We’ve seen that the things written in this book were spoken by Moses to the people of Israel as they camped in the desert near the River Jordan and across from Jericho and right before they entered the Promised Land.
And I’ve said before that this book is a book about God’s grace, because again and again Moses highlights the Lord’s kindness to his people. Though the Israelites were a small and insignificant people, though they were as sinful as the other nations, the Lord had graciously and freely chosen them to be his own special people; and he had promised to be their God and to regard them as his treasured possession, to love and care for them and to give them their own land to live in. It’a book about God’s grace.
In today’s chapter — chapter 4 — Moses says lots of things about the law and about obedience to the law. Look at the first verse, for instance, where Moses says to the people:
Hear now, O Israel, the decrees and laws I am about to teach you. Follow them so that you may live and may go in and take possession of the land the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you.
So, hear these decrees and laws. And follow them that you may live.
I’ve said that this is a book about God’s grace, but here’s Moses, talking about the law. Aren’t grace and law opposites? Doesn’t Paul in the New Testament emphasise over and over again that we’re justified — that is, pardoned and accepted by God — by grace and not by keeping the law? So, if that’s true — and it is — then why does Moses emphasise the keeping of the law in this chapter?
And so, before we turn to the details of this chapter, let me take a few minutes to explain how what we read here fits with the rest of the Bible and all that the Bible says about grace.
In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses is renewing the covenant with God’s people, the covenant which God made with his people at Mount Sinai forty years before. So, whenever the Lord rescued them from Egypt, he led them to Mount Sinai where he established his covenant with them. And now, forty years later, Moses is renewing that covenant with the next generation of Israelites. This covenant is often referred to as the Mosaic Covenant, because Moses was the mediator of this covenant. It’s also called the covenant of law, because God’s law is so prominent in it. Indeed, if you glance over to chapter 5, you’ll see the Ten Commandments are listed once again. They form part of the terms of the covenant; and in this covenant of law between God and his people, the people agreed to keep the Ten Commandments.
However, this Mosaic covenant, or this covenant of law, is not the only covenant which we read about in the Old Testament. There are several other covenants in the Old Testament, but they’re all connected. And they’re all connected because they all reveal to us in different ways God’s covenant of grace.
What’s the covenant of grace? This is God’s promise to deliver his people from their sin and misery and to bring them into a state of salvation by the Redeemer, who is Jesus Christ the Lord. That’s the covenant of grace in a nutshell. And in order to receive this salvation, God requires from sinners faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. We’re to believe in him. But God also promises to give his people the Holy Spirit to enable them to believe. So, in the covenant of grace, God promises to deliver his people by his Son; and he promises to give his people the faith they need in order to receive that salvation.
So, that’s the covenant of grace. What other covenants are there in the Old Testament and how are they connected to the covenant of grace? Well, very near the beginning of the Bible, we have the promise, or the covenant, which God announced in the Garden of Eden that someone who was descended from Eve will crush the head of the serpent. And believers have always read those words from Genesis 3 as an announcement of the coming of the Redeemer, who would destroy the Devil and all his works.
Then there was the promise, or the covenant, which God made with Noah. After the flood, the Lord made a promise that — even though people in every generation deserve to be destroyed, because every inclination of their hearts is evil all the time — nevertheless he will not destroy every living creature as he did in the days of Noah. Instead of destroying us, he will restrain his wrath; and he will preserve and keep the world, so that — when the time is right — the Redeemer will come and deliver his people from the punishment we deserve for our sins.
Then there was God’s promise to Abraham. God promised to give him a people and a place. So, he promised him many descendants and he promised to give him and his descendants the land of Canaan to live in. And the Lord also promised that all nations of the world will be blessed through one of Abraham’s offspring. The Lord was referring to the Redeemer, Jesus Christ, who was descended from Abraham and who came to bless us by giving us the forgiveness of our sins and by filling us with his Spirit.
Then there was God’s promise to King David in 2 Samuel 7. God announced to David that David’s son will also be God’s son and he will reign for ever. Now, in one sense, God was talking about King Solomon, who was to succeed David as King of Israel. But, in another sense, he was talking about the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, who was descended from David, and who now rules forever and forever as King over all from his throne in heaven.
So, there was the promise announced to Adam and Eve of a Redeemer who was coming. There was the promise to Noah that God will preserve the world so that the Redeemer could come. There was the promise to Abraham that all the nations will be blessed through Abraham’s offspring. Then there was the promise to David of a coming King who will rule for ever.
