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Bible Commentaries

Calvin's Commentary on the Bible
Deuteronomy 5

 

 

Verse 1

1.And Moses called all Israel. Since the plan and order of exposition which I have adopted required that this same preface, as it is repeated word. for word in Deuteronomy, should here also be read together, I have thought fit also to insert the five verses, which in this place precede it. In the first verse, Moses exhorts the people to hear the judgments and statutes of God, which he sets before them. He likewise states the object of this, that they should keep (222) to do them; as much as to say, that he was not offering them mere empty speculations, which it was enough to understand with the mind, and to talk about, but that the rule for the ordering of their lives was also contained in his teaching; and, therefore, that it demands imperatively their serious meditation.


Verse 2

2.The Lord our God. In these words he commends the Law; because it must be accounted a peculiar blessing, and a very high honor to be taken into covenant by God. Wherefore, that they may anxiously prepare themselves to embrace the Law, he says that what was above all things to be desired had been freely offered to them, viz., that they should be united in covenant with God. In the next verse he still further magnifies this advantage by comparison; because God had given more to them than to their fathers. Thence is all excuse taken from them, unless, for the sake of manifesting their gratitude, they give themselves up entirely to God, and in return worship with sincere affection Him whom they have experienced to be so bountiful a Father. Those who would paraphrase this sentence, “Not only with our fathers, but also with us,” pervert its proper meaning; the grounds of their mistake being, that God had formerly made a covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But this may be easily refuted; because the name of “fathers” does not refer to these, but he means by it such as had died in Egypt during the last 200 years; to whose case he justly prefers that of the surviving people, with whom the ancient covenant had been renewed. Now, this reference to time was in no slight degree calculated to stimulate and arouse them to obedience; for it would have been disgraceful in them not to acknowledge that they were honored more than their fathers by this especial privilege, in order that they should excel them in their earnest zeal for God’s service. Christ uses the same argument with His disciples, Blessed are the eyes which see the things that ye see: and the ears which hear the things that ye hear, etc., (223) (Matthew 13:16, and Luke 10:23,) “many Prophets and kings have desired,” etc. The sum is, that the more bountifully God deals with us, the more heinous and intolerable is the crime of ingratitude, unless we willingly come to Him when He calls us, and submit ourselves to His instruction.


Verse 4

4.Face to face. Again he commends the Law by mentioning their certainty about it; for, when God openly manifested Himself, there could be no doubt of the author from whom it proceeded. To speak “face to face,” is equivalent to discoursing openly and familiarly; and in point of fact God had spoken with them, as mortals and friends communicate with each other in their mutual dealings. Moreover, lest any doubt should still remain, God set before their eyes a visible manifestation of His glory, by appearing in the fire; for no other voice but that of God Himself could proceed out of fire. In the next verse a kind of explanation is added, when he says that he was the interpreter, who laid before them the commands he received from God. And thus he reconciles two things which seem at first sight to be contradictory, viz., that God spoke in person, and yet by a mediator; since they themselves having heard God’s voice petitioned in their fear that He should not continue to speak in the same way. Hence it follows that they were convinced, by a sense of the divine glory and majesty, that it was not allowable for them to doubt the authority of the law. But I only slightly glance at this, because it has been more fully treated of before.

Deuteronomy 4:20.But the Lord hath taken you. He argues that, from the period of their deliverance, they have been wholly devoted to God, since He has purchased them for His own peculiar possession. Hence it follows that they are under His jurisdiction and dominion; because it would be foul and wicked ingratitude in them to shake off the yoke of their redeemer. And, in order to strengthen the obligation, he extols the greatness of the favor, because nothing could be more wretched than they were, when God stretched forth His hand to deliver them. Their bondage is therefore called metaphorically, a “furnace,” nay, an “iron” one; and, then, their present far different condition is compared with it; for this was solid and most desirable happiness, that they should be translated into God’s peculiar inheritance.


