Biblical Commentary

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9



The book of Deuteronomy begins by saying, “These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan in the wilderness…. It happened in the fortieth year, in the eleventh month, on the first day of the month, that Moses spoke to the children of Israel, according to all that Yahweh had given him in commandment to them” (1:1, 3). For the most part, the book of Deuteronomy is a recounting by Moses of the events that led Israel to the banks of the Jordan River—ready to cross the Jordan and take the Promised Land.

Moses recounted:

• The covenant promises that God made at Horeb (also known as Sinai) (1:1-8; Exodus 19-24).

• The appointment of tribal leaders (1:9-18; Exodus 18:13-27) and Israel’s shameful refusal to enter the Promised Land (1:19-33; Numbers 13:1-33)—as well as the penalty that they suffered for their rebellion (1:34-45; Numbers 14:20-45).

• The events of their wandering in the desert (2:1-25; Exodus 16ff.) and the defeat of King Sihon (2:26-37; Numbers 21:21-32) and King Og (3:1-22; Numbers 21:33-35).

Moses told of pleading with God to be permitted to enter the Promised Land—but ” But Yahweh was angry with me for your sakes, and didn’t listen to me” (3:26). The Lord did, however, allow Moses to go to the top of Mount Pisgah, where he could see the land that he would not be permitted to enter (3:27)—for more on that subject, see the exegesis of Deuteronomy 34. The Lord told Moses to support Joshua, who was the one the Lord had chosen to lead Israel into the Promised Land (3:28).


1 Now, Israel, listen to the statutes and to the ordinances, which I teach you, to do them; that you may live, and go in and possess the land which Yahweh, the God of your fathers, gives you. 2 You shall not add to the word which I command you, neither shall you diminish from it, that you may keep the commandments of Yahweh your God which I command you.

“Now, Israel” (v. 1a). This phrase connects what Moses had said in chapters 1-3 with what he is about to say in chapter 4. It is as if he had said, “Given what I have just recounted concerning our history, hear what follows.”

“listen to the statutes and to the ordinances, which I teach you, to do them” (v. 1b). Moses will give the details of these statutes and ordinances in chapters 5-26. These are the laws, given by Yahweh, that the Jewish people are expected to observe.

But in this chapter, Moses is not outlining specific laws, but is instead emphasizing the importance of the Jewish Law to the future of the Jewish people.

” that you may live, and go in and possess the land which Yahweh, the God of your fathers, gives you” (v. 1c). The Israelites live in a covenant relationship with Yahweh—a covenant made initially with Abram (Genesis 12:1-3; 15:18) and renewed with Moses at Sinai (Exodus 19-24). In that covenant, Yahweh promised to give Israel the land of Canaan and Israel promised to obey Yahweh—which now translates into obeying the statutes and ordinances laid out in Exodus 19ff. and repeated in Deuteronomy 5-26.

However, if the Israelites fail to keep their part of the covenant—if they fail to obey the statutes and ordinances laid down by Yahweh—then Yahweh will no longer be obligated by the terms of the covenant to give them the land of Canaan. In this verse, Moses is trying to make that linkage clear to the people of Israel. He is telling them that their future hangs on their obedience to Yahweh’s commands.

In verses 3-4 (omitted by the lectionary), Moses will go on to remind the Israelites of an incident that took place at Shittim, where Jewish men began to have sexual relations with the women of Moab—who in turn invited the Jews to participate in sacrificial rituals for Moabite gods. “Israel joined himself to Baal Peor: and the anger of Yahweh was kindled against Israel” (Numbers 25:3). Yahweh sent a plague to punish Israel—a plague that took the lives of twenty-four thousand unfaithful people (Numbers 25:9).

In his recounting of that incident, Moses reminded the Israelites that Yahweh had destroyed all those who followed Baal Peor, “But you who were faithful to Yahweh your God are all alive this day” (4:3-4). That incident, therefore, stands as a vivid illustration of the consequences of infidelity to Yahweh.

You shall not add to the word which I command you, neither shall you diminish from it, that you may keep the commandments of Yahweh your God which I command you (v. 2). Moses will repeat this prohibition at 12:32. It would have been a standard provision in Near Eastern treaties.

In like manner today, contracts are binding to the extent that they spell out particular provisions. The parties to a contract are not allowed to void contractual provisions or to add provisions except by mutual consent. Neither party is allowed to make changes unilaterally. So also the Israelites are not to add to or subtract from Yahweh’s commandments without Yahweh’s consent—which Yahweh isn’t likely to give.

A similar provision is found in Revelation 22:18-19, which spells out the punishments for those who add to the words of prophecy (“may God add to him the plagues which are written in this book”) or take away from those words (“may God take away his part from the tree of life, and out of the holy city.”)

