Moses has been preparing the Israelites to enter the Promised Land of Canaan. And since chapter 5, he’s been going over God’s law with them to show them how to live as God’s people in the Promised Land. In chapter 5, we read how he reminded them of the Ten Commandments, which God first gave them at Mount Sinai 40 years previously. And, now, just before they crossed the River Jordan to enter the land, Moses reminded them of the commandments. And in chapters 6 to 26, he’s been explaining the Ten Commandments and he’s been applying them to life in the Promised Land at that time. And the words right at the end of chapter 26 suggest that the Lord and the people have renewed the covenant which they made with one another at Mount Sinai, when they bound themselves to one another and the Lord promised to protect his people and the people promised to obey the Lord. And so, 40 years later, they once again bound themselves to one another: the Lord declared he was their God; and they declared that they were his people. He promised to treat them as his treasured possession and to protect them; and they promised to walk in his ways and to keep his commandments.
It’s worth reminding ourselves once again of the priority of grace in the book of Deuteronomy. If we don’t remember the priority of grace, then we’re likely to misunderstand all this talk about commandments and laws and obedience. And by the priority of grace I mean that life in the Promised Land was not something the Israelites earned or deserved. They did not receive it from the Lord because of their obedience. After all, they were sinners like all the other nations and they disobeyed the Lord in thought and word and deed. They did not deserve life in the Promised Land. In fact, just like the other nations, they deserved to be condemned by the Lord for their sin and sent out of his presence forever. No, life in the Promised Land was not something they earned or deserved, but it was God’s graciously gift to them. He gave them what they could not earn; he gave them what they did not deserve. He graciously and freely chose them to be his people. He graciously and freely recused them from their slavery in Egypt. He graciously and freely led them through the wilderness. And he was now giving them life in the Promised Land as his gracious and free gift to them.
And so, as I’ve said before, the law was not the means to life in the Promised Land. That is, they did not earn life in the Promised Land by keeping the law. Life in the Promised Land was God’s gracious and free gift to them. However, having received life in the Promised Land as a gracious and free gift from God, the law was to be for them the rule for their life in the Promised Land. God gave them the law and all these commandments to show them how he wanted them to live in the Promised Land. By the law, the Lord made clear to them what his will for them was and how he wanted them to live.
And that’s the same for us. The law is not for us the means to eternal life. Eternal life in the presence of God in the new heavens and earth is not something we can earn and it’s not something we deserve, because all of us are sinners and all of us have fallen short of God’s glory. We’re sinners and we deserve to be condemned by God as lawbreakers. The law is not the means to life; and the only way to receive eternal life in the presence of God in the new heavens and earth is by trusting in Christ the Saviour who offered himself as the perfect sacrifice of for sins. Whoever believes in him is pardoned by God and receives the free gift of eternal life. So, we’re don’t receive eternal life by keeping the law, but by believing in Christ. However, the law is to be for us the rule for our life. By the law, God makes clear his will for us and how he wants us to live as his people. He wants his believing people to love him above all other things and to love our neighbour as ourselves. So, the way to receive eternal life is by believing: believing in Christ the only Saviour. But then, having believed in Christ for salvation, we’re to look to the law to show us how to live as God’s people in the world.
And so, that’s the priority of grace: the Israelites did not deserve life in the Promised Land of Canaan, but God graciously and freely gave it to them. And we don’t deserve life in the Promised Land to come, but God graciously and freely gives it to us and we receive it by faith in Christ the Saviour. And having believed, we turn to God’s law to direct our lives here on earth, while we wait for Christ to come again to bring us to glory.
Having said that, let’s turn to Deuteronomy 27 which can be divided into two parts: verses 1 to 10 and verses 11 to 26.
Verses 1 to 10
Verses 1 to 10 begin with Moses and the elders commanding the people to keep all the commands which Moses had given them that day. So, all the things we’ve been reading since chapter 5. And then, they tell the people that when they cross the River Jordan and enter the land which the Lord is giving them, they should set up some large stones and coat them with plaster. Moses doesn’t say how many stones they should set up and he doesn’t say how large they must be. I was listening to another preacher preach on this passage and he suggested the stones might have been similar to the ones at Stonehenge. So, not small stones, but great big stones, taller than any person. In fact, the commentators tell us that excavations in the area have uncovered a structure consisting of a row of ten stones, each one over three metres in height. So, it’s likely these were big standing stones.
