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In Case You Missed It -- Deuteronomy 34, Psalm 117

Today our reading includes the last chapter of the Torah (also called the Pentateuch), as well was the shortest chapter in the Bible (Psalm 117). Besides this trivial information, we learn that when the end of Deuteronomy is written, Israel hasn’t seen a prophet who has known God face-to-face like Moses (Deuteronomy 34:10). Whoever wrote this last chapter in Deuteronomy— whether it was Joshua, Ezra, or someone else—we see how important Moses’ work has been in the history of Israel. God has used Moses to deliver Israel from Egypt, to receive the law, to institute the tabernacle, to form the Levitical priesthood, and to prepare Israel to take their land of promise. Moses is believed to have written all of the first five books of the Bible, save this last chapter in Deuteronomy. Moses’ importance to our ability to even read and enjoy the Bible cannot be overstated.

The Hebrew Bible is broken up into three parts, the law (Torah), the history, and the prophets. Congratulations on reading through this first and foundational section of the Bible. Without it, we would make less sense of Jesus’ life, work, and mission, not to mention the overall story God is writing. As we are thankful for Moses, I want to thank you for your work in understanding these first five books of the Bible, which is not always easy. Praise God with me for our almost four-month journey through this section of the Bible. May we continue to hear from God as we move forward.

Jeremiah Vaught
In Case You Missed It -- Deuteronomy 31:30-33:29, Psalm 116

The NIV (the version of the Bible we use) gives an interesting translation in Deuteronomy 32:17. It reads, “They sacrificed to false gods, which are not God." Those two words, “false gods,” are translated from the Hebrew word shedim. This word appears only twice in the Old Testament, and it is certain that this word is best translated “demons”, not “false gods”. Though the surrounding context is about idolatry, Moses' song reveals that behind idolatry is a loyalty to evil spirits.

As we reflect, it is important to keep in mind two facts. First, scripture unveils a story, and part of telling that story means some revelations occur progressively, not at once, but in bits and pieces. Until this point the scriptures have been relatively quiet about these spirits, for even Genesis 3 does not identify the serpent with Satan as the New Testament will. As scripture unfolds, more truth is laid bare. Second, idolatry is not some innocent mistake. Here, Moses makes it clear that Israel’s evil in succumbing to idolatry requires allegiances that please spiritual forces of evil. Idolatry isn’t simply cultural or a different way of relating to God; it is a plain manifestation of living in the throes of evil.

Jeremiah Vaught
In Case You Missed It -- Deuteronomy 31:1-29, Psalm 115

Different variations of an old blessing go something like this: “May God go before you on your journey and be the last one to finish.” Really, this blessing could rephrase God’s promises to Israel in Deuteronomy 31:8. Yet even God’s presence isn’t enough to keep Israel from wandering from Him. In fact, Israel will forsake God, meet with destruction for their idolatry, and then blame their sufferings on God’s palpable absence (Deuteronomy 31:16-17).

The above blessing could justifiably add, “…and may you trust God every step of the way.” God through His Spirit is always with His people, but we don’t always perceive God’s presence or trust God in our journey. Without the grace of God’s presence, Israel stands no chance of receiving all of their allotted promises. Without relying on God’s grace, they will see the blessings God gives justly taken away for their unfaithfulness. Today I offer this blessing in response for the people of Agapé Chicago: “May God’s Holy Spirit gladden you with His presence to obey God wherever you may go.”

