Ten Things About Deuteronomy 4:32–40: Or, What It Means for God to Speak from the Midst of the Fire

10 thingsIn preparation for Sunday’s sermon on expositional preaching, here are ten observations from Deuteronomy 4:32–40.

1. Future hope (vv. 25–31) is based on God’s past actions (vv. 32–39).

Grammatically, verse 32 begins with the word “for” (ki). This opening word reveals the relationship between verse 32 and what comes before it. Previously, verses 25–31 explained the future mercies of God—what Yahweh promised to do to restore his people (vv. 29–31). Verse 32 explains why Israel can have confidence in this future grace. Because God saved Israel from Egypt with omnipotent power, so we can trust he will act in power again to restore his people in the future. In short, Israel’s future hope (and our hope) stand on the powerful working of God’s grace in the past.

2. Covenant obedience (v. 40) is also the past actions of God (vv. 32–39).

On the other side of verses 32–39, we find another implied reason for action. Covenant obedience (“keeping his statues and rules”) is motivated by the redemption of God from Egypt and the revelation of God’s word at Sinai. In short, just as God’s previous works of salvation strengthen our future confidence in God, they also call for faithfulness.

3. As a result, hope and holiness go together.

In the flow of Moses words, the same powerful actions of God in the past produce hope and holiness. This might just be a correlation without causation, but it seems better to see how hope and holiness relate to one another. In fact, in the New Testament we find multiple instances where hope depends on God’s previous actions and fuels faithful endurance. Consider two such passages.

First, Romans 15:4 reflecting on the previous revelation of God reads, “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” In this verse, the previous work of God in his word produces hope, and as Paul moves on he encourages the church to live in harmony with one another. Truly, hope in this case empowers the church to live in holiness before God and love towards one another.

Second, Paul says in Colossians 1:3–5, “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you,  since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven.” Again, hope is the foundational principle here. Because of hope, the church is able to have faith in Christ Jesus and love for the saints.

Yet, where does this hope come from? The rest of verse 5 tells us, “Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, . . .” Our hope stands in the finished work proclaimed in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Indeed, hope is what the gospel brings (Col. 1:23), and it is what results when we take to heart what God has done for us in Christ. Moreover, hope founded in God’s work in history also produces faith and love, because when we learn of God’s loving actions towards us it impels us to stop serving ourselves and love others. With confidence in the God’s mercy, we long to be merciful and to labor and suffer for the good of others. Thus, hope has a way of producing holiness.

4. The exodus is unlike any other event in history.

From George Washington crossing the Delaware to Nelson Mandela presidency in South Africa, every nation has its nation-shaping stories. Yet, no story matches the events of Israel’s exodus from Egypt. Until the Babylonian exile (cf. Jeremiah 23:7–8), the exodus served as the identifying story of Israel’s history. And in Deuteronomy 4:33–34, Moses asks two rhetorical questions to make two incredible points: (1) No other nation ever heard God’s voice and lived, and (2) no other god made a name for himself by means of an exodus (i.e., “by trials, by signs, by wonders, and by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by great deeds of terror”). In short, the uniqueness of God is revealed in the uniqueness of the exodus.

5. Monotheism is based on God’s actions in history, not philosophical arguments.

Following the same idea that God’s character is revealed through his actions, it is vital to see how the two statements asserting God’s uniqueness (vv. 35, 39) are based on his actions in history. First, in verse 35 says, “To you it was shown, that you might know that the LORD is God; there is no other besides him.” To a world filled with gods, Yahweh’s actions in Egypt were intended to show the weakness of Egypt’s false gods (Exod 12:12) and the might of Yahweh. Going back to the first plague, the purpose of everything God did in Egypt was so that Egypt and Israel would know that Yahweh is God (Exodus 7:5, 17). Moses repeats this theme, showing us that it through his saving actions that God reveals himself.

Similarly, it is by fulfilling his word to the patriarchs that God shows that he is God. In Deuteronomy 4:39 Moses repeats, “There is no other [god].” And this time the reason is based on Israel’s entry into the land. Back in Genesis 15 Yahweh promised Abraham that he would give him this land. Now, half a millennium later, God was making good on his promises. He was driving out the nations and bringing Israel into the land he had promised Abraham. This action leads Moses to say that there is no God like Yahweh (v. 39).