Verse 9

9Thou shalt not bow down thyself unto them. Idolaters in vain endeavor to elude this second point by their foolish cavils; as amongst the Papists that trifling distinction is commonly advanced, that only λατρέια, (81) and not δελέια is prohibited. For Moses, first of all, comprehends generally all the Forms And Ceremonies Of Worship; and then adds immediately afterwards the word עבד, gnabad, which means properly to serve. Hence we conclude that they make a childish endeavor at evasion, when they pay only the honor of service to pictures and statues. But if we grant them what they desire, not even so will they escape; because the prohibition is equivalent to God’s declaring that He will not be worshipped in wood and stone, or in any other likeness. For unbelievers have never been carried away to such an extent of folly as to adore mere statues or pictures; they have always alleged the same pretext which now-a-days is rife in the mouths of the Papists, viz., that not the image itself was actually worshipped, but that which it represented. But the Spirit everywhere reproves them for worshipping gods of wood and stone, since God rejects that carnal worship which unbelievers offer before stocks and stones. If any one should ask them, whom they have it in their mind to worship, they will immediately reply, that they offer to God that honor which they pay to pictures and statues. But this frivolous excuse comes to nothing; because to erect the idol before which they prostrate themselves, is really to deny the true God; and, therefore, no wonder that He should declare that unbelievers worship wood and stone, when they worship in that wood and stone phantoms of their own imagination. And we have already said, that all rites which do not accord with the spiritual worship of God, are here forbidden: and this is enough, and more than enough to put to flight all such misty notions, (nebulas.)

For I the Lord thy God. He partly terrifies them by threats, and partly attracts them by sweet promises, in order to keep them in the way of duty. In the earlier expressions He convicts them of ingratitude, if they prostitute themselves to idolatry, when they had been chosen to be a peculiar and holy people. He afterwards inspires them with terror, by the denunciation of punishment; and, finally, allures them with the hope of reward, if they obediently abide in the pure worship of God. Nor does He affirm that He will be severe or kind to individuals only, but extends both to their posterity, although, as we shall afterwards see, not equally. I have indeed assigned another place to the promises and threatenings, whereby the authority of the whole Law is sanctioned; but since this clause is annexed to a particular Commandment, it could not be conveniently separated from it. The word אל, el, some translate appellatively, mighty; but since God is so called from His might, I have preferred following this meaning, (82) which is more suitable here. Yet I do not think that Moses used various names without reason; for when he had first employed the name אלהים, elohim, he soon afterwards honors God by another title, and magnifies His power, that He may be feared. And for this reason he also calls Him the Rival, (83) or, as some not inaptly translate it, the jealous; for to give the name of “the envious” (obtrectatoris) to God, as somebody has done, is not only silly, but monstrous. This is the word by which Cicero renders ζηλοτυπίαν, (84) expressing by it the sin of guilty rivalry, when one person envies the superiority of another. But God is here set before us in the character of a husband, who suffers no rival; or if it be preferred to extend the meaning of the word, He is called the assertor of His rights; since His rivalry is nothing more than retaining what is His own, and thus excluding all the rivals of His honor. Because mention has lately been made of His sacred covenant with the Jews, Moses seems to allude to the violation of this spiritual marriage. But although he begins with threatening, still, far preferring mercy to His severity, He rather gently allures them, than compels them by fear, to allegiance; for He declares that He will be merciful even to a thousand generations; whilst He only denounces punishment on the thirds and fourths, (for thus it is literally expressed,) i.e., on their grandsons and great-grandsons. In order, therefore, to encourage His worshippers to earnest piety, He declares that He will be kind, not only to themselves, but to their posterity, even for a thousand generations. But this is the proof of His inestimable kindness, and even indulgence, that He deigns to bind Himself to His servants, to whom He owes nothing, so far as to acknowledge, in His favor towards them, their seed also for His people. For hence it appears, that it is wrong to infer merit from the promised reward, because He does not say that He will be faithful or just towards the keepers of His Law, but merciful. Let then the most perfect come forward, and he can require nothing better of God than that He should be favorable to him on the grounds of His gratuitous liberality. For חסד, chesed, is equivalent to kindness, or beneficence; but when it is applied to God, it generally signifies mercy, or paternal favor, and the blessings which flow from it.

