Unlike you and me, God has both the power and prerogative to bring all his desires to fruition. “Our God is in the heavens,” declares the psalmist, “he does all that he pleases” (Ps. 115:3). Nevertheless, the Sovereign God of all creation has not chosen to fulfill every one of his wishes he has disclosed to us.
God expressly desired that Adam and Eve refrain from eating the forbidden fruit (Gen. 2:16-17), yet he ordained their Fall (Gen. 3:1-6). He plainly wants all moral creatures on earth to conform to his revealed moral standard, as do the moral creatures in heaven (Matt. 6:10). Yet he not only allows men to break his law but also uses their evil deeds to accomplish his plan (Gen. 50:20; Acts 4:27-28). And the Lord wants sinners to turn from their sinful autonomy, embrace him as Lord and Savior, and enjoy his saving blessing. But God has not chosen to bring to fruition the salvation of every sinner. In other words, while God fulfills all his decreed desires, he hasn’t chosen to fulfill every one of his prescriptive or revealed desires.1 This mysterious reality2 is underscored in a text like Deuteronomy 5:29.
The Argument Presented
As the Israelites prepare to enter the Promised Land, Moses recounts for them the Ten Commandments (Deut. 5:6-21). He also reminds them how their parents had responded when they heard Yahweh’s thundering voice from Mount Sinai. They were frightened and awestruck (5:22-26). They pleaded with Moses to mediate between them and God. “Go near and hear all that the LORD our God will say,” they entreat Moses, “and speak to us all that the LORD our God will speak to you, and we will hear and do it” (5:27).
God’s Qualified Assessment
God approved of their response: “The LORD heard your words when you spoke to me. And the LORD said to me, ‘I have heard the words of this people, which they have spoken to you. They are right in all that they have spoken.’” Literally, “they have done well in all that they have said.”
God’s generous assessment of their response is amazing given the fact that this is the same bunch of Israelites who would make the golden calf (Exod 32:1-8). This is the same bunch of Israelites who would grumble against the Lord in the wilderness (Num 14:1-4; 21:4-5; Deut 1:27-29). This is the same bunch of Israelites who would never enter Canaan because of unbelief. “With most of them,” the apostle Paul remarks, “God was not pleased for they were overthrown in the wilderness” (1 Cor 10:5; cf. Num 14:21-38).
Thus, most of these people were reprobates and are probably now suffering in hell. Whatever devotion and commitment they expressed at the foot of Mount Sinai was superficial and short-lived.
God’s Expressed Wish
Of course, their shallow response did not pull the wool over God’s eyes. God knew their professed devotion was only skin-deep. Accordingly, God immediately qualifies his commendation of their initial response with a striking expression that highlights both the spurious quality of their devotion and also God’s wish that it were otherwise:
Oh, that their hearts would be inclined to fear me and keep all my commands always, so that it might go well with them and their children forever! (NIV)
The opening Hebrew phrase מן יתן (mi-yitten; literally, “who will give?” but idiomatically, “Oh, that it were given!”) signals the optative mood, which is defined as follows: “designating a statement using a verb in the subjunctive mood to indicate a wish or desire.”3 The NIV, like nearly all other English versions, appropriately renders the expression with the words “Oh that …” (KJV, ASV, NASB, NKJV, ESV, NLT). A few translations employ the conditional “if only” (NRSV, NET, CSB). But even the conditional expression, in this case, carries optative force. Thus, this passage teaches us that God wishes for or desires the good of those who never experience that good.
Several other texts in the OT employ the optative and serve to highlight God’s desire for the welfare of his rebellious people:
If only they were wise and would understand this and discern what their end will be! (Deuteronomy 32:29, NIV).
Oh, that my people would listen to me, that Israel would walk in my ways! (Psalm 81:13, ESV)
Oh that you had paid attention to my commandments! Then your peace would have been like a river, and your righteousness like the waves of the sea (Isaiah 48:18, ESV)
Before adducing the implications of Deuteronomy 5:29 (and these passages), let’s clarify both the objects and the objective of God’s desire.
The Objects of God’s Wish
God’s wish in Deuteronomy 5:29 is directed toward “their hearts,” “them,” and “their children.” The obvious antecedent of the 3rd person plural pronouns is the first generation of Israelites who were delivered from Egypt—the great majority of whom died in the wilderness (Deut 1:26-36; 5:1-6, 22-28, 30). Of course, Moses also employs the 2nd person plural to emphasize the solidarity of the second generation of Israelites to whom he’s speaking and the first generation of Israelites about whom he’s speaking (see Deut 5:2-3).