Jeremiah Vaught
In Case You Missed It -- Deuteronomy 29-30, Psalm 114

Moses speaks to Israel and reminds them that their eyes have seen God’s deliverance out of Egypt (Deuteronomy 29:2). Immediately after saying this, Moses presents a paradox, “But to this day the Lord has not given you a mind that understands or eyes that see or ears that hear.” (Deuteronomy 29:4) Isaiah 6:9-10 and Matthew 13:14-15 revisit this idea. Whatever it means to be able to see and not see, hear and not hear, we can certainly say that God has given Israel many reasons to trust Him, but they don’t. Israel lacks the ability to perceive God’s greatness, and even their eyes, ears, and minds somehow fundamentally fail to detect truth. Readers resolve the tension of passages like these in different ways; we have a hard time overcoming our biases, but it is important to affirm scripture’s witness that humans can interpret even what our senses incorrectly tell us. Additionally, as we are told above, it seems that Israel’s inability to perceive truth comes about because God hasn’t given them “a mind that understand or eyes that see.” What this means remains mysterious for the time being, leaving us to say, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:31). May God help us to be sober about our ability to perceive truth apart from His kindness and to be loyal to obey God's clear commands.

Jeremiah Vaught
In Case You Missed It -- Deuteronomy 27-28, Psalm 113

If you can read the curses of Deuteronomy 28 without grimacing, you can endure gruesome imagery better than most. The idea of fathers and mothers refusing to share meat from the bodies of their deceased children with their surviving children paints a graphic picture of Israel’s potential utter desolation (Deuteronomy 28:52-57). The preponderance of curses leads one to infer that God is warning Israel not simply that they might disobey God’s commands, but that they almost certainly will disobey. Embedded in the curses and also the foreshadowing nature of this passage is the idea that Israel will become like and be cursed like Egypt. The usage of the word “plague”, “drought”, “boils of Egypt”, and “swarms of locust” in Deuteronomy 28:20-42 warns that when Israel becomes like Egypt in doing evil, they will face a similar fate. To top it all off, Israel is warned that they will be cursed by going back to Egypt, but this time without anyone willing to take them even as slaves (Deuteronomy 28:68). Of course, it is important to note that Israel never went back as a nation to Egypt. Some say these curses are fulfilled in the Assyrian or Babylonian captivities of Israel, and maybe that is true in part. I think it is more likely that Deuteronomy is anticipating a time when Jesus—the true Israel and the true Son of God—will go down to Egypt to demonstrate that He is taking the curse Israel deserves (Matthew 2:15, Hosea 1:11). Whatever the case, Israel certainly will prove that they deserve the curses in Deuteronomy. But the worst curse falls on the Child of God who obeys Deuteronomy in every way, giving hope to all who deserve the curse of the law (Galatians 3:13).

Jeremiah Vaught
In Case You Missed It -- Deuteronomy 26, Psalm 112

The people of Israel make a visible act of faith by offering to God their firstfruits, whereby they acknowledge God’s past provision and reveal trust for future provision. In our reading today, as the people offer firstfruits to the priest, they are to recite the story of God’s goodness to their ancestor Jacob (who was renamed Israel) and to recount their redemption by God from Egyptian slavery (Deuteronomy 26:1-11) God is giving Israel a story to tell and retell, that they might forever remember that YHWH provides and intends to care for His children. As these offerings reflect trust in God’s future goodness to Israel, God is actually preparing them to understand how He will give them His own firstfruits—the New Testament reveals that Jesus is the firstfruits from among the dead (1 Corinthians 15:20-23). Israel’s firstfruits point towards a time when God would genuinely provide everything His people need. God is a master storyteller and teacher, and even as God commands firstfruits from His people, He does so to prepare them to understand how they might be fruitful forever through the gift of His own first and best, the Son of God.

Jeremiah Vaught
In Case You Missed It -- Deuteronomy 24-25, Psalm 111

God prohibits newly married men from “being sent to war” by Israel; moreover, He exempts a man from “any other duty” during the first year of his marriage (Deuteronomy 24:5). Certainly, Israelite men would have done normal work around the home, shielding their family from ruin during this time. This command doesn’t permit men to become massive couch potatoes but gives space for flourishing in early marriage. Contrary to this practice, we take little time to focus on our new marriages. I can remember thinking it strange when someone suggested I take a two-week honeymoon; after all, there are bills to pay!

