Choose Life (Deuteronomy 30)

There’s a young man, he has travelled far from home. He has had a great time but now he has spent up and is bankrupt. A famine hits. He gets a job but it still isn’t paying the bills and so he goes hungry.

There’s a sheep out on the hillside.  It had been wandering merrily munching the grass until suddenly it realised that it couldn’t hear the other sheep bleating or the sound of the shepherd calling. It’s dark now.

We will come back to these two parables from Luke 15 later but they immediately came to mind as I began to look at Deuteronomy 30.

When you repent (v1-10)

Coming to your senses

The first part of the condition assumes that the people will experience both blessing and curse.  Judgement will lead to repentance not just because they experience desolation and dispersion but also because they have experienced blessing and fruitfulness. It is often suggested by some philosophers that we can only truly understand goodness and beauty if we first experience wickedness but the Bible turns that assumption on its head. At no point are we told to experience doing evil in order to better understand grace.  Rather, the distress we experience through suffering is rooted in an awareness that a world free of suffering and evil is possible (v1a). The second part of the condition involves a return to God, a coming to their senses (v1b-2). They will realise that they have done wrong and the consequences of it leading to true repentance.  It is this that will lead to God restoring their fortunes. They will be forgiven and not only will they return from exile, it will be God that will gather them back (v3)

A new and greater exodus

God will do the impossible.  In the previous chapters we have seen that the imagery of scattering for those who oppose God is of 7 different directions with the number seven representing completeness. We have suggested that this reflects a defeat that they won’t come back from. Yet Moses here is saying that there is a way back even from that. Even if the people have been dispersed to the far ends of the earth, God will still draw them back (v5).

Just as the people are about to enter the land for a first time, to conquer and to possess it, they can also look forward to a day when they will return to the land. They will possess it and will multiply. Notice there that once again we have the imagery of filling and subduing as God’s people discover what it means to live in his place/land under his blessing.  Notice the comedic literary function here whereby their experience of blessing and fruitfulness is be even greater second time round (v6).

If there is to be a second and greater exodus then there is also to be a second and greater giving of the law (v6-8).  The curses will now fall on their enemies because the people are able to obey God perfectly. How? Well, God is going to circumcise their hearts. The imagery of changed hearts which are now able to love God is repeated often through Scripture whether that is in reference to the law written on a people’s hearts or to circumcision of them.

Verses 9-10 drive home the point that heart obedience will be linked to blessing and fruitfulness. The curse will be lifted from the land and they will see their livestock multiplied and fruitful harvests.

A better way (v11-20)

Something in reach

Of course the better option for Israel is to not find themselves in that situation where they have been through discipline and curse. Notice (v11-13) that they are not to see God’s commands, God’s requirements as impossible to keep. It is not that they will have an excuse for disobedience. Rather, the commands are within reach. This I believe is both in terms of the nearness in that God has spoken them directly to Israel in words they can understand and in the context of their experience of him so that they knew they could rely on him and trust in him. This is similar to the way that Adam and Eve had a clear command from God in the context of his rich and loving provision to them. Furthermore, the point is that the commands are in reach because they are achievable and not too burdensome. This reminds us that we should not confuse law with legalism. It reminds us that s Paul will insist in Romans 8, it wasn’t the law itself that was the problem but sinful human nature.

The Law is near them, in their hearts and mouths and this has been visually represented for them in the instructions we saw all the way back in Deuteronomy 6 that they were to write the laws on their doorposts and wear them in their hands and foreheads (v14).

A choice to make

So, Moses now urges them to choose the Covenant. He reminds them again of the choice that has been set before them (v15). This is the choice between life and death.  The choice is presented visually in the ceremony on the two mountains and it is the same choice that has been set before people since the dawn of creation. For Adam and Eve, it was the choice between two trees one representing life and the other death. For Cain it was the choice to embrace the blessing his brother had received or to choose death by murdering his brother. In Genesis 6 it was about life on the Ark or death in the flood. For Abraham, life meant going to the land of blessing.

Choosing life is about obeying God and specifically his commandment to love him (v16). The language of walking (in his ways) and keeping (his statutes) reminds us that this is about faithfulness. The alternative to walking in his way and keeping to it is wandering and so Scripture has frequently the imagery of unfaithfulness, straying and trespassing to reflect this. Once again the blessing of multiplication is repeated.

The alternative to choosing life is to choose death by turning away from God and his commands. This will mean idolatry.  I think there are two ways this can happen. If they choose to follow idols then by implication they will break God’s commands and not just the first two in the ten. Idolatry will involve worship that dishonours parents, that gives up the sabbath, that kills and that often involves sexual immorality. The other wat that it happens is when there isn’t a conscious decision to follow a specific named god but breaking God’s law means that implicitly you are following in the ways of pagan gods. This means there is no neutral position between faithfulness to Yahweh and worship of his rivals (v17). Disobedience means death. Their life in the land will be short. This could mean either that they will die young, life cut short by pestilence, plague and death or that they will be exiled so their life in the land will be short (v18).

Witnesses

The call to choose life and to receive the blessing promised to their ancestors is witnessed (v19-20). This completes the pattern of a formal covenant as a binding agreement between two parties with consequences in terms of blessings and curses, sealed with visible signs or symbols in front of witnesses.

The witness is creation itself, described as “heaven and earth” reflecting the importance of a double witness. How does this witness function? I would suggest that it is seen in its response. It will not just be enemy armies that respond to Israel’s engagement with the covenant, creation will respond. That obedience will mean fruitfulness and disobedience will bring curse including drought, famine and plague shows that creation has seen and heard the agreement. This also demonstrates in an other way why the blessings and curses here are material because the witness to this covenant is physical, it is creation itself.

Seeing through New Covenant Eyes

Reading Deuteronomy 30th I cannot help but turn my thoughts to Luke 15. There, Jesus tells three stories about a lost sheep, a lost coin and a lost son.  The parable of the lost sheep portrays Christ as the shepherd who goes in search of a wandering sheep who has gone astray from the path, just as God promises to seek out the scattered and lost sheep of Israel.  The parable of the lost son is key because there we have the son coming to his senses and in repentance returning to his Father.

With Deuteronomy 30 as the backdrop to these parables, the rebuke to the Pharisees is all the more stronger.  Jesus is pointing out that he is doing the work of bringing the exiles home. This si something they cannot do. They cannot renew Israel to the place of blessing.

It is important to notice that although at different stages in history, the Jews have retuned physically to their land, we do not see a fulfilment of the type described here in Deuteronomy 30.  The people returned from exile in Persia but without the arrival of a Messiah King and still remaining firmly under the rule of foreign overlords going forward.  The return to the land in the 20th Century came without any sign of repentance and again without the Messiah King.  Some people think that this will still lead to a full restoration of the Kingdom but that is to miss the point. The promise of return and restoration has been kept in Christ. He is the one who gathers God’s people in to himself with the Holy Spirit as the witness to a new covenant. 

The New Covenant shows that a new and greater ingathering is happening and it is our responsibility to work for Christ in bringing that Harvest in.  Repentant sinners whether Jew or Gentile are brought near to God to enjoy life in his presence.

There are of course implications in terms of church discipline too. Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5 are clear that the aim of such action is to encourage repentance and restoration.

Conclusion

Is God calling you back to himself? Is there something you need to repent about? Could he have used COVID-19 to call you back?

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