And then there’s this covenant — the Mosaic covenant, or the covenant of law — which God made with the Israelites at Mount Sinai and which they renewed when they were camped across the Jordan from Jericho. And in this covenant of law, the Lord revealed to his people that there were laws for them to keep. There were laws for them to keep.
But in this covenant, he also revealed to them that there were sacrifices for them to offer. And all of those sacrifices which they were commanded to offer were signs to teach them about the one, true and perfect sacrifice which the Redeemer would offer to God for the complete forgiveness of all our sins. All of the Old Testament sacrifices — of bulls and goats and lambs — were designed by God to teach his people to believe in the Lord Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
And so, do you see? All of the covenants which we read about in the Old Testament are related to the one covenant of grace and to God’s promise to deliver his people from our sin and misery by his Son. And so, as we come to study what Moses says here and in the following chapters about the law, we’re to remember that while this covenant contains lots of laws, and while it says lots about obeying God, it’s all related to God’s gracious promise to save his people by his Son, Jesus Christ.
And so, the theologians like to distinguish between the law as the means to life and the law as the rule for life. The law is not the means to life. No one can receive eternal life by keeping the law. This is true for us; and it was true for the Israelites. No one can receive eternal life by keeping the law, because all of us are sinners who fall short of doing God’s will and who break God’s law continually. Instead we receive the free gift of eternal life through faith: through faith in Christ the Saviour who laid down his life to free us from condemnation; and who shed his blood to purify us from our guilt. Through faith we are justified — pardoned and accepted by God — and promised eternal life.
But then, having been justified through faith, we then look to the law of God to show us how to live as God’s people. By the law, the Lord makes clear to his believing people what his will is for us and how we’re to live our lives.
Having said all that by way of introduction, let’s turn to Deuteronomy 4 which can be divided into five parts. Verses 1 to 8 are the introduction. Verses 9 to 24 make clear that the Lord is a jealous God; so his people should remain faithful to him. Verses 25 to 31 warn the people that God will punish them if they disobey God’s law. Then, in verses 32 to 40, Moses reminded them once again of all that God has done for them in the past. And then, verses 41 to 43, are a brief note about the cities in the eastern side of the Jordan which were set aside to be cities of refuge. I won’t say much about that this evening, other than to say here that this is really tidying up what we read last week. Last week we read how some of the tribes of Israel were given land on the eastern side of the Jordan. This was to be their share in the Promised Land.
And since it was God’s will for some cities in the Promised Land to be set aside as cities of refuge, then Moses set aside three cities in the east to be cities of refuge. If someone killed another person, he could flee to a city of refuge, where he was kept safe until he could be tried. If he was tried and found guilty of murder, he had to be punished by death. But if he killed by accident, if it was manslaughter, then he was to be allowed to remain alive in the city of refuge. But that’s all I’ll say now about the cities of refuge. Let’s turn to the other parts of chapter 4.
Verses 1 to 8
And as I’ve said, verses 1 to 8 are the introduction.
Hear now, O Israel, the decrees and laws I am about to teach you. Follow them so that you may live and may go in and take possession of the land the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you.
Moses is about to teach the law of the Lord to his covenant people, the people he saved from Egypt. And he’s teaching them these things so that they will follow and do them. He wants his people to be obedient to him. By obeying the Lord, they can live and go in and take possession of the land. Now, remember: God was giving them the land as a gift. They did not earn it or deserve it. It was his free gift to his people. However, in order to enjoy all its benefits, they needed to be obedient to the Lord, otherwise he would punish them for their waywardness, just as parents punish their wayward children for their own good.
God’s word is complete and therefore they’re not to add to it or take away from it. This, of course, is a perennial problem in the church. People are always adding to God’s word, adding new laws which God has not commanded and which become burden on the people. Or people don’t like parts of God’s word, and they want to erase those parts from their Bibles. For instance, while they love what the Bible says about love, they don’t like what is says about righteousness; and they want to ignore those parts of the Bible. But God’s people are not to add to God’s word and we’re not to subtract from God’s word. Instead we’re to receive his word and believe it and obey it, because it’s the word of God.