But God is obviously wiser than we are. Americans spend around $150 billion each year on divorces, mostly in attorney fees. Additionally, U.S. taxpayers contribute an estimated $30 billion to support our colossal divorce litigation machine. Our government would do well to consider laws which could strengthen and empower marriages, like paid marital leave. More immediate to our purposes as believers, we should at every opportunity call into question the idea that work plus money will bring happiness to our marriages. Israelite men would eventually return to more strenuous work, but God intended the first year of marriage to establish a couple for lifelong matrimony. No custom or practice can completely offset human sin and selfishness, but a number of marriages experience their greatest difficulty at the beginning, and so they need utmost care at this fragile state. Thus, let us consider how the principles of this passage would apply to us. Without a doubt, we are to focus our first year of marriage on increasing harmony rather than multiplying our wealth. God is giving Israel a basic principle, and even outside of the obligation of this law, we do well to heed it.

Jeremiah Vaught
In Case You Missed It -- Deuteronomy 23, Psalm 110

We could address one of the many interesting laws found in Deuteronomy 23—especially the law prohibiting charging interest on loans to fellow Israelites—but Psalm 110 is too important to pass up. To understand Jesus’ self-perception and revelation about His identity, we need familiarity with this psalm; in the New Testament, Jesus and His early followers refer to Psalm 110 more often than any other. This psalm of David begins with a cryptic statement, “My Lord (YHWH) said to my lord (adonai), ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies my footstool’” (v. 1). Prior to Jesus, Jewish interpreters of this passage believed that YHWH is speaking to David’s heir, the messiah. Jesus concurs, but when in conflict with the Pharisees, He challenges their notion that the messiah should be primarily called “Son of David.” Since David calls the messiah “lord,” the messiah is not truly David’s son, but rather the unique “Son of God” (Matthew 22:41-45). Psalm 110 goes on to say that this same messiah is “a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” This character from Genesis 14, whose name means “King of righteousness,” will continue to play a prominent role as a priest whose order contrasts to the Levitical priesthood. The Levitical priesthood ends, but the priest in Melchizedek’s line has a never-ending priesthood. Early Christians believed that Psalm 110 refers to Jesus as both the messiah and the eternal priest that makes a satisfactory sacrifice in His body, forever pleasing to God, who sufficiently welcomes the faithful into fellowship with YHWH. When we read Psalm 110, we might helpfully read it as beginning, “My Lord, God the Father, says to my lord, God the Son...” to grasp the meaning it foretells, which we now better appreciate.

Jeremiah Vaught
In Case You Missed It -- Deuteronomy 21-22, Psalm 109

Some of the laws relating to marrying foreign wives (e.g., Deuteronomy 21:10-14) and laws assuming multiple wives (e.g., Deuteronomy 21:15-17) make necessary a reminder about some truths about the law. First, we know that the laws of God are good (Psalm 19:7-8) and that to denigrate the importance of any of God’s commandments diminishes the accomplishments of Jesus (Matthew 5:17-18). At the same time, we also know that God gave certain laws to make concession for sin prevalent in Israel (Matthew 19:8), and not because the assumption of the laws themselves reflects God’s perfect plans for our lives. Instead, Jesus tells us that certain commands are meant to keep Israel from egregious evil. Lastly, the law was a guardian protecting and preparing us for Jesus (Galatians 3:24-25) and for the law written now on our hearts by the Spirit of Christ (Hebrews 10:16).

God’s laws in the Torah do not always reflect the notion that He approves of that which necessitates the laws’ existence (i.e., sin), but they do reflect God’s desire to protect Israel from polluting His earth with increasingly great evil, such as the polygamy that was commonly practiced. Keep this in mind as you read and make sense of various laws that seem to allow what later teachings in the Bible forbid.

