I’ve said before that some of the Bible commentators believe that Moses is explaining or expounding the Ten Commandments in this part of the book of Deuteronomy. The connection is not always clear, but, in general, that seems to be the case. Chapters 6 to 11 were about loving the Lord with all your heart, soul and strength. That matches the first commandment which is concerned with loving God above all other things. Chapter 12 was about worshipping the Lord in the right place and in the right way. That matches the second commandment which is concerned with right worship. Chapters 13 and 14 were about what the people were to do if anyone tempted them to forsake the Lord; and they also contained instructions about clean and unclean food and the tithes they were to offer. Those chapters were to do with how the people were to honour the name of the Lord by remaining committed to him and by living holy lives. Therefore those chapters match the third commandment which is concerned with God’s name. Chapters 15 and 16 were about the religious festivals which the people were to keep each year. That matches the fourth commandment which concerns when we should worship the Lord.
The fifth commandment is:
Honour your father and your mother….
However, while the commandment mentions fathers and mothers specifically, the fifth commandment is concerned with authority in general. As our church’s Larger Catechism explains: father and mother in the fifth commandment means not only natural parents, but all who are greater that us in years and gifts and especially those who are placed over us by God’s ordinance, whether in family, church of society. So, God’s law not only commands us to honour our parents, but it commands us to honour whomever God has placed over us.
And so, in today’s passage, Moses mentions various leaders in Israelite society: judges from verse 18 of chapter 16; the king from verse 14 of chapter 17; priests from verse 1 of chapter 18; and prophets from verse 9 of chapter 18. The judges decided between the people whenever disputes arose. The king ruled over the people on God’s behalf. The priests served in the temple, offering sacrifices on behalf of the people. And the prophets were sent by God to declare his word to his people. In the fifth commandment, the Lord commands his people to honour those in authority over them; and in today’s passage, Moses explains that that means the Israelites were to honour the judges, the king, the priests and the prophets.
And each of these offices point us to Christ who is our great prophet, priest and king and who will one day come to judge the living and the dead. And so, what we’re reading here is not ancient history about people who lived a long time ago and who have nothing to do with us today. On the contrary, by means of these things, the Lord God was preparing his people for the coming of the Christ, who would fulfil the office of a prophet by declaring God’s will for our salvation; and who would fulfil the office of a priest by offering himself as the perfect sacrifice for sins; and who would fulfil the office of a king by ruling over his people and by protecting them; and who will one day come to judge the world in righteousness.
And so, let’s look at what Moses said about each of these offices, because these offices speak to us of the Christ who was coming into the world to deliver his people from their sin and misery by fulfilling these offices on their behalf.
Let’s turn to verse 18 of chapter 16 where Moses commanded the people to appoint judges and officials for each of their tribes in every town. It’s not clear what the difference is between the judges and the officials, but perhaps the officials assisted the judges in some way. The NIV says they’re to judge the people fairly. A more literal translation is that they were to judge the people with a righteous judgment. So, their judgment was to be righteous, which means it was to reflect the law of the Lord, so that it would be right in God’s sight. Then Moses mentioned three things they were not to do: they weren’t to pervert justice; they were not to show partiality; they were not to accept a bribe. Instead they were to follow justice and justice alone. The word for ‘justice’ is also the word for ‘righteousness’. And so, these judges were to pursue righteousness and only righteousness. In all their decisions, they were to seek to do what was right in the sight of the Lord.
We’ll skip over the next three verses and jump down to verse 2 of chapter 17 where Moses says that if anyone among them is accused of doing evil in the sight of the Lord by worshipping false gods, they must investigate the case thoroughly. If the accusation proves to be true, the guilty person must be stoned to death. However, no one could be put to death on the testimony of only one witness. There must be at least two witnesses for capital cases. After all, if there’s only one witness, the witness may be lying because of some personal grudge against the accused. And so, the allegation needs to be backed up by others. And the witnesses must be the first ones to put the guilty person to death. By means of this action, they would purge the evil from among them. They were to be God’s holy people and wickedness must not be tolerated among them.
In verses 8 to 13 we read that difficult cases were to be referred to the priest and the judge in Jerusalem. It’s not clear who the judge in Jerusalem was, but it may have been the High Priest. Everyone was to abide by what the priests decided on penalty of death.
