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Friday, May 24th, 2024
the Week of Proper 2 / Ordinary 7
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Bible Commentaries
Deuteronomy 32

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

Verse 1


(1) Give ear, O ye heavens, and I will speak; and hear, O earth, the words of my mouth.—Comp. the opening of Isaiah 1:2, which is almost identical, excepting that the two words for “hearing” are transposed.

Verse 2

(2) My doctrine.—Or, my learning, that which I receive—a not very common, but beautiful expression in the Hebrew. Everything that comes down from the “Father of lights” is handed on by one heavenly messenger to another, until it falls upon the heart of man, in just that form in which he can best receive it. The Son of God says,” My doctrine is not Mine, but His that sent Me.” “I speak that which I have seen with my Father.” Of the Holy Spirit He says, “He shall receive of Mine and shall show it unto you.” The apostles speak “in words which the Holy Ghost teacheth.” The parallels of the verse appear to be these:—My learning shall drop as the rain; My speech shall distil as the dew, as the sweeping showers upon the tender herb, as the multitude of drops upon the grass. The “small rain” of the Authorised Version points to a different and probably untenable derivation of the Hebrew word. The rain is more definite than the dew, and therefore the first word in the second half of the verse should be stronger than the second, and not vice versâ. The tender herb just sprouting can bear heavier showers than the grown grass.

Verse 3

(3)—“For (or when) it is the Name JEHOVAH that I utter; Give ye greatness to our God.”

Verse 4

(4) He is the rock, his work is perfect: for all his ways are judgment: a God of truth and without iniquity, just and right is he.—No such combination of all the words for uprightness, sincerity, equity, and reliability is to be found elsewhere in all Scripture. This is the character of the Rock. This name of God ( Tzur) is one of the characteristics of the song. The word occurs first in Exodus 17:0, where the Rock in Horeb was smitten; “and that Rock was Christ.” From that time we find that the very names of the leaders in Israel embody this confession. Elizur, my God is a Rock; Zurishaddai, the Almighty is my Rock; and Pedahzur, redeemed by the Rock (Numbers 1:5-6; Numbers 1:10), are examples. So exclusively is the term in Hebrew (Tzûr or Sêlagh) used in this sense, that no man is ever described by it in the Old Testament. And the LXX., in this song and in many other places, do not translate it at all, but give it as God (Θεός). In other places the word Petra (never Petros) is employed. This fact convinces me that the Petra of Matthew 16:18 could only have been understood by Jews as denoting Deity; and that it not only referred to Christ, but to Christ as God. No other interpretation will suit the language of Holy Scripture. This fourth verse, like the third, is a stanza of four lines. The first line is answered by the third, and the second line by the fourth.

Verse 5


“He (Israel) hath destroyed himself.

Their undutifulness,[5] that is their blot,

[5] Literally, they are no sons to him. (Comp. Deuteronomy 32:20.)

A froward and crooked generation !”

These first two lines are given up as hopeless by many interpreters, not because the words are difficult of translation, but from the great variety of possible interpretations. After careful consideration of the passage with a learned Christian Hebrew,[6] I venture to propound this as the true translation. It is substantially identical with that of the English margin. The Hebrew consists of five words only (1) “He-hath-corrupted (2) to-him (3) not (4) his-sons (5) their blemish.” That the first two ought to be taken together, if the text is correct, seems certain. The same construction is found in Numbers 32:15, “ye shall destroy all this people,” and also in 1 Samuel 23:10, “to destroy the city.” As to the third and fourth words, we have thought that their true relation is the same which we find in Deuteronomy 32:21, a “not-God,” and a “not-people,” and also in Deuteronomy 32:5, not-wise.” In like manner Israel are in this verse called “not-sons of His.” Their not-sonship, their unfilial, undutiful, ungodly behaviour to Him who is the perfection of truth and sincerity, a very Rock of fidelity to them, that is their great blemish. He has said, “Israel is my son, even my firstborn.” But all Israel’s behaviour gives Him the lie. The contrast between the two descriptions—the faithful God of Deuteronomy 32:4, and the unfaithful children of Deuteronomy 32:5—is the cardinal point in the verse. In the form of the expression, lo-bânâv is strictly parallel to the Lo-ammi of Hosea 1:9. The “froward and crooked generation” supplies two words to Psalms 18:26, “with the froward thou wilt shew thyself froward” Compare also the context of the two passages. Many other interpretations have been proposed, and some have altered the text. I believe the text to be correct, and that this is the true meaning.

