Deuteronomy 16 is an interesting chapter. Most verses are dedicated to God’s Holy Day seasons (verses 1-11, 13-17). Discussion moves to the appointment of public servants (verse 18) and a warning against idolatry (verse 21). Did God just shuffle a deck of ideas and place three of them together? Or does a single principle unify these themes? If so what is it? I believe we find such a theme explained in verse 12.
“And you shall remember …” (verse 12)
The call to “remember” is perhaps the most frequent command in the Old Testament. We learn from the past. We prove things, we remember what has worked before and “hold fast what is good”. The 5th commandment says “Honor your parents that your days may be long on the earth” The younger generation honors its parents by holding fast to what THEY have proven to be true. The benefit of the honor is for the children. The benefit is that they will survive and thrive “long on the earth”.
God’s truth does not change from one generation to the next. Christians in a literal sense are “Conservatives” because they try to “conserve” timeless traditions, like marriage and the value of work. Man’s way when it conflict with that of God is destined for failure, always. So man wants to forget the failures of the past and constantly move forward to some “Brave New World” or imaginary “Utopia” … hence the name “Progressive”. I have never heard of a class called “The Failures of Socialism and Communism in the 20th Century” or “Benefits of the Welfare State in Creating Stronger Families”
“… that you were a slave in Egypt …” (verse 12)
God does not want ANY person on planet Earth to be a slave or to be oppressed, much less His own people. God gave us the gift of free will. Slavery robs a man of this gift except perhaps for his thoughts. But wait! A depressing, make-believe culture can easily dominate our minds, transform our thoughts and rob us of happiness, if we allow it. Self rule is the key.
“… and you shall be careful to observe these statutes.” (verse 12)
The idea of “ruling ourselves” is not doing anything we want, but doing what is right, what is good, and what God wants. The polar opposite of slavery therefore is obedience to God. We have read “the truth shall set you free”. Free from what? It can free us from the consequences of doing what is not right and what is evil. We come to one definition of true freedom: It is self rule while choosing to do what is right and what is good as defined by God.
The Holy Days add to the definition of freedom.
In a broad sense, they picture man’s journey from death to eternal life. The Passover releases us from the penalty of death and starts the journey: receiving the Holy Spirit, fighting sin, the return of Christ, the banishment of Satan … are all steps along the way. The journey ends with man receiving eternal life in the family of God, forever choosing to do what is right and good as defined by God.
The path has stumbling blocks.
We turn our attention to verses 21-22: “You shall not plant for yourself any tree as a wooden image, near the altar which you build for yourself to the Lord your God. You shall not set up for yourself a sacred pillar which the Lord your God hates”
The concepts of freedom and idolatry are closely related. Israel wanted to emulate the nations about them. Someone once said “We love to be deceived”. When we imitate a world that is contrary to God, we embrace deception. Our worship of God and the deceptions of the world cannot exist side by side in our lives. If they do we lose the truth of God. To lose truth is to lose the freedom it offers. So I ask myself: Have I have planted a pagan altar next to the one where I worship the true God? Does the deception of the world deny me the freedom that lies in serving Christ?
God extends self rule into the public sphere.
In verse 18, God gives principles of government for a free society: “You shall appoint judges and officers in all your gates, which the Lord your God gives you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with just judgment …”
God is the ultimate source of all power in the universe. Beneath God, there are two fundamental kinds of government in the world: those in which power moves from the top down and those where power moves from the bottom up. The government God gave Israel was “bottom up” and merit based. The leaders chosen from the people had to be “wise and knowledgeable (Deut.1:13). They were called leaders, not rulers. When the people wanted Gideon to be their ruler he said to them: “I will not rule over, nor shall my son rule over; the Lord shall rule over you” (Judges 8:24)
The difference between a “ruler” and a “leader” is significant. A bad leader could be checked simply by the people replacing him. Human nature unchecked tends to lust for ever increasing power. It desires (as Christ said) to “lord it over” others, rather than assume the mantle of a humble servant. Corrupt leaders, as verse 20 implies, could cause Israel no longer “to live in and inherit the land”. Corrupt leaders can destroy a nation. But a corrupt ruler could not be replaced. When people give away their power of self rule, they also give up the power to replace the one to whom they give it.
Why did God object to Israel being ruled by a king?
During the time of Samuel Israel again insisted upon a king. Once again, they wanted to imitate the world around them. This time God gave them what they wanted. In granting their wish for a king, God said something profound: “They have not rejected you (speaking to Samuel) they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them” (1 Sam. 8:7) You may ask: “Can I not serve the king and God? Why should the one exclude the other?” It is easy to see how a bad king can do that. What about a good king who compels his subjects to “do good”? There are two answers to this question.
A good king or government, with the power to enforce its will may be followed by a bad king or government with the same power to enforce its will. In both cases, the power to abuse the people is the same. The problem is the shift of power from the people to a single person or office. Secondly, “doing good” is not the end game. The more we give up our power of self rule to others, the more we become weak, even docile. Self rule gives everyone the power to become wiser and stronger. That is what every loving father wants for His children.
The Impact of Deuteronomy 16 on our Founding Fathers
Guess what book is most mentioned in the writings of America’s founding fathers? Hint … it was not written by John Locke or Montesquieu. Certainly, these two authors heavily influenced the founders, but it was to the Book of Deuteronomy that offered the founders a divine stamp of approval, especially chapters 16 and 1. When they read in the word of God expressions like “in all your gates” and “throughout all your tribes” they saw rudimentary principles of federalism and separation of powers.
They saw God’s warning against man’s desire to rule over his fellow man by means of a strong central government. What they read confirmed their own experience with the English king. So in the Constitution they limited the power of the central government to a few “enumerated powers” with all other powers dispersed “throughout all your tribes”. “Tribes” meaning of course “states” but in both cases, 13 in number.
They understood well enough the system they devised was for a “religious people” believing in self rule, obeying God and choosing to do what is right and good. The system would fail if the people forgot the source of their freedoms, or sought to emulate the nations around them, or ignored the wisdom of God to place wise and knowledgeable men in all their “gates”.
The common thread going through the verses of Deuteronomy 16 from start to finish is God’s desire to impart freedom to mankind. This desire is a logical extension of His gift to mankind of free will. It is a natural wish that all parents can understand; that of a loving Father wanting His children to grow as strong and mature as possible in the time they dwell on this earth.
The Holy Days present God’s plan for mankind ending in freedom from death forever.
The warning against idolatry states we lose our freedom to serve God if we embrace the world.
Finally, God’s desire is that His children learn, grow, become “strong in spirit and filled with wisdom”, and as much as possible, be free from oppression. So self rule must extend into the public sphere as well.