Keith R. Keyser, Gilbertsville, Pa., USA [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
The name of the book: like the other parts of the Pentateuch, the title ‘Deuteronomy’ originates from the ancient Greek translation known as the Septuagint.1 In Jewish tradition the book bears various names, including ‘These are the words’, ‘Book of admonitions’, ‘This Law’, ‘The words of the covenant’, and ‘This commandment’.2 Modern Jews refer to it simply as ‘Debarim’ – that is, ‘Words’. All of these titles emphasize that this book is a direct communication from the Lord to His people Israel. He is giving His law – the Hebrew word ‘Torah’ also means ‘Instruction’3 – to them in carefully chosen words.
The Purpose of the Book
As the fifth and final book of the Pentateuch, this book is an important transition from Israel’s early history looking forward to their conquest of the land under Joshua. The book is a recapitulation of God’s law with particular application to their impending occupation of Canaan. It emphasizes the oneness of the true and living God in contrast to the false deities of the nations that they were going to fight. It also holds forth the exalted ethics of the legal system that the Almighty designed to govern their individual and national lives.
Deuteronomy takes place over the course of one month and is Moses’ farewell message to his people.4 He recounts the Lord’s faithfulness in the past, charges them to obey Him in the present, and both warns and encourages them regarding the future. Shearman offers this explanation of the book: ‘Deuteronomy is a proclamation of Israel’s laws. Moses spelt out the statutes and ordinances, and amplified them, that as the nation entered the new sphere of the Promised Land they would have no doubts as to the Lord’s requirements. Some of the details now may seem trivial and irrelevant, yet they speak one message, “Holy laws for a holy people!” Well-being for them and satisfaction for a holy God would be the result of their obedience’.5
The Lord Jesus quotes it more often than any other Old Testament book, and Paul regularly cites it to support his arguments for salvation and Christian living.6 Kalland adds this: ‘The theological value of Deuteronomy can hardly be exaggerated. It stands as the wellspring of biblical historical revelation. It is a prime source for both OT and NT theology. Whether the covenant, the holiness of God, or the concept of the people of God is the unifying factor of OT theology, each finds emphasis and remarkable definition in Deuteronomy’.7 The frequent citations of the book in the New Testament attest to its lasting value for God’s people in all ages.8 Others compare it to the Gospel of John as a digest of the preceding forty years of history. Whereas Deuteronomy summarizes the Pentateuch’s key doctrines, John brings together the key truths of the Gospels. Theologically, its systematic presentation of doctrine makes it the Old Testament equivalent of Romans. As a commentator remarks: ‘[L]ike the gospel of John, the book of Deuteronomy functions as a theological manifesto, calling on Israel to respond to God’s grace with unreserved loyalty and love’.9
The Plan of the Book
Many Bible students notice that Deuteronomy uses the literary structure of an ancient suzerainty treaty – a covenant where a suppliant nation enters into an agreement with a more powerful nation. The book may be divided according to Moses’ exhortations to the nation:
- Moses’ first sermon, Deut. 1 – 4;
- Moses’ second sermon, Deut. 5 – 28;
- Moses’ third sermon, Deut. 29 – 30;
- The Conclusion of Moses’ Life, Deut. 31 – 34.
Farstad and MacDonald give a more detailed outline along similar lines.10
Others observe the parallelism of its chiastic structure:
- ‘A. The Outer Frame: A Look Backward, Deut. 1–3
- B. The Inner Frame: The Great Peroration, Deut. 4–11
- C. The Central Core: Covenant Stipulations, Deut. 12–26
- B1. The Inner Frame: The Covenant Ceremony, Deut. 27–30
- A1. The Outer Frame: A Look Forward, Deut. 31–34’.11
The Author and Date of the Book
Like the other books of the Pentateuch, Moses is identified throughout the Old and New Testaments as the author used by the Spirit of God’s inspiration – see the sections on ‘Author and Date’ in Leviticus and Numbers. The celebrated historian Philip Schaff sums up the matter this way: ‘There is no man in the whole subsequent history of Israel, as far as we know, who could at all account for the peculiarities of the Pentateuch near so well as the great lawgiver, who is the central figure of the book. Ezra, for instance, to whom some ultra-critics assign the authorship, never was in Egypt nor in the wilderness, and lived in the reproductive period of reconstruction or restoration of the theocracy founded by Jehovah through Moses centuries before. Thus from various sides we are led to feel not only that Moses has written the Pentateuch, but also that he was the only one who could have written it: and the objections have so much the less power, as a Mosaic authorship by no means excludes either the use of earlier documents or the addition of later notes’.12
Important Themes in the Book
- God’s oneness and uniqueness.
- The Lord’s covenant loyalty to His people – divine faithfulness.
- The exclusivity of the true and living God against idolatry.
