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Bible Commentaries
Deuteronomy 4

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

Verses 6-40


". . . an explicit literary structure to the book is expressed in the sermons or speeches of Moses; a substructure is discernible in the covenantal character of the book; and a theological structure is revealed in its theme of the exclusive worship of the Lord as found in the Ten Commandments, particularly in the First Commandment and its positive expression in the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)." [Note: Patrick D. Miller, Deuteronomy, p. 10.]

The writer set forth God’s acts for Israel as the basis on which he appealed to the new generation of Israelites to renew the Mosaic Covenant with Him.

". . . it is not an overstatement to propose that covenant is the theological center of Deuteronomy. . . .

". . . any attempt to deal with Deuteronomy theologically must do so with complete and appropriate attention to its form and its dominant covenant theme. This means that God’s revelation of Himself and of other matters must be understood within a covenant context because it is His purpose in the document to represent Himself in a particularized role-Sovereign, Redeemer, covenant-maker, and benefactor." [Note: Merrill, "A Theology . . .," p. 62. See also idem, "Deuteronomy," in The Old Testament Explorer, p. 131-32.]

"The preamble in the international suzerainty treaties was followed by a historical survey of the relationship of lord and vassal. It was written in an I-thou style, and it sought to establish the historical justification for the lord’s continuing reign. Benefits allegedly conferred upon the vassal by the lord were cited, with a view to grounding the vassal’s allegiance in a sense of gratitude complementary to the sense of fear which the preamble’s awe-inspiring identification of the suzerain was calculated to produce. When treaties were renewed, the historical prologue was brought up to date. All these formal features characterize Deuteronomy 1:6 to Deuteronomy 4:49." [Note: Kline, "Deuteronomy," p. 157.]

Moses pointed out Israel’s unfaithfulness to emphasize God’s faithfulness.

Verses 1-8

1. The appeal to hearken and obey 4:1-8

Moses urged the Israelites to "listen to" (Deuteronomy 4:1) and to "obey" (Deuteronomy 4:2; Deuteronomy 4:5-6) the Mosaic Law. "Statutes" (Deuteronomy 4:1) were the permanent basic rules of conduct whereas "judgments" (ordinances, Deuteronomy 4:1) were decisions God revealed in answer to specific needs. The judgments set precedent for future action (e.g., the case of Zelophehad’s daughters).

Moses used the illustration of the recent seduction of the Israelites by the Midianites and God’s consequent plague (Numbers 25:1-9) to warn the people of the danger of disregarding God’s Law (Deuteronomy 4:3-4).

Moses’ appeal rested on the promises of life (Deuteronomy 4:1) and possession of the land (Deuteronomy 4:1). He also referred to the praise that would come on the Israelites from other peoples for the Israelites’ obedience (Deuteronomy 4:6), their relationship of intimacy with God (Deuteronomy 4:7), and the intrinsic superiority of their laws (Deuteronomy 4:8).

"The theology of the nations at large taught that the supreme gods were remote and inaccessible. Though they were perceived in highly anthropomorphic terms, they also were thought to be so busy and preoccupied with their own affairs that they could scarcely take notice of their devotees except when they needed them. [Note: M. Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, pp. 27-31.] It was in contrast to these notions, then, that Moses drew attention to the Lord, God of Israel, who, though utterly transcendent and wholly different from humankind, paradoxically lives and moves among them." [Note: Merrill, Deuteronomy, p. 117.]

"In this exposition of the way of the covenant as the way of wisdom, the foundation was laid in the Torah for the Wisdom literature which was afterwards to find its place in the sacred canon." [Note: Kline, "Deuteronomy," p. 161.]

Verses 1-40

B. An exhortation to observe the law faithfully 4:1-40

Moses turned in his address from contemplating the past to an exhortation for the future. This section is the climax of his first speech.

