The law was given by Moses; so it is said, John 1:17. He was not only entrusted to deliver it to that generation, but to transmit it to the generations to come; and here it appears that he was faithful to that trust.
I. Moses wrote this law, Deut. 31:9. The learned bishop Patrick understands this of all the five books of Moses, which are often called the law; he supposes that though Moses had written most of the Pentateuch before, yet he did not finish it till now; now he put his last hand to that sacred volume. Many think that the law here (especially since it is called this law, this grand abridgment of the law) is to be understood of this book of Deuteronomy; all those discourses to the people which have taken up this whole book, he, being in them divinely inspired, wrote them as the word of God. He wrote this law, 1. That those who had heard it might often review it themselves, and call it to mind. 2. That it might be the more safely handed down to posterity. Note, The church has received abundance of advantage from the writing, as well as from the preaching, of divine things; faith comes not only by hearing, but by reading. The same care that was taken of the law, thanks be to God, is taken of the gospel too; soon after it was preached it was written, that it might reach to those on whom the ends of the world shall come.
II. Having written it, he committed it to the care and custody of the priests and elders. He delivered one authentic copy to the priests, to be laid up by the ark (Deut. 31:26), there to remain as a standard by which all other copies must be tried. And it is supposed that he gave another copy to the elders of each tribe, to be transcribed by all of that tribe that were so disposed. Some observe that the elders, as well as the priests, were entrusted with the law, to intimate that magistrates by the power, as well as ministers by their doctrine, are to maintain religion, and to take care that the law be not broken nor lost.
III. He appointed the public reading of this law in a general assembly of all Israel every seventh year. The pious Jews (it is very probable) read the laws daily in their families, and Moses of old time was read in the synagogue every sabbath day, Acts 15:21. But once in seven years, that the law might be the more magnified and made honourable, it must be read in a general assembly. Though we read the word in private, we must not think it needless to hear it read in public. Now here he give direction,
1. When this solemn reading of the law must be, that the time might add to the solemnity; it must be done, (1.) In the year of release. In that year the land rested, so that they could the better spare time to attend this service. Servants who were then discharged, and poor debtors who were then acquitted from their debts, must know that, having the benefit of the law, it was justly expected they should yield obedience to it, and therefore give up themselves to be God’s servants, because he had loosed their bonds. The year of release was typical of gospel grace, which therefore is called the acceptable year of the Lord; for our remission and liberty by Christ engage us to keep his commandments, Luke 1:74, 75. (2.) At the feast of tabernacles in that year. In that feast they were particularly required to rejoice before God, Lev. 23:40. Therefore then they must read the law, both to qualify their mirth and keep it in due bounds, and to sanctify their mirth, that they might make the law of God the matter of their rejoicing, and might read it with pleasure and not as a task.
2. To whom it must be read: To all Israel (Deut. 31:11), men, women, and children, and the strangers, Deut. 31:12. The women and children were not obliged to go up to the other feasts, but to this only in which the law was read. Note, It is the will of God that all people should acquaint themselves with his word. It is a rule to all, and therefore should be read to all. It is supposed that, since all Israel could not possibly meet in one place, nor could one man’s voice reach them all, as many as the courts of the Lord’s house would hold met there, and the rest at the same time in their synagogues. The Jewish doctors say that the hearers were bound to prepare their hearts, and to hear with fear and reverence, and with joy and trembling, as in the day when the law was given on Mount Sinai; and, though there were great and wise men who knew the whole law very well, yet they were bound to hear with great attention; for he that reads is the messenger of the congregation to cause the words of God to be heard. I wish those that hear the gospel read and preached would consider this.
3. By whom it must be read: Thou shalt read it (Deut. 31:11), “Thou, O Israel,” by a proper person appointed for that purpose; or, “Thou, O Joshua,” their chief ruler; accordingly we find that he did read the law himself, Josh. 8:34, 35. So did Josiah, 2 Chron. 34:30; and Ezra, Neh. 8:3. And the Jews say that the king himself (when they had one) was the person that read in the courts of the temple, that a pulpit was set up for that purpose in the midst of the court, in which the king stood, that the book of the law was delivered to him by the high priest, that he stood up to receive it, uttered a prayer (as every one did that was to read the law in public) before he read; and then, if he pleased, he might sit down and read. But if he read standing it was thought the more commendable, as (they say) king Agrippa did. Here let me offer it as a conjecture that Solomon is called the preacher, in his Ecclesiastes, because he delivered the substance of that book in a discourse to the people, after his public reading of the law in the feast of tabernacles, according to this appointment here.
4. For what end it must be thus solemnly read. (1.) That the present generation might hereby keep up their acquaintance with the law of God, Deut. 31:12. They must hear, that they may learn, and fear God, and observe to do their duty. See here what we are to aim at in hearing the word; we must hear, that we may learn and grow in knowledge; and every time we read the scriptures we shall find that there is still more and more to be learned out of them. We must learn, that we may fear God, that is, that we may be duly affected with divine things; and must fear God, that we may observe and do the words of his law; for in vain do we pretend to fear him if we do not obey him. (2.) That the rising generation might betimes be leavened with religion (Deut. 31:13); not only that those who know something may thus know more, but that the children who have not known any thing may betimes know this, how much it is their interest as well as duty to fear God.