Worshipping God in Covenant Life
Sunday School Lesson for January 27, 2002
Background Passage: Deuteronomy 12:1-17:7
Focal Teaching Passage: Deuteronomy 12:1-12
With chapter twelve a new section of the book of Deuteronomy commences. This division, encompassing 12:1 through 26:19, deals with the application of specific laws that Yahweh set forth for His covenant people. This particular chapter has as its subject the worship of Yahweh in both the manner and location that He divinely designates for His people. That is, it answers the how and where of God-honoring worship. It is this critical theme, initially announced in 12:1-12, which will be the focus of our lesson today.
Old Testament authorities have noted that this chapter bears a close resemblance to the first two of the Ten Commandments (see Exodus 20:3-4). Like the first table of the Decalogue, Deuteronomy 12 "is concerned with Israel’s exclusive loyalty to Yahweh in its worship" in addition to "the distinctiveness of Israel from the nations" (Wright, 159).
This familiar introduction, "These are the decrees and laws you must be careful to follow," sets the stage for life in the Promised Land (v.1). What Moses was about to announce, at Yahweh’s personal direction, was meant to govern their spiritual lives throughout the length of their occupancy of the new land—"as long as you live in the land." In general terms, the exhortation that follows is fundamentally a call for "the purity and unity of Israel’s worship in response to the blessings of Yahweh" (Wright, 159).
In verse two, the Lord commands that when the Israelites arrive in Canaan they are to "destroy completely all the places on he high mountains and on the hills and under every spreading tree where the nations . . . worship their gods." This is virtually a direct repetition of Yahweh’s command in 7:5. The point is that the exclusive worship of the one true God would be difficult, if not impossible, while there were the vestiges of pagan worship still in existence. Eugene Merrill observes that "the idols and their shrines had to be demolished (vv. 2-3), then a single, central place for Yahweh worship had to be established (vv. 4-7), one to which the whole covenant community would resort at stated times and for stated purposes (vv. 8-14)" (220).
The reference to "high mountains" and "hills" has to do with the Canaanite practice of locating their pagan shrines on high ground so as to be closer to the deity. Such "places" were deemed to be sacred because they believed the deity had actually appeared there at one time or another.
In verse three, Moses demands that the covenant people "break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and burn their Ashera poles in the fire." The "pillars" were stone symbols of the male deity named Baal while the "poles" were wooden symbols of the mother goddess Ashera. The command to "cut down the idols of their gods" and "wipe out their names" represents the total destruction of all such places and instruments of Canaanite idolatry. Once the cleansing of the land was accomplished "the Canaanites could not make contact with the gods and in the course of time these would be forgotten and their name would disappear from the place where they had been worshipped" (J. A. Thompson, 165). Clearly Israel, with her faith in the God of the covenant, could not coexist with the perverted and false religions of Canaan.
The significance of " their names" (v. 3) should not be overlooked. The elimination of the very names of the pagan deities makes room for the exclusive worship of the God named Yahweh. Christopher Wright has identified two critical aspects of this command:
The directive "You must not worship the Lord your God in this way," (v.4) indicates that Israelite worship of Yahweh was to be vastly different than that practiced by the Canaanites. The idolatrous people of Canaan exercised a measure of sovereignty over their gods. They determined where and how the various deities were to be venerated. They set their own rules for worship, ethics, and life in general. However, the people of the covenant were to operate under the full authority of Yahweh. He would tell them both how worship was to be conducted and where it was to occur.
Once the place of worship had been established, the people of God were to present their "burnt offerings and sacrifices" in addition to "tithes and special gifts" and "freewill offerings, and the first born of your herds and flocks" (v. 6). The main point behind these instructions was that "the people’s worship and offerings should be brought to Yahweh’s sanctuary and not Canaanite ones" (Wright, 165).
Verse seven indicates that at the place designated by God, they were to gather with their respective families for worship in His presence. This worship was to be festive in nature with the people being commanded to "rejoice in everything" that God had so graciously provided for them. Again, we note that Israelite worship was to be founded upon and motivated by the grace of Yahweh—"because the Lord your God has blessed you."
Additional commands related to acceptable worship are presented in this section. Moses reminds them "You are not to do . . . everyone as he sees fit" (v.8). That is, their worship of Yahweh had to be in harmonious agreement with His divine imperatives. They were not to develop their own rules for worship. When they arrived in Canaan, the portable sanctuary would be replaced by a central, permanent structure erected at a site to be determined by the Lord—"the place the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for His Name" (v.11). Eugene Merrill explains that
something decisive would occur with the establishment of a central shrine, something quite different from the religious practice of the desert and conquest years (Deut. 12:8-9). Where it was permissible to do as each individual saw fit (lit., ‘what is right in his own eyes’) in the years of wandering, this would no longer be the case when the community reached the ‘resting place,’ that is, the land of inheritance (224).
Again, this passage stresses that they will worship God through the various offerings and sacrifices and will "rejoice before the Lord your God" (v.12). While it is obvious that their worship must be holy and pure, there is also stress laid upon its inclusiveness— "your sons and daughters, your menservants and maidservants, and the Levites from your town." Note that all people in the covenant community were to be included in "the very heart of Israel’s life—the joyful worship and feasting in the presence of God" (Wright, 166).
Major Points for Application and Discussion
One: The worship of God demands a complete break with the world.
Two: Worship must be according to God’s instructions.
Three: The true "place" of worship is Jesus Christ.
Four: Authentic worship breaks down barriers.
Five: Worship that honors God is joyous in nature.