Living With Others in Covenant Life
Celebrating the Covenant Promises
Sunday School Lesson for February 3, 2002
Background Passage: Deuteronomy 17:1-26:19
Focal Teaching Passage: Deuteronomy 26:1-19
Covenant Celebration and the Presentation of First Fruits (26:1-11)
Once again, we find Moses giving detailed instructions to the Israelite children regarding life in the land of promise after they "have taken possession of it and settled in it." Upon their arrival they are commanded to enter into a sacred ritual of covenant celebration and renewal before the Lord. Initially, this would take the form of an offering of the "firstfruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land" (v.2).
As will be apparent in later verses, the purpose for this offering was to focus the people’s full attention on the gracious blessings and unmerited favor of Yahweh who had faithfully saved and provided for them. It would, then, afford the nation a time and place to publicly recognize and affirm that the land was theirs only because the Lord had given it to them. Interestingly, the Hebrew word natan, rendered "gift" or "given," is mentioned six times in the first eleven verses (1,2,3,9,10,11). Clearly, the emphasis in the covenant celebration was to be upon the wonderful things God had done for His people with special emphasis upon the gift of land. J. A. Thompson notes that this liturgy was also intended to establish the point that since Yahweh had given the land and the increase to His covenant people, "by inference, it was not Baal" (254).
The details of the presentation of the offering, which would likely be made during the month called Sivan (May/June), begin in verse 2. Moses instructs them to place the "firstfruits" of "produce" in a "basket" (cf. Lev. 23:15ff). Then, the worshippers were to "go to the place" which the Lord had chosen "as a dwelling for his Name"—the tabernacle or the central sanctuary (see Deut. 12:4ff). Once there, the worshippers were to make several verbal declarations "to the priest in office at that time." What follows is basically a confession of Israelite faith, or a distillation of the essential truths upon which the covenant nation was founded:
the peace and stability that would permit the inauguration of regular agriculture patterns would be irrefutable evidence that the Lord had indeed accomplished his word to the fathers. In recognition of this and in tribute to the Lord’s electing and saving grace, the farmer would come to proffer the firstfruits of his fields. (334).
The time of worship and covenant renewal concludes on the note of joy as the worshippers, including "the Levites and aliens among you," heartily "rejoice" in the many "good things" which the Lord has provided. Note that all segments of the Israelite nation were to experience the blessings of obedience, even the "aliens" living among them.
Covenant Celebration and the Presentation of the Third Year Tithe (26:12-15)
The time of covenant renewal was also to include a presentation of "a tenth of all your produce in the third year." This offering was designed to meet the needs of the poorest of Israelites—"the Levite, the alien, the fatherless and the widow." This tithe was originally mandated in Deuteronomy 14:28-29.
At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year's produce and store it in your towns, 29 so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the aliens, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.
Again, we see that no one was to be excluded from the blessings of the covenant and the gracious rewards of obedience to Yahweh’ commandments. Note that the disadvantaged were to eat until fully "satisfied."
The presentation of the tithe also involved the worshipper’s confession of obedience and trust before the Lord.
Two critical points need mentioning here. First, this passage is not suggesting that obedience merits the blessings and favor of God. Rather, as we have observed throughout our study, obedience is the response to the grace of God and not the cause of it. Wright comments that God’s blessing of the people had already been "written into the title deed of the land as given, and prior even to that, was bound into the promises at the heart of the covenant of grace made with the fathers" (272). Secondly, the passage emphasizes the reality, sovereignty, and unmatched power of Yahweh over the "frail, ineffectual gods of the nations who could even die and lie beneath the earth" (Merrill, 336).
Covenant Celebration and Personal Confirmation (26:16-19)
Having described the details of the covenant renewal liturgy, Moses again confirms its meaning and significance. As a matter of first importance, Moses reminds the nation that they are to continue to "follow" the Lord’s "decrees and laws." The holy ordinances are to be "carefully [observed]" and engaged in with "all your heart and with all your soul." Verse 17 serves to reinforce the promises and commitments made to God by the people. They were not to be regarded as merely "lip-service" agreements hastily offered to God in order to secure favor, but as sacred promises to the God of the covenant who had so lovingly cared for His own.
Yahweh’s part of the covenant agreement is stressed here. Moses proclaims that the Lord has "declared" Israel to be His "treasured possession" that He will establish "in praise, fame and honor high above all the nations he has made" (cf. Jer. 13:1-11). It may be best, in light of the immediate context, to interpret this as a reference to Yahweh’s fame and honor rather than that of the people themselves. If this is correct, we again see the evangelistic component present in the covenant promise. God’s original word to Abraham included the divine guarantee that he would be a blessing to the nations (Gen. 12:1-3). Here, there is the clear connection between the "nations" and the holiness that God required of His people—"you will be a people holy to the Lord your God." This holiness consisted of Yahweh’s declaration—setting them apart for Himself exclusively—and their separation from the practice of evil (Thompson, 259). Christopher Wright confirms that
ultimately there was a missionary purpose to the law. Just as it had been founded upon the basis of God’s redeeming grace in the past, so it was motivated by the vision of God’s name being known and honored among the nations in the future . . . . Distortion of the law, whether toward legalism or toward antinomianism, usually creeps in when God’s people forget either the grace of God on which alone they stand or the glory of God for which alone they exist (273).
The section concludes with a very important reference to the faithfulness of God to accomplish that which He had "promised." This final phrase would serve to remind the covenant people that God never fails to do exactly as He has declared. Their faith, then, was not "blind," but was securely anchored to the explicit promises of their covenant King.
Major Themes for Application and Discussion
One: The centrality of worship in the covenant community: As we noted in last week’s lesson, worship was to be of ultimate importance for those in the covenant nation. It was to be their first order of business and the very core of covenant life. In light of this fact, how would you assess the place and importance of worship in the lives of today’s covenant community? Does the worship of God occupy such a high place of importance and significance for believers now? If not, why?
Two: The rhythm of worship: This passage also reveals that authentic worship has a distinct pattern or rhythm. Can you find it in the text? Consider the following sequence:
What conclusions can you draw regarding this pattern?
Three: Worship and the care of the needy: In recent weeks we have observed God’s explicit commands to care for the alien, the widow, and the fatherless. Why does this instruction figure so prominently in the worship of God? Hint: Check out James 1:27-2:13. It would seem that caring for the needy and disadvantaged is a visible display of the gospel story. How does this enhance our worship of God?