With the defeat of Og of Bashan and Sihon of Heshbon, Israel was poised on the east bank of the Jordan to enter Canaan. Moses led a covenant renewal ceremony in which he explained the commandments, ordinances, and statutes of the Law. This included ordinances given at Mount Sinai and those given during the forty years that Israel wandered in the wilderness. These ordinances and statutes are the crown jewels of Israel. Israel's careful observance of them will reveal to the surrounding nations the chosen people's wisdom and understanding. No other nation has statutes and ordinances so righteous as those given by Yahweh to Israel (Deut 4:5-8). These are words of life.
But life is not found in outward adherence to sacrificial, dietary, or social ordinances and statutes. Thus Yahweh demands of Israel, "Who asked you for this multitude of sacrifices, new moon, and Sabbath ceremonies" (Isa 1:11-15). The answer, of course, is Yahweh himself. But God cannot tolerate iniquity and religious ritual. God is not fooled when the wicked recite the statutes of the covenant (Psalm 50:16). When the wicked perform the required sacrificial ordinances of the Law they might as well be offering swine's blood or committing murder (Isa 66:3-4). The apostle Paul states that the work of Christ has abolished the law of commandments and ordinances (Eph 2:15). The author of Hebrews explains how the levitical priesthood and its ordinances were temporary and have been superseded by the work of Jesus. He also reveals that all of God's saints have been saved by faith. God repudiates any attempt to use the ordinances to manipulate Him (chaps. 9-11).
Yet the ordinances and statutes are still words of life. Isaiah and James give the same solution to the faithless observance of outward forms: cease to do evil, learn to do good, seek justice, correct oppression, defend the fatherless, plead for the widow (Isa 1:16-17; James 1:27). The ordinances and statutes reveal God's will and his understanding of what it means to do good, seek justice, and correct oppression. Psalm 119 beautifully illustrates the wisdom and joy of meditating on ordinances, statutes, commands, and judgments. They are a part of the canon and not to be neglected.
The Israelites made no distinction between ritual or procedural ordinances and legal or moral statutes. They are equally a part of Israel's covenant with God. To neglect one or the other was to court disaster. To observe them carefully was to court God's blessings on the individual and the community (Deut 28). God's desire for his ordinances and statutes remains unchanged as is made clear in the quote of Jeremiah 31:33-34 in Hebrews 10:16-17: "I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds."
Mark D. McLean
See also Command, Commandment; Decrees; Law