"The parallel between the literary structure of this chapter and that of the Near Eastern treaty is noteworthy. The author of the treaty is named (1, 2, 5, 10), reference is made to the preceding historical acts, the treaty stipulations are mentioned, the appeal is made for Israel to obey, the treaty sanctions, blessing and cursing, are referred to, witnesses are mentioned (26), and the obligation to transmit the knowledge of the treaty to the next generation is stated (10). While these elements in the Near Eastern treaty are not set out in a rigid legal form, but are woven into a speech without regard for strict formality, they can be clearly discerned." [Note: Thompson, p. 102. Cf. Merrill, Deuteronomy, p. 113.]

"Moses stresses the uniqueness of God’s revelation to them and their responsibility." [Note: Samuel J. Schultz, Deuteronomy, p. 30.]

"He [Moses] would not enter the land and guide the people in God’s Law, so he now gives them his explanation of the Law to use in his absence. His central purpose in this section is to draw out the chief ideas of the Sinai narratives, Exodus 19-33." [Note: Sailhamer, p. 433.]

These chief ideas are the Torah as wisdom (Deuteronomy 4:1-14), warning against idolatry (Deuteronomy 4:15-24), the possibility of exile (Deuteronomy 4:25-31), and God’s presence with Israel (Deuteronomy 4:32-40).

Verses 9-14

2. God’s appearance at Mt. Horeb 4:9-14

"The abstract nature of God in the Israelite religion, and the absence of any physical representation of him, imposed great difficulties for a people living in a world where all other men represented their gods in visual, physical form. To counter this difficulty would require great care and so Moses urged such care, lest you forget the things your eyes have seen [Deuteronomy 4:9]. They had never literally seen their God, but they had seen what God had done." [Note: Craigie, The Book . . ., pp. 132-33. Cf. John 3:8.]

The emphasis in this section is on the supernatural character of the revelation of God’s Law. Human beings did not invent Israel’s Law. A holy God had revealed it. It was special revelation. Consequently the Israelites were to fear (i.e., have an awesome reverence for) God (Deuteronomy 4:10). In Deuteronomy Moses often reminded the parents that they, not the priests or other religious leaders, bore the primary responsibility for educating their children spiritually (Deuteronomy 4:9-10; cf. Deuteronomy 6:7; cf. Deuteronomy 6:20; Deuteronomy 11:19; Deuteronomy 31:13; Deuteronomy 32:46).

"The basic lesson for Israel to learn at Horeb was to fear and reverence God." [Note: Schultz, p. 31.]

"In the Old Testament the fear of God is more than awe or reverence though it includes both. Fearing God is becoming so acutely aware of His moral purity and omnipotence that one is genuinely afraid to disobey Him. Fearing God also includes responding to Him in worship, service, trust, obedience, and commitment." [Note: Deere, p. 269]

Verses 15-24

3. The prohibition of idolatry 4:15-24

Because God did not reveal Himself in any physical form He forbade the Israelites from making any likeness of Him as an aid to worship (Deuteronomy 4:15-18). They were not to worship the heavenly bodies for this purpose either (Deuteronomy 4:19), as did other ancient Near Easterners. Christians may not face the temptation to represent God in wood or stone, but we must be careful about thinking we can contain or limit Him or fully comprehend Him. Even though we have received much revelation about God we cannot fully grasp all there is to appreciate about Him.

Evidently the thought of God bringing the Israelites out of Egypt, "the iron furnace," to bring them into the land (Deuteronomy 4:20) triggered Moses’ reference to his own sin and its consequences (Deuteronomy 4:21-22).

"The use of metal by heating certain ores and then hammering the metallic residue or welding it to other parts while still hot may have appeared in the Near East in the first half of the third millennium B.C., but the manufacture of iron objects (usually weapons) was very limited till 1500 B.C. and later. Though the ’furnaces’ of the OT world could not be heated sufficiently to make molten iron, artisans had learned to use bellows to make the hottest fire then known; and they knew that the hottest fire they could produce was necessary for their iron productions. ’Out of the iron-smelting furnace, out of Egypt’ does not mean to imply that iron-smelting furnaces were in Egypt at that time. Rather, bringing Israel out of Egypt was like bringing her out of an iron-smelting furnace-the heavy bondage of Egypt with its accompanying difficulties and tensions being likened to the hottest fire then known." [Note: Kalland, pp. 45-46.]