This presents a problem. Jewish Law says, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. You shall labor six days, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to Yahweh your God. You shall not do any work in it, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your livestock, nor your stranger who is within your gates; for in six days Yahweh made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore Yahweh blessed the Sabbath day, and made it holy” (Exodus 20:8-11). The penalty for failure to keep this law was death (Exodus 31:15).

But what constitutes work? Jewish scholars worried such questions endlessly and developed detailed findings that became laws unto themselves. Many of these were codified in the Mishnah and the Talmud, which added thousands of specifics to the Jewish Law in an attempt to provide detailed guidance to the Jewish people. We should emphasize the good intentions of the men who developed these additions to the law. For the most part, they wanted nothing except to honor God by keeping God’s laws—and by helping others to do likewise.

So in the case of the sabbath law, rabbis established limits on the distance that one could walk on the sabbath. They developed a list of thirty-nine tasks that were prohibited on the sabbath—tasks such as sowing and reaping—tying or untying a knot—sewing or weaving. Then they made even finer distinctions within each of these categories so that they could instruct people with exactness regarding what was and was not permitted. But, good intentions notwithstanding, their efforts morphed into a huge burden for the Jewish people to bear.

On six occasions, Jesus was involved in sabbath controversies. Five of these involved healings done on the sabbath (Luke 6:6-11; 13:10–17; 14:1–6; John 5:1–17; 9:1–34), and the other one involved Jesus’ disciples picking grain on the sabbath (Luke 6:1-5).

In his defense, Jesus did not deny the importance of the sabbath. In fact, it was his custom to worship in the synagogues on the sabbath (Luke 4:16). Also, he said, “For most certainly, I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not even one smallest letter or one tiny pen stroke shall in any way pass away from the law, until all things are accomplished. Whoever, therefore, shall break one of these least commandments, and teach others to do so, shall be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven; but whoever shall do and teach them shall be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:18-19).

But Jesus could heal on the sabbath, because it was lawful to do good on the sabbath (Matthew 12:12). He could heal on the sabbath, in the same way that the scribes and Pharisees could help a sheep that had fallen into a pit on the sabbath (Matthew 12:11). He could allow his disciples certain liberties on the sabbath, because “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).

In other words, Jesus could, in good conscience, strip away the accretions that Jewish scholars had added to the law over the centuries—to make the sabbath once again the blessing that God had intended it to be rather than the burden that the Mishnah and Talmud had made it.


6Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who shall hear all these statutes, and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” 7For what great nation is there, that has a god so near to them, as Yahweh our God is whenever we call on him? 8What great nation is there, that has statutes and ordinances so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day?

“Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who shall hear all these statutes, and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people'” (v. 6). In verse 1, Moses called the Israelites to obey the law “that you may live, and go in and possess the land which Yahweh, the God of your fathers, gives you” (4:1).

Now, in this verse, he gives another compelling reason for obedience—to gain the respect of surrounding nations. Such respect would confer at least two significant benefits:

• First, anyone who thinks of Israel as a “great nation” and “a wise and understanding people” is less likely to try to conquer Israel—and is more likely to treat Israel with respect.

• Second, the enhanced status of Israel would bear witness to Yahweh, because people from surrounding nations would know that Israel worshiped Yahweh—and their respect for Israel would translate into respect for Yahweh. This brings to mind Jesus’ counsel, “Let your light shine before men; that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven”(Matthew 5:16).

“For what great nation is there, that has a god so near to them, as Yahweh our God is whenever we call on him?” (v. 7). There is something in the depths of our souls that seeks to know God. Even atheists often end up with beliefs and principles that take on the character of religious beliefs. As G.K. Chesterton said, “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing — they believe in anything.”

The Israelites could see this at work in the nations that surrounded them. Those nations worshiped idols, the work of their own hands—or the sun, moon, and stars, created by Yahweh’s hands. To them, gods were mysterious and capricious—even malicious. Those people didn’t enjoy the kind of personal relationship with their gods that Israelites enjoyed with Yahweh. Nevertheless, they invested time and energy in worshiping their gods, because their hearts yearned for that which the Israelites already had.

Moses reminds the Israelites that they are privileged, not only to worship the true God, but to have access to God “whenever we call to him.” They could know God’s will by examining his commandments—and they could come into his presence at any time, day or night, by kneeling in prayer. Yes, it was true that Yahweh was transcendent, but it was also true that Yahweh had made himself immanent—available—personal—present.

“What great nation is there, that has statutes and ordinances so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day?” (v. 8). It isn’t often that we stop to consider the value of good laws—but they are considerable. The United States is privileged to have a legal system built on the Constitution, which is a truly remarkable document. To the extent that we are a great nation, our greatness is derived from a great Constitution.

