In preparation for Sunday’s sermon on worship, here are ten observations from Deuteronomy 4:1–14.
1. Deuteronomy 4 is the last chapter of Deuteronomy’s covenantal introduction.
In Deuteronomy Moses follows (and reformulates) a covenant structure identifiable by anyone living in the ancient Near East. Just as covenants made between kings and their servants (i.e., Suzerains and their vassals) followed a standardized pattern, so does the book of Moses.
|Ancient Near Eastern Suzerainty Treaty||Deuteronomy as a Covenant Document|
|Preamble (“These are the words . . .”)||Preamble (1:1–5): “These are the words of Moses addressed to all Israel . . .”|
|Historical Prologue: a survey of the relational history between covenant partners||Historical Prologue (1:6–4:49)|
|General Stipulations||General Stipulations (ch. 5–11): general commands to love, serve, fear Yahweh|
|Specific Stipulations||Specific Stipulations (ch. 12–26): an exposition of the Ten Words|
|Divine Witnesses: various deities called to witness the treaty||Blessings and Curses (ch. 27–28)|
|Blessings and Curses: relating respectively to the maintenance of breach of the covenant||Divine Witnesses (see 30:19; 31:19; 32:1–43)|
From this outline, we see where Deuteronomy 4 is situated. It is the final word of the covenantal introduction (i.e., the historical prologue). Moreover, in a way that deviates from the classical ANE treaty formula, it adds covenantal instructions that anticipate the next sections—namely, the general and special stipulations given in chapters 5–26.
2. Statutes and rules abound.
Verse 1 begins with the description of “statutes and rules,” a phrase that runs throughout the chapter (vv. 1, 5, 6, 8, 14, 45). This word pair is often found together in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy and it fits with the covenantal nature of God’s relationship with Israel. Importantly, “statutes and rules” first arise in Exodus 15:24–26, where God announces the conditional nature of Israel’s relationship with him:
And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” 25 And he cried to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a log, and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet. There the Lord made for them a statute and a rule, and there he tested them, 26 saying, “If you will diligently listen to the voice of the Lord your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, your healer.”
These words capture the conditional nature of the covenant God is making with Israel. While God’s election of Abraham and his offspring arises from his unconditional love (see Deut 7:6–8), and his redemption springs from that love and not Israel’s righteousness (9:4–12), the covenant God makes with Israel is conditional.
God saves Israel from Egypt to enjoy covenantal relations with him. And as God’s chosen nation, the statutes and rules of the covenant are essential for maintaining this relationship. In this way, we should see “statutes and rules” as “shorthand fro the entire revelation received at Horeb [Mount Sinai] and along the way from Egypt to Kadesh Barnea” (Block, Deuteronomy, 117). But we should not read them as impersonal, legal demands, but loving instructions for God’s covenant people.
3. God’s law is a gift of grace.
That being said, these statutes and rules are not just a word of legal demand. They are also a gift of incredible grace. As verse 1 indicates, these covenant stipulations are what Israel, as God’s son (Exod 4:22–23), must do to enjoy their Father’s land. And verses 6–8 reflect the incredible immediacy God’s people have with Yahweh—a feature distinct from all other ANE religions, whose gods were often too busy to attend to their worshipers needs.
Accordingly, it is important to see the grace found in the law. While many faithful theologians—Martin Luther especially—have spoken of the law in only negative ways, Deuteronomy itself presents the law in positive (and negative) terms. Additionally, when we consider what the law is we find grace in it: First, that God spoke to and saved Israel at all demonstrates God’s grace; divine revelation is always gracious (cf. Psalm 147:19). Second, that the covenant comes after their redemption and is not the condition of their redemption displays its graciousness (Exod 20:1; Deut 1:6–3:29). Third, in contrast to the demanding, unjust, and unattainable laws of other nations around Israel, the justice and wisdom of this law demonstrates God’s goodness to Israel.
Finally, the New Testament itself speaks of the law as a blessing to Israel (cf. Rom 3:1–2; 9:4). John 1:16–17 is most explicit. Stating the difference between Moses and Christ, John speaks of the greater grace found in Christ. It is not that the Law was purely demand and the gospel purely grace, rather the old covenant offered grace, the new covenant covenant greater grace: “Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
This sort of thinking may not match up with everyone’s theological system, but it is hard to read Deuteronomy on its own terms and not see the grace of God at work. Surely, a greater grace is needed, but the grace and truth found in Christ is not the first time grace is given to God’s people.
