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Bible Commentaries

Thomas Coke Commentary on the Holy Bible

Deuteronomy 4

Introduction

CHAP. IV.

Moses exhorts the Israelites to obedience; prophesies their dispersion in case of disobedience; and appoints three cities of refuge on this side Jordan.

Before Christ 1451.

Verse 1

Ver. 1. Now therefore hearken, O Israel Having laid before them a long train of divine dispensations towards their nation, Moses now calls upon the whole assembly, in the most serious and solemn manner, to consider what influence these things ought to have upon their conduct; and exhorts them to strict obedience; to an exact observance of the statutes, i.e. the laws which concerned the worship of their God; and of the judgments, i.e. all the moral precepts of religion which have man for their object. That ye may live, evidently means, as the next clause shews, may enjoy national peace and prosperity, and not perish, as your fathers have done, in their rebellion. See ver. 3 and chap. Deuteronomy 13:1. Moses, says St. Paul, Rom 10:5 describeth the righteousness which is of the law, that the man who doeth these things shall live by them; and this life was a type of the eternal life which Jesus Christ hath merited for true faith, John 1:17. Romans 13:14; Romans 6:23.

Verse 2

Ver. 2. Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, &c.— The meaning of these words, is plainly to be learned from a similar passage, chap. Deuteronomy 12:32. What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it: In which words the intention of the divine law-giver plainly is, only to preclude the people from any additions or diminutions to the law, of their own heads, and without a divine commission: but they cannot be supposed at all to refer to whatever God might be pleased to do in this case by any future prophet whom he should commission. Calmet explains this passage as follows, understanding it as a prohibition against the vain traditions of men. "You shall not add any thing to that which the Lord hath forbidden; and ye shall not omit any thing of that which he hath commanded: you shall not give yourselves the liberty to interpret my precepts according to your own will; but shall pay an exact and precise observance to my law, without turning aside from it, and without forming any worship after your own inclination." Mr. Allix, observing with what exactness the Jews had always acknowledged the divinity of their law, adds, "nay, we see, not without wonder, that after the greatest part of the ten tribes of Israel were transported into Assyria, those who were sent from Assyria to inhabit their country [of Samaria] did receive that law, and that their posterity have kept it all along to this day, as uncorrupted as the Jews, although they continue their mortal enemies, and have been exposed to all the changes and revolutions that can befal a nation during the long interval of two thousand four hundred years." See Allix on the Scriptures, vol. 1: p. 144.

Verse 6

Ver. 6. This is your wisdom—in the sight of the nations See Psalms 2:10. In consequence of this, Herodotus, Diod. Siculus, and other heathen writers, who treat of the Jewish affairs, applaud their wisdom in adhering steadfastly to the institutions of their country, and rejecting all foreign rites; nay, the most ancient legislators have taken from them the greater part of their laws; witness the ancient Attic laws, and those of the twelve tables among the Romans. Hence the famous oracle, "that the Hebrews were the only wise people, because they honoured God, the eternal king, in all purity." The testimony of many Greek Writers, to the same purpose, will be found in Clem. Alex. Strom. I. and Euseb. Prep. Evang. lib. ix. cap. 10. See also Macrob. Saturnal. lib. i. c. 18. It would be a pleasing speculation, and one which would abundantly demonstrate the truth of what Moses advances in the next verses, to trace the original of the most ancient laws, and to shew how the greater part of them was derived from those of Moses. Houbigant very well observes upon this passage, "If, as some pretend, the laws of Moses had been formed upon the model of the neighbouring nations, how could these laws have been appealed to, as something new and unheard of, and worthy the admiration of those nations? It is evidently collected from these words, that if the laws of the nations bore any similitude with those of Moses, they must have copied from him, and not he from them."

