Deuteronomy is the fifth book in the Bible. The name of the book is taken from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The Greek title Deuteronomion means “second law” or “law repeated.” The title refers to the fact that the book contains a restatement of the law of God as recorded in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. The title of the Book in the Hebrew Bible is Debarim, which means “words.” This title is derived from the first verse of the book, “These are the words which Moses spoke … ” Deuteronomy is Moses’ farewell address to the people he had led for forty years. Knowing that he would not accompany the people into the Promised Land and concerned that they not repeat the failures of the past, Moses spoke to them about the importance of loving and obeying God. Deuteronomy is a record of his sermons to the common man.
Hundreds of years after the book of Deuteronomy was written, King Josiah of Judah ordered the restoration of the house of the Lord “which the kings of Judah had let go to ruin” (2 Chronicles 34:11). During this restoration project a priest named Hilkiah “found the book of the law of the Lord given by Moses” (2 Chronicles 34:14), the book of Deuteronomy. Hilkiah gave the book to a scribe named Shaphan who personally read it and then read it to King Josiah. Upon hearing the words of the book, Josiah was fearful because the life of the people did not match the message of the lost book. He then led the people of Judah to make a covenant to faithfully follow the Lord (2 Kings 23:3 and 2 Chronicles 34:31-33). For generations the people had neglected the practical instruction of the book of Deuteronomy and had failed to study and teach it to their children (Deuteronomy 6:6-9). As a result they grossly sinned against God and embraced the idolatrous practices of their heathen neighbors. Proverbs 13:13 declare, “The one who despises the word will be in debt to it, but the one who fears the commandment will be rewarded.” The book of Deuteronomy is a commentary on that verse.
Introduction to the Book
Notice, “the words which Moses spoke” were spoken “to all Israel” (1:1). Moses spoke “to all Israel” at the intersection between a past filled with failure and a future as bright as the promises of God. Deuteronomy 1:2 is a solemn reminder of the high price of disobedience and unfaithfulness (see Numbers 13). Kadesh-barnea, the entry point to the Promised Land, was only an eleven-day journey from Mount Horeb (Sinai). It was from Kadesh-barnea that the spies were sent into the land of Canaan and returned with their negative report about the difficulties of conquest. It was at Kadesh-barnea that the people were sentenced to wandering in the wilderness one year for every day the spies spent in Canaan (see Numbers 14:34). Notice also that the words that “Moses spoke to the children of Israel” were God’s words (1:3). Moses’ message had a divine origin.
Deuteronomy 1:5 states that “Moses undertook to expound this law” to the people while encamped on the plains of Moab, east of the Jordan River. The word “expound” means to “make clear.” Moses’ message was more than a restatement of the law, it was also an interpretation of the law designed to lead the people to understand and apply it in their personal lives. The word “law” (from the Hebrew word torah) includes instruction, warning, exhortation, and comfort. This was Moses’ final opportunity to impress upon the people the importance of obeying God as they prepared to make the transition from a wandering to a settled community.
Leaders Chosen at Horeb to Assist Moses
Moses’ first message to the people begins in Deuteronomy 1:6 and ends in Deuteronomy 4:43. Moses was concerned that the people learn from their history lest they repeat it. Encamped on the plains of Moab, Moses reviewed the leadership of God from Horeb to the plains of Moab. His message reviews three stages of that journey. First, the journey from Horeb to Kadesh-barnea (1:6-46). Second, the journey from Kadesh-barnea to Heshbon (2:1-37). Third, the journey from Heshbon to their encampment “in the valley opposite Beth-peor” (3:1-29). This historical review formed the background for Moses’ exhortation to the people. In light of the evidence of God’s goodness to His people, Moses exhorted them to respond with gratitude, obedience, and devotion to God (4:1-43).
Practical Consideration: Looking back can give us the confidence to move forward. Moses’ first message to the people was filled with historical references to the acts of God on behalf of the Israelites. Moses reviewed the history of the Israelites in the hope that they would not repeat the errors of the past nor forget the faithful way in which God had dealt with them. A review of the past faithfulness of God should result in gratitude, devotion, and obedience to God in the present. Those who remember the faithfulness of God yesterday can face tomorrow with the assurance that He will remain faithful.
