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Bible Commentaries

Calvin's Commentary on the Bible

Deuteronomy 29

Verse 2

2.And Moses called unto all Israel. This passage also may be fitly referred to the preface of the Law, since its tendency is to recommend it, and to instruct and prepare the people’s minds to be teachable. It takes its commencement from the divine blessings, which they had experienced as well in their exodus as in their forty years’ wanderings; for it would have been the height of baseness and ingratitude not to devote themselves to a Deliverer who had dealt so graciously with them. And surely it was an inestimable sign of His paternal love towards them, that He should have arrayed Himself against so very powerful a king for His servants’ sake. Finally, lest there should be any question as to their deliverance, he enlarges upon the power which God displayed therein, in magnificent terms of praise according with its dignity.

Verse 4

4.Yet the Lord hath not given. By reproaching them with their past stupidity, he stirs up their desire for a better understanding, as if he had said, that they had been too long indifferent to so many miracles, and therefore they should no longer delay to rouse themselves, etc., to give greater heed to God; not because they had been so senseless that His acts had altogether escaped their notice, but because all acknowledgment of them had immediately come to an end. For, just as the drunken man, or one suffering from lethargy, when he hears a cry, raises his head for a moment, and opens his eyes, and then relapses into a state of torpor, so the people had never seriously applied their minds to consider God’s works; and when they had been aroused by some miracle, had immediately sunk back into forgetfulness, wherefore there is good cause why Moses should seek to awaken them from their dulness and stupidity by various methods. But he does not merely condemn their senselessness, and blindness, and deafness, but declares that they were thus senseless, and blind, and deaf, because they were not inspired with grace from above to profit duly by so many lessons. Thence we learn that a clear and powerful understanding is a special gift of the Spirit, since men are ever blind even in the brightest light, until they have been enlightened by God. What Moses relates of the Israelites, is unquestionably common to us all. He declares, then, that they were not induced by the conspicuous glory of God to fear and worship Him, because He had not given them either mind, or eyes, or ears. It is true that at man’s creation He had naturally bestowed upon him a mind, and ears, and eyes; but Moses means, that whatever innate light we have, is either hidden or lost, so that, as far as regards the highest point of wisdom, all our senses lie useless. True that in nature’s corruption, the light still shineth in darkness, but it is light which is soon obscured; therefore, the entire understanding and faculty of reason, in which men glory and pique themselves, is nought but smoke and darkness. Well then may David ask that his eyes may be opened to behold the secrets of the Law. (259) (Psalms 119:18.) Still this defect by no means frees us from blame; because (as we are told) none have wisdom, but those to whom it is given by the Father of lights; for we are ignorant (260) through our own fault. Besides, every one is sufficiently, and more than sufficiently convicted by his own conscience, that his ignorance is closely connected with pride and indolence, and is therefore voluntary. The word heart is not here used for the seat of the affections, but for the mind itself, which is the intellectual faculty of the soul.

(259) The references here are to Psalms 19:13, and 18:24, (in the Fr. 14.) There may be allusion to 19:12, and 18:28. See Calvin’s comments on these passages.

(260) “Desipimus.”Lat. “Ainsi hebetez, et desprouvez de sens.” — Fr.

Verse 5

5.And I have led you. He descends to the blessings with which He had continually visited His people during the course of forty years. Yet he does not recount them all, but contents himself with a few of the most remarkable instances, viz., that their clothes had not been worn out by age, and that they had been fed from heaven, when no sustenance was to be obtained from the fruits of the earth. He reminds them that God’s glory had been manifested by these testimonies, in order that they might submit themselves to His rule.

Verse 7

7.And when ye came unto this place. This, a third instance (of God’s goodness), because He had smitten the first enemies, who encountered them to impede their passage, and thus had already begun to bring them into a place of rest. For inasmuch as the two tribes and a half had here chosen their home, they might behold as in a mirror that the possession of the promised land awaited them. Hence, then, Moses concludes that they were under obligation to keep the law, and exhorts them to shew their gratitude by faithful and sincere obedience. The object, therefore, of the recital is, to procure reverent attention to his doctrine; since the word שכל , (261) shakal, in Hiphil, means to act successfully as well as prudently. I have set down both readings, since they are alike suitable to the sense. For we have seen in chapter 4, that this was the people’s only wisdom to obey God’s statutes; nor was their prosperity to be expected from any other source except God’s blessing, which is everywhere promised to the Israelites, if they keep the law.

(261) תשכילו; A. V., that ye may prosper. S.M., ut prudenter agatis; but he adds, the Hebrews, explain this word by הצליחו, “that ye may prosper.” The Hiphil of שכל, says Simon’s Lexicon, is to act prudently, and by a metonymy of the antecedent for the consequent, to proceed prosperously.W.