Verse 8

Ver. 8. What nation is there so great, &c.— That which constitutes the principal glory of a nation, is a pure worship, sincerely offered to the true God, and a right administration of justice. Upon this principle, what nation was there so great as that of the Jews? For, though their country was but small, and they were often oppressed by enemies who desired their extirpation; yet they recovered themselves, and kept their laws in their worst condition, when, commonly, they best observed them: insomuch that, as a very learned person of the Church of England long ago observed, after so many changes and alterations as there were in their state, from better to worse, and back again; after so many victories gained by them over others, and so many captivities of their persons, and desolations of their country, as others had wrought;—they continued still one and the same people, governed by the same laws, under several great and potent monarchies; the successive rise and fall of three of which they were preserved to behold; and, in their declining state, were able to stand out a great while against a fourth, the mightiest that ever was on earth, and that, when this monarchy was in its full strength. This is a plain demonstration of the truth of these words of Moses, that no nation was so great as they. See Dr. Jackson on the Creed, Book I. chap. 21:

Verses 10-12

Ver. 10, 11, 12. Thou stoodest before the Lord thy God See on ch. Deuteronomy 1:9. Unto the midst of heaven, ver. 11 is, in the Heb. in the heart of heaven, i.e. in the air. So Tyre is said to be in the heart of the sea, Eze 28:2 and Jesus Christ in the heart of the earth, Matthew 12:40. Two things are expressed in the 12th verse; the first, that God, who could have manifested himself under a human form, or any other sensible representation, in giving the law, chose not to do so. The second, that he pronounced the words of this law, in a manner distinct, articulate, and intelligible to the whole assembly; whence the Israelites might naturally draw these two consequences; first, that God would be extremely offended, if they presumed to represent him under any visible form, as the heathens represented their false gods; and, secondly, that they could have no reason to run after idols, under the pretext of receiving verbal answers and oracles from them, since the eternal, though invisible, had given them his commandments in a living voice, and as intelligibly as it was possible. Nothing could be more worthy of the wisdom of God than these precautions. The reader will find some judicious remarks upon the subject in Abernethy's Sermons, serm. 4:

Verse 16

Ver. 16. Lest ye corrupt yourselves God having a just title to their highest love, and religious veneration, their suffering any object whatever to come in competition with him, was a corrupting of themselves; a depravation and perfidious alienation of their affections from that God, whose they were, and whom they were to serve. The Jews have so well understood the force of this exhortation, that, to this day, they found the third article of their Creed upon the immateriality of God. Indeed, we must acknowledge, that the most ancient legislators, and the wisest of the philosophers, agreed with Moses in condemning all representations of the Deity by any image or sensible object whatever. Among other excellent institutions of religion, Numa taught the Romans to abstain from all use of images in the worship of the gods; a doctrine, which he is said to have derived from Pythagoras, whom Clemens Alexandrinus alleges to have been beholden for it to Moses's writings. Porphyry, in the life of Pythagoras, tells us, that he had travelled into Judea, as well as into Egypt, in order to improve himself in wisdom and knowledge. But let us hear Plutarch on the subject: "Pythagoras," says he, "supposed that the Supreme Being was not an object of sense, or capable of any suffering or infirmity; but was incorruptible, invisible, and to be comprehended only by the mind. Numa forbad the Romans to represent God in the form of man or beast; nor was there any picture or statue of a deity admitted among them formerly: for, during the space of the first hundred and seventy years, they built temples, and erected chapels, but made no images, thinking that it was a great impiety to represent the most excellent Beings by things so base and unworthy; and that it was by the understanding only, that men could form any conception of the Deity." Life of Numa, p. 166. Similar hereto, and very strong upon the subject, is the following passage from Sophocles: "There is one God; there is in truth but one; who formed the heaven and the earth, the sea and air; but many of us mortals, wandering in the paths of error, have devised, for our own solace, various forms and divinities, made of stone or brass, of gold or ivory; and when we offer sacrifices to these, and celebrate public festivals in their honour, we would be thought religious." Their refined apprehension of the Deity made the ancient Persians reject, not only images, statues, and pictures, but also temples, altars, and sacrifices, conceiving them all to be unsuitable to the spiritual nature of the Supreme Being. See Herodot. lib. 2: cap. 131. The Phenicians too, in the earliest ages, were without images, as appears from the description of the temple which they had built to Hercules at Gades.

