In Deuteronomy 31, God told Moses and Joshua at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting about the Israelites’ future. He told them they would forsake Him and follow other gods, the gods of the surrounding people. God told Moses and Joshua He would punish the Israelites and would receive them again to Himself if they confessed their sin and returned to Him. When He foretold the Israelites’ future in the doorway to the Tent of Meeting, the Israelites heard God for themselves. They understood this foretelling came from God Himself and not from His representative alone.
At the end of Deuteronomy 31, God told Moses to write all His words in a song and teach it to the Israelites. Deuteronomy 32 is the song Moses wrote in obedience to Him. This song would be sung by the Israelites as a reminder and teaching tool for future generations. It has multiple sections – call to listen, proclamation about the LORD, call to remember their past with the LORD, foretelling of Israelites’ forsaking God, foretelling of God’s actions against the Israelites because of their forsaking Him, teaching about their enemies, God’s teaching about His vengeance and retribution, God’s teaching about Himself, call to rejoice, and a command to heed and follow the laws of God carefully. The final part of the chapter deals with Moses’ death as punishment for breaking faith with God in the wilderness of Zin. As you will know from your studies of the Old Testament, God’s foretelling of the Israelites’ forsaking Him and His judgment on them occurred with the northern and southern kingdoms being conquered by Assyria and Babylon, respectively.
Call to Listen.
As Moses did in the past when he taught the Israelites during their forty years’ wandering, he called the Israelites to hear and listen to the words he spoke. The word, “hear,” once again called the Israelites to shama - hear, listen, and obey. Remember the Hebrew way of thinking taught that one cannot hear without acting upon what one heard. When teachers taught, they expected their hearers to listen and obey what they said. Moses called the Israelites to listen and obey the words of God in this song. He said these words were like fresh rain and pure water, just like the dew on the grass and showers on the herb. Moses’ words were for their nourishment, growth, and delight.
Recall the LORD.
In verses three and four, Moses proclaimed who the LORD was, is, and will be. He said the LORD is great, just, faithful, righteous, and upright. Moses was the first person to describe God as the Rock. His phrasing in verses three and four make up praise songs today. Before Moses told the Israelites what the LORD said the Israelites would do, he reminded them of the supremacy, faithfulness, and righteousness of God.
Moses called aloud, proclaiming the reputation, fame, and glory of the LORD. That is what proclaiming the name of the LORD means. Besides that, Moses gave glory to God because of His greatness – His magnificence and magnitude. No other person or being is as great as God. Moses compared the LORD to a rock – great weight, sturdy, something on which to build for a strong foundation, immovable, and faithful. This Rock, he said, is perfect and complete. Nothing else need be added to it to make it whole and perfect. The LORD the Rock is just and right. All He does and proclaims is correct, upright, and just. The LORD has no bias and administers judgments according to His righteousness. He is faithful to Himself and so is faithful in His dealings with humanity and all creation. Moses reiterated this in verse four for emphasis - God is righteous and upright. He is just - right in conduct and character - and righteous. Because God is these, He administers in these ways.
When compared to God, all humankind pales in comparison because of their sinfulness and lack of faithfulness. Moses pointed this out to the Israelites by reminding them of their own corruption and unfaithfulness. In verse five, he said people are not God’s children because they are corrupt – unjust, unrighteous, and wrong - in their relationship with Him. Moses said humankind is perverse and crooked. They distort the truth and are crooked, contrary to God; thus, they cannot be His children.
After Moses reminded the Israelites they acted this way toward God, just as the rest of humanity did, he asked them a rhetorical question. He said, “Do you thus repay the LORD, O foolish and unwise people? Is not He your Father who has bought you? He has made you and established you.” (vs. 6) The Israelites were sinful just as the rest of humankind is. They were not innately children of God, yet the LORD chose, bought, made, and established them. God chose them to be a people for Himself. Moses said, remember God chose you and made you a people for Himself. Recall, too, that you are no better than the rest of humanity who are sinful, unjust, and unrighteous. Yet God is not these things. He deserves your praise, Moses meant. God is greater than the Israelites who are unjust and unrighteous.
