Wisdom and Warning for the People of God
An Overview of Deuteronomy – Deuteronomy
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 13, 2019 (am)
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth (Gen.1:1).
Gen.1:26 Then in that process God later said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. … 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. 28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it. … But even before this woman was created, Gen.2:8 … the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. Then, 15 [t]he Lord God took the man and put him in the garden… to work it and keep it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” Well, we know what happened next. The man and the woman both ate of that tree and inherited the full consequences of the choice they made (Gen.3:6-7). They were banished from the presence of the Lord (Gen.3:22-24). Their relationship was severed with the One Who would later say, I am… the life (Joh.14:6)—it was fractured beyond repair, unless some sort of inconceivable miracle took place.
And as this story develops, that’s just what happened! God called Abram and his childless wife Sarai out of Ur of the Chaldeans (Gen.11:27-32) and made an amazing promise to him. Gen.12:1 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great…. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” God was going to raise up a great nation from an aging, childless man! But later, when Abram was ninety-nine years old and still childless, God added: Gen.17: 5 No longer shall your name be called Abram (exalted father), but your name shall be Abraham (father of a multitude), for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. 6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. 7 And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. 8 And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.” And still later God added: Gen.22:17 I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. … God had a plan. It was a plan to redeem His image-bearing creatures and to restore all things to right in the good heavens and earth He had created, but which had now fallen into sin and corruption and death. And He called a man to be the father of a nation through which that plan would be realized, through which the ultimate Redeemer would arise. And He called a man in whose life a miracle of unmeasurable magnitude would have to happen in order for his calling to be fulfilled and His plan realized. He called a childless man who was now nearing a hundred years old, and whose wife was nearing ninety, and they’d still not given birth to even one child!
But a son finally arrived. They named him Isaac. And the remainder of the book of Genesis describes the development of this family to the fourth generation. Then it ends with them living not in Canaan, the land promised to them, but in Egypt, to be saved from a famine.
Exodus then describes the miraculous process by which God displayed His authority over the nations and their gods and delivered His people from the slavery into which they had fallen in Egypt. It records His giving of the law at Mt. Sinai (also known as Mt. Horeb) and the establishment of His covenant (a formally defined relationship) with them, then their early and egregious rebellion against that covenant even while Moses, their leader, was still receiving the details of it from God on the mountain, then the second giving of the law on newly cut and carved tablets of stone, and finally also their building of a mobile sanctuary (the Tabernacle) where God dwelled among His chosen people, such as they were!
Leviticus records the meticulous details of living according to that covenant, what it took to be God’s holy people.
Numbers picks up the action again as Moses led Israel from Mt. Sinai (Horeb) to the southern border of the promised land at Kadesh Barnea. But they failed to enter the land because they sent in spies and it seem to most of them like there was just no way Israel could defeat them. There were giants there! And they just didn’t believe that the God Who opened up the Red Sea so they could walk through on dry ground to escape the pursuing Egyptian army could deliver these giants into their hands. So, God said: Turn around. You’re going to live right here in the desert, wandering about, until this whole generation passes away (cf. 14:20-25)—forty years!
As Deuteronomy opens, the book we’re beginning to study, Israel is once again at the border of the land, now to the east. Because Moses sinned against God in an incident we’ll talk about later, he’ll not be entering with them. So, this book records his final instructions to Israel as they’re just about to enter into the land, marking the fulfillment of God’s promise to their forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They number 601,730 at this point! (Num.26:51)
This is the first time in my nearly fifteen years here that we will be covering one of the five books (Pentateuch) of Moses. Along the way we’ll also be covering many points of Israel’s history, not least because Deuteronomy opens with a review of much of it, the way I’ve just done. We’ll also be mentioning different truths, facts, characteristics of the OT. For instance, of the thirty-nine books in includes, only eleven advance the history of Israel. The rest include reflections on all that’s happened—instruction, celebration, stories. Israel’s story is advanced in Gen., Exo., Num., Jos., Jud., 1-2Sa., 1-2Ki., Ezr., and Neh. Note: Deu. Is not one of them. Here we stay in one place with Israel and receive deeper insight into their story. We hear Moses [give] his final instructions and pleas toward covenant obedience as [they prepare] to enter the land. That is our theme statement for Deu.
Let’s look at this book from three angles.
A Summary of the Content of Deuteronomy
Even though there’s no forward action in Israel’s history in Deu., that doesn’t mean there’s no excitement in this book! It’s filled with instruction to God’s people in how to live according to His covenant—impassioned pleas for them to love the Lord with all their heart, and serve Him, and follow Him. It can almost sound like a NT book in many places. And there’s good reason for that.
The word Deu. actually means second law in Greek (deuteros, nomos). That’s based on a faulty translation of 17:18 where we’re told that Israel’s king shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. Every king of Israel was supposed to make his own copy of the law that would pass muster with the priests! You wonder how Israel’s history might have been different if the kings had actually done this? You may ask: How do we know they didn’t? Well, many years down the road, in the days of King Josiah, a copy of the law, quite possibly Deu., was found in the house of the Lord! (2Ki.22:8) It was then read to the king and when [he] heard [it], he tore his clothes in repentance (2Ki.22:11) and immediately began doing what it said! It’s hard to imagine that each king was making his copy if this king didn’t even know about it!