Let’s go back to the three verses which we skipped over. In verse 21, Moses commands the people not to set up an Asherah pole beside the Lord’s altar. Asherah poles were set up by the pagans to symbolise their goddess Asherah. Well, the Israelites were not to set up Asherah poles or any kind of sacred stone near the altar of the Lord, because he hated such things. After all, he’s the only God; and these idols are only false gods. And then Moses adds that the people must not offer the Lord an ox or sheep that was blemished, because that would be detestable to him. Any offerings which they brought to the Lord must be flawless.
As one of the commentators states, those three verses seem out of place, because the surrounding verses are concerned with judges and witnesses. However, since the judges are commanded to judge righteously, it’s perhaps a reminder to them that the only true authority which is over them is the Lord and his word. Whereas the pagans bowed to the authority of Asherah, the Lord’s people are to bow to the authority of the Lord alone. And so, when trying to determine what is right and wrong, when trying to determine what is good and evil, they’re not to rely on the wisdom of the world, but they’re to rely on the wisdom of the Lord, who has made his will known to us in his word. The wisdom of the world said there’s no difference between the Lord and Asherah; they’re both gods and worthy of worship. The wisdom of the world said what does it matter whether your offering is lame or not. But the Lord who is our God has made clear that he’s the only God and that our offerings must be without blemish. And, of course, the offerings had to be without blemish, because every offering pointed to Christ, who offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for sins.
But let’s move on now to see what Moses said about the king. In verse 14 Moses anticipates a time after the people have entered the land and after they have settled there, when they will say to themselves that they want a king like all the nations around them. Now, the Lord was their King. And he was a great King who had rescued them from Egypt and who provided for them in the wilderness and who was now bringing them into the Promised Land. He was a great King who had defeated their enemies and was giving them a good land to live in. And he had given them laws to keep and he had promised to keep them forever. He has a great and a good King. Nevertheless, the time would come when the people would ask for a human king, so that they would be like the other nations who all had human kings.
And the Lord was willing to grant them what they wanted. However, whenever it came time to appoint a human king, they must ensure that the person they appoint is the king the Lord their God chooses. They must not choose a foreigner to rule over them, but only one of their own fellow Israelites. Furthermore, the king must not acquire great numbers of horses; nor must he take many wives for himself; nor must be accumulate large amounts of silver and gold for himself. In ancient times, a king would acquire lots of horses because he wanted to build up his army to conquer more lands. Moses mentions Egypt which apparently was the place to go in those days to get horses. However, the Israelite king was not to build a great army or seek to conquer many lands, because the Israelites were to keep to the land the Lord was giving them. And in ancient times, kings would acquire lots of wives, and especially foreign wives, as a way to establish treaties with the other nations. But the Israelite king, like all the Israelites, was to remain faithful to the Lord. The danger of having many wives is highlighted by Solomon who was the wisest man in the world, but he foolishly married foreign wives who encouraged him to worship their false gods. And in ancient times, kings made themselves rich by imposing heavy taxes on the people. But the Israelite king was not to be greedy for gold, but he was to love and serve the people. King Ahab and his wife Jezebel were the opposite of this, because Jezebel arranged for poor Naboth to be killed, so that her husband could take over his vineyard.
And look: the king is not above the law, because when he takes the throne, he’s to write out for himself his own copy of God’s law, so that he’ll be able to have it with him at all times and read it all the days of his life and so learn to revere the Lord and to follow his laws. He’s not to think he’s better than his fellow Israelites; and he’s not to think he doesn’t need to follow God’s law. He’s not above the law, but, like his fellow Israelites, the king must walk in the ways of the Lord, not turning to the right or the left, but doing the will of the Lord throughout his life.
And so, just as the judges were to judge righteously, according to God’s law, so the king was to rule righteousness, according to God’s law. Unfortunately, many of the kings of Israel and Judah were not like this, and instead of keeping the law of the Lord, they went astray. I’ve already mentioned Solomon whose many wives led him astray. And I’ve mentioned Ahab, who killed Naboth in order to possess his land. And what about King Jehoiakim in the days of Jeremiah the prophet? The Lord commanded Jeremiah to write down in a scroll his message to his people. The scroll was brought to the king and read in his presence. And whenever his secretary read three or four columns of the scroll, the king cut them off with a knife and threw them into the fire, until the whole of the scroll was destroyed. Instead of writing out his own copy of God’s word, that king destroyed God’s word. But the true king was to love the Lord and his word and he was to seek to do it.
