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Bible Commentaries
Deuteronomy 31

The Biblical IllustratorThe Biblical Illustrator

Verses 1-8

Deuteronomy 31:1-8

Joshua, he shall go over before them.


Joshua’s taking possession of the land of Canaan is the figure of our entering into the promised kingdom on the descent of the Holy Ghost. But the courage of Joshua speaks of something far more deep and extensive than this; as the apostle in explaining Joshua and Canaan as the true rest to be found in Christ, adds, “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help.” It is not, then, of boldness in battle that God would teach us by Joshua, but it is altogether a figure of something else, of a brave courage in Christ; for “we wrestle not against flesh and blood,” but against spiritual powers; our weapons are not carnal, but mighty through God. Such is our Joshua, who hath taken upon Him not the nature of angels, but the seed of Abraham. But as for all warfare the requisite is courage, so Joshua represents in particular that courage of heart which is a great ingredient in the “faith that overcometh the world,” and in that “perfect love” which “casteth out fear.” Joshua speaks not of human virtue and affection, but of power; not of man’s disposition, but of victory in God. And what is this but of God in Jesus Christ? The one lesson, therefore, is that in all, and beyond all, His saints, we are to look to Jesus, remembering that He is God as well as man; that it is altogether different to that of looking to the example of any man, on account of His Godhead, His atonement, the gift of His Spirit; we look to Him and have power, we have power by looking; nay, by looking, as the apostle says, we “are changed into the same image, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.” His example, indeed, seems in some sense to set us afar off; for He is all perfection, we full of imperfections. He is at such an infinite distance that we cannot approach Him. But the name of Joshua brings us near; for by that we know He has power to put His own mind into us, and to make us like Himself. And the reason of this is, because we can never look to Him merely as our Example without remembering at the same time that He is in manifold ways unspeakably more. It is when we believe in Him as our God that His example itself becomes profitable to us in a way perfectly different from any example of good men. (Isaac Williams, B. D.)

Be strong and of a good courage.

Strength and courage

Strength and courage are inseparable, and the injunction to be strong is nearly equivalent to the injunction to be courageous. “Be strong” can only mean, “Rally the strength you have.” “Be courageous,” means, “Concentrate your strength against danger or difficulty.” Courage, then, is the application of manly force in confronting obstacles. Courage is strong-heartedness. Etymologically, it suggests that the heart is the innermost centre, “the rallying ground,” of the forces of moral manhood. Of one who does not or cannot rally his resources of strength we say that he is discouraged, disheartened, has lost heart. We are dealing, therefore, with a rational rather than with an animal quality. It is a virtue in so far as it involves a rational, self-determined effort in confronting the contradictions of life. It is a quality of character rather than a condition of nerve or muscle. It is the courage of intelligence and freedom, the courage of self-determined moral purpose, the courage of moral strength, and it has many forms.

1. Such courage is preeminently the courage of a rational faith. In every struggle, physical, political, moral, whatever it may be, a man needs good footing. The moral athlete who makes a successful stand against the difficulties of life must have a good standing ground. Faith gives us footing. Scepticism is a sapper and miner. It takes the ground from under our feet. In any difficulty or danger the mind must be in a positive attitude of confidence. There is nothing but moral imbecility in perpetual distrust or doubt. An over-sceptical habit of mind involves moral paralysis. Faith is vantage ground for the battle. A man may find a certain standing ground in himself. Well, God has put strength into manhood, and He gives men ample opportunity to test it, and a man ought to be able to believe in himself. To distrust one’s self in a pinch is to invite defeat. It is not safe to suspend one’s self in the uncertainty of self-distrust. One must trust other men also. No one can stand alone. We are obliged to believe in our fellowmen. A surrender of faith in God and providence would leave the world in the imbecility of despair. And I question if there be not in all rational faith in personal manhood, in fellow men, and in the world in which we live a certain latent or implicit confidence in a higher power and in a moral order that has a rational and moral beginning and goal. Certain it is that when men begin to think ethically and rationally they are obliged to postulate the reality of God as a basis of confidence in the ultimate victory of life. This courage of faith in God is the old Hebrew courage. The same stress is put upon faith in the ethics of the Christian life. And this is no insignificant thing as related to the moral conflict of life. Faith is a fundamental virtue in the battle of life, because it is only unto faith that we shall add a manly courage. It is the God of redemption that is committed to us and will see us through the struggle of life.