———Nulla effigies, simulachraque nota deorum, Majestate locum et sacro implevere timore. SIL. ITAL. lib. 3:
No representation or well known images of the gods filled the temple with majesty and sacred fear.
Tacitus tells us the same of the Germans, de Morib. German. c. ix. The learned reader will find a variety of passages to the same purpose in Grotius and Le Clerc, to whom we are indebted for the above collection; and the latter of whom observes, that all these, in his opinion, are the remains of that religion which Noah taught his children, and which was propagated by them over the earth. So that Moses herein seems not so much to have founded a new institution, as to have revived the old, which had been corrupted: an opinion, the reader will recollect, which we have endeavoured to support throughout this comment. It should, however, be observed, that though these sound notions of religion were early found among some of the wisest, a general corruption soon ensued, and the most debasing ideas of the Deity generally prevailed.

Verses 17-19

Ver. 17-19. The likeness of any beast that is on the earth, &c.— It is justly observed by Dr. Chandler, in his Vindication, p. 480 that this is the very picture of Egypt, which had gods of all sorts; dead persons deified, male and female, and numerous images of them; and which worshipped as deities, bulls, cows, sheep, goats, dogs, cats, birds, the ibis and hawk, serpents, crocodiles, river-horses, together with the sun, moon, and stars of heaven; and, therefore, Moses adds, ver. 20 but the Lord hath taken, and brought you forth out of the iron furnace, even out of Egypt, to be unto him a people of inheritance, as ye are this day: plainly intimating their redemption from these Egyptian idolatries to be the establishment of a peculiar kingdom to himself. And, in truth, that worship of almost all sorts of brute beasts, birds, fishes, reptiles, was so horribly absurd and stupid, that it could never enter into the heart of a legislator to forbid it, unless he had been himself a witness to these mean and monstrous absurdities. See Exodus 20:4. Concerning these false gods of Egypt, we refer the reader to the incomparable Pantheon of Egypt by Jablonski.

Verse 19

Ver. 19. Which the Lord thy God hath divided, &c.— i.e. Distributed, or imparted. The force of the argument is this: as Jehovah, the true God, whom you adore, has dispensed to all nations under heaven the benefit of the sun, moon, and stars, which he has created; you ought therefore to worship him alone, who is the Lord of them all, and has made them ministers to the sons of men. Nothing can be more reasonable than this inference, that we are not made for the sun, but the sun for us; it is not the luminary itself that we ought to worship, but God, who created it for our use. But the nations, struck with the visible splendour of the heavenly bodies, and with the sensible benefit which they derived from them, stopped short in the blind admiration of their beautiful appearance, instead of turning their attentive minds to the adoration of that invisible Intelligence by whom they were created. See book of Wisd. chap. 13: The worship of the sun and planets was, in all probability, the first and leading instance of idolatry, and in use, no doubt, long before the time of Moses, See chap. Deuteronomy 17:3. But on this subject, we refer to Young on the Rise and Progress of Idolatry, Maimonides, de Idol. lib. 1: sect. 3 and Prideaux's Connection, vol. 1 b. 3: p. 177.

See commentary on Deu 4:17

Verse 20

Ver. 20. Iron furnace The same phrase is used, 1Ki 8:51 and Jer 11:4 to express the most cruel servitude, wherein God suffered them to be tried, like metals in a furnace of iron. Moses, in the next verse, repeats again, though he had mentioned it twice before, that the Lord was angry with him; which not only shews how near it went to his heart, but, at the same time, admonished them, that if the principal head of their nation, and a person so peculiarly favoured by God, was debarred from so desirable a blessing for a single offence; what must they expect, if revolting from the religion of a God so jealous of his honour, and so fearful in power.

