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the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
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Bible Commentaries
Deuteronomy 4

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Verses 1-5


In Deuteronomy 2-3 God makes clear to His people what the land is and what it is not. They must respect God’s ways and providence with certain countries. Other countries they have had to take possession of and start inheriting them. But even the countries they have begun to inherit are not yet the actual land. Deuteronomy 4 draws conclusions from the lessons of the past. Now there must be clear agreements between God and the people. Therefore Moses starts this chapter in Deuteronomy 4:1 with “now”.

The earthly people, Israel, are a reflection of the heavenly people, the church. The believer of the church finds many lessons in the history of Israel about the life on earth and the blessings in heaven. It is about the blessings of the land as a picture for the Christian to live happily in fellowship with God, focusing on where God’s heart is after. Everything that the land has to offer us can be summed up in everything that is truly and eternally important to God’s heart.

The agreements that are made are the ground rules to enjoy what the land contains for us. These ground rules are discussed in Deuteronomy 4-11. They can be summed up in ‘law’ and ‘covenant’. The law is: Love God above all else and your neighbor as yourself: ““Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And He said to him, “‘YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF’” (Matthew 22:36-Malachi :).

Now we, believers who belong to the church, are “not under law, but under grace” (Romans 6:14). That does not mean, however, that our lives are not based on obedience. The knowledge of the truth that we are not under law, but under grace, has no meaning if we have not learned what it means to have and keep the commandments of the Lord Jesus.

By “the commandments of the Lord Jesus” we cannot understand what God has given in the law. They go much further. Nowhere in the law, for example, is a person asked to give up his life. The Lord Jesus received this commandment from the Father: “For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life so that I may take it again. … This commandment I received from My Father” (John 10:17; John 10:18). The same goes for the believer who received the Lord Jesus as his life: “We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 John 3:16).

The commandments of the Lord Jesus are of a different character. It is the desire of the believer’s new life to do everything He says, whether He commands it explicitly or announces His wish. He who loves Him keeps His commandments and His word (John 14:21; John 14:23). Then the Father and the Son come and make Their abode to such a person. That is to say, with respect, that they feel at home there. That is fellowship.

The covenant, both the old and the new, is not made with the church, but with Israel (Hebrews 8:8; Hebrews 8:13). The new covenant is based on the blood of the Lord Jesus. What the church does have to deal with is the blood of the new covenant. Therefore the institution of Lord’s Supper is also in the first letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 11:23-Ezekiel :) and not only in the gospels. The apostles are “servants of a new covenant” (2 Corinthians 3:6). They not only speak about the church, but also point to the future of Israel. The fact that the term ‘covenant’ is also used in connection with the church also shows that the relations God establishes with us are also subject to conditions.

Listen and Do

With the words “now, O Israel” with which Moses begins, he connects to the memory of the way God has gone with His people. He will now use history as an incentive to obediently fulfil their duty. The word “listen” means to take to heart and to do. This is the condition to enjoy the blessing of the land afterwards.

The teaching that Moses is going to give, aims to life, the real life in the land. Life in its fullness, as God intended for His people, is only really enjoyed when His statutes and judgments are listened to. By statutes is meant all that God has said with regard to serving Him. The judgments are all decisions concerning civil matters, everything concerning the mutual relations of the members of God’s people. The two expressions include the whole law of God. What God says is sufficient to protect our lives and to guarantee the enjoyment of the land.

Moses first speaks of “that you may live”, and then “and go in and take possession of the land”. That also applies to us. When the Word of Christ dwells richly in us, we experience the highest enjoyment of life from God and living with God and with each other. Then our whole life will be to the glory of God, and we will praise Him: “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms [and] hymns [and] spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. Whatever you do in word or deed, [do] all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father” (Colossians 3:16-Esther :).

The statutes and judgments do not contain conditions on how to become a believer, but how to enjoy the blessings as a believer. Even before Moses starts giving God’s commandments, he first points out the danger of doing or taking away from God’s commandments (Revelation 22:18-Psalms :; Deuteronomy 12:32; Proverbs 30:5-Joshua :; Jeremiah 26:2; Matthew 5:19). They do not need additional rules or instructions and nothing is superfluous.

We can only keep God’s commandments by taking them as He gave them. The Pharisees add their own commandments to the law, they are the rituals of their days. The Sadducees remove from the law what they cannot reason mentally. They are the rationalists of their days. We too are constantly in danger of adding to or taking away from God’s Word.

