I think I’ve discovered that I’m a completionist. You know what a completionist is, don’t you? If someone plays video games, and he’s a completionist, then he has to complete every level of the game and he’s not satisfied until he does. Or if someone is on twitter or another social media platform, and she’s a completionist, she has to read every message and can’t skip any of them. Or if someone is a collector, he isn’t happy until his collection is complete. That’s a completionist.
I think I’ve discovered that I’m a completionist when it comes to preaching from God’s word, because now that I’ve preached consecutively through the books of Genesis and Exodus on Sunday evenings and Leviticus and Numbers on Wednesdays evenings, I feel compelled to complete the five books of Moses by preaching on the book of Deuteronomy.
Back in September 2013 I started to preach on the book of Genesis. When we reached the end of Genesis, it made sense to move on to the book of Exodus. When we reached the end of Exodus, it made sense to move on to the book of Leviticus. And when we reach the end of Leviticus, it made sense to move on to the book of Numbers. And since I finished Numbers last Wednesday, it now makes sense to move on to Deuteronomy.
Let me summarise what we’re seen so far. The book of Genesis was the book of beginnings, teaching us that the Lord made the heavens and the earth and all that they contain, including Adam and Eve, the first man and woman. After Adam’s fall into sin, God announced the good news of the gospel and how one of Eve’s descendants would crush the head of the serpent, thereby destroying the Devil and recusing God’s people. After that, the Lord revealed himself to Abram and entered into a covenant with him to make him and his descendants into a great nation and to give them a land to live in where they would enjoy his presence. And so, we have the themes of people, place, and presence which pervade the Bible. Genesis ends with Abram’s descendants living in the land of Egypt, far away from the Promised Land.
The opening of the book of Exodus makes clear that God had multiplied Abraham’s descendants. Just as he had promised Abraham, they had indeed become a mighty nation. But they were in the wrong place. And so, the book of Exodus tells us how the Lord rescued them from Egypt and brought them through the Red Sea and led them to Mount Sinai where he entered into a covenant with Abraham’s descendants. In this covenant, they promised to obey him; and he promised to be their God and to treat them as his treasured possession. And in the rest of the book, the Lord gave his law to his people so that they would know his will for how to worship and serve him.
The book of Leviticus answers the question which is found in Psalm 24:
Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place?
How can sinful men and women ever hope to come into the presence of a holy God? Well, in the book of Leviticus we discover that the Lord provided his people with sacrifices and with priests; and through the work of the priest and the offering up of sacrifices, God’s people were able to come before in worship; and he was able to dwell in their presence.
The book of Numbers tells the story of what happened after the Israelites left Sinai and began to make their way to the Promised Land. Unfortunately it’s a story of sinful rebellion and unbelief, because again and again and again the people doubted the Lord and disobeyed his word. Nevertheless, the Lord remained faithful to them, providing them with all that they needed and keeping them safe.
Now, each of these books points in one way or another to the good news of the gospel. The Lord Jesus is the promised one who was descended from Eve and who came to destroy the Devil and save his people. Rescuing the Israelites from Egypt anticipates how God rescues us by Christ from Satan’s tyranny so that, by faith in Christ, we have crossed from death to life. All the sacrifices we read about in Leviticus point to Christ, the true Lamb of God who takes away our sin; and our true high priest who ever lives to intercede for us. And the pilgrimage of the people in Numbers signifies how we are a pilgrim people who are on the way to the Promised Land of Eternal Life.
Introduction to Deuteronomy
Genesis to Numbers points in one way or another to the good news of the gospel. And so, today we come to the book of Deuteronomy. It can be divided into two main parts: chapters 1 to 28 and chapter 29 to 34. The first part — chapters 1 to 28 — is chiefly about the past: reviewing the past forty years in the wilderness and the things the Lord revealed to his people and did for them. The second part — chapters 29 to 34 — is chiefly about the future, anticipating how they will enter the Promised Land and live in it.
And it’s a book about God’s grace: his kindness to his sinful people who deserve nothing from him, but condemnation. His grace is highlighted in chapter 4 and verse 37:
Because he loved your forefathers and chose their descendants after them, he brought you out of Egypt by his Presence and his great strength….
He graciously chose them and rescued them from slavery. His grace is highlighted in chapter 7 and verses 6 and 7:
The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession. The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples.
