In the middle of commissioning Joshua in Chapter 31, God says something very interesting to Moses. He tells him in verses 16-18 that after Moses dies the people will forsake God and will be punished with many evils and troubles. Then in verse 19 He says, “Now therefore, write this song for yourselves, and teach it to the sons of Israel; put it on their lips, in order that this song may be a witness for Me against the sons of Israel.” God wants Moses to write a song that Israel will remember when they are in the midst of God’s punishment. He wants a song to serve as a witness against the people such that they will understand their situation and come to their senses and return to Him.
How odd is it that God decides it is time for a song? He asks Moses and Joshua to appear before Him, but instead of speaking to Joshua He tells Moses the people will forsake the covenant after he dies – not exactly encouraging words to Joshua (though likely not surprising, either) – so he must write a song to testify against them. It is only after God commissions the song that He commissions Joshua.
To understand this seemingly random command we must remember the importance memory (remember memory) plays in God’s instructions to the people. All through the wilderness Moses and God have warned the people not to forget all that God has done and not forget the Law and the statutes. God has had them build memorials, He instituted feasts and celebrations that must be observed each year, He wrote the Law in stone and placed it in the Ark of the Covenant – all so they would not forget the covenant and their devotion to Him. When the people go astray in the future it will be said of them that they forgot the ways of their fathers and forsook the God their fathers worshiped.
The song, then, becomes another instrument God uses to prevent that from happening. He knows songs are more easily remembered and more easily taught to subsequent generations. Something sung or recited tends to be retained. A song that clearly lays out the ramifications of disobedience will teach and remind the one who sings it. God says in verse 21, “Then it shall come about, when many evils and troubles have come upon them, that this song will testify before them as a witness (for it shall not be forgotten from the lips of their descendants); for I know their intent which they are developing today, before I have brought them into the land which I swore.” A just and loving God commissions a song that will someday cause His straying people – when they remember it – to understand their disobedience, gain hope and return to Him.
The song itself is not exactly catchy. It is not a song that lends itself to singing from a 21st century perspective. It is, however, written in poetic form and to a people accustomed to memorizing long passages. It also may be recited rather than sung. Note in 31:30 that Moses speaks – not sings – the words of the song to the people. Regardless of how it strikes the western ear, it is a song the people will remember – since God says they will – and God will use.
Moses calls heaven and earth to witness what he is about to say. This is the same phrase he has used before to show that he is warning the people beforehand that the ramifications of breaking the covenant are harsh. They will have no excuse when they disobey.
He states his desire that the effect of the song is positive. He says the teaching in it should drop as rain, distill as dew, be like droplets on the fresh grass and showers on the herb. All these metaphors are positive and pleasant – he wants the message of the song to be good and to ultimately give hope. God is good and will not forsake His people.
The reason the song is important is because God is great and His name must be proclaimed. He is the Rock and His work is perfect and all His ways are just. He is a God of faithfulness and without injustice, righteous and upright is He. Regardless of the people’s actions and regardless of their punishment, they must remember that God is great and just and perfect. He will punish them because He is just and will bring them back to Himself because He is faithful. The reason they sing ultimately is to proclaim the greatness of God.
This is the heart of belief. The people of God must remember this as a baseline to anything that happens in life. All of life can be upset – everything can turn upside down. Circumstances can make no sense and justice and goodness and happiness can seem gone completely. But the child of God MUST remember that God is great and just and faithful and perfect – that righteous and upright is He. Circumstances do not determine the attributes of God and God cannot violate His nature. He is the Rock – He does not change and His strength and faithfulness never waver.
The believer should recite verse 4 any time the world shifts beneath him. Verse 4 should be the mantra of any follower of God who suffers or is tried. Verse 4 is true regardless. Verse 4 is true in the hospital, at the gravesite, in the unemployment line, alone at night, when heartbroken over a wayward child or spouse, or in the midst of sin’s ramifications. It is ALWAYS true and is true even if we do not feel like it is or cannot explain why it is.
Even though God is their Rock, the people of Israel forsake Him. He is faithful and just but they are unfaithful and ungrateful. They reject their status as His people and choose to be treated as if they are a pagan nation. They are not His children, because of their defect. They are perverse and crooked because they choose another god other than their God.
The song asks them, “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.” They are foolish to run away from their privileged status. They are ungrateful for all God has done. They only exist because of Him and now want nothing to do with Him.
This is the perfect way to describe sin. Foolish, unwise, perverse, crooked – do we thus repay the One who redeemed us? Is this the way we treat the One without whom we do not exist – or have no reason to exist? We act corruptly toward Him when we choose to sin.