4. God’s Word is always fixed.
The statutes and rules are fixed by God. Verse 2 states, “You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you.” To say it differently, the canon of God’s Word is always closed, until God adds to it by acting in redemptive history.
In the centuries that followed Moses, the prophets of the Old Testament and the Apostles and Prophets of the New Testament did build upon Moses words, but importantly they never took away from Moses words or added revelation that opposed it. Rather, all the OT Prophets were judged by Moses words (as Deuteronomy 13 instructs), and they called Israel to return to the Law of Moses. Likewise, the NT authors of Scripture, following Jesus, showed how Christ fulfilled the Law and the Prophets.
In this way, we can affirm the fact that inspired words were only added when God’s acts of redemption were seen in history and when the Spirit inspired men to write holy Scripture (cf. 2 Peter 1:19–21).. Truly this sort of addition did not change the earlier revelation (as in the case of the Koran), it built upon it and confirmed the earlier testimony. Moreover, only as new acts of redemption history occurred in history was Scripture written. Today, because all the events of redemptive history have been fulfilled in Christ (minus his return), the canon is closed. We do not expect any more words to be inspired because God the Incarnate Son has come and his Spirit remains with us.
Because Christ is the final revelation, the church does not receive new revelation. Instead, we continue to read, preach, study, and apply the inspired words of Moses and those inspired Prophets who followed in his wake. In this way, we can affirm the fixed position of God’s Word, even as we see in redemptive history how the canon grew in size based upon the work of God in redemptive history.
5. Covenant breaking always results in death.
In verses 3–4 Moses recalls the events of Baal-Peor. From Numbers 25, we remember the wickedness of Israel’s men yoking themselves to the daughters of Moab (Numbers 25)—an event that only happened a few short weeks before Moses stood to proclaim the speeches of Deuteronomy.
In this event, we learn what happens when God’s people break their covenant with God. As threatened in the first covenant with Adam (Gen 2:17), and expanded in the covenant with Israel (Leviticus 26–27), and seen throughout redemptive history—the wages of sin is death. And when God’s people break covenant with him, death as God’s judgment results.
6. Covenantal obedience requires teaching.
In response to such wickedness, Moses is called to teach the covenant. Indeed, teaching is always necessary for the people of God. We do not possess within ourselves the knowledge or power to do what God commands. We need the Word of God and the teaching of God’s Word. And as the history of Israel “teaches,” we also need the Holy Spirit to teach us and write the law of God on our heart.
Incredibly, we see this law written on human hearts in the Old Testament in men like Caleb (Num 14:24), David (1 Sam 16:7), and the Psalmists (cf. Psalm 119), but it will await the new covenant for everyone to experience that kind of spiritual life. In the Old Testament, we see teachers (priests and prophets) who proclaim God’s word, but what is not given is the full outpouring of the Spirit. Teaching informs the mind in Israel and may for brief seasons have national impact, but on the whole spiritual life is not granted to God’s people until the Spirit comes when Christ goes to the Father.
7. Obeying the covenant invites others to join the covenant.
From the beginning, God’s design was to bless the nations through Israel (Gen 12:1–3). And in the giving of the law, it was God’s intention to display his glory to Israel’s surrounding nations. By obeying his statutes and rules, Israel would display God’s wisdom, righteousness, and goodness, so that others would come to know Yahweh. Verses 6–8 explain this purpose.
Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ 7 For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? 8 And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?
Tragically, Israel rarely displayed this sort of wisdom and righteousness. It occurred for a season during Solomon’s reign (1 Kings 4–10), but on the whole Israel failed to live up to their calling. That said, the purpose of God remains and is found again in the church of Jesus Christ.
Receiving the title “kingdom of priests” (1 Pet 2:9), a title once given to Israel (Exod 19:6), the church made up of Jews and Gentiles is to conduct themselves a city on the hill, whose light shines to the nations and brings glory to God (Matt 5:14–16). In this way, we see that the church, a people made alive in Christ—is given to vocation to make God known to the world, just as Israel was to do.