They were a small and insignificant nation, but the Lord graciously chose them to be his treasured possession. His grace is highlighted in chapter 9 and verses 4 to 6:
After the Lord your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, ‘The Lord has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.’ No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is going to drive them out before you. It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land…. Understand, then, that it is not because of your righteousness that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people.
They were just as sinful as the pagan nations, but the Lord graciously chose them and promised to give them the land to live in. His grace is highlighted in chapter 10 and verse 15:
Yet the Lord set his affection on your ancestors and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations….
This verse reiterates God’s gracious election of Israel. And then his grace is highlighted in chapter 30 and verse 6:
The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.
By nature they were sinners, but the Lord promised to renew their hearts and to enable them to love and serve him.
The book of Deuteronomy is a book about God’s grace to his sinful people. And therefore it too is a book that points in one way or another to the good news of the gospel and to the hope of glory which God gives to all who trust in his Son.
And so, let’s turn to chapter 1.
Verses 1 to 5
According to verse 1, these are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel. Moses, of course, was the Lord’s servant and was speaking on behalf of the Lord. And his message was for all Israel. The people of Israel, we’re told, were in the Arabah desert on the east side of the Jordan. On the other side of the Jordan is the Promised Land. So, they’re very close to their destination and will soon cross the Jordan to enter the Promised Land.
Verses 2 and 3 form an interesting contrast. We’re told in verse 2 that it takes just eleven days to get from Horeb — which is another name for Mount Sinai — to Kadesh Barnea. Kadesh Barnea is next to the Promised Land; and it was the place where they came to in Numbers 13 and from where they sent out men to spy out the land of Canaan. So, they could have entered the Promised Land a mere eleven days after leaving Mount Sinai. However, look at verse 3: it’s now the first day of the eleventh month in the fortieth year since they left Mount Sinai. They could have entered the Promised Land a mere eleven days after starting their journey. But it’s now the eleventh month of the fortieth year after starting their journey. In a moment we’ll get to what went wrong and why they didn’t enter the Promised Land the first time they came to Kadesh Barnea.
For now, we read that on the first day of the eleventh month in the fortieth year, Moses proclaimed to all Israel all that the Lord commanded him concerning them. Well, this book which we’re now reading contains all that the Lord commanded him to say concerning the people. And according to verse 4, this took place after they had defeated these two kings: Sihon king of the Amorites and Og king of Bashan. We read about those battles in Numbers 21 and we’ll hear more about them in Deuteronomy 2 and 3.
So these opening verses — verses 1 to 5 — are the introduction to the whole book, telling us when Moses said these things, where he said these things to whom he said these things and what he said in order to expound and explain the law of God.
Verses 6 to 18
In verses 6 to 18, Moses recalls what happened at Mount Sinai. And then, in verses 19 to 46, he recalls what happened at Kadesh-Barnea. And so, in verses 6 to 18 we read how the Lord announced to them at Mount Sinai — or Mount Horeb as it’s known here — that they’ve stayed long enough at the mountain. They had done everything they needed to do there, because the Lord had established his covenant with them and had given them his law to keep. It was now time to leave Sinai and head for the Promised Land. And the Lord described in verse 7 all the land he intended to give them to possess. It’s a massive area. And the Lord promised to give it to them, so they should go in and take possession of it. He’s the Almighty God who rules and reigns in heaven over all that he has made. The whole earth is his; and he can give it to whomever he wants. And he has promised to give this land to his chosen people. That’s what he promised to Abraham. That’s what he promised to Isaac. That’s what he promised to Jacob. And that’s what he has promised to them too. Go in and take possession of it. It’s yours.
If you remember back to Exodus 18, you’ll remember that Moses’s father-in-law, Jethro, visited the camp at Mount Sinai. And he saw how busy Moses was and how burdened he was, because everyday people were coming to him with their disputes and disagreements and problems, and they wanted him to inquire from the Lord what to do in each case. And, of course, many of the people had to wait a long time for Moses to get to their case, because there were so many of them, needing his help. And Jethro could see that it was too much for Moses and it wasn’t good for him or the people. And so, he suggested that Moses should appoint other people to help him. And Moses refers to that episode in verses 9 to 18. He recalls how the Lord had multiplied the people and had made them into a great nation. But he realised that he wasn’t able to deal with all their disputes by himself. And so, he instructed them to choose wise, understanding and respected men from each tribe to help him.
