Excerpts from Calvin's Commentaries
Deuteronomy


The purpose of this paper is to present a selection of quotations from John Calvin's commentary on Deuteronomy. These excerpts represent exceptional insights either on the text itself or on Christian living. John Calvin was one of the great theologians of the Protestant Reformation. All excerpts are from the Baker edition in 22 volumes and given with no modification.


"O that there were such a heart in them, that they would fear me and keep all my commandments always, that it might be well with them and with their children
forever!" (Deut. 5:29)

God signifies that they would not be so firm and faithful in keeping their promises, as they were ready and willing to make them; and thus that hypocrisy was not altogether banished, or purged from their minds. Moreover, He figuratively (improprie) assumes a human feeling, because it would be vain and absurd for Him to desire what it was in His power to confer. Certainly He has the power of bending and directing men's hearts whithersoever He pleases. Why, then, does He wish that it were given to the people from some other quarter, that they should be always kept in the path of duty, except that, speaking in the character of a man, He shows that it was rather to be wished than hoped that the people would constantly persevere in their fidelity? Wherefore this and similar passages have been ignorantly abused by some, to establish man's free will. They understand this passage, as if man's will were capable of bending either way, and that he possessed the power of doing right, whilst God without interfering looked on at the event; as if God's secret counsel, and not rather the end and use of external teaching, were referred to here. But we, taught by innumerable testimonies of Scripture, maintain, that it is the attribute of God alone to give what He here requires. So also immediately afterwards He says, that He wishes it may be well with the Israelites and their children, viz., because it is certain that it depends on men whether they are happy or not, as often as God invites them, when they refuse the grace offered to them; yet does it not therefore follow, that it depends on every man's free will to attain happiness for himself. But here we must consider God's will as it is set before us in His word, not as it is hidden in Himself; for while by His word He invites all promiscuously to eternal life, He only quickens by His secret inspiration those whom He has elected. In sum, although God approves of the people's answer, He says that there will be too much difficulty in the performance of it, for the event to accord with it.


"And when Yahweh thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them,
and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy
unto them" (Deut. 7:2)

Those who think that there was cruelty in this command, usurp too great authority in respect to Him who is the judge of all. The objection is specious that the people of God were unreasonably imbued with inhumanity, so that, advancing with murderous atrocity, they should spare neither sex nor age. But we must first remember what we shall see hereafter, i.e., that when God had destined the land for His people, He was at liberty utterly to destroy the former inhabitants, so that its possession might be free for them. We must then go further, and say that He desired the just demonstration of His vengeance to appear upon these nations. Four hundred years before He had justly punished their many sins, yet had He suspended His sentence and patiently borne with them, if haply they might repent. That sentence is well known, "The iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full." (Gen. xv. 16.) After God had shown His mercy for four centuries, and this clemency had increased both their audacity and madness, so that they had not ceased to provoke His wrath, surely it was no act of cruelty to compensate for the delay by the grievousness of the punishment. And hence appears the foul and detestable perversity of the human intellect. We are indignant if He does not smile at once; if He delays punishment our zeal accuses Him of slackness and want of energy; yet, when He comes forth as the avenger of guilt, we either call Him cruel, or at least complain of His severity. Yet His justice will always absolve Him; and our calumnies and detractions will recoil upon our own heads. He commanded seven nations to be utterly destroyed; that is to say, after they had added sin to sin for 400 years, so that their accumulation was immense, and experience had taught that they were obstinate and incurable. It will therefore be said elsewhere, that the land "spewed them out," (Lev. xviii. 28,) as if it had eased itself, when burdened by their filthiness. If impiety is intolerable to the lifeless element, why should we wonder that God in His character of Judge exercised extreme severity? But if God's wrath was just, He might surely choose whatever ministers and executioners of it He pleased; and when He had given this commission to His people, it was not unreasonable that He should forbid them to pity those whom He had appointed for destruction. For what can be more preposterous than for men to vie with God in clemency: and when it pleases the Master to be severe, for the servants to assume to themselves the right of showing mercy? Therefore God often reproves the Israelites for being improperly merciful. And hence it came to pass that the people, whom they ought to have destroyed, became as thorns and briars to prick them. (Josh. xxiii. 13, and throughout the book of Judges.) Away, then, with all temerity, whereby we would presumptuously restrict God's power to the puny measure of our reason; and rather let us learn reverently to regard those works of His, whose cause is concealed from us, than wantonly criticize them. Especially when He declares to us the just grounds of His vengeance, let us learn to subscribe to His decrees with the humility and modesty that becomes us, rather than to oppose them in vain, and indeed to our own confusion.