[6] Mr. Bernhard Maimon, to whom I desire once for all to express my great obligations for assistance in this and many other difficulties.

Verse 6


“It is Jehovah that ye requite thus!

A people foolish and unwise!
Is not He thy Father that hath gotten thee?
He made thee and establisheth thee.”

The first line is an exclamatory question. A question and an exclamation have the same name in the Rabbinical writings. “Hath gotten” in the third line is the same expression which Eve used (in Genesis 4:1) at the birth of Cain, and occurs also in that magnificent saying in the history of Wisdom, Proverbs 8:22, “The Lord begat me (as) the beginning of his way.”

Verse 7

(7) The fourfold division of this verse is manifest.

Verses 8-9

(8, 9) Comp. Deuteronomy 21:16.

“when the Most High made nations to inherit,

When He parted the sons of Adam,
He set the bounds of the peoples,
According to the number of the sons of Israel.
For the portion of Jehovah is His people,
Jacob the cord [7] of His inheritance

[7] i.e., limit.

The allusion is to the dispersion from Babel (Genesis 10:11). The Jews were accustomed to reckon seventy nations and languages in that dispersion. Seventy members of Jacob’s household went down into Egypt. And literally they interpret this passage to mean that in dividing the lands to the peoples, Jehovah left room for His own, so that they might inherit the promised land without any undue pressure upon other nations. It is noticeable that the children of Lot and Esau were carefully preserved from disturbance by Israel (Deuteronomy 2:0). But this is the bare literal interpretation. The true meaning of the passage is given by St. Paul in his speech at Athens: “He determined (for all nations) times before appointed, and the setting of the boundaries of their habitation, that they might seek the Lord.” The nations were so disposed in the world, and so developed, that each might have its opportunity of seeking Jehovah, in due season, through contact with His people—“if, as was certainly not impossible, they might feel after Him and find Him, who is not far from any one of us. For we are even His offspring.” Hence He appoints our inheritance. With some such thought as this, the LXX. translate the latter half of Deuteronomy 32:8, “He set the bounds of the peoples according to the number of the angels of God” The chosen people were to be His messengers to the nations. He chose Israel for His own portion, that through them He might inherit the world. And yet in the face of this glorious calling and mission, the undutiful behaviour of Israel was their one great blot. They had only to accept the position already prepared for them, and they refused!

Verse 10

(10) The whole of this verse is in the pictorial present in the Hebrew—

“He findeth him in a desert land,
In a waste howling wilderness;
He compasseth him about, He instructeth him,
He guardeth him as the apple of his eye.”

He found him.—This beautiful expression is common to the Old and New Testaments as a description of God’s first revelation of Himself to man. In the case of Hagar it is written (Genesis 16:7), “the angel of Jehovah found her by a fountain of water in the wilderness.” Concerning Jacob, that “He found him in Bethel,” when Jacob said “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I knew it not” (Hosea 12:4; Genesis 28:16). A series of similar passages is closed by the three examples of the lost sheep, the lost money, and the son that had been lost, and was found (Luke 15:0).

He led him about.—The commoner meaning is given in the margin. Rashi has this remark: “He caused them to abide round about His glory (Shechinah), the tent of the congregation in the middle, and four standards on the four sides.”

Verses 11-12

(11, 12)

“As an eagle awakeneth her nest,

Over her young she broodeth,
She spreadeth out her wings, she taketh up
each one of them,
She beareth him on her pinions:
Jehovah alone leadeth him,
And a stranger-god is not with Him.”

The eagle in Hebrew is masculine. He is one of the creatures that is honoured with a description by the lips of Jehovah Himself in Job 39:27-30. But beautiful as the simile and the description in these places are, they are surpassed in gentleness by our Saviour when He says, “How often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not” (Luke 13:34).

Fluttereth.—Or, broodeth, is the word in Genesis 1:2, the Spirit of God brooding over the face of the waters. (13, 14) The verbs again are all present. “He maketh him to ride,” &c.,

Verse 14

(14) Kidneys of wheat.—The metaphor is literally translated from the Hebrew. The kidneys are enclosed in the very best of the fat of the animal, fat that was strictly reserved for God’s altar by the Levitical Law.

Verse 15

(15) Jeshurun is a diminutive—a term of endearment. Either “the child of the upright,” or “the beloved Israel.” The letters of the diminutive of Israel, if slightly abbreviated, would make “Jeshurun.” It is peculiar to Deuteronomy (here and in Deuteronomy 33:5; Deuteronomy 33:26) and Isaiah (Isaiah 44:2). Two of the Targums render the word by “Israel here.” The third retains the word itself. The LXX. translate it “the beloved one.”