And the reason they were to be coated in plaster was because the people were to write on the stones; and the plaster would mean the words could seen distinctly. Moses commanded the people to write on the stones all the words of this law. It’s not clear whether they were to write only the Ten Commandments or everything that appears in chapters 5 to 26. In any case, they were to set up these standing stones in the land the Lord their God was giving them, a land flowing with milk and honey. By referring in verse 3 to the Lord’s gift to them, Moses was reminding them of God’s kindness to them. And therefore, the one who was giving them these laws to keep is the God who loves them and who has been gracious and kind to them. And you see in verse 4, they were to set up the stones on Mount Ebal.
As well as the stones, they were to build an altar to the Lord their God. They were instructed not to use any iron tool on the stones of the altar. In other words, they weren’t to shape or fashion the stones in any way, but were to pile one stone on top of another in a very simple way. This wasn’t to be a fancy altar, but a simple one. Some of the commentators explain that the Canaanites built altars for their false gods using cut stones. And so, the Israelite altar was to be simple in order to distinguish it from the pagan ones. And once the altar was built, they were to offer burnt sacrifices on it to the Lord their God. Moses refers as well to fellowship offerings in verse 7 and he instructed the people to offer these sacrifices and to eat the offering and to rejoice in the presence of the Lord. According to Leviticus 1, burnt offerings were to make atonement for the people. Now, the phrase ‘to make atonement’ can refer to two things: to wipe clean or to pay a ransom. The exact meaning depends on the context; and here, it’s the second meaning which applies. By bringing an offering to the Lord, which was slaughtered before him and burnt, the worshipper was offering the Lord a ransom to pay for his sins, so that he might be pardoned and not condemned, which is what he deserved. The Lord, who is merciful, was willing to accept the offering in place of the worship so that the worshipper escaped the death penalty.
When fellowship offerings were brought to the Lord, part of it was offered to the Lord as a sacrifice, while part of it was eaten by the priests and the people in the presence of the Lord as a fellowship meal. The fellowship offering was also called the peace offering, because the fellowship meal was a celebration of the fact that there was peace between the Lord and his people. Though the people were sinners, who deserved to be condemned by the Lord, the Lord accepted the death of the animal in their place; and he was prepared to pardon their sins and to accept them as his people and to invite them into his presence to enjoy a meal together and to have fellowship with one another. Instead of treating them as their sins deserve, instead of repaying them according to their iniquity, the Lord pardoned their sins and allowed them to draw near to him with joy.
And once again, in verses 9 and 10, Moses — and the priests this time — reminded the people how they have become God’s people; and they ought therefore to obey him and follow his commands.
So, Moses and the elders instructed the people to set up the stones and to set up an altar. The stones represented the law, because the law of the Lord was written on them. The altar represented the gospel, because the sacrifices speak of God’s willingness to pardon the sins of his people. So, on Mount Ebal, they were given this reminder of the law and the gospel. The law condemns, because whenever we read it, it reminds us of our shortcomings and sins, they ways we have fallen short of doing God’s will. None of the Israelites loved the Lord with all their heart; and neither have we. None of the Israelites loved their neighbour as themselves; and neither have we. The law not only reveals to us God’s will for us, but it also reveals to us that we’re sinners who deserve to be condemned. But the law was also designed to lead sinners to Christ the Saviour, who is represented by the sacrifices. All those sacrifices which the Israelites offered on their altar point to the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, because he laid down his life as the ransom to pay for our sins once and for all. Though we deserve to be condemned, he was condemned in our place, so that whoever trusts in him as the only Saviour of the world is pardoned and forgiven for all that they have done wrong and they’re set free from condemnation and given the free gift of eternal life.
