5 things I have learnt from the book of Deuteronomy

As a part of my Bible reading throughout 2020, I am highlighting 5 things from the books of the Bible that have stood out to me and taught me.

Here are 5 things I have learnt from the book of Deuteronomy.

The Uses of the Law

The book of Dueteronomy is all about the law. ‘Deuteronomy’ is made up of a combination of two Greek word: ‘deuteros‘ which means ‘second’ or ‘the other’ and ‘nomos‘ meaning ‘law’. Thus, Deuteronomy is ‘the second law’ or ‘the other law’.

The book of Dueteronomy, then, revolves around God’s law. Historic Protestantism in general, and Reformed Theology in particular (c.f. WCF 19.6, for example), have traditionally recognised three primary uses of God’s law as revealed to His people. Each of these three uses are seen, at least in archetypal form, in the book of the Deuteronomy.

The first recognised use of the law is that of a mirror. Using the law as a mirror will reflect two things. First, the law shows us the perfect righteousness of God. In God’s law, His holiness is on display.

“And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?” (Deuteronomy 4:8)

“The Rock, his work is perfect
for all his ways are justice.
A God of faithfulness and without iniquity,
just and upright is he.” (Deuteronomy 32:4)

God law is shown to be free from sin and to uphold justice. His law is a complete reflection of His goodness, righteousness, and justice. To fully understand what God’s law says is right and wrong is to glimpse what God has deemed good according to His very nature.

Secondly, in contrast to God’s righteousness, the law reflects to us our own sinfulness and inadequacy under the law. Who can read the laws given in Deuteronomy 5 and honestly claim to have kept them all? Or, indeed, any of them? As Paul says, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” (Romans 3:20) In other words, without the law, we would not know what sin is. The law shows us a reflection of our transgressions before a holy God. To fully understand what God’s law says is right and wrong is also to have our own sin reflected back at us.

The law has a second function, in addition to being a mirror to reflect the righteousness of God and sinfulness of man. The law also serves a civic duty to restrain the evil in the hearts of mankind. In this, the law is a blessing of common grace. Althought the law cannot change hearts, it can at least restrict the behaviour of sinners, and even protect the righteous from the deeds of the evil. One use of the law was to keep an orderly society in Israel and a measure of safety granted to law – abiding citizens. The civil punishments for breaking the laws in Deuteronomy highlight this use of the law to deter otherwise malicious hearts.

Finally, the third function of the law is to instruct God’s people into the good works that please God. As Christians, we strive to keep the law (where it is applicable to us). We do this, not earn God’s pardon for past, or even future, mistakes but because we, out of a response of love and gratitude to God, wish to please Him. God’s law shows us how to do this because it has revealed what is right and pleasing to a holy God. Never more obvious is this than in the book of Deuteronomy. God makes the adherence to the law a source of blessing or favour from Him. Many times in the book of Detueronomy does God much blessing He will bestow upon Israel if they were only to keep His law. For example,

“You shall walk in all the way that the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you shall possess.” (Deuteronomy 5:33)

God tells Israel that keeping the law are good works that please Him with such promises. In this same vein, Jesus said “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15). In this passage, Jesus was clearly speaking of the third use of the law. Similarly in Deuteronomy, Israel’s knowledge of good works before God stemmed directly out of their knowledge of God’s statutes and laws.

The Necessity of Passing on the Faith

Possibly the conerstone of the book of Deuteronomy (and perhaps of all Jewish life) is the Shema from Deuteronomy 6:4:

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.”

This is the great central monotheistic confession and affirmation of Israel. In a sense, the culture of Israel was built this confession and the commandment immediately after it You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:5); the very words Jesus quotes as being ‘the greatest commandment’ (Mark 12:28) to the Sadducees. In a sense, it is simply a summary the first four commandments (the first table of the law) as given in Deuteronomy 5:6-15. Yet, the Shema was to have an imporant place in the life of Israel. In order to keep this most important commandment and confession at the centre of the life of Israel, God went on to say:

“And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:6 – 9)

In other words, it belief in the one God of Israel and the worship of Him with all heart, soul, and might is to become the identity of the Israelites. It was to be the life – blood of the culture that they were to pass down to the next generation, bringing their children up in knowledge of this God. Reminders were to be put everywhere in the home of the God whom they were to worship with everything they had. It was even to make the very dwelling places in which they lived (c.f. Joshua 24:15).

As a consequence, in contrast to the secular message of today, the Israelites valued the instruction of their children in the way of the Lord to be of the highest importance. To bring your child up in they way they should go and to honour the Lord was a virtue, not a vice. It was essential education from the very earliest age.