Let’s turn now to the priests. Moses reminds the people that the priests — who were taken from the tribe of Levi — were to have no allotment or inheritance with Israel. In other words, whereas the people from all the other tribes were to receive some land in Canaan, the priests were not to receive any land. They weren’t to be farmers, but were called by God to serve him in the tabernacle and temple. Since they didn’t have land to grow crops, they were to live off the offerings which the people brought to the Lord. So, whenever the people brought an animal to be sacrificed, part of it was burned on the altar and part of it was given to the priests for food. In a sense, then, the Lord was their inheritance, because just as the Israelites received what they needed from the land, the priests received what they needed from the Lord. In verses 3 to 5 Moses defines what was due to them and reminds the people that the Lord had chosen the priests to stand and minister in the Lord’s name always.
While all priests were Levites, not all Levites were priests. But the non-priestly Levites were called by God to help the priests in the tabernacle and temple. Verses 6 to 8 refer to these non-priestly Levites; and Moses describes how a Levite who was living far away from Jerusalem might decide to go up to Jerusalem to serve in the temple. When he does so, he must be allowed to serve in the temple with his fellow Levites. He must also be allowed to share in the food that was given to the Levites for their work, even though he may have another source of income. In other words, whoever serves in the tabernacle or temple must be allowed to live off the offerings which the people brought to the Lord.
What Moses wrote here about the priests and the Levites who served in the tabernacle and temple is clearly a very brief summary of what we read in the books of Leviticus and Numbers, where the Lord gives more details about their work. But he makes clear in this passage that these priests and Levites were set aside by the Lord from the rest of the Israelites to serve him in his sanctuary.
And finally we come to the prophets. In verses 9 to 13, Moses refers to various pagan practices which the other nations performed in order to discern or affect the will of their gods. So, they tried to affect the will or mind of their gods by offering up their children as sacrifices. Or they tried to discern the will or mind of their gods by means of divination or by consulting the dead and so on. Moses makes clear that God’s people are not to do these detestable things; and it’s because of these detestable practices which the pagans performed that the Lord was driving them out of Canaan. So, his holy people must not do these things.
How then will they know the will of the Lord? Well, the Lord has given them his law; and the Lord will send them prophets to declare his will to his people. However, Moses refers specifically to one prophet in particular, whom the Lord will raise up and who will be like Moses. They must listen to him. Moses refers as well to the time when they gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai, which was also known as Horeb. And when the Lord came down on the mountain, and there was thunder and lightening and fire and dark clouds, the people were terrified and asked Moses to speak to them on God’s behalf. ‘Do not have God speak to us’, they said, ‘or we will die.’ And so, Moses was appointed to speak to the people on God’s behalf. And Moses anticipates a time when God will raise up another prophet who will speak to the people on God’s behalf. And so, they must listen to him, because he will proclaim the word of the Lord. God will call to account whoever does not listen to this prophet. And the people must put to death any false prophets who appear. There are two kinds of false prophet. A false prophet is someone who claims to speak in the name of the Lord when the Lord has not sent him. And a false prophet is someone who claim to speak in the name of a false god. Both kinds of false prophets must be destroyed.
How can they know when a message that is spoken is not from the Lord? Well, if the prophet predicts that something will happen, and it doesn’t happen, then he’s clearly a false prophet, because the word of the Lord is true and he knows what the future will be, because he has planned what the future will be.
And so, there you are. In the fifth commandment, the Lord commands his people to honour those in authority over them. And in Israel, the Lord appointed judges to judge the people with righteousness; he appointed kings to rule over the people with righteousness; he appointed priests to serve the Lord faithfully in his sanctuary; and he appointed prophets to declare his will to his people. And in particular, the Lord would raise up a specific prophet, who would be like Moses.
