In Deuteronomy 2-3 God makes clear to His people what the land is and what it is not. They must respect God’s ways and providence with certain countries. Other countries they have had to take possession of and start inheriting them. But even the countries they have begun to inherit are not yet the actual land. Deuteronomy 4 draws conclusions from the lessons of the past. Now there must be clear agreements between God and the people. Therefore Moses starts this chapter in verse 1 with “now”.
The earthly people, Israel, are a reflection of the heavenly people, the church. The believers comprising the church find many lessons in the history of Israel about life on earth and blessings in heaven. It is about the blessings of the land as a picture for the Christian to live happily in fellowship with God, the focus being on where God’s heart finds fulfillment. Everything that the land has to offer us can be summed up in everything that is truly and eternally important to God’s heart.
The agreements that are made are the ground rules to enjoy what the land contains for us. These ground rules are discussed in Deuteronomy 4-11. They can be summed up in ‘law’ and ‘covenant’. The law is: Love God above all else and your neighbor as yourself: ““Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And He said to him, “‘YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF’” (Mt 22:36-39).
Now we, believers who belong to the church, are “not under law, but under grace” (Rom 6:14). That does not mean, however, that our lives are not based on obedience. The knowledge of the truth that we are not under law, but under grace, has no meaning if we have not learned what it means to have and keep the commandments of the Lord Jesus.
By “the commandments of the Lord Jesus” we cannot understand what God has given in the law. The Lord’s commandments go much further. Nowhere in the law, for example, is a person asked to give up his life. The Lord Jesus received this commandment from the Father: “For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life so that I may take it again. … This commandment I received from My Father” (Jn 10:17,18b). The same goes for the believer who has the Lord Jesus as his life: “We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1Jn 3:16).
The commandments of the Lord Jesus are of a different character. It is the desire of the believer’s new life to do everything He says, whether He commands it explicitly or merely announces His wish. He who loves Him keeps His commandments and His word (Jn 14:21,23). Then the Father and the Son come and make Their abode with such a person. That is to say, with respect, that they feel at home there. That is fellowship.
The covenant, both the old and the new, is not made with the church, but with Israel (Heb 8:8,13). The new covenant is based on the blood of the Lord Jesus. What the church does have to deal with is the blood of the new covenant. Therefore the institution of Lord’s Supper is also in the first letter to the Corinthians (1Cor 11:23-26) and not only in the gospels. The apostles are “servants of a new covenant” (2Cor 3:6). They not only speak about the church, but also point to the future of Israel. The fact that the term ‘covenant’ is also used in connection with the church shows that the relations God establishes with us are subject to conditions.
1 - 5 Listen and Do
1 “Now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the judgments which I am teaching you to perform, so that you may live and go in and take possession of the land which the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you. 2 You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you. 3 Your eyes have seen what the LORD has done in the case of Baal-peor, for all the men who followed Baal-peor, the LORD your God has destroyed them from among you. 4 But you who held fast to the LORD your God are alive today, every one of you. 5 “See, I have taught you statutes and judgments just as the LORD my God commanded me, that you should do thus in the land where you are entering to possess it.
With the words “now, O Israel” with which Moses begins, he connects to the memory of the way God has gone with His people. He will now use history as an incentive for them to obediently fulfil their duty. The word “listen” means to take to heart and to do. This is the condition to enjoy the blessing of the land afterwards.
The teaching that Moses is going to give, aims to life: the real life in the land. Life in its fullness, as God intended for His people, is only really enjoyed when His statutes and judgments are listened to. By statutes are meant all that God has said with regard to serving Him. The judgments are all decisions concerning civil matters, everything concerning the mutual relations of the members of God’s people. The two expressions include the whole law of God. What God says is sufficient to protect our lives and to guarantee the enjoyment of the land.