2. It is the courage of rational moral conviction. Conviction involves the action of truth in the conscience. It gets lodged there in the way of moral conquest. Moral truth is well intrenched only when it is intrenched in an intelligent conscience, and the only valiant soldier in its army is the man who carries it about with him in his moral conviction as a man carries his life and force in the blood of his heart. The man who is morally mastered by the truth is himself masterful. Moral realities do not get very deep root in the soft of the mind alone. Convince and persuade a man, and he may not remain convinced or persuaded. The truth must get below the mind and below emotion, that only transiently dominates the will. But it has won a great victory when it gets hold of the conscience and wins men to its intelligent service. When a man invests with moral sacredness what he holds for truth he will maintain it against all comers and will advance with it in the face of all opposition. Men do not sacrifice much for nor stand by what they hold indifferently. But the quality of correctness is not enough. Living things hold by the root, and they need good soil. Rational moral soil is the only soil that is fit for the truth one holds with tenacity and defends with courage. The passive virtue of humility is indeed a Christian virtue, but it is a humility that should be matched by the most heroic and aggressive boldness. That was a brave Church, that Apostolic Church. They did not stop to balance dangers against duties. They spoke and acted and took the consequences, and they won a victory unmatched in human history. It was not temporising, it was not political trimming, it was not partisan cowardice, that founded Christianity. Strength is what this world is looking for, and what it is sure to respect. Not too bold, not shallow audacity; the sober courage of strong moral conviction--this is Christian courage, and this is what the world needs today.

3. A rational devotion also lies at the foundation of strong and courageous character. Devotion implies an object to be attained, upon which one concentrates his energies. There is a goal to be reached. It lies beyond all intervening obstacle, difficulty, or danger, and to reach it one concentrates effort upon it. Any sort of devotion, even the commonest, involves a rallying of one’s personal forces about a central and commanding purpose to reach the desired object at all hazard and despite all difficulty. And here is the rallying ground of courage. In fact, what is courage but devotion to a desired object in the face of all obstacles? Now, all concentrated and persistent effort in the work of life must rally about this central purpose, and this purpose will successfully meet all difficulty that lies scattered along the entire life path. Such a life must be a strong and courageous life. It is the life of one who puts the object of his striving far over and beyond the farthest mountain peak of earthly difficulty, and who has an inclusive and commanding purpose to go over, mastering every barrier till he compass the object of his life. This mighty purpose to reach the goal of life is a species of devotion. The moral life of the world is dependent on personal relations. Some form of piety is necessary to morality. It is preeminently true in the higher domain of religion. The constraint of Christ’s love is the heart of Christian devotion. And what is Christian courage but the soul’s trusting and loving self-preservation for the tasks of life, in face of all difficulty and obstacle and danger, out of a sentiment and principle of gratitude to Him who is of right the Lord and Master of life?

4. To a rational faith, conviction, and devotion there should be added a rational hope as the crown and completion of a strong and courageous Christian life. What we strive for must be attainable in some measure and form at least, or strength and courage fail. If hope should fail the battle of life would end. All over the field men would drop and rise no more. The powers of manhood would fail, and the end would be a universal wail of despair. Therefore you hope, and therefore you have courage for the battle of life. And there is always an abundant stock of hope on hand for the world at large. All over the world we see its conquests. The heart of man in a struggling life is demonstration that, good lies behind and before. It is God’s witness. That it is possible amid life’s mountain barriers is intimation that good is the law of life and good its final goal. What a world it is, and what a life is this human life! If this small fragment of it were the end it sometimes seems as if no power of last defeat could crush the energies of this strange struggling creature, man. It is clear enough that the world was built for conquest by him, even material conquest. But it was built, too, for moral conquest, and what we need is hope for moral conquest. To conquer the world is not to conquer the untrained forces of the soul, nor to conquer sin, nor to conquer death. We are conquering the material world in this nation of ours, but materialism and animalism and sordid selfishness are conquering us. But not all men are conquering in the battle of material life. The notes of discontent all about us are bodeful. They may portend the desolation of a coming tempest. Many give up the struggle. What shall we do with the baffled? After all, is it not the larger number with whom the world goes ill? And there is a little joyous section of this struggling world, weighted with the common sorrows, but joyful still, that for almost nineteen centuries has been singing the song of hope to keep the weary brotherhood and sisterhood in heart. The literature of hope is very rich. And it suggests how much the song of hope is needed in the bafflings of life. The true goal of life is “where beyond these voices there is peace.” We need a Divine hand to tear away the darkness of life and disclose the crown that glitters for the conqueror amid the glories of the perfected kingdom of redemption. The song of the redemption hope is a new song for earth. It is this hope of eternal redemption that holds the soul to its heavenly inheritance. Courage for the moral conflict of life, courage to meet the power of sin and of the last great enemy, is the courage of Christian hope. (L. O. Brascow, D. D.)