Moses’ review begins with God’s command to leave Horeb, where they had received the law, and go to possess the land promised by God to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (1:6-8). Verse 6 accentuates God’s initiative: “You have stayed long enough at this mountain” (see also 2:3). Verse 7 describes the vast scope of the land promised by God. Verse 8 recalls the promise of God to the patriarchs.
Practical Consideration: Comfort is the enemy of conquest. God spoke to the Israelites at Horeb saying, “You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Turn and set your journey, and go … ” (1:6). God did not deliver the Israelites out of Egyptian bondage in order for them to comfortably settle at Horeb. His plan was for His people to boldly advance towards the Promised Land to conquer and occupy it. In like manner, those who aspire to spiritual maturity must adopt Paul’s attitude, “Not that I have already obtained it, or have already become perfect, but I press on that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12). Comfort and complacency are the enemies of progress and growth in the Christian life.
The background for these verses is found in Exodus 18:13-27. Moses reminded the people of how the burden of leadership (1:9) over the growing population (1:10-11) was shared by appointing “wise and discerning and experienced men” from among the people (1:12-14) to serve as officers and judges (1:15). These leaders were charged with the responsibility of dispensing fair justice to all men, Israelite and non-Israelite alike (1:16-18). A system of community government to oversee the administration and preservation of law and order was imperative during the wilderness wanderings. The need for responsible government and a fair judicial system would be no less urgent in the Promised Land.
Sending Spies and the People’s Rebellion
These verses recount the difficult journey from Horeb to Kadesh-barnea (1:19). The people traversed rough terrain in obedience to God’s command (see 1:6). Upon arriving at Kadesh-barnea Moses reminded the people of God’s promise to give them the land before them (1:20-21). They were on the threshold of the Promised Land. They could see it from there. However, as Vince Abner said, “It is not enough to stare up the steps; we must step up the stairs.”
The background for these verses is found in Numbers 13. Moses summarized the account of the sending of the twelve spies (1:22-23) into the Promised Land and their report upon returning (1:24-25). The people requested that spies be sent into the land to map out a strategy for its conquest (1:22). This idea pleased Moses (1:23) who was given divine approval for the venture (Numbers 13:1-3).
The background for these verses is found in Numbers 13-14. These verses recount the refusal of the people to go in and possess the land because of the negative report of the spies (1:26-28 and Numbers 13:28-29,32-33). Moses reminded the people of how he had tried to encourage their fathers to trust in the Lord who had proved Himself faithful every step of their journey (1:29-33). In spite of God’s faithfulness, their fathers still refused to trust Him (1:32). The ten faithless and faltering spies saw the obstacles rather than the objective and the problems rather than the possibilities. It is interesting that there is no mention of God in the parallel account of the spies report in Numbers 13:25-33. They ten spies had lost sight of God. Caleb and Joshua however, saw the same things that their fellow spies saw and yet did not come to the same conclusion. Perhaps it is because, as someone has suggested, we see things not as they are but as we are.
These verses recount the Lord’s response to the people’s unfaithfulness. God declared that “not one of these men, this evil generation” would enter into the Promised Land (1:34-35), not even Moses (1:37). Only Caleb (1:36), Joshua (1:38), and the children (1:39 and Numbers 14:31) would be allowed to enter the Promised Land. The others were sentenced to wander and die in the wilderness (1:40 and Numbers 14:32-35). This was an irrevocable decision. Verses 41-46 relate the account of the failed belated confession of the people and their effort to make up for their unfaithfulness. It was too late. They missed their window of opportunity. They failed to obey God when they should have obeyed God.
Practical Consideration: God is bigger than giants! The Israelites refused to enter the Promised Land because ten spies lost sight of the fact that God is bigger than giants. An entire generation of Israelites died in the wilderness because they unquestioningly accepted the demoralizing and discouraging report of ten men who allowed the stature of their enemies to blind them to the strength of God. May we be careful lest we be guilty of the same unfaithfulness. May we remember that God is indeed bigger than giants.