Israel was even more blessed, because the Israelites built their society on the foundation of the Torah—God-given laws. These laws were not given to constrain them, but to free them from the pain associated with bad decisions and wayward lives. The Psalmist put it this way:

“Yahweh’s law is perfect, restoring the soul.
Yahweh’s testimony is sure, making wise the simple.
Yahweh’s precepts are right, rejoicing the heart.
Yahweh’s commandment is pure, enlightening the eyes.
The fear of Yahweh is clean, enduring forever.
Yahweh’s ordinances are true, and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, yes, than much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey and the extract of the honeycomb.
Moreover by them is your servant warned.
In keeping them there is great reward.
(Psalm 19:7-11)


9Only take heed to yourself, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things which your eyes saw, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life; but make them known to your children and your children’s children.

“Only take heed to yourself, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things which your eyes saw, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life” (v. 9a). Without remembrance, faith soon dies. It is all too easy to be distracted by the everyday concerns of everyday life so that we forget to remember. Moses cautions against that and calls the Israelites to remember their history—what they have seen—so that they might keep faith alive in their hearts.

Yahweh called Israel to remember all that God had done for them, and promised to bless them if they did—and to punish them if they didn’t (Deuteronomy 8:18-19). He established numerous provisions to help them to remember:

• They were to heighten their remembrance by foregoing leavened bread during Passover (Exodus 13:3ff.). This was, in part, to insure “that the law of Yahweh may be in your mouth” (Exodus 13:9).

• They were to “remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy”—and were to do so by foregoing work on the sabbath (Exodus 20:8ff.).

• God called the Israelites to wear a fringe on their garments “that you may look on it, and remember all the commandments of Yahweh, and do them; and that you not follow after your own heart and your own eyes, after which you use to play the prostitute” (Numbers 15:39).

In verses 10-14 (not included in the lectionary reading), Moses tells the Israelites to remember, in particular, when they stood before the Lord at Sinai and heard the Lord speaking out of the fire. They are to remember the covenant which Yahweh gave to them and charged them to observe. They are to remember the Ten Commandments, which were written on two tablets of stone.

For Christians, the New Testament prescribes various liturgical acts to keep our remembrance alive. The regular coming together on the Lord’s Day to worship is one of those. Observing special days in the church calendar, such as Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter is another. But the greatest encourager of remembrance is the Lord’s Supper, where Jesus says, “Do this, as often as you drink, in memory of me” (1 Corinthians 11:24).

“make them known to your children and your children’s children” (v. 9b). The Israelites considered children to be a great blessing. They went to great lengths to orient children to their proper role in relationship to their family, their nation, and their God.

Male children were circumcised when they were eight days old, receiving a mark that would remind them frequently that they were part of the people of God. They participated in various religious rites and were given religious education in the home and synagogue. Yahweh specified that, when children asked at Passover, “What do you mean by this observance, “you shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of Yahweh’s Passover, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians, and spared our houses'” (Exodus 12:26-27; see also Exodus 13:8, 14).

The religious education of children is vital. If we fail to teach our children to know and to love the Lord, we will lose not only our children but our grandchildren and subsequent generations. We might not lose them physically, but we will surely lose them spiritually—and their loss will be even greater than ours.

This brings me to one of my great concerns. In many churches today, Biblical instruction for children is relegated to a distant back seat. Pastors and worship committees focus first on worship schedules and then tuck in Sunday school wherever it will interfere least. Many churches provide little (if any) teacher training, and sometimes emphasize entertainment-oriented activities over actual instructional time.

Also, publishers of children’s curriculum often fail to produce materials that help children to make sense of the Biblical story. One major publisher presents Biblical stories, but groups them in accord with artificial themes rather than in accord with Biblical chronology—a bit of the Old Testament one week and a bit of the New Testament the next. The themes (such as “We Choose God”) often have little meaning to the children, who are left trying to figure out how last week’s lesson on Daniel relates to the next week’s lesson on the Widow’s Mite.

Our failure to teach our children the Bible is one of the several reasons that mainline denominations are in decline. Churches that fail to teach their children the Bible deserve to wither away. Failure to teach children the Bible constitutes ecclesiastical malpractice.

Let me also comment about adult Bible studies. The next time someone tells you that they are involved in a Bible study, ask what they are studying. You will find that few are actually studying the Bible. In most cases, they are studying a book by Philip Yancey or another popular author. While Yancey and other popular authors provide an important service, substituting their work for the study of God’s word constitutes unfaithful discipleship.

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.


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Copyright 2012, Richard Niell Donovan