"Beware that thou forget not Yahweh thy God" (Deut. 8:11)

We may easily estimate the necessity of this admonition from the common corruption of human nature, which is even yet only too general and too influential; for scarcely shall we find one person in a hundred in whom satiety does not generate headiness. Moses will hereafter speak in his Song of the rebelliousness of this people, "The beloved, (Jeshurun,) waxen fat, and grown thick, kicked." (Deut. xxxii. 15.) In was needful, then, that a restraint should be put on such refractory beings, nay, that they should have their wantonness still more tightly repressed in their prosperity. But we may, and it is well to, extend this doctrine to ourselves also, since prosperity intoxicates almost all of us, so that we intemperately grow wanton against God, and forget ourselves and Him. Therefore Moses not only commands the Israelites not to be ungrateful to God, but warns them to guard themselves (for he uses this word for to beware) from that impious ingratitude. He immediately after uses this same word for the keeping of the Law. But this is the sum, that they needed the utmost care and attention to beware lest forgetfulness of God should steal over them in happy circumstances, and thus they should shake off His fear, and cast away His yoke, and indulge themselves in the lusts of their flesh.


"If a false witness rise up against any man" (Deut. 19:16)

Because the fear of God does not so prevail in all men, as that they should voluntarily abstain from the love of slander, God here appoints the punishment to be inflicted for perjury: for political laws are enacted against the ungodly and disobedient, in order that those who despise God's judgment should be brought before the tribunal of men. Although perjury is not here ordained to be tried before the judges, unless there should be an accuser, who should complain that he had been unjustly injured by false-witness, still reason dictates, that if any man have been condemned to death by false-witnesses, the judges should not hesitate to make an official inquiry into the matter. Yet, inasmuch as men are generally disposed to assert their own innocence, God has deemed it sufficient to put the case, that if any complaint should be lodged, the judges should diligently investigate it, and if the crime be proved, should inflict the punishment of retaliation (talionis). Whence it appears that false-witnesses and murderers stand in the same light before God. By commanding that the inquiry should be made not only by the judges, but also by the priests, as if God Himself were present, He shows that He requires unusual diligence to be used; because a secret crime is not easily detected without the most anxious care.


"If a bird's nest chance to be before thee in the way . . . thou shalt not take the dam
with the young" (Deut. 22:6)

Since by this precept God instructed His people in the law of kindness, it is a Supplement to the Sixth Commandment. Regard was had, indeed, to the preservation of the breed; but, besides, when birds are sitting, as being very lean, it is certain that they are not wholesome food; still there is no question but that it was God's intention to accustom His people to study humanity. For, if there be one drop of compassion in us, it will never enter into our minds to kill an unhappy little bird, which so burns either with the desire of offspring, or with love towards its little ones, as to be heedless of its life, and to prefer endangering itself to the desertion of its eggs, or its brood. Wherefore, it is not to be doubted but that, in this elementary lesson, God prohibited His people from savageness and cruelty.


"Thou shalt not abhor an Edomite" (Deut. 23:7)

In order that the punishment denounced against the Moabites and Ammonites should be more strongly marked, he commands the Edomites and Egyptians to be admitted in the third generation; the former, because they derived their origin from the same ancestor, Isaac, since they were the descendants of Esau; the latter, because they had been their hosts. For hence it was manifest that the Ammonites and Moabites had been dishonoured on account of their guilt, when not even aliens were thus dealt with. Now, although Esau had cut himself off from the prerogative of believers, yet the door was again opened to his children, provided they returned to their source and origin, and in the humility of faith admitted the primogeniture of Jacob, who had been chosen when their father was passed by or degraded. But what is meant by this inequality of punishment, when the crime was identical? for Edom appeared in arms against Israel before Moab, and compelled them to take their journey by another way. It did not contend with hired imprecations for Israel's destruction, but since, when humbly entreated on the score of their old relationship, it had not only refused them a passage, but had advanced against them with a great army, it should have been dealt with no less severity than Amalek or Ammon. Besides, being connected to them by a closer tie of blood, the Edomites were less excusable in their hostility. I find, then, no reason why God showed greater clemency to them than the others whom He treated more severely; except that He wished to show that it depends on His own will to chastise more lightly in some the same sins on which He takes more severe vengeance in others; and, inasmuch as all are deserving of utter destruction, He justly retains in His own hand the free right of sparing whom He will. We must here adore His judgments, into the depths of which we cannot penetrate.


"Yahweh shall open unto thee his good treasure" (Deut. 28:12)