It is “that you may live” Moses first speaks of, following which he mentions “and go in and take possession of the land”. That also applies to us. When the Word of Christ dwells richly in us, we experience the highest enjoyment of life from God and living with God and with each other. Then our whole life will be to the glory of God, and we will praise Him: “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms [and] hymns [and] spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. Whatever you do in word or deed, [do] all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father” (Col 3:16-17).
The statutes and judgments do not contain conditions on how to become a believer, but how to enjoy the blessings as a believer. Even before Moses starts giving God’s commandments, he first points out the danger of doing or taking away from God’s commandments (Rev 22:18-19; Deu 12:32; Pro 30:5-6; Jer 26:2; Mt 5:19). They do not need additional rules or instructions and nothing is superfluous.
We can only keep God’s commandments by taking them as He gave them. The Pharisees add their own commandments to the law, they are the rituals of their days. The Sadducees remove from the law what they cannot reason mentally. They are the rationalists of their days. We too are constantly in danger of adding to, or taking away from God’s Word.
Secondly, Moses recalls Baal-peor right from the beginning of this teaching (Num 25:1-9; Psa 106:28,39; Hos 9:10). That is also significant. At Baal-peor the people connected themselves to the Moabites in body and mind and fornication was committed. They did so on the advice of Balaam (Num 31:16). God’s judgment came upon it. They recently saw this with ‘their own eyes’. Moses illustrates the consequences of disobedience and obedience to God’s commandments.
In Revelation 2 we read about “the teaching of Balaam” (Rev 2:14). This teaching contains the connection between the world and God’s people. In our days we see that everywhere where the world is brought within the walls of the church with all kinds of beautiful excuses. A strong example is making certain decisions in the church by voting and accepting a case by majority vote. Scripture is no longer the norm, but most votes.
Serving God cannot be linked to the use of the methods of the world. All those who believe that this is possible will be destroyed. The choice is presented by Moses in its consequences. It is a warning to the generation that stands before him. That generation is alive before him because they have held fast to the LORD. He that holds fast to the LORD holds fast to life. Then – and only then – can life be lived in its richest form. In that life the Spirit works. God has nothing to do with the generation of the flesh, but with the generation of the Spirit.
Moses passes on to the people what the LORD his God has commanded him. He is a type of the Lord Jesus as the great Teacher Who speaks the words of God. It is wisdom to listen to Him.
6 - 8 God’s People and the Other Peoples
6 So keep and do [them], for that is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ 7 For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as is the LORD our God whenever we call on Him? 8 Or what great nation is there that has statutes and judgments as righteous as this whole law which I am setting before you today?
True wisdom and understanding are found in a life lived according to God’s order. God has revealed it in His Word. He has given that Word to His people. The possession of that Word makes the big difference to the world around God's people. Not their prosperity or military power, but a life according to the statutes and judgments of God’s Word distinguishes God’s people from the world. If they are obedient, they will arouse the jealousy of all peoples.
The letter to the Colossians begins with a prayer for wisdom and spiritual insight necessary to enjoy the blessings of the land: “For this reason also, since the day we heard [of it], we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (Col 1:9). The true life is “hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3). Stretching out for it, being busy with it (Col 3:1) is true wisdom and understanding, for in Him are “hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:3).
If we read God’s Word in this way and discover more and more of Christ, in whom our blessings are already contained, we will walk “with wisdom toward outsiders” (Col 4:5). So says Moses too, to the people. Their listening to the commandments of God will be a testimony to the nations around them (cf. 1Kgs 10:4-5). The true right is rooted in God. If His people maintain this, He will become visible through it. He is honored. This honor also comes upon the people. Those who make the Word of God great in their lives will be made great by it themselves.
Moses tells the people how near the LORD is to them. He is so near that He hears them when they call. There is a real relationship. Do the people realize it? Are we aware of it? And God answers. In His Word we have His answer to any question. Moses then points to this. He speaks with full conviction of the unparalleled righteousness of God’s laws (Psa 147:19-20).
