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Bible Commentaries

Calvin's Commentary on the Bible
Deuteronomy 1

 

 

Verse 1

1.These are the words. These two latter passages properly belong to the supplements, wherein God afterwards more clearly and familiarly illustrated the Law previously given by Him; they comprehend also exhortations, by which He subdued the people’s minds to obedience, and eulogies, by which He commended and confirmed the Law. The sum is, that Moses is appointed the minister and ambassador of God, who by his mouth prescribes to Israel all that is right and just. But when he says, “beside the covenant, which he made with them in Horeb,” (Deuteronomy 29:1,) necessary that the Decalogue should be more fully explained, lest its brevity should render it obscure to an ignorant and slow-hearted people. For God did not, like earthly kings, learn from experience to enrich His law by new precepts, but considered the people’s dull and weak understanding. The particle of exception, “beside,” does not, therefore, designate anything additional, but only signifies that God had again repeated His covenant, that it might be more distinctly and certainly understood. In which respect He gave an extraordinary proof of His indulgence, that previous to their entering the land, He renewed His covenant about forty years after its first promulgation, and added a clear exposition of it, because He had then to do with a new generation. For this reason the place is expressly mentioned, because from thence the lapse of time is made evident.


Verse 6

6.The Lord our God spoke to us in Horeb. In this Second Narration, Moses expressly declares that God not only gave them a visible sign, by uplifting the cloud, but that He also verbally commanded the people to leave Mount Sinai, and to set about the performance of the rest of their journey. God says, then, that enough time had been spent in one place; (1) for, before they left it, an entire year had passed away there. Although there were eleven days’ journey before them before they would arrive at Kadesh-barnea, nevertheless, lest anything should delay the people, who were naturally but too indolent, tie stimulates them by setting before them the ease with which it might be accomplished, telling them that they had but to lift up their feet and advance, in order to attain the promised rest.


Verse 9

9.And I spoke unto you at that time. He does not here say that the counsel was suggested to him from another quarter, as to the appointment of the judges; but, perhaps, he dared not mention any name to these proud and perverse people, lest they should reject the thing which was otherwise good, from dislike of its author, as a foreigner. No doubt he is here recounting what had before happened; therefore he confesses himself, from his own personal feelings, unequal to bearing the burden, if he alone is set over the whole people. He adduces as the cause the immense multitude amongst whom there must necessarily arise many strifes and controversies. As to what he says of their increase, the commencement of its period must not be taken from the Exodus, but he commemorates the extraordinary and incredible favor of God, because they had so largely multiplied under the cruel tyranny when they were doomed to total destruction; and he adds a prayer, that for the future also the same blessing may attend them. Yet in these words he reminds them that the burden of government would become daily more arduous and weighty; whereby he may more readily persuade them to provide at once for what could not be eventually avoided.


Verse 13

13.Take you wise men. Hence it more plainly appears that those who were to preside in judgment were not appointed only by the will of Moses, but. elected by the votes of the people. And this is the most desirable kind c f liberty, that we should not be compelled to obey every’ person who may be tyrannically put over our heads; but which allows of election, so that no one should rule except he be approved of by us. And this is further confirmed in the next verse, wherein Moses recounts that he awaited the consent of the people, and that nothing was attempted which did not please them all. Again, he does not here mention the same virtues as in Exodus 18:0; but only distinguishes the judges by three qualifications, viz., that they should be wise, and understanding, and experienced, all of which are comprised under one head, that they should possess acuteness of intellect and prudence, confirmed by experience and practice; for neither the greatest probity nor diligence would be sufficient; for the office of ruler, apart from skill and sagacity. (204) But the first epithet which the Hebrews often apply in a bad sense to the crafty and deceitful, here means acute and perspicacious. The second I explain as pointing out prudent persons, endued with sound judgment and discretion. (205) The third may be taken either actively or passively; some therefore translate it known or tried; but here the active sense is most suitable. Thus, then, experience and acquaintance with business is required in judges; because none but the practiced are competent for the management of business.