Secondly, Moses recalls Baal-peor right from the beginning of this teaching (Numbers 25:1-1 Samuel :; Psalms 106:28; Psalms 106:39; Hosea 9:10). That is also significant. At Baal-peor the people connected themselves to the Moabites in body and mind and fornication was committed. They did so on the advice of Balaam (Numbers 31:16). God’s judgment has come upon it. They recently saw this with ‘their own eyes’. Moses illustrates the consequences of disobedience and obedience to God’s commandments.

In Revelation 2 we read about “the teaching of Balaam” (Revelation 2:14). This teaching contains the connection between the world and God’s people. In our days we see that everywhere where the world is brought within the walls of the church with all kinds of beautiful excuses. A strong example is making certain decisions in the church by voting and accepting a case by majority vote. Scripture is no longer the norm, but most votes.

Serving God cannot be linked to the use of the methods of the world. All those who believe that this is possible will be destroyed. The choice is presented by Moses in its consequences. It is a warning to the generation that stands before him. That generation is alive before him because they have held fast to the LORD. He that holds fast to the LORD holds fast to life. Then – but only then – life can be lived in its richest form. In that life the Spirit works. God has nothing to do with the generation of the flesh, but with the generation of the Spirit.

Moses passes on to the people what the LORD his God has commanded him. He is a type of the Lord Jesus as the great Teacher Who speaks the words of God. It is wisdom to listen to Him.

Verses 6-8

God’s People and the Other Peoples

True wisdom and understanding are found in a life lived according to the norms of God. God has revealed it in His Word. He has given that Word to His people. The possession of that Word makes the great difference with the world around God’s people. Not their prosperity or military power, but a life according to the statutes and judgments of God’s Word distinguishes God’s people from the world. If they are obedient, they will arouse the jealousy of all peoples.

The letter to the Colossians begins with a prayer for wisdom and spiritual insight necessary to enjoy the blessings of the land: “For this reason also, since the day we heard [of it], we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (Colossians 1:9). The true life is “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). Stretching out for it, being busy with it (Colossians 3:1) is true wisdom and understanding, for in Him are “hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3).

If we read in this way in God’s Word and discover more and more of Christ, in Whom our blessings are already contained, we will walk “with wisdom toward outsiders” (Colossians 4:5). So Moses says it to the people. Their listening to the commandments of God will be a testimony to the nations around them (cf. 1 Kings 10:4-Deuteronomy :). The true right is rooted in God. If His people maintain this, He will become visible through it. He is honored. This honor also comes upon the people. Those who make the Word of God great will be made great by it themselves.

Moses tells the people how near the LORD is to them. He is so near that He hears them when they call. There is a real relationship. Does the people realize it? Are we aware of it? And God answers. His answer to any question, we have in His Word. Moses then points to this. He speaks with full conviction of the unparalleled righteousness of God’s laws (Psalms 147:19-Proverbs :).

Are we, am I, fully and deeply convinced of that? If there is no conviction of the truth of God’s Word, we do not read it. If we do read in it without that conviction, we do so without the awareness that the living and loving God speaks to us. “His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3), that is, for the new life. They are the best and most righteous commandments. The foundation is love. He is so near to His people, and we are so near to Him.

We must learn to walk “not as unwise men but as wise” (Ephesians 5:15). We learn this by, among other things, dealing with the letter to the Ephesians. As a result, we receive wisdom and understanding. Wisdom is not to be found in learning and science, in education in the world, but in the school of God. True wisdom cannot be learned from a booklet, but we learn it in God’s practice school.

Verses 9-14

The Lord Lets His Words Be Heard

There is always the danger that the things we have experienced and that have made a great impression on us will be forgotten by us. Moses insists that God’s people will keep in their hearts what God of Himself has shown them. God’s revelation departs from our hearts when we allow other things to fill our hearts.

Passing on to our children and grandchildren the things we have seen of God is a commission and also a means by which we ourselves are reminded of Him time and again. In this book the emphasis is not so much on priestly service or religious leadership, but more on the parents who are responsible for the spiritual forming of their children.

Moses recalls the day that the people stood at Horeb “before the LORD your God”. He speaks to those who were then under twenty, but it also applies to those who were still in the loins of their fathers and were born during the wilderness journey. God then had him summoned the people to make them hear His words. God therefore wanted them to learn to respect Him as long as they live on earth. Also now God teaches us, His people, the church, through His Word how to honor Him.

The mountain was on fire. It is not a fire that has descended upon an unfaithful people to consume it. It is a fire that “burned … to the [very] heart of the heavens”. The fire is a symbol of judgment. The heart of the heavens is the Lord Jesus. Here we see in picture that the fire came from God’s judgment on the only One Who did not deserve that fire. God has sent the fire into the bones of the Lord Jesus (Lamentations 1:13), the heart of the heavens.