God’s Provision (7-14)
God made Israel and chose her for His own. When He made the nations He assigned different sons of God over them (the NASB uses the term sons of Israel at the end of verse 8, but it can also be translated sons of God – this latter translation seems to better fit the message of this section), but Jacob is the allotment of His inheritance – the Lord’s portion is His people. Israel is different – God oversees it personally.
He cared for Israel through the wilderness. He encircled him, He cared for him. He guarded him as the pupil (apple) of His eye. He was like a mother eagle who protects her young. God never left Israel during the forty years in the wilderness and protected the people from the harsh environment and foreign nations.
The Lord alone guided him, and there was no foreign god with him. No other gods did this and no other gods were needed. God alone protected and cared for Israel. How can the people ascribe glory to any foreign god when no foreign god was with them? How can they forsake the One who cared for them so long and so lovingly?
God also provided for them – both in the wilderness and in the Promised Land. They ate the produce of the field. He gave them honey and oil from the rock, curds of cows and milk of the flock, fat of lambs, rams of Bashan (Amos 4:1), goats, and the finest of the wheat and wine from the finest grapes. God gave them everything. He provided and blessed beyond measure.
The follower of God exists because of God and lives a life of meaning because of God. Nothing he has is his without God. The song very clearly establishes what is at stake for God’s child who forsakes the One who provides for him and protects him. To walk away from God is to walk away from the basis of life. To walk away is the height of ungratefulness and forgetfulness.
Israel’s Rejection (15-18)
God’s provision is perhaps too bountiful. When Israel (Jeshurun – a poetic name for Israel which means “the upright one” – perhaps used sarcastically) ate and grew fat, he kicked. He forsook God and scorned the Rock of his salvation. Once the people had everything they wanted they determined they did not need God. They became full and decided they no longer wanted to worship the One who prospered them. Their prosperity caused them to look at other gods. They turned inward and decided to make gods in their own image rather than worship the One in whose image they were made. They ultimately bowed down to the gifts rather than to the Giver.
Note the action words that describe what the people did. They forsook, they scorned, they neglected and they forgot. Their abundance turned them against God to the point where they no longer credited Him with their blessing and actually ascribed it to gods of their own making (the very thing Moses has warned them about repeatedly – 6:10-12, 8:7-18). They forgot the God who gave you birth. Prosperity is often a dangerous state for the follower of God – we are never more prone to forget God than when we think we do not need Him. Abundance which should produce thankfulness can often prompt forgetfulness and selfishness. And selfishness leads to idolatry – worshiping the gods that serve us.
God’s Discipline (19-33)
The Lord sees Israel’s apostasy and removes His favor and protection. He hides His face from them and leaves them to themselves. Since they provoked God with gods that were not God He provokes them with a people who are not His people. He treats His people as if they are not His people – because that is how they acted in their sin – and instead gives His strength to other nations as if they are. He afflicts and conquers Israel with the same types of nations they used to conquer and afflict. He provokes them to anger with a foolish nation.
He also removes His provision and their privileged status. I will heap misfortunes on them; I will use My arrows on them. They shall be wasted by famine, and consumed by plague and bitter destruction; and the teeth of beasts I will send upon them, with the venom of crawling things of the dust. Outside the sword shall bereave, and inside terror – both young man and virgin, the nursling with the man of gray hair. EVERYTHING about their lives will be affected. Their protection from disease will be gone. Their protection from natural disaster will be gone. They will be afflicted both indoors and out. And everyone – from the youngest to the oldest – will suffer for the sin of the nation.
God will do anything to turn His people from sin. Oftentimes He simply lets sin run its course in their lives. Other times He afflicts them with specific discipline for their actions. But ultimately nothing is off limits to a holy and omnipotent God. God does not take sin lightly and does not treat the betrayal of His people casually. He attached a curse to the first two commandments and has never deviated from His hatred of false gods.
In verses 26 and 27 God extends mercy to Israel, but not because of them or their actions. He stops short of destroying them because of His own glory. He looks at the foreign nations He has used to punish His people and realizes if they completely destroy Israel they will give the credit to themselves instead of to God. The foreign nations do not believe in Yahweh and so will say, “Our hand is triumphant, and the Lord has not done all this.” Since God will not share His glory, He stops short of allowing the nations to exalt themselves (it is always about God – not us).