Are we, am I, fully and deeply convinced of that? If there is no conviction of the truth of God’s Word, we do not read it. If we do read it without that conviction: we do so without the awareness that the living and loving God speaks to us. “His commandments are not burdensome” (1Jn 5:3), that is, for the new life. They are the best and most righteous commandments. The foundation is love. He is so near to His people, and we are so near to Him.
We must learn to walk “not as unwise men but as wise” (Eph 5:15). We learn this by, among other things, dealing with the letter to the Ephesians. As a result, we receive wisdom and understanding. Wisdom is not to be found in learning and science, in education or in the world, but in the school of God. True wisdom cannot be learned from a booklet, but we learn it in God’s school of practice.
9 - 14 The Lord Lets His Words Be Heard
9 “Only give heed to yourself and keep your soul diligently, so that you do not forget the things which your eyes have seen and they do not depart from your heart all the days of your life; but make them known to your sons and your grandsons. 10 [Remember] the day you stood before the LORD your God at Horeb, when the LORD said to me, ‘Assemble the people to Me, that I may let them hear My words so they may learn to fear Me all the days they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children.’ 11 You came near and stood at the foot of the mountain, and the mountain burned with fire to the [very] heart of the heavens: darkness, cloud and thick gloom. 12 Then the LORD spoke to you from the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of words, but you saw no form—only a voice. 13 So He declared to you His covenant which He commanded you to perform, [that is], the Ten Commandments; and He wrote them on two tablets of stone. 14 The LORD commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and judgments, that you might perform them in the land where you are going over to possess it.
There is always the danger that the things we have experienced and that have made a great impression on us will be soon forgotten. Moses insists that God’s people will keep in their hearts what God has shown them of Himself. God’s revelation departs from our hearts when we allow other things to fill our hearts.
Passing on to our children and grandchildren the things we have seen of God is a commission and also a means by which we ourselves are reminded of Him time and again. In this book the emphasis is not so much on priestly service or religious leadership, but more on the parents who are responsible for the spiritual forming of their children.
Moses recalls the day that the people stood at Horeb “before the LORD your God”. He speaks to those who were then under twenty, but it also applies to those who were still in the loins of their fathers and were born during the wilderness journey. God then had him summon the people, to make them hear His words. God therefore wanted them to learn to respect Him as long as they live on earth. Also now God teaches us, His people: the church, through His Word how to honor Him.
The mountain was on fire. It is not a fire that has descended upon an unfaithful people to consume them. It is a fire that “burned … to the [very] heart of the heavens”. The fire is a symbol of judgment. The heart of the heavens is the Lord Jesus. Here we see in picture form that the fire of God’s judgment has come on the only One Who did not deserve that fire. God has sent the fire into the bones of the Lord Jesus (Lam 1:13), the heart of the heavens.
From the middle of the fire God speaks. God takes the foundation He found in the judgment that came on His Son. From that place, that righteous foundation, He speaks to His people. But God does not only speak, He also writes. God’s writing is a perfect representation of what He has spoken. Thus He made sufficient provision for His people with the understanding they needed to receive and keep the fullness of His blessing.
15 - 20 Prohibition to Make Any Idol
15 “So watch yourselves carefully, since you did not see any form on the day the LORD spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire, 16 so that you do not act corruptly and make a graven image for yourselves in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, 17 the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the sky, 18 the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water below the earth. 19 And [beware] not to lift up your eyes to heaven and see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, and be drawn away and worship them and serve them, those which the LORD your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven. 20 But the LORD has taken you and brought you out of the iron furnace, from Egypt, to be a people for His own possession, as today.
For the second time Moses insists on watching carefully (verses 9,15), to avoid wickedness by making an image of God. How would they portray God? For they have not seen His likeness, but only heard His voice. If they did, they would take something from creation. There is nothing against the things in creation. Nevertheless, taking something that is created and loosening it from creation to make it an object of worship, is idolatry.
Moses lists all the things that can be abused. He begins with the highest in creation on earth, man and woman, and descends to the lowest kind of creatures, after the example of which a graven picture can be made. Direct worship of heavenly bodies as a form of worship elevated above the earth is also an abomination to God.