Verse 16

16.And I charged your judges. This charge is not found in Exodus 18:0, where the only object of Moses was to point out the origin of the alteration; but now omitting the praise of his father-in-law, he merely recalls to the recollection of the Israelites what he did with them. The sum, however, of the exhortation is, that they should adjudicate impartially between their brethren; which is more fully expressed in the next verse, where they are forbidden to “acknowledge faces.” (206) For there can be no greater corruption than to judge from personal appearance, which always draws away men’s minds from the merits of the ease. Wherefore Christ rightly opposes these two things to one another, to “judge righteous judgment,” and “according to the appearance.” (John 7:24.) This even philosophers have perceived, when they have advised that, as far as possible, judges should be restrained by fixed laws, lest;, being left free, they should be swayed this way or that by favor or ill will. And, in point of fact, wherever there is a sufficient capacity of intellect, equity and rectitude will prevail, unless respect to persons influences the judge. It, is plain from the context, where Moses forbids the making a distinction between small and great, what is meant by “acknowledging persons.” But although judges often inflict injury upon the poor and wretched out of contempt of them, yet Moses adverts to the more common fault, when he charges them “to be afraid of no man;” since it very often happens that those who are otherwise just, and disposed to study what is equitable and right, are made to swerve through fear of the threats of the powerful, and dare not; manfully encounter their ill will. Moses, therefore, requires magnanimity in judges, so that they may not hesitate to bring upon themselves the hatred of any, in their defense of a good cause. But we must specially observe the reason whereby he corrects their fear and alarm; for he says that they are to be afraid of no mortal man, because “the judgment is God’s.” He does not here merely remind them, as it; appears to some, that an account must be rendered to God; but shows how absurd it is to turn from the right course out of the fear of man, because thus the majesty of God is prostituted and exposed to scorn; as much as to say that this honor must be paid to God, whose representatives they are, that they should look upon all men as beneath them, and restrain the audacity of rite wicked with such inflexible magnanimity, that God alone may have the preeminence. The same is the object of Jehoshaphat’s words:

“Take heed what ye do: for ye judge not for man but for the Lord.” (2 Chronicles 19:6.)

If this were thoroughly impressed upon the minds both of magistrates and pastors, they would not vacillate so often; for relying on God’s aid, they would stand firmly against all the terrors by which they are so pitifully agitated. Wherefore let all those who are called to any public office, sustain themselves by this doctrine, that they are doing God’s work, who is well able to keep them safe from the violence as well as the craftiness of the whole world. Yet, at the same time we are taught by these words that all posts of command are sacred to God, so that whosoever are called to them should reverently and diligently serve God, and ever reflect that His is the dominion whereof they are the ministers.


Verse 27

27.And ye murmured in your tents. Elsewhere he says that they also wept; here he only speaks of their murmuring, which better suited his reproof. He then reminds them how malignant had been their ingratitude and perversity in upbraiding God on account of the special blessing which He had conferred upon them, as if He had done them a grievous injury. He could not have afforded them a more manifest proof of His paternal love towards them than by their deliverance. Most iniquitous, therefore, is their mode of repaying Him, viz., by complaining that they had been cruelly brought forth to die, and by construing into hatred His exceeding great love. It is clear from the next verse that, although Moses does not relate the details in their proper order, there is still no contradiction in his words. A little before, he had seemed to give unqualified praise to the spies, as if they had performed their office honestly and faithfully, but now, from the language of the people, he shows that they were the authors of the revolt, inasmuch as they rendered inert, by the terror they inspired, those whom they ought to have encouraged.


Verse 29

29.Then I said unto you, Dread not. He here omits the address of Caleb and Joshua: since he only states briefly the heads of what he had spoken to the people. He merely shows that, when he endeavored to recall them to their right senses, his efforts and pains were ineffectual. Moreover, he reasons from experience that they might well place their hopes in the assistance of God, because He went before them as a light; and, in proof of this, he reminds them that, after the discomfiture of the Egyptians, He did not fail still to exert His power, so as to protect even to the end those whom He had once delivered. This, then, is his proposition, that although they might be aware of their own weakness, still, through the power of God, they would be conquerors, since He had taken them under His care, and had declared Himself their leader; which he indicates by the expression, “goes before you.” And, lest any hesitation should remain, he sets against their present obstacles the miracles of God’s power, which they had experienced, not only in the commencement of their redemption, but in the continued progress of their deliverance’s, when, in their lost and desperate state, He had by ways innumerable restored them from death unto life. Hence he concludes that they ought not to be afraid, not that he would wish them to be altogether free from all fear and care, but so that they might overcome all hindrances, when confidence derived from the ready help of God should prevail in their hearts. He says emphatically that God had fought “before their eyes,” to lead them to fuller conviction by the evidence of their own senses.


