Question: "What does it mean that man shall not live by bread alone (Deuteronomy 8:3)?"

Answer: After Jesus’ baptism, just before He began His earthly ministry, He was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. The Lord had fasted forty days and nights when Satan came to entice Him to turn stones into loaves of bread. Jesus answered the devil with these famous words: “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4).

To combat the devil’s temptation, Christ drew directly from Deuteronomy 8:3: “He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.”

The meaning of man shall not live by bread alone is best understood in the context of Israel’s desert wandering experience. After years of living as wilderness sojourners, the people prepared to settle down in their own land. God addressed them through Moses in the opening chapters of the book of Deuteronomy. In the first six chapters, the Lord reminded His people of everything He had done to care for them in the past. Then He began to warn the Israelites of potential dangers in their future. In chapter 8, God focused on prosperity as a severe threat that could lull them into a sense of self-satisfaction.

Israel was never to forget the forty years of God’s care in the desert when Yahweh alone had provided food to eat, clothing to wear, and sandals that never wore thin. In their new and prosperous state in the “land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8; Numbers 14:8; Deuteronomy 31:20; Ezekiel 20:15), they might begin to feel self-satisfied, as if somehow they had obtained all these blessings in their own strength.

In the wilderness, God had humbled the Israelites by letting them go hungry. Then He fed them with manna so that they would have to depend on Him alone for daily provision. Manna was a type of food that was previously unknown—no one had ever had manna before (Exodus 16:15). This food symbolized God’s divine intervention to sustain their lives. If they tried to provide for themselves by hoarding manna for the next day, the food always spoiled. Each day and each step of the way, the people had to be fed by Yahweh. Through this wilderness test, the people of Israel came to understand that their survival did not depend on one of God’s gifts alone, whether bread or manna, but on every word that came out of the mouth of God. Their existence depended on obeying every single one of God’s commands.

It is not just food that gives people life. Without God’s divinely given Word, food may not be available. It is not by bread alone that we live, but by everything that comes forth from the mouth of the Lord—that is, anything and everything that God chooses to give us. God alone is the real source of life and everything in that life for His people (John 15:1–5; John 14:6). He is our all in all.

God’s Word, the Scriptures, is life-giving and life-sustaining. Jesus said, “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life” (John 6:63; see also Hebrews 4:12; 2 Timothy 3:16–17).

When Jesus was hungry in the wilderness, Satan tried to get Him to rely on his own self-provision—to turn stones into bread—rather than wait on God’s provision. But Jesus did nothing of His own will: “My food,” said Jesus at another time, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (John 4:34). He relied on every word of God and refused to act independently. Jesus was obedient to the point of death on the cross (Philippians 2:8).

As Moses reminded the people of Israel to depend on the Lord to meet their every need, man shall not live by bread alone ought to remind us to do the same. We owe our blessings and prosperity to God’s divine provision. The trusting obedience the Son of God demonstrated—and which Israel failed at time and time again—we do well to imitate. When we’re hungry or experiencing some form of deprivation, we must depend on God to meet our daily needs and remember to obey His Word. And when life is good and we’re feeling prosperous and blessed, we give thanks to the Lord our God, for it is He who provides us with the ability to obtain wealth (Deuteronomy 8:18). God our Father gives every good and perfect gift (James 1:17) and every spiritual blessing in Christ (Ephesians 1:3).