Bible Commentary: Deuteronomy 6

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Deuteronomy 6

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God Is One? 

For many centuries Deuteronomy 6:4-9 has been known among the Jews as the Shema. This Hebrew word, which means "hear," is the first word of verse 4. Continuing in verse 4, we read in the earlier and New King James Versions that God is "one." And, indeed, many, including the Jews, have traditionally understood the verse this way. Furthermore, they have concluded from it that God consists of only one Being. We know, however, that God consists of two Beings at present, God and the Word (John 1:1), later called the Father and Jesus Christ (compare verse 14). God said in Genesis 1:26, "Let Us make man in Our Image," showing that God consists of more than one personage. The Hebrew word for God, Elohim, is plural, and denotes the God family. Ephesians 3:14-15 not only confirms that God is a family, but also that He is in the process of enlarging His family through converted Christians—His begotten children awaiting glorification into divine spirit beings like Him (1 John 3:1-2). It is interesting how the New International Version translates Hebrews 2:11: "Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family."

So what is Deuteronomy 6:4 saying? First of all, it should be stated that the word "one" in the sense of singularity is probably not what the original Hebrew here is intending to convey. Indeed, it could be understood as one in priority—meaning God is to be first, the highest priority, in our lives. And some Bible versions render the phrase in question as, "The Lord is our God, the Lord alone." In this sense, the prohibition is against worshiping other gods. Though the Lord normally denoted the One who became Jesus Christ, since He is the one who dealt with Israel (compare 1 Corinthians 10:4), this passage does not deny the existence of the Father. For the name Yahweh,having the sense of "Eternal One," which is rendered "Lord" in the New King James Version, could also refer to God the Father (compare Psalm 110:1). Of course, Israel did not know about the Father. Rather, Christ came to reveal Him (Matthew 11:27; John 1:18; John 17:25-26).

But Deuteronomy 6:4 could be translated as "the Lord is one." And if that's what is meant, then we must ask how is God one? The answer can be found in John 17, where Christ prayed to the Father about His disciples, "And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one" (verse 22). So God truly is one—in the unity of mindset and purpose shared by the Father and Christ, which They want us to share with Them. But They obviously do not constitute one being—just as God's people are not to become one being.

Incidentally, Deuteronomy 6:8 should be understood metaphorically—sealing God's instructions on our hands (i.e., in our actions) and between our eyes (i.e., in our minds). But later Jews attempted to obey this scripture in a literal way by writing down four passages (verses Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Deuteronomy 11:13-21; Exodus 13:1-10; Exodus 13:11-16) on tiny scrolls—then placing the scrolls in leather pouches and attaching these to their foreheads and left arms while reciting the Shema. This is the origin of phylacteries (referred to in Matthew 23:5).

Obeying God's Commandments 

We are then introduced to one of the two great commandments in the law: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength." (Deuteronomy 6:5; compare Matthew 22:36-38). Christ made clear that this is "the first and great commandment," but that the second ("You shall love your neighbor as yourself") is "like" it (verse 39, quoting from Leviticus 19:18). He explained that God's entire law is summarized by these two commandments (see Matthew 22:40). This is understandable, as the first four of the Ten Commandments explain how to love God, while the last six tell us how to love our neighbor. The statutes and judgments, in turn (compare Deuteronomy 4:13-14), expand on and set forth in more detail the practical application of the Ten Commandments in our daily lives. And Christ's teachings in the New Testament—a magnification of the law (see Isaiah 42:21)—expand on the Ten Commandments, statutes and judgments even further, by showing us how to live according to their spiritual intent. (For instance, in Matthew 5:21-22 Jesus stated it is not only wrong to actually murder someone, but it is wrong to even hate someone, as uncontrolled hatred can ultimately lead to the physical act of murder.)

Verses 6-9 emphasize the urgent necessity of teaching children the truths of God, giving parents the primary responsibility here. Too often, parents are negligent in this responsibility and children grow up uncertain about what they know. Conveying confidence and certainty in the Word of God is a vital role parents are commanded to fulfill. The laws and ways of God should be taught daily. Regarding "Thou shalt teach them diligently" in verse 7, Adam Clarke's Commentary notes that the Hebrew means "'to repeat, iterate, or do a thing again and again';hence to whet or sharpen any instrument, which is done by reiterated friction or grinding" (emphasis added). This points to the great value of family Bible study and prayer. And biblical principles should be talked about informally as often as opportunities present themselves—whenever there is a way to connect daily living and attitudes with the teachings of the Bible. An opportunity is whenever you are together—sitting, walking, riding in a car, eating together, etc. An opportunity is when a question or problem arises and the parent can point to the Bible for understanding and solutions. And it's valuable for families to start and end each day talking about and praying to God.

Since Israel was a carnal nation, God commanded that they write the commandments on the doorposts of their houses (Deuteronomy 6:9). Although it would not be wrong for a Christian to do so today, it is not obligatory, as the law of God should be inscribed in a far more important place—on our hearts. God desired this for ancient Israel, too (verse 6), but He knew that this would not be the case without His Spirit within them (compare Deuteronomy 31:21, Deuteronomy 29:4). Of course, while adults may feel no need for physical reminders and visual aids, as illustrated by verses 8-9, they are often helpful for children.

In verse 15, God describes Himself as a "jealous God," as in Exodus 34:14. He demands our absolute loyalty and fidelity to Him. But this is not for Himself—because He just soaks up our adoration. Putting other things before the true God in our lives is harmful and destructive to ourselves and others. God knows that all too well. If everyone instead set their affections on Him—the God of love—above all others, there would be perfect peace and happiness throughout the world. So God is jealous not for His own sake—but for ours.

Some today say that all we need is the "righteousness of faith"—that is, as long as we believe in Christ, we are justified or "made right," regardless of how we live. But Moses told Israel something different. In Deuteronomy 6:25, we read, "Then it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to observe all these commandments before the Lord our God, as He has commanded us." Psalm 119, an ode to keeping God's law, which is traditionally attributed to King David, defines all of God's commandments as righteousness (Psalm 119:172). After all, faith without works is dead (James 2:14; James 2:20). We will be rewarded in accordance with our works, and we are to practice "obedience to the faith" (Romans 1:5; Romans 16:26). When we sin, Christ forgives us upon repentance and justifies us or makes us righteous (1 John 1:7-9). But we are told not to sin—this must be our foremost goal (Matthew 6:33; Romans 6:15; 1 John 2:1). Since "sin is the transgression of the law" (1 John 3:4, KJV), we remain righteous unless and until we sin. But no one can keep God's law on his own—we need the help of the living Christ in us to conquer sin. That is why we read, "He condemned sin in the flesh that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit... Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His... For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God" (Romans 8:3-4; Romans 8:9; Romans 8:14).

Supplementary Reading: "The Lord Our God Is One," Who Is God?, 2001, pp. 18-19.