Question: "What does "I set before you life and death" mean in Deuteronomy 30:19?"
Answer: God sets life and death before His people, Israel, at the borders of the Promised Land. As all people do, the children of Israel had a choice: they could obey God or disobey Him. One choice would lead to life, and the other choice would lead to death.
Deuteronomy is Moses’ farewell address to the people of Israel at the end of his life. The people had been in “wandering” the wilderness for approximately 40 years as the generation of unbelieving Israelites who had refused to enter the land died off (see Numbers 14). The only ones who survived were under 20 years old at the time of Israel’s refusal, and there are many other Israelites who were born during the ensuing years so they had not personally witnessed the plagues in Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, or the spectacular display of God’s power and glory at the giving of the Law. Moses reminds them of these things and of what God expects from them.
In Deuteronomy 28, Moses outlines the blessings for obedience and the curses for disobedience. In chapters 29 and 30, he further warns the people about what will happen if they abandon their covenant with the Lord but also promises that, when they do, they can be forgiven if they return to Him in repentance. In Deuteronomy 30, Moses promises that, when they repent, “the Lord your God will put all these curses on your enemies who hate and persecute you. You will again obey the Lord and follow all his commands I am giving you today. Then the Lord your God will make you most prosperous in all the work of your hands and in the fruit of your womb, the young of your livestock and the crops of your land. The Lord will again delight in you and make you prosperous, just as he delighted in your ancestors, if you obey the Lord your God and keep his commands and decrees that are written in this Book of the Law and turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (verses 7–10).
Then Moses calls on the people to renew the covenant and personally commit to follow the Lord. It is in this context that he says, “Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’ No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it. See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess” (Deuteronomy 30:11–18, emphasis added).
Simply put, if Israel obeys and follows the Lord, they will have life and blessing. If they disobey and forsake Him, they will experience death and destruction. God set before His people a choice: life or death, based on the conditions of the Old Covenant. We see the consequences of death and destruction playing out in the rest of the Old Testament with very few bright spots.
Although the terms of the Old Covenant were specifically for Israel in the Promised Land and are not applied to all humanity today, the choice is still very much the same. God still sets life and death before us. Romans 6:23 tells us that “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Those who accept Christ by faith will experience eternal life and blessing, while those who reject Him will experience eternal death and destruction (John 3:18). There is a clear choice with eternal consequences.