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Bible Commentaries
Deuteronomy 32

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


The introduction to this long poem is actually the last verse of the preceding chapter, a chapter which not only credits Moses with the writing of the poem, but also states that he read it to the people in its entirety. Critical scholars usually make a point of denying everything that the Bible says, except in instances here and there, where they think they can find some grounds for supporting their numerous theories. All such denials are exceedingly tiresome, none of them supported by any proof or solid evidence. In this context, it is refreshing that Watts declared on this poem that, “It would be impossible to prove or disprove that any of them (various portions of Deuteronomy) was actually composed by Moses!”(F1) This is profoundly correct, and it is a good thing to keep this in mind when one encounters the glib assertion that this or that portion of Deuteronomy was NOT written by Moses. Until someone can prove that it is not written by MOSES (as the Bible affirms), the ancient tradition that it was thus written must stand. The very poem we are studying in this chapter is itself a marvel of inspiration. It is the very fountainhead of prophecy; here the minor prophets, almost without exception, found the basic themes which they developed more particularly. Any careful investigator will come to know that Moses alone could have written these remarkable lines, lines that unfold the future of Israel down to the very present, lines speaking of a salvation that shall be “for the Gentiles,” those who, in the days of Moses, were “no people,” and yet in such a manner that no Israelite who ever lived was excluded from the grace of God!

“Beyond all possibility of doubt, the Book of Deuteronomy came from Moses, and there is no way to avoid this conclusion except by robbing this account of all truthfulness.”(F2) Deuteronomy was appropriate to the first generation that heard it, as was also this song, and, likewise, it has been appropriate to every generation since then. This song is as up-to-date as this morning’s newspaper. As Ackland said, “The historical basis of Deuteronomy is not in question.”(F3)

Some of the commentators refer to this song as “a didactic poem,”(F4) which is indeed a fair description, because a didactic poem is one that imparts moral instruction, which this certainly does. However, we do not consider the word “theodicy” as a proper designation, as stated by Wade.(F5) Although the word might have a present-day connotation of which we do not know, the word was originally coined by Baron Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibnitz in 1710 A.D., and is given as a name for “an attempt to reconcile the existence of evil with the sovereign goodness of God.”(F6) This poem was not written as “an attempt” to justify anything. It is a magnificent prophecy pertaining to the future of Israel in particular, and to the nature of God and of rebellious men in all generations. As Cook said, “This song forms the summary of all later O.T. prophecy, and gives as it were the framework upon which they are laid out. Here, as elsewhere, the Pentateuch presents itself as the foundation of the religious life of Israel.”(F7)

A broad outline of the poem divides it as follows: The introduction is found in Deuteronomy 32:1-3; and Deuteronomy 32:43 is the conclusion. The main divisions are:

(1) the faithfulness of God and the faithlessness of Israel (Deuteronomy 32:4-18),

(2) The punishment and the need of its execution by God (Deuteronomy 32:19-33), and

(3) God’s compassion upon the low and humbled state of his people (Deuteronomy 32:34-42).(F8)

We shall break up the long passages according to a more detailed outline given by Oberst.(F9) “In its general structure this poetic song follows the patterns of the Deuteronomic treaty,”(F10) and is in some ways a general summary of it.

Verses 1-3

INTRODUCTION (Deuteronomy 32:1-3)

“Give ear ye heavens, and I will speak; And let the earth hear the words of my mouth. My doctrine shall drop as the rain; My speech shall distill as the dew, And as the small rain upon the tender grass, And as the showers upon the herb. For I will proclaim the name of Jehovah: Ascribe the greatness to our God.”

What an amazing coincidence is it that the exodus both begins and ends with a Song of Moses. See Exodus 15:1-18; also “Psalms 90 is attributed to Moses.”(F11) The calling of heaven and earth to witness is somewhat similar to the extravagant language often used in the introduction to ancient lawsuits; and we find echoes of this in Hosea. The meaning here is that the words to follow are of the utmost importance to all people everywhere.

“My doctrine” Unger was correct in finding here a type of the doctrine of Christ to be revealed in the future. “This looks forward to the doctrine and the word of Christ.”(F12) The figure of the rain and the dew here should be understood not so much as a reference to the reviving influence they had, but as symbolizing “the effective force of these agents as sent from heaven to produce results.”(F13) See Isaiah 55:10-11.

Verses 4-6


“The Rock, his work is perfect; For all his ways are justice: God of faithfulness and without iniquity, Just and right is he. They have dealt corruptly with him, they are not his children, it is their blemish; They are a perverse and crooked generation. Do ye thus requite Jehovah, O foolish people and unwise? Is not he thy father that hath bought thee? He hath made thee and established thee.”