Together, these two statements based on various parts of God’s covenant faithfulness to Abraham’s offspring show how Scripture argues for his exclusivity. The Bible is not a book of philosophical arguments; it is a book recounting the actions of God. Through those creating, judging, covenant-making, and redeeming actions, God shows there is no other god like him. He alone is God. He alone can make and fulfill a multi-generational, international promise. He alone can turn the events of history and creation to deliver his people from one nation and bring them into another.

Thus, as we testify to the reality and the character of God we should not eschew philosophy, but neither should we assume philosophical arguments are enough. God has revealed himself through the powerful working in creation and history. And thus we should learn to make arguments for God’s existence by means of his actions in history.

6. Election stands at the center of redemptive history.

One of these historical actions is God’s election of Israel, and, before Israel, the choice of Abraham. As Deuteronomy 4:36–37 relates, God saved Israel from Egypt and let them hear his voice because he previously chose Abraham. As Nehemiah 9:7 states, “You are the Lord, the God who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and gave him the name Abraham.”

Importantly, God’s choice of Abraham does not depend on his antecedent faithfulness. As Joshua 24 reveals, Abraham came from a family of idol worshipers. Yet, because of God’s love and mercy, he chose Abraham to bless him and to bring blessing to the world through his offspring (Genesis 12:1–3; cf. Gal. 3:16). As Deuteronomy 7:7–8 explains, God set his love on Israel because he loved him. There was nothing in Israel that solicited God’s love. Rather, he chose to love Abraham and therefore every merciful action towards Abraham and his offspring was a direct result of God’s choice.

In this way, human choice is not eradicated, but it is always secondary to God’s choice. God does wait for man’s actions to determine his actions. True, the covenant with Israel has conditions built into it, but the choice to make a covenant with Israel—not Assyria, Egypt, or Babylon—stems from God’s unfathomable wisdom and knowledge to choose Abraham and his offspring and no one else.

Importantly, this choice of Abraham is the ultimate reason why he saved Israel and spoke to them at Sinai, just as Deuteronomy 4:37 says. Yet, this election of Israel is also typological of God’s greater and later goal to chose adopted sons and daughters from all nations. For while, God’s national choice of Israel stands as the basis for the exodus, the exodus with Israel stands as a type and shadow of the greater exodus which Jesus will lead.

Thus, we should see how the election of Abraham’s offspring according to the flesh is typological of the election of Abraham’s offspring according the Spirit. Put differently, the election of Israel foreshadows the election of God’s people in Christ—a reality to be explained later in the Bible, when Christ comes and fulfills all the patterns set forth in Israel. Still, in Deuteronomy and later in Paul, both type and antitype place election at the center of God’s work in redemptive history (see Romans 9–11).

7. God is God and man is not. 

The imagery of Deuteronomy 4:32–40 helps us to remember the vast difference between God and man. Consider a few differences.

  • God is above in heaven where the flames and fire of his presence do not destroy him; man lives below where he is always in mortal danger of flame and fire.
  • God comes down to Mount Sinai; man must come up—and even then, they are not able to approach the mountain.
  • God speaks from his power and good-pleasure; mankind must wait for God and hear from him. He cannot force God’s hand in anyway.
  • God is unique and there is no one like him; humanity is common and stands in the same location to the one God.
  • God is powerful and able to say and do as he pleases; mankind is wholly dependent on God and will say and do what God pleases.

8. Covenantal obedience sprouts into human flourishing.

The final verse in this section of Deuteronomy relates to obeying the covenant. From all we have seen, this covenant obedience comes from remembering the covenant and letting God’s actions motivate us faithfulness. Yet, there is also a motivation in what obedience produces. As verse 40 concludes, “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.”

The reason for keeping covenant is that this is the way we enjoy God’s blessings. Human flourishing comes through a right relationship with God. And such righteousness is what the covenant produces. In truth, Israel never experienced this blessing for more than short spans of time. Yet, that does not change God’s eschatological aim.

Covenantal obedience is what the old covenant demanded; covenantal obedience is what the new covenant gives. In this way, the new covenant does not deny the old; it fulfills it and empowers God’s people to do it, so that they might experience every spiritual blessing of God in Christ.

