Bible Study with Jairus – Deuteronomy 4
Have you ever wondered why Deuteronomy 4 brings up cities of refuge, seemingly out of the blue?
After Moses’ long warning to the Israelites (verses 1-40), he suddenly switches to talking about cities of refuge (verses 41-43). And then he jumps to talking about the Ten Commandments (verses 44-49). Why is it all so sudden?
Through Moses, God was reminding the Israelites that as they became comfortable in the Promised Land, they would soon forget Him. Then God would send trials to discipline them. However, if they returned to Him, they would find Him and not be abandoned. When we disobey God’s rules because we are ignorant of his commands, we still need discipline. But we also receive God’s mercy, refuge, and help in our times of weakness and sins.
Parents set rules for their children, but children often fail and break the laws. Parents have to punish their children, but they also have mercy and help them. They understand that their children have not yet learned all the rules. God is truly our Heavenly Father. He loves us. He treats us the same way good parents treat their children. The cities of refuge demonstrate God’s Fatherly mercy and salvation.
But why discuss the Ten Commandments and the law after mentioning the cities of refuge? When the law becomes real to us, it shows us our sins so we can grow spiritually. Christians can easily become apathetic, like the Israelites. We stay in the same Christian environment for too long. Like the Israelites, we “grow old in the land and act corruptly and make idols” (Deuteronomy 4:25) When we worship idols and turn away from God, he will discipline us and help us. We need a city of refuge (Christ); we also need to continuously study His word (represented by the Ten Commandments) so that his words can become real to us and we can continue to grow and mature in our spiritual lives.
The Purpose of the Law
As we have seen in our previous study of Deuteronomy 1-3, the Israelites learned two important lessons concerning faith and idolatry. The second generation of Israelites inherited a positive heritage of faith from their forefathers, who had wandered for forty years in the wilderness. However, they also inherited a negative predisposition to idolatry, a lesson that neither the first nor second generation had successfully learned.
God is our heavenly Father. He is omniscient. So, He foreknew that we would fail and fall. In Deuteronomy 4, God predicted that the second generation of Israel would worship idols after they entered the land of Canaan. He said through the mouth of Moses, “When you father children and children’s children, and have grown old in the land, if you act corruptly by making a carved image in the form of anything, and by doing what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, so as to provoke him to anger” (Deuteronomy 4:25). This sentence is the heart and soul of Deuteronomy 4:1-40.
At the beginning of this chapter, Moses reminded the Israelites, “Listen to the statutes and the rules that I am teaching you, and do them, that you may live” (verse 1). He went on, “You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it” (verse 2). He also reminded the Israelites that all idolaters at Baal-Peor were destroyed by the Lord (verse 3). He wanted to remind the Israelites that if they did not obey the law, the rules established by God, they would be disciplined. Moses then went on to remind the Israelites, “See, I have taught you statutes and rules, as the LORD my God commanded me.” (vs. 5). When the Israelites obeyed God’s commandments, the nations would see that they were a “great nation” and a “wise and understanding people.” (verse 6).
Since the law itself was given by God, it is full of His wisdom. If the Israelites could keep the law, the Gentiles would stand back in awe. They would say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people” (verse 6). God’s purpose in giving the law was not only to keep the Israelites away from idols, but also to encourage the Gentiles to seek God. As the Gentiles saw the Israelites’ wisdom, it would help the nations learn to know God. Since God’s love and wisdom are manifested through the law, God Himself was manifested through the keeping of the law.
In verses 6-25, Moses looked back at the process by which the Lord appeared to the Israelites and gave them the law. He reminded the Israelites not to turn away from the law or to turn to idols. Twice, he asked the Israelites to “keep their souls diligently” (verses 9 and 15) and not forget the Lord, who appeared to them and gave them the law.
In verse 26, Moses changed his tone. He called heaven and earth to testify that the Israelites would turn away from God. Because of their choices, his discipline would be unavoidable. God would scatter them among the peoples, where they would become few in number (verse 27). But the purpose of this discipline was to call the Israelites to repent and call on God for help. Moses said in verse 29, “But from there you will seek the Lord your God and you will find him, if you search after him with all your heart and with all your soul.” It was in the Israelites’ nature to worship idols and turn away from God, but it is in God’s nature to be merciful. After he disciplined them, he would allow the Israelites to return to him.
God is merciful by nature. Although He disciplined the Israelites, He would not abandon them. During captivity, Jeremiah meditated on God’s mercy: “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end.” (Lamentations 3:21-22). Although God is merciful, He is also strict. Those who worshiped idols and turned away from God were disciplined severely. But those who held fast to God and his law remained alive (vs. 4). The purpose of the law was to guide, correct, and help people hold fast to God.
City of Refuge: God’s Provision and Redemption
In our Bible meetings, we watch and wait for the guidance and illumination of the Holy Spirit, and we always receive words of wisdom from Him. Sometimes the process of sharing and discussing helps us understand things we’ve never thought of before, just like Jesus explained in Matthew 10:19: “When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour.” (Matthew 10:19). Although this verse is in the context of persecution, I believe it applies more broadly to any situation in which we are called upon to bear witness to Christ before others. Whenever we share his word, we are witnessing for him. Every time we testify in this way, the Holy Spirit gives us words and inspiration, even as we are speaking. That is what he did for me when I was discussing cities of refuge.