It seems from what we read in verse 15 and 16 that Moses appointed two, or even three, kinds of leaders: first of all, he appointed military leaders to be commanders of units of men of different sizes. Then there seems to be a second group of ‘tribal officials’, who perhaps were given an administrative role. And then there were the judges who were appointed to hear disputes and to judge fairly between the Israelites and also between the foreigners who had joined them. Whenever they left Egypt, some of the Egyptians went with them. Even though they were aliens, and not Israelites, they too were to be treated fairly. And the judges were not to show partiality to anyone, but were to treat the small and the great, the poor and the rich alike. If any cases were too hard for them, they were invited to bring those cases to Moses. And Moses adds in verse 18 that he explained to them everything they were to do. That fits with what we read in Exodus 18, where Jethro advised Moses to teach the judges God’s laws and decrees so that they would know how to settle any disputes.
When we studied Exodus 18, which came just before Exodus 19 and 20 and the giving of the law, I made the point that the fact that they were having all these disputes and disagreements demonstrated how they needed the law. They needed the law to show them how to love one another and how to live together as God’s people. They needed the law to regulate their behaviour. They needed the law; and they needed these judges to apply the law and to teach them their duty and to remind them of the will of the Lord. And so, whenever the received the law at Mount Sinai, they would have received it with joy and gladness, because it was just what they needed. They had tried living without God’s law to guide them, and it wasn’t good, because they didn’t know how to treat one another and they didn’t know how to settle their disputes. And so, what a relief to have God’s law written down to guide them in the will of the Lord. And what a relief to have judges to help them apply the law and to teach them what is right and wrong.
But, of course, God had something even better in store for his people. Having the law written down on stone tablets and having judges to teach the people was good. It was better than what they had before. But we know from Old Testament history that again and again and again the people disregarded God’s law and they disobeyed his commandments. Even though they had God’s law to guide them, and teachers to teach them, they broke God’s law. So, having the law written down and having judges to teach them was better than nothing. But it wasn’t enough.
However, through the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel, the Lord spoke of a time when he would write his law on the hearts of his people. And he spoke of how the hearts of his people would be renewed by the Holy Spirit so that his people would be able to love the Lord and to do his will like never before. So, the Lord spoke of a time when his people would know his law and love his law and would have the help of the Spirit to keep it. And he also promised that he would forgive their sins and remember them no more.
He was speaking of the time when the Lord Jesus would come into the world as one of us to take the blame for our disobedience so that all who believe in him are pardoned for all that we have done wrong. And he was speaking how, all who believe in his Son, will receive the Holy Spirit, who changes our heart and enables us to love the Lord and to love his law and to walk in his ways.
In Deuteronomy 1, Moses recalled the time when he appointed judges to teach the law to the people. But God had something better in store for you and for all who believe in his Son, because not only does he cleanse you from your guilt and shame for the sake of Christ who died for sinners, but he gives you his Spirit to renew you more and more in his image, so that you’ll become more and more willing and able to do God’s will here on earth.
Verses 19 to 46
God had better things in store for you. And in the following verses, we see the sinful rebellion of his people at that time. In verse 19 we read how the Lord commanded them to set off from Mount Sinai and he led them safely through a vast and dreadful desert to Kadesh Barnea. When they reached that place, Moses reminded them of God’s promise to give them the land. Therefore, he said to them at that time, go in and take possession of the land. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be discouraged.
But first they wanted to send men to spy out the land and to figure out the best route to take. The idea seemed good to Moses; and so he selected twelve men, one from each of the twelve tribes. They went off and explored the land and came back, carrying some of the fruit from the land. And do you remember? The cluster of grapes they brought back was so large, it took two men to carry it. They reported that what the Lord said about the land was true: it was a good land, a land like the Garden of Eden, flowing with milk and honey.
However, the people were unwilling to go up. Do you see that in verse 26? They rebelled against the command of the Lord their God. They grumbled in their tents and even accused the Lord — who had always been good and gracious to them — of hating them. They said the only reason he rescued them from Egypt was to destroy them now. The people of Canaan are too strong, they said. They’re too big. Their cities are too strong. We won’t be able to defeat the men; and we won’t be able to take their cities. We even saw the Anakites there, the spies said. The Anakites had the reputation for being giants.