- Compassion and justice in the land.
- Obedience leading to blessing, and disobedience leading to cursing.
- Remembering God’s law.
- God’s sovereignty and grace demonstrated through Israel’s history.
- Moses’ role as preacher, shepherd, and mediator.
- Israel as an example of God’s goodness on display to the nations.
- Holiness based on a relationship with the Lord.
Kalland’s summary of Deuter-onomy’s portrayal of God is worth remembering:
‘God in Deuteronomy is personal, eternal, omnipotent, sovereign, purposeful, loving, holy, and righteous. The knowledge of his person and will is communicated by propositional, directive, exhortative, informative, and predictive revelation. No other God exists, though cognizance is taken of the gods believed in by other nations. The most important element of subjective theology in Deuteronomy is that of the absolutely unqualified, total commitment of the people to the Lord. Nothing less is acceptable. No dissimulation, no assimilation, no syncretism with other gods or religions or religious practices are to be tolerated. The people belong to the Lord alone. He is the absolute—though benevolent—sovereign, whose people uniquely and completely belong to him’.13
1 J. A. Thompson, Deuteronomy: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, Vol. 5, InterVarsity Press, 1974, pg. 16.
2 George Adam Smith, The Book of Deuteronomy in the Revised Version With Introduction and Notes, The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges, Cambridge University Press, 1918, pp. ix-x; and Thompson, pg. 16.
3 Francis Brown, Samuel Rolles Driver, and Charles Augustus Briggs, Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, Logos Research Systems, 2000, pg. 435.
4 ‘In fact, Moses’ death is not recorded until chapter 34, so that the whole book of Deuteronomy is framed between the announcement of Moses’ impending death and the announcement of his actual death. The book is thus, in a sense, the spiritual testament of Moses, Israel’s great Lawgiver’, Thompson, pg. 117. Hall asserts Moses’ Spirit-led eloquence in these words: ‘Its language is the lively exhortation of a master preacher and teacher whose admonitions transcend time and culture’. Gary Harlan Hall, Deuteronomy, The College Press NIV Commentary, College Press Publishing Co., 2000, pg. 13.
5 A. T. Shearman, ‘Mar. 31st: Laws for a Holy People, Deut. 22. 1-8; 24. 10-22; 25. 1-3; 26. 16-19’, in Day by Day through the Old Testament, C. E. Hocking and M. Horlock (Ed.), Precious Seed, 1982, pg. 106. Another writer elucidates the theme further: ‘The real understanding of Deuteronomy lies in the fact that God is to be feared, followed, loved, served, and obeyed, Deut. 10. 12-13. So the personal God’s will is law in the revealing of himself in love. The mere adherence to a constitutional law or the acceptance of a creed is not sufficient to fulfill even the first command of God. The first command is to establish a real covenant’. John Joseph Owens, ‘Law and Love in Deuteronomy’, Review & Expositor 61:3 (Summer 1964), pg. 278.
6 See Rom. 10. 6-8, 19; 11. 8; 12. 19; 1 Cor. 5. 13; 8. 6; 9. 9; Gal. 3. 13; Eph. 6. 2-3. Also Daniel I. Block, The NIV Application Commentary: Deuteronomy, Ed. Terry Muck, Zondervan, 2012, pg. 26.
7 Earl S. Kalland, Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Deuteronomy, ed. Frank Gaebelein, Zondervan, 1999, electronic edition, no pagination.
8 ‘Deuteronomy is one of the greatest books of the Old Testament. Its influence on the domestic and personal religion of all ages has not been surpassed by any other book in the Bible. It is quoted over eighty times in the New Testament1 and thus it belongs to a small group of four Old Testament books2 to which the early Christians made frequent reference’. [Fn. 1: ‘References occur in all but six books of the New Testament, namely John, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Timothy, and 1 and 2 Peter’. Fn. 2: ‘Genesis, Deuteronomy, Psalms and Isaiah’.] Thompson, pg. 16.
9 Block, pg. 25.
10 William MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments, Ed. Arthur Farstad, Thomas Nelson, 1995, pp. 202-203.
11 Duane L. Christensen, Word Biblical Commentary: Deuteronomy 1-21. 9, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 6A, Word Inc., 2002, pg. xli; quoted in Hall, pg. 23.
12 Philip Schaff, ed., A Dictionary of the Bible: Including Biography, Natural History, Geography, Topography, Archæology, and Literature, American Sunday-School Union, 1880, pg. 670.
13 Kalland, Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Deuteronomy, no pagination.
AUTHOR PROFILE: KEITH KEYSER is a commended full-time worker, married with a young family, and is in fellowship in the assembly meeting at Gilbertsville, Pennsylvania. He ministers throughout North America and spent some time in Spain. He also regularly writes material for assembly magazines.