Note the use of the term “Rock” for God; it appears a number of times in this song (Deuteronomy 32:13; Deuteronomy 32:15; Deuteronomy 32:18; Deuteronomy 32:30-31).

“They have dealt corruptly with him” The time envisioned in this prophecy is long subsequent to the times of Moses. This is predictive prophecy at its best. The time foreseen here is after the settlement of Canaan, indeed after the death of Joshua, when Israel shall have become arrogant, proud, fat, rebellious, and shameful in their debaucheries. It is this time-focus of the prophecy that drives the critics to later centuries to find the date of Deuteronomy, but their “a priori” rejection of predictive prophecy compels this on their part. There is no logical necessity for ascribing this song to any generation other than that of Moses. As Keil put it: “This standpoint of the ode is not to be identified with the poet’s own time.”(F14) Moses here spoke of developments that would occur long after his death.

“A perverse and crooked generation” The crookedness of Israel became a proverb in the whole world. Even when Jesus Christ saw an honest Israelite, he exclaimed, “Behold an Israelite in whom there is no guile!” (John 1:48). If the words of Jesus mean anything, they mean, “Look here! Here’s an Israelite who is not crooked!” On Pentecost, Peter came to this very passage in his appeal for Israel (to whom he spoke) to obey the gospel (Acts 2:40).

Verses 7-11


“Remember the days of old, Consider the years of many generations: Ask thy father, and he will show thee; Thine elders, and they will tell thee. When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, When he separated the children of men, He set the bounds of the peoples according to the number of the children of Israel. For Jehovah’s portion is his people; Jacob is the lot of his inheritance. He found him in a desert land, And in the waste howling wilderness: He compassed him about, he cared for him, He kept him as the apple of his eye. As an eagle that stirreth up her nest, That fluttereth over her young, He spread abroad his wings, he took them, He bare then on his pinions.”

In the long history of Israel, God had nurtured and cared for Israel, finding them in the most dire circumstances, that is, in Egyptian slavery, and threatened with annihilation. God rescued them and developed them into a mighty people. That is the theme of these verses.

“When the Most high gave to the nations” This passage is difficult to understand; but there is N.T. light on it. If we understand the phrase, “According to the number of the children of Israel,” as a reference including the members of the “New Israel” in Christ, as is surely indicated in Acts 17:26-27, we have this apparent meaning: “From the very first, God has determined the boundaries of nations in such a manner as to make it possible for them to know God, `that they should seek God… and find him.’“ What is taught is that God overrules in the affairs of nations in order that many men may believe and know the truth.

“Most High..” This name for God is used only here in the Book of Deuteronomy, but it is a term that belongs exclusively to the one true God of heaven and earth. This was the God that Abraham worshipped when he paid tithes to Melchizedek, and even the demons recognized Jesus Christ as the “Son of God Most High” (Luke 8:28). The Most High, therefore, was not a pagan deity, nor a Gentile god, but the true God!

Finding Israel in “the howling wilderness” is poetic language for the early wretchedness of the whole people.

The tender manner in which the mother eagle looks after her young until they are able to fly is here a figure of the manner in which God has looked after Israel.

Verses 12-14

HOW GOD EXALTED ISRAEL (Deuteronomy 32:12-14)

“Jehovah alone did lead him, And there was no foreign god with him. He made him ride on the high places of the earth, And he did eat the increase of the field; And he made him to suck honey out of the rock, And oil out of the flinty rock; Butter of the herd, and milk of the flock, With fat of lambs, And rams of the breed of Bashan, and goats, With the finest of the wheat; And of the blood of the grape thou drankest wine.”

These lines are highly-figurative references to the national prosperity that God gave Israel AFTER the entry into Canaan. They successfully drove out thirty-two kings, and, although they failed to exterminate the pagan religion and the followers of it, nevertheless they achieved a very great measure of material wealth and prosperity.

The mention of Bashan (Deuteronomy 32:14) is a recognition of the superior breed of flocks and herds that came from that area. One finds a number of references to this same truth in the minor prophets.

“Jehovah alone…no foreign god with him” This is equivalent to the expression also found in the Pentateuch, “I am God, and there is none else besides me.”

Verses 15-18

ISRAEL’S REBELLION (Deuteronomy 32:15-18)

“But Jeshurun waxed fat, and kicked: Thou art waxed fat, thou art grown thick, thou art become sleek; Then he forsook God who made him, And lightly esteemed the Rock of his salvation. They moved him to jealousy with strange gods; With abominations provoked they him to anger. They sacrificed unto demons, which were no God, To gods that they knew not, To new gods that came up of late, Which your fathers dreaded not. Of the Rock that begat thee thou art unmindful, And hast forgotten God that gave thee birth.”