Verse 10

10.Ye stand this day all of you before the Lord your God. Again does Moses, as God’s appointed (261) representative, sanction the doctrine proclaimed by him by a solemn adjuration. With this design he says that the Israelites stood there not only to hear the voice of God, but to enter into covenant with Him, in order that they might apply themselves seriously, and with becoming reverence, to perform the promise they had given. Nor does he only address their chiefs, but, after having begun with the officers, the elders, and men, (262) he descends to the little children and the wives, in order that they might understand that their whole race, from the least to the greatest, were bound to keep the Law: nay, he adds all the strangers, who had devoted themselves to the service of the God of Israel, and states particularly that the very porters and lacqueys (263) were included in the covenant, in order that the minds of those, who derive their origin from the holy Patriarchs, should be more solemnly impressed. Moreover, in order that they may accept the covenant with greater reverence, he says that it was established with an oath. Now, if perjury between man and man is detestable, much less pardonable is it to belie that which you have promised God by his sacred name. Finally, he requires that the covenant should be reverenced, both on account of its advantages and its antiquity. Nothing was more advantageous for the Israelites than that they should be adopted by God as His people; this incomparable advantage, therefore, ought deservedly to render the covenant gratifying; and, besides the exceeding greatness of this blessing, God had prevented them by His grace many ages (264) before they were born.

It would have been, therefore, very disgraceful not to embrace eagerly and ardently so signal a pledge of his love. Nevertheless, the question here arises, how the little children could have passed into covenant, when they were not yet of a proper age to learn (its contents; (265)) the reply is easy, that, although they did not receive by faith the promised salvation, nor, on the other hand, renounce the flesh so as to dedicate themselves to God, still they were bound to God by the same obligations under which their parents laid themselves; for, since the grace was common to all, it was fitting that their consent to testify their gratitude should also be universal; so that when the children had come to age, they should more cheerfully endeavor after holiness, when they remembered that they had been already dedicated to God. For circumcision was a sign of their adoption from their mother’s womb; and therefore, although they were not yet possessed of faith or understanding, God had a paternal power over them, because He had conferred upon them so great an honor. Thus, now-a-days, infants are initiated into the service of God, (266) whom they do not yet know, by baptism; because He marks them out as His own peculiar people, and claims them as His children when He ingrafts them into the body of Christ. Moses goes further, stating that their descendants were bound by the same covenant, as if already enthralled to God; and surely, since slavery passes on by inheritance, it ought not to appear absurd that the same right should be assigned to God which mortal men claim for themselves. What he says, then, is tantamount to reminding the Israelites that they covenanted with God in the name of their offspring, so as to devote both themselves and those belonging to them to His service.

(261) “Stipulator.” — Lat. “Un notaire stipulant.” — Fr.

(262) “Peres de famille.” — Fr.

(263) “Calones, et lixas.” — Lat. “Les buscherons, porteurs de bagages, et gouiats;” the wood-carriers, baggage-porters, and soldiers’-boys. — Fr.

(264) “Quatre cens ans;” four hundred years. — Fr.

(265) Added from Fr.

(266) “Luy sont consacrez par le baptesme, pour estre siens;” are consecrated to Him by baptism, to be His own. — Fr.

Verse 16

16.For ye know how we have dwelt in the land of Egypt. We know how greatly men’s minds are tickled by novelty; and this might occur to the Israelites when, upon entering the land of Canaan, they would see many forms of idolatry hitherto unknown, which would be so many snares to entangle them. Although, therefore, they were not as yet accustomed to such corruptions, he exhorts them to beware by former instances; for they were not ignorant that God had held in abomination the superstitions of Egypt, and also of other nations, which He had punished in terrible ways. Consequently Moses reminds them that there was no reason why the people should be carried away to imitate the rites of the Gentiles with which they were unacquainted, since they knew by extraordinary proofs that whatever imaginations had been invented by heathen nations were hateful to God. This argument, then, is drawn from experience, whereby the Israelites had been abundantly admonished, that they should hereafter beware of all delusions. But, when he passes from individual men and women to families and tribes, he indicates that those who are associated with others in sin, seek to excuse themselves in vain by their numbers; since a whole nation is as much to be condemned as a single person.

