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Occasional Letters - Preserving our Distinctiveness

D Newell, Glasgow

I well remember the first time I ever visited the British Museum. My father dutifully gave me an educational tour through the dimly-lit Egyptian, Assyrian, and Babylonian rooms, where I found myself intimidated by numerous glass cases containing the most uninteresting, incomprehensible, and irrelevant artefacts. What a let-down! Even the guidebook was dull. At least our little city museum at home could boast a few moth-eaten stuffed animals and drawers full of exotic butterflies! It all came back while reading Deuteronomy. You see, God wanted His people to be spiritually educated so that they would be safe-guarded against error and evil when they settled in Canaan. However, unlike the British Museum in the 1950s, God’s educational programme for Israel was nothing if not stimulating and practical.

But let’s set the scene. It is important to remember that the land God gave His people was a pure grace gift which had nothing to do with either their past merits or their future loyalty (Deut 26.1; Rom 11.29). Nevertheless, their enjoyment of it depended upon obedience (Deut 6.3). The great commandment with promise makes this clear: "Honour thy father and thy mother, as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee; that thy days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with thee [practical enjoyment of the land], in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee [entitlement to the land]" (Deut 5.16). The same is true of us. Salvation is all of grace (Eph 2.8-9); but day to day satisfaction with those spiritual blessings which are ours in Christ rests upon our walk with God.

Now Israel would face many perils and temptations in the land, most notably from their pagan neighbours. Safe arrival in Canaan did not mean an end to testing and conflict. On the contrary, life became in some ways even tougher as the distance from the great moment of historical redemption increased. As time passed, they might forget what God had done for them (Deut 6.12), and thereby be persuaded to abandon their distinctiveness as His redeemed people, copying the ways of their peers (Deut 6.14). For that reason the Lord prescribed for them a constant engagement with His word: "These words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates" (Deut 6.6-9).

Notice the four instructions here. First, the individual Israelite ("thee") was to get God’s words into his heart: that is, he was to think about the scriptures. What we meditate upon, what occupies our minds, moulds our lives, for, says the proverb, "as [a man] thinketh in his heart, so is he" (Prov 23.7). Of course, no one automatically or accidentally fills his memory bank with Scripture. It is done only by effort, by continuance, by exercise. This is best started when one is young, but even those saved in later life are still able to memorise the Word of God. Failure in this is likely to be the result of personal indiscipline rather than inability.

Second, the Israelite was to talk about the word of God. It follows inevitably that the contents of the heart will influence the tongue: "A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh" (Lk 6.45). And for Israel this was to be purposeful, edifying conversation: "thou shalt teach…thy children". I gather that the Hebrew word translated "teach…diligently" involves the idea of sharpening, piercing, carving. It is used, for example, of whetting a sword (Deut 32.41), of sharp arrows (Prov 25.18; Is 5.28), of cutting words (Ps 64.3). The teaching process is therefore a serious one: God’s word was, as it were, to be engraved upon the hearts of the young so that they would not easily forget. Further, family instruction was to be a continuing activity. Moses’ language indicates that the word of God was suited to every time and place. "In thine house" represents the inside; "by the way", the outside; "when thou sittest…and…walkest" covers all human activities; and "when thou liest down, and when thou risest up" summarises a man’s waking hours. When we consider the triviality that so often dominates our conversation these directions are quite a challenge. Moses, you will note, did not tell his people to gossip or criticise one another, or even to mourn over fellow-Israelites’ failings (though doubtless there were many). Instead, he urged God’s people to invest their time in talking about and therefore getting to know God’s word (2 Tim 2.1-2). What could be better?

Third, the Israelite was to make sure that God’s word completely ruled his life. I assume the language here is metaphorical. Although it became something of a trademark of the New Testament Pharisees, who made "broad their phylacteries" (Mt 23.5), the idea was not so much that they should wear little boxes containing extracts from the Pentateuch strapped on their foreheads or tied to their wrists, but rather that the word of God should control the eyes and the hands. What I look at and what I do should be governed by Scripture. Alfred Edersheim’s informative Sketches of Jewish Social Life gives a good account of the Pharisaic practice:

"The ‘tephillin’ were worn on the left arm, towards the heart, and on the forehead. They consisted - to describe them roughly - of capsules, containing, on parchment (that for the forehead on four distinct parchments), these four passages of Scripture: Ex 13.1-10; Ex 13.11-16; Deut 6.4-9 and Deut 11.13-21. The capsules were fastened on by black leather straps, which were wound round the arm and hand (seven times round the former, and three times round the latter), or else fitted to the forehead in a prescribed and mystically significant manner. The wearer of them could not be mistaken".

But it was not external adornment but moral character which was to set God’s people apart. The phrase "for a sign" indicates that obedience to the word was a testimony to others. And that gives me my third T: testify. Believers today are not told to wear identifying tee-shirts, ties, or badges emblazoned with texts, but rather (much more costly, this) to live in a manner that honours God. True separation flows from scriptural obedience: "sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth" (Jn 17.17).

Finally, the Israelite was encouraged to keep God’s word always in his vision: "write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates". The picture language makes the very practical point that what we write we remember. To transcribe the word (just as Israel’s kings were to do) is a sure method of impressing it on the mind. I strongly recommend the value of keeping a spiritual journal in which we write up those passages which have particularly touched our souls. This way we can effectively safeguard our steps in a godless world. Don’t forget: those who fail to remain distinct are in danger of becoming extinct!



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