Verse 24

Ver. 24. For the Lord thy God is a consuming fire That is, inflexibly just in punishing the contemners of his law; and who, from the rectitude of his nature, will be as far from letting moral evil pass with impunity, as fire is from not consuming its proper fuel. The same metaphor is used, (chap. Deuteronomy 9:3.) to express the awful and speedy vengeance which the providence of God was to take upon the idolatrous Canaanites. In this place it alludes to the awful appearance of the divine glory when the law was given from mount Sinai. Bishop Huet conjectures, that the ancient Persians took occasion from these words to worship the fire; at first as the image, or, to use Maximus Tyrius's expression, (Dissert. 38. p. 397.) as the symbol of the Divinity, and afterwards as the Divinity himself. It is also very probable, that divers traces in the fabulous history of Bacchus have been derived from an ignorant tradition of these particulars. The cry used by the Bacchanals was composed of two words, each of which, as Bochart observes, signifies fire. See his Canaan, lib. i. c. 18.

Verse 26

Ver. 26. I call heaven and earth to witness against you These expressions, says Calmet, are lively and animated. Moses again addresses the heaven and the earth, in the sacred song which he delivers before his death, ch. Deuteronomy 32:1. Here he in a manner conjures them, by all that is most respectable both in heaven and earth, not to incur those evils which await their disobedience. The best heathen writers make use of this mode of expression. See Virg. AEn. 12: ver. 176. 201. Esto nunc sol testis, & haec mihi terra precanti, &c.

Verses 27-29

Ver. 27-29. And the Lord shall scatter you, &c.— See the notes on ch. 28: and 30: When it is said of the idols, in ver. 28 that they neither see nor hear, &c. the sacred writer intends only to represent the gross stupidity of the heathens, who paid adoration to things which had neither intelligence nor sense; to mere statues, which were so far from having any just title to religious worship, that they had less perfection than even the makers of them. See the fine passages referred to in the margin.

Verse 33

Ver. 33. Did ever people hear, &c.— Three prodigies are pointed out in this verse: 1st, God speaking with a distinct and articulate voice. 2nd, Out of the midst of fire. And, 3rdly, Without any person's dying. See R. Isaac Munimentum Fidei, apud Wagenseil. p. 103.

Verse 34

Ver. 34. Hath God assayed, &c.— Another prodigy; that God, by the ministry of two men like Moses and Aaron, should deliver his people from the midst of a nation so powerful as the Egyptians. This might be rendered, more properly, perhaps, Or who besides God hath assayed? or, hath any god assayed? because the expression, hath God assayed, sounds somewhat harsh, when applied to the true God, who never assays to do, but actually does whatever he pleases. In what follows of this verse, Moses attributes the deliverance of the Israelites to seven different means employed by God: these were, 1st, Temptations; or, as Onkelos renders it, miracles, by which God used to try, or to endeavour to bend to his obedience the Egyptians, as well as the Israelites. Indeed, the word miracles, with the two following, which we may render signs and prodigies, are found joined together in more than one place of the New Testament, Acts 2:22. Heb 2:4. 2 Corinthians 12:12; 2 Corinthians 12:21. Houbigant understands by temptations, the adversities, in general, which the Israelites experienced both in Egypt and in the desart, and which were the trials whereby God proved the faith of his people. 2nd, Signs, mentioned Exo 9:3 rdly, Wonders, or prodigies, by which we may particularly understand the ten plagues of Egypt. 4thly, War; see Exodus 14:27; Exo 28:5 thly, A mighty hand: not by the wiles and stratagems of war, but by a force superior to another, Exo 6:6 thly, A stretched-out arm, Exo 6:6 by redoubled strokes, or by the hand of the destroying angel. 7thly, Great terrors; such as he spread over the souls of the greater part of the enemies of his people, Exodus 9:20; Exodus 10:7; Exodus 12:30.