Call to Remember the Past.
Moses called the Israelites to remember their past with the LORD. If they could not recall their relationship with Him, they were to ask their fathers and elders to help them recall the past with the LORD. In verses eight through fourteen, Moses reminded the Israelites of who God had been for them.
God acted for His people, Israel. Moses used many verbs to describe God’s actions toward the nation of Israel. The biggest of these actions for the Israelites was God’s giving the Promised Land to them as their inheritance. Yet, to get to that point, God acted many times for Israel. Moses said He chose Jacob as His people, His allotment. The LORD found them in the howling desert waste and chose them. He encircled, cared for, and guarded them just as an eagle awakes its nest, hovers over, and spreads it wings to catch and carry its young (vs. 10-11). The LORD and no foreign god guided Israel. He lifted them up to enjoy the life and feast of a prince because He, the King, chose them as His people. God ensured they had food such as kings had – fruit from the field, honey, oil, curds, milk, lambs, rams, goats, wheat, and wine (vs. 12-14).
God called them His people. He ensured their safety, led them, and gave them food from His bounty. The LORD did what no god could do. He made Israel/Jacob as a prince. God acted for their good because He chose them to be His people and to receive an inheritance from Him. The LORD showed His faithfulness and uprightness to the Israelites.
Foretelling Israel’s Faithlessness.
Just as Moses used multiple verbs to describe God’s activity in Israel’s past, he used many when he foretold Israel’s future. Verses fifteen through eighteen express the Israelites’ unfaithfulness to the LORD. Moses explained the Israelites would prosper, grow fat, then forget the LORD. When life got easy for them, they would turn their backs on Him because they thought He was unnecessary. The Israelites would do as humankind does, consider they were in a good place and do not need the LORD. The Israelites would do more than forget the LORD; they would intentionally forsake Him. Forsake comes from the Hebrew word natash and means to cast off, abandon, let fall, and reject. The Israelites would choose to leave the LORD. He said they would scorn the Rock of their salvation. Israel would treat the LORD with contempt and consider worshipping Him foolishness. Moses reiterated the intentionality of the Israelites’ actions in verse eighteen. He said they would neglect and forget the Rock. The Israelites’ unfaithfulness was more than just forgetting; it was choosing to neglect and ceasing to care about the LORD – who He is and what He had done in their history.
Moses described the actions the Israelites would do that would show they forsook God. They would go after strange gods. The Israelites would make God angry by doing disgusting and unclean things. [Remember, near the beginning of Deuteronomy, God called the worship of false gods disgusting and an abomination.] The Israelites would sacrifice to demons (false gods), gods whom they have not known and whom their fathers (ancestors) did not revere. Moses taught the Israelites to “know” the LORD, not demons and false gods. [Remember, “know” comes from the Hebrew word yada and means progressively to come to know someone from introduction, to recognizing, perceiving, acknowledging, and confessing a relationship with that person.] As compared to their history with the LORD, in verse seventeen, he said the demons and gods to which the Israelites offered sacrifice were unknown to their forefathers. They had no history with those gods/demons. On the other side, those gods/demons did not provide the Israelites with their inheritance of the Promised Land or the bounty they received from the land and animals.
By turning their backs on the LORD, the Israelites would make the LORD jealous and provoke His wrath. These intentional actions by the Israelites would cause a reaction from God, which comes from His innate righteousness. God’s righteousness requires justice. Justice renders judgment.
Foretelling God’s Judgment.
This section of the song is the longest. It encompasses verses nineteen through forty-two. The dialogue switches back and forth between first and third person with God speaking and Moses saying what God says or will do.