Jeremiah Vaught
In Case You Missed It -- Deuteronomy 19-20, Psalm 108

Deuteronomy 19:21 commands what many have called lex talionis, the law of retaliation. Strict retaliation demands that whatever someone steals, they also lose, whether money or body parts. Jesus famously addresses lex talionis in the Sermon on the Mount, instructing his disciples not to return equal punishment on those that harm them (Matthew 5:38-42). Many people misunderstand what Jesus is doing. Jesus is not calling into question the justice of lex talionis, for justice naturally punishes people in the ways they have punished others. Rather, Jesus is calling the early disciples to forebear against those who harm them and not pursue strict justice, but mete out forgiveness. During this past Good Friday sermon, I heard a preacher note that if Jesus got off the cross and did not die for us, Jesus would still be just; we just would not have received Jesus’ grace. I want to suggest that Jesus’ call for His disciples to abandon lex talionis does not urge them to abandon justice altogether, but rather to forebear demanding justice in personal matters. Justice is the necessary backdrop for grace to shine through Jesus and His followers in our unjust and graceless world.

Jeremiah Vaught
In Case You Missed It -- Deuteronomy 16:18-18:22, Psalm 107

God promises kings and a great prophet for Israel in today’s Deuteronomy reading. Without a doubt the early church saw Jesus as the prophet like Moses from Deuteronomy 18:15-19 (see Acts 3:22-24, Acts 7:37). Today I want to focus on the commands for the kings that are to lead Israel when the people are safely in their land. A king “must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray” (Deuteronomy 17:17). This command should alarm anyone familiar with Israel’s history. It serves as evidence that Israel’s kings transgressed against God’s early commands for monarchs, including their great kings David and Solomon. Often enough people are confused by God’s seeming silence about the polygamy that characterized the lives of these two revered kings. Perhaps many don’t know this command existed. Maybe we don’t understand the expectation that God’s commands be ubiquitous in the minds and hearts of the people of Israel. Whatever the reason for our misreadings, let us understand; when the original accounts of the kings were written, the writers assumed that the gravity of those kings’ choices would influence the fate of Israel. We need not get too far ahead of ourselves, but the kings’ disobedience to these commands and the problems that Israel faces have a cause and effect relationship. God gives clear commands for kings, though they are relatively sparse, but the kings of Israel still fail, and thus Israel meets with ruin. Thankfully, Israel’s need for a King that will be faithful to one bride alone will be met in the same person that is the prophet like Moses.

Jeremiah Vaught
In Case You Missed It -- Deuteronomy 14:3-16:7, Psalm 106

(Today is Easter, yet our passages do not have much reflection on Jesus’ rising from the dead. )

Today, I want to focus on two interesting statements in Deuteronomy 15. Following the mandate to forgive all debts after 7 years in Israel, the people are encouraged with these words: “However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, He will richly bless you” (v. 4). God will bless Israel so much that living in poverty should be unthinkable. However, we are told that this is not how things will turn out: “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” (v. 11) God declares poverty ought not exist, but knows it will, so Israel still must be generous to the poor. Given this contrast, something other than scarcity will be the biggest reason for Israel’s poverty; people will steward their resources inappropriately, families will fail to educate their children, and others will misuse their neighbor. God indicates in these two simple statements that poverty is a complicated matter, and that regardless, God’s people Israel are to have compassion for the poor. We do well to keep in mind both our call to care for the impoverished today and to remember that even today reasons for people’s poverty are not simple or merely the result of limited resources. Poverty exists because sin exists.

