Deuteronomy 4:5-8

Verses covered in this passage:

  • Deuteronomy 4:5
  • Deuteronomy 4:6
  • Deuteronomy 4:7
  • Deuteronomy 4:8

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 commands the Israelites to obey the statutes and judgments he is teaching them in order to correctly reflect their covenant partner, Yahweh, and to represent Him well before the other nations.

In this section, Moses charged the Israelites to keep the commandments he was teaching them in order that they might reflect God’s holiness, that is, His absolute perfection. In verse 5, Moses used the twin nouns “ḥuqqîm” (statutes), and “mišpāṭîm” (judgments) he used in verse 1 to refer to the precepts of God. He stated, “See, I have taught you statutes and judgments.” Although the words “ḥuqqîm” (statutes), and “mišpāṭîm” (judgments) are used synonymously for God’s commandments, each one has a distinct meaning. The term “statutes” (“ḥuqqîm” in Hebrew) refers to something prescribed, like an ordinance. As such, it could be translated as “prescriptions,” or “decrees.” The second term (“mišpāṭîm”) refers to legal procedures, or commands issued by a judge. The use of these two terms together emphasizes the importance of obedience to all the precepts of God.

Moses moved on to tell the people that his teaching came from Yahweh, their covenant partner. He said, “just as the LORD my God commanded me.” By saying this, Moses reminded Israel that he simply acted as a mediator between the superior party, or suzerain, and the vassal (Israel). The Israelites were to observe the statutes and judgments in the land where they were entering to possess it.

In verse six, Moses added, “So keep and do them, for that is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples.” This verse tells us that these statutes and judgments were to be followed closely because they would not only guarantee prosperity in the land (v. 1) but would also demonstrate the superiority of Israel’s wisdom (and understanding) before the world. Such a great wisdom would then serve as a reflection of Israel’s covenant partner, Yahweh. In other words, Israel’s life was supposed to be a testimony about God’s holiness, and it was designed to bring the world to God. Israel was supposed to be different among all the nations. So, the strict observance of these laws would elevate Israel’s wisdom to such a level that everyone who hears about it would simply say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.”

That Israel’s life was intended to reflect the LORD’s holiness cannot be overemphasized. Early on, God had said to His people, “If you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6). The entire kingdom was to serve a priestly intercession between God and the entire world. But it was only by keeping these laws that Israel could reflect God’s wisdom and would represent Him well on earth.

Israel’s Suzerain Yahweh was not a distant ruler. The presence of God remained among His people. This is made evident in the rhetorical question Moses asked, “For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as is the LORD our God whenever we call on Him?” The answer to this question is none. Israel was greater than the other nations because Yahweh was in their midst. Yahweh, the incomparable God, is “near to all who call upon Him”(Psalms 145:18). He is not like the powerless gods who are nothing but idols (Psalms 115:4-8).

Moses asked a second question to emphasize Israel’s highest calling among the nations: “Or what great nation is there that has statutes and judgments as righteous as this whole law which I am setting before you today?” The answer to this question is clear: no other nation had such righteous statutes and judgments as Israel did. The reason is because the gods of the other nations are not righteous. In contrast, Yahweh, the God of Israel, is righteous and upright (Deuteronomy 32:4; James 1:13).

Since the Israelites possessed the true God and the righteous law, they were to be the light of the world through obedience to the statutes. Their good behavior in the land would demonstrate their wisdom and would set them apart as “a kingdom of priests, and God’s own possession among all the peoples” (Exodus 19:5-6). Interestingly, the Body of believers today has the same mission to fulfill. The book of 1 Peter describes our relationship to God and our mission on earth as follows: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light(1 Pet. 2:9).

Biblical Text:

“See, I have taught you statutes and judgments just as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should do thus in the land where you are entering to possess it. So keep and do them, for that is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as is the Lord our God whenever we call on Him? Or what great nation is there that has statutes and judgments as righteous as this whole law which I am setting before you today?”

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