Since, then, He here promises that He will shew mercy, it is as much as to say that He will be beneficent, or will deal with clemency. Hence it follows, that the main source of reward is that. gratuitous beneficence wherewith He liberally blesses His people. Now, when it is said, “unto them that love me,” (85) the fountain and origin of true righteousness is expressed; for the external observation of the Law would be of no avail unless it flowed from hence. And praise is given to love rather than to fear, because God is delighted with none but voluntary obedience, but He rejects that which is forced and servile, as we shall again see elsewhere. But because hypocrites also boast that they love God, whilst their life corresponds not with the profession of their lips, the two things are here distinctly connected; viz., that the true servants of God love Him, and keep His commandments, i.e., make effectual proof of their piety. But here a difficult question arises, for the history of all ages shews that a great proportion of the progeny of the holy have been rejected and condemned; and that God has inflicted upon them weightier manifestations of His curse and vengeance, than upon strangers. We must, however, observe, that in these words grace is not promised severally to all the posterity of the saints, as if God were bound to each individual who may derive their race and original from them. There were many degenerate children of Abraham, to whom it profited nothing that they were called the offspring of the holy patriarch; nor indeed is the promise restricted to individuals, for many who are children after the flesh, are not counted for the seed — but God in His free election adopts whom He will, yet so governs His judgments, as that His paternal favor should always abide with the race of believers. Besides, the fruits of this promised grace are manifested in temporal blessings; and thus although God severely avenged the sins of the children of Abraham, and at length when their impiety shewed itself to be desperate, renounced them, yet did He not fail to be kind to them for a thousand generations. For again, God fulfills and performs what He here promised by the outward testimonies of His favor, although they turn to the destruction of the reprobate. Thus He was merciful to the race of Abraham, as long as he saw fit to leave them the Law, the Prophets, the Temple, and other exercises of religion. (86) Now, again, it will be well for us to consider how far even the holiest fall short of the perfect keeping of the Law, and perfect love of God; and therefore we need not wonder if they experience in many respects the failure of this grace, and only enjoy some slight taste of it. In any case, the goodness of God ever superabounds, so that His grace, if it does not shine with full splendor, still appears in bright sparks unto a thousand generations. As to the opposite clause, wherein God limits His vengeance to the third or fourth generation, we see how He prefers to attract men to duty by gentle invitations, than by terrifying threatenings to extort from them more than they are willing to do; inasmuch as He extends His mercy further than the severity of His judgment. We must also observe that the transgressors of the Law are called the enemies and haters of God. It is surely horrible, and almost monstrous impiety to hate God; and scarcely would any one be found so wicked as openly to declare Him to be his enemy; yet it is not without a cause that God pronounces thus harshly respecting their impiety; for since He cannot be separated from His justice, a contempt of the Law convicts men of this hatred; for it is impossible that they should not wish to deprive Him of His dominion, who endure Him not as a Lawgiver and a Judge.

"To visit iniquities, ” is equivalent to inquiring into them, or taking cognizance of them, in order that punishment should be inflicted in proportion to the crime; for as long as God spares men and suspends His judgment, He seems to connive at them, or to pay no attention to them. Therefore, when men shall think that their sin is buried, He declares that He will bear it in memory. But it may be asked, how it is consistent for God to exact punishment from the children or grandchildren on account of the sins of their fathers? for nothing is more unreasonable than that the innocent and guilty should be involved in the same punishment; and the declaration of the Prophet is well known,

"The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son; but the soul that sinneth, it shall die.” (Ezekiel 18:20.)

The difficulty, which arises from the words of the Prophet, is easily solved, for God therein refutes the wicked expostulation of the people, that their children, who were not in fault, were unjustly and cruelly exposed to punishment. The proverb was generally rife, that “the fathers had eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth were set on edge;” but God replies, that not one of those with whom He was angry and severe was free from crime; and, therefore, that their complaint was false, since each of them received the recompense of his own iniquity. And this is most true, that God’s severity never assails the innocent; and however the world may murmur against His judgments, that He will always be clear in condemning this person or that (87)

