14 And the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, the days approach when you must die. Call Joshua and present yourselves in the tent of meeting, that I may commission him.” And Moses and Joshua went and presented themselves in the tent of meeting. 15 And the Lord appeared in the tent in a pillar of cloud. And the pillar of cloud stood over the entrance of the tent.
16 And the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, you are about to lie down with your fathers. Then this people will rise and whore after the foreign gods among them in the land that they are entering, and they will forsake me and break my covenant that I have made with them. 17 Then my anger will be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them and hide my face from them, and they will be devoured. And many evils and troubles will come upon them, so that they will say in that day, ‘Have not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us?’ 18 And I will surely hide my face in that day because of all the evil that they have done, because they have turned to other gods.
19 “Now therefore write this song and teach it to the people of Israel. Put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me against the people of Israel. 20 For when I have brought them into the land flowing with milk and honey, which I swore to give to their fathers, and they have eaten and are full and grown fat, they will turn to other gods and serve them, and despise me and break my covenant. 21 And when many evils and troubles have come upon them, this song shall confront them as a witness (for it will live unforgotten in the mouths of their offspring). For I know what they are inclined to do even today, before I have brought them into the land that I swore to give.” 22 So Moses wrote this song the same day and taught it to the people of Israel. – Deuteronomy 31:14-22 ESV
There is no way to escape the fact that this is a sad section of Scripture. Moses has finished his address to the people of Israel, having recounted the law and warned them to stand by their commitment to keep it or face the consequences. He has given a copy of the law to the priests and elders, telling them to recite it before the people every seventh year as part of the annual celebration of the Feast of Booths. He has gone into great detail about the blessings and the curses, making sure the people were fully aware of just how serious God considered His covenant relationship with them.
Moses knows he won’t be going into the promised land. God has denied him that privilege because of his own failure to treat God as holy before the people. But, that has not kept Moses from doing everything in his power to prepare the people for their entrance into the promised land, including his selection of Joshua as his successor and their leader.
But as Moses and Joshua make their way into the tent of meeting so that God can commission Israel’s new shepherd, Moses has no way of knowing the news that awaits him. After reconfirming the fact that Moses will die outside the land of promise, God informs the two men that Israel will fail to keep their covenant commitment to Him. And, as a result, they will experience all the curses Moses warned them about.
“…this people will rise and whore after the foreign gods among them in the land that they are entering, and they will forsake me and break my covenant that I have made with them.” – Deuteronomy 31:16 ESV
God didn’t sugarcoat HIs message. He didn’t preface His remarks with a more positive spin, telling Moses and Joshua that there would be a period of relative obedience followed by the joy of His blessing. No, He cut to the chase and delivered the devastating news that Israel will prove to be unfaithful and, as a result, God’s “anger will be kindled against them in that day” (Deuteronomy 31:17 ESV).
As Moses and Joshua stood before the shekinah glory of God, in the form of the pillar of smoke, they must have been shocked at the message they heard. This was to have been a day of gladness and joy as the people prepared to enter the land promised to them by God more than half a century earlier. Moses and the people of Israel had waited a long time to get to this point, and now God was delivering the far-from-encouraging news that their stay in the land of promise would be temporary and would not end well.
God warns that they will experience “many evils and troubles” and be devoured. He will end up forsaking them and hiding His face from them. Why? Because they will forsake Him and break the covenant they made with Him. They will worship false gods.
And yet, when it all happens, they will end up blaming God for all their problems, claiming that He has abandoned them.
“Have not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us?” – Deuteronomy 31:17 ESV
But in charging God with abandonment, they will be leaving out an important detail concerning their circumstances.
“I will surely hide my face in that day because of all the evil that they have done, because they have turned to other gods.” – Deuteronomy 31:18 ESV
They will be guilty of having left God, not the other way around. And God’s response will be exactly what He said He would do if they proved unfaithful to Him. This will not be a knee-jerk reaction on God’s part. Their abandonment by God and the destruction they will suffer as part of His judgment of them, will follow the pattern of curses outlined by Moses in this very same book.
And, as odd as it may sound, the text says that God taught Moses a song and instructed him to teach it to the people. What a strange scene this is. God has reminded Moses that he’s going to die. He’s confirmed that the people will prove to be rebellious and be cast out of the promised land. And poor Joshua, who was about to take over the reigns of leadership, had to sit back and hear this dispiriting news. He had to wonder why he was taking over the captaincy of what appeared to be a sinking ship.
To matters worse, God had written a song that would function as a witness against the nation of Israel, every time they sang it. The words of this God-ordained tune would convict and condemn the people, accentuating their personal culpability and God’s justice in bringing His judgment against them.
The rebellion of the people of Israel was assured. It wasn’t a matter of if they would rebel, but only a matter of when. It was inevitable and unavoidable. And God makes that point painfully clear.
“…when I have brought them into the land flowing with milk and honey, which I swore to give to their fathers, and they have eaten and are full and grown fat, they will turn to other gods and serve them, and despise me and break my covenant.” – Deuteronomy 31:20 ESV
Again, think about how this news must have hit Joshua. He hadn’t even officially taken over the leadership role from Moses and he was being told that his efforts would end in failure. Oh, they would make it into the land. They would even enjoy all the fruitfulness the land had to offer, but rather than being motivated to serve and love God out of gratefulness, they would respond to His goodness with unfaithfulness. And God warns that the song He has written will live in the collective memory of their children, long after the nation has fallen prey to their enemies and experienced the full force of God’s righteous judgment.
God knows the hearts of men. And His all-knowing nature allows Him to see the outcome of events before they have even happened. He knew what Israel was going to do. He was not going to be surprised by their rebellion, because He had already planned for it.
“For I know what they are inclined to do even today, before I have brought them into the land that I swore to give.” – Deuteronomy 31:21 ESV
God already knew that, even before the Israelites had crossed the border into the land of promise, they would one day cross it again as captives. They would walk in as free men and conquerors, but years later they would leave as slaves and the conquered. All because they had failed to remain faithful to God.
And this sad section of Deuteronomy ends with Moses teaching the words of God’s song to the people of Israel. We’re not told the words of the song, but they must have mirrored God’s pronouncement of unfaithfulness and future destruction. This poem or song would haunt the Israelites for generations to come. But it was meant to be a memorable song that would stick in their minds and act as a reminder of their need for faithfulness. And, no doubt, it was sung with great gusto over years. But it would not be until the Israelites had failed to remain faithful and fallen to the Assyrians and Babylonians, that the words of this song finally hit home. Only then would the meaning behind the lyrics make sense. But it would be too little, too late. And the singing would be replaced with the sounds of moaning and despair.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.