Verse 36

Ver. 36. Out of heaven he made thee to hear,—and upon earth he shewed thee God is said to dwell in light inaccessible, and full of glory: i.e. his throne is encompassed with such splendours, as would be insufferable to mortals, though they constitute a part of the glorious beatific vision of the celestial inhabitants. Now Moses here puts the Israelites in mind, that God had vouchsafed to communicate to them somewhat of this happiness, shewing them even upon earth his great or wonderful fire; some rays or glimpses of that transcendant brightness with which he is said to clothe himself, and which shines out in all its glory to the angels and saints in light.

We must not wonder that mention is so frequently made of their deliverance from Egypt; for this was the highest national benefit, and in some sort the basis and commencement of their republic.

Verse 37

Ver. 37. Because he loved thy fathers The Jews have, with great arrogance, piqued themselves on being the favourites of the Deity, on account of their separation; and infidels have made use of their boast, to argue against the justice of their separation, representing it as inconsistent with the attributes of the Deity: for, indeed, to pretend that the Israelites were chosen as favourites, is both unjust and absurd. Their separation was not made peculiarly for their own sakes, but for the sake of mankind in general, though one people became the honoured instrument, in reward of their forefathers' virtues. And this is the language of those very Scriptures, which, as they pretend, furnish the objection. Where God, by the prophet Ezekiel, promises to restore the Israelites, after a short dispersion through the countries, to their own land, he declares this to be the end of their separation, Ezekiel 36:22-23. What God himself says of the people, St. Paul says of the law, Galatians 3:19. It was added, says the apostle, to what? to the patriarchal religion of the Unity: to what end? because of transgressions; i.e. the transgressions of polytheism and idolatry, into which the rest of mankind were already absorbed, and the Jews at that time hastening apace; and from which there was no other means of restraining them, than by this addition: an addition which kept them separate from all others, and preserved the doctrine of the Unity, till the coming of the promised seed. Div. Leg. b. 5: sect. 1: p. 4.

In his sight Or, By his presence.

REFLECTIONS.—The review of God's providences towards Israel is here earnestly applied, as an argument for their fidelity and obedience, with the most solemn charge to enforce it upon their consciences.

Moses begins with commanding deep and serious attention to so awful a subject. The word of God can never be heard with sufficient reverence and godly fear. It is the character of the man to whom God will look, that he trembleth at his word. 1. Moses charges them with careful preservation of the sacred trust committed to them. They must hear God's word, that they may keep it, obey the precepts, observe the ordinances, and judge according to the laws prescribed: and herein they cannot be too solicitously careful, when compassed with temptations, a deceitful heart within, and an ensnaring world without, against which all their watchfulness, diligence, and prayer would be but enough. Note; This charge is equally applicable to ourselves: we owe a like scrupulous attention to God's word, and need the same diligence to keep our hearts, and to walk before God in his holy ways. 2. A particular caution is given them against idolatry. They must make no representation of God in any form, by image or picture. They saw no likeness of any thing in Horeb; nor can any similitude be conceived of him who is a spirit, and will have those who worship him, to worship him in spirit and in truth. The nations around them worshipped the hosts of heaven; but they must abhor the thought of giving that honour to the creature, which was due only to the Creator: the sun, moon, and stars, might tempt their eye; and examples of others be apt to ensnare them; but how absurd, as well as impious, were it to worship that which was made to serve us? They are the works of God; and, whatever glory they possess, the praise is due to him alone. What a mercy to be delivered from blind idolatry! While we pity those who worship the visible luminaries of heaven, may every view of them lead up our hearts in adoration to him who formed them! 3. They are not only to take heed to themselves, but to teach their children. Parents have an awful trust reposed in them, to instruct their children in the knowledge of God's ways, and to lead them by precept and example to walk therein. 4. He repeats his warning, not to forget the covenant of the Lord; assured, that if they bore in mind the riches of the promises therein made, and the faithfulness of God engaged for their fulfilment, then nothing would ever be able to shake their constancy and fidelity. Note; A constant remembrance of God's covenant is the most quickening means to our diligent obedience.