Christ the Prophet
That specific prophet, who would be like Moses, is none other than the Lord Jesus Christ, who came from God as the very Word of God to make known God’s will for our salvation. Through his ministry here on earth, he taught the people as one who had authority, because he had come from God and everything he said was true. Indeed, he even predicted that he would suffer many things and would be rejected by the religious authorities and would be killed and would be raised; and everything he predicted happened.
And in all he said and did, he revealed to the people the glory of God and how sinners must repent and believe the good news because the kingdom of God was near. And he promised forgiveness and eternal life to all who believed in his name. And though he is no longer on the earth, he continues to fill the office of a prophet by speaking through his written word which he has given to the church; and by his Spirit who enables us to understand his word. And he sends out preachers in his name to make known the gospel message, so that people everywhere might hear and believe and call out to him for salvation.
And since he is the true prophet, sent from God, everyone who hears his word is duty-bound to believe and to obey it. If it were the word of a man, we could safely disregard it. But since he is the true prophet who proclaims the word of God, we must listen to him and believe his promises and obey his laws.
Christ the Priest
But Christ is also our great High Priest, because when he was on the earth, he offered himself to God as the perfect sacrifice for sins. The blood of bulls and goats could not really cleanse the worshipper who offered them to God, and they really only reminded the worshipper that he was a sinner who needed to be cleansed. But by his once-for-all sacrifice for sinners, Christ has paid the ransom to set his people free from condemnation; and by his blood, shed on the cross, he’s able to cleanse all who trust in him from all our guilt and shame. He offered himself as the spotless lamb, the perfect sacrifice, to atone for our sins and to make peace with God forever. And after he offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for sins, he entered, not a man-made temple, but the true temple, which is heaven itself, where even now he represents us before the Father, interceding on our behalf.
Christ the King
And the Lord Jesus Christ is the true King. As our King, he was perfectly obedient to God’s law and did all that the Lord required. And instead of amassing wealth for himself, he gave up everything, including his life, for the sake of his people. And instead of taking many wives for himself, he was faithful to his one bride, the church of Jesus Christ, whom he loved and cherished and for whom he gave himself up to make her holy.
And after his death on the cross, he was raised to new life and exalted to the highest place to sit at God’s right hand and to rule over all things for the sake of his people. As our exalted King, he calls his people out of the darkness and into the light; out of the tyranny of Satan and into his own kingdom of grace and glory, which he’s extending throughout the world through the reading and preaching of his word. And as our King, he defends us against all his and our enemies. And as our King, he rules over us by giving us his law to keep and his Spirit to help us. And since he’s a mighty King, he’s able to rule over all things and work all things together for our good, so that even when evil things happen to us and troubles and trials come our way, he’s able to work them together for our good and his own glory. And when the time is right, he will come again to conquer his enemies for good and for ever and to bring his people into the new heavens and earth where we will reign with him.
Christ the Judge
And when Christ comes again, he will judge the living and dead. So, everyone who has ever lived with be brought before him and he will judge the world in righteousness. Those who did not believe in him will be condemned and sent away to be punished forever for all that they have done wrong. But those who believed, whose names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, will be acquitted at the judgment, so that they will not be condemned, but allowed to live forever and forever with all of God’s people in the world to come.
These Old Testament offices prepared the way for the coming of the Christ into the world, because every judge, every king, every priest, every prophet which we read about in the Old Testament fell short in various ways and made the people long for a true prophet and a true priest and a true king and a true judge. It made the people long for Christ our Saviour.
And here’s the thing: the same Spirit who lived in Christ and enabled him to fulfil these offices lives in all who believe in him. And so, the Spirit of the Christ in us enables us to speak God’s word to one another to build one another up in faith and comfort. And the Spirit of Christ in us enables us to intercede for one another in prayer and to offer ourselves to God as living sacrifices. And the Spirit of Christ in us enables us to strive with all our might against sin and Satan so that they will not rule over us. And according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 6, the saints one day will judge the world and angels.
And so, because we’re united with Christ through faith, we too are able to share in his anointing, and serve the Lord our God as prophets, priests kings and judges. In Old Testament times, only special people could serve the Lord in these ways. But such is the grace of God to sinners like us that we should be pardoned through faith in Christ and filled with his Spirit and enabled to serve him in these ways. And so, you should give thanks to the Lord for his kindness to you. And you should seek his help to serve him faithfully. And all to the praise of his glorious grace.