The Gift of Prophecy. - The Levitical priests, as the stated guardians and promoters of the law, had to conduct all the affairs of Israel with the Lord, not only instructing the people out of the law concerning the will of God, but sustaining and promoting the living fellowship with the Lord both of individuals and of the whole congregation, by the offering of sacrifices and service at the altar. But if the covenant fellowship with Himself and His grace, in which Jehovah had placed Israel as His people of possession, was to be manifested and preserved as a living reality amidst all changes in the political development of the nation and in the circumstances of private life, it would not do for the revelations from God to cease with the giving of the law and the death of Moses. For, as Schultz observes, “however the revelation of the law might aim at completeness, and even have regard to the more remote circumstances of the future, as, for example, where the king is referred to; yet in the transition from extraordinary circumstances into a more settled condition, which it foretells in Deu 17:14, and which actually took place under Samuel when the nation grew older (Deu 4:25), and in the decline and apostasy which certainly awaited it according to Deu 31:16-29, when false prophets should arise, by whom they were in danger of being led astray (Deu 13:2 and Deu 18:20), as well as in the restoration which would follow after the infliction of punishment (Deu 4:29-30; Deu 30:1.); in all these great changes which awaited Israel from inward necessity, the revelation of the will of the Lord which they possessed in the law would nevertheless be insufficient.” The priesthood, with its ordinances, would not suffice for that. As the promise of direct communications from God through the Urim and Thummim of the high priest was restricted to the single circumstance of the right of the whole congregation being endangered, and did not extend to the satisfaction of the religious necessities of individuals, it could afford no godly satisfaction to that desire for supernatural knowledge which arose at times in the hearts of individuals, and for which the heathen oracles made such ample provision in ungodly ways. If Israel therefore was to be preserved in faithfulness towards God, and attain the end of its calling as the congregation of the Lord, it was necessary that the Lord should make known His counsel and will at the proper time through the medium of prophets, and bestow upon it in sure prophetic words what the heathen nations endeavoured to discover and secure by means of augury and soothsaying. This is the point of view from which Moses promises the sending of prophets in Deu 18:15-18, and lays down in Deu 18:19-22 the criteria for distinguishing between true and false prophets, as we may clearly see from the fact that in Deu 18:9-14 he introduces this promise with a warning against resorting to heathen augury, soothsaying, and witchcraft.
When Israel came into the land of Canaan, it was “not to learn to do like the abominations of these nations” (the Canaanites or heathen). There was not to be found in it any who caused his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, i.e., any worshipper of Moloch (see at Lev 18:21), or one who practised soothsaying (see at Num 23:23), or a wizard (see at Lev 19:26), or a snake-charmer (see at Lev 19:26), or a conjurer, or one who pronounced a ban (חֶבֶר חֹבֵר, probably referring to the custom of binding or banning by magical knots), a necromancer and wise man (see at Lev 19:31), or one who asked the dead, i.e., who sought oracles from the dead. Moses groups together all the words which the language contained for the different modes of exploring the future and discovering the will of God, for the purpose of forbidding every description of soothsaying, and places the prohibition of Moloch-worship at the head, to show the inward connection between soothsaying and idolatry, possibly because februation, or passing children through the fire in the worship of Moloch, was more intimately connected with soothsaying and magic than and other description of idolatry.
Whoever did this was an abomination to the Lord, and it was because of this abomination that He rooted out the Canaanites before Israel (cf. Lev 18:24.).
Israel, on the other hand, was to be blameless with Jehovah (עִם, in its intercourse with the Lord). Though the heathen whom they exterminated before them hearkened to conjurers and soothsayers, Jehovah their God had not allowed anything of the kind to them. וְאַתָּה is placed first as a nominative absolute, for the sake of emphasis: “but thou, so far as thou art concerned, not so.” כֵּן, thus, just so, such things (cf. Exo 10:14). נָתַן, to grant, to allow (as in Gen 20:6, etc.).
