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Bible Commentaries

The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Deuteronomy 18

 

 

Verses 1-22

The Predicted Prophet

Deuteronomy 18:15-22

A wonderful desire is this—no marvel that it elicited divine commendation:—

"Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God, neither let me see this great fire any more, that I die not" ( Deuteronomy 18:16).

On hearing these words the Lord himself said,—

"They have well spoken that which they have spoken" ( Deuteronomy 18:17).

The divinity that is in a man seems to lie a long way down. Great circumstances are required really to rouse a man that he may see for a moment himself. It needed Sinai to make the people of Israel know that God could not be known. When God thundered upon them and spoke to them as it were face to face they begged that the interview might close. The very thing we desire is the very thing we could not endure- Why do we not learn from history, and draw wise conclusions from events within our own knowledge? But for the clouds, and the atmosphere, we could not bear the very sun without whose light and warmth we die. We seem to owe the sun to the very atmosphere that attempers his shining. It would occur to us that if God would speak directly from his throne all mankind with one consent would say, "The Lord he is God." That experiment has been tried; and the very people who might be presumed to have required it were the people who prayed that it might be concluded; they prayed that there might be no repetition; to have come so near to God was to have come too near in their then condition of mind and heart. All our plans have been tried, and they have failed. Some of the most obvious plans have been pronounced unwise, unnecessary, or fruitless. Once a man prayed a prayer to which many might have said Amen; but he was told from heaven that he was wrong. His idea was that if one rose from the dead his brethren, five in number, would repent; but he only saw part of the case. We see points, not lines; roofs of our own building and decorating, not skies arched and lighted by Deity. The Voice replied in effect,—Your plan seems to be natural and good; in reality it is worthless for all practical purposes: "If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rose from the dead." We cannot amend God"s way of coming to us; he made us, and not we ourselves: he knows what we can bear; his revelation in all its method and scope is not the least proof of his lovingkindness and tender mercy. Our own plans we should be the first to wish to have forgotten. We are called to acceptance, obedience, acquiescence with the divine will,—to say all prayers in one prayer: "Not my will, but thine, be done." How God seems to be pleased when we say anything that is really in the soul of it along the lines of his own thought and purpose! We speak so many foolish words in his hearing, and do so many unwise deeds under his observation, that when we do touch the right chord the vibration is answered in heaven: when we do happen to speak the wise word in the right tone God himself descends upon us and leaves a new benediction. "They have well spoken that which they have spoken;"—they do not know how wise they have been. This is inspiration in its practical expression—to come to right conclusions regarding divine disclosure, divine approach to the soul, to have a right distance set between man and God. In such a temper God can deal with us, and enrich us largely with noble and unimagined riches. The prophet who can do us good must be akin to us:

"I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee" ( Deuteronomy 18:18).