But when God declares that He will cast back the iniquity of the fathers into the bosom of the children, He does not mean that He will take vengeance on poor wretches who have never deserved anything of the sort; but that He is at liberty to punish the crimes of the fathers upon their children and descendants, with the proviso that they too may be justly punished, as being the imitators of their fathers. If any should object, that this is nothing more than to repay every one according to his works, we must remember that, — whenever God blinds the children of the ungodly, casts them into a state of reprobation, (conjicit in sesum reprobum), and smites them with a spirit of madness or folly, so that they give themselves up to foul desires, and hasten to their final destruction, — in this way the iniquity of the fathers is visited on their children. But suppose other punishments are added, all are under condemnation (convicti,) so that they have no ground for murmuring against God; and even then also God still proceeds to execute the vengeance which He here denounces; for, when He would direct one work to various objects, He uses wonderful and secret expedients. When He commanded the people of Canaan to be destroyed, it is certain that those, who then were living, were worthy of this punishment; yet, inasmuch as God foretold (88) that their iniquities were not yet full, we infer that He then inflicted the punishment upon them which He had deferred for 400 years. On this ground, Christ declares that the Jews of His time were guilty of all the blood that had been shed from that of Abel to the blood of Zacharias, the son of Barachias, (Matthew 23:35.) But if it be not agreeable to our judgment that God should repay every one according to his deserts, and yet that He at the same time requires the sins of their fathers of the children, we should remember that His judgments are a great depth; and, therefore, if anything in His dealings is incomprehensible to us, we must bow to it with sobriety and reverence. But since this doctrine will recur elsewhere, I have thought fit only to touch upon it lightly here. One question remains, how we can reconcile the statement of Paul, that the fifth commandment is the first with promise, (Ephesians 6:2,) whereas a promise is annexed to this second. The solution of this is easy; for if you duly consider, this promise, which we have now explained, is not peculiarly annexed to any single commandment, but is common to the whole first Table of the Law, and these refer to the whole service of God; but when it is said, “honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long,” the keeping of that commandment is particularly and specially sanctioned.


Verse 22

22.These words the Lord spoke. That there may be no doubt about the authority of the law, and that it may not be depreciated by the people, Moses recalls to their memory that the presence of God, as He spoke it, was manifested by sure tokens; for this was the object of the fire, the clouds, and the darkness, whereby God’s voice was signalized, lest its source might be obscure. He adds, that it was “a great voice,” i.e., a voice which had, in an unwonted manner, penetrated far and wide. Nor are the witnesses few, whom he cites, but all that vast multitude, which for the most part would have been more disposed to extinguish the glory of God, unless it had been there made known by manifest proofs. The sum is, that there is no question as to who was the Lawgiver, whose majesty was then proclaimed by tremendous prodigies, and presented before the eyes of an immense multitude. It will be more convenient to speak elsewhere of the two tables. When Moses states that God “added no more,” he signifies that a perfect rule of life is contained in the ten commandments, and that, when their instruction is fully received, the whole body of wisdom is attained to, so that the people need seek to know no more; when God, then, made an end of speaking, he Himself laid down the bounds of legitimate inquiry.


Verse 23

23.And it came to pass, when ye heard. Lest the Israelites should undervalue his teaching, because he had been put between them by God as their minister, Moses meets the objection, (by reminding them) that it was done at their petition and request. We know how proudly they were wont to reject him; as if they saw in him nothing but what was earthly and human; it was needful, then, that God Himself should speak to rescue His servant from the contempt of posterity. For the people themselves, being convicted of their foolish and preposterous request, could never afterwards have any pretext for rejecting Moses, as if he had not evidenced the truth of his calling. And here their astonishing perverseness betrayed itself, in not being ashamed to refuse credit to the holy Prophet, after he had been approved by so many miracles. Assuredly, if they had been just and honest judges, it would have been sufficiently notorious, and certain to them, that Moses did not speak of himself, or of his own impulse, but that he was the organ of the Spirit; yet the doctrine of God was scorned by these proud, and perverse, and fretful beings, because it was brought to them by the hands of a mortal man. They, therefore, by their importunate desires, draw down God from heaven, to speak Himself; but immediately terror seizes on their minds, so that they flee from His voice. Thus experience taught them that there was nothing better for them than to hear God speaking to them by the mouth of Moses; and they were instructed by the just reward of their temerity to choose and prefer that mode of teaching which they had spurned; for, if in future they refused to give credit to Moses, whom they had themselves chosen as their mediator with God, they brought themselves in guilty of gross and wicked contumacy; and this is what he now reproaches them with. It would have been worse than unseemly in them, when God had yielded to their prayers, to reject that blessing which they had besought of Him. On this account he reminds them, that, after they had been eye-witnesses of God’s fearful power, they had voluntarily asked that He should not speak to them any more; and, lest they should object that this was done only by a few, or inconsiderately, or in tumult, he expressly testifies that these requests were presented by the heads of their tribes, and their elders.