From the middle of the fire God speaks. God takes the basis He found in the judgment that hit His Son. From that place, that righteous foundation, He speaks to His people. But God does not only speak, He also writes. God’s writing is a perfect representation of His speaking. Thus He has provided His people with what they need to receive and keep the full blessing.

Verses 15-20

Prohibition to Make Any Idol

For the second time, Moses insists on watching carefully (Deuteronomy 4:15; Deuteronomy 4:9), now to avoid wickedness by making an image of God. How should they portray God? For they have not seen His likeness, but only heard His voice. If they did, they would take something from creation. There is nothing against the things in creation. But something that is created, loosening it from creation and making it an object of worship, is idolatry.

Moses lists all the things that can be abused. He begins with the highest in creation on earth, man and woman, and descends to the lowest kind of creatures, after the example of which a graven picture can be made. Direct worship of heavenly bodies as a form of worship elevated above the earth is also an abomination to God.

It is easy for man to come to worship heavenly bodies. They make great impression by their height, their brilliance and their meaning for life on earth, while there is no thought of Him Who made them. Many are the sun worshippers, but few are the true worshippers of the Father who worship Him in spirit and truth (John 4:23). Any form of idolatry is a great insult to Him and a great deceit to the idolater himself.

The people of God are a redeemed people. God has redeemed His people, that they may be His own people. He has freed it from the “iron furnace, from Egypt”. An iron furnace is fired as hot as possible in order to process the metal afterwards. For Israel, Egypt has been a place of great distress and misery, where the fire of the trial has been burned hot. Their liberation from that must have given a tremendous enlightenment.

God wants His people to serve and honor Him alone and in the way He indicates. Any relationship that His people have with something He has created in order to give honor to it which only He is entitled to is sin. It is a denial of the special relationship He has with this people and the special work by which He has made them His own people. God has said that they will be His own people, and now that has become reality.

The last words of Deuteronomy 4:20, “as today”, sound like an exclamation that underlines the relationship of the people to God. It sounds like the exclamation “and we are” of John that immediately follows what he has spoken about the love that “the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God” (1 John 3:1).

Verses 21-24

The Anger of the LORD

Before Moses continues to speak about the land to which they are on their way, he points for the third time to the anger of the LORD with him on their account (Deuteronomy 1:37; Deuteronomy 3:26). After what he has said about the danger of idolatry, he makes it clear that God’s consuming fire (Deuteronomy 4:24; Hebrews 12:29) will destroy every form of idolatry. He says that God cannot allow in our lives anything that has been consumed on the cross by the fire of His judgment. Nothing of the old nature or the flesh may be introduced into the worship service, for God was angry with the Lord Jesus on account of that.

For the third time, this chapter (Deuteronomy 4:23) warns to watch out for something (Deuteronomy 4:9; Deuteronomy 4:15). Here it is about not forgetting the covenant the LORD has made with them and the prohibition to make idols. The covenant determines the people in the special relationship in which God has placed the people to Himself. Idolatry is absolutely contrary to this and unacceptable. God cannot tolerate that. He is a jealous God, Who cannot possibly share the love of His people with others. He can’t bear it if His people don’t give all their love to Him alone. He has done everything for these people to expect their undivided love. He also has every right to punish any act of adultery of His beloved people.

Verses 25-28

Consequences of Idolatry

Moses points out the consequences for children and grandchildren if the people do fall into idolatry. Then follows a remarkable part, in which Moses announces as a prophet that the people will fail by committing idolatry. The result is that they will lose the land. They will die in it or be taken out. They want to serve the gods of other nations? Then they will come into the lands of the idols they have brought into their own land (Judges 10:14).

In Christianity it has been the same. By introducing idolatry, connecting to the world and introducing worldly elements into the worship service, the view of heavenly blessings has been lost. Where “the work of man’s hands” takes over the guidance of God’s Spirit in the church, death enters.

Things in which there is no life, things “which neither see nor hear nor eat nor smell”, are given a place in the service to God. Theological strongholds have taken over. Papers are asked for and not life. When diplomas become the basis for accessing a service to God, the blessings in Christ that are part of every born-again person are forgotten.

Verses 29-31

Repentance Brings the Promised Blessing

If the absence of spiritual, heavenly blessings is felt, the way to restoring to the enjoyment of the blessing is taken (Luke 15:17). When repentance of this ‘work of man’s hands’, in whatever form it may have gained access to the church, takes place the promised blessing can still or again be enjoyed.

God’s grace brings restoration. This applies to Israel later, in the future (Genesis 49:1). Undeservedly God works in their hearts to repentance. It also applies to the final phase of Christianity in which we find ourselves. God also wants Christians to work in their hearts now that they return to the blessings of the land. This means that they will again have an eye for the heavenly place and vocation of the church. In Christianity, this truth has largely been lost through the church’s involvement in, and even interwovenness with, earthly things, and by considering and presenting them as its very calling.