And so, instead of being sent away from God’s presence, we’re allowed to come near and to rejoice in his presence and to give thanks to him for his kindness to us. The Israelites ate a fellowship meal, and we eat the Lord’s Supper, to remember and give thanks to God for our salvation. And the Lord’s Supper which we enjoy now is a foretaste of the marriage supper of the Lamb, which all of God’s people will enjoy in the Promised Land to come. You can read about the marriage supper of the Lamb in Revelation 19 where it says that all the members of the church triumphant will sit down in heaven to enjoy a heavenly banquet with our Saviour, the Lamb of God who was slain for us and for our forgiveness. And the book of Revelation pictures this meal as a time of joy and gladness and a time of blessing on all who are invited to this heavenly banquet. And forever and forever, the Lord’s people will celebrate before the Lord; and we’ll enjoy the peace which Christ has established between us; and we’ll enjoyed fellowship with the Lord in whose presence we will live for ever and for ever.
Moses commanded the people to set up these standing stones to remind them of God’s law. And he commanded them to set up an altar to remind of the gospel. The law condemns us, but all the sacrifices they offered pointed forward to Christ the Saviour, who offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for sins. And through faith in him, we receive forgiveness for having broken God’s law and we receive the hope of everlasting life in the presence of the Lord where we will enjoy fellowship with him and with his people forever.
Verses 11 to 26
In verse 11 we read that Moses commanded them to do something else whenever they entered the Promised Land. Not only were they to set up the stones and the altar on Mount Ebal, but half of the tribes were to stand on Mount Gerizim and half of the tribes were to stand on Mount Ebal. You can see how the tribes were divided in verses 12 and 13. It’s not clear why they were divided in this way. Some of the commentators point out that the tribes on Gerizim were all descended from Leah and Rachel, Jacob’s two wives, while the tribes on Ebal were mostly descended from Bilhah and Zilpah, the servants of Leah and Rachel. However, Reuben and Zebulun were also descended from Leah. So, other commentators suggest that they were divided by geography: the land of the tribes on Gerizim was located in the south of the land; the land of the tribes on Ebal was located in the north of the land.
In any case, the tribes on Gerizim were to pronounce blessings on the people. And the tribes on Ebal were to pronounce curses on the people. And the blessings and curses are listed for us in the next chapter. The blessings for obedience are listed in verses 1 to 14 and the curses for disobedience are listed in verses 15 to 68. We’ll think more about those the next time, but the Lord was promising good things to his people if they obeyed him; and he warned them about the bad things they would suffer if they disobeyed him. In other words, just as parents will offer rewards to their children to encourage them to obey; and they will warn their children of possible punishments to discourage them from disobeying, so the Lord offered promises and punishments to his children, the people of Israel. As I say, we’ll think more about this next time. But before we get to that, Moses explains in verses 14 to 26 that the Levites were to warn the people of some of the curses they could expect for disobeying the Lord. And after each warning, the people were to respond by saying, ‘Amen’. And by saying ‘Amen’, the people were indicating their agreement with what was being said.
So, cursed is the man who carves an image or casts an idol. Such a person has broken the first and second commandments, forbidding the people from having other gods and making idols. Cursed is the man who dishonours his father or his mother. Such a person has broken the fifth commandment commanding us to honour our parents. Cursed is the man who moves his neighbour’s boundary stone. Such a person has broken the seventh commandment, forbidding theft, because this person wants to take land belonging to his neighbour. Cursed is the man who leads the blind astray. Perhaps the person wanted to steal from the blind, or perhaps by deceiving the blind man, he was breaking the ninth commanding, requiring honesty at all times. Cursed is the man who withholds justice from the alien, the fatherless or the widow. We’ve seen before that the Lord’s people are to care for the vulnerable and weak. Cursed is the man who sleeps with his father’s wife, that is, his step-mother. Cursed is the man who has sexual relations with an animal. Cursed is the man who sleeps with his sister. Cursed is the man who sleeps with his mother-in-law. So, incest and bestiality are forbidden by the Lord. Cursed is the man who kills his neighbour. And cursed is the man who accepts a bribe to kill an innocent man. Whoever kills in either of these two ways has broken the sixth commandment, forbidding murder.
Although these laws may seem fairly random, you should note that the words ‘in secret’ or ‘secretly’ appear at the beginning in verse 15 and near the end in verse 24. It could be that this is what all of them have in common. In other words, Moses is referring to secret sins. Someone might set up an idol in secret. None of their neighbours may know that a son or daughter was disobedient to his parents. No one sees the man who moves his neighbour’s boundary. The blind man cannot see who it is who is leading him astray. No one knows what another person has done to defraud the alien, the fatherless and the widow. All the sexual sins happen in secret, behind closed doors and under cover of darkness. Someone kills in secret.