The Lord, He it is that doth go before thee.--

The new year

“the Lord.” Lordship, kingship, governorship--call it what you may, the central authority of any order of government embodies a truth which is universally desired, a power which can hold in control other powers, and round which they can centre. I can see along the untrodden path terrible threatening, defying, resisting foes within and without. Sorrow, suffering, sin, and temptation; a prosperity when we may forsake Him, an adversity when we may forget Him. Is there anyone who can lord it over all these? It is in the finding of that lordship that the happiness, the safety of the year is ensured. Keep that word, “The Lord,” before you all through the year; take orders from Him for the daily march; report yourself to Him each night. The Lord reigneth!

“He it is that doth go before.” You have a year before you. You cannot live without thinking of the future. The error lies in thinking of tomorrow without thinking of tomorrow’s God. God has gone before you.

“He will be with thee.” Out of providence grows the desire of fellowship--companionship. I do not doubt that God finds some pleasure in being with us; but surely the greater pleasure should be in our being with Him. He knows that, and He meets our wishes for fellowship.

“He will not fail thee.” How little do we believe in the omnipotence of God, which backs all His love! We cannot exhaust His resources. In no possible position can we be placed where He cannot assist us.

“Neither forsake thee.” Then fear not, neither be dismayed! (A. D. Spong.)

Courage, with God as our leader

Think what a difference it makes to men in meeting difficulties, privations, dangers if their eyes are set on a leader whom they know and trust, even though he be but a man like themselves. I shall always remember a description given to me once of a body of English troops charging up a slope under heavy fire to gain a strong position. As they charged on, and when the enemy’s fire had begun to tell seriously on them, they came for a while under shelter; the losses and the danger ceased, and they stopped to pull themselves together. But then came the real trial; beyond the shelter there was another open stretch of slope, fully exposed; they had found out what advancing under fire meant, and they saw it would be worse than ever ell there. It was one of those moments that bring out in men the natural love of life, that make it hardest to keep straight and firm. It was the starting again that went so much against the grain; starting again, with the experience of past loss, to the certainty of more loss--no one quite liked to begin,--and they were already staying under the shelter a bit longer than was needed; it seemed almost as if they might refuse to come out and go on. And then, by one man’s act, through God’s grace, it all came right again; a young officer sprang out on to the mound at the edge of the shelter, and with a cheer the men followed him unfalteringly. It was the lead they wanted, the sense of someone going before them, the sense of having someone to follow loyally--unto death if need be. That call to follow one we trust, that sense of one who goes before us: it is a wonderful help for courage and perseverance, when things are hard with us. And there is one fight in which we all want it, in which we all may have it: the fight, the very real, stiff fight against our temptations to do wrong. “The Lord, He it is that doth go before thee.” It is hard to face being laughed at, being scored off, being looked down on for doing what is right. But Christ has gone before us on that road; He was despised, mocked, laughed at; we have a Leader to follow when we are tried that way. It is hard to put up with injustice, to forgive quite heartily one’s enemies; but He has gone before us there. He prayed for the men who were driving the nails through His hands on Calvary. It is hard to give up pleasures, to say “No” to one’s natural desires, to keep one’s body in subjection; but He has gone before us in that: He fasted forty days; He spent whole nights in prayer upon the hills; He had nowhere to lay His head. It is hard to bear pain patiently, or to go on with the same weary burden day after day; but we can never have so much to bear as He bore. It will be hard, perhaps, to face death rightly, calmly, when the time comes; but on that mysterious journey also He has gone before us, and thousands upon thousands of His soldiers have quietly and fearlessly advanced to die, because they were sure He would not fail or forsake them. It is wonderful to think of the great army that has followed, that is following Him who has gone before upon that way of truth and loyalty and patience. Some in one sort of work, and some in another, they have set themselves to pass on up that rough, weary road; stumbling often, it may be, hut not falling out; sticking to it day after day, to keep a pure unselfish purpose, and to do their duty. Men and women, rich and poor, young and old, soldiers, students, statesmen, labourers, men of business: temptation comes on them, and weakness binders them, and past sins, it may be, shame them; but they seek His pardon and they humbly long that anyhow He will not cast them off, or leave them desolate in the darkness. And so they Struggle on, nearer, it may be, all the while than they at all imagine, to Him who goes before them; surer year by year of His constant care and love for them; surer that for all the roughness and steepness there is no way like His: no other way in which a man so grows in manliness and strength, so learns to love both God and man. (Bishop Paget.)