The truth of the letter to the Romans is the righteousness based on faith. In the history of Christianity, this truth has been rediscovered, from under the dust, in the Reformation. In our personal lives it may be necessary to rediscover this truth if in our Christian lives works become the basis through which we think we are accepted by God. With the influence of Roman Catholicism, this is indeed a matter to pay attention to.

The truth of the letter to the Ephesians and the contents of the letters of John go beyond what is taught us in the letter to the Romans about justification. In these letters God unfolds to His children truths that have to do with heaven, with eternal life, with Christ in heaven Who is the eternal life. This does not make Christians floating, but Christians who know where and how to live true life, and who bear witness to this in their earthly relations.

The way to that blessing is opened by a compassionate God Who calls us to listen to Him. We can count on His loyalty and call upon it.

Verses 32-40

Reason for Obedience

Moses does not tire of reminding the people of what God has done for them. He invites them to do research in the past and across the breadth of the earth if something similar has ever happened. They should check whether the scope of the event and its content can be found elsewhere. Is it not of unbeatable size that a people are brought to the heart of God? Isn’t it an unsuspecting content that God should speak out of the fire and that those to whom He addresses should remain alive? Is not the way in which He has made this people His own people far above all human thought? Surely such a thing can only come from the one, unique God Who cannot be compared to anyone, isn’t it (Deuteronomy 4:35; Deuteronomy 4:39; Deuteronomy 32:39; Isaiah 45:5; Isaiah 45:21)? And that God is their God!

The reason God has made them His people is His love for their fathers, and that He has chosen their descendants. Therefore He is so busy for them. Everything has gone forth from Him and continues to go forth from Him. He is the only One in heaven and on earth. It is besides folly also ungrateful to honor anything other than Him. Only when they – and we – see Him like this in all his love and grace, will the heart be humbled and broken to keep His statures and His commandments.

Verses 41-43

Cities of Refuge on the East Side of the Jordan

Suddenly Moses’ speech is interrupted by an action: the designation of three cities of refuge in the area of the wilderness side of the Jordan for the manslayer. The sin of idolatry that came to the attention in the previous section is not the only evil of Israel. The second great evil is that they became the manslayer of the Lord Jesus.

It is pure grace that God has brought His people back into the land after idolatry. It is also pure grace that God provides cities of refuge for the people for a manslayer. These two sins of Israel are also present in Christianity. We find them in introducing strange elements into worship service and the exclusion of the Lord Jesus. Such things mean a negation of His Person and His rights.

If we do not recognize His rights in our daily lives and in the meetings of the church, we are spiritually guilty of manslaughter. For us, the possession and enjoyment of the land means that we do not deny His Name (Revelation 3:8). But there is also a city of refuge for us. We find it in the truth of His Word. Back to the Lord, recognizing His Name, that is, His authority, means bowing before His Word.

These are the cities of refuge in the area of the wilderness side of the Jordan, so not yet in the land. It is about our life on earth before God, living in fellowship with Him. It is about the recognition of His rights in daily life. If, for whatever reason, we no longer acknowledge them and spiritually fall into idolatry and manslaughter, it is because we have forgotten what it means to be justified by faith. Then that must again have its meaning for us.

That meaning and life in accordance with it will return when we start reading God’s Word again and let God’s Spirit do His work in us. Then we discover again that the righteousness of God is the righteousness which is His own and which emanates from Him and which we have received through faith in the Lord Jesus. We will be safe in the city of refuge in experiencing the truth of the first verse of Rom 5 (Romans 5:1).

Verses 44-49

Where Moses Sets the Law Before the People

The final verses of Deuteronomy 4 are the introduction to Moses’ next speech. They describe the place where and the circumstances under which the testimonies, statutes and ordinances are given: in the plains of Moab, after the liberation from Egypt, the wilderness journey and the taking possession of the land of Sihon and Og. Their feet stand on conquered ground as they listen to Moses’ speech. Moses speaks from a position of victory. This must be a powerful motive for the people to follow up on what he has to say. The speech of Moses contains motives, encouragements and conditions to obey, necessary to give the blessing.

“The law” (Deuteronomy 4:44) is the general designation of God’s commandments and is further specified in the designations “testimonies”, “statutes” and “ordinances” in Deuteronomy 4:45.

Bibliographical Information
de Koning, Ger. Commentaar op Deuteronomy 4". "Kingcomments on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/kng/deuteronomy-4.html. 'Stichting Titus' / 'Stichting Uitgeverij Daniël', Zwolle, Nederland. 2021.
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