Exploring Deuteronomy Week 3: How Should We Understand Law?
Pastor Dan’s third sermon on Deuteronomy, “Obedience” is now available online. Have a listen!
This week Pastor Dan led us through Deuteronomy 4. In this chapter, Moses encourages the Israelites to listen to the law of the Lord and obey it so that they “may live and may go in and take possession of the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you” (Deut. 4:1). He reminds them of God’s great deeds on their behalf and he emphasizes that there is one God, the Lord, Yahweh of Israel.
Like Pastor Dan mentioned, many of us tend to hear the word “law” in the Old Testament, and either immediately get bored, or quickly flip to the New Testament because that’s where we think the grace is. But guys, that’s not the way it is!
As I studied Old Testament, I was blown away by the grace God shows throughout its pages. As I learned about Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) culture, a few things struck me about God, the law, and the Israelites.
* Sometimes people tend to think that the Israelites followed the law as way to be saved. But I don’t think that this was ever the mindset the Israelites had about what the law was. If we look at the Exodus, God defeats the “gods” of Egypt. He then brings the Israelites out of Egypt, parts the Red Sea, and seals His victory and their freedom. As the Israelites watch what God does at the Red Sea, the Bible says, “And when the Israelites saw the great power of the Lord displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant” (Exodus 14:31).
Immediately after this, they sing a song to the Lord on the shores of the Red Sea. “The Lord is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation. He is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him” (Exodus 15:2). The Exodus was the Israelites’ salvation event. God saved them and they became His people. This is why Passover becomes such a big deal — the Israelites take time each year to remember their salvation event. This is why there are so many parallels between the Exodus and the acts and messages of Jesus. He deliberately does things that remind people of the Exodus to show that He is bringing salvation. (We’ll discuss this more in the spring when we learn about and celebrate the holiday of Passover!)
* So, if the Israelites didn’t follow the law for salvation, why did they? Like Pastor Dan said, the Lord gave the Israelites the law because it was good and for their benefit. Not only did it show them the best way to live, but if they followed the law, the nations around them would notice and be drawn to the God of Israel. In Christopher J.H. Wright’s book, The Mission of God’s People, he points out that Deuteronomy 4:5-8 emphasizes this — the things the nations will notice the most is the wisdom of God, the nearness of God to His people, and the righteousness of the law. “Israel would have an intimacy with God and a quality of social justice that no other nation could match.” Therefore, Wright says, Deuteronomy 4 is important and gives the “major motivation that is remarkable in its wider perspective. It puts Israel’s obedience on a wide open stage and invites them to envisage what the nations will think as they observe the national life of the people whose God is YHWH.”
So, God will be honored and glorified when His people live a certain way. Those who don’t know Yahweh God will be aware of who He is because of the lives of His people.
* Another big aspect of the law in the Bible relates to the gift of the land of Israel. In ANE culture, a people group was defined by its land. We see this over and over throughout the Bible — the land God gave to Israel was a blessing and could be taken from them if they failed to obey. The physical land of Israel is also related to the observance of the law. The fact that God brought the Israelites out of Egypt and gave them a new land is amazing. But when the Israelites agreed to obey the law, God gave them a warning. If they failed to obey Him, they were in danger of losing the land He gave them. “After you have had children and grandchildren and have lived int he land a long time — if you then become corrupt and make any kind of idol, doing evil in the eyes of the Lord your God and provoking him to anger, I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you this day that you will quickly perish from the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess. You will not live there long but will certainly be destroyed The Lord will scatter you among the peoples, and only a few of you will survive among the nations to which the Lord will drive you” (Deut. 4:25-27).
Well, Israel does begin to disobey. This is where the prophets come in — they go talk to the Israelites and remind them of what they committed to. Instead of following God’s law, they are worshiping idols, mistreating the poor and needy, and neglecting the widow. They forsake the Lord as their one true God, and the prophets warn that if they do not repent and go the other direction, God will take away the blessing of the land.
The people don’t turn around. They continue to disobey, and in 722 BC, the northern nation of Israel falls to the Assyrians, and in 586 BC, the southern nation of Judah falls to the Babylonians. They lose their land. We see in the books of Daniel, Esther, Ezekiel, Ezra and Nehemiah, that the people are gone from the land of Israel and lamenting their loss. When they are finally allowed back, 70 years after the destruction of Jerusalem, they are sad and broken.
It is after the Israelites return to their land from the exile that we see attitudes about the law begin to change. After losing the blessing of the land because of disobedience, they finally begin to get it together. Where all throughout the Old Testament we see a neglect for the law, we suddenly come to the New Testament and it seems like people are overly obsessed with the law and Jesus is always having to reprimand them for it.
It is in the time between the Old and New Testaments that we begin to see groups like the Pharisees and Sadducees form. After the exile from the land, the Jewish people finally understood that God took the law and obedience seriously. He wanted His people to follow the law and walk in His way so that it would go well with them. So, for example, the Pharisees encouraged the people to obey God like they should. Their intentions were good, but by New Testament times, the Pharisees had added a whole bunch of extra laws to what God commanded. They became too legalistic. So when we see Jesus upset with the Pharisees in the New Testament, it is because they have added to the original law and given the people a heavy burden to bear. It is helpful to remember this when we’re reading the New Testament. It can help us differentiate between the law that God calls good and where it had been added to and made a burden by New Testament times.
There’s obviously so much more we could discuss in relation to the law — we’ve barely scratched the surface — but this post is long enough for today! Would love to hear your thoughts!
* What comes to mind when you hear about the biblical law?