The first segment of this section covers verses nineteen through thirty. In this part of the song, The LORD tells what He will do about the Israelites who forsook Him. First, though, we must notice that God said He would spurn them because of their provocations. He despised and abhorred the Israelites and what they would do. They became abhorrent to the LORD because they forsook Him and followed other gods. When the Israelites came to the Promised Land, the LORD considered the Canaanites and their gods abhorrent and proclaimed the Law of the Ban. That meant the total destruction of the people, their gods, and their places of worship. By spurning the Israelites, the LORD would not be their Rock to protect and provide for them. Their enemies would destroy them.
Considering this, let us look at what the LORD said He would do to/toward the Israelites. He said He would hide His face from them. This means He would not be in their presence to bless or protect them. The LORD would do nothing for them and would not speak to them when they sought Him. He said they made Him jealous so the anger they provoked in Him would make them jealous of other people who are not His people (vs. 21). This would make them angry with those nation. The LORD’s anger would be so great it would extend to the deepest part of Sheol and to the highest mountain while consuming the fruit of the earth and setting the mountains on fire. His fire would consume everything; nothing would go untouched when the Israelites provoked Him by forsaking Him. The LORD’s anger would heap misfortune upon the Israelites, too (vs. 23). His arrows of famine, plague, destruction, wild beasts and crawling things, sword, and terror would beset them. God would show His anger against the Israelites in many forms. They would be consumed totally by things out of the control of man (vs. 24), by other people/nations (sword), and the fear of what people will do (terror). No one would be immune from these destructive forces (vs. 25).
Still, the LORD said, “I would have said, ‘I will cut them to pieces; I will remove them from men’ had I not feared the provocation by the enemy, that their adversaries would misjudge, that they would say, ‘Our hand is triumphant, and the LORD has not done all this.’” (vs. 26) God would have had the people of Israel so scattered that they were unrecognizable as a nation. He would not do this because their oppressors would gloat and take the glory for the defeat of the Israelites for themselves. The Israelites’ enemies would not recognize the LORD gave them into their hands. The LORD did not want Israel’s enemies to think they by themselves were what made them successful over the Israelites and then consider Him weak.
At the end of this section, in verses twenty-eight through thirty, the LORD expressed His sadness about Israel and her lack of wisdom. He said they had no understanding, insight, and knowledge. God wished they were wise and understood the covenant with Him was serious. He desired they understand He was their Rock, the great, mighty, and powerful force of the world. He explained that one person could not pursue a thousand unless the Rock, the LORD, allowed the person and people to rout them. This of itself should have reminded the Israelites their God is the one true God.
The song changed voice in verses thirty-one through thirty-three. Moses wrote in the song a reminder to the Israelites about their enemies. He said their enemies were unlike the Rock. Even their enemies knew that, which implied their enemies understood more than the Israelites. The Israelites’ enemies recognized the Rock was greater than their own rock, their god (vs. 31). Moses continued describing the enemies of Israel by saying their vines and fields are from Sodom and Gomorrah. He reminded them of the most sinful cities of about which they ever received teaching. Even the Israelites’ enemies, who are of the same seed as Sodom and Gomorrah and whose gods are demons and Satan, recognize the Rock – the LORD God – is greater. Moses then described the fruit from these enemies to strengthen his point. He said their grapes are poison and their clusters bitter, like gall. Besides this, “Their wine is the venom of serpents.” (vs. 33) Their wine is chemah the Hebrew language says. Chemah is rage, indignation, wrath, poison, and venom. The enemies of the Israelites know and acknowledge the might of the Rock – the LORD God – is greater than their gods’ might. Even though they flow through with poison, venom, and anger, they acknowledge the Rock. This left the implied question from Moses, “Then why could the Israelites not remain faithful to the LORD the Rock?”
LORD’s Reply to Israel and their Enemies
In verses thirty-four and thirty-five, the voice changes back to first person with God speaking, instead of Moses speaking about God. God said in verse thirty-four the sins of Israel and of their enemies are sealed and stored with Him in His treasuries. He will remember their sin and in due time they would receive judgment and endure their penalty. Job in Job 14:17 used this same expression that of God having stored up his sin. From God’s treasuries come His gifts and judgment. God expressed this in verse thirty-five when he said, “Vengeance is Mine, and in due time their foot will slip, for their day of calamity is near and the impending things are hastening upon them.” God does not forget sins and His judgments will occur.