“A prophet out of the midst of thee, out of thy brethren, as I am, will Jehovah thy God raise up to thee; to him shall ye hearken.” When Moses thus attaches to the prohibition against hearkening to soothsayers and practising soothsaying, the promise that Jehovah would raise up a prophet, etc., and contrasts what the Lord would do for His people with what He did not allow, it is perfectly evident from this simple connection alone, apart from the further context of the passage, in which Moses treats of the temporal and spiritual rulers of Israel (ch. 17 and 18), that the promise neither relates to one particular prophet, nor directly and exclusively to the Messiah, but treats of the sending of prophets generally. And this is also confirmed by what follows with reference to true and false prophets, which presupposes the rise of a plurality of prophets, and shows most incontrovertibly that it is not one prophet only, nor the Messiah exclusively, who is promised here. It by no means follows from the use of the singular, “a prophet,” that Moses is speaking of one particular prophet only; but the idea expressed is this, that at any time when the people stood in need of a mediator with God like Moses, God would invariably send a prophet. The words, “out of the midst of thee, of thy brethren,” imply that there would be no necessity for Israel to turn to heathen soothsayers or prophets, but that it would find the men within itself who would make known the word of the Lord. The expression, “like unto me,” is explained by what follows in Deu 18:16-18 with regard to the circumstances, under which the Lord had given the promise that He would send a prophet. It was at Sinai; when the people were filled with mortal alarm, after hearing the ten words which God addressed to them out of the fire, and entreated Moses to act as mediator between the Lord and themselves, that God might not speak directly to them any more. At that time the Lord gave the promise that He would raise up a prophet, and put His words into his mouth, that he might speak to the people all that the Lord commanded (cf. Deu 5:20.). The promised prophet, therefore, was to resemble Moses in this respect, that he would act as mediator between Jehovah and the people, and make known the words or the will of the Lord. Consequently the meaning contained in the expression “like unto me” was not that the future prophet would resemble Moses in all respect, - a meaning which has been introduced into it through an unwarrantable use of Num 12:6-8; Deu 34:10, and Heb 3:2, Heb 3:5, for the purpose of proving the direct application of the promise to the Messiah alone, to the exclusion of the prophets of the Old Testament. If the resemblance of the future prophet to Moses, expressed in the words “like unto me,” be understood as indicating the precise form in which God revealed Himself to Moses, speaking with him mouth to mouth, and not in a dream or vision, a discrepancy is introduced between this expression and the words which follow in Deu 18:18, “I will put My words in his mouth;” since this expresses not the particular mode in which Moses received the revelations from God, in contrast with the rest of the prophets, but simply that form of divine communication or inspiration which was common to all the prophets (vid., Jer 1:9; Jer 5:14).
But whilst we are obliged to give up the direct and exclusive reference of this promise to the Messiah, which was the prevailing opinion in the early Church, and has been revived by Kurtz, Auberlen, and Tholuck, as not in accordance with the context or the words themselves, we cannot, on the other hand, agree with v. Hoffmann, Baur, and Knobel, in restricting the passage to the Old Testament prophets, to the exclusion of the Messiah. There is no warrant for this limitation of the word “prophet,” since the expectation of the Messiah was not unknown to Moses and the Israel of his time, but was actually expressed in the promise of the seed of the woman, and Jacob's prophecy concerning Shiloh; so that O. v. Gerlach is perfectly right in observing, that “this is a prediction of Christ as the true Prophet, precisely like that of the seed of the woman in Gen 3:15.” The occasion, also, on which Moses received the promise of the “prophet” from the Lord, which he here communicated to the people, - namely, when the people desired a mediator between themselves and the Lord at Sinai, and this desire on their part was pleasing to the Lord, - shows that the promise should be understood in the full sense of the words, without any limitation whatever; that is to say, that Christ, in whom the prophetic character culminated and was completed, is to be included. Even Ewald admits, that “the prophet like unto Moses, whom God would raise up out of Israel and for Israel, can only be the true prophet generally;” and Baur also allows, that “historical exposition will not mistake the anticipatory reference of this expression to Christ, which is involved in the expectation that, in the future completion of the plan of salvation, the prophetic gift would form an essential element.” And lastly, the comparison instituted between the promised prophet and Moses, compels us to regard the words as referring to the Messiah. The words, “like unto me,” “like unto thee,” no more warrant us in excluding the Messiah on the one hand, than in excluding the Old Testament prophets on the other, since it is unquestionably affirmed that the prophet of the future would be as perfectly equal to his calling as Moses was to his,
(Note: Let any one paraphrase the passage thus: “A prophet inferior indeed to me, but yet the channel of divine revelations,” and he will soon feel how unsuitable it is” (Hengstenberg).)
