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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Dictionary of Texts

Deuteronomy 33

Verses 1-29

The Law of Antagonism

Deuteronomy 33:2-3

At first sight the text might seem to involve a contradiction, but closer consideration will show that it expresses a great truth, viz. that the severity of human life is an expression of the Divine goodness.

I. Consider the truth of the text as it finds expression in Nature. Nature is imperative, uncompromising, terrible. A lofty and unyielding commandment is written over all things, and behind the fiery law is a right hand capable of enforcing it to the utmost, of exacting the last farthing of the overwhelming penalty. In our day the severity of Nature has been recognized as the struggle for existence, and students have shown with great clearness and power how full the world is of antagonism and suffering; yet these same students distinctly perceive that the struggle for existence is at bottom merciful, and that whenever Nature chooses an evil it is a lesser evil to prevent a greater. ( a ) They see the advantage of severity as far as all sound and healthy things are concerned. The student of Nature knows well that the fiery law, the law which demands constant awareness, movement, tension, resistance, endeavour, is the law of salvation and perfecting to the whole animal world. ( b ) These students of Nature see also the advantage of severity so far as defective things are concerned. It does indeed seem harsh that by the law of the world weak things go to the wall, and it is often difficult to reconcile ourselves to the grim fact. Yet the scientist sees truly that the fiery law which smites weakness into the dust is just as kind as the sweet light of the sun. It is better for the world at large that weak organisms should be eliminated, otherwise the earth would be filled with imperfection and wretchedness; it is better for the creatures concerned that they should perish, for why should a miserable existence be prolonged?

II. We consider the text as it finds expression in civilization. ( a ) Take the struggle of man with Nature. All climates and countries have their special inconveniences, inhospitalities and scourges, and everywhere men live in a more or less decided conflict with the elements and seasons. But is not this conflict with Nature part of the inspiration and programme of civilization? The law of life is truly severe which enjoins that men shall eat bread in the sweat of his face, but in this struggle for life our great antagonist is our great helper; we are leaving barbarism behind us, we are undergoing a magnificent transformation, we are becoming princes of God and heirs of all things. ( b ) Take the struggle of man with man. Society is a great system of antithesis. There are international rivalries, a relentless competition between the several races and nations for power and supremacy. But this social rivalry brings its rich compensations. It is so with the international rivalry. Our husbandmen will be compelled to put away all droning; they must go to school again, they must invent new methods, they must adopt new machines, sow choicer seeds, breed superior cattle; they must grub up the old canker-eaten, lichen-laden orchards and plant fresh fruit-trees of the best varieties.

III. We consider the truth of the text as it finds expression in character. The law concerning human character and duty knows nothing of accommodating itself to our weakness and infirmity, it does not invite or admit excuses for failure or fidelity, it is imperative and uncompromising a fiery law. And yet we must contend that this severity is only another expression of eternal love. The scientist is reconciled to austere Nature by the consideration that she 'chooses a lesser evil to prevent a greater,' and the same consideration must reconcile us to life. For as the catastrophes of Nature are, after all, but partial and temporary, preventing immeasurably greater calamities, so our physical pain, impoverishment, social suffering, severe toil, bereavement, and all our terrestrial woes are the lesser evils, saving us from the infinitely greater one of the superficiality, corruption, misery, and ruin of the soul.

W. L. Watkinson, The Transfigured Sackcloth, p. 191.

References. XXXIII. 7. J. M. Neale, Sermons Preached in a Religious House, vol. i. p. 53. XXXIII. 12. J. N. Norton, Golden Truths, p. 391. Bagnall-Baker, Thursday Penny Pulpit, vol. iii. p. 121. XXXIII. 16. W. M. Taylor, Contrary Winds, p. 200.

Watchwords for a New Year

Deuteronomy 33:25

We stand at the threshold of another year. The past is irrevocable. The future is before us. How shall we prepare ourselves to go up into it?

