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Bible Commentaries

The People's Bible by Joseph Parker

Deuteronomy 17

 

 

Verses 1-20

True Worship

Deuteronomy 17

This makes our relation to God very definite. There is to be no intermediate worship. Closeness—almost visible closeness—is to be the rule and standard of our communion with God. Nothing must stand between. We are permitted to come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need. There must be no intervening system of priests, or officers of any kind, or angels of any degree: every soul must have right of way to God, and must not stop on the road, but go straight up as it were to the presence-chamber of the king. This honour have all the saints; this delight is the portion of all broken hearts and contrite spirits. The publican may stand with eyes down-cast and breast smitten as if in reproach, and say, "God be merciful to me a sinner!" Only two parties are named in the covenant—God and the sinner himself. Observe the definiteness of God"s command. There is to be no counterfeit; there is to be no pretence. Even the sun is not to be worshipped, nor the fair moon, nor any of the stars that make night rich. The temptation is very strong. If anything visible might be worshipped, surely it would be the sun, at any point of what we call his career—in the whitening east, in the dazzling noontide, in the solemn westering of that day-making glory. God foresaw this. It was dangerous to make a sun: it looks so like a God. Other spirits might find in the soft moon somewhat of motherliness and gentleness, and condescending interest in the affairs of men—a sweet, sweet light that has come out in the darkness, that is never seen in the mid-day glory; a seeking mother, a solicitous sister, a gentle friend that may and dare come out in the night;—who could fail to fall down and say,—Bless thee, thou spirit of light, thou art at least a symbol of the living God? And some of the stars seem to speak: they glitter so; their sparkling is so vivid; their appeal so direct, as if we must answer such voices. God has said,—Sun, moon, and the host of heaven are not to be worshipped. So much for nature-homage; so much for the altar of the universe, as represented by things bright and beautiful and most alluring in their tenderness. All altars, but one, are thrown down. Those who believe the Bible have, therefore, no alternative. They hear poems about nature, about sunlight and moon-light, and babbling brooks, and sparkling dew, and bending corn, and birds trilling out their very throats in song; and they say,—If the Bible had not spoken so definitely, we might have been persuaded to halt and build a tabernacle and worship the host of heaven and the singing tenants of the air and all the beauty of the bespangled carpet under our feet; but the Bible is emphatic and definite: we are not to stop at the creature, but to go up to the Creator; we are not to uncover our heads in the presence of the lamps at his gate, but are to pass on that we may find himself, and in prostration of heart worship only his living Majesty. It comes to this, then: Is the Bible our guide? Are we intelligent and resolute believers in a divine Revelation , which is now given to us in our own tongue, and the substance of which we can all understand? We must take care how we defraud God of his rights. God will make up to us for any loss we may sustain in obeying his commandments. The green field is alluring: where the sunshine plays surely there must be a ladder the head of which reaches unto heaven; but if we have honestly said,—We leave all these things and betake ourselves to the appointed place, and worship in the appointed way,—God will make up to us for all the green fields we have forfeited, and as for the light of the sun, a light above its noontide brightness shall delight the vision of the soul.

"Then shalt thou bring forth that man or that woman, which have committed that wicked thing, unto thy gates, even that man or that woman, and shalt stone them with stones, till they die" ( Deuteronomy 17:5).

