Misunderstanding What Is Not Understood
Part The First: Moses' Proscription
Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you,
neither shall ye diminish ought from it,
that ye may keep the commandments
of the Lord your God which I command you.
--Deuteronomy 4:2 AV
Matthew Henry comments thus: "The scope and drift of [Moses'] discourse is to persuade [Israel] to keep close to God and to his service, and not to forsake him for any other god, nor in any instance to decline from their duty to him."
(1.) He demands their diligent attention to the word of God, and to the statutes and judgments that were taught them: Hearken, O Israel. He means, not only that they must now give him the hearing, but that whenever the book of the law was read to them, or read by them, they should be attentive to it. "Hearken to the statutes, as containing the great commands of God and the great concerns of your own souls, and therefore challenging your utmost attention.’’ At Horeb God had made them hear his words (v. 10), hear them with a witness; the attention which was then constrained by the circumstances of the delivery ought ever after to be engaged by the excellency of the things themselves. What God so spoke once, we should hear twice, hear often.
(2.) He charges them to preserve the divine law pure and entire among them, v. 2. Keep it pure, and do not add to it; keep it entire, and do not diminish from it. Not in practice, so some: "You shall not add by committing the evil which the law forbids, nor diminish by omitting the good which the law requires.’’ Not in opinion, so others: "You shall not add your own inventions, as if the divine institutions were defective, nor introduce, much less impose, any rites of religious worship other than what God has appointed; nor shall you diminish, or set aside, any thing that is appointed, as needless or superfluous.’’ God’s work is perfect, nothing can be put to it, nor taken from it, without making it the worse. See Eccl. 3:14 . The Jews understand it as prohibiting the alteration of the text or letter of the law, even in the least jot or tittle; and to their great care and exactness herein we are very much indebted, under God, for the purity and integrity of the Hebrew code. We find a fence like this made about the New Testament in the close of it, Rev. 22:18, Rev. 22:19 .
(3.) He charges them to keep God’s commandments (v. 2), to do them (v. 5, v. 14), to keep and do them (v. 6), to perform the covenant, v. 13. Hearing must be in order to doing, knowledge in order to practice. God’s commandments were the way they must keep in, the rule they must keep to; they must govern themselves by the moral precepts, perform their devotion according to the divine ritual, and administer justice according to the judicial law. He concludes his discourse (v. 40) with this repeated charge: Thou shalt keep his statutes and his commandments which I command thee. What are laws made for but to be observed and obeyed?
(4.) He charges them to be very strict and careful in their observance of the law (v. 9): Only take heed to thyself, and keep thy soul diligently; and (v. 15), Take you therefore good heed unto yourselves; and again (v. 23), Take heed to yourselves. Those that would be religious must be very cautious, and walk circumspectly. Considering how many temptations we are compassed about with, and what corrupt inclinations we have in our own bosoms, we have great need to look about us and to keep our hearts with all diligence. Those cannot walk aright that walk carelessly and at all adventures.
(5.) He charges them particularly to take heed of the sin of idolatry, that sin which of all others they would be most tempted to by the customs of the nations, which they were most addicted to by the corruption of their hearts, and which would be most provoking to God and of the most pernicious consequences to themselves: Take good heed, lest in this matter you corrupt yourselves, v. 15, v. 16. Two sorts of idolatry he cautions them against:—
[1.] The worship of images, however by them they might intend to worship the true God, as they had done in the golden calf, so changing the truth of God into a lie and his glory into shame. The second commandment is expressly directed against this, and is here enlarged upon, v. 15-18. "Take heed lest you corrupt yourselves,’’ that is, "lest you debauch yourselves;’’ for those that think to make images of God form in their minds such notions of him as must needs be an inlet to all impieties; and it is intimated that it is a spiritual adultery. "And take heed lest you destroy yourselves. If any thing ruin you, this will be it. Whatever you do, make no similitude of God, either in a human shape, male of female, or in the shape of any beast or fowl, serpent or fish;’’ for the heathen worshipped their gods by images of all these kinds, being either not able to form, or not willing to admit, that plain demonstration which we find, Hos. 8:6 : The workman made it, therefore it is not God. To represent an infinite Spirit by an image, and the great Creator by the image of a creature, is the greatest affront we can put upon God and the greatest cheat we can put upon ourselves. As an argument against their making images of God, he urges it very much upon them that when God made himself known to them at Horeb he did it by a voice of words which sounded in their ears, to teach them that faith comes by hearing, and God in the word is nigh us; but no image was presented to their eye, for to see God as he is is reserved for our happiness in the other world, and to see him as he is not will do us hurt and no good in this world. You saw no similitude (v. 12), no manner of similitude, v. 15.
Probably they expected to have seen some similitude, for they were ready to break through unto the Lord to gaze, Ex. 19:21 .
But all they saw was light and fire, and nothing that they could make an image of, God an infinite wisdom so ordering his manifestation of himself because of the peril of idolatry.
It is said indeed of Moses that he beheld the similitude of the Lord (Numbers. 12:8 ), God allowing him that favour because he was above the temptation of idolatry; but for the people who had lately come from admiring the idols of Egypt, they must see no resemblance of God, lest they should have pretended to copy it, and so should have received the second commandment in vain;
"for’’ (said Bishop Patrick) "they would have thought that this forbade them only to make any representation of God besides that wherein he showed himself to them, in which they would have concluded it lawful to represent him.’’ Let this be a caution to us to take heed of making images of God in our fancy and imagination when we are worshipping him, lest thereby we corrupt ourselves.
It must not be overlooked that Deuteronomy is the fifth book of the Pentateuch, called in Hebrew "Debarim" (words or things), from the opening phrase "Eleh ha-debarim." (these are the words) ; in Rabbinical Hebrew it is known also as "Mishneh Torah."
The English appellation is derived from the name which the book bears in the Septuagint (Δευτερουόμιου) and in the Vulgate (Deuteronomium); and this is based upon the erroneous Septuagint rendering of "mishnch ha-torah ha-zot" (xvii. 18), which grammatically can mean only "a repetition [that is, a copy] of this law," but which is rendered by the Septuagint τὸ Δευτερουόμιου τοῦτο, as though the expression meant "this repetition of the law."
While, however, the name is a mistranslation it is not inappropriate for the book includes, by the side of much new matter, a repetition or reformulation of a large part of the laws found in the non-priestly sections (known as "JE") of Exodus.
It is clear to the most unqualified reader that the commandments about maintaining the integrity of the words of Moses apply only to the Law that Moses that the Great lawgiver as the oracle of God wrote for the guidance of Israel. Verse 2 was not intended to refer to any future gathering of writings nor to the collection that could be made of such writings. The Holy Bible was not collected, assembled, named, or accepted as a Holy Library until more than one thousand and a half years had elapsed since Moses wrote the Pentateuch. There was no Holy Bible at the time Deuteronomy was written.
Those writers and critics that assume, falsely, that Deuteronomy 4:2 refers not only to Deuteronomy but to the Holy Bible as a whole are labouring under the common misunderstanding that reads back into Deuteronomy a notion of biblical completeness that was not reached until the second Christian century. This cannot be excused.