Deuteronomy 4:15-20

Verses covered in this passage:

  • Deuteronomy 4:15
  • Deuteronomy 4:16
  • Deuteronomy 4:17
  • Deuteronomy 4:18
  • Deuteronomy 4:19
  • Deuteronomy 4:20

The book of Deuteronomy is the fifth and last book of the Torah (“law”). It continues the story of the first 4 books and picks up exactly where the book of Numbers ends (with the people on the plain of Moab). Therefore, as we set the context for the book of Deuteronomy, it is important that we briefly summarize the theme of the previous books to see how the story of God unfolds.

Genesis describes God’s plan to bless the Israelites and the world through one man named Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3). Exodus focuses on God’s loving act by which He rescued the Israelites from Egypt in order to have a covenant relationship with them. Once the children of Israel are redeemed, Leviticus instructs them to live a holy life that reflects the life of their covenant redeemer (cf. Lev. 19). Since the first generation of the Israelites failed to obey God wholeheartedly, the book of Numbers displays a strong contrast between God’s faithfulness and the nation’s failure. That is why the book of Deuteronomy reiterates and expands on the covenant to a new generation of Israelites poised to enter and conquer the Promised Land. The message of the book is centered around two key terms: love and loyalty (Deut. 6:4-5).

The introduction to Deuteronomy includes an explanation on how the book reflects the pattern of the suzerain-vassal treaty, particularly the Hittite treaty of the second millennium BC. In this type of covenant, the suzerain, or superior (such as a king) provides the stipulations to the vassal who is the subject. In Deuteronomy, the suzerain is the true God (Yahweh) and the vassal is Israel. Chapter four contains the various features found in a suzerain-vassal treaty, thereby confirming the nature of Deuteronomy as a covenant document.

In Deuteronomy 4 the Suzerain (Ruler) God is mentioned many times, references are made to some historical acts, and stipulations regarding the covenant are outlined. Moreover, the vassal is exhorted to obey the covenant stipulations in order to receive blessings. Failure to do so results in curses. Finally, witnesses such as “heavens and earth” are mentioned, and the need to transfer the covenantal information to the next generation is stated. Thus, as this chapter concludes the first of the three speeches (or discourses) of Moses, it summarizes several points that will be discussed throughout the rest of the book.

Although Deuteronomy 4 is part of the first discourse, it differs from the previous chapters in at least two ways. Whereas chapters 1-3 offered a historical review describing how Israel reached the boundary of the Promised Land, chapter 4 sets forth the various precepts that must be obeyed by Israel (the vassal) in order to receive the blessing while dwelling in the land.
Whereas the historical narrative instructed the Israelites on how to follow military instructions to conquer Canaan, this chapter teaches them to obey permanent laws of God in order to remain in Canaan and be blessed. Essentially, Deuteronomy 4 teaches the people that whether they submit to God’s covenantal laws will determine the consequences they experience. Thus, this chapter serves as a bridge between the historical prologue of chapters 1-3 and the exposition of the law which starts in 5:1.

Moses warns the Israelites against making any idols as a way of worshipping Yahweh. Doing so would reduce the creator (God) to the level of His creatures.

This section is built upon the previous one which explained God’s encounter with His people at Mount Horeb (Sinai). It will be recalled in that day God manifested Himself to His people from the mountain in a blazing flame. The people could hear a voice but did not see any physical form (v. 12). For this reason, Moses here warns Israel against making any idols to represent God. He said, “So watch yourselves carefully, since you did not see any form on the day the LORD spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire.” Moses taught the people that God has no physical appearance. The New Testament confirms this teaching by telling us that “God is spirit” and no human eyes have seen Him at any time (John 4:24; John 1:18). Because God cannot be portrayed in any form, the Israelites were prohibited from crafting any image to represent Him.

Moses warned the Israelites against making any image to represent God because He is beyond human comprehension. God has no physical gender — male or female. To conceive God as having a physical form not only displeases Him but also misrepresents Him (Exodus 20:4-5). Making images — such as  the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the sky,  the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water below the earth — to portray God would be misleading and inappropriate. The reason is because God is spirit and is the sole creator of everything: the heavens, the earth, the men and the beasts (Genesis 1). He has created the universe by His “great power” and by His “outstretched arm” (Jeremiah 27:5). Therefore, He cannot be represented by any of His creatures.

Furthermore, Moses prohibited Israel from worshipping the inanimate objects of heavens such as the sun, the moon, or the stars. He said, “And beware not to lift up your eyes to heaven and see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, and be drawn away and worship them and serve them, those which the LORD your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven.” The reason for this prohibition is because these objects had been allotted by God to be at the service of human beings. As such, they are not worthy of worship. Yahweh gave man dominion over the things He created (Genesis 1:26-28). Therefore, Yahweh alone is worthy of worship and is sovereign over all His creation. To worship any other god is to be disloyal to the Suzerain Yahweh, and instead serve another superior.

The sovereign God has taken Israel for Himself and brought them out of the iron furnace, from Egypt. The phrase translated as “out of the iron furnace” explains the severity of the suffering Israel endured in Egypt. Having been the dominant economic and military force of the world at that time, Egypt was almost invincible (untouchable) from a human perspective. However, Yahweh rescued His people from Egypt by the “greatness” of His “arm” (Exodus 15:16), so that they might be His own possession. This account once again demonstrates that Yahweh is incomparable. He has supreme authority over His creatures and therefore should not be represented by anything.

Biblical Text:

15 So watch yourselves carefully, since you did not see any form on the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire, 16 so that you do not act corruptly and make a graven image for yourselves in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, 17 the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the sky, 18 the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water below the earth. 19 And beware not to lift up your eyes to heaven and see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, and be drawn away and worship them and serve them, those which the Lord your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven. 20 But the Lord has taken you and brought you out of the iron furnace, from Egypt, to be a people for His own possession, as today.

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