Deuteronomy 4:32-40

(Editor’s note: This sermon was preached as part of a convocation service at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, the seminary where Dr. Mohler serves as President.)

In Deuteronomy chapter four, we encounter one of the great touchstone passages in all of Scripture.  My heart and soul are absolutely struck by the question—a rhetorical question, but a very real question—asked in Deuteronomy 4:33:  “Has any people heard the voice of the Lord, the voice of God speaking from the midst of the fire and survived?”

What brings us here?  What brings us to this institution, to this campus, to this hour?  What brings us dressed in academic costumes, ready for learning and study?  Something summons us here.  There is some mandate, some basis, some foundation.

This is a theological seminary and college.  We dare to speak of God.  We even dare to define what we do here as Christian education.  What an audacious claim!  We actually claim that here we teach what God has taught.

There ought to be a bit of humility in recognizing the audacity of that claim.  It would be a baseless and a foundationless claim, an incredible claim, if God had not spoken from the midst of the fire and allowed us to hear.  On what authority are we here?  To dare to speak of these things, we must speak invoking the authority of God, who alone could speak these things, who alone could reveal Himself and tell us what we must know.  All this points to a big and inescapable question, the question in fact that haunts the postmodern mind: On what basis can we claim to know anything?

The great philosophical crisis of our day is an epistemological crisis.  It’s a crisis of knowing, a crisis of knowledge.  In particular, it is a challenge for Christianity and for the Christian thinker, the Christian theologian, the Christian minister, the Christian preacher, and the Christian institution.  How do we know what we claim to know?  How dare we teach what we dare to teach?  As Francis Schaeffer well understood (and he took it as the title of his most significant contribution), we speak because He Is There and He Is Not Silent.

I first read that book as a sixteen-year-old, and to be honest, I think the greatest assurance I got from the book is that some smart person believed in God.  But even at that age, lacking the vocabulary to understand what I was experiencing, I understood the epistemological crisis.  How do we know anything?  How can we speak of anything?

And furthermore, how do we jump from the empirical knowledge of what we can observe to speaking of God whom we cannot see?  The one, certainly in terms of empirical and scientific observation and study and phenomenology, is audacious enough!  But then to speak of the immortal, invisible God only wise — that is a new leap of audacity altogether.  Dr. Schaeffer understood the epistemological problem that is silence, the claim and the implication that we can know nothing.  And he understood that there is only one epistemological answer — revelation.  Thus Christianity depends upon a Christian epistemology or a Christian theory of knowledge that is based in revelation alone.

There is no greater challenge than this — to make certain that we know on what authority we speak.  We know on what authority we know.  We know on what authority we would teach.  In Deuteronomy chapter four, Israel is reminded of the authority by which they live.  They are reminded that they heard the voice of God speaking from the midst of the fire and survived.

This great sermon, of course, comes at the conclusion of the introductory section to Deuteronomy. It begins and ends with a parallel structure, and in the middle is a large section reflecting the form of a suzerainty treaty, an Ancient Near Eastern convention whereby a conqueror sets down the terms of surrender. In this case, the conqueror is none other than the Lord God Jehovah, and the conquered is none other than His own chosen nation, Israel.  God sets down the terms, and they are very easy to understand.  It comes down to a very simple formula: hear and obey and live.  Refuse to hear, disobey, and bear the wrath of God.

In this tremendous sermon, God speaks through His servant and prophet Moses.  Looking back to the covenant at Horeb, obedience equals blessing, disobedience equals cursing — and doesn’t this generation know that?  This is the generation that survived, that was kept alive, through forty years of wandering in the wilderness.  They had witnessed the death of their own parents because they disobeyed and did not trust the Lord.  And now, as the children of Israel are being prepared for the conquest of the Holy Land, they are being reminded lest they forget that they heard the voice of God speaking from the midst of the fire and survived.

As the Lord through Moses is preparing this new generation, we find exhortation and memory mixed together — the memory of God’s great saving work in bringing Israel out of captivity to Pharoah in Egypt, the great work of God in keeping the children of Israel alive through the forty years of wandering in the wilderness, being led by smoke and by fire.