Kicked.—Only in 1 Samuel 2:29 : “Wherefore kick ye at my sacrifice and mine offering . . . to make yourselves fat?"

Grown thick.—As Rehoboam said, “My little finger shall be thicker than my father’s loins.” Both these parallels illustrate the spirit of the verse.

Verse 17

(17) They sacrificed unto devils, not to God.—St. Paul repeats this expression in 1 Corinthians 11:20.

Gods that came newly up.—Literally, that came from close at hand. Compare the description of the idol in Isaiah 44:15, easily made from the firewood; and see also Wis. 13:13, “A carpenter taking a crooked piece of wood, and full of knots, hath carved it diligently, when he had nothing else to do”—a comment on the passage in Isaiah 44:0

Verse 18

(18) Of the Rock that begat thee.—“The Rock hath begotten thee forgetful, and thou hast forgotten God that travailed with thee” is another possible translation of this verse. The expression in the second clause is found also in Psalms 90:2 (a prayer of Moses), “Before the mountains were brought forth, while Thou wast yet in travail with earth and world, and from eternity unto eternity Thou art God!” The word which I have rendered “forgetful” is usually taken as a verb. But the verb is not found elsewhere (i.e., it is invented for the sake of this passage), and the word may not impossibly be an adjective.

Verse 19

(19) The Lord saw . . . abhorred.—Comp. Jeremiah 14:21.

Verse 20

(20) A very froward generation.—Literally, a generation of perversities.

Children in whom is no faith.—Literally, children !there is no relying on them. (Comp. Deuteronomy 5:5.) Faith is not used in the sense of “belief” or “confidence,” but as in the expression to “keep faith,” or to “break faith,” children who will keep no faith with one.

Verse 21


“They have made me jealous with a no-god;

They have provoked me with their vanities:
And I will make them jealous with a no-people;
With a foolish nation will I provoke them.”

St. Paul comments on this in Romans 10:0, as proving that Israel was informed of the calling of the Gentiles, and compares Isaiah 65:1, “I was found of them that sought me not. I made myself manifest unto those that inquired not after me.”

Rashi quotes, perhaps not quite inappropriately Isaiah 23:13, and gives this explanation, “A no-people,” i.e., a nation without a name; as it is said, “Behold the land of the Chaldseans: this people was not.”

Verse 22

(22) For a fire is kindled in mine anger.—Quoted by Jeremiah (Jeremiah 15:14, and comp. Jeremiah 17:4).

The foundations of the mountains.—Rashi says, “Jerusalem, which is founded on the mountains,” as it is said, “Jerusalem, the mountains are about her” (Psalms 125:2).

Verse 23

(23) Mischiefs.—Literally, ills. Comp. Ezekiel 5:16 : “I will send upon them the evil arrows of famine . . . I will increase the famine upon them.”

Verses 24-25

(24, 25)

“Consumed[8] with hunger, and devoured with pestilence, and bitter destruction—

[8] Or, possibly, “Regaled with hunger, and fed with bread of pestilence and bitter destruction,” &c.

I will also send the tooth of the beasts upon them, with the poison of crawling things of the dust.
Outside the sword bereaveth, and in the chambers terror:
Both young man and maiden, the suckling with the man of grey hairs.”

God’s four sore judgments are all depicted here—“the sword, and the famine, and the noisome beast, and the pestilence.” With Deuteronomy 32:25 comp. Jeremiah 14:18, “If I go forth into the field, then behold the slain with the sword! and if I enter into the city, then behold them that are sick with famine! yea both the prophet and the priest go about into a land that they know not.”

Verses 26-27

(26, 27) The argument of these verses is such as no man would dare to put into the mouth of the Most High. Moses had pleaded it (in Numbers 14:13-16; Exodus 32:12), but none but Jehovah Himself would say for Himself, “I feared the wrath of the enemy.”

Verse 27

(27) Behave themselves strangely.—Possibly, misunderstand it, or take note of it (as a strange thing).

Verse 28

(28) Void of counsel.—Literally, perishing in counsels, or, perhaps, spoiling the plans of Jehovah. Yet they said, “Come, and let us devise devices against Jeremiah; for the law shall not perish from the priest, nor counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophet” (Jeremiah 18:18).

Verse 29

(29) Consider their latter end.—Have some discernment as to their hereafter, what their destiny was, and what they will miss, if they fail to fulfil it.