The conclusion of verse 18, “lest there should be among you a root, ” etc., seems to be tamely explained by some, (267) lest there should be venomous men, who should bring forth bitter fruits to God; for by the word root I rather under stand the hidden principles of sins, which, unless they be prevented in good time, spring up with collected vigor and lift themselves on high; for indulgence in sin increases by concealment and connivance. And to this the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews seems to allude when he exhorts believers lest, through their negligence, “any root of bitterness, springing up, trouble them, and thereby many be defiled.” (Hebrews 12:15.) As soon, therefore, as any one should endeavor to excite his brethren to worship false gods, God commands him to be plucked up, lest the poison should burst forth, and the bitter root should produce its natural fruits in the corruption of others. Wormwood (268) (absinthium) is here used, as often elsewhere, in a bad sense, on account of its unpleasant savour; unless perhaps it is some other herb, as is more probable.

(267) Amongst others, De Lyra, whose gloss is, “Some one corrupted by idolatry, who should further corrupt others by his wicked persuasions.” Dathe says, “It is a proverbial expression, and its meaning is: lest there should be any rebel against the primary law of worshipping one God, and he should think within himself the things which follow in the next verse.”

(268) “The word לענה certainly denotes an extremely disagreeable and bitter plant; and that it was wormwood is a well-supported and probable interpretation. We therefore give a cut of the Artemisia absinthium. It must be confessed, however, that the Scripture seems to attribute to the לענה stronger effects than the wormwood of Europe will produce. We may therefore understand that some more hurtful species is intended: unless, as suggested by Gesenius, in the strong passages which seem to call for such an explanation, the name of the plant is employed figuratively to express poison.” — Illust. Comment. on Proverbs 5:4

Verse 19

19.And it come to pass when he heareth the words. He shews that it is not without reason that he has used so solemn and severe an adjuration; since nothing is more common than for men to flatter themselves, and by levity to evade the decision of God. He therefore repeats, that they are standing before God, who neither deceives, nor is deceived, nor even allows Himself to be thought lightly of; in order that they may tremble at His threats. Let the majesty of God, he says, be dreaded by you; so that none who despises Him, and wantons in his own lusts, should promise himself impunity. “To bless himself in his heart,” is to hope in his secret imaginations that all will go well; as the hypocrites do, who, in their foolish self-adulation, applaud themselves deceitfully, lest they should hear God thundering. (269)

From this passage, therefore, let us learn that nothing is worse than to hope for peace, whilst we wage war with God; and to promise ourselves that He will let us alone, when we provoke Him by the impetuosity of our lusts.

The conclusion of the verse, “to add the drunken to the thirsty,” is variously explained on account of its ambiguity. (270) I am ashamed to repeat the silly triflings of the Hebrew interpreters. To me it seems unquestionable that Moses, by a proverbial figure of speech, forbids us to excite the appetites of the flesh, already sufficiently heated, by new stimulants. As, therefore, they are said to add oil to the grate, who add more flames to a fire already lighted, (271) so they are said to add the drunken to the thirsty who seek provocatives of their audacity, in order to sin more freely; for lust in a man is like an insatiable dropsy; and if any one indulges in such intemperance, he adds the drunken to the thirsty, i e. , the madness of his own folly to unrestrained desire. רויה, ravah, however, is, in my opinion, used actively, as elsewhere. In Psalms 23:5, it is said, “My cup רויה, revayah, runneth over;” and, in like manner, in Psalms 66:12, a well-watered land (272) is expressed by the same word, because it abundantly moistens the corn and grass. It is very appropriate that the desires of the flesh, that we burn with, should be compared to thirst; and the licentious impetuosity, which carries us away without reflection, to drunkenness; because the sinner stupifies himself into forgetfulness of the distinction between good and evil. And thence Paul calls those who are plunged in brutal forgetfulness of God and themselves, ἀπηλγηκότες (past feeling.) ( Ephesians 4:19.)

(269) Addition in Fr. , “par maniere de dire.”

(270) Lat. , “Ut addat ebriam sitienti.” A. V. , “To add drunkenness to thirst;” Margin, “The drunken to the thirsty.” So Ainsworth, “To add the drunken, to wit, the drunken soul to the thirsty, or the moist to the dry, meaning to add sin unto sin in abundance, as in Isaiah 30:1.” Dathe follows Le Clerc, and explains it, “to add water to a thirsty soul;” and compares it to Isaiah 44:3, where, he says, the same metaphor is used, though in a good sense.

(271) “Que ceux, qui augmentent le mal, mettent l’huile en la cheminee;” that those who augment an evil put oil into the chimney. — Fr.

(272) A. V. , “a wealthy (margin, moist) place. ” See Cal. Soc. Comment. on Psalms, vol. 2, p. 473.