And then, in verses 3 and 4, Moses refers to what happened at Baal-Peor. What did happen at Baal-Peor? Well, we read about this incident in Numbers 25, where it tells us how the Israelite men indulged in sexuality immorality with Moabite women who also taught the men to bow down before the false god, Baal. And the Lord’s anger burned against his people and he destroyed many of them with a plague. So, those who were disobedient to the Lord died, but those who remained faithful to him lived. So, be warned, Moses is saying to them. Be warned. Don’t provoke the Lord to anger, but be careful to walk in his ways and to do his will.
And according to verses 5 to 8, if they remain faithful and obedient, the other nations will admire them, because the other nations will regard them as wise and full of understanding, because the best way to live, the wisest way to live, is to live according to the word of the Lord, who knows what is best for us. So, if you do all that the Lord commands, a watching world will see it and they will see the wisdom of the Lord. And furthermore, the other nations will also admire them, because they will see that the Lord their God is with them to hear and to answer their prayers.
Verses 9 to 24
In verses 9 to 24 Moses makes clear that the Lord their God is a jealous God. Look at verses 23 and 24:
Be careful not to forget the covenant of the Lord your God that he made with you; do not make for yourselves an idol in the form of anything the Lord your God has forbidden. For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God. Moses refers to their covenant with the Lord.
Marriage between a husband and wife is a form of covenant, in which two people promise to forsake all others and to be loving, faithful and dutiful to one another so long as they both shall live. They promise to remain faithful to each other. And the people of Israel were in a covenant relationship with the Lord, in which they promised to forsake all other gods and to love, serve and worship him alone. And so, just as a loving husband will be concerned if his wife becomes devoted to another man, so Moses makes clear that the Lord does not want his people to become devoted to false gods and idols instead of to him.
And so, at the beginning of this section, Moses warns the people to take care and be careful lest they forget all the ways the Lord has loved and helped them in the past, because if they forget all the ways he has loved and helped them in the past, they’re liable to go after other gods. Furthermore, they’re to teach these things to their children, so that their children will know all that the Lord has done for them.
And Moses reminded them of the time when the Israelites stood before the Lord at Mount Sinai, or Mount Horeb, as it’s called here. At that time, they saw the mountain which blazed with fire and which was surrounded with thick, dark clouds. They saw the mountain and the fire and the clouds, but the one thing they didn’t see was the Lord, because the Lord is a Spirit without a body and who cannot be seen. But though they couldn’t see him, they could hear him when he spoke to them and declared to them the Ten Commandments.
And so, at that time, they did not see him. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, Moses warned them in verse 15, lest they be tempted to make an idol to represent him. And they must not bow down and worship the sun or the moon or the stars. Don’t worship those things, because the Lord made them to reflect his glory to all the nations of the world and to speak to people everywhere of his power and wisdom. Don’t worship them, but remain faithful to the true God, who brought you out of Egypt and who chose you to be his own special people.
Moses goes on to remind the people that because of his own disobedience, he was prevented from entering the Promised Land. So, don’t make the mistake he made. Don’t despise the word of the Lord and disobey his commandments. Don’t turn from him and worship idols. Love the Lord your God, who loved you and saved you for Egypt. Love him and remain faithful and obedient to him, because he’s a jealous God, who will not put up with it, if his people love and serve other gods.
Verses 25 to 31
What will he do if his people become unfaithful and disobedient? That’s what verses 25 to 31 are about. Moses says to them that if they become corrupt and make an idol, thereby doing evil in his sight and provoking him to anger, they will perish from the land. They will not be allowed to live there any longer. Just as the Lord banished Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, so the Lord will banish them from the Promised Land. He will scatter them among the nations and only a few of them will survive. And those who survive, will be forced to worship man-made gods of wood and stone, which are not real gods.
And, of course, we know that’s precisely what happened. The people settled in the land in the days of Joshua and the Judges. God then appointed kings to rule over them. But the people were disobedient to the Lord and unfaithful to him. Instead of walking in his ways, they went astray like wayward sheep. Instead of being devoted to the Lord, they looked to false gods and idols to help them. And though the Lord was patient with them, and though he sent them prophets to warn them and to call on them to repent, they persisted in their unbelief and rebellion. And so, the Lord’s patience ran out, and he sent them away into exile, first to Assyria and then to Babylon And, in the book of Daniel, we read how Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon. commanded the people to bow down and to worship the great statue he had set up. What the Lord warned the Israelites about in Deuteronomy 4, happened.
