human. So, why would Moses pray this way? And why does God respond to his prayer? God hears the prayer and decides to take sides with Moses. He spares His people. He protects His name among the nations. 

This is the tension of the gospel: a God who does not need people chooses to create them, knowing that He will sacrifice Himself for them. This is the same sort of tension that we see in these prayers: a God who does not need a good reputation, chooses to protect and forgive His people to preserve His reputation among the nations that hate Him. In this seemingly illogical tension, God’s compassion and goodness overshadows logic. God does many things he does not need to in order to show love and mercy. He chooses to spare the Isrealites, not based on their righteousness, but based on His unchangeable character. 

How often do our own prayers revolve around logic or “good theology”? We pray things like, “Lord, if it is your will, please heal my mother of cancer.” or “Lord, please bring our son back to the faith.” or “Lord, you are sovereign. If you haven’t predestined our son for heaven, then your will be done.”

Have we considered talking with God like Moses did, even if it seems illogical to our tight theology? Have we laid prostrate on the ground and cried out, “For your name’s sake, do not let my son fall away from you. What will people say if a boy who was raised in the church openly hates you? How will anyone listen to us sharing the gospel if that happens?” or “For your name’s sake, heal my mother of cancer. People will think you are not good if she suffers. People will not see your mercy and kindness if she dies so young.”

I expect that most people do not want to pray this way because they know that God will play the story the way He has designed. Some sons do fall away. Some mothers do die young. But time and time again in Scripture we can find faithful men going before God in this manner: pleading, arguing, wrestling, asking God to preserve His reputation, asking God to protect His name, asking God to act in line with His character instead of in line with logic. And time and time again we see God bending His ear to them, forgiving when the people deserved destruction, building for Himself a reputation of mercy.

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