It is easy for man to come to worship heavenly bodies. They make a great impression by their height, their brilliance and their meaning for life on earth, while there is no thought of Him Who made them. Many are the sun worshipers, but few are the true worshipers of the Father who worship Him in spirit and truth (Jn 4:23). Any form of idolatry is a great insult to Him and a great deceit to the idolater himself.
The people of God are a redeemed people. God has redeemed His people, that they may be His own people. He has freed them from the “iron furnace, from Egypt”. An iron furnace is fired as hot as possible in order to process the metal afterwards. For Israel, Egypt had been a place of great distress and misery, where the fire of the trial had burned hot. Their liberation from that must have provided tremendous enlightenment.
God wants His people to serve and honor Him alone and in the way He indicates. Any relationship that His people have with something He has created in order to give honor to it, which only He is entitled to, is sin. It is a denial of the special relationship He has with this people and the special work by which He has made them His own people. God had said that they would be His own people, and now that has become reality.
The last words of verse 20, “as today”, sound like an exclamation that underlines the relationship of the people to God. It sounds like the exclamation “and we are” of John that immediately follows what he has spoken about the love that “the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God” (1Jn 3:1a).
21 - 24 The Anger of the LORD
21 “Now the LORD was angry with me on your account, and swore that I would not cross the Jordan, and that I would not enter the good land which the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance. 22 For I will die in this land, I shall not cross the Jordan, but you shall cross and take possession of this good land. 23 So watch yourselves, that you do not forget the covenant of the LORD your God which He made with you, and make for yourselves a graven image in the form of anything [against] which the LORD your God has commanded you. 24 For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.
Before Moses continues to speak about the land to which they are on their way, he points for the third time to the anger of the LORD with him on their account (Deu 1:37; 3:26). After what he has said about the danger of idolatry, he makes it clear that God’s consuming fire (verse 24; Heb 12:29) will destroy every form of idolatry. He says that God cannot allow in our lives anything that has been consumed on the cross by the fire of His judgment. Nothing of the old nature or the flesh may be introduced into the worship service, for God was angry with the Lord Jesus on account of that.
For the third time, this chapter (verse 23) warns to watch out for something (verse 23; verses 9,15). Here it is about not forgetting the covenant the LORD has made with them and the prohibition to make idols. The covenant specifies the status of the people in the special relationship in which God has placed the people to Himself. Idolatry is absolutely contrary to this and unacceptable. God cannot tolerate that. He is a jealous God, Who cannot possibly share the love of His people with others. He can’t bear it if His people don’t give all their love to Him alone. He has done everything for these people to expect their undivided love. He also has every right to punish any act of adultery of His beloved people.
25 - 28 Consequences of Idolatry
25 “When you become the father of children and children’s children and have remained long in the land, and act corruptly, and make an idol in the form of anything, and do that which is evil in the sight of the LORD your God [so as] to provoke Him to anger, 26 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that you will surely perish quickly from the land where you are going over the Jordan to possess it. You shall not live long on it, but will be utterly destroyed. 27 The LORD will scatter you among the peoples, and you will be left few in number among the nations where the LORD drives you. 28 There you will serve gods, the work of man’s hands, wood and stone, which neither see nor hear nor eat nor smell.
Moses points out the consequences for children and grandchildren if the people fall into idolatry. Then follows a remarkable statement, in which Moses announces as a prophet, that the people will fail by committing idolatry. The result is that they will lose the land. They will die in it or be taken out. They want to serve the gods of other nations? Then so shall they find themselves in the lands of the idols they have brought into their own land (Jdg 10:14).
In Christianity it has been the same. By introducing idolatry, connecting to the world and introducing worldly elements into the worship service, the view of heavenly blessings has been lost. Where “the work of man’s hands” takes over the guidance of God’s Spirit in the church, death enters.