8. The covenant is endangered by forgetting it, forsaking it, or failing to pass it on.
After Moses calls Israel to listen (v. 1) and see (v. 5), the next command is the double use of the word “guard” (šmr): “Only take care (šmr), and keep (šmr) your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children’s children, …”
In these words, Moses indicates three things that endanger the covenant. First, God’s people can forget what God has done, said, and given to Israel. Second, God’s people can forsake what they have heard; they can lose heart and not care for these things anymore. Third, they can fail to pass the word of the covenant on to the next generation, so that the children of the covenant miss it.
In Israel’s history, all three of these things occurred. The priests failed to teach the people and hence the people forgot the good news of Sinai. Second, the people attached themselves to the gods of their neighbors, hence even if they knew what God had done for Israel in the past, they did not love those truths. Third, combining all of these problems, the people often worshiped Yahweh and others gods (cf. 1 Kings 18). This syncretism soon caused the people to abandon the covenant, even as the priestly failure did nothing to overturn the waywardness.
While the new covenant comes with the power of the Spirit (1 Thess 1:4–6), these three dangers remain. If we do not renew our minds with God’s word, we can continue to think like the world. Such thinking leads to affections for the idols of the world. Likewise, without the word of God changing our hearts, we can give ourselves to various idols, so that it becomes difficult to remember or rejoice in the truths of God. When this happens the people of God lose their power, and when such power is lost, the ensuing generations are also jeopardized.
Truly, we can give thanks for the greater grace of the new covenant. But we must learn from the Old Testament. If we do not renew our minds and let the word of God wash our hearts, we too can stray. Worse, the children growing up in our homes, not seeing the power of God, can give themselves to others gods, because for them the truths of the gospel are words without power.
9. The covenant is remembered by retelling it.
For all these reasons, we must be diligent to retell the gospel story. Because the gospel is the power of God for salvation, we must never tire of hearing it, sharing it, or setting our lives by it. Though the full revelation of the gospel was not present in Moses’s day, we do see that the next thing Moses says is to make known to future generations the things that God has done.
Beginning in verse 9, Moses begins to recount the events of Sinai. He says to make these things known to the next generation (v. 9) and he then recounts what happened there. In fact from verse 9 to verse 31, Moses is going to move from the past to the future, tracing a covenantal history. In this way, he prepares the next generation to enter the promised land and to remember the God who is bringing them there.
For us today, the need to retell the gospel is equally important. And this truth leads to the last observation.
10. Retelling the covenant is done best in the worship gathering.
When Moses shares these words, he is talking to a people who are gathered to hear from God. In his words, Moses is not writing a book; he’s preaching a sermon. And thus in the gathered assembly Israel is receiving Moses’s words. And in that gathering he recalls the previous assembly at Sinai (v. 12). And incredibly, by telling Israel in Deuteronomy 31:12 to assemble to hear this word every seven years when Israel enters the land, he is setting a pattern for ongoing gathering.
Truly, this pattern of gathered worship was given at Sinai, continued in Deuteronomy, and was meant to be normative in all Israel’s history. In the New Testament, the church gathered every Lord’s day to remember Christ and the power of his resurrection. In this way, we see the way that the people of God remember their Lord, their identity, and their mission is to gather regularly.
If forgetting, forsaking, and failing to share the covenant with future generations are the ways God’s people are threatened, then the solution is to keep meeting until all things are made new (Hebrews 10:24–25). This clearly seems to be a point Moses makes and it is one we must take to heart as well. God’s plan for remembering God is not for individuals with steel-trap minds and unmoving hearts to keep running the race by themselves. Instead, regular gatherings for worship are the way God’s people remember.
Indeed, books and blogs cannot do what the gathered church does. These media are good and useful means for gospel advance, but they are not the church. God’s people need to assemble together, for it is there where the power and presence of God is experienced most visibly, audibly, and consistently.
To that end, let us not forsake assembling with our local churches, and may God be pleased to use blogs like this to prepare our hearts for those services of worship.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds
 This chart is adapted from Peter C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy, NICOT, 23–24. Additionally, more can be said about the structure of Deuteronomy and its relationship to ANE treaties. For instance, the reading of the law (Deut 31:9–13), the deposit of the law into the tabernacle (Deut 31:26), and the addition of Moses song (ch. 32) and Moses blessing (ch. 33) are a few elements that further highlight the similarities and differences between ANE treaties and Deuteronomy.