“Jeshurun” in Deuteronomy 32:15 is a disputed word, but most seem to believe that it is an affectionate designation of Israel used here in a sarcastic or ironic sense. “God’s favorite people have rebelled against him!”

“Then he forsook God” Israel was doing fine until that happened. This passage reminds us of what Hosea said of Ephraim, “When Ephraim spake, there was trembling; he exalted himself in Israel; but when he offended in Baal, he died!” (Hosea 13:1). Such passages dramatize the fact that the fatal error, the mortal mistake is forgetting God!

Verses 19-22


“And Jehovah saw it, and abhorred them, Because of the provocation of his sons and his daughters. And he said, I will hide my face from them, I will see what their end shall be: For they are a very perverse generation, Children in whom is no faithfulness. They have moved me to jealousy with that which is not God; They have provoked me to anger with their vanities: And I will move them to jealousy with those that are not a people; I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation. For a fire is kindled in mine anger, And burneth unto the lowest Sheol, And devoureth the earth with its increase, And setteth on fire the foundations of the mountains.”

These verses speak of the anger and abhorrence that sprang up in the heart of God Himself over the unfeeling ingratitude of those for whom he had done such wonderful things. This is a good place to remember that God’s choice of Israel, from the very first, had in view the salvation of all men, not Israel only. See Genesis 22:18, which is a manifest reference to Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:16 ff). Furthermore, God’s was a wise choice, for there were qualities in the chosen people that simply were not duplicated anywhere else. God, of course, foresaw their rebellion, pride, arrogance, and faithlessness, and even the fact that the Gentiles would eventually be called as leaders of God’s people on earth. The “no people” here is clearly a reference to the Gentiles (1 Peter 2:10; Ephesians 2:12). Thus, the prophecy embraces an incredibly long sweep through history. Before we are finished with these verses, we shall see that they include: the apostasy of Israel, God’s rejection of Israel, the calling of the Gentiles, and finally the destruction of the entire earth in that great holocaust that shall conclude the dispensation (Deuteronomy 32:22).

“Burneth unto the lowest Sheol… and setteth on fire the foundations of the mountains” We are disappointed that none of the commentaries we have consulted gets the point of these words at all. Here is a glimpse of the eschatological conclusion that shall at the last day terminate God’s toleration of the rebellious race of Adam. See Zephaniah 1:2-3. Keil agreed that we do not have hyperbole here and that the judgment foretold cannot be restricted “To the Israelite nation only,”(F15) but he then limited the “fire” which is here said to extend even to the foundations of the mountains, stating that, “The fire signifies really nothing else than God’s jealousy.”(F16) To us it appears impossible to accept such an understanding of this passage. The mention of Sheol here, “the place of the dead,” indicates that the “living and the dead” alike shall participate in that final judgment. Keil came very near to this understanding, but still missed it. A little earlier he noted that, “The adoption of the Gentile world into covenant with the Lord (foretold in this very passage) involved the rejection of the disobedient Israel; and this rejection would be consummated in severe judgments, in which the ungodly would perish!”(F17) Indeed this is profoundly true, but there is more to it. All of the “severe judgments” throughout history (including the destruction of Jerusalem) are tokens, symbolical assurance of the Final Judgment that shall involve all of the Adamic race.

Verses 23-27


“I will heap evils upon them, I will spend mine arrows upon them: They shall be wasted with hunger, and devoured with burning heat And bitter destruction; And the teeth of beasts will I send upon them, With the poison of crawling things of the dust. Without shall the sword bereave, And in the chambers terror; It shall destroy both young man and virgin, The suckling with the man of gray hairs. I said I would scatter them afar, I would make the remembrance of them to cease from among men; Were it not that I feared the provocation of the enemy, Lest their adversaries should judge amiss, Lest they should say, Our hand is exalted, And Jehovah hath not done all this.”

An episode from the life of Moses himself is incorporated into his poem at this point. It will be remembered that when Moses pleaded with God not to destroy Israel, he said, “Wherefore should the Egyptians speak, saying, For evil did (God) bring them forth, to slay them in the mountains” (Exodus 32:12).

The identical thought is here: God would utterly destroy Israel (Deuteronomy 32:26), but God’s enemies would make the wrong conclusions from such an event (Deuteronomy 32:27). This is but one of many internal evidences of Moses’ authorship, any one of these evidences seeming to be a small thing, but in the aggregate they constitute a voice of thunder affirming the Mosaic authorship of the poem.

