Deuteronomy 4:1-14

Jimmy JoDeuteronomy, O.T. Survey, SermonsLeave a Comment

It’s been awhile since we wrapped up the book of Numbers.  If you recall, in the book of Numbers, the Israelites went through quite a lot.  They left mount Sinai after receiving the law of the Lord.  In the course of their journey, we saw the Israelites complaining to God about being taken out of Egypt; they refused to enter the land of Canaan – the promised land – when they learned that it might be difficult; as punishment, Israel would not be allowed to enter Canaan until the entire generation passed away; and in spite of all that, we saw that God’s grace reigns, and that He remained determined to bless the children of Abraham. 

By the end of Numbers, we have Israel, once again at the entrance to the land of Canaan.  And before they enter and conquer the land (which we get to in Joshua), Moses gathers the people together to hear the word of God, the covenant law, once more (I say “once more,” but remember that this is a new generation of Israelites). 

Now we’ve said before that the notion of land – that is, as we see it related to the conquering or taking of the land – is intimately tied up with the notion of kingdom and nationhood.  In the Ancient Near East context, being a people is deeply connected to possessing land.  In other words, the land is related to identity – specifically, the identity of a nation. 

We can therefore understand the significance of the reading of the Law prior to, or in preparation for, entering the land.  We’ve talked at length about Law as formation, so we won’t repeat that theme here – though we probably will over the course of the book.  But it stands to reason that, as the Israelites enter and take Canaan, they need to remember who brought them out of slavery, and for what – that is, they are blessed to be a blessing.  To use a popular Christian cliché, as they discover who they are, they need to remember whose they are. 

Deuteronomy, like Leviticus, is a book mostly composed of law texts.  And since, being so far removed from the culture of the Old Testament, we tend to have trouble with these texts, we tend to ignore them.  However, Deuteronomy was immensely important to the New Testament writers.  It’s one of the OT texts that’s most often referenced in the New Testament (Psalms, Isaiah, Genesis, Exodus).  Therefore, as best we can, we want to try to pay attention to what’s going on. 

So a few things about Deuteronomy to get us started: 

It’s arranged in a series of speeches (3 + concluding words) by Moses.  The most substantial of these is the second speech which includes a detailed elaboration on the Ten Commandments (what is often known as the Decalogue).  

Some of the major themes that we see in Israel include: 

  • Land (possessing the land)
  • Holiness (avoiding idolatry)
  • Worship (tabernacle to temple)

There are other themes and motifs, obviously, but I highlight these because they all have to do with, not only being a people, but being a particular people – a people devoted to YHWH.  This leads us to another one of the major themes (though that is probably too small a word in this case) of Deuteronomy:  The holiness and uniqueness of God.

Specifically, Deuteronomy highlights the sovereignty of God – that there is no other God, or no god above YHWH.  In a polytheistic culture, this is highly significant. 

And it’s not significant just because the words of the book of Deuteronomy says there is only one God.  But the very people, through their lives and their testimony in the land of Canaan, in a world of other gods and lesser gods, declare that there is only one God.  That there is no other name by which we can be saved and have life. 

Again, that’s what the law does.  At least that’s one of the things that the law does.  It serves to form us.  It forms us into that people belonging to God. 

4:5 See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the Lord my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him? And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?

Deuteronomy 4:5-8 (NIV)

It’s not just about “setting a good example”; and it’s definitely not about making other people feel bad about themselves.  It’s about living in such a way that demonstrates the truth (and the grace, and the love) of God. 

We’ve talked a lot about modernism and postmodernism, and to a much lesser extent, we’ve talked about post-postmodernism.  We’re not really going to get into that again today.  But one of the results of modernism, which has carried over into postmodernism, and to the contemporary (especially) Western world is the relegation of religion, or faith, into the private world.  One way we often think about this is the familiar phrase, “separation of Church and State.”  It’s interesting to note that originally, this idea had mostly to do with keeping the State – whether the king or the government – from interfering with the Church.  Historically, we can see the importance of this in Nazi Germany or in the reign of King James.  Today, the emphasis is very much on keeping the church out of decisions, or even conversations, about society – this includes government, education, the economy, and etc. 

There’s much more to say about this, including the rise of a sort of neo-Gnosticism, where internal, mental, and spiritual matters are separated from the material and temporal.  Further, the rise of relativism is both the result of and contributes to a continuing separation between private and public spheres. 

At any rate, before we digress even further, there is very much an expectation in contemporary Western society that religion is primarily, if not entirely, a private affair.  Anyone can believe whatever they want so long as they don’t impinge upon the rights and freedoms of others. 

Now regardless of what your position or attitude is towards evangelism, missions, apologetics, and the like, the privatization of religion, the compartmentalization of faith, is very much operative in the lives of many Christians. 

In short, a book like Deuteronomy reminds us that to be God’s people is to be God’s people in the world.  Our passage today reminds us that whether we live, and how we live, as the people of God is significant in a world that does not know God. 

4:5 See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the Lord my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him? And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?

Deuteronomy 4:5-8 (NIV)

But even more, as we read through the book of Deuteronomy – indeed, as we consider all the books of Law, poetry, the prophets, etc. – we are reminded that faith in God is not solely – and not even primarily – an internal matter.  Deuteronomy reminds us that God is concerned about every area of the lives of Israel.  He is not only concerned about their worship and the avoidance of idolatry, but He is concerned about their relationships with their neighbours, he is concerned about buying and selling, He’s concerned about governments and He’s concerned about families. 

And all of those spheres – from the “most private” to the “most public” – testify to the world and before God, whose we are.  All of it testifies to the God who led us out of slavery and into new life. 

So as we continue through the book of Deuteronomy, we will try to remember, and try to live out the truth that, to be God’s people is not merely about whether or not we show up to church on Sundays.  And it’s not just about whether you keep a bible on your night stand.  And we will remember that to demonstrate the love of God and the truth of God’s rule is not merely about how often you share the four spiritual laws or the five steps to salvation.  Rather, we will see how scripture tells us that all of creation and the whole of our lives belong to God and must, therefore, be transformed by God. 

Abraham Kuyper, famously said: 

“There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!”

Abraham Kuyper

Over the next several weeks, we will Deuteronomy, a book of spiritual formation, to help us work this into our lives, to the glory of God. 

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