Questions arise whether these two verses refer to Israel, their enemies, or both groups. Knowing God is just and metes out judgment on every person who sins against Him, we can read this as affecting both groups – Israel and their enemies. The Israelites know of the curses written in their covenant with the LORD should they be unfaithful. They expect them. So the vengeance of God on the sinning Israelites is His punishment for being unfaithful to Him and the covenant. Because the enemies of Israel are the enemies of God and because the Israelites were God’s chosen people, any harm done to them by their enemies would meet with His retribution - the just punishment or recompense for the injury they inflicted upon the Israelites. Should the Israelites or their enemies think God did not see what they did, He was not strong enough to retaliate, or He did not care, God told them in verse thirty-five, “In due time their foot will slip, for their calamity is near and impending.” God’s timing is perfect. He does not forget. Just as God stores up good in His storehouses, He remembers sin and injury, too, and repays in His time. No one escapes the judgment he or she is due from God.
Moses Confirms God’s Judgment
The voice of the song returns to third person in verses thirty-six through thirty-eight. Moses confirmed God’s actions to the Israelites in verse thirty-six. He reasserted the LORD would vindicate His people and have compassion on them. Even though the Israelites reneged on their covenant with God, their chosen-ness by Him did not fall away. They were still His chosen people. When the Israelites’ strength failed and few remained in Israel, God would have compassion and pity upon them. He would break the yoke of oppression their enemies placed on them. Just as Job experienced God’s mercy when he endured much trial, God’s faithfulness to the Israelites did not fail.
Moses continued by saying in verse thirty-seven, “And He will say, ‘Where are their gods, the rock in which they sought refuge?’” The gods with whom the Israelites flirted and whom their enemies worshipped and served did not give refuge to the Israelites. They would not provide a hiding place for the Israelites’ enemies either. Moses relayed God’s taunt of these so-called gods and their shelter from harm. Though the Israelites sought these false gods, they did not protect them. Only God in his mercy would be able to provide compassion for them and safety against their enemies and against His wrath. The gods to whom the Israelites turned could not and would not protect them from the LORD, the Rock, or their enemies.
God Speaks on His Greatness
The final section of this song, verses thirty-nine through forty-two, returns to a first person voice. God spoke about Himself. He proclaimed there is no other god besides Himself, the point Moses made earlier in this song. God said He is the one who “puts to death and gives life.” He said He is the one who wounds and heals. From God’s hand, no one can deliver people. He has supreme control over life and death, safety and harm. When God renders vengeance, no one can touch Him because He is ultimate and almighty. He is in control and when He aims to kill people in vengeance or retribution, His sword will devour flesh, even that of the long-haired leaders of the enemy (leaders who have led many years). God is Alpha and Omega, beginning and end, and has power over life and death. He is ultimate and supreme over any false gods of enemies who try to overtake His people or lead His people astray. God will win out in the end.
Praising Almighty God.
To this proclamation by God and the attesting of His greatness even by the Israelites’ wise enemies, Moses declared praise. He said for the nations and the Israelites to praise God because He will avenge the blood of His people. God will prevail. Moses told them to praise Him because He will exact vengeance on His enemies – the gods and their followers. God will punish the false gods and their followers for the harm they did His people. Moses declared praise to God because He will atone for His land and His people. God will cover over and declare clean the sins of the His people. He will make them one with Him again. God and only God is mighty enough to do these three things – avenge the blood of His servants, render vengeance on His adversaries, and atone for His land and people.
Moses wrote this song declaring God’s greatness, justice, judgment, vengeance, and atoning love for His people. He wrote God’s foretelling of the unfaithfulness of the Israelites and their lack of wisdom and prudence as compared to their enemies. In the end, though, Moses said God’s love for His chosen people is greater and exudes compassion even in their deepest despair. If they returned to Him, He would avenge their blood and captivity on their enemies. Most importantly, Moses told them to praise God because of who He is and for what He has done and will do.