Things in which there is no life, things “which neither see nor hear nor eat nor smell”, are given a place in the service to God. Theological strongholds have taken over. Papers are asked for and not life. When diplomas become the basis for accessing a ministry to God, the blessings in Christ that are part of every born-again person are forgotten.
29 - 31 Repentance Brings the Promised Blessing
29 But from there you will seek the LORD your God, and you will find [Him] if you search for Him with all your heart and all your soul. 30 When you are in distress and all these things have come upon you, in the latter days you will return to the LORD your God and listen to His voice. 31 For the LORD your God is a compassionate God; He will not fail you nor destroy you nor forget the covenant with your fathers which He swore to them.
If the absence of spiritual, heavenly blessings is felt, it is the start of the way back to again enjoy the blessings (Lk 15:17). When repentance of this ‘work of man’s hands’, in whatever form it may have gained access to the church, takes place the promised blessing can still or again be enjoyed.
God’s grace brings restoration. This applies to Israel farther along in the future (Gen 49:1). Undeservedly, God works in their hearts to repentance. It also applies to the final phase of Christianity in which we find ourselves. God also wants Christians to work out in their hearts now, those measures necessary for their return to the blessings of the land. This means that they will again have an eye for the heavenly place and vocation of the church. In Christianity, this truth has largely been lost through the church’s involvement in, and even interwovenness with, earthly things. Further still, by considering and presenting these earthly preoccupations as its very calling.
The fundamental truth of the letter to the Romans is that of righteousness based on faith alone. In the history of Christianity this truth was rediscovered, from beneath the dust, in the Reformation. In our personal lives, it may be necessary to rediscover this truth if in our Christian lives works become the basis through which we think we are accepted by God. With the influence of Roman Catholicism, this is indeed a matter worth paying careful attention to.
The truth of the letter to the Ephesians and the contents of the letters of John go beyond what is taught us in the letter to the Romans about justification. In these letters God unfolds to His children truths that have to do with heaven, with eternal life, with Christ in heaven, Who is the eternal life. This does not make for drifting Christians, but steadfast saints who know where and how to live true life, and who bear witness to this in their earthly relations.
The way to that blessing is opened by a compassionate God Who calls us to listen to Him. On His faithfulness we may count and call upon.
32 - 40 Reason for Obedience
32 “Indeed, ask now concerning the former days which were before you, since the day that God created man on the earth, and [inquire] from one end of the heavens to the other. Has [anything] been done like this great thing, or has [anything] been heard like it? 33 Has [any] people heard the voice of God speaking from the midst of the fire, as you have heard [it], and survived? 34 Or has a god tried to go to take for himself a nation from within [another] nation by trials, by signs and wonders and by war and by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm and by great terrors, as the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes? 35 To you it was shown that you might know that the LORD, He is God; there is no other besides Him. 36 Out of the heavens He let you hear His voice to discipline you; and on earth He let you see His great fire, and you heard His words from the midst of the fire. 37 Because He loved your fathers, therefore He chose their descendants after them. And He personally brought you from Egypt by His great power, 38 driving out from before you nations greater and mightier than you, to bring you in [and] to give you their land for an inheritance, as it is today. 39 Know therefore today, and take it to your heart, that the LORD, He is God in heaven above and on the earth below; there is no other. 40 So you shall keep His statutes and His commandments which I am giving you today, that it may go well with you and with your children after you, and that you may live long on the land which the LORD your God is giving you for all time.”
Moses does not tire of reminding the people of what God has done for them. He invites them to do research in the past and across the breadth of the earth if something similar has ever happened. They should check whether the scope of the event and its content can be found elsewhere. Is it not of unsurpassable magnitude that a people are brought to the heart of God? Is it not an unsuspected happening that God speaks out of the fire and that those to whom He addresses Himself remain alive? Is not the way in which He has made this people His own people far above all human thought and comprehension? Surely such a thing can only come from the one, unique God Who cannot be compared to anyone (verses 35,39; Deu 32:39; Isa 45:5a,21b)? And that God is their God!