Israel was to learn from Moses’ personal failure (Deuteronomy 4:23) and be completely loyal to Yahweh.

"Not only can the inheritance be merited by obedience, but it can be lost by disobedience. Even Moses was excluded from the land of Canaan (i.e., the inheritance) because of his disobedience (Deuteronomy 4:21-22). Clearly, Moses will be in heaven, but he forfeited his earthly inheritance. Not entering Canaan does not necessarily mean one is not born again.

"Even though Israel had become God’s firstborn son (Exodus 4:22-23), the entire wilderness generation with the exception of Caleb and Joshua forfeited the inheritance due the firstborn. God disinherited them, and they wandered in the wilderness for forty years." [Note: Joseph C. Dillow, The Reign of the Servant Kings, p. 50.]

The "consuming fire" metaphor refers to the manifestation of God’s glory that burns in judgment all that is impure (cf. Exodus 24:17; Leviticus 10:2; Numbers 16:35; Hebrews 12:29). God’s jealousy is His zeal for righteousness that springs from His holiness. He would not tolerate Israel’s allegiance to any other god. The connotation of pettiness that is present in the English word "jealousy" is absent from the Hebrew idea.

Verses 25-31

4. The consequences of idolatry 4:25-31

This warning has proved prophetic in that Israel did apostatize and experience all the consequences Moses warned against here. The nation’s present scattered condition as a result of her dispersion by the Romans is only one of several scatterings that Israel has experienced (Deuteronomy 4:27). Moses predicted a turning back to the Lord (Deuteronomy 4:30). This has yet to take place during Israel’s present dispersion, but it will happen (Zechariah 12:10).

Yahweh is a holy judge who zealously yearns for the welfare of His chosen people (Deuteronomy 4:24), but if they turn from Him and He disciplines them He will have compassion on them (cf. Deuteronomy 6:5; Deuteronomy 10:12; Deuteronomy 11:13; Deuteronomy 26:16; Deuteronomy 30:2; Deuteronomy 30:6; Deuteronomy 30:10). The promise that God would not fail or destroy His people or forget His covenant with them indicates the extent of His love for Israel (Romans 11:1).

Verses 32-40

5. The uniqueness of Yahweh and Israel 4:32-40

"The passage at hand is without comparison as a discourse on the doctrine of God." [Note: Merrill, Deuteronomy, p. 130.]

Moses’ three rhetorical questions (Deuteronomy 4:32-34) clearly point out the uniqueness of Yahweh.

"In addition to His self-disclosure in event, in history, Yahweh revealed Himself as sovereign in theophany. In this manner the glorious splendor of the King contributes to His aura of majesty and power and is thereby persuasive of His dignity and authority. Almost without exception the theophanic revelation was in the form of fire and its opposite, darkness (Deuteronomy 1:33; Deuteronomy 4:11-12; Deuteronomy 4:33; Deuteronomy 4:36; Deuteronomy 5:4; Deuteronomy 5:22-26; Deuteronomy 9:10; Deuteronomy 9:15; Deuteronomy 10:4; Deuteronomy 33:2; cf. Psalms 50:2; Psalms 80:2 [sic 1]; psa 94:1). . . . The darkness speaks of His transcendence, His mysterium, His inaccessibility. On the other hand, the fire represented His immanence, the possibility of His being known even if in only a limited way (cf. Ezekiel 1:4; Ezekiel 1:27-28; Daniel 7:9; Revelation 1:14). [Note: Idem, "A Theology . . .," p. 64. Cf. Samuel Terrien, The Elusive Presence, pp. 109-12.]