We call this book Deuteronomy— deutero nomos — the second giving of the law, because in the very next chapter we will confront again the Ten Commandments, these Ten Words.  The theme is very clear.  Israel, in terms of its elect status, is the chosen nation of God, and that special status is represented in Torah, in this word, in this law, even in these Ten Words.  The central truth is that the Lord God spoke to His people, and they heard, and they survived.  Looking backward in the text of Deuteronomy 4:10-13 there is a very similar theme.  Moses says,

Remember the day you stood before the LORD your God at Horeb, when the LORD said to me, ‘Assemble the people to Me, that I may let them hear My words so they may learn to fear Me all the days they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children.’

Let us remind ourselves that we cannot separate the giving of the Ten Commandments from the narrative context in which it comes.  The propositional truth in the law comes in the midst of a history of a people and God’s dealing with them.  It is a relational revelation, and it is a dramatic revelation.  Israel is reminded not only of what they heard, but of the context in which they heard it:  “You came near and stood at the foot of the mountain, and the mountain burned with fire to the very heart of the heavens: darkness, cloud and thick gloom.  Then the Lord God spoke to you from the midst of the fire.  You heard the sound of words, but you saw no form, only a voice,” (Deuteronomy 4:11-12). A voice!

Israel heard, as will be made clear in the Ten Commandments, in the second commandment, that this is not a God who is seen, but a God who is heard.  The contrast with the idols is very clear.  The idols are seen, but they do not speak.  The one true and living God is not seen, but He is heard.  The contrast is intentional, it is graphic, and it is clear.  We speak because we have heard.  The theme of these verses, especially in verses ten through thirteen, is the sheer gift of this.  This is not something Israel deserved.  This is sheer mercy.

As we begin this new academic year, I want us to remember that the revelation of God is sheer mercy.  We have no right to hear God speak.  We have no claim upon His voice.  We have no right to demand that He would speak.  We are accustomed to pointing to the cross of Christ — as we ought always to do — and saying, “There is mercy!”  But at Horeb, too, there was mercy.  There is mercy when God speaks.

I think there is a danger that contemporary evangelicals think of the doctrine of revelation primarily as an epistemological problem.  Even those who hold to a high doctrine of Scripture and affirm verbal inspiration, propositional truth, and the inerrancy of Scripture are in danger of thinking of revelation primarily in epistemological terms.  There is an epistemological mandate; there is an epistemological authority.  But the reality is that it is mercy — a gift — that the Lord God allowed Israel to hear His voice from the midst of the fire and survive.

As Professor Eugene Merrill has said, it is not merely that no other people had ever heard God speak out of the fire and lived to tell about it.  The fact is, there are not even any other peoples that heard the voice of the Lord speak out of the fire and didn’t live to tell about it.  The Lord God spoke uniquely and particularly to Israel, but knowing the speaker and understanding who He is, the miracle is that even those He would allow to hear His voice survived.

The background, of course, is the paganism of that day, the idols that were many and the idols that were silent. The silence of the idols is a pervasive biblical theme.

Think of 1 Kings 18, Elijah’s battle with the gods.  Think of Elijah as he waits, watching the prophets of the Ashteroth and the Baal jump around the altar and lacerate their bodies so that the blood flows down into the ground.  They leap, of course, to get Baal’s attention, but as we are told in 1 Kings 18, there was no voice.  No one answered.  No one paid attention.  Idolatry is contrasted with the religion of Israel on the basis of revelation.  The idols do not speak.  The Lord God of Israel does.  The idols are seen but not heard.  God is heard but not seen.

The background of this, of course, is the horrible thought that must be in the background of our thinking and in the foreground of our hearts this morning.  What if God had not spoken?  What if we had not received this word through Israel?  Part of what it means to be engrafted upon the tree of Israel is that this too is the word of God to us, too.

So what if God had not spoken?  Well, we would not be here.  If God had not spoken, we might have a religion school.  It might be that human beings, just in the blindness of trying to figure things out, would come to some sense of transcendence, or would perhaps even be able to use some kind of argument from design.  Certainly human beings, possessing some ingenuity and intelligence, would be pondering these things.

Of course, we need not speak hypothetically about this.  We see it.  All you have to do is listen to the cultural chatter to hear the kind of conversation that would take place if God had not spoken.  All you have to do is go to some divinity schools, some theological seminaries and universities in the academic world, and you will see the kind of discourse and the kind of teaching and the kind of philosophy and worldview that would emerge if God had not spoken.