A beautiful word is the "like unto." It is a word frequently used in the New Testament by the predicted Prophet himself. We have been educated by analogies, examples, and pictorial representations of things. "Like unto"—then Moses was the analogy. Solomon likened his loved one to a company of horses in Pharaoh"s chariot. Jesus Christ likened the kingdom of heaven unto a thousand things beautiful, vital, poetical, apocalyptic,—things whose history was known and yet whose issues were immeasurable. So it must be in every degree. The teacher must be akin to the scholar or no good will be done—evidently not, if only on the ground that the language which is spoken by the teacher is not known to the wonder-struck scholar who listens to him with amazement and partial stupefaction. There are many languages within the bounds of the same language. All words are not the same words, even though they belong to a common tongue; moreover, the meaning is often in the emphasis, not in the word, the word being a mere convenience or starting-point—something on which the soul strikes its thought into accent and expression, which must be done in a moment or the whole idea is lost. Words are tormentors. Words are the occasion, as also the cause, of endless controversy. No two men pronounce the same word exactly alike in the ear of God. Tone holds meaning; the revelation is in the emphasis; and except we speak a common language, in the spiritual sense, there will be no increase of intellectual light or moral understanding, how eloquent soever may be the exposition of the unknown prophet. The scholars must exclaim, "How hear we every man in his own tongue, wherein we were born... the wonderful works of God?" This is the secret of the masonry between the teacher and the scholar: the one understands the other. The teacher can afford to be elliptical, because he knows the acuteness and the sympathy of the scholars to whom he is speaking: they can fill in all the vacant spaces: they know exactly the words which the speaker himself would have chosen but for pressure of time; so the lesson, though short is long, though brief as to words is endless as to suggestion. The teacher of the highest truths must speak in the language of sympathy. It is probably of no consequence in what tone a man expounds the physical sciences: they are not resentful in this matter of vocal expression: they will permit rudeness and violence of tone; the teacher need not study the music of expression in endeavouring to make clear some geometrical problem; but Christ must be preached in Christ"s own tone. The wise teacher will spend, if need be, days in trying to find out how to say: "Our Father, which art in heaven;" or "God is love;" or "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." Words like these might be spoiled by the speaker; such heavens might be robbed of all their stars by a felonious interpreter of the higher things. We read: "The Lord God hath given me the tongue of the learned, that I should know how to speak a word in season to him that is weary." But the word surely would be there whether the tongue was learned or unlearned? In a narrow sense that is true: the word is there, composed of so many syllables and so many letters; but there must be a soul of its own quality to repeat the syllables, to give the letters force, to turn the printing into music, and by subtle persuasion tempt the soul to receive the celestial solace. God must, therefore, give not only the word but the tongue; and the true learning is in sympathy, kinship, unity of mind, and that peculiar knowledge of human nature which if it be not born in a man never can be put into him;—this is the gift of God.

Israel prayed that some other method of communication might be established between heaven and earth, saying,—Do not repeat this awful process, "that I die not:" let the life be spared. I can hear nothing—says the soul—because the thunder is so loud, and there is nothing in thunder to hear. At the great torrent of Niagara the one thing you cannot get is a draught of water. The traveller could quench his fiery thirst at a cool spring or a gentle stream, and lift up his head and be glad with religious thankfulness; but who dare, in the very agony of thirst, approach that infinite cascade? So God must not come to us in great thunder-bursts and torrents: he must not plead with us with his great power; he must conceal himself, dwarf himself, unmake himself in a sense known to the soul but difficult to explain in words; he must humble himself and take upon himself the form of a servant, and become obedient unto death;—in this quiet way, in this gracious approach, we make vital acquaintance with God. We do not know what we owe to quiet influences and to almost silent ministries. When the prodigal son—not the vulgar criminal, but the prodigal son who has been wasting his life in any way you please—goes back to his mother—not his father, but his mother Nature—the alma mater, the loving mother,—all she wants him to do is to lie upon some sunny height, and think nothing, plan nothing, and release himself from the torment of his own genius and inventiveness, not to say anxiety and memory: she says—Poor prodigal, all you have to do is to do nothing: I will do it all; lay your weary head down on some grassy knoll and have no mind: dismiss your great intellectual self and be a little child in your mother"s house. Then with soft breezes and summer light and the ministry of birds far away yet near at hand, she will seem to be doing nothing, yet all the while she is pouring life-blood into the wasted one. Presently he will look around and feel himself a giant refreshed; and he who thought he was spent feels the old spirit stirring within him, saying,—I must be back to the city, to the scene of legitimate strife, the places where the prizes are won; my old mother has had me in her lap and has nursed me into thankfulness. They never recover who cannot do everything by doing nothing: they are diseased with the spirit of superfluous energy; they are overweighted with the demon of fussiness; they cannot lie down absolutely and say,—Mother Nature, I have sinned against Heaven and in thy sight, by sitting up too long, by wearing out my poor energies; I have almost committed suicide, and I have struggled home: now I am going to say nothing and do nothing but lie down here, and I know you will not let me die. What profit we might attain in the house of God if we could leave our genius outside—our cleverness, our theological prejudices, our mental sharpness, and say to the living God,—"A guilty, weak, and helpless worm, on thy kind arms I fall!" Then the sweet music, and the nobler music of the read word, and the tender prayer, and the exposition, alight with so many glories, would all combine to renew our youth, and after the service we should mount up with wings as eagles, and ask the runner to compete with us, and walk down the young man in the pride of strength. Thus God teaches us by gentle prophecies, by apparently undemonstrative ministries—above all by One whose voice was not heard in the street, who did not lift up nor cry, nor cause his voice to be herd more than was really necessary, who adapted the thunder of his infinity to the weakness of our mortality. We should do more if we did less. We do not come to hear the prophet for the purpose of entering into disputation with him, but for the purpose of receiving streams of vitality, without name, without measure, too subtle for analysis, too delicate and divine for controversy. Thus, we must come to God"s Book. If we come to it merely as literalists and critics it can be as silent as speechlessness itself; if we come with the broken heart it will heal our diseases.

