You may say to yourselves, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the Lord?” If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken (Deuteronomy 18:21-22).
Our daily Bible readings brought us to this passage last week. It seems straight forward enough: Proof that a prophet is really a spokesman for God is that his words come true. But questions arise: What if his words are not fore-tellings of future events? After all, the main function of a prophet was not to reveal the future, but to call people to holy living. And what if he has proven himself as a spokesman for God in the past by prophesying events that have come true. Does that mean everything else he says is the word of God?
An interesting text occurring five chapters earlier speaks to these questions. First, it doesn’t matter if the person closest to you tells you “this is what God wants.” If it is not what God has revealed in his word, don’t listen to them. Even if a whole city (popular opinion) speaks in favor of something contrary to God’s already revealed will – don’t follow them.
Preceding all these is a comment about the prophet. Even if he has been confirmed a prophet by the truthfulness of his fore-tellings, if he contradicts what God has already revealed, pay him no mind (see Deuteronomy 13).
To emphasize the seriousness of this instruction, anything contrary to it was a capital offense. This is why the Bible is so important. It contains the confirmed revealed will of God. Anything contrary is not his will, no matter who says it, how dear they might be, or how many hold their position. In the words of Isaiah “Consult God’s instruction and the testimony of warning. If anyone does not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn.” (Isaiah 8:20).
My daily Bible reading today (Deuteronomy 25-27) concerned the “firstfruits” offering. At harvest, a basket containing choice selections from the beginning of the harvest was to be prepared and offered to God. In bringing the offering, the offerer was to say: “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer . . . Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our misery . . . So the Lord brought us out of Egypt . . . He brought us to . . . this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the firstfruits of the soil that you, O Lord, have given me.”
Memory plays a huge part in thankfulness. A hundred years after Moses, none of those reciting those words would have experienced the Exodus. And yet, nothing for which they were immediately thankful would have been possible without those events of the past.
When we count our blessings, may we not just be thankful for the immediate, but also for blessings of the past that have brought us along the road to our present. Parents will do their children a favor to recite those blessings in their prayers of thanksgiving. It gives fuller meaning to the words of the hymn “‘tis grace that has brought us safe thus far,” and confidence to finish the verse with “and grace will lead us home.”
Chapter 27 begins the fourth section of Deuteronomy (chapters 27-28) which sets out the blessings for obedience to the law and curses for disobedience. It is interesting that the warnings against disobedience occupy the largest part of this section.
Chapter 29 begins the final section with one last exhortation to faithfulness and the final verse of this chapter has been invoked many times by well-meaning Christians to excuse what they don’t know: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and our children forever.” When we don’t know an answer, we attribute it to the fact that God has not revealed it.
But entirely too often we could know the answer if we would but look for it. After all, the verse does not really end with “to our children forever,” but with the words “that we may follow all the words of this law.” You cannot follow what you do not know, and you cannot excuse what you do not know by saying “God hasn’t revealed it” when, in fact, He has.
Earlier in the chapter God makes this point: their miraculous deliverance, over a period of forty years in which not even their clothing wore out, was a sign of the surety of God’s covenant. But no one should take the sure promises of God as a certainty if obedience to His law was not present. We talk about the unforgivable sin mentioned by Jesus in the New Testament often overlooking the fact that it was present in the Old Testament too. Anyone who persisted in living as he saw fit, seemingly oblivious by his behavior to the law of God, would never be forgiven. The recalcitrant spirit is, in fact, the unforgivable sin and remains unforgivable as long as it is present.
Chapter 25 continues the third section of Deuteronomy, an elaboration of the ten commandments, specifically having to do with the treatment of fellow Israelites. Other than dealing with this very broad subject, it is difficult to see the correlation between the laws mentioned in this chapter.
This is the only place in the law where you find directions for what we now call the “levirate marriage” (from the Latin levir, “brother-in-law”). Israel was not the only nation to have such a law, but the question is, “why have it?” We are not given a specific answer. We may conclude that it had to do with love for family; a brother would do what was necessary so that the name of his deceased brother would not die out. Refusal showed such a huge lack of brotherhood that it brought shame in the community upon not only the guilty brother, but upon his whole house. Connected with this would also be care for the widow involved so that she would not be bereft of support. The sensual element was somewhat mitigated. The living brother did not get another sexual partner, but was giving up what might well become his (the deceased brother’s estate) in order to preserve the line and estate of his brother.
Care for others is also illustrated in cases involving disputed matters between brethren. One is hard pressed to understand what particular dispute would merit a beating, but perhaps it was not the dispute itself, but the unwillingness to resolve a dispute. In an attempt to mediate a dispute, if the judges felt that one party was particularly intransigent, that party might well receive a beating.