Fear not, neither be dismayed.--

No fear

Glorious words of encouragement to a people going forth to meet opposing forces, terrible foes, and unknown dangers.

The assurer. “The Lord.” The very word implies kingship, governorship, authority, power.

The assurance. Three promises.

1. Prevision. “Go before.”

2. Fellowship. “Be with” thee.”

3. Constancy. “Will not fail.”

The inference. Our Father never sleeps, never tires; and if He is all that He promises, how can we fear? (Homilist.)

Verses 10-12

Deuteronomy 31:10-12

Thou shalt read this law.

The public reading of the law

Directions here given for public reading of the law.

1. To be read at “the feast of tabernacles,” the greatest of all their festivals, when, harvest and vintage being completed, they had most leisure to attend to it. This feast was celebrated in “the year of release,” the most proper time that could be chosen for reading the law; for then the people were freed from debts, troubles, and cares of a worldly nature, and at liberty to attend to it without distraction.

2. The law was to be read by Joshua, chief governor, and by others who had the charge of instructing the people. Thus Joshua himself read to the congregation (Joshua 8:34-35); Josiah and Ezra (2 Chronicles 34:30; Nehemiah 8:2). But Jehoshaphat employed priests and Levites (2 Chronicles 17:9). This public reading was in part the duty of the king, the Jews say, who began it, and that afterwards it was taken up by the priests.

3. The law was to be read in the hearing of all Israel (verse 11).

(1) Pious Jews who had copies doubtless read in their own houses.

(2) Some portion was read in the synagogue every Sabbath day (Acts 15:21).

(3) In Jehoshaphat’s time it was read by his command in the different cities of Judah, and the people were instructed out of it by the priests and Levites, but at every year of release the law was read, not only publicly to all the people, but throughout, and read from an original copy, which served as a standard by which all other copies were tried.

4. The whole congregation must assemble to hear the law.

Hence learn--

1. That when our debts are remitted, and we are brought into the liberty of God’s children, we shall then delight to hear and obey our delivering Lord in every call of duty.

2. The Word of God, being our only rule, should be read and known of all; how cruel the attempt, and how contrary to the Divine will, to keep it locked up from the people in an unknown tongue, and to establish ignorance by law!

3. Nothing should engage us more solicitously than the early instruction of our children in the knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, which alone can make them wise unto salvation. (J. Wilson.)

Verse 13

Deuteronomy 31:13

That their children . . . may hear, and learn to fear the Lord.

Early piety

Godliness in children is accounted by Christians generally to be extraordinary, or at least uncommon; and perhaps there are but few godly children. Compared with the number of children who are blessed with godly parentage, and taught in Christian schools, who are present when the public ordinances of Christ’s Church are administered, the children who manifest true piety are certainly not many. If our observation be accurate, Christian parents and teachers and pastors do not, with sufficient confidence, look for, or expect to find, godliness in children. If we employ those means which are divinely ordained for the conversion of human beings in our efforts On behalf of children, why should we not expect immediate and early results?

It is true that the sighs of a child are not heavy; they are not, as in the soul of manhood and womanhood, ocean waves, but they are rather like the ripple upon the waters of some sheltered lake. It is true that the emotions of a child are not the hardy blossoms of a sturdy fruit tree, but the tender and delicate bloom of a tree that has as yet yielded little more than promise of fruit. Nevertheless, that blossom, which winds will tear and shake, is the outflowing of life; that ripple on the lake shows susceptibility in the water towards its sister element, air; and those dewdrop tears show that earth and heaven, man and God, are working upon the child’s nature. If the understanding of a child be less enlightened, the soul is more sensitive; if the judgment be less formed, the conscience is more tender; if there be but little strength of purpose, the heart is less hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.

If decided piety be within reach of a child, how is it that the absence of godliness from children does not more distress us, and that piety in children is not more our aim and hope, and that it is not more frequently the burden of our prayer? Why, as some, always suspect a child who professes to be godly? Godly children are God’s workmanship, created by Jesus Christ, and if we would be the means of leading children into true godliness, we must bid them look to our Saviour Jesus. I say to Him, not at Him. There is a vast difference between these things. The child looks at the King when he goes to see him proceed in state to open the Parliament; but he looks to his mother when he relies on her for the supply of his daily wants. (S. Martin, D. D.)