He returns to a description of Israel in 28-30. He says they are completely blind and so do not realize what their sin has done to them. They do not realize God’s protection and provision have been removed. They are lacking in counsel, and there is no understanding in them. It has not dawned on them that one enemy should not be able to chase one thousand Israelites (or two chase ten thousand) unless God no longer fights for them. How could the nations they used to defeat now defeat them unless their Rock had sold them, and the Lord had given them up?
Their sin deceives and blinds them – to the point that they do not realize they are being punished. They have strayed so far from God and lost so much that they no longer remember what life was like under His blessing and protection. This is actually the state the song itself is written for. The song will seek to shake people out of their blindness and cause them to remember their favored status – and realize why they are where they are.
Sin always deceives and blinds the one engaged in it – always. It is perhaps the most dangerous aspect of it. We sin a little and become comfortable with it. We sin some more and become comfortable with that. Before long sin is the default setting and everything else looks wrong. We become like the man who in the darkness of the sea actually swims away from the surface because he can no longer tell which way is up. To play with sin is to invite blindness into our lives that will not allow us to see our need for repentance.
The enemy nations understand that Israel’s God is not like their gods (31). They better understand this than Israel does in its sin. Their provision is different than Israel’s also. They do not have a powerful God to provide and protect – they descend from the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah and inherit the same destiny. How could nations like this defeat Israel unless God ordained it?
God’s Compassion (34-43)
After God punishes Israel He saves her. He punishes her enemies for what they have done to Israel and vindicates His people. He has compassion on the nation after it is so decimated as to hardly exist. Once the people realize their false gods have no power and there is only one true God He brings them back to Himself. He restores them as His chosen ones.
Note the description of God’s punishment of His enemies. Vengeance is Mine, and retribution. For the day of their calamity is near. If I sharpen My flashing sword, and My hand takes hold on justice, I will render vengeance on My adversaries, and I will repay those who hate Me. I will make My arrows drunk with blood, and My sword shall devour flesh, with the blood of the slain and the captives (the people judged deserve it for their treatment of Israel), from the long-haired leaders of the enemy (‘long hair’ probably referring to power and might). God’s judgment is not pretty and it IS assured. This is not a description of a different God than the One we worship.
Through His treatment of Israel and punishment of its enemies God shows that I, I am He, and there is no god besides Me; it is I who put to death and give life. I have wounded, and it is I who heal; and there is no one who can deliver from My hand. The ultimate result of God’s actions is the clear evidence that God alone is God. Anything else Israel has worshiped is not God.
It is interesting that throughout this section nothing is said about the actions or beliefs of the people. The song does not say anything about them repenting or returning to God. It simply praises God for restoring His people and pouring out His wrath on their enemies. The song only points to God’s actions – God saves Israel because of His mercy and compassion.
In verse 43 God commands all the nations to rejoice with His people. The nations must rejoice because His people have been restored to the land and to their status as His chosen ones. The reason for the change is because of God – He atones for His land and His people. He covers their sin and brings them back. Perhaps this points to why nothing is said about what the people do – they come back to God because He atones for them. This goes along with Moses’ words in 30:6 about God circumcising the hearts of the people. Ultimately they come to God because He enables them to – He gives them a new heart that longs for Him.
The song effectively ends with the gospel – one more example of the gospel according to Deuteronomy. God’s atonement on behalf of the people points to the ultimate atonement. God restores His people – of any age – because nothing they do was not on the cross with His Son. For those who believe in the Son their sin is covered and removed – and a just God can bring them to Himself.
After Moses finishes reciting the song he tells the people to take its warnings to heart and to remember it along with the Law. He says they must teach both the song and the Law to their descendants. He tells them again that the Law is your life. God’s words not only guarantee them actual life in the land but also make that life worth living. They do not have a reason to exist apart from worship of the only true God.
Both he and Joshua warn the people. The song lays out the horrors that await them if they disobey but also shows they will be fine under Joshua’s leadership if they abide by the covenant. God gives them a song as one more reassurance as they enter the land without Moses.
The song shows what makes up our life also. God hates sin and does not leave it unaddressed in His people. He can discipline those who stray and nothing is off limits to His omnipotence. But He ultimately loves us and longs for us to walk with Him (5:29) and enjoy Him. He gently restores the one who turns back to Him (see Gal 6:1 – reflects the nature of God) and loves the repentance of His children. He loves us too much to let us be comfortable in our sin and works all things to bring us back to our created purpose and in the arms of His protection and provision.
The Rock! His work is perfect,
For all His ways are just;
A God of faithfulness and without injustice,
Righteous and upright is He.