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The Heart of the Law

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If you were asked what the heart of the law is, how would you answer? It might depend on what we mean by the law. It can be narrowly defined as the commands given at Sinai (Exodus 20) or the whole legal corpus spanning from there through Deuteronomy.

The law, or Torah, can also refer to the first five books of the Bible, also called the Pentateuch, a Greek word that means “five volumes.” In searching for the heart of the Torah, we might consider the major themes of each of the five Books of Moses. There are clues in their names.

Genesis is about beginnings, foundations of faith in God, Creator and Covenant-Maker. Genesis 15:6 is a key text: “And [Abraham] believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness” (see “Spotlight on Genesis,” p. 7).

Exodus is about deliverance. Israel learns that the Lord who redeems also commands. Exodus 20:2, 3 is a central text: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt . . . You shall have no other gods before Me.”

Leviticus covers the Levites’ service in the sanctuary and the holiness required of God’s people. Leviticus 11:45 is a key text: “For I am the Lord who brings you up out of the land of Egypt . . . You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.”

Numbers gives the count, and account, of Israel in her wanderings and temptations. Numbers 14:11 is a key text: “How long will these people reject Me? And how long will they not believe Me, with all the signs which I have performed among them?”

Second law

From these four books of Moses arise legitimate themes at the heart of the Torah: faith, deliverance, commandment, holiness, temptation. But what of the last book, Deuteronomy? This name comes from a Greek word meaning “the second law.” It is not another law, but, as capstone of the Pentateuch, it restates for the lay Israelite Sinai’s revelation in the context of covenant renewal before Israel enters Canaan.

Covenant is a key theme of Deuteronomy (appearing over twenty-five times), but it goes all the way back to the fathers (7:12; 8:18; Genesis 15, 17). Moses pleads with the people to keep and not forget God’s covenant with the nation (Deuteronomy 4:21, 31; 5:2). Two key texts stand out as the heart of Deuteronomy:

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (6:4, 5).

“And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord and His statutes which I command you today for your good?” (10:12, 13).

Since Torah (Hebrew: instruction) carries the full weight of law with all of its legal sanctions, it is sometimes denigrated to being a cold, legalistic code interested only in outward works. But verses like these challenge that view. God is the Lawgiver (James 4:12), but He’s not a legalist. Deuteronomy reveals that the heart of the law and covenant is, well, the heart! It is mentioned nearly fifty times in Deuteronomy.

New hearts

In the two texts above we note the pairing of heart and love (see also 11:13; 13:3; 30:6). God desires that covenant relationship, and the obedience it entails, proceed from hearts in love with Him. This overarching concern for authentic heart love animates Deuteronomy’s message and the Torah as a whole.

This concern is seen when God instructs Israel to work on her heart: “circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be stiff-necked no longer” (10:16). Sadly, she will not. Moses predicts that Israel will break the covenant and go into captivity. Yet right here in Deuteronomy, a new covenant work is promised after the Exile. God will do what Israel would not:

“And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (30:6).

It turns out that the heart of the law is a heart of love. Ultimately, the law couldn’t fulfill what it commanded, but the new covenant does! God comes for our hearts — and writes His law upon them (Jeremiah 31:33; cf. Hebrews 8:10; 10:16).

Love is law

How would Jesus answer our question about the heart of the law? Well, He did. When asked what the greatest commandment in the law was, He cites Deuteronomy 6:4 and Leviticus 19:18: love God and neighbor. Jesus adds, “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:34-40). Heart-love sums it all up.

How would Paul answer the question? Well, he did too. He writes, “He who loves another has fulfilled the law. . . . For all the law is fulfilled in one word . . . love . . .” (Romans 13:8; Galatians 5:14). That’s the heart of it. James agrees (2:8).

We’ve come full circle to our question with a decisive answer. The old and new covenants agree: The heart of the law is a heart of love. It only remains for us to examine our hearts, to live for God and one another as our hearts grow in love by the grace of God in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.

Let’s give Deuteronomy the last word — a word for us too: “Oh, that they had such a heart in them that they would fear Me and always keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them and with their children forever!” (5:29). Amen!

Jason Overman
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Jason Overman is Editor of Publications of the Bible Advocate Press. After 24 years in the publishing industry (in sales and management) with the Harrison Daily Times, Jason left his general manager’s position to join the BAP family in 2015. He has served in ministry for 30 years and currently pastors the Church of God (Seventh Day) in Jasper, Arkansas, with his wife, Stephanie, and two children, Tabitha and Isaac. Jason enjoys spending time with family and friends, traveling, reading theology, playing his guitar, and taking in the beautiful Ozark Mountains he calls home.