I. There are tasks awaiting us; the life of a true disciple of Christ is not a sinecure. His prayer for us is that we may bear 'fruit,' 'much fruit,' 'more fruit'. Passive piety is scarcely better than none at all. If we are followers of the Christ we may not shrink from cares and burdens and responsibilities. Yet who is sufficient for these things? If we set out alone and unprepared the journey will be too much for us. My weakness God's strength, these are the sandals wherewith we journey successfully along the path of duty.

II. There are temptations before us. This needs must be. The grapes must be pressed or there will be no wine, but we are never alone in the hour of trial unless we choose to be. A wrongdoer says: 'I couldn't help it; the temptation was greater than I could bear'. This is never true. The word of the Lord assures us to the contrary. 'Lo, I am with you alway; I will not leave you alone, I will come to you'. If we yield to temptation it is because we refuse His help, for He is not far from every one of us. And besides this present Christ we have the strong staff of the Written Word to lean on. A Bible Christian is a strong Christian.

III. There are sorrows before us. And where shall we find comfort? God knows. There is strength in that. God is not the author of our calamities. But there is a sense in which God is present always in the midst of pain and sorrow. It does not spring up out of the ground. It does not come to pass without His permission, decree. He controls it, restrains it, and in the long run makes all things work together for good to them that love Him. And our affliction after all is 'light, and but for a moment'. A glance at the starry heavens reveals ten thousand times ten thousand worlds, and the longer we gaze the more come whirling into view. How little this world seems: how infinitesimal. So is time in relation to eternity. So is the pain of today to the glory of tomorrow.

David J. Burrell, Homiletic Review, vol. LVII. p. 67.

References. XXXIII. 25. W. H. Brookfield, Sermons, p. 196. C. Bradley, The Christian Life, p. 191. J. Vaughan, Fifty Sermons, 1874, p. 256. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. iv. No. 210. H. W. Beecher, Forty-eight Sermons, vol. i. p. 1. XXXIII. 26-28. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xiv. No. 803.

The Everlasting Arms

Deuteronomy 33:27

This is the blessing wherewith Moses, the man of God, blessed the children of Israel before his death. Like the dying prophecy of Jacob, the aged patriarch, when he gathered his sons about him, and like the last prayer of David the king when he bequeathed his throne to Solomon his son, this farewell of Israel's great leader and lawgiver rises into the music of a psalm.

I. There come times to every man and woman, even to the young who are sensitive and enthusiastic, when they are beset with a horrible sense of human futility. This evil mood of contempt for one's self curdles into a temper of scorn for one's brothers. They and we alike seem too ignoble, too fleeting, to be worth seriously troubling over.

II. Besides the dreadful sense of worthlessness and futility there is another horror of great darkness which sometimes oppresses the soul. You realize, in imagination, what it would mean to be literally 'lost' amid the infinite spaces and silences, without a path or a home or a helper.

III. We are not the puppets of evil fate, the playthings of blind forces. We are embraced in our father's arms. These very circumstances which we rebel against, these checks and limits which hedge us in, are really the clasp and pressure of His eternal tenderness carrying us along the way which He would have us go.

T. H. Darlow, The Upward Calling, p. 154.

The Eternal God Thy Refuge

Deuteronomy 33:27

I. A Cry of the Human Spirit. The text is not the utterance of an exceptional soul, but a genuine cry of the human spirit; not merely a line of sublime poetry, but a voice from distant ages, which still expresses to the world the most fundamental of human needs and becomes the personal and cherished confession of the confidence of every religious man, and of every man in his deeper and more religious hours. Sooner or later every son of man is taught the lesson of his own insufficiency, of his need of a strength he does not find in himself, and of a shelter and support which his fellows cannot give, and no earthly interest or object can yield. The truly religious man is just the man to whom God is no mere name, tradition, or opinion, but his one sure refuge and support the man who has proved in his own experience that God is here and now to the children what He was long ago to the fathers no less mighty to protect, uphold, and save, and no less abounding in loving kindness and tender mercy.

