Deuteronomy 4 COMMENTARY (Ellicott)

Deuteronomy 4
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Now therefore hearken, O Israel, unto the statutes and unto the judgments, which I teach you, for to do them, that ye may live, and go in and possess the land which the LORD God of your fathers giveth you.

(1) Now therefore hearken.—The whole point of the exhortation in this chapter is the same which we find in Joshua’s address to the people (Joshua 24), that they should serve Jehovah. And the ground of the exhortation is His revelation of Himself in Horeb as their God.

The statutes . . . and the judgments.—Perhaps we should say “institutions and requirements” in modern language. For “judgments,” see Exodus 21-23.

That ye may live, and go in.Life is put before possession. The penalty of the broken law is death.

Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.
(2) Ye shall not add unto the word.The word, not “the words.” The word is the substance of the Law. The words in which it is expressed may be more or less. The law of Moses contains in it the germ of all revelation to the very end.

Your eyes have seen what the LORD did because of Baalpeor: for all the men that followed Baalpeor, the LORD thy God hath destroyed them from among you.
(3) Your eyes have seen.—Literally, your eyes are they that seei.e., you are witnesses of these things. The men who perished by the plague because of the iniquity of Beth peor—to the number of 24,000—seem to have been all members of the younger generation; for they had already passed the brook Zered. (See on Deuteronomy 2:13.)

But ye that did cleave unto the LORD your God are alive every one of you this day.
Behold, I have taught you statutes and judgments, even as the LORD my God commanded me, that ye should do so in the land whither ye go to possess it.
(5) That ye should do so in the land.—It should never be forgotten that there is a special connection between the law of Moses and the land of Canaan. It cannot be kept in many of its precepts, except by a chosen people in a protected land.

Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.
(6) This is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations.—The laws of Jehovah in Israel, and the constant presence of Jehovah with Israel, would make an impression upon the world that it would not be easy to resist. For, he adds, “what nation is there so great, that hath God so nigh unto them?”

For what nation is there so great, who hath God so nigh unto them, as the LORD our God is in all things that we call upon him for?
And what nation is there so great, that hath statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day?
(8) What nation is there so great, that hath statutes and judgments so righteous?—These words direct our attention to the law of Moses, as distinctly in advance of the time when it was given.

Only take heed to thyself, and keep thy soul diligently, lest thou forget the things which thine eyes have seen, and lest they depart from thy heart all the days of thy life: but teach them thy sons, and thy sons' sons;
(9) Only take heed to thyself.—The exhortation contained in the following verses lays special emphasis on one point—the worship of the invisible Jehovah without images. This more than anything else would tend to separate the religion of Israel from that of all other nations.

Teach them thy sons, and thy sons’ sons.—A command which Israel evidently failed to obey. For a generation speedily rose up “which knew not Jehovah nor yet the works which he had done for Israel” (Judges 2:10). It is worth while to observe that we cannot find any trace of a system of national education in Israel until many years later. When education is purely parental, it is likely to be neglected in many instances. It is not every parent who finds himself able to “teach his sons, and his sons’ sons.”

Specially the day that thou stoodest before the LORD thy God in Horeb, when the LORD said unto me, Gather me the people together, and I will make them hear my words, that they may learn to fear me all the days that they shall live upon the earth, and that they may teach their children.
(10) The day that thou stoodest before the Lord thy God in Horeb.—The Church of Israel dated from Sinai, as the Church of Christ does from Pentecost. It is noticeable that the giving of the Law appears to have taken place about fifty days after the Passover in Egypt. Jewish writers associate the Feast of Pentecost with the memory of the event. A similar association, and a contrast between the first and last Pentecost, appears to have been present to St. Paul’s mind in 2 Corinthians 3. The law given at Sinai is the “ministration of death,” and is contrasted with the “ministration of the Spirit”—the letter that killeth with the Spirit that giveth life. (Comp. also Galatians 4:24-26, and Hebrews 12:18-24.) The word “specially” is not in the Hebrew of this verse.