If the prophet is not hearkened to, penalty will follow:—

"And it shall come to pass, that whosoever will not hearken unto my words which he shall speak in my name, I will require it of him" ( Deuteronomy 18:19).

An opportunity of reading the Bible is an opportunity of increasing manhood. The hearing of any vital exposition of God"s Book creates a responsibility in the life of the hearer which is absolutely immeasurable. If the people will not hearken unto the divine word spoken in the divine Name their not hearing shall be accounted an aggravation, an offence, and a sin. This must be so philosophically as well as morally. To have been near a great teacher is to have been close to an open gate, the entrance of which would have brought one into a kind of paradise; but to have been near a great teacher sent from God, and not to have observed him or profited by him or blessed him in the name of the Lord, is to have gone down in the volume and in the quality of manhood. Do not imagine that men can despise the Bible and be as good as ever. To scorn the divine is to lose the human. Not to pray nobly is to live narrowly. We do not only offend God by our impiety, we wrong our own soul.

The false prophet was to be known by the thing not coming to pass which he spake ( Deuteronomy 18:22). That is a right test; that is a proper standard. If the proof is not in the result there is no proof. If the wicked man be really and truly happy in his soul the Bible is a falsehood. If vice can create heaven—the heaven of purity, innocence, and the rest which comes of harmony—then the Gospel is an exaggeration and a pretence. Let everything be judged by the result. Christ himself said so: judge the tree by its fruit. He would have no praise of the tree; he will not have himself spoken of merely from a horticultural point of view, nor will he have his people described as trees only—large trees, noble in height, umbrageous, the refuge of singing birds, beautiful in leafage: such compliments are hateful to him: "Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit." The Bible is thus the most rational of all books as to its judgments. The issue is plain and clear. If the thing the prophet says—meaning by prophet a teacher sent from God—does not come true, then he has not spoken the words God told him to speak. Christianity must lay claim to this same standard: she must consent to be judged, not by her metaphysics but by her beneficence; not because she has a theory of the Godhead, but because she can redeem humanity.

Selected Note

Deuteronomy 19:1-13.—Moses set apart out of the sacerdotal cities six as "cities of refuge." There were, on the eastern side of the Jordan, three, namely, "Bezer in the wilderness, in the plain country of the Reubenites, and Ramoth in Gilead of the Gadites, and Golan in Bashan of the Manassites" ( Deuteronomy 4:43); on the western side three, namely, "Kedesh in Galilee in Mount Naphtali, and Shechem in Mount Ephraim, and Kirjath-arba, which is Hebron, in the mountain of Judah" ( Joshua 20:7). If found desirable then other cities might be added. To any of these cities a person who had unawares and unintentionally slain any one might flee, and if he reached it before he was overtaken by the avenger of blood, he was safe within its shelter, provided he did not remove more than a thousand yards ( Numbers 35:5) from its circuit, nor quit the refuge till the decease of the high-priest under whom the homicide had taken place. If, however, he transgressed these provisions, the avenger might lawfully put him to death. The roads leading to the cities of refuge were to be kept in good repair. Before, however, the fugitive could avail himself of the shelter conceded by the laws, he was to undergo a solemn trial, and make it appear to the satisfaction of the magistrates of the place where the homicide was committed that it was purely accidental. Should Hebrews , however, be found to have been guilty of murder, he was delivered "into the hand of the avenger of blood, that he might die."

