Obedience, Idolatry, and the Law – Deuteronomy 4

Read the Passage: Deuteronomy 4

Call to Obey (4:1–14)

After reviewing the previous forty years of history in Deut. 1–3, Moses began his final instructions to Israel by calling the people to obey the law. Over the next twenty-six chapters, Moses would reiterate the moral law of God (cf. Deut. 5) and explain its application to the nation (cf. Deut. 6–30). In calling Israel to obedience, Moses warned the people not to add to nor to take away from the Word of God, a command he would reiterate at Deut. 12:32 (cf. Rev. 22:18–19). Moses then reminded the nation about the events of Num. 25:1–9 where some of the people sinned by worshiping Baal of Peor. On this occasion the Lord sent a plague that killed more than twenty thousand people. Paul later appealed to this event as he wrote, “We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day” (1 Cor. 10:8).

In Deut. 4:5–6 Moses informed the nation that one of the reasons why they needed to keep the law is because of the flourishing it produces, which would be attractive to others. These onlookers, then, may be moved to praise God. Given this phenomenon, in Deut. 4:7–8 Moses posed two rhetorical questions to remind the nation about their favored status and their privileged position as being God’s people who possessed the law of God (cf. Rom. 3:1–2). Israel, writes Moses, was blessed in that they could freely approach God and they knew what He desired. Observe that Paul would later refer to believers as being “Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:29), even calling the church “the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16). Peter, too, would later refer to believers as being “a chosen generation . . . a holy nation, God’s own special people” (1 Pet. 2:9).

Warning about Idolatry (4:15–40)

Deut. 4:15–40 is a lengthy passage in which the people are warned about the dangers of engaging in idolatry. Moses begins this passage by appealing to the first and second commandments. While he would later quote all the Ten Commandments in Deut. 5:1–22, here in Deut. 4:15–20 Moses only cites the beginning of the moral law, for the first table of the moral law is foundational for the second, and the first command is the root of the nine that follow. In Deut. 4:21–24 Moses mentions his own sin of striking the rock at Kadesh. It may seem strange that Moses would reiterate his error here, as it was already recorded at Num. 20:1–13; 27:12–14; and Deut. 1:37. However, it seems likely the reason why Moses mentions his sin here is that he is acknowledging that his sin at Kadesh was a violation of the first commandment—that is, by indulging his own anger, Moses had actually worshiped himself.

Moses’ teaching at Deut. 4:25–28 is realistic, but discouraging, as here Moses writes that the people will “act corruptly . . . and do evil in the sight of the Lord your God to provoke him to anger” (Deut. 4:25). The result of this inevitable sin, teaches Moses, is that the people will die young, be destroyed, experience exile, and engage in idolatry (cf. Deut. 4:26–28). While Moses was a prophet (cf. Deut. 34:10), his prediction of Israel’s future apostasy in this passage is best viewed not as a prophecy, but as a simple recognition of human nature. By way of encouragement, in Deut. 4:29–31 Moses writes about the forgiveness that is freely available to God’s people, “for the Lord your God is a merciful God” (Deut. 4:31). At Deut. 4:32–40, in a similar manner to Deut. 4:1–14, Moses writes about the uniqueness of Israel’s position and he calls them to obey the moral law.

Introduction to the Law (4:41–49)

At Deut. 4:41–43 Moses briefly comments about the cities of refuge that were set up on the eastern side of the Jordan River. Here we learn that there was one city designated as a city of refuge within the territory of each of the eastern tribes. Note that the concept of cities of refuge had first been introduced in Exod. 21:13 and explained more fully by God in Num. 35:9–28. Details about the cities of refuge for the western tribes are given in Deut. 19:1–13, with the concept again addressed in Josh. 20:1–9 as the people began to inhabit the land. In Deut. 4:44–49 Moses returned to his introduction of the moral law that he had begun earlier at Deut. 1:5. Indeed, the general purpose of the book of Deuteronomy is to explain the law to the nation of Israel, specifically teaching them how the moral law would relate to their daily lives as they dwelt within the Promised Land.

Application Questions:

  1. If you knew that your death was imminent, and you had opportunity to do so, what final words would you speak to those to whom are you the are closest?
  2. In what ways do Moses’ exhortations to Israel about keeping the law relate to the duty of the church to keep God’s moral law?
  3. Since it had already been mentioned three times in Scripture, at Deut. 4:21–24 why does Moses again refer to his prior sin at Kadesh?
  4. Given that Moses calls Israel to obedience in Deut. 4:1–14, 32–40, why does he predict their sin and rebellion in Deut. 4:25–28 (cf. Rom. 8:1–4)?
  5. Spiritually speaking, whose history is being recorded and reviewed in the book of Deuteronomy? Is there a future for ethnic Israel (cf. Rom. 11:1–36)?