Susceptible periods of life

In fresco painting it is necessary to throw on the colours while the plaster to be decorated is damp. The rule is, “Work while the moisture remains”; hence the need in this particular branch of art of a definite plan of well-mixed colours, and of a swift and steady hand. The principle has a wider application. There are times when the human character is especially susceptible to impression, such as the period of early youth, the occasion of a great sorrow, a great joy, or a great change--times when the influence you exert will be received readily and sink deeply. Would you stamp lives and hearts around you with the beauty of heavenly patterns, make them glow with the hues of heavenly grace? Be sure of your plan, have your materials ready, and paint while the plaster is wet. (W. A. Gray.)

Verse 14

Deuteronomy 31:14

Thy days approach that thou must die.

The approach of death

Those who live chiefly for this world try not to think of death, because they would like nothing better than to live on here forever. But the shutting of our eyes to the approach of death does not make him turn away from us, and therefore our wisest and safest course is to prepare for his coming, whether it be near or far off.

Death does not occupy that place in the Word of God which it does occupy in that religion of ours which professes to be derived from the Word of God. In the New Testament death is simply treated as an abolished thing. The second coming of Christ is always, in the exhortations of the New Testament, substituted for death. Death, in the eye of faith, is not the end, but the beginning, of all; it is the commencement of the “life that knows no ending.”

If Christ has robbed death of its sting, it does not behove us to look at death as if he had not done so. Let us view the approach of death as something which He means should bring us nearer to Him. We must pray Him, since the days approach in which we must die, that death may not find us unprepared. And as we look forward to the future we must commit our way and ourselves into His keeping. (F. E. Paget.)

Nearing the end

There is no day fixed; it is an “approach” that is spoken of. The word may therefore be addressed to every man well advanced in life. There is a period at which the road becomes a slope downwards, and at the foot of the hill is the last earthly resting place. This is the way of God. He tells them that the end is “approaching.” Now and again He seems to cut them off suddenly as with an unexpected stroke; yet perhaps the suddenness is in appearance rather than in reality. To be born is to have notice to quit; to live is to die. Every sin takes out of us some portion of life; we cannot have an evil thought without the quantity of life within us being diminished. We cannot think a noble thought, or find a free way in our hearts for a sublime impulse, without increasing the sum total of our life--without beginning our immortality. Thus is a man stronger after prayer than before; thus does every sweet and holy hymn send a thrill of gladness through the soul that sings. Let every man take notice that he must die. From a literary point of view that is a pitiful commonplace; but from the point of view of actual experience and all the issues of death it is a sublime and an appalling announcement. But Moses must die. We have never associated the idea of death with Moses. He has always been so strong: the camp never halted because of his ill health; he was always at the head; his voice was clear and mellow; his eye was bright and darting, and yet so genial--as if it could not conceal the smile that was in his heart. Yet the strongest trees yield to silent time; the mightiest strength bows down itself in weakness and trouble: Samson dies, Hercules becomes but a figure in ancient history; there is no man who abideth forever. Now that Moses is walking up the mountain, we cannot but think of the life-long hardship he has endured. Read the history of his association with Israel, and say if there is one “Thank you” in all the tumultuous story. Does one man speak out of the host and say, In the name of Israel I give thee thanks? We do not know some men until we see them wandering away from us. What a strain there was also upon the religious side of his nature! He had no recreation: the bow was never unbent; he was always being called up to hear the Lord communicate some new law, some new charge or address. To his veneration a continual appeal was addressed. What wonder if his face wore the aspect of solemnity? What wonder if his eye was alight with the very splendours he had beheld? Then is Moses not to see Canaan? Moses would not care now to see any land flowing with milk and honey. He shall see the upper Canaan--the happy land where the flowers never wither, where the summer is guaranteed to last eternally. Thus God educates men. Moses goes upon the mountain to die. It is well; such a man ought to die upon a mountain. The scene is full of symbolism; it is quick with spiritual suggestiveness. Men may die upon mountains if they will; or men may perish in dark valleys if they like. To die upon the mountain is to die into heaven. The place of our death, as to its significance and honour, will be determined by the life we lead. We die just as we live, and, so to say, where we live. Moses lived a mountain life: he was a highlander; he lived on the hills, and on the hills he died. May it not be so with us? By well-done duty, by well-endured affliction, by well-tested patience, by complete self-surrender, by continual imitation and following of Christ, we may die on some lofty hill, cool with dew or bright with sunshine, the point nearest to the skies. To die at such an elevation is to begin to live. (J. Parker, D. D.)

Verses 22-30

Deuteronomy 31:22-30

Moses therefore wrote this song.