And the Israelites were strictly forbidden to spare him either from considerations of pity or in consequence of any pecuniary ransom. This disallowal of a compensation by money in the case of murder shows a just regard for human life, and appears much to the advantage of the Hebrew legislation when compared with the practice of other countries (Athens, for instance, and Islam), in which pecuniary atonements were allowed, if not encouraged, and where, in consequence, the life of the poor must have been in as great jeopardy as the character of the wealthy.

Prayer

Almighty God, who can find out the meaning of thy word? It is exceeding broad. Thy word is quick and powerful, sharper than any two-edged sword; it hurts us whilst we read it, but it kills that it may make alive again. Thy word is full of gentleness, though so severe. If thou hast torn us, thou wilt heal us; if thou hast rent us, thou wilt bind us up again: in a day or two all will be well: the wound will be healed and the pain will be forgotten. Thou dost give life: thou art the God of immortality; thou healest disease; thou hast written thy condemnation upon death; thou lovest health and life and growth and all beauty and fruitfulness;—towards the creation of these all thy ministries tend: we would be found within the sphere of their operation; we would obediently submit ourselves unto their requirements and laws, that, being brought into the harmony of thy movement, we might respond to thy word with delight and turn thy statutes into songs. But who can do this for us? Is not Jesus Christ thy Son able to work even this miracle? We now pray that the miracle may be accomplished. Lord, that we might see! Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make us clean! Jesus Christ, Son of David, have mercy on us! Other men have passed by and paid no heed to us: they could not touch our inmost complaint; but thou art almighty: the key of the house of David is upon thy shoulder: thou hast all power and all grace, and thy love will accomplish our redemption. We bless thee that there is no case beyond thy reach. Thou knowest altogether what we are and what we need, and fulness of provision has been made in the Gospel: the Cross of Christ healeth the diseases of the soul. We return to the Saviour. We have gone after other leaders, and they have led us into the ditch, for we were both blind; but now we come to Jesus Christ again and again, and he is gracious enough to forgive our wanderings and receive us home. We would that thy word might be made plain to us, that we might see somewhat at least of its meaning and feel its unction and acknowledge its power. Thy word is truth. Truth will touch our life at every point, granting unto our necessity an answer of fulness, to our pain an answer of ease, to our desire an answer of contentment. Lead us into all truth—the infinite palace of God, the inner universe towards which all other things point in wonder and with delight. Pity us in our weaknesses, and count them not against us in the judgment. Thou wilt not pity our sin, but thou wilt pity the sinner; and as for our sin, what is it compared with thy grace? Where sin aboundeth grace much more aboundeth, pouring itself in ocean fulness over all the marks of the wrong-doer. Help us to live our few remaining days well: we will be gone to-morrow, and the day after is the judgment; we walk along the brink over which we must presently slip: we are seen a moment, yet in a little while we are not seen—but with the eyes of recollection.

May we work while it is called day, for the night cometh wherein no man can work. We are not needful to thee. Thou dost take us away, and behold the world is not aware that we have been removed. Thou dost so teach us not to rely upon one another, but to live and move and have our being in thyself. Thou art the same, and thy years fail not: amid all rising, flourishing, and dying thou lookest on in eternal youth. Regard our loved ones; if they will not make prayers for themselves, Jesus, our Intercessor, will surely pray for them, and they will receive replies without having offered requests. Thou doest exceeding abundantly above not only what we ask but what we think: our thought is left below, and the fountains of thy grace are opened in the skies, and great rains of blessing are poured out upon the thirst of life. Hear us in these things. Hear us for the land we love, for the throne to which we are bound, for all the institutions that represent the highest thought and best ambition of life; and overrule all things to the inbringing of the kingdom which is all purity and sunshine and music. Amen.

 


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Bibliography Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 18:4". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/jpb/deuteronomy-18.html. 1885-95.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, October 23rd, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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