The Summons to Obey the Law
Before recapitulating the law given forty years earlier, Moses reminded the people of the circumstances surrounding the giving of the law at Horeb and of their covenant with God. Moses summoned “all Israel,” a reference to an official gathering of the twelve tribes, to “hear … learn … and observe” God’s word (5:1). The order of these words is important. First, the people were to “hear” God’s word. The word “hear” is used over thirty times in Deuteronomy. They were to give attentive consideration to God’s word with a view toward obeying it. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hear the word of God, and observe it” (Luke 11:28). Second, they were to “learn” God’s word. The word “learn” is used seven times in Deuteronomy. They were to study and understand God’s word. Ezra 7:10 states, “For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the Lord, and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel.” Third, they were to “observe” God’s word. The word “observe” is used almost one hundred times in Deuteronomy. They were to put into practice the things they heard and understood. James said, “But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves” (James 1:22).
Moses reminded the people that they had entered into a covenant with God at Sinai. A covenant is an agreement between two parties. This covenant was made with the people gathered before Moses, even though they were not present at Sinai (5:2-3). God spoke to the people (5:4) through Moses (5:5) and clearly and openly gave them standards of conduct (the Decalogue or Ten Commandments) to govern their behavior and by which they could demonstrate their respect for the covenant.
Note: The Ten Commandments are referred to in Deuteronomy and Exodus as the ten words, rather than our English designation Ten Commandments. This designation comes from the Septuagint translation of Deuteronomy 10:4 which states, “And He wrote on the tablets, like the former writing, the [deka logous] which the Lord had spoken … ” The term deka logous means ten words.
Practical Consideration: Victory is more than winning a fight. Deuteronomy records that prior to entering the Promised Land, Moses summoned all Israel and set the law before them. Moses did not call a meeting of military strategists. He did not call the people to inventory their weapons. He set the law before the people. Moses wanted for the people to understand that victory in Canaan was more than a matter of military superiority over their enemies. Their victory, prosperity, and longevity in the Promised Land was directly dependent on their attitude toward God’s word and their willingness to honor their covenant relationship with God.
God’s Covenant with Israel at Horeb
God introduced and identified Himself by His name and by His historical act of redemption. First, God introduced Himself by name, “I am the Lord your God.” This introduction is personal and points to Israel’s relationship with God. Second, God identified Himself as Israel’s deliverer out of the house of Egyptian slavery. God took the initiative in redeeming His people from slavery. “This was an act of power, wisdom and goodness, specially fitted to incite them to obedience, and kindle their hearts into warmest love” (James Wolfendale, Homiletical Commentary). The people were to “hear … learn … observe” the word of a personal (not a distant and impersonal) God who delivered them from bondage.
These verses contain a restatement of the first four commandments of the Decalogue (see also Exodus 20:1-17). Each of the first four commandments, or words, have to do with man’s responsibility to love God.
First, the people were reminded that they were to have no other gods before (besides/against) God (5:7). These were important words to a people surrounded by nations involved in polytheistic worship. God alone was to be the object of their worship, devotion, and loyalty. They were to allow no other god to usurp His place in their hearts.
Practical Consideration: God alone is worthy of our deepest devotion and highest loyalty. The following quotation was uttered by General William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, when asked about the secret of his success. It illustrates the kind of devotion and loyalty we should have toward God. “From the day I got the poor of London on my heart and a vision for what Jesus Christ would do for them, I made up my mind that God should have all of William Booth there was; and if anything has been achieved, it is because God has had all the adoration of my heart, all the power of my will and all the influence of my life.”
Second, the people were forbidden from making and worshiping any image representing God Himself (5:8-10). The first commandment concerns the object of worship. The second commandment concerns the means of worship. Jesus said, “God is a Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). Isaiah said, “To whom then will you liken God? Or what likeness will you compare with Him?” (Isaiah 40:18; see also Isaiah 40:25 and 46:5). “The attempt to shape a likeness of God reduced the Creator to the level of the creature” (Rick Johnson, Biblical Illustrator, Fall 1993, p. 42). This commandment also cautions parents to be careful regarding what they teach their children about the worship of God because of its impact on future generations. John Maxwell comments “the real danger of idolatry is that when one generation makes idolatrous choices, it becomes very easy for the next generation to go a step further with idolatry” (The Communicator’s Commentary, Volume 5). “Idolatry and its evil consequences descend from father to son … ” (James Wolfendale, Homiletical Commentary).
Practical Consideration: Our influence can have an intergenerational impact. The second commandment cautions parents to set the proper example in worship. A wrong example can have a far-reaching impact on future generations. Parents must not embrace any practice that will morally disorient their children.
Third, the people were prohibited from taking God’s name in vain. Those who could not prove or substantiate their claims often used God’s name in legal matters. God would hold people accountable for misusing His name in such matters. In addition, God’s name was not to be used in association with any magic or casting of spells. The people were to reverently use God’s name.
Practical Consideration: God’s name should be hallowed not hollowed. God’s name should not be used in a hollow, irreverent, or flippant manner. It should not be used in any way that is inconsistent with His character. As Jesus taught, we should hallow God’s name (Matthew 6:9).
