Moses stands on the border of the Promised Land and reminds the sons of Israel who are about to enter of the covenant of the Lord. Deuteronomy, therefore, is a series of addresses and is composed mainly of a long exposition on the Ten Commandments.
Moses first begins by recounting the history of Israel (Deuteronomy 1-3), starting just before Israel failed to obey the Lord when they approached this land the first time until the time of this speech. In this first introductory speech, Moses then admonishes Israel to obey the Law and avoid idolatry (Deuteronomy 4). Moses then begins the long speech which makes up most of the book (Deuteronomy 5:1-26:19). After this, Moses has a few shorter speeches, including the blessings and curses (Deuteronomy 27-28), the renewal again at Moab (Deuteronomy 29-30), and his last words and the end of his life (Deuteronomy 31-34). Our lectionary reading for the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity falls within the largest of these divisions.
It will be helpful to break down this larger section into its smaller parts, because the internal logic clarifies how to interpret Deuteronomy 10:12-21. He begins by restating the Ten Commandments, recalling the initial reverent fear Israel had when they heard the voice of God on the mountain (Deuteronomy 5). Moses then condenses the Ten Commandments into the one Great Commandment: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). When Israel fears the Lord, she will tell the coming generations of what God has done, and she will not seek after other gods. But it is not because of her faithfulness that God chose her out of all of the nations. Far from it! She is His holy possession because He chose her for Himself and provided for her even through the long days of wandering (Deuteronomy 7-8). Indeed, Israel has only proven time and time again her own faithlessness and stubbornness, especially with the golden calf (Deuteronomy 9-10:11). Therefore, Israel is called to be faithful to the God who has done so many mighty things for her. She is a holy people, because the Lord has brought her out with a strong hand and an outstretched arm (Deuteronomy 10:12-11:32). Moses then begins a major exposition on the Ten Commandments, beginning with chapter 12, as a way of demonstrating what it means to fear and love God.
This lengthy discussion on the structure of Deuteronomy helps to avoid erroneous conclusions. Moses is not expounding the Law to a people who have never known the Lord. He is speaking to God’s holy Church, His chosen people. Deuteronomy, despite its Greek name which means “second Law,” is the voice of a husband talking to His wife. Israel has no room for boasting, to be sure. The golden calf, Meribah, refusing to enter the land the first time—all of these show that she has no righteousness of her own. But the Lord chose her and brought her out of Egypt (Deuteronomy 32:10-14; Hosea 13:4-5; 1 Kings 8:51).
The Lord therefore commands Israel to fear Him, to love Him, and to obey the Law. Sinners cannot keep the Law, of course. However, by faith, believers seek to keep the Law, albeit imperfectly (Psalm 1:1-2; Psalm 19; Romans 7:22). Therefore, when the Lord speaks the Law to His Church, it is for her good, building her up and showing her His holy will. “What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means” (Romans 7:7)!
Further, the reason for striving to keep the Law is not an admonition to “do better,” but a statement of what God has done. “Behold, to the Lord your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. Yet the Lord set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day” (Deuteronomy 10:14-15). Or as Moses says earlier in Leviticus 19:2: “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” God will not have us be holy by telling us to become holy. We are not able to do that. Rather, God will have us be holy because of what He has done for us.
Nor is this a call to fall into complacency or to think that holiness is ours even if we revel in being unholy. The man who does not try to keep the Law more and more, or in other words, who has no desire to do so, is no Christian. “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn” (Deuteronomy 10:16). Holiness is not a matter of external observance. “For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision” (Romans 2:25; see also Amos 5:21-24; Isaiah 58:5-6; Psalm 50:12-15). Holiness is a matter of the heart, and if the heart has no desire to please God and to increase in holiness, it is dead.
“Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the Lord your God. You shall serve him and hold fast to him, and by his name you shall swear. He is your praise. He is your God, who has done for you these great and terrifying things that your eyes have seen” (Deuteronomy 10:19-21). The great miracles which the Lord did for Israel confirmed that He is faithful and true. The Holy Spirit recorded them for our benefit in the Holy Scriptures. But “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). Though we have not seen these miracles, yet we have the mighty hand of God in His Son Jesus Christ who came to save us and in His mighty Holy Spirit, who comes even now. The Lord referred Israel to the miracles they had seen; the Lord refers us to Christ and to the Comforter.