What if this really is a game that we are playing, each using whatever language game is convenient and handy in terms of our social and cultural and linguistic system, and we simply put it all together?  What if this really is something of a smorgasbord of worldviews in which we can just kind of put it together as best we see fit?  If God had not spoken, there is no end to that game.  And if God has not spoken, there is no one who is right, and there is no one who is wrong.  If God has not spoken, what you end up with is the end game of postmodernism — nihilism, no knowledge.  But if God has spoken, everything is changed.

If God has spoken, then the highest human aspiration must be to hear what the Creator has said.  And though the revelation of God is not merely propositions, it is never less than that.  It is personal.  Hearing the voice of the Lord God is not merely to receive information, but to meet the living God.  We are accustomed to speaking and singing of the grace and mercy of God, and our redemption in the cross of Christ.  But we must also speak of the mercy of God in revelation.

In the Book of Deuteronomy, we meet the speaking God.  In Deuteronomy 4:33, again, “Has any people heard the voice of God speaking from the midst of the fire, and survived?”  Mercy and grace meet here — also, as Moses makes clear, accountability.  This is, in its own way, a protogospel, a revelation of the law, a discontinuity or distinction, but a continuity all the same, law and gospel.

Christopher Wright makes this comment concerning what happened at Sinai, saying that what really mattered there was not that there had been a theophonic manifestation of God, but that there had been a verbal revelation of God’s mind and will.  Sinai was a cosmic audiovisual experience, but it was the audio that mattered.  It is the audio that matters, for God has spoken.

If God has spoken, let me suggest several realities that should frame our thinking.

If God has spoken, we do know.

As a matter of fact, if God has spoken, we must know.  And what we know, because God has revealed Himself to us, is the highest and the greatest knowledge that any human ear can ever hear.  No human ear can deserve to hear it, but by God’s grace, we hear it and we survive.  But having heard it, we cannot feign ignorance.  We cannot act as if we do not know, for we have heard.  That’s why, for instance, Francis Schaeffer said that for the Christian who understands the doctrine of revelation, there is no real epistemological crisis.  There is only a spiritual crisis.  All that remains is whether you will obey.

There is no way we can now claim that we do not know.  There is a firm basis to what we do here, because we know.  We have an authority by which we preach, and an authority by which we teach. We are not making this up as we go along!  And because we have heard, we cannot feign ignorance, and because we have heard, we are accountable for the hearing.  Secondly,

If God has spoken, we know only by mercy.

That’s a good reminder for theological education.  There’s no pride in it, not if it’s rightly understood, because everything we know, we know by mercy.  I can almost guarantee you that everyone who graduates graduates by mercy, and everyone who gets the opportunity to teach here does so by mercy, for in light of revelation and knowing who God is, it’s all mercy.

Carl F. H. Henry describes this so beautifully when he speaks of God’s mercy to us in revelation by speaking of revelation as God’s willful disclosure, whereby He forfeits His own personal privacy that His creatures might know Him. We have no claim upon God.  He need not by any necessity forfeit His own personal privacy.  There’s no way, as the Bible makes clear over and over again, that we could ever figure Him out.  He must speak, and He has.  Dr. Henry said this in the second volume of God, Revelation and Authority:

If divine revelation in terms of speech means anything, it implies among other things that God need not have thus disclosed Himself.  God might indeed have remained silent and incommunicative in relation to His creatures.  His revelational speech to mankind is not an inescapable or inevitable reality.  It’s instead a demonstration of His own character.  It is not to be likened to the mathematically quite predictable spurting of the geyser Old Faithful.  Instead, like an enigmatic weather pattern, His performance cannot be charted in advance and in crucial ways.  It is once for all rather than merely sporadic.  Even God’s extended and ongoing speech in general or universal revelation is moment by moment, precept by precept, a matter of voluntary divine engagement and addressed to mankind that carries ever and on the utmost urgency.

God mercifully lets His people hear.  It is all by mercy, and thus intellectual pride is the enemy of any true theological education.  Because there is nothing we can figure out.  There is nothing we can discover.  There is no “aha” moment where, in some theological laboratory, a new element is discovered.  We know by grace and mercy.

If God has spoken, we too must speak.

