Here is, I. The promise of the great prophet, with a command to receive him, and hearken to him. Now,
1. Some think it is the promise of a succession of prophets, that should for many ages be kept up in Israel. Besides the priests and Levites, their ordinary ministers, whose office it was to teach Jacob God’s law, they should have prophets, extraordinary ministers, to reprove them for their faults, remind them of their duty, and foretel things to come, judgments for warning and deliverances for their comfort. Having these prophets, (1.) They need not use divinations, nor consult with familiar spirits, for they might enquire of God’s prophets even concerning their private affairs, as Saul did when he was in quest of his father’s asses, 1 Sam. 9:6. (2.) They could not miss the way of their duty through ignorance or mistake, nor differ in their opinions about it, having prophets among them, whom, in every difficult doubtful case, they might advise with and appeal to. These prophets were like unto Moses in some respects, though far inferior to him, Deut. 34:10.
2. Whether a succession of prophets be included in this promise or not, we are sure that it is primarily intended as a promise of Christ, and it is the clearest promise of him that is in all the law of Moses. It is expressly applied to our Lord Jesus as the Messiah promised (Acts 3:22; 7:37), and the people had an eye to this promise when they said concerning him, This is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world (John 6:14); and it was his Spirit that spoke in all the other prophets, 1 Pet. 1:11. Observe,
(1.) What it is that is here promised concerning Christ. What God promised Moses at Mount Sinai (which he relates, Deut. 18:18), he promised the people (Deut. 18:15) in God’s name. [1.] That there should come a prophet, great above all the prophets, by whom God would make known himself and his will to the children of men more fully and clearly than ever he had done before. He is the light of the world, as prophecy was of the Jewish church, John 8:12. He is the Word, by whom God speaks to us, John 1:1; Heb. 1:2. [2.] That God would raise him up from the midst of them. In his birth he should be one of that nation, should live among them and be sent to them. In his resurrection he should be raised up at Jerusalem, and thence his doctrine should go forth to all the world: thus God, having raised up his Son Christ Jesus, sent him to bless us. [3.] That he should be like unto Moses, only as much above him as the other prophets came short of him. Moses was such a prophet as was a law-giver to Israel and their deliverer out of Egypt, and so was Christ: he not only teaches, but rules and saves. Moses was the founder of a new dispensation by signs and wonders and mighty deeds, and so was Christ, by which he proved himself a teacher come from God. Was Moses faithful? So was Christ; Moses as a servant, but Christ as a Son. [4.] That God would put his words in his mouth, Deut. 18:18. What messages God had to send to the children of men he would send them by him, and give him full instructions what to say and do as a prophet. Hence our Saviour says, My doctrine is not mine originally, but his that sent me, John 7:16. So that this great promise is performed; this Prophet has come, even Jesus; it is he that should come, and we are to look for no other.
(2.) The agreeableness of this designed dispensation to the people’s avowed choice and desire at Mount Sinai, Deut. 18:16, 17. There God had spoken to them in thunder and lightning, out of the midst of the fire and thick darkness. Every word made their ears tingle and their hearts tremble, so that the whole congregation was ready to die with fear. In this fright, they begged hard that God would not speak to them in this manner any more (they could not bear it, it would overwhelm and distract them), but that he would speak to them by men like themselves, by Moses now, and afterwards by other prophets like unto him. “Well,” says God, “it shall be so; they shall be spoken to by men, whose terrors shall not make them afraid;” and, to crown the favour beyond what they were able to ask or think, in the fulness of time the Word itself was made flesh, and they saw his glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, not, as at Mount Sinai, full of majesty and terror, but full of grace and truth, John 1:14. Thus, in answer to the request of those who were struck with amazement by the law, God promised the incarnation of his Son, though we may suppose it far from the thoughts of those that made that request.
