Deuteronomy: A Theological Manifesto Like the Gospel of John
Maybe it's because I'm a green preacher and haven't taught on the Old Testament often, but applying Deuteronomy to 21st century living is a head scratcher. Yet Daniel Block's commentary on Deuteronomy (NIVAC) manages to do just that, apply it to everyday life in a way that stays true to the book's original purpose.
And the way he does that is by insisting that the book of Deuteronomy is a theological manifesto on par with the gospel of John.
A theological manifesto? And in comparison with John's gospel? An interesting comparison, I know, but one that's helped me better understand the purpose and scope of Deuteronomy. And one that will surely help me preach it far better than I have in the past.
Here is how Block explains his comparison:
Just as John wrote his gospel after several decades of reflection on the death and resurrection of Jesus, so Moses preached the sermons in Deuteronomy after almost four decades of reflection on the significance of the Exodus and God's covenant with Israel. Thus, like the gospel of John, the book of Deuteronomy functions as a theological manifesto, calling on Israel to respond to God's grace with unreserved loyalty and love. (25)
And Block weaves this interpretive cipher throughout his masterful commentary in order to equip you to write and teach this important book, beginning with the introduction.
Block believes the name itself—Deuteronomy, which is a Greek derivative meaning "second law"— "overlooks the true nature of the book: It presents itself as a series of sermons that review events described in the narrative of earlier books and challenges the people to faithful living in the future. Where laws are dealt with, the presentation is often in the form of exposition rather than a recital of the laws themselves." (25-26) In other words, through these sermons of Moses, the people were called to live in such a way that God required them as His people.
Furthermore, Block argues the laws themselves are presented "as a gift of grace to the redeemed to guide them in the way of righteousness and lead to life," something Luther completely missed in his reading of the book "through the lenses of Paul's rhetorical seemingly antinomian statements." (27) Later in the introduction, Block explains "The function of the book of Deuteronomy is to call every generation of Israel to faithful covenant love for Yahweh in response to his gracious salvation and his revelation of himself and in acceptance of the missional role to which he has called them." (38) Theological manifesto, indeed!
This hermeneutical conviction that Deuteronomy functions as a theological manifesto infuses every ounce of Block's exegesis, context bridging, and application. One of the primary examples is in his examination of Israel's theological cornerstone: the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4-9.
Block explains that this important theological motif headlines an important section where Moses launches into a theological exposition of his first address:
the first major part of the second address (6:4–11:32) is to impress on the people the privilege and sheer grace of the special relationship they enjoy with Yahweh. However, this grace may not be received casually; it must be embraced with grateful and unreserved devotion to their Redeemer and covenant Lord. (181)
The root of the Children of Israel's theological conviction was not merely that there was only one unique God, but the unequivocal declaration "Our God is Yahweh, Yahweh alone!" (182) Moreover, this theological conviction and declaration wasn't merely communal lip-service. Because Moses' concern is not only whether they would remain exclusively devoted to Yahweh amidst a sea of false gods, but that that devotion would manifest itself in every level of one's being.
I love how Block describes this theological and confessional movement:
The progression of concentricity in Moses' vocabulary now becomes apparent. Calling all Israel to love God without reservation or qualification, Moses begins with the inner being, then moves to the whole person, and ends with all that one claims as one's own. This is the 'yoke of the kingdom'—covenant commitment rooted in the heart, but extending to every level one's being. (184)
Block insists that this cornerstone to Moses's robust theological manifesto not only has bearing on the spirituality of ancient Israel, but it continues to have bearing on the Church's, too:
Moses taught his people and he teaches us and Christians everywhere that true spirituality arises from the heart and extends to all of life…This passage suggests that that the very decorations of our homes should bear testimony to our faith, declaring to all guests and passers-by the fundamental theological outlook of those who live within… (189)
At the end of his introduction, Block insists that Deuteronomy offers a "healthy antidote" for modern readers "plagued by a negative view of the Old Testament." (41) I would add that Block's commentary is a healthy antidote for modern readers who are plagued by a negative view of Deuteronomy, too. For in it Block illumines this ancient theological pronouncement of the manifold gift of God's grace and life, and it's bearing on our life in and through Christ—just like the gospel of John.
Jeremy Bouma (ThM) is a pastor with the Evangelical Covenant Church in West Michigan. He is the founder of THEOKLESIA, a content curator dedicated to helping the 21st century church rediscover the historic Christian faith; holds a Master of Theology in historical theology; and writes about faith and life at www.jeremybouma.com.