These are all secret sins. And so, the person who commits them may think he has gotten away with them. So, his neighbours may regard him highly. He may be well respected in the community. People may look up to him. But they do not know his secret life or what he’s really like. No one knows, apart from the Lord. And the Lord sees all things. He knows what we do in secret and he knows our secrets thoughts. And he will chastise and punish his people for our secret sins. The Israelites, who were about to enter the Promised Land, must not be deceived into thinking that they can live a double-life, being outwardly upright and yet sinning in secret. The Lord sees it all. And so, they needed to ensure that they kept the law of the Lord when everyone was watching and when no one was watching.
And the same applies to us today. The Lord knows us inside and out and he sees us when we get up in the morning and when we go to bed at night; and he sees us all through the day and all through the night. He’s familiar with all our ways and with all our words. We cannot hide anything from him, which means there’s nothing we can keep a secret from him. Very often, people behave one way when they’re at church, compared to when they’re at home. And so, their families see another side of them which no one else sees. And then, there are those things people might think and do, which not even the members of their families know about, the things they do in absolute secrecy, when there’s no one around. Or the way people are at church and with the families is very different from the way they are at work; and if anyone from church or home saw them at work, they would not recognise them, because they’re so very different.
Do you have secret sins? Are there things you do or think which would make you blush if anyone knew about those things? Perhaps you’re even thinking about your secret sin right now? It’s on your mind, because you know it’s wrong and even now your conscience is accusing you.
Well, you need to understand that there is nothing that is hidden from the Lord. He knows us intimately and there is nothing we can keep from him. And so, a few minutes ago, we sang part of Psalm 19 in which the psalmist asked the Lord to forgive his hidden sin. Well, we all have hidden sins, don’t we? But the good news of the gospel is that when we confess our sins, the Lord is faithful and just and he will forgive our sins and he will cleanse us from all unrighteousness. He’s able to forgive us, because the Lord Jesus laid down his life as the ransom to pay for all our sins, even our secret sins; and by his shed blood we are washed and cleansed. In Psalm 32, the psalmist said that when he kept silent, and so, when he did not confess his sins, the Lord’s hand was heavy upon him. In other words, he was suffering the curses of the Lord and the Lord was chastising him for his unconfessed sin. But then, when he acknowledged his sin, when he brought it out into the open and confessed it before the Lord, then the Lord forgave him the guilt of his sin.
We cannot hide our sins from the Lord. He sees all of them. But the good news of the gospel is that whoever confesses their sins will be pardoned for the sake of Christ who died for sinners. So, go to him in prayer. Confess your secret sins and your public sins and know that the Lord will do as he has promised and will pardon you.
And just as we close, notice the final verse of the chapter, where it says:
Cursed is the man who does not uphold the words of this law by carrying them out.
The Apostle Paul quotes that verse in Galatians 3:10 to make the point that no one will be justified — pardoned and accepted by God — by keeping the law. Some of us break the law a lot; others break the law only a little. Some of us may have many secrets sins, and some of us may have very few secret sins. But we’re all lawbreakers, because none of us has kept the law perfectly all of the time. None of us has loved the Lord perfectly all of the time. None of us has loved our neighbour perfectly all of the time. And therefore we all deserve to be cursed by God and punished forever.
But, Paul says, Christ redeemed us — he set us free — from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us. He took the blame for what we have done wrong and he suffered the wrath and curse of God on our behalf. And through faith in him, you are pardoned.
But there’s more. Paul says that Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to us through Jesus Christ, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit. Instead of suffering the curse of God, which is what you deserve, you who believe have received the blessing of God, which is the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit works in you, in your hearts, to renew you in God’s image, so that inside and out, in public and in private, you’ll become more and more willing and able to do God’s will and to walk in his ways.
And so, the true believer acknowledges:
Amen. I deserve to be cursed by God for all my sins.
But the true believer also rejoices:
Christ was cursed for me. And God has blessed me by forgiving my sins and by giving me his Spirit. And so, from now on, I renounce my former sins and I will live for him alone.