In preparation for Sunday’s sermon on worship, here are ten observations from Deuteronomy 4:9–31.
1. The middle section of Deuteronomy 4 can be divided into three time-plotted windows.
The first window looks back to the gathering of Israel at Horeb (4:9–14). The second window looks at the people present before Moses. It warns Israel to remember their covenant and not worship idols (4:15–24). Then, te third window looks to the future, to a day when Israel will be scattered because of sin; it also offers hope and the promise of Israel’s restoration because of God’s mercy (4:25–31). From this chronological presentation, Moses shows how the covenant with Israel extends from past to present and from his present to future.
2. The main point of each section is related: Guard your heart!
In verses 9–14 Moses says (twice!), Guard your heart by remembering the covenant made at Mount Horeb. The double command of guarding is seen in verse 9, when Moses says, “Only take care (šmr), and keep (šmr) your soul diligently, . . . ”
Next, verses 15–24 repeat the focus on guarding as Moses exhorts, “Therefore watch (šmr) yourselves very carefully.” In this section, the warning moves to the present, as he urges Israel to guard their hearts from idolatry by remembering who they are—a people redeemed by Yahweh (v. 20).
Last, verses 25–31 foretells a time when Israel will forget God and break their covenant. In other words, they will fail to guard their hearts. Nevertheless, in their failure, God will remain faithful. And Moses promises Yahweh will guard Israel’s future by remembering “his covenant” (v. 13) . As verse 31 states, “For the LORD your God is a merciful God. He will not leave you or destroy you or forget the covenant with your fathers that he swore to them.”
From this reading, we can see how “guarding” is a theme that runs throughout Deuteronomy 4.
3. The Mountain of God (i.e., Mount Sinai) is a paradigmatic theophany for the whole Bible.
While “paradigmatic theophany” is a big word, it simply means God’s revelation at Sinai would become a pattern for everything else in the Bible. In fact, because Sinai occurred prior to the writing of the Pentateuch, even the smoking fire pot in Genesis 15 can be linked to Sinai. Certainly, every other divine revelation is based on this mountain top experience.
In context, the theophany (i.e. the revelation of God) is seen most clearly in the words of Deuteronomy 4:11–13,
And you came near and stood at the foot of the mountain, while the mountain burned with fire to the heart of heaven, wrapped in darkness, cloud, and gloom. 12 Then the Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice. 13 And he declared to you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, that is, the Ten Commandments, and he wrote them on two tablets of stone.
Importantly, the earth-shaking nature of this theophany, with its gift of a a covenant, foreshadows the cataclysmic events related to the cross. There, in the event which fulfills all the patterns in Israel, the fullest manifestation of God’s Word is seen. In that mountain-top experience, a new covenant is also made. In this way, the events of Sinai not only foreshadow events in the Old Testament; they also prepare the way for the person and work of Christ.
4. The stress on teaching calls us to remember not repeat Sinai.
In Deuteronomy 4 the word of God receives great prominence. For instance, the whole chapter records Moses’s words to Israel (v. 8). As he says in verses 1, 5, 14, he is to teach the covenant to the people of God. Likewise, the people are to receive these words and pass them to their children (vv. 9, 10, 25).
In all these ways, the abiding instruction is for Israel to remember the covenant. While they will be called upon to gather continually, they are not called to bring down the fires of heaven. There is nothing here that supports the supernatural chicanery of Bethel Church.
There are only a handful of places in Scripture where the fire of God descends to earth (e.g., Exodus 19–24; Exodus 40; 1 Kings 8; Acts 2). And these fiery episodes only occur when the dwelling place of God is being established (e.g., Mount Sinai, the Tabernacle, the Temple, Pentecost). In other eras, the call on God’s people is to remember the covenant established in these moments of revelation.
Therefore, today’s church is to remember the history of God’s revelation. But we are not to seek or manipulate situations where the Spirit falls down from heaven. Rather, because of God’s work in redemptive history, we have the Spirit and the Word and the full assurance that when we gather in his name, he is present with us—just as Jesus promised (Matthew 28:18–20).
5. The two tablets of law are two copies of the “ten words.”
There are two things to see here. First, the Ten Commandments are better entitled, the Ten Words (i.e., Decalogue). “Commandments,” when taken as legal demands, do not capture the wisdom and grace of these covenant stipulations. Moreover, the exact language of Deuteronomy 4:13 is “ten words.”
Second, whereas theologians have spoken the first and second tables of the law, it is better to see these “two tablets of stone” (v. 13) as two copies of the law. In keeping with ancient Near Eastern covenant protocols, each covenant partner had a copy of the stipulations they would keep. As Meredith Kline concludes after looking at the biblical data (pp. 113–21): “The two tables were duplicate copies of the covenant. And the correctness of this interpretation is decisively confirmed by the fact that it was the normal procedure in establishing suzertainty covenants to prepare duplicate copies of the treaty text” (The Structure of Biblical Authority, 121).
6. The greatest threat to covenant keeping is idolatry; the greatest resistance to idolatry is remembering (via preaching) the covenant.