Well, we, as we read Deu. today, can have responses similar to King Josiah’s. This isn’t just the giving of the law. This is selected repetition of the law, digging deeper, pressing harder toward obedience from the heart, not just external conformity. This is the parting instruction of a faithful shepherd of God’s people who has seen God’s power first-hand, and just deeply longs for these people to honor the Lord, to love Him heart, mind, and soul! He’s seen their disobedience. He’s talked to the Lord about it—interceded for them time and again. And now he knows he’s not going to be around any longer. He’s knows it’s possible that his dying words could carry more weight with them than his living words had! And we hear all of that passion in his pleas!
So, how is this book structured? How is it ordered? What does it consist of? Let’s look at that for a few moments.
Scholars see it as structured according to ANE peace treaties, covenant agreements between a lord or ruler and his vassal subjects, those who have a degree of autonomy as long as they honor the terms of the treaty. It has a Preamble or Title (1:1-5) followed by an Historical Prologue, a summary of the history of the relationship between the two (1:6-4:43). Next are General Stipulations (4:44-11:32) followed by Specific Stipulations (12:1-26:19), a listing of Blessings if they honor those stipulations and Curses if the don’t (27:1-28:68), then a Depositing of the Treaty in the sanctuary of the subjects (31:9-29), and finally a listing of Covenant Witnesses (32:1-47), here heaven and earth! (32:1, cf. 30:19)
That is one way to understand this book, to grasp its content. Another is to see it as the final four speeches of Moses. Essentially his first one encompasses the Historical Prologue of the treaty (1:5-4:43). The second, a really long speech, gives us the General and Specific Stipulations (4:44-26:19). The third speech lays out the Blessings and Cursings (27:1-29:1). Some see this as one piece with the Summary of the Covenant Demands (29:2-30:20); they count only three speeches. But others divide these two and see four speeches. But this really makes no difference. Deu. then closes with the transition of leadership to Joshua (31:1-29), two poems by Moses—his song (31:30-32:43) and his blessing (33:1-29)—then a record of Moses’ death (34:1-12).
A Summary of the Message of Deuteronomy
Now, what sort of message does it have for us in our day? What kind of instruction can we expect to hear? At this point in history when the promised Messiah has come and by faith in Him we’re now counted as righteous according to the law? What message does the law still have for us?
On the broad scale, the big picture, we’ve been set up well for hearing the pleas of Deu. toward heart obedience and covenant faithfulness to God by the study Nick just finished on holiness. We are declared righteous in Christ, but we still need to press on in obedience to Him to enter into experiential righteousness. We still need to hear and heed Moses’ call to whole-hearted devotion as new covenant believers.
So, within the pages of Deu., I don’t think there’s a better text to give us a summary of its whole message to us than the one we read at the start: 30:11 “… this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off, especially for us now that we’re born again of the Spirit and are a new creation in Christ, looking forward to the resurrection of the dead. Paul picks up on Moses’ next words here to clarify the gospel in Rom.10:12 [This commandment of the law] is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ 14 But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. Paul is explaining here that Moses is telling us that faith was the only reliable means for living according to God’s covenant all along. It’s not in our actions, our works, that we’re going to meet His covenant stipulations. We’re not going to find reconciliation with God by our own efforts, searching it out, tracking it down in the [heavens] or over the [seas], or down in the [realm of the dead], as Paul added (Rom.10:7). 14 [This] word is very near [us]. It is in [our] mouth and in [our] heart, so that [we] can do it. We now understand that covenant obedience is a matter of [confessing with our mouth that Jesus is Lord and [believing] in our heart that God raised him from the dead (Rom.10:9). Paul is telling us that this is what the message of Deu. was pointing to all along! Until Christ came, the God’s people were just looking for the coming of the Deliverer He had promised through the seed of Abraham. From Deu.18:15ff. on the were looking also for a prophet who would speak God’s words perfectly. Then as God’s plan continued to play out, they began looking for the coming King who would sit on David’s throne forever. Then the prophets spoke of a new covenant with a new heart of flesh, programmed for obedience with God’s law written into it (Jer.31:33; Eze.36:26).
As with Abraham, it was only by faith that the call of God could be received and responded to rightly. It is only by faith that Israel, or we, can hear Moses call and respond to it in a way that pleases God and honors His covenant. 15 “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. 17 But if your heart turns away—turning away always begins in the heart, then and now; disobedience always starts with misplaced affections then misplaced allegiances, with an impulse to trust in something other than this God Who has made a covenant with us for our life and for our good—and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. You will not receive and enjoy life and good that God has prepared for you!
This Morning’s Take-away from Deuteronomy
So, what is our take-away this morning? Our take-away is simply to hear Paul’s instruction to us new covenant people regarding the reality Moses was pointing to way back when he wrote Deu.30. Hear the fact that there’s no merit in going out in search of salvation, of right relationship with God. That’s because He’s already brought it to us! The life and good we seek, we crave, has been provided for us at His own initiative, at His own cost, according to His own plan!
God has confirmed His faithfulness completely and finally by sending Christ to fulfill His promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, to bless not only them but all the families of the earth through them—you and me, today, this morning! The requirements of this law are not set aside for you and me. The law has not been abolished. It’s been fulfilled in Christ (Mat.5:17). The righteous requirements of the law have been [met] on our behalf! (Rom.8:4) Jesus met them! Then He absorbed the consequences that our idolatry and disobedience required so that we can be reconciled to God as part of the new creation that He’s accomplishing in fulfillment of His eternal plan! That is our take-away today! We don’t need to relive Israel’s failure because Christ has come and caused us to be born again to a living hope through… Jesus Christ! (1Pe.1:3)
Now let’s celebrate together the sacrifice of Christ that has met the law’s demands on our behalf and enabled us to know His righteousness and full reconciliation with God such that we’re established securely as His new covenant people.