While the second generation of now living Israelites may be the objects of God’s wish from a rhetorical standpoint, the first generation of now dead Israelites are the objects of God’s expressed wish from a historical standpoint. In both cases, the objects of God’s desire are real people, not some abstract entity. It is not merely that God wishes the good of abstract sinners who do not exist but that he wishes the good of particular sinners who lived and died.
The Objective of God’s Wish
The objective of God’s wish is twofold. That is, God’s desire has both a proximate and also an ultimate aim.
1. Faith and Devotion
Proximately, God wishes that the devotion expressed by the first generation and, by implication, that of the entire second generation were heart-deep and long-lived: “that their hearts would be inclined to fear me and keep all my commands always.” The devotion God demands and desires from the Israelites is nothing less than that which assumes genuine faith, springs from whole-hearted love, and issues in evangelical obedience (Deut 6:4-6).
Once again, it is not merely faith, love, and obedience as abstract virtues that God is said to desire. Rather, God is said to desire that such virtues should find realization in the historical referents of the text, i.e., the Israelites.
2. Eternal Prosperity
Ultimately, God wishes the Israelites identified would believe, love, and obey him “so that it might go well with them and their children forever!” The Hebrew particle translated “so that” (למען) denotes result. Hence, God does not merely wish that the Israelites would fulfill the covenant stipulations but that they would, as a result, enjoy the promised blessings of the covenant. Here, the blessings are summarized as perpetual good (ייטב … לעלם). Such good or prosperity certainly has reference to the temporal blessings proffered in the Mosaic covenant, i.e., health, wealth, fruitfulness, and an earthly inheritance (Deut 11:8-32; 28:1-14).
But such blessing is predicated on the assumption of a “circumcised heart” (Deut 10:16; 30:6)! This, in turn suggests that such temporal blessings did not exhaust the good for which God wished but served as “shadows” of something better. In other words, Moses is claiming that God expressly desired the eternal good of these Israelites. As Matthew Henry remarks,
The God of heaven is truly and earnestly desirous of the welfare and salvation of poor sinners. He has given abundant proof that he is so: he gives us time and space to repent, by his mercies invites us to repentance, and waits to be gracious; he has sent his Son to redeem us, published a general offer of pardon and life, promised his Spirit to those that pray for him, and has said and sworn that he has no pleasure in the ruin of sinners.4
Summing It Up
If my exposition of Deuteronomy 5:29 is correct, it supports the notion that God can desire the salvation of individuals and the human response on which such salvation is contingent, yet not purpose that such objectives be realized in history. In such cases God’s revealed desires are no less real than his decretive desires. Both spring from his moral nature and signify his inward inclinations. Yet, for reasons ultimately known to God, he resolves to bring to fruition certain of his desires and not others. If this is so, there’s no objection to the idea that God may genuinely desire the salvation of fallen humans indiscriminately (cf. John 3:16) though he does not decree the salvation of all sinners. Mystery, yes. Contradiction, no!
1 For the common distinction between God’s decretive will and his revealed or preceptive will, see John Frame’s The Doctrine of God (Presbyterian & Reformed, 2002), 531-33.
2 I’m using the adjective “mysterious” in the sense of “that which is not easily comprehended or fully explained.” That God has chosen to effect salvation for some but not all is plainly revealed (Matt 24:22, 24, 31; John 10:14-16; Acts 13:48; Rom 8:30; 9:18-27; 11:7, 25; Eph 1:3-5; 2 Tim 2:10). Moreover, we can conclude from Scripture that God’s decree to save some but not all is consistent with his wisdom, goodness, and justice and that his decree will result in “the greater good” (Gen 50:20; Ps 76:10; Acts 2:22-23; Rom 8:28; 9:23; 11:32-36; Eph 1:6-14; James 1:17). Nevertheless, God has not explained precisely how or why decreeing “x” number of sinners to be saved secures “the greater good” rather than electing one more or one less or even all. Here we must be content with that God has revealed and leave “the secret things” to God (Deut 29:29; Rom 11:33-34).
3 See Ronald Williams, Hebrew Syntax: An Outline, 2nd ed. (Toronto University Press, 1976), sec. 547; Paul Joüon, A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew (Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 2000), sec. 163d; Bruce Waltke and M. O’Connor, An Introduction of Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Eisenbrauns, 1990), sec. 40.2.2d. For other examples of this construction, see Exod. 16:3; Deut. 28:67; 2 Sam. 19:1; 2 Sam. 23:15; Job 6:8; 14:13; 23:3; Ps. 55:7; Jer. 9:1.
4 Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol 1 (reprint, Fleming H. Revell Co., n.d.), 749.
Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological Review, The Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.