The last song

The old man whom we have known so long dies singing. All men should die so; all men may so die; God is not sparing in His gift of song or privilege of music; music was in His purpose long before speech; all things are to end in a great song. There are songs without words; there is singing without articulate and audible voice: we may sing with the spirit and with the understanding. Blessed are they who, before going up to Nebo to die, sing in the valley, and, so to say, pass out of sight with their singing robes around them; to this end we are invited in Christ, and in Christ this is the only possible end--namely, triumph, song; the rapture of expectancy and, the inspiration of hope. The song was to be a “witness” for God “against” the children of Israel--say, rather, as between Himself and the children of Israel. Witness does not always imply accusation; it quite as frequently implies confirmation, approval. It embodies in itself a sure testimony, strong because of its indisputableness. Moses wrote the song “the same day.” We speak of our efforts of genius and the time required for the elaboration of this or that attempt to serve the sanctuary; but if you can write a song at all you can write it at once. Herein the great French poet’s dictum is true: said one to Victor Hugo, “Is it not difficult to write, epic poetry?” “No,” said the great genius of his day--“no, easy or impossible.” What are the characteristics of a great song?

1. The first most noticeable characteristic of this song is that it is intensely theological. The keyword is God--in His majesty, in His compassion, in His righteousness, in His tears--God is a species of incarnation thousands of years before the event of Bethlehem.

2. Another characteristic of the song is its broad human history. Read the thirty-second chapter from end to end, and you will find it a record of historical events. Facts are the pedestals on which we set sculptured music. We must know our own history if we would know the highest religious arguments, and apply with unquestionable and beneficent skill great Christian appeals. The witness must be in ourselves: we must know, and taste, and feel, and handle of the Word of Life, and live upon it, returning to it as hunger returns to bread and thirst flies swiftly to sparkling fountains. When you are doubtful as to religious mysteries, read your own personal record: when metaphysics are too high or too deep, peruse facts, put the pieces of your lives together, see how they become a shape--a house not made with hands, a temple fashioned in heaven. The days are not to be detached from one another, they are to be linked on and held in all the symbolism and reality of their unity.

3. Hence, another characteristic of the song is its record of providence. God found Jacob “in a desert land, and in the waste howling wilderness; He led him about,” etc.; and then comes all the detail of providential care and love, and all the sublime appeal arising out of the undisputed goodness of God. We do not need providence to be proved by wordy argument, for we ourselves are living illustrations of God’s nearness, and greatness, and love. We must never give up this arm of our panoply; this weapon is a weapon strong and keen; we must in the use of it testify what we have seen and known, and we must magnify God by facts that have occurred within the limits of our own observation and experience. Every Christian man is a miracle; every Christian life is a Bible; every devout experience is a proof of the possibility of inspiration.

4. The song is also accusatory: “Jeshurun waxed fat, and kicked; thou art waxen fat,” etc. When a song accuses, how terrific is the indictment! Who expects a song to double back upon the singer and accuse him of ingratitude, presumption, or forgetfulness? Our hymns are witnesses for us and against us; our very music has some plain things to tell us; even in song we do not escape justice. The songs of the Bible are not mere sentiments melodised and turned into a species of aesthetic luxury: Bible songs are Bible theology, Bible statutes, Bible precepts, Divine interventions and providences. (J. Parker, D. D.)

Farewell song of Moses

A most noticeable and outstanding feature of this great song is its series of pictures for the popular imagination, and its long array of vivid figures, to school and chasten a stiff-necked people. There is nothing hero of abstract reasoning or cold analysis. Everything is presented in concrete form as to a nation still in its spiritual childhood. This is the educative song of Israel. In tone it is both tender and terrifying. Its imagery, sometimes winning, sometimes startling, lends itself to warmest expostulations and appeals. How graphic and memorable are its emblems! The Divine words are at the outset likened to the gentle rain and dew; God Himself is the Rock, for stability and faithfulness; His training of Israel, like the eagle with its fledglings; the people, an intractable and stubborn ox resentful of the yoke; their apostate conduct, that of a faithless wife; the Divine love glowing and gleaming about them like the fire of spousal jealousy, and His indignation like an armed host--these, and other figures follow in quick succession, many of them derived from Israel’s wilderness experiences. For it is the poetry of the desert that dominates the song. But while the imagery is derived from the past, the song itself reaches out to the future. It is, in fact, a prophetic outline of Jewish history, designed to lodge in the nation’s heart the solemn truth that

“Sorrow tracketh wrong, As echo follows song.”

This is the primitive or moral prophecy, the type and canon of all future prophetic work as Moses first song was the type of all that was to be spiritually poetic. (A. H. Drysdale, M. A.)