Israel was not to miss the point (Deuteronomy 4:35). The articulation of God’s motivation in His great redemptive and saving acts for Israel as being His love for them (Deuteronomy 4:37) brings this mounting crescendo of argument to its climax. [Note: See William L. Moran, "The Ancient Near Eastern Background of the Love of God in Deuteronomy," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 35 (1963):77-87; Greg Chirichigno, "A Theological Investigation of Motivation in OT Law," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (1981):303-13; and Pinchas Doron, "Motive Clauses in the Laws of Deuteronomy: Their Forms, Functions and Contents," Hebrew Annual Review (1978):61-77.]

"What is important to note here is that the exodus deliverance was predicated on Israel’s prior election by the Lord. It was precisely because of his love and choice that he acted to redeem. . . . The exodus and even the ensuing covenant did not make Israel the people of the Lord. Rather, it was because they were his people by virtue of having been descended from the patriarchs, the objects of his love and choice, that he was moved to save them and enter into covenant with them." [Note: Merrill, Deuteronomy, p. 133. See also idem, "A Theology . . .," pp. 30-32.]

"From a literary point of view, these verses are among the most beautiful in Deuteronomy. They are prosaic in form, but poetic in their evocation of the marvelous acts of God." [Note: Craigie, The Book . . ., p. 142.]

The earliest reference to Israel’s election in Deuteronomy is in Deuteronomy 4:37 (cf. Deuteronomy 7:6-8; Deuteronomy 10:15-16; Deuteronomy 14:2; Deuteronomy 26:18-19; Exodus 19:5-6).

"National election does not guarantee the salvation of every individual within the nation since only individual election can do that. Nor does national election guarantee the physical salvation of every member of the nation. What national election does guarantee is that God’s purpose(s) for choosing the nation will be accomplished and that the elect nation will always survive as a distinct entity. It guarantees the physical salvation of the nation and, in the case of Israel, even a national salvation. It is the national election of Israel that is the basis of Israel’s status as the Chosen People." [Note: Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, "Israel and the Church," in Issues in Dispensationalism, p. 114.]

This whole address by Moses (Deuteronomy 1:6 to Deuteronomy 4:40), and especially the exhortation to observe the Law faithfully (Deuteronomy 4:1-40), is one of the greatest revelations of God’s character in the Old Testament. The address builds to a climax, as every great sermon does. The total impression God and Moses intended must have been awe and humble gratitude in the hearts of the Israelites.

"One of the principal means by which God has revealed Himself is in historical event, that is, by acts the community of faith could recognize as divine. [Note: G. Ernest Wright and Reginald H. Fuller, The Book of the Acts of God, pp. 9-10.] To Israel on the plains of Moab, these acts made up the constellation of mighty deeds Yahweh had displayed before them and on their behalf from the days of the patriarchs to their present hour. It was on the basis of such historical interventions, in fact, that Yahweh’s claim as Sovereign could be made.

"Elsewhere in the Old Testament the foundational act of God is creation itself, but here the matter is less cosmic; the focus of Deuteronomy is not on God’s universal concerns but on His special purposes for His people." [Note: Merrill, "A Theology . . .," p. 63.]

The best way to motivate people to obey God is to expound His character and conduct, as Moses did here. Note too that Moses appealed to the self-interest of the Israelites: ". . . that it may go well with you and with your children after you, and that you may live long on the land . . ." (Deuteronomy 4:40; cf. Deuteronomy 5:16; Deuteronomy 6:3; Deuteronomy 6:18; Deuteronomy 12:25; Deuteronomy 12:28; Deuteronomy 19:13; Deuteronomy 22:7; Proverbs 3:1-2; Proverbs 3:16; Proverbs 10:27).

