Key Verse: “Look down from Your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless Your people Israel and the land which You have given us, just as You swore to our fathers, a land flowing with milk and honey.” Deuteronomy 26:15
Offering the firstfruits (read 26:1–11)
Deuteronomy 26 can be divided into three sections: verses 1–11, the liturgy of the firstfruits; verses 12–15, the liturgy of the triennial tithe; and verses 16–19, the liturgy of covenant renewal. We are considering the first two sections in this lesson.
Earlier in Deuteronomy 18:4 we learned that the firstfruits offering belonged to the priests. When Israel had settled in the land of Canaan and had taken up farming, she was to gather and offer to the LORD the first part of her harvests at the sanctuary. This was Israel’s Thanksgiving Day. Where these offerings were to be brought is specified carefully: “the place where the LORD your God chooses to make His name abide.”
Bringing the offering was followed by a confession of thankful dependence upon the LORD, who had kept His promises made to the forefathers by bringing Israel into Canaan and blessing her life there.
This confession was followed by an act of the priest: as mediator between the LORD and His people, the priest was to place the basket of harvested grain in front of the LORD’s altar, to serve as a divine “meal.”
Then the worshiper again expressed his faith, this time in story form, a narrative whose plot moved from Israel’s humble beginnings, through Egyptian slavery and the Exodus, to settlement in the promised land. Personal desperation and misery were met with divine power and fidelity. The elements of this confession were two: admission of misery and unworthiness, along with a declaration of divine deliverance leading to the blessed enjoyment of the earth’s fruitfulness. Together they provided the grand theme of every Israelite’s “story”: grace, pure grace. As he offered the firstfruits of the land, the believer confessed that he had nothing that he hadn’t first received, and demonstrated this confession by sharing the meal of firstfruits with members of dependent classes among Israel, the Levite and alien.
Notice the effects of grace here. Grace creates a receptive heart and fashions a thankful people for joyful sharing. Notice again that the worshipers were commanded to rejoice together and to enjoy the bounty of the land across lines of citizenship and class.
Liturgy and space
We should pause to emphasize a facet of this liturgical activity often overlooked: the spatial dimension. Observe the liturgical movement and location prescribed in these verses. Everything leads to and centers around the altar, the place of atonement. The entire book of Deuteronomy, to say nothing of the rest of Scripture, emphasizes spatially, metaphorically and explicitly that covenant blessing depends upon atonement. This close connection between atonement and blessing of every kind (physical, material, social,economic, political, intellectual, scientific) is symbolized in this offering. The truth being symbolized is that divine blessing proceeds from sacrifice and is reciprocated as sacrifice when the worshiper “returns” in thanksgiving with what the LORD has given him.
Even the prescribed confession( s) emphasize divine grace as the source of both prosperity and the duty of thanksgiving. (Question 1)
Reconciliation as the road back to creation
Another lesson taught here by this liturgical, spatial symbolism is that anyone who wishes to honor God as Creator and Provider must approach Him by way of the altar, by way of the atoning blood. In New Testament terms, no one can honor God as Creator who doesn’t have Jesus Christ as his Savior. Read carefully the core answer of the Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s Day 9:
Q. What do you believe when you say: I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth?
A. That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ…is for the sake of Christ His Son my God and my Father;…
This emphasis is necessary today in view of growing interest in a form of ‘creation spirituality’ that recommends loving and respecting the creation without having to come to Jesus Christ. The impulse here is to forge an ecumenical link among all world religions, blending their primitive cosmologies (religious perspectives of the creation of the universe) to permit cooperation in caring for the environment. Christians need to remember and testify that there is no path to the Creator other than Jesus Christ, whose blood opened the way back to Him. (Question 2)
The triennial tithe (read 26:12–15)
Recall from our study of Deuteronomy 14:22–29 that every three years, the tithe was to be brought to the nearest town for use by the Levites, the aliens and others in need. This instruction is summarized here in verse 12.
As with the offering of firstfruits, so here too a liturgy is prescribed for the triennial tithe. In contrast to the confessional declaration associated with the firstfruits, the tithe liturgy focused on the righteousness and purity of the worshiper. He had kept all the prescriptions associated with the tithe, especially those regarding ceremonial purity (v. 14; recall that the dead were unclean, as were all who came into contact with death). This righteousness becomes the basis for appealing to the LORD to remember and bless His people and their land, as He had sworn to do.
This liturgical climax to Israel’s covenantal instruction defines the triennial tithe in terms of the twodirectional love which the LORD commanded as the fulfillment of the law: love for God and for the neighbor. Love for the LORD was shown in safeguarding “the sacred portion” from ceremonial contamination, and love for the neighbor in bringing his tithe to town for the Levite, alien and needy. In other words, the triennial tithe liturgy unites both tables of the law. Love for God and love for neighbor cannot be separated; and yet rebellious man tries throughout history to do precisely that. Every false religion, every form of paganism and humanism, and every ideology promising heaven on earth commits this fatal flaw of separating the first and second tables of the law. (Question 3)
Notice in verse 15 the move from first person singular to first person plural, from I-me-my to we-us-our. This is characteristically covenantal, echoed by our Savior when He taught us to pray in the plural: “Our Father in heaven…give us this day ow daily bread…forgive us our debts…lead us not into temptation…but deliver us…:
The liturgical climax of covenantal instruction
How many law-codes do you know that end their prescriptions with an order of worship? Throughout our study of Deuteronomy 12-26 we have seen that Old Testament law is Torah-law. Torah-law is preached legislation and treaty instruction which regulates life between the LoRD who is Israel’s Deliverer-King, and Israel who is His subject vassal-servant.
Torah-content is very important. But we need also to meditate deeply about the form and arrangement of Torah, and about the context of Torah. The fact that the LORD’s tutelage in Deuteronomy’s law-section ends with liturgical instructions teaches us that worship is the crown and goal of obedience. Loving God as Father-King required Israel to be conscious of His presence at mealtimes (clean/unclean foods); to confess His life at the cemetery (shaving hair/cutting flesh); to respect His holiness in military camp (observing habits of hygiene and etiquette). This was whole-hearted, full-time covenantal obedience. Holiness and the antithesis aren’t simply ‘catechism words’ or theological terms, but a way of life. (Question 4)
Don’t ever fall for the silly notion that Old Testament believers practiced an external, formal, impersonal religion or relationship with God. Nothing is further from the truth! Awareness of God’s character and activity was woven into the fabric of Israel’s life. For New Testament believers the difference is that these principles, this divine character and activity, are more clearly and fully revealed, more powerfully displayed, more securely fIxed in Jesus Christ our Lord. It was to Him that Torah led the child Israel, and it is in Him that Torah is fulfilled.
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God (Rom. 12:1–2).
Questions for Reflection and Reply
1. Explain the importance of space and architecture in our worship of God. Illustrate bow the arrangement and decor of a worship center can enhance and detract from biblical worship. Mention architectural features tbat distinguish Protestant from Catholic worship.
2. Mention ways in which our allegiance to Jesus Christ can provide distinctive contributions to modern discussions about the environment. How has Christ’s atonement begun already now to overcome effects of the curse in creation?
3. Explain how love for God is the root of love for neighbor. What happens to neighbor love when it is not rooted in love for God? Should our worship embody love for both God and others? How?
4. This liturgical climax teaches us that “worship is the crown and goal of obedience.” Explain how this claim differs from saying: “Obedience is the crown and goal of worship.” Are both claims true on the basis of Scripture? How does this relate to our earlier statement that covenant blessing proceeds from and returns to the altar?