(3.) A charge and command given to all people to hear and believe, hear and obey, this great prophet here promised: Unto him you shall hearken (Deut. 18:15); and whoever will not hearken to him shall be surely and severely reckoned with for his contempt (Deut. 18:19): I will require it of him. God himself applied this to our Lord Jesus in the voice that came out of the excellent glory, Matt. 17:5; Hear you him, that is, this is he concerning whom it was said by Moses of old, Unto him you shall hearken; and Moses and Elias then stood by and assented to it. The sentence here passed on those that hearken not to this prophet is repeated and ratified in the New Testament. He that believeth not the Son, the wrath of God abideth on him, John 3:36. And how shall we escape if we turn away from him that speaketh from heaven? Heb. 12:25. The Chaldee paraphrase here reads it, My Word shall require it of him, which can be no other than a divine person, Christ the eternal Word, to whom the Father has committed all judgement, and by whom he will at the last day judge the world. Whoever turns a deaf ear to Jesus Christ shall find that it is at his peril; the same that is the prophet is to be his judge, John 12:48.
II. Here is a caution against false prophets, 1. By way of threatening against the pretenders themselves, Deut. 18:20. Whoever sets up for a prophet, and produces either a commission from the true God, shall be deemed and adjudged guilty of high treason against the crown and dignity of the King of kings, and that traitor shall be put to death (Deut. 18:20), namely, by the judgment of the great sanhedrim, which, in process of time, sat at Jerusalem; and therefore our Saviour says that a prophet could not perish but at Jerusalem, and lays the blood of the prophets at Jerusalem’s door (Luke 13:33, 34), whom therefore God himself would punish; yet there false prophets were supported. 2. By way of direction to the people, that they might not be imposed upon by pretenders, of which there were many, as appears, Jer. 23:25; Ezek. 13:6; 1 Kgs. 22:6. It is a very proper question which they are supposed to ask, Deut. 18:21. Since it is so great a duty to hearken to the true prophets, and yet there is so much danger of being misled by false prophets, how shall we know the word which the Lord has not spoken? By what marks may we discover a cheat? Note, It highly concerns us to have a right touchstone wherewith to try the word we hear, that we may know what that word is which the Lord has not spoken. Whatever is directly repugnant to sense, to the light and law of nature, and to the plain meaning of the written word, we may be sure is not that which the Lord has spoken; nor that which gives countenance and encouragement to sin, or has a manifest tendency to the destruction of piety or charity: far be it from God that he should contradict himself. The rule here given in answer to this enquiry was adapted chiefly to that state, Deut. 18:22. If there was any cause to suspect the sincerity of a prophet, let them observe that if he gave them any sign, or foretold something to come, and the event was not according to his prediction, they might be sure he was not sent of God. This does not refer so much to the foretelling of mercies and judgments (though as to these, and the difference between the predictions of mercies and judgments, there is a rule of discerning between truth and falsehood laid down by the prophet, Jer. 28:8, 9), but rather to the giving of signs on purpose to confirm their mission. Though the sign did come to pass, yet this would not serve to prove their mission if they called them to serve other gods; this point had been already settled, Deut. 13:1-3. But, if the sign did not come to pass, this would serve to disprove their mission. “When Moses cast his rod upon the ground (it is bishop Patrick’s explanation of this), and said it would become a serpent, if it had not accordingly been turned into a serpent, Moses had been a false prophet: if, when Elijah called for fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice, none had come, he had been no better than the prophets of Baal.” Samuel’s mission was proved by this, that God let none of his words fall to the ground, 1 Sam. 3:19, 20. And by the miracles Christ wrought, especially by that great sign he gave of his resurrection the third day, which came to pass as he foretold, it appeared that he was a teacher come from God. Lastly, They are directed not to be afraid of a false prophet; that is, not to be afraid of the judgments such a one might denounce to amuse people and strike terror upon them; nor to be afraid of executing the law upon him when, upon a strict and impartial scrutiny, it appeared that he was a false prophet. This command not to fear a false prophet implies that a true prophet, who proved his commission by clear and undeniable proofs, was to be feared, and it was at their peril if they offered him any violence or put any slight upon him.