Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages
I wonder if you were a space alien from the planet Tharg and you landed by mistake in Britain, whether your first and instinctive reaction would be to exclaim ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!’ Our passage today, along with the Gospel from Mark 7, is about the Law, and I have already discussed elsewhere what place the Law has in the lives of Christians who have been saved by grace. We concluded that the Law is meant to be a delight to God’s people, not because it restricts them but because it points the way to life and wisdom, the kind of savoir faire which helps us to live effectively. But today’s passage reminds us that this is not just an individual characteristic but a corporate one as well.
There is a common motif in the OT about the surrounding nations observing Israel and seeing them as wise and effective, and acknowledging that their god is indeed a good one. This thought lies at the heart of this passage: in v 7-8 the repeated cry of ‘what other great nation?’ displays the awe with which those outside Israel regard their national life. Would that that were true of 21st century Britain!
The Law is hallmarked by wisdom and justice. It is not to be tampered with according to personal taste, it needs guarding jealously and living out zealously, and above all it needs passing on to generations yet to come. Proverbs 24:34 tells us that ‘righteousness exalts a nation’, and it is clearly meant to exalt the nation in the eyes of other nations, so that they may see both the presence of God among us, and the goodness of that God.
But this is not just a nice idea. Our lectionary compilers have again filleted out the more awkward verses from v 3-5, but to reinsert them reminds us that actually this is a matter of life and death. We don’t just keep the Law so that we’ll look good, but that we may live. To ignore it is to dice with death – literally. Whether that is the quick death of idolators punished by God, or the long, slow death of a nation in moral decline, it is equally inevitable.
It is worth reminding ourselves, though, of the place of the whole book of Deuteronomy, which purports to be Moses’ final instructions as the nation enters a new phase, having left behind slavery and wandering. Now they are to become more of a settled nation, it is good to get the foundations in place as the new phase of life begins. In the final verse Moses urges the people to keep careful watch on themselves lest what he is telling them fades from memory. If you want to see what happens to nations which may be built on good foundations but which have lost the plot over the years, you have only to watch the news. This passage calls forth intercession from me, that God would have mercy on a nation well down the road of disobedience and decay.