Moses supports this charge with the most forcible arguments, for, to be godly in Christ Jesus, is the most reasonable service imaginable. 1. He urges the benefit of their obedience, and the danger of rebellion. They would be unspeakable gainers by the one, and as great losers by the other. Note; Interest, as well as duty, is on the side of religion. 2. He mentions their relation to God, as their own and their fathers' God, with the obligations thence resulting to serve and obey him. Note; If God be our God, it is highly reasonable that we should approve ourselves his faithful people. 3. He pleads the wisdom of such fidelity: it is most agreeable to reason, as well as most conducive to their own happiness; and could not but procure them the respect and admiration of the nations around them. Religion is the truest wisdom, and even those who reject it themselves, stand in awe of it, and reverence it in others. 4. He enforces their duty, by the privileges they enjoyed. [1.] As being near to God, and having his ears open to hear and grant every request. Note; (1.) God's Israel are a praying people; a prayerless soul is truly heathenish. (2.) None wait upon him in faith, who go without an answer of peace. [2.] As being possessed of a code of laws so excellent and equitable in themselves, so conducive to promote personal and national security and felicity. [3.] As having heard God himself speaking to them from the midst of the fire; a singular favour, of which no other nation could boast. We now no more hear this audible voice, but we have his gentler and sweeter call in the written word; and this voice, whosoever is of the truth receives with delight, and obeys in simplicity. [4.] As having experienced such singular mercies in their deliverance from Egypt, and in all the wonders they had seen in the wilderness, and having still greater mercies in prospect. Nothing is so powerful to engage the heart, as a deep and grateful sense of God's goodness to us. [5.] Moses urges the glorious character of God. (1.) He is a jealous God, and a consuming fire; his eye keen to discern, and his arm strong to punish every disobedience. We need be jealous over ourselves therefore, lest we provoke that wrath, which, if it be kindled against us, will burn to the nethermost hell. (2.) He is a merciful God; and since he will not forsake us, we ought never to leave or forsake him. (3.) He is the only true God; besides him, there is no other. In heaven he makes the bright displays of his radiant glory; and earth is the footstool of his throne, and not beneath his care and government. To him, therefore, are we bound to submit, and him only to serve. [6.] The fatal consequences of apostacy from God, are strongly pressed upon them. They should be utterly destroyed, scattered among the nations, and given up to the vilest service of idols. Note; The sin by which we have provoked God, he may in just judgment give us up to as our punishment. [7.] Yet there is a reserve of mercy promised, whenever they sought God, humbled under his chastisements. Wherever they may be, in whatever corner of the earth dispersed, if they cry unto God in their misery, he will hear them, for the sake of the covenant he made with their fathers, and recover them. When our state is ever so bad, it is still a mercy that it is not utterly desperate. Note; (1.) The chief end of afflictions is to bring us to God. (2.) Whenever we seek God in simplicity, however we have before provoked him, he will not utterly forsake us. (3.) His covenant in Christ affords us ground to be assured that he will never cast out those who come to him in this Son of his Love.

Verse 41

Ver. 41. Then Moses severed three cities After the foregoing exhortation, the two conquered countries being now ready to be disposed of to the two tribes and a half, according to agreement, Moses set apart the three cities of refuge, which were to be taken out of them. See Numbers 35:11.

Verse 48

Ver. 48. Even unto mount Sion, which is Hermon See ch. Deuteronomy 3:9. The mountain of Hermon is probably called Sion, by an abbreviation of Sirion. We must take care not to confound this with that mount Sion which was on the other side of Jordan, and in after-times the royal seat of David. In the Syriac version we read Sirion; and possibly this is a mere fault of the copyists. Benjamin of Tudela, in his Itinerary, says, that Jordan is called, at Tiberias, the sea of Gennesareth; and that coming from thence, with a great force, it falls at the foot of this hill into the sea of Sodom, which is called the Salt Sea. This account perfectly agrees with Moses's description in the next verse.

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Bibliographical Information
Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 4". Thomas Coke Commentary on the Holy Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tcc/deuteronomy-4.html. 1801-1803.