Beyond the Lectionary Text: Deuteronomy 30:11-20
by Bill Sytsma
It is far too common for us to have images of God that don’t match the way He is described in the Bible. One of those misperceptions is picturing God as a sadistic overlord who watches diligently to make sure no one is violating His commandments. We might be prone to believe that He finds some kind of twisted pleasure in punishing humans for the slightest miscalculation for violating His rules.
When you read Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” you will find that Edwards goes to great lengths to reassure that God’s finds pleasure in rescuing His children. However, it seems as though most of us are more likely to picture an “Angry God” as a rigid character who cannot tolerate any kind of infraction against his preferences.
There are two common misperceptions that we can have about God and His commandments. We can believe that God is angry, intolerant, and finds some kind of satisfaction in declaring harsh judgments against those who offend Him. When we do not understand the grace of God, we can easily hold on to this image.
The second misperception is about God’s commandments. It is possible to believe that God’s commandments are little more than rules that are designed to restrict our freedoms. We can argue that some of the Biblical Commandments are irrelevant
Deuteronomy 30 reshapes the image of God who is perceived as angry and intolerant. It helps us recognize that God’s commandments are not arbitrary whims of God that are intended to keep us from upsetting Him.
In her book, The Mind of the Maker, Dorothy Sayers identifies two kinds of laws, the law of the stop sign, and the law of fire. When a town notices the danger of a high traffic intersection, the town council can vote to put up a new stop sign. The town decides where to put the sign, whether it is a two-way or four-way intersection, and the amount of the fine for violating the new town ordinance. There is something arbitrary about the sign. If the town tries the new stop sign for a while, but receives too many complaints, they can decide to take down the sign, adjust the fines. If you drive through the stop sign at 2:00 am, the police officer on duty may decide to let you go without even stopping you, since there has been no harm done.
Humans create “stop sign” laws regularly for many good reasons. Parents set curfews. Employers set starting times for their employees. Governments set regulations for minimum wage. These kinds of laws can be negotiated and changed if the appropriate people agree. If we don’t like the way a “stop sign” law, we may feel entitled to ignore it, because we don’t like it.
Sayers points out that the other kind of law is the law of fire. If you stick your hand into a plié of burning leaves, you will be burned. You can appeal to the town council, but your hand will still burn. Your parents could agree that it would be much more convenient if fire would no longer burn, but they cannot change that law. The law of fire is built into nature, and there is nothing humans can do to change it.
“Fire” laws are not created by humans, they are discovered. Isaac Newton did not invent the law of gravity, he realized that gravity is part of the way the world functions. When we try to rationalize that we don’t have to follow the “fire” laws, we end up paying a price. If I stick my hand in a fire, I will get burned (the law of fire). If I step off of the roof of my ranch house, I will fall to the ground (the law of gravity). If I try to stop a moving car by holding out my hands and pushing, I will fail (the law of inertia). These laws cannot be changed, and if we try to break them, we will discover that we break ourselves.
In the book of Deuteronomy, God reminds the second generation of Israelites who had been freed from slavery in Egypt of His commandments for them as they prepared to enter the Promised Land.
Outline of Deuteronomy 30:11-20:
1. God’s Commandments are understandable and manageable. (vss. 11-14)
It is possible to set standards or goals that are unattainable, in order to inspire us to “reach for the stars.” Deuteronomy 30 makes it clear that the standards God has set are not merely ideals that we aim to come close to fulfilling. They are reasonable and make sense.
2. Following God’s Commandments brings life. (vs. 15-16)
Obedience is not a requirement to avoid severe punishment, but rather an insight to help God’s people thrive in their new home, the Promised Land. The theme of this text is stated succinctly in verse 15, where God explains that he is making a clear distinction between the path of death and the path of prosperity.
3. Disregarding God’s Commandments leads to death. (vss. 17-20)
While obedience brings prosperity, disobedience (specifically by worshipping other gods) brings the consequence of a relatively short time in the Promised Land. God pleads with His people to choose life, which means a long time of prosperity in their new home, by loving God and holding on to Him.
This text helps us realize that God’s instructions are not meant to be stumbling blocks. God’s nature is not to relish the opportunity to rebuke us for infractions against His rules. They are meant to be instructions to help us avoid tragedy and enjoy His gifts to the fullest. It is less like a restrictive prohibition, and more like the owner’s manual to a newly purchased vehicle. In the glove box of most vehicles you can find a book filled with instructions about how to best care for the vehicle. Owners can choose to neglect changing the oil, purchase cheaper gasoline, and neglect regular maintenance. If we treat our vehicles that way, we do not fear that the car manufacturers will hunt us down and fine us for inappropriate vehicle maintenance. However, neglecting the routine care for a vehicle will result in poorer performance of the vehicle, as well as a shorter life span for the car.
The idea that God’s commandments are a blueprint to life is something we intuitively understand, and we recognize it in the world around us. Some of the ways we can illustrate the truth found in Deuteronomy 30 can be seen in the way we find blessings by obeying God’s commandments today.
Polygamy – Abraham, Jacob, and David, were considered heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11, yet they all married multiple wives. It is possible to become confused about the practice of polygamy, because we never read about God condemning the practice in the lives of these men. However, does it every really work well? God used Abraham to bless the world, but the relationship between Hagar and Sarah brought heartache to his household. Jacob married Rachel and Leah, but the tension between those sisters brought friction that was noticeable for generations. Even though David was a man after God’s heart, his pursuit of multiple women brought strife that could be seen in the lives of his children. God doesn’t seem to rebuke these men, but walking out of step with God’s plans led to less-than-ideal consequences.
Adultery – The seventh commandment forbids adultery. Some have viewed this commandment as a restriction of sexual freedom. However, the commandment fits life’s design. Almost every culture recognizes the importance of sexual fidelity within marriage. Even if we decided that sexual fidelity within marriage was no longer a requirement, how would that affect marriages? Would anyone argue that families would be strengthened by less fidelity? Could we pass a rule that would make people stop being jealous? This commandment fits the way God designed people. He created us to be in community, and when sex is enjoyed within the boundaries of marriage, our marriages are better. Would anyone argue that the best marriages they have seen were relationships where the spouses freely cheated on each other?
Bearing False Witness – The ninth commandment forbids bearing false witness against your neighbor. This teaches us that we should be people who speak the truth, and it also implies that we should guard the reputations of our neighbors. It has been cited to cautions God’s people against slander, gossip, and ruining reputations.
It is not too hard to see that breaking this commandment brings problems to the one who breaks it, as well as those who are victims. If we regularly engage in lying to others, it wont take too long before we gain a reputation as being untrustworthy. If a businesswoman swindles her clientele, she might make a short-term profit from her lies, but she is limiting her time to be effective in her role. Once the word spreads that you will lie, cheat, and deceive in order to make a personal gain, you will no longer be trusted.
It does not only affect business. Can you have a nourishing friendship with someone you find unreliable or untrustworthy? Do you enjoy being around people who gossip about you behind your back?
If we practice telling the truth, we set the foundation for relationships that can last and thrive. But if we become skillful at deception, we will find that our personal interactions will suffer.
The text of Deuteronomy 30 closes with the encouragement to choose life. Following God’s commandments are not intended to be restrictions, but instructions for thriving. When we hold on to God and obey His instructions, we find greater joy as we enjoy His good gifts.
Rev. Bill Sytsma is the pastor of New Life Christian Reformed Church, Highland, Indiana.