The farewell ode

For poetic sublimity, for devout piety, for holy expostulation, and for solemn warning, this farewell ode has never been surpassed, and it furnishes an incidental proof of the fact that, unlike most other men, Moses continued, to the very end of his long life, to grow in those qualities of imagination and fiery enthusiasm which are usually regarded as the special characteristics of youth. There is in it a wondrous combination of the strength of manhood with the experience of old age, and of the imaginative force of youth with the wisdom which increasing years supply. Nor is this all: there is a marvellous interblending of the various relationships in which Moses stood at once to God and to the people. He praises Jehovah with the fervour of a seraph, and he pleads with the people with the tenderness of a father. He deals with national subjects in the spirit of a statesman, and warns of coming doom with the sternness of a prophet. Now the strains are soft and low, as if they came from the cords of an AEolian harp stirred by the breeze of a gentle summer eve; anon they are loud and stormful, as if some gust of passionate intensity had come sweeping over his spirit; now they are luminous with the recollection of God’s mercies, and again they are lowering, as if laden with the electric burden of God’s coming wrath. Of course, in all he spoke as he was moved by the Holy Ghost; but, as the Spirit used not the vocal organs only, but the soul of the man, this ode conclusively proves that if Moses had not been the grandest lawgiver and statesman of his nation, and even of the world, be might have been one of the noblest poets. It shows, too, that there was in him the exceedingly rare alliance of a mind which was alive to the importance of the minutest details of legislation, with a soul whose wings could soar into the loftiest regions of thought and feeling. With undimmed eye he looked on more trying light than that of the common sunshine, and with unabated force he ascended, even at the age of six-score years, a more ethereal height than that of Pisgah; so that, if this ode had been found elsewhere than in the Bible, mere literary critics would have risen into ecstasies over its exquisite manifestation of beauty in the lap of terror. (W. M. Taylor, D. D.)

The dying song of Moses

The subject of the song is Jehovah and His people, and the substance of it is given in Deuteronomy 32:3-6. The faithfulness of Jehovah, the God of truth, the Rock of salvation, and the unfaithfulness of His fickle and foolish people--such are clearly to be the main ideas of the song. In the after developments there are three things very powerfully set forth.

What Israel owes to God (Deuteronomy 32:7-14). Here the great things which God had done for them are brought out in a few bold delineations, mingling strength and pathos in a marvellous degree. He shows how from the beginning God had set His regardful eyes upon them, how He had guided the history of all other nations in a manner subservient to their welfare, making them and their development the historic centre of the ancient world; how He had found them poor, helpless wanderers in the wilderness, and formed them into a people there--His own people, whom He had fed and led and trained as a tender mother might--and at last brought into the goodly land He had promised them, exalting them high among the nations of the earth, and giving them richly all things to enjoy.

How will Israel pay the debt? To this question the prophetic song gives a sad answer. Israel will pay her debt of gratitude to God by base ingratitude, beginning with self-indulgence, and going on to neglect of Jehovah and the worship of strange gods. Such is the sad prophetic picture in Deuteronomy 32:15-18. Thus Israel requites God.