The letter has passed. He who lives in the letter lives in the shell or in the bark, as the old Roman law has said. We must live in the spirit, and not in the letter, so though all physical pain and penalty have disappeared, death is still and ever must be the result of false worship. He who worships the wrong deity does not worship. That is a suggestion which has risen into a fact by reason of multiplied and even immeasurable observation and experience. It is not the body that dies: it is the soul that pines, withers, decays, and gradually sinks away,—a notable truth, a profound thought indeed, most solemn, and one which can be tested. The meaning simply is this: Lose touch of God, and you cannot live. "As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me... Without me ye can do nothing." The thought, therefore, is not extraordinary as to its claim upon our attention or arbitrary in its authority: it simply means: Leave hold of God, and you must wither; abandon the centre of life, and though you may go forward for a moment or two by reason of the impulse derived from the original contact, you must halt and die. It is so intellectually, it is so morally, it is so socially; in all these departments there are living centres, recognised authorities, and if we neglect or despise them, the result is seen in intellectual, moral, and social feebleness, pollution, and death. We are not made to invent our own gods, and be as healthy and robust of intellect as if we were worshipping at the true altar. We are seeking by foolish worship to establish a lie: we are endeavouring to show that being mortal we can become immortal; that being fallible we can find out and worship infallibility without going to the living God; that being ignorant we can write for ourselves a law and constitute for ourselves a light and guide. The man who has no Bible may talk Song of Solomon , and he forfeits nothing of consistency; but the man who holds to the Bible must hold to the true God, the one altar, the only Priest, the fountain opened for sin and for uncleanness. We cannot have a Bible, and yet live as if we had it not; to have seen it is to have incurred a responsibility; to have read one of its living chapters is to separate by an infinite distance our souls from all the ignorance and bondage of the past. Although, therefore, physical death is no longer to be inflicted and outward stoning is happily unknown, there remains the eternal truth that false worship is death, misconceived worship is loss of soul, and right worship is daily sustenance and the continual enhancement of highest strength.

In the fourteenth verse we have an instance of God"s deep reading of the human heart. It is a verse full of forecast; it Isaiah , indeed, charged with surprise, and must have come upon the people startlingly:—

"When thou art come unto the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, and shalt possess it, and shalt dwell therein, and shalt say, I will set a king over me, like as all the nations that are about me." ( Deuteronomy 17:14)

This opens up a marvellous sphere of divine operation in the affairs of men. It would seem as if God himself had almost suggested the evil that has been committed. Take the instance of our first parents in the days of their innocence. God said unto them, "Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die." And here God indicates a rising in the mind of his people of a rebellious spirit against himself, expressing its purpose in a desire for a king. The thought had not occurred to the people at this moment; no such idea had ever touched the minds of the people to whom these words were addressed. Here, then, we are called upon to distinguish between foreknowledge and predestination. That there is foreknowledge in God is a necessity of his being God: without foreknowledge he is without Godhead; but when he predestinates he predestinates to caution, to vigilance: he calls men to be upon their guard, and to pray with increasing energy and precision of meaning, that they may be saved from false issues and from criminal acts. To fore-know is not to fore-determine. The eating of the fruit of the tree was not an act of predestination, nor was the call for a king in Israel to be traced to the decree of God; in both instances there was warning and there was a call to vigilance, and to certain lines of policy and conduct in the case of the choosing of a king.

Very beautiful is the portrait of a king that is given by God himself. God will have a king of his own creation:—

"Thou shalt in any wise set him king over thee, whom the Lord thy God shall choose" ( Deuteronomy 17:15).

Royalty must be created by divinity. This is the same principle that we have laid down in regard to worship. We must have God at the head, the Creator upon the throne; there must be no settlement with intermediate causes and influences: in all things we must have direct communication with the living Creator, the eternal Sovereign of the universe. Have a king, says God, but have one of my choosing. In other words: If you will insist upon having a monarch, call upon me to name him. A marvellous condescension in the one case and a complete submission in the other. There cannot be two Gods, equal in authority and power, ruling over the human mind. The Lord reigneth; all kings are his subjects: he is Lord of lords; the crown is God"s creation, if a crown of righteousness, justice, purity, and charity.

The Lord is pleased to go into detail about this possibly coming king that should reign over his people. He was to be fraternal:

"One from among thy brethren shalt thou set king over thee" ( Deuteronomy 17:15).

The basis was a basis of equality: there was to be no idea of a heavenly descent or a coming from some other and invisible world with superhuman and impossible claims. There are such kings, and there always must be such kings, in every republic, in all time and in all space. Republics do not destroy kings; only they indicate and worship with loyalty the right kind of king. There will always be larger men, elder men, wiser men; men in whom there is a greater quantity of manhood than in others; far-seeing men; men whose hands combine the grasp of strength with the caress of gentleness. God will, therefore, have the fraternal principle asserted. We live in brotherhood: otherwise we live in bondage and in fear and in distressing humiliation.

But the king must be guarded: he will have his temptations. Against two of those temptations God guards his people. The king shall not be a vain man:

"He shall not multiply horses to himself" ( Deuteronomy 17:16).