Today, believers in Christ get a foretaste of that blessing, as the Spirit empowers them to walk with him and like him. But ultimately, this blessedness is what will come in the regeneration of the world (Matt 19:28). Until then, we remind ourselves of what God has done, and how obedience to God’s word produces good fruit that reveals the goodness of God and invites others to know him.

9. The covenant God makes with Israel is “all the days.”

While Deuteronomy 32:40 make it sound like God’s covenant with Israel will last “for all time,” the original Hebrew is more helpful. The words “for all time” are literally “for all the days.” This rendering shows up repeatedly through Deuteronomy (see e.g., 5:29, 33; 6:24; 11:1; 12:1; 14:23; 17:20; 18:5; 19:9; 28:29, 33; 30:18) and it often relates to the time period associated with old covenant.

What is illuminating about this use of the term “all the days” is that it fits with the conditional nature of the covenant made at Sinai. Whereas God’s commitment to bring blessing through Abraham’s offspring to the world is irrevocable, the Sinai covenant is not. In fact, Deuteronomy 4:30 and 31:29 (as well as, Deut 30:1–6) look to the “latter days” when a new covenant will empower God’s people to obey his statutes and rules. Until that day, the old covenant would remain in place, but it was never intended to be an irrevocable covenant. “For all the days” may even suggest that when the days are fulfilled for the old covenant, God would establish a new covenant and leave the old one behind.

The significance of this is that the promises of land, temple, priesthood, sacrifices, etc. are not irrevocable. They are conditional, and as the New Testament teaches, they are fulfilled and exceeded by Christ and his better covenant. Therefore, as long as the covenant between Yahweh and Israel remains, these promises will remain, but if the people repeatedly break the covenant, as Deuteronomy anticipates they will, then there is nothing out of turn for God to establish a new and better covenant. God’s righteousness does not stand or fall with his commitment to Israel, but to Abraham’s offspring, which Paul defines as Jesus Christ himself (see Galatians 3).

Therefore, we should not read “for all time” as an unconditional promise to Israel as a nation. Rather, this promise of God’s blessing “for all the days” is better understood as God’s unswerving commitment to his own covenant faithfulness, a faithfulness that will ultimately result in the new covenant with better promises and a better mediator (see Hebrews 8–10) for the elect from every nation—the Jews first, but also the Gentiles.

10. All sorts of doctrines are supported by Deuteronomy 4:32–40.

In the midst of these words from Moses, we find support for many theological doctrines.

  • Revelation. They reinforce the need for God to speak to us. The doctrine of revelation stands on the fact that God has spoken to us and made a covenant with his people.
  • God’s Speech-Acts. They demonstrate how God’s word acts and God’s actions speak. In truth, God is doing something with his words and revealing something with his actions. Theologians speak of God’s speech-acts, and here in Deuteronomy 4 we find support for that idea.
  • Monotheism. They show that there is one God; he is unlike any other; and that knowledge of God comes through his actions. In truth, we cannot know the essence of God, only his energies. Supporting that view of God, we see how Moses calls us to remember the words God spoke at Sinai and the actions God did in the exodus. Through these various works/words of redemption we come to know who God is and that there is no other.
  • Creator-Creature Distinction. They maintain the division between Creator and creature. God enters the world that he has made, but he is not like the creatures made in his image. He is wholly different and the other-worldly encounter at Sinai proves that true.

We could add to this list, but clearly this passage and all passages about Sinai are goldmines for theological riches. Thus, to know God we must give ourselves to them and learn from them. For God’s revelation is not just for study but for worship and application. And hence as we consider what it means for God to speak out of the fire, we should be equally concerned with our preaching of his Word.

It is no light thing to proclaim the words of God who spoke out of the fire. And thus we should consider carefully Deuteronomy 4:32–40, so that its truths would renew our minds and reform our churches. To that end let us continue to consider this passage.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

 

One thought on “Ten Things About Deuteronomy 4:32–40: Or, What It Means for God to Speak from the Midst of the Fire

  1. Pingback: Because God Has Spoken: A Biblical Defense of Expositional Preaching (Deuteronomy 4:32–40) | Via Emmaus

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