That’s interesting.  Israel is given this order again and again, and so is the church.  We preach and we teach and we speak because God has spoken.  Because God has spoken, we dare not remain silent.  There is a task here; there is an urgency here.  And so we teach preaching and we teach teaching and we teach speaking, because we are to be the speaking people of a speaking God.  The people of God are not to be marked by their silence, but by their speech.

There is a command here to preach, of course, and a command here to teach.  Skip two chapters forward to Deuteronomy 6, and there Israel is reminded of the responsibility of parents to teach children.  Throughout the fabric of Scripture, the teaching mandate is a constant.  And of course, for the church, it’s just as clear.  As Paul writes in 2 Timothy 4, kerusso ton logon, preach the word!  We are not just to have heard it; we are to teach it and preach it and share it.

The importance of this was made clear even in the Old Testament in a text like Nehemiah 8, where Ezra and his colleagues read the text aloud and then explained its meaning to the congregation.  We are to set it out and make it plain, because if God has spoken, then we too must speak.

If God has spoken, then it’s all about God, and it’s for our good.

You see, God does speak words of judgment in the Scripture, and God does speak words of warning.  There are hard words in Scripture, but it’s all for our good!  God spoke to Israel, even the words of warning, in order that Israel might hear the warnings and obey the word, and not suffer the inevitable consequences of disobedience.  It is all for our good, every single word.

That is why, even in this chapter, we are told that you should not and must not add to these words, nor shall you take from these words.  It is all for your good.  Like medicine for the soul, like food, it is for our good.

If God has spoken, it is for our redemption.

When we think of the work of God in our salvation, we focus of course on the culmination and the fulfillment of God’s saving work in the work of Christ on the cross.  But to read the Scripture is to understand that God has been a redeeming, saving God from the very beginning.  Taking Israel out of Egypt was redemption.  Keeping Israel alive, even in the wilderness, was redemption.  Speaking to Israel and letting Israel hear and survive was redemption.  Jonathan Edwards well understood this.  Speaking of this passage, he says,

This was quite a new thing that God did towards this great work of redemption.  God had never done anything like it before.  ‘Did ever people hear the voice of God speaking out of the midst of the fire and live?  Or has God assayed to go and take Him a nation that the Lord your God did for you in Egypt?’  This was a great advancement of the work of redemption that had been begun and carried out from the fall of man, a great step taken in divine providence towards a preparation for Christ’s coming in the world, in working out His great and eternal redemption.  For this was the people of whom Christ was to come, and now we see, we may see how that plant flourished that God had planted in Abraham.

God allowing Israel to hear and to survive was a part of His work of redemption.  Revelation is for our redemption, and we need to remember that.  So often, I think even evangelical Christians speak of revelation at times as if it is something that merely witnesses to redemption.  But revelation is also a part of God’s work of redemption in and of itself, for without revelation we would not know.  We would have no clue.  But we do know.

Because God has spoken, we must obey.

This is not a word submitted for our consideration.  The living God allows us to hear His voice from the fire and survive.  This is because He has demands to make of us, as Creator speaks to creature.  And in the giving of the Torah and the entire body of law and statute and command, there is the requirement of obedience, and it is repeated over and over again.  It is stated in principial form, as Israel is told:  If you obey, you will be blessed and you will live.  You will prosper in the land that I am giving you.

It is also in the negative:  If you disobey, you will be cursed.  You will bear my wrath.  The nations of the world will cast you out.  You will go out before them, to be taken as their exiles.  You will be cast out of the land.  The demand of obedience is very clear, and it is central to Deuteronomy chapter four.

Even as the Lord God through Moses is preparing His people to enter the promised land, and in order to prepare them is getting ready to recite again the law, these Ten Words, the Ten Commandments, He is saying to them, “Look, it’s about obedience.  I’m not merely giving you information.  I’m not letting you hear my voice for your intellectual stimulation.  It’s not so that you will have an epistemological advantage over the pagan peoples around you!  It is so that you would obey.”  There is demand.

If God has spoken, we must trust.

“Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”  We know that song, or at least some previous generations knew that song.  But it really is a matter of trust, and because of the spirit of the age and the imperative of the health of the church, we must fashion a clear defense of Scripture in terms of its inspiration and authority and perfection.  We must teach that, remind ourselves of that, and be accountable to that.

