Moses had already cautioned the Israelites against the peril of dwelling among the idolatrous Canaanites. But here in this chapter, he cautioned them against the rise of idolatry among themselves; and he directed them how to handle it. It is strange indeed that any Israelite could ever be guilty of pretending to receive visions, dreams, or prophecies that would instigate themselves and others to go and worship idols. It is even more strange that mention is made of the possibility that their signs or wonders, which they would give for the confirmation of the truth of their words, would actually come to pass. But the mention of this possibility was intended to strengthen the caution that was given against listening to such a person. In essence, Moses was saying, “Even if it were possible that such a false prophet could work a true miracle, yet you still must not believe him if he tells you to worship idols; for the Divine law against that sin is perpetual and unalterable.” This is similar to Paul’s words in Galatians 1:8: “Though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.” Of course, this does not mean that it is possible for a righteous angel to preach a false gospel; rather, it serves as a strong expression of the reliability and certainty of the true Gospel that we have already received.
The mention of this possibility of a false prophet’s “sign” coming to pass was also given in order to fortify the Israelites against the danger of such lying wonders. Even if an imposter’s credentials were so deceitfully counterfeited that the people could not discern that they were false; yet if they were intended to draw them away from the worship of the true God, that alone was sufficient to disprove them. And if it was asked why the Lord allowed the false prophet to counterfeit such miracles, the answer (verse 3) was that the Lord was thereby proving or testing His people’s faithfulness to Him. It would be a proof of sincere affection for God if – notwithstanding these false pretenses – they would not allow themselves to be led astray to forsake Him and follow other gods. It is necessary for us to be well-acquainted with the truths and precepts of the Bible; for we may also expect to encounter temptations of evil under the appearance of good, or error under the disguise of truth. And we cannot properly oppose such temptations except by the plain testimony of the Lord’s Word against them.
Satan will often try to lead us astray by those whom we love, and whom we least suspect of any bad intentions, and whom we are desirous to please. Verses 6-11 give a caution against enticement to idolatry which might perhaps come from a sibling, child, spouse, or friend. But we must never sin against our God in order to please even the best friend or closest family member that we have in this world. The wise man instructed his child well when he said, “If sinners entice thee, consent thou not” (Prov. 1:10). In such cases where a friend or family member was attempting to lead a person into idolatry, the Lord’s people were directed to turn such wicked persons over to the proper authorities immediately. The death sentence which was attached to this sin was looked upon as the severest of all punishments among the Jews. And it was a fitting punishment for the crime, for those who attempt to draw us to sin and away from our God are our very worst enemies.
Mention is also made in this chapter of the case of an entire city revolting from the God of Israel, and serving idols. It gives us an idea of how great the punishment will be for those who “have known the way of righteousness,” and yet “turn aside from it” (2 Pet. 2:21). The inhabitants of such a city would have been drawn to their idolatry by “certain men, the children of Belial” – that is, children of the devil (compare 2 Cor. 6:15). Their “little leaven” would leaven “the whole lump.” In such a case as this, where the whole city had gone astray after other gods, the Lord did direct that a great deal of care must be exercised (verse 14). The people were not to react on mere hearsay; rather, they were to examine the case carefully, and not pronounce judgment until the evidence was clear and the charge was fully made out. If the city was indeed found to be guilty, then it was to be entirely destroyed. All the wicked inhabitants were to be put to death, the whole city and all of its goods were to be put to the flames, and the city itself was never to be rebuilt.
As we read these things, let us repent of our own unbelief and denials of God. Let us pray for grace to be kept from the spiritual idolatry of covetousness, and the love of worldly pleasure. Let us also be careful to not approve of these things in our families, either by our example or by the education of our children. And let us look up to Jesus, as the only means whereby we are preserved to this day – despite all the idols in our hearts which we have set up at various times! O how precious it is to behold the Lamb of God, Who has taken away the sins of His people! (John 1:29) May the Lord write His law and His truth upon our hearts; and may He set up His throne there, and shed abroad His love!
Lord, how many temptations we are exposed to – not only from false prophets and false teachers, but also from false friends and relatives! Preserve us from evil spirits and evil people of every description and character, who are the devil’s servants? Dearest Lord! Arm us with Your grace, and with the power of Your Holy Spirit, so that we may flee from idolatry and be found among the number of the faithful ones. Amen.
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