Deuteronomy 4:25-31

Verses covered in this passage:

  • Deuteronomy 4:25
  • Deuteronomy 4:26
  • Deuteronomy 4:27
  • Deuteronomy 4:28
  • Deuteronomy 4:29
  • Deuteronomy 4:30
  • Deuteronomy 4:31

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.

When the Israelites live comfortably in Canaan, they and their children will fall into idolatry. Consequently, they will be removed from the land and will worship deceitful gods. Yet, when they genuinely repent, God will restore them because of His compassion.

Moses begins this section with the conjunction “when” (ki, in Hebrew) to look at the distant future. He said, “When you become the father of children and children’s children and have remained long in the land, and act corruptly, and make an idol in the form of anything, and do that which is evil in the sight of the LORD your God so as to provoke Him to anger.”

This warning against making graven images to represent God was relevant not only to Moses’ contemporaries, but also to future generations of Israelites. The reason is because of the LORD’s unconditional covenant with Abram in which He promised him a great nation and a fruitful land (Genesis 12:1-3; Exodus 3:17). In other words, the LORD chose the nation Israel, not a single generation of Israelites. This truth will be emphasized again and again in the historical books as well as the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible. As Paul emphasizes in Romans, God has never and will never take back any of His promises to Israel (Romans 11:28-32).

Although the land was given to Israel as a precious and unconditional gift, obedience to God was required in order to live in it and enjoy all its privileges as loyal vassals. That explains why Moses repeatedly commanded the Israelites to “teach” God’s laws “diligently” to their children that they might also experience blessing (Deuteronomy 4:9-10; 6:7; 11:19). Now, knowing that the comfort of Canaan could lead the people to idolatry, Moses called “heaven and earth to witness” against them, that they would surely perish quickly from the land where they were going over the Jordan to possess it.

It was a common practice in the ancient Near Eastern societies to call heaven and earth along with the gods as supreme authorities to punish those who violated the covenant stipulations. In Deuteronomy, however, Moses invoked heaven and earth as witnesses to testify on God’s behalf when He inflicts His just discipline on His disobedient people (Deuteronomy 31:28; 32:1).

God’s discipline is clear in verses 26-28. Since the land of Canaan was a precious gift to the Israelites, their disobedience would preclude them from enjoying it. Moses predicted that some of the Israelites would perish quickly from the land while others would be removed from it. Moses said, “You shall not live long on it, but will be utterly destroyed.” In addition, Israel would be scattered among the peoples, and they would be left few in number among the nations where the LORD was driving them. They would lose the privilege of worshipping the true God. They would instead worship insignificant gods, that is, idols that depend on humans for their existence or their survival. As Moses said, these gods are the work of man’s hands, wood and stone, which neither see nor hear nor eat nor smell.

Nevertheless, it is by experiencing the discomfort of discipline that the Israelites will turn back to Yahweh. Moses stated, “But from there you will seek the LORD your God, and you will find Him if you search for Him with all your heart and all your soul.” The word “heart” describes the seat of feeling, and of the intellect. The word “soul” refers to the invisible part of man and is the seat of desires and passions. Israel’s exit from the Promised Land along with their distress will cause them to seek the covenant LORD with a genuine heart. In the latter days, when the Israelites (in exile) notice that their pagan gods cannot do anything for them, they will return to the LORD their God and listen to His voice. Moses gives us the reason why God is going to forgive His people and accept them: “For the LORD your God is a compassionate God; He will not fail you nor destroy you nor forget the covenant with your fathers which He swore to them.”

The word translated as “compassionate” refers to a deep love (usually of a superior for an inferior) rooted in some natural bond. For instance, in Isaiah 49:15, the word is used for a mother’s love toward her nursing baby: “Can a woman forget her nursing child and have no compassion on the son of her womb?” The idea is that a mother who gives birth to a child shows love and care for him/her regardless of what happens. Similarly, God genuinely cares about the Israelites and holds a kind attitude toward them because they are His children. That is why Moses could say that God will never abandon His people, a reassurance that occurs frequently in Scriptures (Deuteronomy 31:6; Isaiah 41:10; Heb. 13:5 etc.).

Biblical Text:

25 When you become the father of children and children’s children and have remained long in the land, and act corruptly, and make an idol in the form of anything, and do that which is evil in the sight of the Lord your God so as to provoke Him to anger, 26 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that you will surely perish quickly from the land where you are going over the Jordan to possess it. You shall not live long on it, but will be utterly destroyed. 27 The Lord will scatter you among the peoples, and you will be left few in number among the nations where the Lord drives you. 28 There you will serve gods, the work of man’s hands, wood and stone, which neither see nor hear nor eat nor smell. 29 But from there you will seek the Lord your God, and you will find Him if you search for Him with all your heart and all your soul. 30 When you are in distress and all these things have come upon you, in the latter days you will return to the Lord your God and listen to His voice. 31 For the Lord your God is a compassionate God; He will not fail you nor destroy you nor forget the covenant with your fathers which He swore to them.

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