But the beating could not be vicious or vindictive. Respect for the offending brother must be maintained by limiting the number of lashes he received. Jesus said that a brother unwilling to resolve a difference should be treated as someone outside the community of the faithful. It’s not just the disagreements we have that condemn us, it is that we allow disagreements to persist that also condemns.
“If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a miraculous sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder of which he has spoken takes place, and he says, “Let us follow other gods and let us worship them,” you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer.”
How are we to know the difference?
After all, if someone comes along and is able to perform miracles, would it not be a sign that person is from God? And how are we to know if the words from him are true or not?
Deuteronomy 13 underscores the total authority of God’s written word. The difference is seen in whether what is said corresponds to what has been written. The only God there is, the only God to be worshiped, is the God that led Israel out of Egypt. Any God that did not do that must not be worshiped. Any command, contrary to the written will of God contained in these books of Moses, must be assumed to be from another god, and should not be followed.
And any attempt by any person from among God’s people who would entice the community of faith to a way of life and worship not found in the revealed way of God written by Moses was to be treated in the harshest of ways.
Because it threatened the community’s relationship with God, and thus its very health and existence. In modern terms, such a false teacher should be treated like a bio-terrorist intent on destroying a community.
This text has often been used as justification for what has amounted to mean-spiritedness among Christians. But frankly, most of the things Christians have fought over have not been matters about which God has specifically spoken. They have been more matters of opinion and tradition. In point of fact, those who would exalt opinion and tradition to the status of revealed will have themselves called their hearers to another god and should be avoided at all costs.
Chapter 12 begins the third section of Deuteronomy, specific elaborations on the foundational laws mentioned in chapters 5 – 11. It is most appropriate then that the section begin with a pointed command to be sure that worship is distinctly according to God’s way. Specifically forbidden is any allowance of worldly influence.
Three points stand out in this chapter:
First is the previously mentioned holiness of worship. It was to be God’s way, in God’s time, at God’s appointed place. Though we have no designated singular place for worship today under Christ’s covenant, the notion that worship must never be done in a way that smacks of worldliness remains. The world has no vote – and neither should worldly people. This should not mean that because pagan temples have windows, our churches should not – or if they have air-conditioning we should swelter in the heat. Such things have nothing to do with actual worship. But in the worship itself, such should be done as God has said, to please solely Him. When our worship assemblies become vehicles to make Christianity appealing and satisfactory to the world, we’ve forgotten this lesson of Deuteronomy 12.
Second is the need for the assembly of the community. While there was a time when individual worship was the rule because corporate worship had not been established, one should recognize that corporate worship was important to God – far more so than individual worship. To worship in the place of your choice would eventually lead to the displacement of God’s choice.
This brings us to the final point. One cannot help but notice the caveat that even after the establishment of a place of worship, there was room for local and individual worship (vss. 15ff). I regard this as the weak link. As long as the choice of worshiping locally and individually was even remotely acceptable, Israel would be drawn away from corporate worship according to the dictates of God. And yet, it could not be avoided. Worship was to be done where God appointed, but that was not to be the only worship that was done.
Matthew 22 contains the great debate between Jesus and the Jewish authorities. The Pharisees, hoping to catch Jesus in a political faux pas quiz the Lord about paying taxes. If he says pay them, the people will turn from him. If he opposes paying them, the government will act against him. The Sadducees quiz Jesus on the resurrection and receive a scriptural refutation. The pharisees come back and ask Jesus about the greatest commandment – a controversy they suppose has no winner.
Jesus’ reply, however, not only finds no disagreement with his inquisitors, but has as its basis the text of Deuteronomy chapter five. His quote is from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. But his conclusion, that these two are the greatest commands are seen in Moses’ review of the decalogue. Deuteronomy 5:6-15 is the first part, duty to God. It is followed by duty to mankind, seen in verses 16-21.
Obviously, this is not the whole law. But it serves as the foundation of every law in the Mosaic dispensation.
And that brings us to this idea of “dispensation.”
Blessing from God is always connected with “covenant.” A covenant is an agreement between a greater (in this case God) and a lesser (Israel). It is always initiated by the greater, and the terms are laid out by the greater (and never negotiated as a contract would be – a reason for not calling a covenant a “contract”). God made a covenant with Adam and Eve. He made another with Noah and, of course, the first great one was with Abraham. The covenant sets forth the promises of the greater, and obligations of the lesser. The covenant made with Israel at Sinai was not made with Israel’s forebears (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob). It was not made with Christians. It was made with Israel. While the laws and conditions of that particular covenant may not be a part of God’s covenant with us, they certainly tell us about God, what He wants, how He thinks. One should not think that this summary brief of the law in Deuteronomy 5 is just a list of laws no longer applicable. They in fact form the basis for every law in every covenant of the Lord thereafter.