If all prosperity proceeds from the peculiar blessing which God vouchsafes to His servants, whence is it that many of His despisers have children, easy and happy circumstances, abundance of the fruits of the earth, enjoyment and luxury, honours and power? I answer, that the happy condition of life, which He assigns to His servants, does not prevent Him from diffusing His bounty promiscuously over the whole human race. He is truly called in Ps. xxxvi. 6, the preserver of "man and beast." It is said elsewhere, that His mercy is extended over all His creatures, (Ps. cxlv. 17;) and justly does Christ exalt His unbounded goodness, in that "He maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good." (Matt. v. 45.) But equally true is the exclamation of the Prophet; "Oh, how great is thy goodness, which thou hast laid up for them that fear thee!" (Ps. xxxi. 19.) For since all without exception enjoy all the supports of life, God's goodness, which thus contends with the wickedness of men, shines forth universally even towards the ungodly, so that He does not cease to cherish and preserve those whom He has created, although they be unworthy. He therefore does good to the ungodly because He is their Creator; besides, in order to keep the minds of believers in suspense in expectation of the final judgment, He now suffers many things to be confusedly mixed together, and hides His judgment in the darkness of night, as it were, or at least under clouds; whilst He also so tempers His patience towards the reprobate, as that, in this confusion of which I have spoken, some signs of His anger and favour are manifested. Thus, although the government of the world is not yet reduced to a perfect rule, still God shows by it that He is both the avenger of sins and the rewarder of righteousness, and some sparks are seen through the darkness; whilst the faithful, although they do not attain to the full enjoyment of the blessing promised them, nevertheless taste of it as far as is expedient. But to the ungodly, although they abound with all sorts of good things, not a single drop of God's goodness is dispensed; for unless a sense of God's paternal favour is awakened by His blessing, the blessing itself ceases to exist; nay, the more they gorge themselves, they attain to a deadly fatness; and God purposely lifts them up, that He may cast them down more heavily from their high estate. In a word, they are fed, as the prophet says, "unto the day of slaughter."


"They shall be burnt with hunger, and devoured with burning heat . . . I will also
send the teeth of beasts upon them" (Deut. 32:24)

Let us learn, then, from this passage, that, whatever perils surround us, and whatever adversities, they are God's weapons, and that they do not occur by chance to this or that person, but are directed by His hand. Thus it is the case that He not only stirs up enemies against us, but fierce and noisome beasts also; that He shuts up the heaven and the earth; that He infects the atmosphere with deadly disease; that, in a word, He draws forth from all the elements manifold means of destruction.

But if it be the fact, that the godly are involved in similar punishments, since they suffer from hunger and want, and are not exempt from any evil; for even Paul acknowledges that he had himself experienced what God here denounces against those that wickedly despise Him, for he says that he was troubled without with fightings, and within with fears, (2 Cor. vii. 5;) we must bear in mind that all adversities are in themselves signs of God's wrath, since they derive their origin from sin; but that through God's marvelous provision it comes to pass, that to believers they are exercises of their faith and proofs of their patience. Hence we often see God's children afflicted in common with the ungodly, but to a different end; though nevertheless all adversities are proofs of God's wrath against the reprobate.


"And Moses went up . . . to the top of Pisgah . . . And Yahweh showed him all the
land" (Deut. 34:1)

Now, the ascent of Moses was equivalent to a voluntary going forth to death: for he was not ignorant of what was to happen, but being called by God to die, he went to meet death of his own accord. Such willing submission proceeded from no other source than faith in God's grace, whereby alone all terror is mitigated, and set at rest, and the bitterness of death is sweetened. Doubtless to Moses, as to every one else, it must have been naturally an awful thing to die; but inasmuch as the testimony of God's grace is interposed, he does not hesitate to offer himself without alarm; and because he was firmly persuaded that the inheritance of the people would be there set before his eyes, he cheerfully ascended to the place from which he was to behold it. Already, indeed, by faith had he beheld the land, the promise of God had been, as it were, a lively representation of it; but, since some remaining infirmities of the flesh still environ even the most holy persons, an ocular view of it was no slight consolation, in order to mitigate the bitterness of his punishment, when he knew that he was prevented from actually entering it by the just sentence of God.

When it is said, that God "showed him all the land," it could not have been the case without a miracle. For, although history records that some have been endued with incredible powers of vision, so as to have been able to see further than the whole length of Canaan; there is still a peculiarity to be remarked in this case, that Moses distinctly examined every portion of it, as if he had been really on the spot. I allow, indeed, that Naphtali, and Ephraim, and Manasseh are mentioned by anticipation, but, nevertheless, the Holy Spirit would express that every part was shown to Moses, as if they were close beneath his feet. Else the vision would have been but unsatisfactory and useless, if he had not been allowed to behold the future habitation of the people. And to the same effect is also what is afterwards added, that it was the land, which God sware to give unto His servants; for otherwise the desire of Moses would not have been satisfied, unless he had seen what a pleasant, fertile, and wealthy region the sons of Abraham were about to inhabit.


And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom Yahweh knew
face to face" (Deut. 34:10)

This eulogy seems to have been added, that the children of Abraham might place dependence on Moses until the manifestation of Christ; for although prophets were from time to time raised up, still it was fitting that the superiority should remain with Moses, lest they should decline in the smallest degree from the rule of the Law. It must be concluded, therefore, that Moses was here placed in a position of supremacy, so as to be superior to all the prophets; as also Malachi (iv. 4) exhorts the ancient people, in order that they may continue obedient to the law of Moses. Two signs of his excellency are here recorded, namely, his familiar acquaintance with God, and the glory of his miracles. We have elsewhere seen that, by this prerogative, Moses was distinguished from the other prophets, that God spake to him face to face. For, although Jacob makes the same declaration respecting himself, still we know that God was more intimately revealed afterwards to Moses; not indeed that He beheld His glory in its perfection, but because, in comparison with others, he went beyond them all. As regards miracles, though they were wrought by others, still none of them came near to Moses in their performance.

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