How will God requite Israel? Almost all that remains of the song is taken up with the fearful answer to this question, setting forth how God takes notice of it first, and is filled with indignation; how He hides His face and leaves His people to themselves and to the bitter fruits of their ingratitude; how He takes their precious privileges from them, and gives them to those who till then had been “no people”; how, finally, He lets loose on them all the fury of His vengeance, and utterly destroys their place and nation. All this we find realised in history. The entire history of the founding of the Christian Church, especially in the light in which it is put by the great apostle, who again and again quotes the words of this song in connection with the calling of the Gentiles, is a fulfilment of these warning words of Moses. All this is very dark; but it is dark only to those who “forsake God, and lightly esteem the Rock of their salvation” (Deuteronomy 32:15). The very faithfulness of God to His most terrible threatenings is an additional reason why those who believe in Him should exercise most unshaken confidence in Him. Then, too, if you examine the song throughout, you will find it full of evidence of the goodness and long-suffering of the Lord. Though there is inflexible justice, both in the prophecy itself and in its fulfilment, yet throughout all it is evident that He speaks and acts, “who delighteth not in the death of him that dieth”; who “willeth not that any should perish, but that all should turn unto him and live We have looked at this song as a witness against Israel. This was doubtless its original design; but its scope is far wider. This song was written for a witness against all who enjoy Israel’s privileges and follow Israel’s sins. Even among the Gentiles, though all are alike welcome, and exclusive privileges are now done away entirely in Christ Jesus, there have been and are those who are far in advance of others in respect to the advantages they enjoy. First came the Greek and Latin races, united in the mighty Roman Empire. To them first, among the Gentiles, the Gospel was preached; and by them first, as a nation and race, was the Gospel received. Three hundred years had not passed away from the death of “Jesus of Nazareth” till the faith of “that same Jesus” was the established religion of the Roman Empire; and not long thereafter the privileges of the Gospel were within reach of almost the whole of that vast population. What a change from the martyr days, the days of hiding in the catacombs! Was it not as true of the Christians of the Roman Empire as it was of ancient Israel, that God had “found them in a desert land,” had “led them about,” had “kept them as the apple of His eye,” and had at last “made them ride upon the high places of the earth,” and given them to “eat the increase of the fields”? Well, how did the favoured people then pay their debt of gratitude? Was it not the old story over again? “Jeshurun waxed fat and kicked.” They “waxed fat, grew thick, were covered with fatness; then they forsook God, and lightly esteemed the Rock of their salvation.” They became self-indulgent, “earthly, sensual, devilish.” Corruption of manners and corruption of doctrine set in “like a flood;” they turned to “strange gods”; they worshipped saints and relics, and bowed down to images; they adored the consecrated wafer. The very light that was in them became darkness, and “how great was that darkness!” And as, before, the heritage of truth and blessing had passed from the Jew to the Gentile, so now it passed from the Roman to the Teuton. These Teutonic races of the north had been “no people” in the eyes of the empire of Rome. They had been known only as barbarians, both in the Greek and Latin tongues. Yet these “no people,” these “barbarians,” who had fallen one by one before the all-conquering might of Rome, became the very people who fell heirs to the legacy of Divine truth, and the great blessings which accompany its possession. For, though the first reformation seemed for a time to work among the Latin races also, it was only for a time; the hold of corruption was too firm for it to last, and they all relapsed into the darkness from which at first they had seemed ready to emerge, while among the Germanic races the light of truth continued to shine and to diffuse itself over a widening area. And now it is the Teutonic races who are in the position of Israel of old, and principally those who speak the English language. Who can tell what we who speak the English tongue owe to Jehovah, “the Rock of our salvation”? Where did He “find” us? Was it not “in a desert land” indeed--a very howling wilderness? See what the early Britons were when first they heard Jehovah’s name. And how has the Lord “led” them since then! How tenderly did He “bear” our fathers on, teaching them by degrees the use of that liberty which has grown with Britain’s growth, and strengthened with her strength. And how has He now “made us to ride upon the high places of the earth,” and given “us the increase of the fields”! For is it not a patent fact that the destinies of the world are at this moment, under God, swayed by those who speak our mother tongue, while the great mass of the world’s wealth is ill their hands? And all this we owe to Him who is “Head over all things.” Not only our rich spiritual privileges, but even our temporal greatness, our and position and power and wealth in the world, we owe to Jehovah, God of Israel, “the Rock of our salvation.” Well, how do we “requite the Lord”? Is it not very much in the old way? Is not wealth breeding self-indulgence and luxury; and are not these leading us, as a people, to forget God, and “lightly to esteem the Rock of our salvation”? Are there not many “strange gods” among us: Mammon, Fashion, Pleasure? And what of this sad revival of Middle-Age superstition? Has not the sign of Rome been written with a pen of iron and the point of a diamond? And why this haste to be partakers again of her sin and of her plagues? Oh, is not this song a witness against us too? God is long-suffering indeed, and it is well that He is, or where should we English-speaking people be today? But His long-suffering has a limit, as is evident from the past. (J. M. Gibson, D. D.)

Verse 27

Deuteronomy 31:27

Thy stiff neck.

Stiff necks

There are many stiff-necked people. They are met with in the workshop, in the office, and almost everywhere. I should not be surprised at all if we had many in this assembly whose necks are as stiff as it is possible to be. There are a great many necks stiff with pride and selfishness. There are some men who are saving money; who live in their freehold cottages; whose necks are too stiff to see that they ought to pay the rent of the cottage in which their poor old parents live, who, perchance, in some country village are getting parish relief. There are other kinds of stiff necks. From our childhood most of us have been taught to love the Saviour, to trust in God, and do good. Yet I am afraid that a great many of us have disregarded the advice of those who loved us, and we have grown so unwise that many of us have stiffened our necks against religion. There is a tendency, now and again, to sneer at religion, and to talk about it as if it were all nonsense. There are a great many men who stiffen their necks. This is unwise. Take the New Testament and study that life of Jesus Christ, as sensible men. Look at the book, examine its pages, and learn its religion. Do not stiffen your necks against God, against purity, against holiness. (Charles Leach.)


Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Deuteronomy 31". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tbi/deuteronomy-31.html. 1905-1909. New York.
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