Jeremiah Vaught
In Case You Missed It -- Deuteronomy 12-14:2, Psalm 105

Many modern readers grimace when reading that Deuteronomy 13 commands the death penalty for idolatry. For one reason, it’s because many of us realize how flippantly we treat the worship of God above all other living or created things. We cringe thinking that normal practices  around us and even those normal for us would have led an Israelite to public execution. One might counter, “No, we are just being compassionate.” If you believe you fit into the “compassionate” category, recall one of the many reasons idolatry is so grave. As Reinhold Neihbur famously pointed out, idolatry and injustice always go together. When we fail to worship the true God, we freely mistreat and misuse the image of God (i.e., other humans). When we show little justice to the image of God in our neighbors, we prove we care little for the God that made them. Injustice and idolatry are always flip sides of the same coin; wherever one is, the other always accompanies. Our reading today shows this reality plainly when it tells us that foreign idolaters do all sorts of wicked things, like sacrificing their children to false gods (Deuteronomy 12:31). God knows Israel will succumb to such wicked practices if idolatrous practices go unchecked; these are inevitable consequences. Let us remember and maintain scripture’s constant witness that God’s compassion far exceeds our own. Even if God seems harsh to us, I contend that our vantage point is limited, and we need to search out God’s ways from a more all-encompassing perspective. God bless our church’s readings, and may He grant such perspective!

Jeremiah Vaught
In Case You Missed It -- Deuteronomy 10-11, Psalm 104

God doesn’t just want Israel to read His words; He desires that Israel be immersed in them. God also wants Israel to immerse their children in all that He has done and in all that He teaches (Deuteronomy 11:18). Many of us imagine that a little bit of scripture-reading will fulfill our Bible-reading duties. The truth is, God wants our thoughts, imaginations, and actions to be shaped through intimate knowledge of His word. We are, like Israel, to keep God’s word at the front of our brains, in the center of our hearts, and on the tips of our tongues. Yet we ought not see God’s desire for Israel as a burden any more than we think it a burden to flip on a light switch when making it to the bathroom at night. God wants us to have light—knowledge, direction, and wisdom—and so God gives His people words of truth. God knows that His words are as essential to life as bread (as we saw yesterday) and light. May we value God’s words like He does and do everything we can to center our entire being and our whole lives around God’s communication.

Jeremiah Vaught
In Case You Missed It -- Deuteronomy 8-9, Psalm 103

Every Sunday our church hears, “Man does not live by bread alone,” and responds, “But man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” These phrases are most famously stated by Jesus when He was tempted by Satan in the wilderness. When Jesus, starving and being encouraged to change stones into bread to satiate His hunger, says this, He is quoting Deuteronomy 8:3. In today’s passage, surrounding this famous line, God provides Israel with manna for food, speaking just enough of it into existence to satisfy them each and every day. Like us, Israel assumed they were to rely on themselves before God gave the manna; He provided it in order to teach them (and us) not to rely on bread or other physical materials for life, but to rely on God’s life-giving word and words for everything we truly need. We are then told that God disciplines Israel in this way because He loves them (Deuteronomy 8:5). To abide in God’s love and walk in God’s love is to be constantly reliant upon God’s words for life. In quoting this passage from Deuteronomy, Jesus conveys that even the power to make bread from stones matters far less than learning to feast on God’s words. May we have a similar posture in a world that lives as though bread (i.e., physical provision) is everything.

Jeremiah Vaught
In Case You Missed It -- Deuteronomy 6-7, Psalm 102

Deuteronomy 6:4-5 recounts the famous shema. Shema is the Hebrew word for “hear”. What exactly is Israel meant to hear? First, they are to hear that God is “one”. That means God is unique, and YHWH is above all others. God is also indivisible, for there is no other God, and God has unity in purpose, direction, and love. This understanding of YHWH will set Israel apart. Secondly Israel is to hear they are to obey God with all their hearts, souls, and minds. Jesus Himself called this the greatest commandment of all. Deuteronomy 6 tells us this means Israel is to dwell on God’s commands, tol teach them to their children at all times and in all sorts of ways. All of this is Israel’s due response to the love of God set upon them—not because they are a great nation, but just because God has loved them (Deuteronomy 7:7-8). God’s love for Israel sets them apart and calls for complete reciprocal love. Then, as today, God’s love is the main motivation for our complete love.