The reason God has made them His people is His love for their fathers, and that He has chosen their descendants. Therefore He is ever active for them. Everything has gone forth from Him and continues to go forth from Him. He is the only One in heaven and on earth. It is altogether folly, contempt and the height of ingratitude to honor anything or anyone other than Him. Only when they – and we – see Him like this in the immeasurable fullness of his love and grace, will the heart be humbled and broken to keep His statutes and His commandments.
41 - 43 Cities of Refuge on the East Side of the Jordan
41 Then Moses set apart three cities across the Jordan to the east, 42 that a manslayer might flee there, who unintentionally slew his neighbor without having enmity toward him in time past; and by fleeing to one of these cities he might live: 43 Bezer in the wilderness on the plateau for the Reubenites, and Ramoth in Gilead for the Gadites, and Golan in Bashan for the Manassites.
Suddenly Moses’ speech is interrupted by an action: the designation of three cities of refuge in the area of the wilderness side of the Jordan for the manslayer. The sin of idolatry that came to the attention in the previous section is not the only evil of Israel. The second great evil is that they became the manslayer of the Lord Jesus.
It is pure grace that God has brought His people back into the land after idolatry. It is also pure grace that God provides cities of refuge for the people for a manslayer. These two sins of Israel are also present in Christianity. We find them in the introduction of strange elements into the worship service and the exclusion of the Lord Jesus. Such things mean a negation of His Person and His rights.
If we do not recognize His rights in our daily lives and in the meetings of the church, we are spiritually guilty of manslaughter. For us, the possession and enjoyment of the land means that we do not deny His Name (Rev 3:8). But there is also a city of refuge for us. We find it in the truth of His Word. Back to the Lord, acknowledging His Name, that is, His authority, means bowing to His Word.
These are the cities of refuge in the area of the wilderness side of the Jordan, so not yet in the land. It is about our life on earth before God, living in fellowship with Him. It is about the recognition of His rights in daily life. If, for whatever reason, we no longer acknowledge them and spiritually fall into idolatry and manslaughter, it is because we have forgotten what it means to be justified by faith. Then that meaning must again return to us afresh.
That meaning and life in accordance with it will return when we start reading God’s Word again and let God’s Spirit do His work in us. Then we discover again that the righteousness of God is the righteousness which is His own and which emanates from Him, and which we have received through faith in the Lord Jesus. We will be safe in the city of refuge to experience the truth of the first verse of Romans 5 (Rom 5:1).
44 - 49 Where Moses Sets the Law Before the People
44 Now this is the law which Moses set before the sons of Israel; 45 these are the testimonies and the statutes and the ordinances which Moses spoke to the sons of Israel, when they came out from Egypt, 46 across the Jordan, in the valley opposite Beth-peor, in the land of Sihon king of the Amorites who lived at Heshbon, whom Moses and the sons of Israel defeated when they came out from Egypt. 47 They took possession of his land and the land of Og king of Bashan, the two kings of the Amorites, [who were] across the Jordan to the east, 48 from Aroer, which is on the edge of the valley of Arnon, even as far as Mount Sion (that is, Hermon), 49 with all the Arabah across the Jordan to the east, even as far as the sea of the Arabah, at the foot of the slopes of Pisgah.
The final verses of Deuteronomy 4 are the introduction to Moses’ next speech. They describe the place where and the circumstances under which the testimonies, statutes and ordinances are given: in the plains of Moab, after the liberation from Egypt, the wilderness journey and the taking possession of the land of Sihon and Og. Their feet stand on conquered ground as they listen to Moses’ speech. Moses speaks from a position of victory. This must be a powerful motive for the people to follow up on what he has to say. The speech of Moses contains incentives, encouragements and conditions to obey – necessary for the blessing to be given.
“The law” (verse 44) is the general designation of God’s commandments and is further specified in the designations “testimonies”, “statutes” and “ordinances” in verse 45.