Verse 31

31.And it, the wilderness where thou hast seen. The constant course of God’s grace is here commemorated; from whence they might safely infer, that He, who had pursued them with so many benefits, would still be the same in this crowning act. He, therefore, uses the image of bearing, because the way would have been by no means passable unless God had borne them, as it were, on His shoulders, just as a father is wont to bear his infant child. Thus, on the one hand, the incredible goodness of God is exalted, who had deigned so far to condescend as to take up the people in His arms; and, on the other hand, the people are reminded of their own infirmity, for, unless upheld by the power of God, they would scarcely have been competent to advance a step. Elsewhere, retaining a portion of this similitude, Moses compares God to an eagle, (56) who bears her young upon her wings, and teaches them to fly. And surely, unless (the Israelites) had been uplifted by supernatural means, they would never have been equal to a hundredth part of the difficulties they encountered.


Verse 32

32.Yet in this thing ye did not believe the Lord. He signifies that they had been most prejudiced observers of the works of God, since His power, so often experienced and. so thoroughly understood, had not aroused them to confidence in Him. For in the word דבר, dabar, which we have translated thing, he embraces all the proofs whereby God had testified, that in Him alone there was all that was necessary to insure their complete salvation. And this was, so to speak, real or practical doctrine, when God called upon them to trust Him by stretching forth His hand. Still, He accuses them of unbelief with reference to the promise; for, whilst faith is not only prompt and ready in obedience, but invigorates and quickens the whole mall, so the cause of their inertness was that they gave no heed to God who had promised to bestow upon them the land of Canaan, and did not rest upon His covenant. In relation to this also, he says, that God marked out the places and stations where they should pitch their camp, for, unless it had been His design to guide them onwards, this change of places would have been superfluous. It was, therefore, gross supineness not to refer these signs for halting and proceeding to their proper object, since it was equivalent to despising God when He held out His hand to them.


Verse 34

34.And the Lord heard the voice of your words. I have shown elsewhere what is meant by God’s hearing, i.e., that nothing can be concealed from Him, but that tie will take account of and judge all our words and deeds And this is worthy of our observation; for men would never dare to murmur against Him, unless they promised themselves impunity (75) from His not being present. Secondly, we learn from hence, that God, who is a just Judge, does not proceed hastily and without cause to inflict punishment on men, and that He does not manifest severity without a full examination of the case. He, therefore, means that they deprived themselves of their assured inheritance, when they were close upon receiving it, through their own rebellion and depravity.


Verse 37

37.Also the Lord was angry with me. It is in no cowardly spirit that he transfers to them the guilt of unfaithfulness, which he had confessed for himself; but, since he had only fallen in consequence of being overwhelmed by their obstinate wickedness, he justly reproaches them with the fact that God was wroth with him on account of their sin. If under this pretext he had attempted to extenuate his guilt before God, or to substitute their criminality for his own, he would have done nothing else than double the evil: but, in reproving the people, he rightly and appropriately complained that the cause of his sin had arisen from them. As if he had said that they were so perverse that even he had been corrupted by them, and drawn into association with their guilt and its punishment. He here, however, adds respecting Joshua what he had before passed over in silence. His appointment as successor to Moses served to encourage the people; for it was a notable ground for hope that they should hear a provision already made, that after the death of Moses they should not be destitute of a leader, who would rule them under the auspices of God.

