Deuteronomy in the Coronavirus

I’ve been studying the book of Deuteronomy lately and have been thinking about how it relates to the coronavirus. Here is something I was thinking about a lot about last week!


 

All the books of the Old Testament retain their relevance to New Testament believers today. How this plays out, and to what degree, varies with each book, but the general principle holds. This is because the NT is the fulfillment of the promises, typology, and ethical ideals of the OT—the fullness of the times (Gal. 4:4). Karl Barth calls the years A.D. 1-30, “the era of revelation and disclosure… which… sets forth the new and strange and divine definition of all time.”[1] These first decades of the NT era brought the OT to its final and permanent form of relevance.

Deuteronomy holds a privileged place in this hierarchy of relevance. Think about it: it contains the greatest commandment (6:4-5), the greatest type (8:7-9)[2], some of the greatest principles (8:3; 10:16; 30:11-14), and one of the greatest prophecies (18:15). Like Isaiah, it embodies an almost NT ethos. Witness Lee underscored this when he said, “Although Deuteronomy is one of the books of the law, its spirit and spiritual principle match the present age of grace.”[3]

J. Gary Millar goes as far as saying, “The message of Deuteronomy take[s] us to the very heart of Biblical theology… [and] it is unmatched in its relevance for the affluent western church of today.”[4]

Deuteronomy is always relevant. But this week I’ve been thinking about how Deuteronomy is particularly relevant for life in “the Time of the Virus.”

Do not fear

Jehovah your God has set the land before you; go up, possess it… Do not fear, neither be dismayed. (Deut. 1:21)

Deuteronomy brings us to the border of the good land that God promised to give Abraham back in Genesis 12. This is the narrative arc of the Pentateuch reaching its climax—entering the good land. Everything is set for God’s promise to become the people’s possession. The only problem is, the good land is enemy territory. It is occupied by seven nations who are bigger and stronger than Israel and who are ready to eat them up like grasshoppers.

When God’s people see what they are up against, they are afraid. Sounds like a logical response, right? What’s wrong with being afraid when you’re staring down the spear tips of 7 armies? A lot, actually. Fear prevented them from receiving what God had promised.

Fear paralyzes our pursuit of God’s promises

No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear. –Edmund Burke[5]

God tells the people: don’t fear, don’t be dismayed. To be dismayed is to experience loss of enthusiasm, resolution, and courage; to be deprived of confidence, hope, or spirit (American Heritage Dictionary).

This is something we can all relate to in the face of the coronavirus. One article I recently read put it like this: “Reading the news (or often editorials) surrounding COVID-19 is an invitation to paralyzing, destabilizing, debilitating terror.” Each day the forecast is gloomy and menacing. The death toll rises. The economy tanks. The government flounders.

(Although rays of light still break through, like Italians singing to each other on their balconies.)

Fear is a disorienting and destabilizing emotion. It activates a fight-or-flight, self-preservation mode where we hoard toilet paper and look at our neighbors as a threat if they cough.

Inducing fear is also a major strategy of the devil. Fear is his calling card.[6]

In his book, The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis imagines a senior demon writing letters of advice to a young apprentice. At one point the demon writes,

There is nothing like suspense and anxiety for barricading a human’s mind against the Enemy [God]. He wants men to be concerned with what they do; our business is to keep them thinking about what will happen to them.[7]

I’ve noticed that the more I get caught in the undertow of endless news updates and Twitter threads, it is hard to rejoice in the Lord. Fear and dismay short-circuit faith, hope, and love. They secretly colonize my mental space, and my mind is running all day on month-long projections and it’s hard to create room in my heart for the daily, quiet, unrushed spiritual habits that are the oxygen to being in Christ.

If we are experientially drawn out of our union with Christ for very long then the Christian life suffocates.

Karl Barth said this about the importance of that little phrase in Christ:

To be a Christian is per definitionem [by definition] to be in Christ. The place of the community as such, the theatre of their history, the ground on which they stand, the air that they breathe, and therefore the standard of what they do and do not do, is indicated by this expression. Being in Christ is the a priori of all the instruction that Paul gives his churches, all the comfort and exhortation he addresses to them.[8]

God called Israel into a physical realm. God has called us into a divine and mystical realm—the all-inclusive Christ.[9] The problem with fear is it hinders us from pressing into Christ, abiding in Him, and enjoying all His riches. It can weaken our trust in God, who can seem very abstract and impractical at times like this (“Pray? We need to DO something”). And it hinders us from loving our neighbor well because we put our own needs and concerns first.

This is where Deuteronomy comes in. God tells His people multiple times “Do not fear!”

The Realism Remains

Of course, this doesn’t neuter the risk or the realism—Israelites still die in battle in the OT. “Don’t fear” doesn’t mean nothing bad will happen. It isn’t a promise of “skies always blue.” It isn’t an incantation to ward off harm.