Verse 30

(30) How should one (of their enemies) chase a thousand (of them).—Comp. the verse in Deuteronomy 28:25, and more especially Leviticus 26:8; Leviticus 26:17; Leviticus 26:36.

Had sold them.—Here first used of Jehovah. It is a common expression in the book of Judges (Deuteronomy 2:14; Deuteronomy 3:8; Deuteronomy 4:2; Deuteronomy 10:7; 1 Samuel 12:9).

Had shut them up (into the hand of their enemies).—Comp. Psalms 78:62, “He shut up His people also unto the sword.”

Verse 31

(31) For their rock.—Perhaps this may be taken, For their rock (the enemies’ God) is not as our Rock (Jehovah), and yet our enemies are judges, i.e., lords, over us. So Rashi takes it. The verse should be read as a parenthesis. The argument would be this: No cause can be found for the defeat of Israel except the displeasure of Jehovah. The enemies have no gods that could fight against Israel.

The word for judges occurs only in Exodus 21:22; Job 31:11. The phrase “our enemies themselves being judges” (of the question) is more like Latin than Hebrew, but it may be correct.

Verse 32

(32) Their vinei.e., Israel’s,” not the enemies; going back to Deuteronomy 32:30, “Their Rock,” i.e., Israel’s Rock, “had sold them . . . for their vine is of the vine of Sodom.” Comp. Hosea 10:1 : “Israel is an empty vine; he bringeth forth fruit unto himself;” and Isaiah 5:2; Isaiah 5:7 : “He looked that it should bring forth grapes, and it brought forth wild grapes . . . He looked for judgment, but behold oppression; for righteousness, but behold a cry.”

Verse 34

(34) Is not this laid up?—“This” is generally taken to refer to what follows, but it is not clear. It may refer to the fact that “He looked for grapes, and the vine brought forth wild grapes.”

Verse 35

(35) To me belongeth vengeance, and recompence.—In the Epistle to the Hebrews (Hebrews 10:30) this sentence is quoted with the first clause of Deuteronomy 32:36, “For we know Him that said, Vengeance belongeth unto me. I will recompense, saith the Lord.” And so in Romans 12:19.

Their foot shall slide in due time.—Rather, for the time when their foot shall slide.

Verse 36

(36) For the Lord shall judge His people.—Quoted in Hebrews 10:30, in connection with the previous verse. According to this view “shall judge” means “shall punish,” not “shall defend.”

And repent Himself for His servants.—Or, and will be comforted over His servants. Comp. Ezekiel 5:13, “I will cause my fury to rest upon them, and I will be comforted;” and also Isaiah 1:24, &c.

None shut up, or left.—Comp. 1 Kings 14:10; 1 Kings 21:21; 2 Kings 9:8, and especially Deuteronomy 14:26.

(37,38) He shall say,Where are their gods? . . . let them rise up and help you.—He did say so in Judges 10:14.

Verse 39

(39) I, even I, am he, and there is no God with me.—There are many very similar passages in Isaiah 41-46; but none of them exactly reproduces this sentence.

I kill, and I make alive.—This was repeated by Hannah in her song, “The Lord killeth and maketh alive(1 Samuel 2:6). Comp. also Isaiah 43:13, “Yea, before the day was I am he; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.”

Verses 40-41

(40, 41) For I lift up my hand.—This is the form in taking an oath. (Comp. Revelation 10:5.) The two verses may be connected thus: “For I lift up my hand to heaven, and say, As I live for ever, if I whet my lightning sword, and my hand take hold on judgment, I will render vengeance to mine enemies, and repay them that hate me.”

Verse 42

(42) My sword shall devour flesh.—Comp. Isaiah 66:16 : “For by fire and by His sword will the Lord plead with all flesh, and the slain of the Lord shall be many”

With blood.—Literally, from the blood of the slain and of the captivity, from the beginning of revenges upon the enemy. Judgment must begin at the house of God, as it did in Ezekiel’s vision (Ezekiel 9:6), “and begin at my sanctuary;” but it will not end there.

Verse 43

(43) Rejoice, O ye nations, with his people.[9]—This is cited by St. Paul to show that the Gentiles must also “glorify God for His mercy” in sending Jesus Christ. But it is not wholly fulfilled yet. “If the fall of God’s people was the wealth of the world . . . what will the receiving of them be. but life from the dead?” (See Romans 11:12; Romans 11:15; Romans 15:10.)