Verse 20

20.The Lord will not spare him. Moses here teaches us that the obstinacy in which the wicked are willfully hardened, shuts against them the door of hope, so that they will find that God is not to be appeased. And assuredly it is the climax of all sins that a wretched man, who is abandoned to vice, should extinguish the light of his own reason, and destroy the image of God within him, so as to degenerate into a beast: and not only so, but also that he should dethrone God, as if He were not the Judge of the world. And this is the insult which they put upon Him who abandon themselves to sin in the confident expectation of impunity. (273) Thus, by Isaiah, God swears that this was an inexpiable crime, that, when He called them to baldness and to mourning, the Israelites encouraged each other to gladness; and, whilst feasting luxuriously, said in ridicule, “Tomorrow we shall die.” ( Isaiah 22:12.) By the word, אבה, ahab, Moses altogether shuts out the grace of God. (274) Meanwhile he contrasts God’s fixed purpose, — that He will not be willing to pardon, — with the depraved pleasures of those who take too much delight in their sins. Behold, then, what poor sinners gain by their proud contempt when they endeavor to cast off God’s judgment together with His fear!

Further, in order the better to express that God will be irreconcilable to such great perversity, he declares that He will exterminate from the earth those who have so wantonly exulted in iniquity; and finally adds, that He will give them up to be accursed (in anathemata,) so that they shall no longer hold a place among the people of Israel. Now, it is a much more grievous thing to be cut off from the elect people, and to be set apart unto evil, as it is here said, than to be deprived of natural life.

(273) “Car ceux qui sous ombre d’eschapper son jugement s’abandonnent ‘a pecher, luy font ce dishonneur de le despouiller de son empire;” for those who abandon themselves to sin under cover of escaping His judgment, do him this dishonor of despoiling him of his empire. — Fr.

(274) “Le verbe que nous avons translate condescendre, signifie venir a gre. Ainsi Moyse exclud toutes graces de Dieu;” the verb which we have translated condescend, (the Lord will not condescend to spare him,) signifies to consent. Thus Moses shuts out all the graces of God. — Fr יאבה, acquiescet. — Taylor.

Verse 22

22.So that the generation to come of your children. God enforces what we have already seen, that the punishments which He would inflict would be no ordinary ones, or such as should fall into contempt from their common use; but like portents, which should awaken astonishment among their posterity. For the question which is here put is such as refers to something extraordinary, and what is not easily comprehended. It is not, however, confined to the preceding clause, but refers to the whole list of curses; not as if each of them by itself had awakened such horror, but because, when heaped one upon another, they compelled all men to wonder, both on account of their number and their severity and duration, and thus were for a sign and a prodigy. For it everywhere occurs that men are afflicted with diseases, and barrenness for a single season is a common evil; but that sicknesses should cleave as it were to the marrow of a whole people, and that the earth should be dried up as if it were burnt with sulphur, this is an awful spectacle, in which God’s vengeance, which else would be incredible, manifestly appears; and therefore the cases of Sodom and Gomorrah are adduced, in whose destruction it might be seen what end awaits all the reprobate. (275) (Judges 1:7.) Now the Israelites always had their desolation before their eyes, from the time that they entered the land, in order that they might be warned by so terrible a judgment, and might tremble at it. It is also worthy of notice, that strangers are introduced making inquiry; in which words Moses signifies that this vengeance would be terrible even to heathen nations; and with this corresponds what we read in Jeremiah; “many nations shall pass by this city, and they shall say every man to his neighbor, Wherefore hath the Lord done thus unto this great city? Then they shall answer, Because they have forsaken the covenant of the Lord their God, and worshipped other gods, and served them.” (Jeremiah 22:8.) A similar divine menace is recorded in 1 Kings 9:8; “And at this house,” referring to the Temple brought to desolation, “every one that passeth by it shall be astonished and shall hiss; and they shall say, Why hath the Lord done thus to this house? And they shall answer, Because they forsook the Lord their God, and have taken hold upon other gods,” etc. What we find further on is still more fearful; “Behold, I am bringing such evil upon Jerusalem and Judah, that whosoever heareth of it, both his ears shall tingle.” (2 Kings 21:12.)

Moses amplifies the crime of their rebellion, when he says, that forsaking the God of their fathers, God their deliverer, God who had made a covenant with them, they had gone and served strange and unknown gods, from (276) whom they had received no benefits to induce them. For God had bound them to Himself for ever, both by His instruction (277) and the incomparable manifestation of His power; there could therefore be no pretense of ignorance, or mistake to excuse their defection from Him, and their prostitution of themselves to unknown idols.

In the meantime, let us learn from this passage anxiously to inquire who is the true God, and what is His will; because there is no true religion without knowledge; and again, if He convicted His ancient people of wicked ingratitude on account of their deliverance, that we also are now much more inexcusable, unless we constantly abide in the faith of our eternal Redeemer.