And it shouldn’t foster naive optimism or a lack of carefulness. Temporarily canceling in-person church gatherings isn’t driven by fear but by carefulness. Watchman Nee said “It is wrong to be fearful, but it is also important to be careful.”[10] He said this while preaching on the letter to the church in Smyrna: “Do not fear the things you are about to suffer” (Rev. 2:10). Notice: it doesn’t say, “Don’t fear because you won’t suffer from this.” The realism remains.

So “don’t fear” doesn’t equal divine immunity. But it does remind us that God hasn’t lost control of His universe or forgotten His people.

Maybe God repeats this line so many times across the grain of the Bible precisely because He knows how easily shaken we are, how quickly fear and anxiety can set in, how frequently we totter on the brink of the abyss.

These verses then are not meant to prevent us from ever falling into fear. They are meant to meet us in our fear and pull us out of it. They’re not a fence; they’re an outstretched arm (Deut. 7:18-19).[11] Because when you’re sinking in quicksand, you can’t pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.[12] You need to grab onto something outside yourself.

Three Reasons not to Fear

Deuteronomy doesn’t just give us bald statements like “do not fear”; it gives us compelling reasons not to.

God’s Promise

Enter the land which Jehovah your God is giving you, a land flowing with milk and honey, as Jehovah, the God of your fathers, promised to you. (Deut. 27:3)

God had promised the people that He would bring them into the good land. God has promised us that He will bring us fully into Christ (1 Cor. 1:9).

God’s promises are as unshakable as His being, on which they depend. If God has said something, He will do it. In fact, the very reason God antes up His word to the level of promise, oath, and covenant is to fill US with encouragement and anchor our soul with hope (Heb. 6:13-19). No environmental wave can overwhelm God’s word.

Not one word of all His good promises which He spoke through Moses His servant has failed. (1 Kings 8:56)

I’ve always loved this next quote from Lee. He’s imagining how Noah must have felt after the flood the next time he saw dark storm clouds building on the horizon, and how he didn’t need to fear because God had promised never to flood the earth again.

There is a verse for every circumstance that you face… regardless of what happens to you, there is a verse as a living promise for you to rely upon and live by. We all need to learn how to live under God’s covenant. We should not be threatened or frightened by the clouds of our convictions, feelings, and environments… We are the covenanted people, and we have a verse of promise to meet every situation.[13]

God’s Presence

Be strong and take courage; do not fear, neither be terrified of them, for it is Jehovah your God who goes with you; He will not fail you nor forsake you. (Deut. 31:6)

God not only promises from afar, but joins His people in the wilderness and in the battle. God’s presence is our greatest need in times of suffering and bewilderment and existential dread. God doesn’t dispatch a third party to comfort us while He manages the workings of the solar system. God isn’t too busy to attend to His needy children. He doesn’t have other work to take care of.

I read this five years ago and it still comes back to me: “God has come into our world in its utter unloveliness and frightfulness.”[14] He steps into the “welter and waste” of a chaotic, sinful world adrift from its divine moorings.[15] The two great promises that drive the Bible and define it, like an ellipse, are about God’s nearness: God WITH us (Matt. 1:21), and then God IN us (John 14:17).

Moses tells us that no other nation on earth has been privileged with the utter nearness of God WHENEVER we call on Him:

For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as Jehovah our God is whenever we call upon Him? (Deut. 4:7)

God’s Care

He found him in a land of wilderness, and in a howling desert waste; He encircled him, cared for him with all attention; He guarded him like the pupil of His eye. (Deut. 32:10)

God doesn’t just promise things or come into our lives like a force or abstract presence. He cares for us with all His attention.

I love the vividness of this verse with its howling winds and wastelands, our implied helplessness after we lost our way in the storm (“he found him”), the divine sensitivity God experiences (like touching His eye), and the protective sheltering He affords (“encircled him”). Whatever touches and affects us, touches and affects Him.

So while the coronavirus rages across the world, let us hold on to God’s promises, call on God for His presence, and shelter in His encircling care. We don’t fear, not because we are guaranteed to come out unscathed, but because God has not abandoned His people and He will not fail to accomplish His purpose.

 


 

1. Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 6th ed., p. 29
2. Witness Lee, The All-inclusive Christ, p. 182
3. Lee, CWWL 1960, 1:397
4. J. Gary Millar, Now Choose Life: Theology and Ethics in Deuteronomy, p. 11
5. Edmund Burke, “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful,” The Works of Edmund Burke, Vol. 1, p. 55
6. Watchman Nee, CWWN 50:733
7. C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Ch. 6
8. Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.2, p. 277
9. Lee, The Divine and Mystical Realm, Ch. 3; The All-Inclusive Christ, Ch. 1
10. Nee, CWWN 4:340
11. Deuteronomy has the most references in the Bible to God’s outstretched arm of deliverance (6x)
12. Warren Dunham Foster, “From the Grip of the San Juan,” The Youth’s Companion, 86.36 (1912), p. 457
13. Lee, Life-Study of Genesis, p. 437
14. Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, p. 109
15. This is Robert Alter’s translation of part of Genesis 1:1.

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