However, look at verse 29 which begins with the word, ‘But’ and which speaks to us of God’s faithfulness to his wayward people and which reminds us that his steadfast love is from everlasting to everlasting and he does not treat his people as their sins deserve. Look at verses 29 to 31:
But if from there you seek the Lord your God, you will find him if you seek him with all your heart and with all your soul. When you are in distress and all these things have happened to you, then in later days you will return to the Lord your God and obey him. For the Lord your God is a merciful God; he will not abandon or destroy you or forget the covenant with your ancestors, which he confirmed to them by oath.
When they finally repent and return in their hearts to the Lord, they will find him. And because he is merciful, he will not abandon them or destroy them or give them up completely, because he’ll remember the covenant he made their ancestors. What covenant will he remember? He’s referring to the covenant he made with Abraham and with Isaac and with Jacob to give them and to their descendants the land of Canaan. Since he promised to give them the land, and since God does not change his mind, or lie, or break his promises, he would indeed bring them back to the land of Canaan. And, of course, we’ve been studying the books of Ezra and Nehemiah on Sunday mornings which tell us about the time when the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus, the king of Perisa, to issue a decree to allow God’s exiled people to return to the Promised Land and to God’s holy city.
In his anger, he would send them away from the land. But in his mercy, he would let them return. Our God is a jealous God, but he’s also gracious and compassionate and slow to anger and he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquity. He’s willing to remove the sins of his people from them. That was true in the Old Testament. It’s still true today, because — for the sake of Christ, who died for sinners — he pardons all those who turn from their sin in repentance and who turn to him for mercy.
Verses 32 to 40
And in verses 32 to 40 Moses reminds them once again of all that God has done for them in the past. He delivered them from their captivity in Egypt, using signs and wonders and awesome deeds. He did this to show them that he alone is God and there is no other god but him. He spoke to them from heaven and he brought them out of Egypt to give them the Promised Land of Canaan. Therefore they should confess that he alone is God in heaven above and on earth below. And they should keep his laws and decrees, so that it will go well for them and for their children after them.
Moses was teaching them the law of the Lord, because the law of the Lord was to be for them the rule for life. The law was not to be the way to life, because God was giving them life in the Promised Land as a free gift; and it was not something they deserved or earned by their obedience. No, the Lord was giving them the land as a free and gracious gift. But when they came into the land, they were to regard the law as the rule for life, to show them how to live their lives and how to please the God who loved and saved them.
And if you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, then God has rescued you from your captivity to sin and Satan and death. And he has promised you everlasting life in the new heaven and earth, which is our Promised Land. Though you did not deserve it, he pardoned your sins for the sake of Christ; and he has given you the free gift of eternal life, which you did not deserve and could not earn. He has given you forgiveness and the hope of eternal life, for the sake of Christ who laid down his life to set you free.
How then should you live? Well, you too must follow the law of God as the rule for your life. You must listen to God’s law and do it, for this is his will for you and for all his people. Has anything so great as this ever happened: that God should send his one and only Son into the world as one of us, to die for the sins of his people and to rise to give them life? Has anything so great as this ever happened: that God should give up his Son so that all who believe in him may cross from death to life? Has anything so great as this ever happened? Not at all. And so, the one who loved you and who sent his Son to save you calls on you to leave behind your sins; and to fight with all your might against temptation; and to keep his law and to obey his commands.
But notice this one last, brief thing. Turn back to verse 30 where Moses foretold how distress would come upon them and then they would return to the Lord. He was referring to the distress of the exile and how they would return to the Lord and to the Promised Land.
However, notice too that he uses the phrase ‘later days’, which can also be translated ‘latter days’ or ‘last days’. As you know, we’re living in the last days, which began with the Lord’s resurrection and which will end when he comes again. And so, it’s possible that Moses was not only speaking about the exile to Babylon and the return to Canaan, but he was referring to the trials and tribulations and the distress which we experience now in these, the last days in which we’re living. But after the distress of these days, the Lord will appear and he will bring his faithful people into the true Promised Land, the new heaven and earth, where we will live with the Lord forever and forever in glory.
And in the meantime, while we wait for that day to arrive, the Lord promises to write his law on our hearts, hearts which have been renewed by the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit, living inside God’s people, is able to help us to obey God. The Israelites kept sinning against him, again and again and again, even after they returned from exile. Didn’t we see that this morning when we studied Nehemiah 13? But in these, the last days, Christ has poured out his Spirit into the hearts of his people to enable us to be faithful and true and obedient, while we wait for the day when we will enter the Promised Land to come to be with the Lord forever.