[9] The LXX. have a longer version of this verse, “Rejoice, ye heavens, with Him, and let all the angels of God worship Him (Hebrews 1:7); Rejoice, ye Gentiles, with His people, and let all the sons of God be strong in Him; for,” &c.

And will be merciful unto.—Literally, will reconcile or make atonement for His land, the land of His people, or for the land of His people. He will cleanse, forgive, and be merciful to it. The very last words speak of local restoration of the land to the people, and the people to the land. Of no other land has He said “The land is mine” “Israel” alone is called His “firstborn.”

Verse 44


(44) He, and Hoshea the son of Nun.—Why should Joshua be called Hoshea in this place? His name was apparently changed to Joshua at the time when he entered the promised land with the eleven others who searched it out (Numbers 13:8; Numbers 13:16). Now that he is about to lead Israel to the conquest, we are once more reminded of his change of name, and that the “salvation of Jehovah” was to be manifested through him. Possibly the change of name was also at this time confirmed to him. Compare the case of Jacob, whose change of name to Israel was twice made the subject of a Divine communication (Genesis 32:28; Genesis 35:10). Compare also what was said to him when about to enter into Egypt: “God spake unto Israel in the visions of the night, and said, Jacob, Jacob.”

We are assured by the mention of Hoshea in this place that the Joshua appointed to succeed Moses is the same person who was faithful among the spies.
It is also possible that this mention of Hoshea may be Joshua’s first mention of himself in the sacred writings. After the close of the song, the remainder of Deuteronomy is not covered by Moses’ signature. It belongs to Joshua, or else the author is unknown.

Verse 46

(46) Set your hearts unto all the words.—Rashi compares Ezekiel 40:4 : “Son of man, behold with thine eyes, and hear with thine ears, and set thine heart upon all that I shew thee.”

Which ye shall command.—Rather, that ye may command your children to observe to do all the words of this law. Obviously the knowledge of the law would depend very much on personal instruction for some time to come.

Verse 47

(47) For it is not a vain thing for you.—Not too light a thing for you, not unworthy of your attention.

It is your life.—For the last time in this book the people are assured that the very end of their existence in Canaan was the observance of the law of Jehovah as the law of the land.

Verse 48

(48) And the Lord spake unto Moses that selfsame day.—The day in which he spake the song in the ears of all Israel.

Verse 49

(49) Get thee up into this mountain Abarim.—See Numbers 27:12. The same command was given there, and was answered by Moses with the prayer for a successor, which was granted. All that is narrated between that passage and this may be considered as preliminary to Moses’ departure.

Mount Nebo.—The particular peak of the “Abarim” (“mountains beyond Jordan,” or “passages of Jordan”), where Moses was to die, was not mentioned before. “The rugged summit of mount Nebo rises abruptly 4,000 feet above the plain (where the Israelites were encamped), and still retains its name, with unchanged meaning, in the Arabic Neba, or height” (Couder’s Bible Handbook, p. 254).

Verses 50-51

(50, 51) And die in the mount . . . as Aaron thy brother died in mount Hor . . . because ye trespassed against me.—It may be asked why Moses and Aaron should both have been made to ascend a mountain to die. I believe a clue to the reason may be found in the words and act which constituted their transgression. They were bidden to speak to the rock in Kadesh, and they struck it. The words which Moses used on that occasion were, “Hear now, ye rebels; must we fetch you water out of this cliff (Selagh)?” The last words of the sentence are emphatic; and the rock is described as a cliff, not by the name given to the Rock in Horeb (Tzûr). The emphasis laid upon these words has been much discussed by Jewish commentators, though it escapes English readers. I suspect that the mistake Moses and Aaron made, in thinking it needful to strike the cliff, also led them to think it necessary to ascend it, instead of gathering the congregation together beneath it, and speaking to it from below. This view harmonises with the spiritual significance of the act. The smitten Rock in Horeb was Christ; the Cliff not to be smitten in Kadesh pointed also to Christ, ascended now, needing only the prayer of faith to call down all that He will give. And so Moses himself taught, in some of his latest words. “It is not in heaven that thou shouldest say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us? . . . But the word is nigh thee, in thy mouth.”

The impatient words of Moses, after toiling up the cliff with his brother Aaron, had to be recompensed by their ascending mount Hor and mount Nebo to die. Moses, as the more responsible of the two, had to ascend on each occasion, for his brother’s death and for his own. The remembrance of his brother’s death in the Lord may well have comforted Moses in the prospect of his own.

Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 32". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/deuteronomy-32.html. 1905.
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