(275) Addition in Fr. , “Comme Sainct Jude aussi declare, que la foudre dont elles ont este abysmees, est figure du feu eternal;” as St. Jude also declares, that the thunderbolt whereby they were destroyed, is a type of the eternal fire.

(276) See margin, A. V. — “Who had not given to them any portion, ” v, 26.

(277) “Sa parole;” His word. — Fr.

Verse 29

29.The secret things belong. The conciseness and brevity of this passage has rendered its meaning ambiguous; still there is no necessity for discussing the various expositions of it. I will only shortly touch upon those most generally accepted, lest they should lead to error. The meaning is forced which some of the Hebrews (273) give it, viz., that God is the sole avenger of hidden crimes, whilst those transgressions, which come to the knowledge of men, should be punished by earthly judges; for here the execution of punishment is not the subject in discussion, but Moses is simply commending the use of the doctrine of the Law. The opinion of those who conceive that the excellency of the Law is maintained, because God has manifested by it His secret things, would be more probable, if the rules of grammar did not oppose it; for the words are not to be read connectedly.” The secret things of God are revealed unto us,” since the ה, or demonstrative pronoun, (274) which is adjoined to both, does not permit this any more than the copula which stands between them. To me there appears no doubt that, by antithesis, there is a comparison here made between the doctrine openly set forth in the Law, and the hidden and incomprehensible counsel of God, concerning which it is not lawful to inquire. In my opinion, therefore, the copula is used for the adversative particle; as though it were said, “God indeed retains to Himself secret things, which it neither concerns nor profits us to know, and which surpass our comprehension; but these things, which He has declared to us, belong to us and to our children.” It is a remarkable passage, and especially deserving of our observation, for by it audacity and excessive curiosity are condemned, whilst pious minds are aroused to be zealous in seeking instruction. We know how anxious men are to understand things, the knowledge of which is altogether unprofitable, and even the investigation of them injurious. All of them would desire to be God’s counsellors, and to penetrate into the deepest recesses of heaven, nay, they would search into its very cabinets. Hence a heathen poet truly says, —

“Nil mortalibus arduum est:
Coelum ipsum petimus stultitia.”
Hor. Od. 1: 3-37.

“Nought for mortals is too high;
Our folly reaches to the sky.”

On the other hand, what God plainly sets before us, and would have familiarly known, is either neglected, or turned from in disgust, or put far away from us, as if it were too obscure. In the first clause, then, Moses briefly reproves and restrains that temerity which leaps beyond the bounds imposed by God; and in the latter, exhorts us to embrace the doctrine of the Law, in which God’s will is declared to us, as if He were openly speaking to us; and thus he encounters the folly of those who fly from the light presented to them, and wrongfully accuse of obscurity that doctrine, wherein God has let Himself down to the measure of our understanding. In sum, he declares that God is the best master to all who come to Him as disciples, because He faithfully and clearly explains to them all that it is useful for them to knew. The perpetuity of the doctrine is also asserted, and that it never is to be let go, or to become obsolete by the lapse of ages. How far the Law is perpetual I have more fully discussed in the Second Book of the Institutes, chap. 11. The rule of just and pious living even now retains its force, although we are delivered from the yoke of bondage and from the curse; but the coming of Christ has put an end to its ceremonies in such a way as to prove more certainly that they were not mere vain and empty shadows. Lastly, Moses requires obedience of the people, and reminds them that the Law was not only given that the Israelites might know what was right, but that they might do all that God taught. True is it indeed that all His precepts cannot be fully obeyed; but the perfection which is required, compels those to ask for pardon who otherwise feel themselves to be exposed to God’s judgment, as will be hereafter explained. Besides, we must observe that the doctrine that we must keep the whole Law has this object, that men should not separate one commandment from the others, and think that they have done their duty by performing only a part of it; since God admits no such divorce, having forbidden us to steal no less than to kill (James 2:11.)

(273) S.M. quotes Aben-Ezra as saying, “The secret things done by men belong to God, that he may punish them. But the things which become manifest, or are publicly done, belong to us, and such things we are bound to punish.” Where the ה demonstrative is repeated with the conjunction, as noticed by C., our A. V. has properly but those.W.

(274) In C.’s Latin “ ה agedia,” or as spelt in Buxtorf’s Thesaurus Gram. Ling. Sanctae, Lib. 2, c. 5, “ ה hajediha, that is הידיעה, translatable which maketh known, is the name given to the prefix ה, when its effect is demonstrative” — W

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Calvin, John. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 29". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". 1840-57.