Horses were the symbols of power. To have many horses was to be a right royal king, according to conventional construction of the situation. The horse was supposed to be the image of power, the seal of great might and glory. God cautions the king that is to reign over his people against trusting in horses— against the whole strength and genius of worldly vanity: being a king, he must not be foolish; being royal, he must not be unwise; his very greatness should make him ambitious to be greater still in moral qualities—in fraternal solicitude and in beneficent action.

Not only was he cautioned against vanity, but against self-indulgence:

"Neither shall he multiply wives to himself, that his heart turn not away: neither shall he greatly multiply to himself silver and gold" ( Deuteronomy 17:17).

These are the temptations of the great ones of the earth—to have many horses, to gratify every appetite, and to have all that money can buy, and to boast themselves that they can purchase what they wish to possess. All these impulses must be kept down; the whole desire of the man must be chastened. The king must know himself to be the vicegerent of God, the messenger of Heaven, the errand-bearer of the eternal covenant. How is this to be brought about? Only by the inculcation of great principles, by the spread of spiritual knowledge, by a truer estimate of the scope and function of law.

But all this is cautionary, and may be described as largely negative. What more must take place in the history and government of the true king? He must be a student:

"And it shall be, when he sitteth upon the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write him a copy of this law in a book out of that which is before the priests the Levites: and it shall be with him, and he shall read therein all the days of his life: that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, to keep all the words of this law and these statutes, to do them: that his heart be not lifted up above his brethren, and that he turn not aside from the commandment, to the right hand, or to the left: to the end that he may prolong his days in his kingdom, Hebrews , and his children, in the midst of Israel" ( Deuteronomy 17:18-20).

The law is divinely given. Any laws we may make, if they are to be righteous and beneficent, must be of the quality of law which has been already revealed from heaven. Whatever is not of that quality must go down. False worship leads to death; false legislation leads to social dissolution. The Book has been written; everything that human life can need is in the Bible: there is no law touching human life, property, interest—past, present, future—which is not to be found in the Book of God. This is not a claim set up on behalf of the Book: it is the record of the worlds profoundest reading; it is the testimony of the world"s amplest and purest experience. We must make laws for momentary purposes that we may direct into proper channels certain actions and relationships; but all the law which we make must be of the nature of the law which is revealed. That being Song of Solomon , we must study the revealed law: we must read it by the dazzling noontide light, and read it by the lamps which men have made to dispel the darkness. The law must be read in all lights, day and night, from beginning to end, in all its varieties, relationships, and issues; and he who reads the law so will instantly discern the spirit of all human law, and be able to say with authority,—This is right; this is just; this is true. Or,—This is unrighteous, unjust, untrue, and must, as such, be done away. Great Bible readers are great reformers. We cannot have any profoundly beneficent change in social life, custom, and usage, except we have it through the inspired revelation. Spread the Bible; make all men read the Bible so that they may understand it; spare no expense in circulating the Book; those who can explain it, devote yourselves to it day and night: turn the Book of God into the language of the people, and thus create in them, under the blessing of Heaven, a true spirit, a keen discernment, a sure touch that knows in the darkness as in the light what it is that claims attention and confidence.

We are called to true worship. "God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth." "For the Father seeketh such to worship him." True worship inspires and ennobles character. No man can pray well and live badly. He may pray well in a literary sense: the structure of his sentences may be perfect: the flow of his poetry may be as the running of a river; but to pray well, with sense of divine nearness, with all the trembling pathos of self-accusation and self-conviction, is to live well. We must never own it to be possible that a man can worship truly and live iniquitously. He may direct his eyes to the right heavens, he may name the name of the right God, he may be found in recognised and honoured sanctuaries; but his worship—the inner action of the soul—is wrong: otherwise it would be possible to construct a perfect hypocrisy, by pleasing God at one end of life and outwitting him at the other. Where the true worship is the true life must be—not the perfect life, not the ideal life; but the life that would be right—the life inspired by noble purpose directed to the highest ends, the life that longs to be like the God it adores. To such worship we are called. We lose when we do not worship; we go down in the volume and quality of our being when we cease to pray. To pray is to multiply life; to pray to the right God, to bend before the appointed throne, to cling to the one Cross in which alone there is virtue, is to increase the volume of life, intellectual capacity, moral emotion, and every attribute that gives purity and dignity to man. For this reason we uphold the sanctuary, we open the book of revelation; and we must not be allured from the altar where we renew our youth, and where we daily read the record that can alone make wise.