The day . . . in Horeb is not only to be regarded as a special subject of instruction; it is the root of the whole matter.

Gather me the people together.—The Greek here is εκκλησίασον, which might be paraphrased according to New Testament language, “Form a Church of this people,” The “day of the assembly” alluded to in this and other passages (as Deuteronomy 10:4) may be similarly paraphrased as “the day of the Church.” It seems to be the source of the expression used by St. Stephen, “the Church in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38). Thus the analogy between Israel’s receiving the letter of the law at Sinai, and the gift of the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem is still further brought out.

And ye came near and stood under the mountain; and the mountain burned with fire unto the midst of heaven, with darkness, clouds, and thick darkness.
(11) Darkness, clouds, and thick darkness.—The “blackness, and darkness, and tempest” of Hebrews 12:18.

And the LORD spake unto you out of the midst of the fire: ye heard the voice of the words, but saw no similitude; only ye heard a voice.
And he declared unto you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, even ten commandments; and he wrote them upon two tables of stone.
(13) His covenant . . . ten commandments.—See on Deuteronomy 5.

He wrote them.—See on Deuteronomy 10:2.

And the LORD commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and judgments, that ye might do them in the land whither ye go over to possess it.
Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves; for ye saw no manner of similitude on the day that the LORD spake unto you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire:
(15) Ye saw no manner of similitude.—The worship of the invisible Jehovah is here specially insisted on. The difficulty of learning to worship one whom we cannot see is, happily, one which our education does not enable us to realise in its relation to Israel of old. All nations had their visible symbols of deity. Centuries afterwards the world described the followers of Christ as Atheists, because they had no visible God. It is especially recorded in praise of Moses that “he endured as seeing Him who is invisible” (Hebrews 11:27).

Lest ye corrupt yourselves, and make you a graven image, the similitude of any figure, the likeness of male or female,
(16) Lest ye corrupt . . . and make.—The connection between idolatry and corruption is twofold. First, it changes “the glory of the incorruptible God” into an image of His corruptible creatures. Secondly, it always ends in corrupting the idolater. Man was made to have dominion over the works of God’s hands. He cannot worship anything in creation, which he was not intended to rule. He can only fulfil his destiny when he strives after the Divine likeness, rising to that which is above him, instead of stooping to that which is below.

(17,18) Likeness of any beast . . . fowl . . .—There may be an allusion to the animal idolatry of Egypt here.

The likeness of any beast that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged fowl that flieth in the air,
The likeness of any thing that creepeth on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the waters beneath the earth:
And lest thou lift up thine eyes unto heaven, and when thou seest the sun, and the moon, and the stars, even all the host of heaven, shouldest be driven to worship them, and serve them, which the LORD thy God hath divided unto all nations under the whole heaven.
(19) The sun, and the moon, and the stars.—The purest worship of antiquity—that which we find among the Persians—hardly escaped this snare.

Which the Lord thy God hath divided unto all nations.—The heavenly bodies could never be regarded as special protectors of any one nation. But Jehovah was pledged to be the God of Israel. This appears to be the argument of Deuteronomy 4:19-20.

But the LORD hath taken you, and brought you forth out of the iron furnace, even out of Egypt, to be unto him a people of inheritance, as ye are this day.
Furthermore the LORD was angry with me for your sakes, and sware that I should not go over Jordan, and that I should not go in unto that good land, which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance:
(21-23) The Lord was angry with me for your sakes . . . I must die in this land . . . but ye shall go over . . . Take heed unto yourselves.—The argument appears to be this: “I cannot go with you to warn you; therefore take the more heed when you are alone.” The same line of thought appears in St. Paul’s last appeal to Timothy: “Fulfil thy ministry; for I am now ready to be offered” (2 Timothy 4:6).