Why is there a sudden mention of cities of refuge in this chapter? It actually has a clear, logical connection to Moses’ topic of conversation. In verses 1-40, Moses encourages the people to keep the law and warns them that they will be disciplined for breaking it. But Moses also mentions that if the Israelites return to God during or after the discipline, they will find God. So, the city of refuge continues with the theme of refuge and redemption.
Moses already knew that he would not be allowed to enter the land of Canaan. So it was his duty to set up cities of refuge east of the Jordan. The cities of refuge west of the Jordan would be set up by Joshua after he entered the land of Canaan. This process is recorded in Joshua 20.
The Holy Spirit organized the Bible very logically, but we don’t always see the connection immediately. Here, Moses is saying that if the Israelites don’t obey the law, they will be disciplined. But when they are disciplined, they will have the opportunity to repent. In this context, the concept of cities of refuge fits perfectly.
My daughter is five years old and is in kindergarten. American kindergartens attach great importance to the development of individual personality, but the disadvantage is that they are too individualistic. She recently learned a catchphrase in kindergarten, “This is my personal choice.” The teacher said that every child has a personal choice and others need to respect it. When she comes home, she doesn’t follow the rules we set. She watches TV or does other things while eating. As soon as I criticize her, she immediately answers back, “This is my personal choice.” When we discipline her and turn off the TV, she cries. We tell her that although she has a personal choice, she must abide by the rules of “not watching TV while eating” and “eating well”. Otherwise, she will be disciplined; she won’t be allowed to watch TV or eat. When she heard this, she sat in a corner and cried for a while. We asked her if she knew she was wrong and if she would apologize. She said she was wrong and apologized. We hugged her and let her continue eating. While we were disciplining her, we had already prepared a way of salvation or mercy. As long as she was willing to repent, we would accept her immediately.
God is our heavenly Father. He treats the Israelites and born-again Christians the same way a parent treats his/her child. He has to set rules for us, and we have to obey them in order for us to know His nature and become partakers of His divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). If we don’t follow the rules, God will discipline us. But discipline is only a means to an end. The goal is that we would return to Him.
Learning God’s Law
Moses mentioned the Ten Commandments in the first part of this chapter, and then discusses the cities of refuge. Why does he then go back to discussing the Ten Commandments again? And why does Deuteronomy 5 continue to go into detail about the content of the Ten Commandments? I believe God wanted his people to study the Ten Commandments, that is, the law of God. When God’s law became real to the Israelites, they could manifest God among the peoples. The reason why they worshiped idols and wandered away from God is that they did not deeply know or understand God’s law.
At the end of the chapter, the text says, “This is the law that Moses set before the people of Israel. These are the testimonies, the statutes, and the rules, which Moses spoke to the people of Israel when they came out of Egypt.” The author then goes on to describe the place and setting where Moses was reinstating the law: “in the land of Sihon the king of the Amorites, who lived at Heshbon” (verses 46-49). The next chapter goes into detail about the law that Moses reiterated at the end of his life.
When God’s people did not study God’s law and when God’s rules were not real to them, they needed God’s discipline. But God’s discipline also made a way for them to return to him and continue to learn his law. God’s purpose is that they would be transformed by His Word so that His divine nature could be manifested to the nations. That was why Moses reviewed the Ten Commandments at the end of his life.
Discipline, Mercy, and the Word of God
In the church today, there are two extremes. One is legalism. The church is full of rules. Women can’t wear pants or use musical instruments. If they do, they are not included as Christians in the church of God. The other extreme is having no laws or discipline of any kind. Believers say, “I don’t want you to dictate that I should read the Bible every day. Don’t ask me to pray or give. I don’t want anyone to control me.” This is a kind of spiritual rebellion and spiritual infancy.
Although we live in the age of the New Covenant and there is no external law, it definitely does not mean that we do not need some form of the law. Even the Lord Jesus said that He did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. He said, “Until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-18). Clearly, the law is still needed today. But the purpose of the law is not to force us to live in legalism. Similarly, the law should not be treated as dogma. Rather, the purpose of the law is to help us learn to know God’s nature and become partakers of His divine nature.
Therefore, Christians still need law and discipline, especially spiritually immature Christians. We all need to accept a certain degree of discipline. God’s discipline is rarely discussed in American Christian circles. But it is a doctrine in the Bible. The Holy Spirit will discipline us, especially through circumstances. As he disciplines, he intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words (Romans 8:26). All things work together for good to those who love God—even discipline (Romans 8:28). God has good intentions. He wants us to return to Him and to spiritually grow and mature.
We must constantly study God’s word, including His words in the Old Testament (represented by the Ten Commandments) and in the New Testament. These words will eventually change our lives. His law can dwell in us and become the law of the Spirit of life (Romans 8:2). Today, we are not bound by external rules alone. We have the indwelling law of the Spirit of life that controls and guides us from the inside.
It is a pity that many Christians today do not know much about the discipline of the Holy Spirit. As a result, they do not learn to surrender. If we return to God, His mercy will come to us. We must study God’s word consistently so that we can gradually become spiritually mature. When we are spiritually mature, there will be no need for God’s external discipline.
In a Christian country like the United States, many people have become apathetic after many generations. The descendants of true, dedicated Christians have “grown old in the land, acted corruptly, and begun to worship idols.” Like the Israelites, Americans need to respond to God’s discipline and find their way back to him. May God enlighten your hearts to understand the words of Deuteronomy 4.
 All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.