Nothing was more important to them, nor should be more important to us, to bring our children up in the knowledge and right worship of the one true God.

God’s Blessings for Obedience

Over and over and over again in the book of Deuteronomy, God says to Israel to keep His commandments so that they will prosper in the promised land. For example, Deuteronomy 4:40:

“Therefore you shall keep his statutes and his commandments, which I command you today, that it may go well with you and with your children after you, and that you may prolong your days in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for all time.”

This same exhortation is given countless times in Deuteronomy. It serves us as a remind of the blessings we receive from God. Obviously, there is a historical and contextual difference between the time in which we are now living and the one in which the Israelites in Deuteronomy were living. We can’t simply apply God’s promise to them as a promise to us and say ‘If I obey God, therefore I will receive these physical blessings.’ as that promise has not been made to us.

However, there is a spiritual reality to this physical picture that God is giving. Whilst our obedience to His law is not a way to receive material blessing from God, we do know that He spiritually blesses us.

Firstly, it helps grow our sanctification as we are conformed by God the Holy Spirit into the image of our elder Brother, the Lord Jesus. Secondly, we are told that we will be rewarded in heaven according to our deeds under the law:

“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” (2 Corinthians 5:10; c.f. Revelation 22:12)

Therefore, as Christians we long to keep God’s because a) it please Him and b) it is to our greatest spiritual benefit.

The Seriousness of False Prophecy

We currently live in a day that is full of people proclaiming to be prophets. They might not use that term to describe themselves, but often they will talk about receiving a ‘prophetic word’ from the Lord. Deuteronomy 18:15 – 22 has stood out to me in Deuteronomy because of these very people.

This passage foretells a prophet to come and will speak all that God commands of Him. This prophet is ultimately fulfilled in the person of Jesus, who is the greatest prophet and who only ever spoke that which God commanded.

The passage in Deuteronomy 18 then goes on to give a word of caution to Israel about those who raise themselves up as prophets of God. The warning is stark:

“But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.” (Deuteronomy 18:20)

In other words, false prophecy carries a death sentence in the eyes of God. It is easy to see why. A false prophet puts himself in the place of God Himself; it is the height of blasphemy.

False prophets, who claim to have a word from God, are some of the most popular preachers and ministers alive today. Their words should be as authoritative as anything in the Bible (since it’s still God’s word) but ‘prophecies’ fall far short of the mark. In fact, some churches and celebrity evangelists will attempt to teach you how to receive ‘prophetic words’ from God (and sometimes shame those who don’t receive them!) but passages such Deuteronomy 18 ought to be a deterrent to such practices. We stand on sacred ground when we claim that we are receiving direct revelation from God and our words are therefore on the same authority as the book of Romans, John, or Isaiah. Are we sure we want to go there?

The Ultimate Curse

When reading through the book of Numbers, the motif of blessing was evident, including the archetypal ‘Aaronic’ blessing of Numbers 6:23 – 27:

“Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: you shall say to them,

The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

‘So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.'”

This is what is meanst to be blessed. However, in Deuteronomy 21:22 – 23, we find a disturbing couterpart to God’s blessing: His curse. A curse is the opposite of a blessing. The complete antithesis of the favour and good disposition of God. Perhaps the curse of God would read something like this:

‘The Lord curse you, and abandon you;
the Lord keep you in darkness and give you only judgment;
the Lord turn His back upon you, and remove His peace from you’

This is the complete opposite of a blessing. To have such a curse laid upon you would be chilling and would fill you with a sense of dread and forboding. Everyone who would witness such a curse would know that something awful has been committed, for someone to receive such a curse from God.

Deuteronomy 21 tells us that a curse was reserved for the one that hangs on a tree; the punishment for anyone who had committed a crime punishable by death. The body of the criminal was to be hanged on the tree to symbolise this condemning curse upon that person.

Incredibly, this was the fate to which Jesus subjected Himself on the cross. In the words of Paul:

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree'” (Galatians 3:13)

Paul is quoting here from Deuteronomy 21. Jesus, though perfect and without crime in Himself, takes the crime of His people upon Himself and suffers the curse of God on their behalf. He conveys His feeling of abandonment on the cross; darkness covered the Earth; the Lord had removed His face of pleasure and instead looked upon Jesus with wrath. He was under the curse of God.

In fact, for those who place their faith and trust in Jesus, the will never have to experience the curse of God!

Of course, there is much more to the book of Deuteronomy than just these 5 points, but they are the ones that stood out to me as I read through Deuteronomy in 2020. Enjoy reading it for yourself!

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