Verses 41-43

A. The appointment of cities of refuge in Transjordan 4:41-43

It may seem strange that Moses included the record of his appointment of Bezer, Ramoth, and Golan as the three cities of refuge ("safe towns," CEV) east of the Jordan at this point in Deuteronomy. He probably did so because this important event took place after his first address and before he delivered his second speech. The two and one-half tribes were beginning to settle in Transjordan, and they needed this information.

The inclusion of this historical incident also serves a literary function. It provides a kind of intermission for the reader following the emotional climax at the end of the first address. It allows him or her to recover from its strong impact before the next long address begins.

Deuteronomy, as Leviticus and the other books of Moses, is essentially a narrative document. Moses interspersed much legal material in the narrative of Leviticus, and he interspersed much sermonic material in the narrative of Deuteronomy. In both books there is less narrative material than legal or sermonic material.

Verses 41-49


Having completed his address that reminded the Israelites to look backward and remember God’s faithfulness so they would remain faithful in the future, Moses next turned to a reminder of what God’s will for His chosen people involved. He prefaced this second speech with instruction concerning cities of refuge in the land.

Verses 44-49

B. Introduction to the second address 4:44-49

These verses are similar to Deuteronomy 1:4-5. They summarize and introduce with historical references what follows. In a larger sense these verses summarize all of chapters 1-3. These verses contain narration about Moses, not a discourse by Moses.

"This address, which is described in the heading as the law which Moses set before the Israelites, commences with a repetition of the decalogue, and a notice of the powerful impression which was made, through the proclamation of it by God Himself, upon the people who were assembled round Him at Horeb (chap. v). In the first and more general part, it shows that the true essence of the law, and of that righteousness which the Israelites were to strive after, consisted in loving Jehovah their God with all their heart (chap. vi); that the people were bound, by virtue of their election as the Lord’s people of possession, to exterminate the Canaanites with their idolatrous worship, in order to rejoice in the blessing of God (chap. vii.); but more especially that, having regard on the one hand to the divine chastisement and humiliation which they had experienced in the desert (chap. viii.), and on the other hand to the frequency with which they had rebelled against their God (chap. ix. 1-x. 11), they were to beware of self-exaltation and self-righteousness, that in the land of Canaan, of which they were about to take possession, they might not forget their God when enjoying the rich productions of the land, but might retain the blessings of their God for ever by a faithful observance of the covenant (chap. x. 12-xi. 32). Then after this there follows an exposition of the different commandments of the law (chap. xii.-xxvi.)." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, 3:318.]

The Law (Deuteronomy 4:44, Heb. torah) here refers to the covenant text itself rather than to the Pentateuch, its more frequent referent.

"The law given at Sinai is properly a suzerainty treaty rather than a legal code, and Deuteronomy is a covenant-renewal document. Consequently it has some modification or modernizations of the code given originally." [Note: Schultz, p. 32.]

". . . there is no distinctive anthropology in Deuteronomy because in this covenant text the individual is of relatively little significance. It is Israel, the vassal, that is highlighted in the book whose purpose is to show the Sovereign’s redemptive, covenantal claims on and relationship to a people through whom He would manifest His saving will." [Note: Merrill, "A Theology . . .," p. 72.]

Note that God gave this Law, ". . . to the sons of Israel." As I have pointed out previously, the Mosaic Law had a double purpose. God gave it primarily as a revelation of Himself, mankind, and the essential requirements for their relationship. He has preserved it in Scripture for all believers because it still has this revelatory value. However, God also gave the law to regulate the life of the Israelites religiously, governmentally, and domestically. This regulatory purpose is what ended with the death of Jesus Christ. The law of Christ (Galatians 6:2) has replaced the Old (Mosaic) Covenant by specifying new regulations for believers since Jesus Christ died.

"Testimonies denoted covenant stipulations. Statutes were laws that were written down or inscribed on some suitable medium. Ordinances were the decisions of a judge." [Note: Schultz, p. 111.]

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 4". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/deuteronomy-4.html. 2012.
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