Deuteronomy 4:21-24

Verses covered in this passage:

  • Deuteronomy 4:21
  • Deuteronomy 4:22
  • Deuteronomy 4:23
  • Deuteronomy 4:24

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.

Alluding to the incident that prevented him from entering Canaan, Moses asks the Israelites to carefully obey God’s laws in order to avoid making any graven image to represent Him. Failure to obey would result in severe punishment because God is a consuming fire.

For the third time Moses mentions the incident that prevented him from entering the Promised Land (see 1:37; 3:26). According to Numbers 20, God commanded Moses to speak to the rock to bring water for the thirsty people. Instead of speaking to the rock, Moses struck it twice out of anger (v. 8). Such an act not only demonstrated Moses’s lack of obedience to Yahweh, but also dishonored the LORD. Godwas not treated as“holy in the sight of the sons of Israel(vv. 10-13).

Therefore, in Deuteronomy 4:21-22, Moses stated, “Now the LORD was angry with me on your account, and swore that I would not cross the Jordan, and that I would not enter the good land which the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance. For I will die in the land, I shall not cross the Jordan, but you shall cross and take possession of this good land.” Negative consequences always follow disobedience to the Suzerain Yahweh. Moses, Israel’s leader, was prevented from entering and possessing the land of Canaan because he showed a lack of obedience to Yahweh and dishonored Him in the sight of the people.

Moses’ s purpose for alluding to this incident again here is obvious: he wanted to guard the Israelites against any form of disobedience to God so that they might not be denied access to Canaan or be removed from it. That this was the author’s intent is clear from the fact that he was about to die there in Moab. Therefore, it was an urgency for him to remind the Israelites of what happened to him so that they might pay close attention to God’s precepts. In other words, Israel’s leader (Moses) was saying something like: “If this can happen to me, it can surely happen to anyone of you, if you dishonor the LORD your God.”

It is quite remarkable that the clearly strong and capable leader (Moses) is pronouncing to the people his own failure as an example. This is a good illustration why scripture calls Moses the most humble man on the face of the earth (Numbers 12:3). Further, it is amazing that Moses pronounces that he is staying behind to die.

Having alluded to the incident that prevented him from possessing Canaan, Moses strongly declared, “So watch yourselves, that you do not forget the covenant of the LORD your God which He made with you, and make for yourselves a graven image in the form of anything.” The Israelites were to be watchful to observe all the stipulations of God’s covenant in order not to make any graven image to represent Him. Doing so would reduce the Creator to the level of His creatures. Such an act would be inappropriate because it would bring dishonor the LORD.

The warning given to Israel was strong because Moses knew God’s discipline can be fatal. In fact, having already experienced God’s judgment by being excluded from those who would possess Canaan, Moses did not want the people to fall under a similar judgment. For this reason, he told them that Yahweh is a consuming fire, and a jealous God. The phrase “consuming fire” refers to God’s holiness and judgment. Fire is used to create, to refine and to consume. God does all these things, each as appropriate. In this case the adjective “consuming” likely emphasizes God’s judging power to eliminate unrighteousness and cleanse it from the earth.

Not only is the LORD a consuming fire, He is also a jealous God. The adjective “jealous” does not mean that God is envious of what belongs to others. Rather, it means that God wants to preserve what belongs to Him. In such a covenant relationship where the superior or suzerain God redeemed His vassals out of the iron furnace, from Egypt, it is clear why He would demand exclusive love and faithfulness from them (Deuteronomy 6:5). God has chosen the Israelites to be His “own possession” and has set them apart just for that purpose (Exodus 19:5; Deuteronomy 7:6). Therefore, since Yahweh alone is sovereign, He did not want to share His “glory” to anyone else, nor His “praise to graven images” (Isaiah 42:8). That is why He required exclusive loyalty from His servants.

Biblical Text:

21 Now the Lord was angry with me on your account, and swore that I would not cross the Jordan, and that I would not enter the good land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance. 22 For I will die in this land, I shall not cross the Jordan, but you shall cross and take possession of this good land. 23 So watch yourselves, that you do not forget the covenant of the Lord your God which He made with you, and make for yourselves a graven image in the form of anything against which the Lord your God has commanded you. 24 For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.

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