The principal thought of this paragraph is that, “God will not utterly destroy Israel, but when Israel’s strength has been totally exhausted, God would have compassion upon them.”(F18) God’s reasons for not utterly destroying Israel also most certainly included the fact that “the salvation of all mankind” would have been countermanded, or at least, seriously delayed by such a destruction. Also, God’s ultimate compassion promised to the rebellious nation should never be understood as being an unconditional boon to the wicked nation; it was a compassion to be poured out at last upon “the righteous remnant,” the few souls who were indeed “true children of Abraham,” which persons would, in time constitute the New Israel of the kingdom in Jesus Christ.

Verses 28-36

THE WAY IT WAS WITH ISRAEL (Deuteronomy 32:28-36)

“For they are a nation void of counsel, And there is no understanding in them. Oh that they were wise, that they understood this, That they would consider their latter end! How should one chase a thousand, And two put ten thousand to flight, Except their Rock had sold them, And Jehovah had delivered them up? For their rock is not as our Rock, Even our enemies themselves being judges. For their vine is of the vine of Sodom, And of the fields of Gomorrah: Their grapes are grapes of gall, Their clusters are bitter: Their wine is the poison of serpents, And the cruel venom of asps. Is not this laid up in store with me, Sealed up among my treasures? Vengeance is mine, and recompense, At the time when their foot shall slide: For the day of their calamity is at hand, And the things that are to come upon them shall make haste. For Jehovah will judge his people, And repent himself for his servants; When he seeth that their power is gone, And there is no remaining, shut up or left at large.”

It is a little difficult, here and there, in this passage to follow the meaning, due to the characteristic changes in person. “Their” in some passages refers to Israel, and in others to Israel’s enemies. The question in Deuteronomy 32:30, as to how “one could chase a thousand” is actually the sequel to Deuteronomy 28:7; Deuteronomy 28:25, where the blessing in warfare becomes the exact description of the curse during Israel’s apostasy. Earlier in Deuteronomy, Moses had promised that in warfare Israel would be mightily victorious. The question here is “how could such a situation be reversed” unless their Rock (God) had sold them”?

“Their vine (Israel’s vine) is of Sodom… and Gomorrah” This is a true prophecy of the complete degradation of Israel through their shameful debaucheries. Ezekiel 16 states categorically that Israel became worse than Sodom and Gomorrah (Ezekiel 16:46 ff). Also see Isaiah 3:9, and Jeremiah 23:14. Some of the prophets also expanded the figure of the vine to include the charge that Israel’s vine became a wild vine (Hosea 10:1; Jeremiah 2:21).

“Vengeance is mine, and recompense” (Deuteronomy 32:35). This is the verse allegedly quoted by the apostle Paul in Romans 12:19.(F19) However, a comparison of the passages reveals a marked difference in what Paul said and what is written here. Our own conclusion is that the inspired Paul deliberately misquoted a passage which is true both ways, the way it appears here, and also as Paul wrote it. The author of Hebrews “misquoted it” in exactly the same way as Paul (Hebrews 10:30); and we are still waiting for someone to explain how anyone except Paul would have done that!

Verses 37-43

GOD’S RESPONSE (Deuteronomy 32:37-43)

“And he will say, Where are their gods, The rock in which they took refuge; Which did eat the fat of their sacrifices, And drank the wine of their drink-offering? Let them rise up and help you, Let them be your protection. See now that I, even I, am he, And there is no god with me: I kill, and I make alive; I wound, and I heal; And there is none that can deliver out of my hand. For I lift up my hand to heaven, And say, As I live forever, If I whet my glittering sword, And my hand take hold on judgment; I will render vengeance to mine adversaries, And will recompense them that hate me. I will make mine arrows drunk with blood, And my sword shall devour flesh; With the blood of the slain and the captives, From the head of the leaders of the enemy. Rejoice, O ye nations, with his people: For he will avenge the blood of his servants, And will render vengeance to his adversaries, And will make expiation for his land, for his people.”

When it is considered that this song was to be memorized and sung by the Hebrew people, it becomes apparent that this was the very best possible way to preserve in the minds of the children of Israel the knowledge of their true God. Even today, many a child of God has found relief from temptation by the songs of the church found repeatedly upon his lips, as an ever present reminder of the great verities of the faith.