But in the end, it all comes down to trust — a hermeneutic of trust, an epistemology of trust, a spirituality and theology of trust.  If God has spoken, we trust His Word because we trust in Him.  Woe unto anyone who would sow seeds of mistrust or distrust of the Word of God.  For to fail to trust this word is, as Israel was clearly told, to fail to trust in God Himself.

Paul Helm, who has taught on this campus, is one of the most faithful Christian philosophers of the day.  He points to trust as the new apologetic — an apologetic of trust, understanding that in the end, the character of God is that which anchors not only our epistemology, but also our redemption, the hope we have not only in this life, but in the life to come.  Finally,

If God has spoken, we must witness.

Deuteronomy chapter four has in so many ways a counterpart chapter at the end of the book of Deuteronomy, in Deuteronomy chapter 30.  Look to that text with me.  In Deuteronomy 30, as Moses now prepares to die, the Lord speaks through him and says in Deuteronomy 30:11,

For this commandment which I command you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it out of reach. Deuteronomy 30:12 “It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ Deuteronomy 30:13 “Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross the sea for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ Deuteronomy 30:14 “But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it. Deuteronomy 30:15 “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and adversity; Deuteronomy 30:16 in that I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His judgments, that you may live and multiply, and that the LORD your God may bless you in the land where you are entering to possess it. Deuteronomy 30:17 “But if your heart turns away and you will not obey, but are drawn away and worship other gods and serve them, Deuteronomy 30:18 I declare to you today that you shall surely perish. You will not prolong your days in the land where you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess it. Deuteronomy 30:19 “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants, Deuteronomy 30:20 by loving the LORD your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to Him; for this is your life and the length of your days, that you may live in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give them.

Now look at Romans 10.  The Apostle Paul takes this very text.  Romans 10:8:

But what does it say? “THE WORD IS NEAR YOU, IN YOUR MOUTH AND IN YOUR HEART “– that is, the word of faith which we are preaching, Romans 10:9that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; Romans 10:10for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation. Romans 10:11For the Scripture says, “WHOEVER BELIEVES IN HIM WILL NOT BE DISAPPOINTED.” Romans 10:12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call on Him; Romans 10:13 for “WHOEVER WILL CALL ON THE NAME OF THE LORD WILL BE SAVED.” Romans 10:14 How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? Romans 10:15 How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, “HOW BEAUTIFUL ARE THE FEET OF THOSE WHO BRING GOOD NEWS OF GOOD THINGS!” Romans 10:16 However, they did not all heed the good news; for Isaiah says, “LORD, WHO HAS BELIEVED OUR REPORT?” Romans 10:17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.

So faith comes from hearing.  Getting to hear and yet survive.  This too explains why we are here.  Because in the very formula and logic of Romans chapter ten, somehow we heard.  Not one of us was at Horeb, yet we heard.  Someone had to tell us.  God spoke, and someone had to speak to us.

So there is, as the Word of God makes so very clear, the mandate to go and to tell.  If God has spoken, then we do know.  If God has spoken, then we are accountable.  If God has spoken, it is by mercy and for our good, and if God has spoken, it comes with a commission and a command, which makes a difference of course in the life of a Christian, who is not only the one who has been saved, but instrumentally and day by day, is the one who was heard.  The difference for the church is that we understand what it means to gather together as the ones who by the grace and mercy of God have heard.  Under the authority of the Word we gather.

It makes a difference for a seminary.  We’re not making this up.  Our task is not to go figure out what to teach.  Our task is not to figure out where to find meaning in life.  It is to be reminded continually that we have heard the voice of God speaking from the fire and have survived, and thus we teach.  This is the mercy of God, to hear and yet survive.  It’s the mercy by which we live every day and experience every moment and evaluate every truth claim and judge every worldview and preach every sermon.  We work and we live under that mercy.

I can’t help connecting Deuteronomy 4, and understanding the experience of Israel, hearing the Lord God speak from the midst of the fire and yet surviving, with Hebrews chapter one, which in the prologue tells us that God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers and the prophets, in many portions and in many ways, in these last days, has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world.  We are here because God has spoken, not only in the fire, but in the Son, in whose name we are gathered and in whose name we serve.


R. Albert Mohler, Jr. is President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY

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