Fourth, the people were to observe and keep the Sabbath day holy (5:12-15). The entire household was to observe the Sabbath and cease from labor (note the inclusion of the animals in 5:14). The Sabbath was to be a day of rest and reflection on God’s creative activity (Exodus 20:11), a day of remembrance of God’s mighty act of deliverance (5:15), and a day of worship.
Practical Consideration: It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming! We live lives filled with incessant hustling that keeps us dazed and out of breath. We deal with difficult circumstances and difficult people week in and week out. The demands upon our time, energy, and resources often leave us feeling empty and dry. Observing the Lord’s Day can help restore our perspective, power, and pleasure in life. Sunday affords us the opportunity to slow down, look up, take in, and go out ready to face the challenges of another week.
These verses contain a restatement of the last six commandments of the Decalogue (see also Exodus 20:1-17). They each have to do with man’s responsibility to man.
Fifth, the people were to honor their parents (5:16). The first mention of relational responsibility was that of children to parents. Parents had a responsibility to model and teach God’s word to their children. Children had a responsibility to obey and honor their parents. The Apostle Paul noted that this is the first commandment with a promise (Ephesians 6:2).
Sixth, murder was prohibited (5:17). The word “murder” refers to taking an innocent life by criminal intent or through negligence (including premeditated murder, murder done in anger, murder done in revenge, and manslaughter through negligence). Life, including that of the unborn, must be respected and treated with reverence. God set specific guidelines regarding whom, why, and how life was to be taken in certain instances (see Genesis 9:4-6; Deuteronomy 17:2-7 and 19:12; Romans 13:4).
Seventh, adultery was prohibited (5:18). God instituted marriage. This commandment was designed to guard the sanctity of this human relationship. “The sin of adultery is singled out more than any other illicit sexual behavior because it had to do with unfaithfulness … The crime of adultery was the social equivalent to the religious crime of idolatry … Faithfulness in every area was expected of the Israelites. It was to become a distinctive feature of the nation because it was a distinctive feature of their God.” (John Maxwell, The Communicator’s Commentary, Volume 5). Read Jesus’ comments on this commandment in Matthew 5:27-28.
Eighth, stealing was prohibited (5:19). Scholars agree that this commandment originally applied to kidnapping of free persons, as in the case of Joseph. The commandment also applies to the protection of property and that which another earns, saves, and owns through honest labor. Read Amos 8:5 and Hosea 12:7 regarding merchants who stole from their customers by making the “bushel smaller” and weighing with “false balances.” A man can steal either by taking from others or by withholding from others.
Ninth, bearing false witness against a neighbor was prohibited (5:20). This commandment protected the reputation and character of others. It concerned the giving of truthful testimony concerning another in a court of justice because such testimony had an impact on another’s future (see also Deuteronomy 19:15-21). Proverbs 6:16-19 lists seven things that God hates, three of which relate to the tongue: “a lying tongue … a false witness who utters lies, and one who spreads strife among brothers.” Shakespeare in Othello said:
“Who steals my purse steals trash;
But he who filches from me my good name,
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
Yet leaves me poor indeed!”
Practical Consideration: The pen is mightier than the sword, but the tongue is sharper. The popular television show “Hee Haw” had a segment in which a group of women sang the following words while doing laundry together:
“Now we’re not ones to go around spreading gossip, why we’re just really not the gossipy kind, no, you’ll never hear one of us repeating gossip, so you better be sure and listen close the first time.”
Gossip has become a national past time. One gossip was heard commenting to another, “There’s something I must tell you before I find out it isn’t true!” The prohibition against bearing false witness against another is broken every time gossip is spread. John Maxwell correctly notes, “Gossip is the lowest form of communication.”
Tenth, covetousness was prohibited (5:21). This commandment forbids both the intention (inner motive) to take for oneself what belongs to another (and what we have no right to possess) and the deed itself. Outward sins and actions begin with inward thoughts and desires. “No human eye can see the coveting heart; it is witnessed only by him who possesses it, and by Him to whom all things are naked and open. But it is the root of all sins against our neighbor in word or in deed” (James Wolfendale, Homiletical Commentary). Maxwell comments, “If this last commandment were kept, the first nine would never be broken.” This prohibition against covetousness includes a man’s wife, thus emphasizing the sacredness of the marriage relationship. This prohibition also includes a man’s real estate. This was important because the landless wanderers would soon enter into the Promised Land and possess their own real estate.
The People’s Response to the Covenant
These verses contain a review of the circumstances surrounding the giving of the law at Horeb (5:22). The experience was so awesome that the people asked Moses to be their representative and report to them what God desired (5:23-26). The people pledged to obey God (5:27). God was pleased with the request of the people (5:28) and expressed His concern that they follow through on their commitment to obey Him (5:29). God instructed Moses to tell the people to return to their tents (5:30). Moses stayed to receive the “all the commandments and the statutes and the judgments” of God which he was to teach the people that they might prosper in the Promised Land (5:31-33).