- that He would carry out the mediation between the Lord and the people in the manner and the power of Moses. In this respect not one of the Old Testament prophets was fully equal to Moses, as is distinctly stated in Deu 34:10. All the prophets of the Old Testament stood within the sphere of the economy of the law, which was founded through the mediatorial office of Moses; and even in their predictions of the future, they simply continued to build upon the foundation which was laid by Moses, and therefore prophesied of the coming of the servant of the Lord, who, as the Prophet of all prophets, would restore Jacob, and carry out the law and right of the Lord to the nations, even to the end of the world (Isa 42; 49; 40; Isa 61:1-11). This prophecy, therefore, is very properly referred to Jesus Christ in the New Testament, as having been fulfilled in Him. Not only had Philip this passage in his mind when he said to Nathanael, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the law did write, Jesus of Nazareth,” whilst Stephen saw the promise of the prophet like unto Moses fulfilled in Christ (Act 7:37); but Peter also expressly quotes it in Act 3:22-23, as referring to Christ; and even the Lord applies it to Himself in Joh 5:45-47, when He says to the Jews, “Moses, in whom ye trust, will accuse you; for if ye believed Moses, ye would also believe Me: for Moses wrote of Me.” In Joh 12:48-50, again, the reference to Deu 18:18 and Deu 18:19 of this chapter is quite unmistakeable; and in the words, “hear ye Him” which were uttered from the cloud at the transfiguration of Jesus (Mat 17:5), the expression in Deu 18:15, “unto Him shall ye hearken,” is used verbatim with reference to Christ. Even the Samaritans founded their expectation of the Messiah (Joh 4:25) upon these words of Moses.
(Note: On the history of the exposition of this passage, see Hengstenberg's Christology.)
With this assurance the Lord had fully granted the request of the people, “according to all that thou desiredst of the Lord thy God;” and Israel, therefore, was all the more bound to hearken to the prophets, whom God would raise up from the midst of itself, and not to resort to heathen soothsayers. (On the fact itself, comp. Deu 5:20. with Exo 20:15-17.) “In the day of the assembly,” as in Deu 9:10; Deu 10:4. - The instructions as to their behaviour towards the prophets are given by Moses (Deu 18:19, Deu 18:20) in the name of the Lord, for the purpose of enforcing obedience with all the greater emphasis. Whoever did not hearken to the words of the prophet who spoke in the name of the Lord, of him the Lord would require it, i.e., visit the disobedience with punishment (cf. Psa 10:4, Psa 10:13). On the other hand, the prophet who spoke in the name of the Lord what the Lord had not commanded him, i.e., proclaimed the thoughts of his own heart as divine revelations (cf. Num 16:28), should die, like the prophet who spoke in the name of other gods. With וּמֵת, the predicate is introduced in the form of an apodosis.
The false prophet was to be discovered by the fact, that the word proclaimed by him did not follow or come to pass, i.e., that his prophecy was not fulfilled. Of him they were not to be afraid. By this injunction the occurrence of what had been predicted is made the criterion of true prophecy, and not signs and wonders, which false prophets could also perform (cf. Deu 13:2.).