Verse 24

24.Behold, the Lord our God hath showed us. They are urged by their own confession no more to dare oppose themselves to the ministry of Moses. For, when they confess that they saw the glory and the greatness of God, they oblige themselves to the necessity of obedience, unless they choose avowedly to make war against God. At the end of the verse, where they say that “God doth talk with man,” etc., not only do they mean that there are men surviving on earth who have heard with their ears the voice of God come down from heaven, but they express their astonishment at what was scarcely to be believed. For, although it was sufficiently notorious to them that God had formerly spoken with their fathers; yet, because a long period had elapsed since these revelations had ceased, they are amazed as at a new thing. We see, too, a long time afterwards, that as often as God appeared to His servants, they were overwhelmed with the fear of death, and it was like a proverb with them, “We shall die, because we have seen God.” (Jude 13:22.) Good reason, then, is there why they should celebrate this extraordinary privilege, that they had not been swallowed up by the glory of God; for, if at the sight of Him the mountains melt, and all that is most durable is annihilated, and all that is strongest is broken to pieces, how should man stand than whom nothing is more frail or perishable? If by His secret will the troubled air causes not only animals but trees and rocks to tremble; how shall it be when God displays His might not in the elements alone, but when descending from heaven He speaks by the voice of His mouth? It is not unreasonable, then, that the Israelites should account it miraculous that they had heard God’s voice, and were not brought to annihilation. Herein they indirectly rebuke their own folly, because, by their inconsiderate desire, they would have drawn destruction upon themselves, if they had not been aided by God’s mercy. The two following verses appear to contradict each other; for, when they had experienced that those to whom God manifests Himself, are not always destroyed and perish, why do they say that they shall die if He continues to speak to them? They seem, indeed, in so saying to show some inconsistency; yet is there cause for them to fear for the future that danger from which they had escaped by the marvelous indulgence of God. It is, then, as if they had said, It is more than enough for us once to have provoked God against us; it is of His inestimable loving-kindness that He has thus far pardoned us; meanwhile, we must beware lest our perversity bring upon us heavier punishment, unless we speedily correct our folly. Hence may a useful admonition be drawn; for, although the voice of God has not sounded in our ears, yet the experience of His ancient people ought to be sufficient to persuade us assuredly that, when God sets teachers over us, He makes the best provision for our salvation; because, if He Himself should thunder from heaven, His majesty would be intolerable to us. And this should avail to repress their destructive itching, who desire God daily to descend from heaven, or at least to send His revelations by angels; and who thus despise the ministers of mortal race whom He employs. In a word, this history is an illustrious proof that God governs His Church by the external preaching of the word, because this is most expedient for us.


Verse 26

26.For who is there of all. flesh? The word “flesh” is used in contempt, as often elsewhere, for the human race; for, although we consist of body and soul, yet when the frailty of men, and their perishing and transitory condition is referred to, Scripture calls them “flesh.” In this sense Zechariah calls upon “all flesh to be silent before the Lord,” (Zechariah 2:13,) and Isaiah says that “all flesh is grass,” (Isaiah 40:6,) and elsewhere, that “the horses of the Egyptians are flesh, and not spirit,” (Isaiah 31:3.) In these words, then, the reason is given why the Israelites should wonder that they were not killed and consumed after hearing God’s voice. Still they were not ignorant that God had formerly spoken in the burning bush; but in their agony of fear they do not reflect on what had previously happened, but only express their own feeling that God’s voice is deadly to the flesh, unless it is softened by some interposing remedy. For the notion of the Rabbins, that the Prophets are not to be counted amongst men, is a foolish fancy, except in so far as God supports and strengthens them by His Spirit, that they may be equal to the reception of visions. The Israelites were fully aware that Moses also was himself a mere mortal; yet, because they knew that he was God’s chosen interpreter, they do not doubt but that he will be inspired with power from heaven, to endure the speaking of God. Nor is there any question that this confession was forced from them, that they may at length learn to fall back to their proper place, and to submit themselves to Moses, against whom they had been so often rebellious. Now, therefore, they willingly subscribe to that distinction, which before they would not bear. Their promise, that they would do all things which God should command, undoubtedly proceeded from the fervor of their zeal; and therefore, God soon afterwards praises their answer. Their words were to the same effect., as if they had said that they would value whatever Moses might set before them, as if God Himself should thunder from heaven. Meanwhile: as to themselves, their levity and inconsistency was soon discovered. Thus do men often hastily and rashly consent to promise what they are not able to perform, although they do not intentionally desire to deceive, from neglecting to examine their own powers. God, therefore, pronounces what they said to be right, viz., that they would be obedient to Moses, and content with his teaching. And this sentiment has reference to us also, who are commanded to hear Moses and the Prophets, but especially God’s only Son; lest our vague speculations should hurry us away further than becomes us.