II. The Law of Mediation. We are set within a system of mediation. It is the office of the natural to lead us to the spiritual, and of the temporal to lead us to the eternal. The whole material universe is a system of mediation by which God would draw us to Himself. The creation is but the Divine thought clothing itself in visible form, and it comes forth into form not only because self-manifestation is a necessity of deity, but in order that the children of God may be led by it nearer to Him Who is the source of their being, and the unseen Power of all good.

III. The Refuge from Unsearchable Mystery. The eternal God is our refuge from the unsearchable mystery of life. In all ages men, bewildered by the vision of great changes, have pronounced the doom of the world because they were not able to see or understand the process of its salvation. Let us not be fearful even if the worst happens. The worst that can happen is often the best for the world. 'From evil good ever evolving,' is perhaps the best description we can give of the Divine method. Human life in its evolution has its end as it had its beginning in God. There can be no evil, therefore, in any of the permanent forces which are shaping human society.

IV. The Refuge of Sufferers and Sinners. In times of critical strain and trial to ourselves, and changes in our days which make us feel as if there were nothing steadfast, in the hour of disappointment and unforeseen calamity and loss, in the darkness of temptation and sin, sickness and death, let this be our confidence: 'The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms' 'thy refuge' from the world without and the tumults of thine own spirit; 'thy refuge' from all the dark shadows which haunt thee, from sleeplessness, tormenting memories of evil done, and from all invisible terrors; 'thy refuge' when thy thoughts baffle thee, and thy faith fails thee; 'thy refuge' from the loneliness of life and in the hour of thy final passion and conflict.

John Hunter, The Christian World Pulpit, vol. LXX. 1906, p. 401.

References. XXXIII. 27. A. M. Fairbairn, City of God, p. 190. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xi. No. 624. A. R. Henderson, God and Man in the Light of Today, p. 263.

The Search for Happiness

Deuteronomy 33:29

It has often been noted that we bestow least thought upon our greatest blessings. When a man is healthy he thinks very little of health. Now as it is with health so it is with happiness. The happy man seldom thinks how happy he is. But the heart that is happy is rarely introspective. There is a childlike unconsciousness in its enjoyment. I think then that all the world's talk of happiness is a proof that unhappiness is abroad. Now it is one of the strange contradictions of our faith that the Gospel should have proved itself so unquestionably a powerful factor in creating happiness; and yet the central figure of the Gospel was a Man of Sorrows and acquainted with grief.

I. It is commonly admitted that happiness is only gained as a by-product. If a man makes it the business of his life to extract happiness from any ore he is almost certain to have his toil in vain. It is when we do not seek happiness that we find it. Make it your all in all, it vanishes. Forget it, then in the passion for sublimer things it comes. The Gospel of Jesus Christ deals with happiness along these very lines. The Gospel of Jesus never says 'Be happy'; but the Gospel of Jesus says 'Be holy'; aim at the highest, and happiness will come.

II. It has been commonly recognized that human happiness has two great enemies. The one is anxiety, and the other is ennui, or listlessness. The Gospel of Jesus is marvellously equipped to fight these foes. I cannot conceive how any Christian can be a listless character. With a soul to save and a character to build, with passions to master and virtues to achieve, with men to help, and with a Christ to know, I think there is work enough for the idlest.

III. It has been commonly admitted that happiness is to be found among life's common things. It is not the rare gifts, the possessions of the few; it is not great gifts, great genius, or great power that make the possessors happy. It is health, it is friendship, it is love at home, it is the voices of children, it is sunshine. And now comes in the Gospel of Jesus with its great power to consecrate the commonplace. A Christian, as one has said, is not a man who does extraordinary things; he is a man who does the ordinary things, but he does them in an extraordinary way. He links his commonest joy on to the chain that runs right up to the throne of the Eternal.

References. XXXIII. 29. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxiii. No. 1359. XXXIII.-XXXIV. J. Monro-Gibson, The Mosaic Era, p. 345. XXXIV. 1-12. W. M. Taylor, Moses the Lawgiver, p. 434.

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 33". Expositor's Dictionary of Text. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/edt/deuteronomy-33.html. 1910.