“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. - Deuteronomy 6:4-9 (ESV)
Like so many books in the Old Testament, Deuteronomy is commonly underrated and therefore under-read. Many have accomplished amazing things by human standards. Many have produced great works of literature. And there are others who have been great military leaders or nation-builders. There are philosophers and thinkers who have changed the world with their thought.
Are there not many historical figures whose final words we would covet reading? Just think of the many figures in history who died suddenly. If they could have known that they were going to die soon, would we not value any final words they had to share?
In Deuteronomy, we have the final words of what surely is one of the greatest leaders in history. Moses was, among other things, a military leader, a royal, an immigrant, a refugee, a nation-builder, a politician, a religious leader, a songwriter, and a historian. God used Moses at a time and place that makes Moses unique among people in history. On top of all this, during a significant period of his life, Moses was in the habit of speaking with God directly (Exodus 33:11).
The passage that begins this article is known as the Shema, which means, "Hear". This name comes from the first word in the Hebrew text as we see in English. I have sometimes seen this text referred to as the heart of the Old Testament. Of course, Jesus himself remarks that this is the greatest commandment (Matt. 22:37-38).
The Big Idea of Deuteronomy
I teach that the big idea of Deuteronomy is to remember the law and love Yahweh. Because of this, the Shema is a fitting representative passage for the message of Deuteronomy. As Moses comes to the end of his life, he recaps the law for the generation that will enter the Promised Land. This is a generation that were either children or as of yet unborn when the Law was received on Mount Sinai. "Deuteronomy" means "second law". It is not that this is a separate law, but that this is the same law reviewed and captured for the generation that succeeds the one which died off in the wilderness due to their persistent disobedience. The second generation has the opportunity to hear the law from Moses one more time before Moses dies and they finally go in to claim their inheritance.
An Outline of Deuteronomy
It is helpful to understand this commandment in its context. Deuteronomy can be broken into 4 sections according to some natural breaks and transitions, although others may divide it in other ways, such as according to the individual discourses that Moses gives. The Shema arrives in the context of a series of instructions by Moses that mostly focus on calling Israel to remember from where they came as they prepare to enter the Promised Land.
Chapters 1-12 consist mostly of speeches by Moses in which he rehearses the events of the past 40 years of their time since leaving Egypt and exhorts Israel to follow Yahweh. Moses admonishes the people to take care to remember all that has happened so that they might not neglect Yahweh and drift from him (cf. Deut. 4, 8:11-20).
Chapters 13-26 focus on laws Moses wants Israel to remember. Moses covers a wide range of categories, from prophets and prophecy (ch 13), to the calendar, and various other matters. In general, Moses is giving general instructions as well as principles for how to deal with certain kinds of situations (e.g. Deut. 21:15, 21:18, 21:22). This is a stark reminder of the importance of Moses as leader and judge over Israel. He is like a parent giving final instructions to his children before he leaves on a long journey.
Chapters 27-28 center on covenant blessings and curses. Moses describes all the good and blessings that would come as a result of the people's obedience. But he is even stronger about the curses that would overtake them for disobedience. This is a pattern that we see throughout Deuteronomy: there is every hope for the future, but the strongest emphasis is on warning the people before he is gone.
Deuteronomy 29-34 are the final five chapters of the book. Various things happen here. Moses shares his last words with the people, reiterating that he has set life and death before them, so it is up to them to choose (Deut. 30:15). We also find a song of Moses that summarizes Israel's history up to that point. The last thing Moses does before being taken up the mountain to die is bless each tribe.
The Benefits of Deuteronomy
There is much for Christians to learn from Deuteronomy today. As we read Deuteronomy, we rob it of its significance if we think of it as just a reiteration of the law.
Deuteronomy has a sense of urgency that is instructive for us. This comes from Moses' awareness that the time has come for him to die and the people to enter the Promised Land. Far more than just laws, we have in Deuteronomy the last will and testament of Moses himself. For this reason alone, we do well to listen.
But we should also think of what Moses wants for the people as he leaves them. And the fact that we read in Deuteronomy the greatest of all commandments should not be lost on us. We have noted that Jesus considered this one of the two commandments upon which all the Law and Prophets rest. Many things have changed from the Old Testament to the New Testament. The sense of urgency in Moses' words throughout Deuteronomy is a persistent reminder to us to be zealous and diligent in our love for God and our obedience to his revealed will.
In Deuteronomy, we are reminded of what is most important. And what is most important is living for God rather than ourselves. As Moses reaches the end of his life, he can impress nothing more important than the command to love Yahweh with all our heart, soul, and might. Remember the law and love Yahweh. As we look back at Moses from this side of the cross of Christ, we can see that things have not changed all that much. Although we are no longer under the law of Moses, we are under the rule and law of Christ (1 Cor. 9:21; Gal. 6:2). We keep the law not to be saved, but because we are.