Here is, I. A general charge to the people to keep God’s commandments; for in vain did they know them, unless they would do them. This is pressed upon them, 1. With all authority. Moses with the elders of Israel, the rulers of each tribe (Deut. 27:1), and again, Moses and the priests the Levites (Deut. 27:9); so that the charge is given by Moses who was king in Jeshurun, and by their lords, both spiritual and temporal, in concurrence with him. Lest they should think that it was Moses only, an old and dying man, that made such ado about religion, or the priests and Levites only, whose trade it was to attend religion and who had their maintenance out of it, the elders of Israel, whom God had placed in honour and power over them, and who were men of business in the world and likely to be so long so when Moses was gone, they commanded their people to keep God’s law. Moses, having put some of his honour upon them, joins them in commission with himself, in giving this charge, as Paul sometimes in his epistles joins with himself Silvanus and Timotheus. Note, All that have any interest in others, or power over them, should use it for the support and furtherance of religion among them. Though the supreme power of a nation provide ever so good laws for this purpose, if inferior magistrates in their places, and ministers in theirs, and masters of families in theirs, do not execute their offices, it will all be to little effect. 2. With all importunity. They press it upon them with the utmost earnestness (Deut. 27:9): Take heed and hearken, O Israel. It is a thing that requires and deserves the highest degree of caution and attention. They tell them of their privilege and honour: “This day thou hast become the people of the Lord thy God, the Lord having avouched thee to be his own, and being now about to put thee in possession of Canaan which he had long promised as thy God (Gen. 17:7, 8), and which if he had failed to do in due time, he would have been ashamed to be called thy God, Heb. 11:16. Now thou art more than ever his people, therefore obey his voice.” Privileges should be improved as engagements to duty. Should not a people be ruled by their God?
II. A particular direction to them with great solemnity to register the words of this law, as soon as they came into Canaan. It was to be done but once, and at their entrance into the land of promise, in token of their taking possession of it under the several provisos and conditions contained in this law. There was a solemn ratification of the covenant between God and Israel at Mount Sinai, when an altar was erected, with twelve pillars, and the book of the covenant was produced, Exod. 24:4. That which is here appointed is a somewhat similar solemnity.
1. They must set up a monument on which they must write the words of this law. (1.) The monument itself was to be very mean, only rough unhewn stone plastered over; not polished marble or alabaster, nor brass tables, but common plaster upon stone, Deut. 27:2. The command is repeated (Deut. 27:4), and orders are given that it be written, not very finely, to be admired by the curious, but very plainly, that he who runs may read it, Hab. 2:2. The word of God needs not to be set off by the art of man, nor embellished with the enticing words of man’s wisdom. But, (2.) The inscription was to be very great: All the words of this law, Deut. 27:3; and again, Deut. 27:8. Some understand it only of the covenant between God and Israel, mentioned Deut. 26:17, 18. Let this help be set up for a witness, like that memorial of the covenant between Laban and Jacob, which was nothing but a heap of stones thrown hastily together, upon which they did eat together in token of friendship (Gen. 31:46, 47), and that stone which Joshua set up, Josh. 24:26. Others think that the curses of the covenant in this chapter were written upon this monument, the rather because it was set up in Mount Ebal, Deut. 27:4. Others think that the whole book of Deuteronomy was written upon this monument, or at least the statutes and judgments from Deut. 12:1-26:19 And it is not improbable that the heap might be so large as, taking in all the sides of it, to contain so copious an inscription, unless we will suppose (as some do) that the ten commandments only were here written, as an authentic copy of the close rolls which were laid up in the ark. They must write this when they had gone into Canaan, and yet Moses says (Deut. 27:3), “Write it that thou mayest go in,” that is, “that thou mayest go in with comfort, and assurance of success and settlement, otherwise it were well for thee not to go in at all. Write it as the conditions of thy entry, and own that thou comest in upon these terms and no other: since Canaan is given by promise, it must beheld by obedience.”
2. They must also set up an altar. By the words of the law which were written upon the plaster, God spoke to them; by the altar, and the sacrifices offered upon it, they spoke to God; and thus was communion kept up between them and God. The word and prayer must go together. Though they might not, of their own heads, set up any altar besides that at the tabernacle, yet, but the appointment of God, they might upon a special occasion. Elijah built a temporary altar of twelve unhewn stones, similar to this, when he brought Israel back to the covenant which was now made, 1 Kgs. 18:31, 32. Now, (1.) This altar must be made of such stones as they found ready upon the field, not newly cut out of the rock, much less squared artificially: Thou shalt not lift up any iron tool upon them, Deut. 27:5. Christ, our altar, is a stone cut out of the mountain without hands (Dan. 2:34, 35), and therefore refused by the builders, as having no form or comeliness, but accepted of God the Father, and made the head of the corner. (2.) Burnt-offerings and peace-offerings must be offered upon this altar (Deut. 27:6, 7), that by them they might give glory to God and obtain favour. Where the law was written, an altar was set up close by it, to signify that we could not look with any comfort upon the law, being conscious to ourselves of the violation of it, if it were not for the great sacrifice by which atonement is made for sin; and the altar was set up on Mount Ebal, the mount on which those tribes stood that said Amen to the curses, to intimate that through Christ we are redeemed from the curse of the law. In the Old Testament the words of the law are written, with the curse annexed, which would fill us with horror and amazement if we had not in the New Testament (which is bound up with it) an altar erected close by it, which gives us everlasting consolation. (3.) They must eat there, and rejoice before the Lord their God, Deut. 27:7. This signified, [1.] The consent they gave to the covenant; for the parties to a covenant ratified the covenant by feasting together. They were partakers of the altar, which was God’s table, as his servants and tenants, and such they acknowledged themselves, and, being put in possession of this good land, bound themselves to pay the rent and to do the services reserved by the royal grant. [2.] The comfort they took in the covenant; they had reason to rejoice in the law, when they had an altar, a remedial law, so near it. It was a great favour to them, and a token for good, that God gave them his statutes; and that they were owned as the people of God, and the children of the promise, was what they had reason to rejoice in, though, when this solemnity was to be performed, they were not put in full possession of Canaan; but God has spoken in his holiness, and then I will rejoice, Gilead is mine, Manasseh is mine; all my own.
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