In the center section of Deuteronomy 4, Moses twice issues a warning about idolatry. The longer warning comes in verses 15–19,
Therefore watch yourselves very carefully. Since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, 16 beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, 17 the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, 18 the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth. 19 And beware lest you raise your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them, things that the Lord your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven
This section recalls the way that worshipers can so focus on the creation they miss the Creator (cf. Rom 1:18–32; cf. Ps 106:20). Moses repeats himself with a shorter warning in verses 23–24,
Take care, lest you forget the covenant of the Lord your God, which he made with you, and make a carved image, the form of anything that the Lord your God has forbidden you. 24 For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.
Together, these warnings explain that covenant-breaking is what happens when the covenant is forgotten. And the covenant is forgotten when the people of God no longer hear that word proclaimed. Conversely, when God’s people continue to hear the word of the covenant and the greatness of the God who has redeemed them, it will give ample reason for rejecting idols and worshiping the true God. This was true in Israel’s history; it also has application today.
7. The identity of Israel is found their redemption from Egypt.
The central verse in Deuteronomy 4:9–31 is verse 20. Coming between the two warning about idolatry and addressed to the generation that stands to hear Moses, he says, “But the Lord has taken you and brought you out of the iron furnace, out of Egypt, to be a people of his own inheritance, as you are this day.”
This verse identifies the people of God by his salvation of Israel from Egypt. Every generation was to remember and repeat this story. The covenant Israel had with Yahweh stood on God’s gracious election and his powerful work of redemption in their lives. So long as Israel remembered their history and lived by it, they would keep their identity.
8. Identity was reinforced by gathering as a covenant people.
Remembering their identity required more than keeping an Israelite driver’s license in their wallet. In each section of Deuteronomy 4, we see a key instrument of remembering the covenant and guarding against idolatry is gathering with God’s people. First, Moses recounts the actual gathering of God’s people at Horeb (v. 12). Noticeably, Moses says this to a people who have gathered to stand around him (v. 8).
Second, God is bringing the people into the land, where they will continue to gather. Later in Deuteronomy 15–16, Yahweh gives them a “calendar of events” (i.e., feasts), where the people will set aside to time gather, worship, and hear the word of God. Deuteronomy 30:9–13 even includes the reading of Deuteronomy every seven years. In between, the people must keep the Sabbath as a time to remember the Lord and to meet locally to hear the Levites and priests teach the Law (cf. Lev 10:11). In all these ways, gathering was a necessary part of keeping the covenant and guarding against idols.
Third, Moses anticipates a day when Israel will forget the Lord, break the covenant, and worship idols. In that situation, “scattering” is the dreadful result (v. 27). In fact, in the framework of the OT, scattering is an evidence of God’s judgment; gathering is a blessing. This re-gathering, it turns out, is the promise God makes to Israel in verses 27–31—when they are scattered and “return to the Lord” (i.e., repent), God will make a place for them and gather back from the nations.
Truly, gathering places a central role in the identity formation of God’s people. Today, the gathered assembly (i.e., the church) continues to be the place God intends for his people to gather, hear their covenant history, and strengthen their identity in Christ. For this reason, the pattern of gathering at Sinai is continued on today as Christ’s people gather at Mount Zion by means of the Holy Spirit (Hebrews 12:18–29).
9. God is revealed in his gatherings.
One of the other things we see occurring in these gatherings is the revelation of God. First, at Sinai we learn that God is a covenant-making God (v. 13). Moreover, his word comes out of the fire as he makes covenant with his gathered people (v. 12).
Second, God’s jealousy (i.e., his holy zeal for his covenant people) is witnessed in the ongoing gathering of God’s people (v. 24). As Israel gathered they would experience the intensity of God’s kindness, but if they sought idols and rejected him, they would come to know the severity of his wrath.
Last, the mercy of God is seen in the return and regathering of God’s people (v. 31). On the other side of God’s judgment, God promises to deliver his people again. The rest of the Old Testament will trace this history and explain how the new covenant will give the Spirit to bring the people back to God. But for now, we can see that knowledge of God is not just an individual experience; it comes as the scattered people of God, enslaved to various sins and systems, are brought back to God. In this redemption and gathering, God makes himself known. And in truth, there is no way of knowing God apart from this redemption and gathering.
10. The old covenant was given in preparation for the new covenant.
This has been suggested already, but to make it explicit: the covenant Yahweh made with Israel at Sinai, the one being renewed in Deuteronomy, is not the ultimate covenant, nor is it unbreakable. It was given with inherent weaknesses, because it was given in preparation for the covenant which Christ would establish.
In Moses’s foreboding words of future scattering, we see that the good news of Deuteronomy is not in the book of Deuteronomy itself. The good news is found in the God of Deuteronomy; it is found in the promise that when Israel breaks the covenant, God would remain faithful. Ultimately, this faithful is found in Jesus Christ. And here in Deuteronomy 4:30, when Moses speaks of the “latter days,” we find the first testimony in Scripture of a later, greater salvation, covenant, and gathering.
In this way, Moses speaks about truths that go beyond his generation and lead all the way to the time of Christ (cf. 1 Pet 1:10–12). Keenly aware of his impending death (Deut 4:21–22), he looks to the future. And in his forward-looking words, Moses trains us how to read Deuteronomy. This book with its many commands are not meant to simply give legal instructions; they are meant to lead us to Christ.
To that end let us continue to hear what Moses says, as this Spirit-inspired Prophet of God continues to speak to his generation and to the Christ to whom he bears witness (John 5:46).
Soli Deo Gloria, ds