Jeremiah Vaught
April 11: Deuteronomy 4:44- 5:33, Psalm 101

Moses tells the story of receiving the 10 words (also known as the 10 commandments) and repeats them in our reading today. God speaks after the people request Moses to approach YHWH again on their behalf and we learn some of what God expects for Israel. First we know that YHWH desires Israel to pay attention to His commands and to obey (Deuteronomy 5:22-23). We also learn that God desires that Israel would have hearts devoted to Him that it might go well with them forever (Deuteronomy 5:29). When God speaks in verse 29, if we are just evaluating the sentence, it seems that God is skeptical Israel will fear God like expected. When reading Deuteronomy there is consistent tension between God’s call for Israel’s obedience and this underlying suggestion that the future will include more disbelief, disobedience, and frustration. Though God's promises rewards, blessings, and everything Israel could hope for in return for obedience, it becomes clear often enough that God realizes even this cannot power Israel to obey. Obedience comes harder for Israel than we imagine it should. For us, these readings should be a consistent reminder that we cannot obey God apart from the power and presence of God, even with all the gifts God can give us.

 

Jeremiah Vaught
April 10th Deuteronomy 4:1-43, Psalm 100

Israel is called to teach future generations everything we have read in the first four books of the Bible. God expects multi-generational instruction of Israel’s laws, history, and worship practices.  YHWH commands, “Teach them to your children and to their children after them” (Deuteronomy 4:9).  The mere repetition in this chapter of those concepts relating to children, generations, and instruction make it clear that God has a plan that will last thousands-of-years for the children of Abraham.  In other words, God does not intend Israel to be alone in their instruction of their children. God intends to be with Israel in intimate ways in the future, just like God has been uniquely available to Israel in the past (Deuteronomy 4:7). In fact, Psalm 100 summarizes the point well when it declares “His faithfulness continues through all generations” (Psalm 100:5). Yes, Israel will need to be faithful to God in order to enjoy the blessings God intends for them and to avoid being lowly amongst the nations (Deuteronomy 4:27). This does not mean that God will leave future generations to chance or that God will ever be satisfied apart from having future generations know of His faithfulness. As important as our call is to teach our families, and younger generations, we must always remember God is even more committed to this instruction. May God’s faithfulness in all generations give you peace when we attempt to teach future generations about God,  we never do this alone.

Jeremiah Vaught
April 9th - Deuteronomy 2-3, Psalm 99

Psalm 99 captures the truth that our lives reflect the stories we believe. Don’t take my use of the word story negatively, because there are true stories.  This Psalm calls to attention that God is worthy of worship in the heavens by angels, in Israel’s holy city, and by the nations.  We are reminded that God spoke to Israel’s great leaders and that Israel obeyed their God.  We are even told that God could both forgive and punish Israel’s wickedness (Psalm 99:9). As we read the story of Israel’s wilderness wanderings recounted in Deuteronomy, understand that Moses and Israel recalled and wrote their story down to remember all that God has done for Israel in order to form a people who trust in God.  The fitting result of both the story of Deuteronomy 2 and 3 as well as Psalm 99:1-9 is to, “Exalt the Lord our God and worship at his holy mountain, for the Lord our God is holy.”  Worship is the appropriate response to the true stories of YHWH’s salvation of Israel.

 

Jeremiah Vaught
April 8th - Deuteronomy 1, Psalm 98

It is good to recognize when God fulfills His promises.  In our first reading in Deuteronomy, Moses recognizes God’s faithfulness when recounting Israel’s recent history.  Moses demonstrates he has internalized the fulfillment of one of God’s promises to Abraham and connected that promise to his own life story. When Moses addresses his inability to lead Israel without delegating responsibility, his reason for choosing new leaders is that Israel is a people “as numerous as the stars in the sky.”  This is a subtle celebration that God has already accomplished his incredible promise (Genesis 15:5).  Moses appreciates God’s faithfulness and expects that God will bestow even more blessings through generations of descendants to come (Deuteronomy 1:11).  Reflecting on God’s grace in the past is what will deepen our trust in God’s goodness for our futures.  May you always be blessed to remember God’s promises and to celebrate God's faithfulness in keeping them.

Jeremiah Vaught