The Secret Sin
Moses preached that we choose life in an amazing variety of ways. This text provides a wonderful chance for us to say, “Today I set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life.”
Once this timeless covenant is made, however, what about the perverse individual, family or tribe which decides secretly to ‘opt out’? Such people might display all the outward signs and evidences of belonging, go through all the ceremonial motions, but become secret idolaters.
After all, any individual or group might listen to the outward terms of the covenant, outwardly agree not to make an alliance with other gods, but secretly decide to follow the gods of the nations they had left behind (like Egypt) or of the nations they had passed through in their journey.
The theme is not irrelevant for those who live in a different world. Secret transgression did not end with the death of Moses. Men and women of any generation who imagine that they can get away with ‘secret’ sinning have forgotten three crucial things. Secret sin deceives us, affects others and grieves God.
Self-deception is a feature of secret sin (16-19a). In incredible folly the secret transgressor says to himself ‘I can do this without fear. Nobody will ever know.’ Stupidly ignorant of the true facts, the secret idolater says, I will be safe, even though I persist in going my own way (19). We persuade ourselves, ‘All will be well with me’ (NEB) when, in reality, all will be evil for us.
That is one of the most frightening things about human sin—it dulls our perception and warps our judgment. It corrupts our thinking and distorts our values. Sin parades itself in a subtly attractive guise; we do not see it for the horror it truly is. It liberalizes our outlook, professing to release us from outdated traditions and mere social conventions. Instead of listening to what God says to us in his word, we listen to the changing, vacillating principles of our own minds and the equally corrupt judgments of others.
Vainly, we imagine it is enough to be guided by our consciences, forgetting, or choosing to ignore, the biblical truth that even the most sensitive human conscience has not escaped the ravages of sin. That is why we all need the fixed and uncompromising standards of God’s unchanging word so that we can have a clear objective test as to whether a thing is right or wrong. That is why we also need the further objective reality of Christ’s exemplary life as a fixed, constant moral norm by which we may test our daily conduct: ‘Would Jesus have said that?’ ‘Is that action truly Christlike?’ ‘Is it Scriptural?’
Secret sinning also affects others. This will bring disaster on the watered land as well as the dry (19b). People cannot live entirely to themselves. All our lives influence others in one way or another. ‘Secret transgressors’ fail to realize that by sinning they have automatically accommodated their lives to lower standards. They have sinned not only against their better selves but against those they meet once they emerge from their secrecy.
They would have been far better people if they had not yielded to that sinister temptation. They would certainly have been a richer influence for good and for God had those ‘hidden faults’ been faced, forgiven and conquered. Sin spreads like a root . . . that produces . . . bitter poison (18). Sin is not insular, isolated and self-contained, but a highly destructive, contagious force. That, in fact, is surely the most devastating thing about sin. It has the appalling potential and power to reproduce itself in the lives of other people.
Moses therefore warns the people that secret sinning ‘will bring everlasting ruin’ (NEB) to other people. The person who boasts I will be safe forgets that even if, for a time, it is safe for him or her, it will not be safe for others. The destructive effects of such conduct will not be remotely selective. It will create havoc everywhere, on the watered land as well as on the dry.
These verses are used in the letter to the Hebrews where the author quotes the Greek version of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) to support the argument that one corrupt life spreads like a ‘bitter noxious weed’ which can grow up to ‘poison the whole’ (NEB). A ‘bitter root’ can extend its tendrils under the ground to ‘cause trouble’ and defile many.
Most serious of all, secret sinning grieves God (20-21). The ‘poisonous root’ of apostasy and idolatry is not merely ‘a root from which springs gall and wormwood’ (18, NEB), which spreads its toxic damage to other people. It is highly obnoxious to God. The Lord has clearly laid down the inflexible terms of the covenant. There can be no other gods; images are forbidden. There can be no compromising with that.
The secret offender imagines that nobody knows about his spiritual disloyalty but God sees it all, reads his perverse thoughts, shines the bright searchlight of his holiness into the dark rooms of the iniquitous mind. God will single him out (21) so that everyone will know how foolish it is to imagine that, in a moral universe, sinners will not be judged.
The warning of these verses was certainly necessary. Across the centuries some of the Lord’s best work has been marred by secret idolaters. They have worshipped at the shrine of success, materialism, power, popularity, unworthy ambition or some other personal gain. Everything became totally subservient to their greater loyalty. Achan adored possessions. Gideon and Samson idolized self. David worshipped sensuality. In each case the pain which followed their secret transgression was not confined to themselves alone, the suffering spread to others.
In New Testament times Paul illustrated this theme by describing an immoral situation in Corinth as ‘a little yeast’ which ‘works through the whole batch of dough’. He urges the Corinthians to ‘get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast—as you really are.’
At times the Israelites did not have a mind that understands how God was at work in their history, but some of their pagan neighbors certainly had eyes that see unmistakable evidence of the divine displeasure. When the question was asked, Why has the Lord done this to this land? (24), even the ungodly acknowledged that it was because the Hebrew people abandoned the covenant of the Lord, the God of their fathers and went off and worshipped other gods (25-26). Even unbelievers could see how deeply they must have grieved their God.