Why God preferred this man to all others, especially when Caleb is more highly praised elsewhere, is only known to Himself. We know that He chooses according to His own will those whom He destines to any charge, so that the dignity of men may depend upon His gratuitous favor. “To stand before” a person is equivalent to being at hand to do his bidding; and it seems that this was stated to be the condition of Joshua, in order that the punishment might be more manifest; inasmuch as, by an entire inversion, a successor is given to Moses, who had been his servant.


Verse 39

39.Moreover, your little ones. I have already shown that God so tempered His judgment that, whilst none of the guilty should escape with impunity, still His faithfulness should remain sure and inviolable, and that the wickedness of men should not make void the covenant which He had made with Abraham. He, therefore, pronounces sentence upon them, that they should never enjoy the inheritance which they had despised: yet declares that He will nevertheless be true in the fulfillment of what He had promised, and will display His mercy towards their children, whom in their despair they had condemned to be a prey to their enemies.

When He limits this grace to their little ones, whose age did not yet allow them to discern between good and evil, He signifies that all who had already arrived at the years of reason, were, from the least to the greatest, accomplices in the crime, since the contagion had spread through the whole body. Surely it was an incredible prodigy, that so great a multitude should be so carried away by diabolical fury, as that nothing should remain unaffected by it, unless perhaps a timely death removed some of the old men rather on account of the vice of others than their own. But, if even a hundredth part of them had been guiltless of the crime, God would have left some survivors.

“To have no knowledge of good and evil,” is equivalent to being unable “to discern between their right hand and their left hand;” by which expression in Jonah, (Jonah 4:11,) God exempts from condemnation those little ones, who have as yet no power of forming a judgment. From hence, however, some have foolishly attempted to prove that infant-children are not defiled by original sin; and that men are involved in no guilt, except such as they have severally contracted by their own voluntary act (arbitrio.) For the question here is not as to the nature of the human race; a distinction is simply made between children and those who have consciously and willfully provoked God’s wrath; whereas the corruption, which is the root (of all evils, (76)) although it may not immediately produce its fruit in actual sins, is not (77) therefore non-existent.


Verse 41

41.Then ye answered and said unto me. The repentance was too late, which impelled the Israelites to their unseasonable effort of activity; although, as I have above explained, they did not truly and seriously repent, since, when they ought patiently to have borne the chastening of God, they endeavored to shake it off, and to drive it far away from them by a new act of disobedience. In a word, they did nothing else but kick against the pricks. But such is the energy of men, when their own fancy leads them, that they will dare anything which God forbids. But herein did their far worse folly betray itself, in that, when they were again withheld, they still refuse to obey. Besides, He does not merely forbid them to fight, but denies them His assistance. What then could be more monstrous than that, in opposition to God’s will, and when the hope of His assistance was withdrawn, they should engage in what they had just before obstinately refused to attempt under His auspices, and by His command, and with the sure promise of success? And yet, so does hypocrisy blind men’s minds, that they imagined they were correcting and compensating for the evil which they doubled. Moses then relates how they received the reward which they deserved; as much as to say, that, although they might be slow to learn, still they were made acquainted, by the reverse which they experienced, how fatal a thing it is not to obey God: for fools never learn wisdom except beneath the rod.


Verse 45

45.And ye returned and wept before the Lord. He here appeals to the testimony of their own conscience; for they never would have been brought to weeping and prayers, except by the force of their own feelings. Since, then, they were abundantly convinced, that a just punishment was inflicted upon their obstinacy, necessity drove them to seek after God: consequently they had no cause to complain, though God manifested Himself to be implacable.

In the last verse there is an ambiguity in the meaning of these words, “many days, according to the number of the days.” Some, rendering the verb in the pluperfect tense, “in which we had remained there,” (80) suppose that they still abode there another forty days. But it is equally probable; that an indefinite time is referred to: as if he had said, that the people delayed there a long time, from whence it might be inferred, that they lay like persons stupified, from lack of knowing what to do.

It is Kadesh-barnea to which Moses refers, from whence the spies had been sent forth; and not the Kadesh where Miriam died, and where the people murmured for want of water.

 


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Bibliography Information
Calvin, John. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 1:4". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/cal/deuteronomy-1.html. 1840-57.


Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, September 25th, 2018
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25
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