Selected Note

"He shall not multiply horses to himself" ( Deuteronomy 17:16). It appears to be substantiated that the horse was derived from High Asia, and was not indigenous in Arabia, Syria, or Egypt. They are not mentioned among the presents which Pharaoh bestowed upon Abraham, and occur in Scripture for the first time when the patriarch Joseph receives them from the Egyptians in exchange for bread ( Genesis 47:17)—evidently as valuable animals, disposed of singly, and not in droves or flocks like cattle and asses. They were still sufficiently important to be expressly mentioned in the funeral procession which accompanied the body of Jacob to his sepulchre in Canaan ( Genesis 1:9); and, for centuries after, it does not appear that, under the domestic management of the Egyptians, unless the murrain had greatly reduced them, horses had multiplied as they would have done in a land more congenial to their habits, since only six hundred chariots appear to have pursued Israel ( Exodus 14:7)—even admitting that there were other chariots and horsemen not included in that number. In the sculptured battle-scenes which are believed to represent victories of Sesostris, or Thothmes II. and III, over nations of Central Asia, it is evident that the enemy"s armies, as well as the foreign allies of Egypt, are abundantly supplied with horses, both for chariots and for riders; and in triumphal processions they are shown as presents or tribute—proving that they were portions of the national wealth of conquered states sufficiently valuable to be prized in Egypt. At a later period, the books of Deuteronomy ( Deuteronomy 17:16, for the future kings of Israel are forbidden to possess many) and Joshua ( Joshua 11:4) furnish similar evidence of abundance of horses in the plains of Syria; and in Job occurs a description of a perfect war-horse, couched in the bold, figurative language of inspiration, such as remains unequalled by any other poet, ancient or modern.

Prayer

Oh that we might do thy will, thou loving Father of us all! Not our will but thine be done; thy will be done on earth as it is done in heaven. It is not the will of our Father in heaven that one of these little ones should perish. Thou hast no pleasure in death; thou art the God of life and immortality: thou dost live for ever, and thou hast offered us life eternal in Jesus Christ thy Son. This is life eternal: to know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent. Give us such knowledge of thyself as we are able to receive. May we know thee by thy love, thy tenderness, thy daily compassion; may we feel thy nearness and answer thy touch, and return thy whispered love in many a vow of consecration. Thou hast been very kind to us, and merciful even unto tenderness; thy kindness has been lovingkindness; thy mercy has been tender mercy. Thou hast caused us to invent new words to meet the beauty of thy revelations; so we speak of thy lovingkindness and thy tender mercy, and say that thy mercy endureth for ever. May we realise this; may we answer this; may our whole life show that this is no mere assent to what we do not understand, but the utterance of a soul that has tested its own faith. We bless thee for all thy care: thine arms are round about us. The old man"s journey is not yet concluded, because thou hast more light on earth for him to see; the little child is nursed and caressed and comforted that he may become strong in moral quality and noble in moral temper; the man of business is still taught that life is not in the ground but in the sky, and thou art offering to descend from above and make him live. Our houses are precious to thee: thou dost send the sunshine upon them; thou dost surround them by protection; and we are here today in thy house in a common language and with a common feeling blessing the one Father of the race. Thou hast raised up a Prophet for us: thou hast sent a Teacher from thyself to teach us. We know that Jesus has come from God, for no man could do the miracles which he did except God were with him; and we say to him every time we draw near to his feet,—Rabbi, we know that thou art a Teacher sent from God. May the hearer meet the Teacher in a right spirit, in a sweet temper, in an expectant mood of soul; and between the Teacher and the taught may there be a bond of vital sympathy; and may we all sit together at thy table, and eat and drink abundantly according to the terms of thy welcome. Amen.

 


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Bibliography Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 17:4". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/jpb/deuteronomy-17.html. 1885-95.

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