So last week, by way of introduction, we were considering how Deuteronomy, and the other books or sections of law in the OT, is about spiritual formation – about creating a people. The people of Israel are about to enter the land of Canaan. The old generation has passed away and this new generation – a people who have grown up in the wilderness, the only life they’ve known – are about to enter the promised land. And before they do, they need to be reminded of who they are, and whose they are. And they need to learn the truth that their whole lives, every aspect of it, is formed by the God who saved them and who now leads them into new life.
So as they stand at the entrance to the land of Canaan, before they enter in to take it, Moses reads them – or perhaps better, preaches to them – the law of the Lord. That their identities might be grounded in Yahweh.
The first few verses of this passage carry on from the previous chapter stating the importance of keeping the covenant law.
5:32 So be careful to do what the Lord your God has commanded you; do not turn aside to the right or to the left. 33 Walk in obedience to all that the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live and prosper and prolong your days in the land that you will possess. 6:1 These are the commands, decrees and laws the Lord your God directed me to teach you to observe in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess, 2 so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the Lord your God as long as you live by keeping all his decrees and commands that I give you, and so that you may enjoy long life. 3 Hear, Israel, and be careful to obey so that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, promised you.Deuteronomy 5:32 – 6:3
These verses give the impression that God’s covenant is conditional. We’ve talked about this before, so we’re not going to go into it, but this notion is misleading. Certainly the covenant has conditional elements – and what we’re seeing here (ostensibly) is that God’s blessing, or the Israelite’s prosperity, is conditional (specifically, on being faithful to God). However, what we want to remember is that participation in the covenant is not conditional. Or, that God’s choosing doesn’t depend on the people’s being good enough or holy enough. Months back, we defined covenant as “a bond in blood, sovereignly administered” (Robertson, O. Palmer. Christ of the Covenants).
Part of what is meant by that is that a covenant is not a contract. A contract is an agreement or arrangement between two or more (essentially) equal partners. And if one partner breaks the terms, the contract is broken.
A covenant, in the biblical sense, is a relationship the terms of which are determined by a sovereign – a king. God, the king, alone establishes the covenant, determines the terms of the covenant, and administers the covenant.
Now there’s something to be said here about what is called a Suzerainty Treaty. In short, a Suzerain is a Hittite term for a Lord or king. In a Suzerainty treaty, the Suzerain enters into an agreement (for lack of a better term) with a vassal or subject. But this agreement, or relationship, is not an equal relationship. Rather, it is (again, for lack of a better term) imposed by the superior party. Scholars have identified that Deuteronomy seems to be based on (or at least shares many elements with) the form of a Suzerainty Treaty.
Now, for most of us, this isn’t particularly important to know. But there’s an extent to which the form of the document itself tells us something important about the nature of the relationship – the nature of the covenant.
Now I don’t want to get bogged down in this, but how we understand this – In NT terms, or more correctly, in contemporary western terms – is grace. I don’t mean to say that the two terms, covenant and grace, are equal. What I simply mean is that covenant is not incompatible with grace, but rather, is an implementation of God’s grace.
We can see this more clearly when we understand that the entire history of Israel seems to be that of humankind’s inability to remain faithful to God. And yet, God never abandons His people.
Or, in other words, God enters into relationship with us, not because we’re worthy – not because we are the best people, the holiest people, the most deserving people – but because He chooses to. God chooses us, not because we are good, but because He is good.
So, moving on in our passage today:
4 “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. 6 And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. 8 You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 9 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.Deuteronomy 6:4-9
Now this is really where we want to focus our attention today. Most of us are familiar with verse 5 as the words Jesus identified as the greatest commandment (Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might – Mt. 22:37 and Lk. 10:27). Less of you are probably familiar with the preceding verse, Deuteronomy 6:4.
Deuteronomy 6:4, in many ways, is the theological center of the Old Testament. In Jewish tradition, these words are known as the Shema. It’s so called because the first word in the verse is Shema – Listen, or Hear. And the Shema is a central prayer that is regularly recited by the Jewish people.
If we carry on in this passage, we read the following:
10 “And when the Lord your God brings you into the land that he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you—with great and good cities that you did not build, 11 and houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant—and when you eat and are full, 12 then take care lest you forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 13 It is the Lord your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear. 14 You shall not go after other gods, the gods of the peoples who are around you— 15 for the Lord your God in your midst is a jealous God—lest the anger of the Lord your God be kindled against you, and he destroy you from off the face of the earth.Deuteronomy 6:10-15
Essentially, these verses are saying that when you find yourselves in the new land, in blessing, don’t forget Egypt. Don’t forget when God demonstrated His mighty power, his authority over Pharaoh, and over all the gods of Egypt, and brought His people out of slavery. Don’t forget that, in the Red Sea, God brought His people safely to salvation, but utterly destroyed His enemies.
In Egypt, the Israelites may (or may not) have learned about the gods of Egypt, including Pharaoh. They may have learned how to worship them and how to offer to them and how to fear them. But through the Exodus, they learned that there is only one God, and His name is YHWH.
The significance of this passage, and of this verse in particular, is that the Israelite faith, and thus the Christian faith, in contrast to the faith and beliefs of the peoples around them, is that there is only one God. The foundation of the covenant, and thus the very constitution of the people and nation of Israel, is that this one God is over all other supposed gods, and is sovereign over all of creation. He is sovereign over all creation because He is the source of all creation – He is the source of life itself.
What this means, I think, as it relates to the requirements of the covenant – that is, the Law – is that we are called to remember the covenant, to observe the Law not to appease a hostile and distant god. We don’t choose YHWH because he is the best of many available options. We don’t make choices and live a particular lifestyle because it’s the best or easiest way to get what we want.
We choose God (and here, forgive me for the failings of the English language – because we’ve just spent a reasonable amount of time explaining how we are chosen more than we choose) – we choose God because there is only one God. We choose the life of Christ because there is only one way to life.
Now, as an aside, I’m not saying that there is only one way to live the life of Christ – the Baptist way, or the Presbyterian way, or the Emerging way, or the Purpose-Driven way. And I’m not even saying that we, as Grace Community Church, or that I, as your pastor, have got it figured out (better than anyone else). That’s a different conversation for a different time.
What I am trying to say is that the basis of the covenant, the basis of the Law, and the requirements of the Law, is that there is only one God and His name is YHWH.
We are very much living in a time when personal choice and personal freedom are the highest truth and the greatest value. And we also live in a highly capitalistic world. We often think very much in terms of transactions. We even do this in terms of personal relationships.
We say (and think in terms of) things like, “I will respect you, if you will respect me.” Or, “I only want to spend time with people who are going to make me happy.” Or we say things like, “Relationships are all about give and take.”
I’m not saying these things are wrong, per se. What I am suggesting, I think, is that we can and we should evaluate how we actually think about our relationship with God. We can and we should evaluate how we think about why we do the things we do – in terms of our Christian walk.
As the people of Israel prepare to enter into the land of Canaan, as they take hold of the blessings of God, they are called to live a certain way – they are called to live according to the covenant. And this, not simply to be different than the other peoples of Canaan (though certainly they will be set apart); and not simply to earn the favour of God (though God’s blessings will certainly follow); and not simply because YHWH is the best of several options (though indeed God is the only option). They are called to live according to the covenant because YHWH alone is God. They are called to live according to the covenant because YHWH is true. Because He alone is the way, the truth and the life, we are called to live in covenant relationship with Him.
And so, then, are we.