But I must die in this land, I must not go over Jordan: but ye shall go over, and possess that good land.
Take heed unto yourselves, lest ye forget the covenant of the LORD your God, which he made with you, and make you a graven image, or the likeness of any thing, which the LORD thy God hath forbidden thee.
For the LORD thy God is a consuming fire, even a jealous God.
(24) The Lord thy God is a consuming fire.—The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews makes use of this in Deuteronomy 12:29, to enforce the lessons not of Sinai, but of Pentecost, and of the voice of “Him that speaketh from heavenby the Spirit whom He has sent.

When thou shalt beget children, and children's children, and ye shall have remained long in the land, and shall corrupt yourselves, and make a graven image, or the likeness of any thing, and shall do evil in the sight of the LORD thy God, to provoke him to anger:
(25) Shall have remained long.—Literally, shall slumber—a very suggestive expression. Prosperity often sends true religion to sleep, and brings conventional, or fashionable, religion in its stead.

I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that ye shall soon utterly perish from off the land whereunto ye go over Jordan to possess it; ye shall not prolong your days upon it, but shall utterly be destroyed.
And the LORD shall scatter you among the nations, and ye shall be left few in number among the heathen, whither the LORD shall lead you.
(27) And the Lord shall scatter you.—Our familiarity with this fact in history must not blind us to its force when uttered as a prophecy. The fact that the Jews were taken captive for idolatry, and dispersed for the rejection of JESUS, is a remarkable proof that the real reason why they were brought into Canaan, and kept there, was to be witnesses for Jehovah.

And there ye shall serve gods, the work of men's hands, wood and stone, which neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell.
(28) And there ye shall serve gods, the work of men’s hands.—That is, “you shall be in bondage to them,” being ruled by their worshippers. And so Rashi explains it. Captivity was the means of eradicating idolatry from Israel rather than encouraging it. But the cause of a people and its idols is so constantly identified in the Old Testament, that those who are in bondage to a nation may naturally be described as in bondage to its gods. The gods were even held to be sharers in the captivity of the nation. It is said of Bel and Nebo, in Isaiah 46:2, “They could not deliver . . . but themselves are gone into captivity”

(29, 30, 31) Comp. Deuteronomy 30:1-5 for a more explicit promise and prophecy of the same thing, and see Note on that passage.

But if from thence thou shalt seek the LORD thy God, thou shalt find him, if thou seek him with all thy heart and with all thy soul.
When thou art in tribulation, and all these things are come upon thee, even in the latter days, if thou turn to the LORD thy God, and shalt be obedient unto his voice;
(For the LORD thy God is a merciful God;) he will not forsake thee, neither destroy thee, nor forget the covenant of thy fathers which he sware unto them.
For ask now of the days that are past, which were before thee, since the day that God created man upon the earth, and ask from the one side of heaven unto the other, whether there hath been any such thing as this great thing is, or hath been heard like it?
(32) For ask now . . . whether there hath been any such thing.-The same argument is afterwards employed by St. Paul (Romans 11:29) for the restoration of Israel: “for the gifts and calling of God are without repentance,” i.e., irrevocable. He did not go and take Him a nation out of the midst of another nation in order to abandon them at last. He never did so much in the way of personal and visible interposition for any people; and He will not forsake the work of His own hands. Moses had proved the truth of what he says here in many scenes of sin and peril averted by his own intercession. (See especially Numbers 14:11-21, and comp. 1 Samuel 12:22.)

Did ever people hear the voice of God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as thou hast heard, and live?
Or hath God assayed to go and take him a nation from the midst of another nation, by temptations, by signs, and by wonders, and by war, and by a mighty hand, and by a stretched out arm, and by great terrors, according to all that the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes?
Unto thee it was shewed, that thou mightest know that the LORD he is God; there is none else beside him.
Out of heaven he made thee to hear his voice, that he might instruct thee: and upon earth he shewed thee his great fire; and thou heardest his words out of the midst of the fire.
And because he loved thy fathers, therefore he chose their seed after them, and brought thee out in his sight with his mighty power out of Egypt;
(37) Because he loved thy fathers.—The reasons for God’s choice of Israel are frequently stated in this book; and they are always stated in such a way as to enforce the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, and to show the Israelites that their own merit was in no way the ground of God’s choice.