In chapter thirty-four, what Moses appears to regret most comes to pass.
His regret is not that he faces death, but that he will not be able to enter the promised land, to see to the end his mission in life.
But then again, he gets to the end of God’s mission for him in life.
It’s a matter we must all remember, for likely we will all die leaving many things undone we’d like to do – not crossing off everything from our “bucket list.” One day, we will leave it all behind, including the unfinished things, left to be completed by others, or simply never finished at all. The important thing will be whether we have been engaged in God’s work. When our lives are engaged in that, we never leave things undone, for we will have done all that God intended for us to do.
Part of Moses’ legacy however is that he left someone else qualified to take his place, someone who likewise possessed the Spirit of God, to continue to do the work of God. I think there too is a lesson: Life should not be lived simply accomplishing stuff – no matter how valuable that stuff might be. It should also involve leading, influencing, mentoring others who will follow in our steps and follow the leading of God.
Deuteronomy ends with hope. Earlier God promised that he would raise up a prophet like Moses (18:15-18). Joshua takes his place, but he is not that prophet. That prophet does not arise in the lifetime of the writer of Deuteronomy (perhaps best to call him a “compiler” because he compiles the writings, sayings and doings of Moses into this book). In the days of Jesus, Israel is still looking for that prophet (John 1:21, 45; 6:14; 7:40 and Acts 3:20-22), but by then, their eyes are so blinded by their preconceived notions that they do not recognize him when he comes.
My father passed away last month (February, 2013). For twenty-one days he tried to recover in the ICU, but to no avail. It occurred to me, a few days into those three weeks, that I was waking up each day with a different hymn in mind. That’s not something that usually happens to me. More strangely, it wouldn’t always be the first verse (or best known), but sometimes a different verse I had not sung in a while. Yet the words came to mind with vivid clarity and even at the end, hymns came like a flood. Sometimes they encouraged anguish. At others, peace and calm.
For nearly six decades, hymns have been a part of my life. I usually sing from memory. I mention all this to note the importance of music among God’s people. The longest book in the Bible is a book of hymns and poems. And here, in Deuteronomy 31, as Moses and God contemplate a people without Moses’ presence and leadership, God summarizes His relationship with Israel in a song and urges Moses to teach it to them.
Music is part of our divine heritage. It brings together the truths of God in memorable fashion, engages the heart and mind together, provides a defense against sin and despair and encourages faithfulness during times of joy, sorrow, temptation and regret.
I would suggest that music does what prose alone cannot, and God knew it.
There have always been, and probably will always be, those who denigrate music in favor of singular prose, but those people will always miss a depth of spirituality that reaches to the heart.
Every Christian should own a Bible. But every Christian should also own a hymnal, and every Christian should make use of both. I can tell you, it helps to awake each day to hymn of God you can at least hear in your mind, if not sing with your mouth.
Throughout this book, emphasis has been on obedience. The Lord commanded obedience (6:24) and Israel was to be careful to obey (6:3). Blessing was dependent on obedience (11:13,27).
At Sinai, Israel had agreed to the covenant stipulations. But after she entered the promised land, there was to be a formal meeting on the side-by-side mountains of Ebal and Gerizim – half of Israel on one mountain and half on the other. There, the priests were to recite the blessings of the covenant and the conditions of the covenant and Israel was called to formally agree to them once again.
Why the formal emphasis? Because God was and is serious about the behavior of His people.
There are many other laws not recited in Deuteronomy 27. It doesn’t mean the unrepeated laws were unimportant, but these give us some insight to the concerns of God. Note that God is concerned about idolatry, about respect for the family and other people’s property, about the treatment of the helpless and respect for life. Significantly, four of the twelve statements have to do with sexuality. When outsiders complain that Christians are far too focused on sex and not on other things like justice, mercy, and kindness, we would do well to remember that sexual sin is not only sin against God, but against ourselves and against others. And besides all that, it is of tremendous significance to God. Sexual sin ruins families, destroys integrity and is also addictive. Sexual sin is not insignificant but is, in God’s eyes, of overwhelming concern. If our society can dismiss so casually these morals that are so tied to character and a harmonious community life leads inevitably to the question: “how quickly might it cast off all morals?