The author of Deuteronomy is Moses. This is mentioned in various places in the New Testament in connection with quotations from this book (Deu 25:5-6 in Mt 22:24; Deu 18:15-19 in Acts 3:22). Moses wrote the book shortly before his death (Deu 31:24). The last chapter, in which his death is recorded, is probably written by Joshua.
The book describes the special situation of the people. On the one hand they have the wilderness journey behind them. On the other hand, they are about to get what God has promised the patriarchs. The LORD wants to prepare the people to conquer and take possession of the land.
The book has its own special character. The names of the five books of Moses were given by the translators of the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek. They have placed a Greek title above each book. ‘Deuteronomy’ means ‘second law’, in the sense of repetition. However, the book is not a repetition. Many of the topics that have been covered in previous books are recurring, but they are presented in this book for a special purpose that the other books do not have.
In Deuteronomy something new is added. The people have the experiences of the wilderness behind them. It exposes what is in their hearts. In the forty years they have travelled the wilderness, they have learned nothing, neither about themselves or God Who has carried them and has cared for them. In a few long speeches, Moses presents these experiences in this book, both with themselves and with God. He also presents them the future.
Before they cross the Jordan, Moses calls them with this long book to contemplate. He presents them the blessing, but also the curse. They have experienced God’s grace, what will they do with it? The urgent question that gradually comes to the people is this: Do you intend to serve God or do you want to go your own way?
It is tragic that it is clear from the beginning that they have learned nothing from the past and there will be further corruption in the future. Deuteronomy 28-29 show this. There is, however, a turning point in the last verse in Deuteronomy 29 where we read about “the secret things” (Deu 29:29). “The things revealed” also mentioned in that verse are discussed in the previous chapters. In it obedience is presented as the sure way to the blessing, and disobedience as the sure way to destruction. In “the secret things” we see what God has in store following on from the people’s actions of corruption. After God has scattered them among the nations because of their unfaithfulness, He will bring them to repentance. God wants to deal with them, even though they do not want to deal with Him. That is still the future.
In the Old Testament we are dealing with typological representations in which God illustrates certain truths from the New Testament. To this end, everything that has happened to Israel has been recorded. It even happened “as examples for us, so that we would not crave evil things as they also craved” (1Cor 10:6,11).
In Genesis, the first half of Exodus and in Numbers we have many histories. The second half of Exodus and the book of Leviticus give precepts. These precepts indicate how the people can be in connection with God and have fellowship with Him. This can be done on the basis of the offering, which is the central theme of the precepts. These precepts also have meaning for us. Primarily because in practice, Israel has never been able to adhere to these precepts (Amos 5:25-26). In the letter to the Hebrews the meaning to us is explicitly mentioned: they are “the copies of the things in the heavens” (Heb 9:23).
In this book we also look back to who we have been and what God has been for us. We learn how the blessings that are already our part can become a living reality for us. Heaven is already in us. The question that comes to Israel also comes to us: What is our inheritance worth to us? The shortest way from Egypt to the promised land is eleven days’ journey (Deu 1:2). But just like Israel, we too need a lot of time to learn who we are and Who God is. If we have learned that a little bit through the sometimes difficult and long-running experiences of everyday life, it is possible to focus our hearts on the land before us where the Lord Jesus is.
The whole book is set in the plains of Moab by the Jordan (Num 36:13; Deu 1:1). To know the meaning of the book for us, we must understand the spiritual meaning of these plains of Moab. To this regard, we can learn something from the letters of Paul. In the letter to the Romans he explains how someone is redeemed from the world, of which Egypt is a picture. He speaks in Romans 6 of baptism as the transition to a new life: “Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4). We see this illustrated in the passage through the Red Sea (1Cor 10:1-2).
The baptized believer no longer belongs to the world. It has become a wilderness to him. In that wilderness he, just like the people of Israel, has all kinds of experiences, both with himself and with God. As he lives more by faith in the Son of God and less by circumstances, he approaches, so to speak, the plains of Moab. There is spiritual growth when the Holy Spirit is given the opportunity to increasingly focus the Christian’s heart on Christ.
Someone has, spiritually speaking, arrived in the plains of Moab, when his heart is full of Christ. We see that in the letter to the Philippians. There we hear someone say, not as a doctrine, but learned by experience: “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13). Why is it that every time we are hungry and in danger, we are upset? Because, spiritually speaking, we have not yet arrived in the plains of Moab. Someone who is no longer daunted by the dangers and problems of the wilderness has arrived in the plains of Moab. Such a person looks back upon the experiences of the wilderness as an experience of the Lord’s goodness. Such a person is Paul in the letter to the Philippians. There he is full of “the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:14).
The book of Deuteronomy is the Old Testament counterpart of the letter to the Philippians. The hearts are made warm for the land in Deuteronomy. In the letter to the Philippians, the hearts are made warm for heaven by the Holy Spirit through Paul. In Deuteronomy Moses does that. He is here a picture of the Lord Jesus as the One Who experienced the wilderness journey. He knows all the circumstances, He has preceded us, we may press forward in His footsteps. This Teacher is perfect. In Philippians 2 we see Him as the true Moses, tested in the wilderness where His mind and obedience become clear. In Philippians 3 our eye is turned to the Lord Jesus in glory, He Who contains the blessings for us, to gain Him.
Also in the literal sense the Lord has been in the wilderness. He spent forty days there, while being tempted by the devil (Mt 4:1-10). He has answered every temptation with a quote from this book (Deu 8:3 in Mt 4:4; Deu 6:16 in Mt 4:7; Deu 6:13 in Mt 4:10). As we can see, the quotations come from the first part of the book, in which a review of the wilderness journey is given.
If we read this book and allow it to affect us, we will recognize ourselves in every part of Israel’s history. Each time a different viewpoint is taken. The people are a whole new people, for the old generation – consisting of all twenty years and older – have perished in the wilderness, except Joshua and Caleb. Moses addresses his speeches to these new people in this book. This new generation needs to hear the history of the people to know what happened so they can learn the lessons from it.
We can divide the book of Deuteronomy as follows:
1. First great speech of Moses: looking back on the wilderness journey (Deuteronomy 1:1-4:43)
2. Second great speech of Moses (Deuteronomy 4:44-26:19), which can be subdivided into three parts:
a. Events at Horeb (Deuteronomy 4:44-5:33).
b. Commandments and statutes, obedience as a condition for enjoying the blessing of the land (Deuteronomy 6:1-11:32).
c. Statutes for the life in the land around the place that the LORD has chosen to establish His name there for His dwelling (Deuteronomy 12:1-26:19).
3. Third and fourth speech of Moses, his song and the message of his death (Deuteronomy 27:1-34:12), with subdivision:
a. Third speech: blessing and curse (Deuteronomy 27:1-28:68).
b. Fourth speech: renewal of the covenant, repentance and redemption, the choice to make (Deuteronomy 29:1-30:20).
c. Moses designates Joshua as his successor (Deuteronomy 31:1-8).
d. Every seven years the law must be read out to all people (Deuteronomy 32:1-33:29).
e. Song and blessing of Moses (Deuteronomy 31:9-13).
f. The death of Moses (Deuteronomy 34:1-12).