To drive out nations from before thee greater and mightier than thou art, to bring thee in, to give thee their land for an inheritance, as it is this day.
Know therefore this day, and consider it in thine heart, that the LORD he is God in heaven above, and upon the earth beneath: there is none else.
(39) Know therefore . . . and consider.—“Consider,” i.e., reckon (the word for “impute” and “account” in St. Paul’s argument to the Romans). Do not indulge any polytheistic notions regarding the Deity. “To us there is but One God.” If every nation has its separate deity, how is it that Jehovah controls them all? His various dealings with Egyptians, Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Amorites, as well as with Israelites and Canaanites, mark Him as Lord of all. “There is none else.” There are no more gods; if you desire to leave Him behind, there is no one else to serve. Compare Isaiah 44:8 : “Is there a God beside me? yea, there is no Rock. I know not any.”

Thou shalt keep therefore his statutes, and his commandments, which I command thee this day, that it may go well with thee, and with thy children after thee, and that thou mayest prolong thy days upon the earth, which the LORD thy God giveth thee, for ever.
Then Moses severed three cities on this side Jordan toward the sunrising;

(41) Then Moses severed.—The word “then” appears to be a note of time. It would seem that the appointment of the three cities of refuge on the eastern side of Jordan actually followed this discourse.

On this side Jordan.—Heb., b’ ’êber hay-yardên. The expression is here defined by the words that follow, “toward the sun-rising,” and it need not, therefore, be taken to fix the writer’s point of view. By itself, the expression would naturally mean, on the other side of Jordan.

(43) Bezer is as yet unidentified.

Ramoth in Gilead, though famous in the history of Israel as the scene of Ahab’s death and of the anointing of Jehu (1 Kings 21 and 2 Kings 9), is also as yet unknown.

Golan has given a name to the district of Gaulonitis. But it is as yet also unknown. We may hope that when the survey of Eastern Palestine is concluded, these ancient sites will be recovered.

That the slayer might flee thither, which should kill his neighbour unawares, and hated him not in times past; and that fleeing unto one of these cities he might live:
Namely, Bezer in the wilderness, in the plain country, of the Reubenites; and Ramoth in Gilead, of the Gadites; and Golan in Bashan, of the Manassites.
And this is the law which Moses set before the children of Israel:

(44-49) These words form an introduction to the second discourse, which occupies the larger portion of the book—from Deuteronomy 5:1 to the end of Deuteronomy 26. There is no real break between. The present introduction differs from what we find in Deuteronomy 1:1. There is no intimation that this portion of Deuteronomy was a repetition of what had been delivered between Sinai and Kadesh-barnea. What follows is said to have been spoken in the land of Sihon and Og, after the conquest by Israel.

(46) On this side Jordan.—Literally, on the other side. The same expression in Deuteronomy 4:47 is defined by the addition, “toward the sun-rising.”

The whole passage (Deuteronomy 4:44-49) may be editorial, and added by Joshua in Canaan. But there is no necessity for this view.

(48) Mount Sion.—See Note on Deuteronomy 3:9.

These are the testimonies, and the statutes, and the judgments, which Moses spake unto the children of Israel, after they came forth out of Egypt,
On this side Jordan, in the valley over against Bethpeor, in the land of Sihon king of the Amorites, who dwelt at Heshbon, whom Moses and the children of Israel smote, after they were come forth out of Egypt:
And they possessed his land, and the land of Og king of Bashan, two kings of the Amorites, which were on this side Jordan toward the sunrising;
From Aroer, which is by the bank of the river Arnon, even unto mount Sion, which is Hermon,
And all the plain on this side Jordan eastward, even unto the sea of the plain, under the springs of Pisgah.
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