“Where are their gods” (Deuteronomy 32:37). Keil reminds us that these are the false gods worshipped by the Israelites instead of the true God whom they have forsaken.(F20) The Creator is here represented as taunting the foolish Israelites, “Let them rise up and help you, Let them be your protection” (Deuteronomy 32:38). Cook’s comment on this great passage is thus:

“In this profound passage, there is shadowed forth the purpose of God to overrule: (1) the unbelief of the Jews to the bringing in of the Gentiles; and (2) the mercy shown to the Gentiles to the eventual restoration of the Jews.” (Romans 11:25 ff)(F21)

We cannot believe that the “eventual restoration of the Jews” mentioned by Cook in his comment should be understood as God’s promise to restore “the sinful kingdom” and to pour out His blessings again upon the secular claimants of being the “sons of Abraham.” Christ flatly declared that if such persons were indeed Abraham’s sons, “they would believe in Jesus.” (John 8). What then is meant? “Any Jew throughout history who desires God’s salvation is welcome in the spiritual body of Christ, where alone salvation is available for any person whomsoever. Millions of Jews have already been saved in Christ, along with the holy apostles and prophets of the N.T., who were almost exclusively of the Jewish race. That alone is meant. (See a full investigation of this whole question, developed over a hundred pages in our N.T. series in the commentary on Romans in Romans 9-12.) The current secular Israel cannot possibly be identified with the “Israel” spoken of in the Bible!

Verses 44-47

“And Moses came and spake all the words of this song in the ears of the people, he, and Hoshea the son of Nun. And Moses made an end of speaking all these words to all Israel; and he said unto them, Set your heart unto all the words which I testify unto you this day, which ye shall command your children to observe and do, even all the words of this law. For it is no vain thing for you; because it is your life, and through this thing ye shall prolong your days in the land, whither ye go over the Jordan to possess it.”

“Which I testify to you this day” (Deuteronomy 32:46). Here is the true Biblical definition of “testifying.” It means the teaching, through repetition, of the commandments of God, along with exhortations that the people should obey. If this is compared with some of the trivia that is called “testifying” in some group meetings current today, it will be seen how far short of true testifying such things really are.

Note the name “Hoshea”. This was the name that Moses himself gave Joshua (Exodus 17:9). And whether Moses himself personally wrote these final words, or if they were added shortly after Moses’ death by Joshua, the deep attachment of the two men for each other is strongly suggested by the use of this special name given by Moses to the new leader of Israel.

“This is your life” Indeed it is the life of every person ever born that he should know the will of the Lord and obey it. In the last analysis, there is an infinite futility in every life lived apart from the will of the Creator. If one lives out his days on earth without coming to know God, “having tasted of the heavenly gift, and made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and tasted the good Word of God, and the powers of the age to come” (Hebrews 6:4-5), then such a person might as well have never lived at all!

Verses 48-52

GOD SUMMONS MOSES TO HIS DEATH (Deuteronomy 32:48-52)

“And Jehovah spake unto Moses that self-same day, saying, Get thee up into this mountain of Abarim, into mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab, that is over against Jericho; and behold the land of Canaan, which I give unto the children of Israel for a possession; and die in the mount whither thou goest up, and be gathered unto thy people, as Aaron thy brother died in mount Hor, and was gathered unto his people: because ye trespassed against me in the midst of the children of Israel at the waters of Meribah of Kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin; because ye sanctified me not in the midst of the children of Israel. For thou shalt see the land before thee; but thou shalt not go thither into the land which I give the children of Israel.”

This is an infinitely sad passage. The long and brilliant career of the great Lawgiver terminates here. The blunt message of his impending death must have been a shock even for Moses. Why could he not enter Canaan? (For a full discussion of the event mentioned here, please see our comment in Vol. 3 of the Pentateuchal series, under Numbers 20:10 ff.) “This same episode is also mentioned in Deuteronomy 1:37; Deuteronomy 3:26; Deuteronomy 4:21; and in Numbers 27:12-14).”(F22)

The quibble about the two names for the mountain is unimportant. Pisgah is merely one of the older names for Nebo, and as Keil said:

“The paragraph here concerning Moses’ ascent of mount Nebo differs in form from the previous mention of it in Numbers 27:12-14, partly in the fact that the situation of mount Nebo is more fully described, and partly in the use of the imperative, and a few other trifling points. These differences are all explained from the fact that the account here was not written by Moses himself.”(F23)

Moses was one of the great O.T. types of the Son of God, and his leadership of Israel in the wilderness is typical of Jesus’ leadership of Christians in the wilderness of their probation (in the church during this present dispensation), but great as Moses was, he could not lead the people over the Jordan (typical of death) into Canaan (typical of heaven). Only Christ could do that. Therefore, it was necessary that Moses die before Israel entered Canaan.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 32". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/deuteronomy-32.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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