Moses’ Final Words
After Moses wrote this song, he spoke and taught the words of it to the people and Joshua, their next God-appointed leader. He told them,
Take to your heart all the words with which I am warning you today, which you shall command your sons to observe carefully even all the words of this law, for it is not an idle word for you; indeed, it is your life. And by this word you will prolong your days in the land, which you are about to cross the Jordan to possess. (Deuteronomy 32:46-47 [NASB])
Once again, Moses taught the Israelites to keep and observe (obey) the words of God, in which he instructed them. In the Hebrew way of teaching, keeping is hearing, listening, and obeying. They were to obey the words of God and be faithful to the covenant they made with Him. Moses explained to the Israelites the foretelling in the song was serious and they would be wise to heed what God said He would do about their disobedience and unfaithfulness to Him. Moses reminded the Israelites their continued possession of the Promised Land would occur if they remained faithful to their covenant with the LORD by obeying His laws. The LORD would prolong their days in the land and make them prosperous as His blessings in chapter twenty-eight explained if they were faithful to their covenant with Him.
The LORD’s Judgment in Due Time
Just as the LORD spoke about His judgment occurring to the Israelites and their enemies in His due time, Moses’ judgment by God for his sin at Meribah-kadesh came in God’s due time. That time was at this moment in Moses’ life, before the Israelites crossed the Jordan River. The rest of this chapter, verses forty-eight through fifty-two, contain God’s final words and command to Moses.
The LORD told Moses to go to Mount Nebo and look at the land of Canaan. He told him earlier in Numbers 27 he would not enter the Promised Land because of his sin against Him. Moses expected this. After Moses saw the Promised Land, but did not enter it, the LORD required his death while reminding him of Aaron’s death. God reminded him why he received this judgment. Moses received this judgment from God because he did not treat Him as holy before the Israelites at Meribah-kadesh in Zin. At that place, God told Moses to speak to the rock and it would yield its water for them to drink. Instead, Moses struck the rock and did not proclaim the LORD gave them the water. He took the glory for himself (Numbers 20:1-12, and Numbers 27:14).
Notice God was not without compassion throughout this chapter. He said He would show compassion on His servants when He sought His vengeance upon their enemies. The LORD showed compassion to Moses at the end by allowing him to see the Promised Land toward which he led the wandering and wayward Israelites for forty years. Notice, though, the Israelites, like every one of us, often only recognized God’s compassion and need for it when they were in dire straits. God foretold they would fall away from Him with their disobedience and unfaithfulness to Him. He told them their enemies, who recognized the LORD their Rock was greater than their gods, would destroy them. Yet in the midst of this fateful and dismal foretelling, God offered comfort and compassion to the Israelites. He explained once again that His heart would still go out to them because He chose them to be His people. Because of that, God would not allow them to be totally annihilated. For God’s goodness and greatness, the Israelites should praise Him, but they, like us today, often missed this aspect of God until it was gone and they were in desperation.
Relevance and Conclusion
Today when reading this chapter, it should take us to the place where we recognize the Lord just as Moses taught the Israelites to recognize and worship Him. However, so many of us get to a good place in our lives and become lax in our regard and worship of God. Often, it takes hard times for us to come back to Him – to realize He is all-powerful and we need Him.
Today we need to come to the place in our lives where we recognize daily, whether in good or hard times, the Lord is the one and only God almighty Who deserves our praise. We must determine to recognize Him no matter what place in life we inhabit. God does not change when our life situations change. Unfortunately, our view of Him does. We must come to the point where our relationship with the Lord is so profound and deep nothing can shake us from loving and worshipping Him – during bountiful or spare times. Our love relationship with God must go below our feelings to the depth of our beings so that with each breath we take, our being – our spirit- praises the Lord and recognizes reliance upon Him.
The question remains: Is your relationship with God just a surface relationship or is it profoundly and innately deep to the depths of your being?