Moses pleaded with them at that time to trust in the Lord, who had promised to fight for them, just as he fought for them when they were slaves in Egypt. But they would not listen. Look at verse 32 where Moses said about them:
you did not trust in the Lord your God.
And because of their sinful rebellion and unbelief, the Lord was angry with that generation. And he solemnly swore that not one of them would see the Promised Land, apart from Caleb, who alone trusted the Lord. And in verse 37 Moses added that the Lord was angry with him as well. That happened later, whenever Moses doubted the Lord and dishonoured him in the presence of the people. And the Lord swore that Moses would never enter the land; and instead Joshua, Moses’s servant, would lead the people in. No one else in that generation of Israelites — whom the Lord has rescued from Egypt — would enter the Promised Land. Only their children would enter it. He would give it to them, but not to their parents, who rebelled against him and who doubted his power and his goodness.
And so, the Lord commanded them to turn around and to head back into the wilderness, because they were to remain in the wilderness until that generation had died.
But even then the people did not listen. The Lord commanded them to turn around and return to the wilderness. But instead of listening to him and obeying his command, they said they would go up and take the land. Though they acknowledged their sin in verse 41, they did not listen to him. And even when the Lord warned them that he would not go with them into battle and they would be defeated, they still did not listen. They rebelled against the Lord and in their arrogance they marched against the inhabitants of the land. But instead of defeating the inhabitants of the land, they had to flee, like those who are being chased by a swarm of bees. And when they turned to the Lord and wept before him, the Lord would not listen to them, because they did not listen to him.
If only they believed God’s word, when he promised to give them the Promised Land, then they could have entered it straightaway. After travelling for only eleven days, they could have gone in to enjoy that land, flowing with milk and honey, that land like Paradise and like the Garden of Eden. But because they hardened their hearts and would not believe God’s promise, none of that generation — apart from Caleb and Joshua — were allowed to enter the land; all of them died in the wilderness.
And, of course, the Promised Land of Canaan symbolises our eternal rest in the presence of the Lord. And since that’s the case, this passage warns people in every generation that we must not harden our hearts and doubt God’s word, as they did. We must believe all that God has promised. And he has promised — hasn’t he? — to pardon our sins and to cleanse us from all our guilt and shame for the sake of Christ who died for our sins and who was raised to give us life. Believe the good news of the gospel and you will have forgiveness from God and the hope of everlasting life.
The writer of Hebrews refers to episode in Israel’s history and applies it to our hearts. First of all, in Hebrews 3 he quotes from Psalm 95, where it says:
Today, if you hear [God’s] voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the desert, where your ancestors tested and tried me, though for forty years they saw what I did. That is why I was angry with that generation; I said, ‘Their hearts are always going astray, and they have not known my ways.’ So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.’
And then the writer says:
See to it … that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.
The people of Israel had a sinful, unbelieving heart, so that they doubted God’s word. And because of their unbelief and sinful rebellion, they all died in the wilderness. So, see to it that you do not harden your heart when you hear God’s word; but instead, encourage one another daily, the writer to the Hebrews says. Encourage one another daily so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. Sin deceives us by persuading us that we know better than God and we don’t need to pay attention to his promises. So, see to it that you do not have a sinful, unbelieving heart; and encourage one another daily so that none of you is hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.
And then the writer to the Hebrews tells us that the Israelites had the gospel preached to them, but it did them no good. It did them no good, because they did not combine it with faith. And so, every time you hear God’s word and the promise of the gospel, you must receive it with faith, because without faith, it can do you no good. But whoever hears it with faith will enter the eternal rest which God has prepared for his people from all eternity.
And so, before you come to church where God’s word is preached, you ought to pray for yourself and for your family and for each other, asking the Lord to enable all of us to receive his word with faith, so that none of us will turn away from the living God.
The Devil will try to put doubts in our mind. Unbelievers will ridicule us for believing in God and his word. Our own sinful flesh will fill us with proud thoughts to persuade us that we don’t need to listen to God. But we must resist every temptation and we must see to it that we receive God’s word and all his promises with faith.