Verse 29

29.O that there were such an heart in them. God signifies that they would not be so firm and faithful in keeping their promises, as they were ready and willing to make them; and thus that hypocrisy was not altogether banished, or purged from their minds. Moreover, He figuratively (improprie) assumes a human feeling, because it would be vain and absurd for Him to desire what it was in His power to confer. Certainly He has the power of bending and directing men’s hearts whithersoever He pleases. Why, then, does He wish that it were given to the people from some other quarter, that they should be always kept in the path of duty, except that, speaking in the character of a man, He shows that it was rather to be wished than hoped that the people would constantly persevere in their fidelity? Wherefore this and similar passages have been ignorantly abused by some, to establish man’s free will. (220) They understand this passage, as if man’s will were capable of bending either way, and that he possessed the power of doing right, whilst God without interfering looked on at the event; as if God’s secret counsel, and not rather the end and use of external teaching, were referred to here. But we, taught by innumerable testimonies of Scripture, maintain, that it is the attribute of God alone to give what He here requires. So also immediately afterwards He says, that he wishes it may be well with the Israelites and their children, viz., because it is certain that it depends on men whether they are happy or not, as often as God invites them, when they refuse the grace offered to them; yet does it not therefore follow, that it depends on every man’s free will to attain happiness for himself. But here we must consider God’s will as it is set before us in His word, not as it is hidden in Himself; for, while by His word He invites all promiscuously to (eternal (221)) life, He only quickens by His secret inspiration those whom He has elected. In sum, although God approves of the people’s answer, he says that there will be too much difficulty in the performance of it, for the event to accord with it.


Verse 30

30.Go say to them. He more plainly subjoins God’s consent to the people’s prayer; as much as to say, that what they had asked was ratified by God’s decree; whence it follows that, if they refuse to obey Moses, they will not be only guilty of perverseness and levity, but will violate a divine decree. I have before shown why God honors the doctrines of the law by various titles, viz., that the Israelites may more willingly acquiesce in them. But, lest they should think that what was enjoined them was only to remain in force, and to be observed for a short time, He expressly refers to the perpetuity of the Law; for this is the import of the words, in which He declares Himself to teach them what they were to do in the land which He should give them.


Verse 32

32.Ye shall observe to do therefore. Again, in this verse also, he does not merely exhort the people to embrace the Law, but at the same time enjoins them to be content with its unadulterated teaching; and, in fact, to receive as just and right whatever God has commanded, is only to be half obedient, unless men also put this restraint upon themselves, not to import anything else, (in addition to His Law.) So, also, in another passage, which I have subjoined, God no less severely forbids additions to it than taking away from it; and this is a declaration deserving our especial observation, because, in its preposterous wilfulness, the whole world almost is carried away into false religions; which, nevertheless, God has briefly condemned in a single word, when He commands His people so to acquiesce in His appointed Law that they may not seek to be more righteous than they are taught to be. There is a similar passage at the end of Deuteronomy 12:32,) but, because it is connected with a particular circumstance, and depends on the preceding passage, it will be more conveniently reserved for consideration in that place. He adds, in conclusion, that they will not satisfy the Law unless they keep themselves within its bounds; and in order that they may be more disposed to obedience, he gently attracts them by subjoining the promise. (225)

 


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Bibliography Information
Calvin, John. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 5:4". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/cal/deuteronomy-5.html. 1840-57.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, September 18th, 2019
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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