The King of the Jews

1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:

“‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
    who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. – Matthew 2:1-12 ESV

If you compare Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth with that of Luke, you quickly see that Matthew only provides those details that support his attempt to prove that Jesus was the Messiah of the Jews. So, unlike Luke, Matthew does not include background information such as the census that required Joseph to take his pregnant wife to Bethlehem. There is no mention of the visit of the shepherds or the presentation of Jesus at the temple.

In fact, Matthew fast-forwards the narrative and picks up the story when Jesus was probably about one-year-old. Joseph and Mary had remained in Bethlehem, most likely to provide time for Mary to fully heal and to give the baby time to mature before they made the long and arduous trip back to their hometown of Nazareth.

But their delay in returning to Nazareth was obviously God-ordained. He had plans for them, of which they were not yet aware. And there were storm clouds forming in the distance that were going to presage the kind reception their son could expect to experience.

While Mary and Joseph had been adjusting to their new life as parents, a group of wise men or magi from a distant land had been making their way to Israel, in search of the newborn king of the Jews. These men were most likely astrologers who, while studying the stars and the planets, had seen a sign.

“Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” – Matthew 2:2 ESV

Matthew provides us with no details regarding how these magi received or interpreted the sign they had seen. We do not know where they were from or how they made the connection between the cosmic sign and the coming of the Jewish king. Perhaps they came from Babylon, where there was still a fairly large contingent of Jews who had chosen to remain there rather than return to Judah under the leadership of Nehemiah. It would seem that these magi had access to the Hebrew scriptures and had been able to connect the dots between what they saw in the sky and what God had predicted in His Word. One of the passages to which they could have referred was Numbers 24:17, which the Jews of Jesus’ day believed to have Messianic implications.

I see him, but not now;
    I behold him, but not near:
a star shall come out of Jacob,
    and a scepter shall rise out of Israel…

Regardless of how these men made their assessment of the star and its connection to the new king of the Jews, they were sufficiently convinced to make the long journey to Jerusalem. And when they arrived, they expressed little doubt as to the validity of the sign or their interpretation of it. They asked, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” According to their understanding of the sign, this baby was born as the official and lawful king of the Jews. Which is what led them to Jerusalem, the capital city of Israel, where David and Solomon had once reigned.

But the magi found another king sitting on the throne of David. His name was Herod, and he was actually an Edomite. He had been placed on the throne by the Romans and was seen by the Jews as a usurper and as nothing more than a puppet to the occupying forces of Rome. Herod was an ambitious and highly suspicious ruler who was relentless and ruthless in his efforts to protect his power. He had a well-deserved reputation for eliminating any and all potential threats to his throne. He had his own wife’s brother drowned in a pool on the palace grounds. He ordered the murder of 46 members of the Sanhedrin. His wife, two sons, and mother-in-law also fell victim to his unbridled fear and suspicion. Potential rivals to his crown were dealt with quickly and effectively.

So, when the magi showed up in Jerusalem asking about the whereabouts of the new king of the Jews, Herod took notice and instigated steps to locate and eliminate this potential threat to his throne.

Matthew’s primary focus in this section is to further promote and prove the kingship of Jesus. In doing so, he established a conflict between Herod, the Roman-appointed king of the Jews, and Jesus, Israel’s God-anointed and rightful king. And it seems clear that Herod was under the impression that this new king was also to be the Christ, the Messiah of Israel. He assembled all the chief priests and scribes of the Jews, asking them, “where the Christ was to be born” (Matthew 2:4 ESV). These learned men revealed to Herod what the Old Testament Scriptures had to say about such matters, and they quoted to him from the prophecy recorded by Micah.

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
    who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
    one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
    from ancient days. – Micah 5:2 ESV

Herod, always devious and deceptive in his efforts, sent the magi on a mission to discover the whereabouts of the new king, falsely claiming a desire to worship him.

“Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” – Matthew 2:8 ESV

Worship is a key theme in this passage. The word itself is mentioned three different times, and the magi are described as falling down and worshiping the young child, Jesus, offering Him priceless gifts of tribute. Kingship and rule are also repeated themes, appearing six different times in 12 verses. Matthew juxtaposes the earthly and undeserving reign of Herod with that of the true king of Israel, Jesus, the Christ. One was not even a Jew by birth, while the other was the son of Abraham and the son of David. One was a tool of the Romans, while the other was the anointed-one of God, who was sent to do His Father’s will.

It is hard to miss that these men from a foreign land were used by God to confirm the identity of His Son. He had used a sign in heaven to direct them to Jerusalem, where they were given further details and divine guidance to find Jesus in the little town of Bethlehem.

…the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. – Matthew 2:9 ESV

And Matthew uses these men to establish a theme that will appear throughout his Gospel account. They were Gentiles, non-Jews, and yet they had gone out of their way to seek and find the King of the Jews. And when they found Him, they bowed down and worshiped Him, showering Him with gifts to illustrate their recognition of His sovereignty and glory. And yet the Jews, represented by Herod, their false king, would repeatedly reject Jesus as their Messiah and King. The Gentile magi recognized Jesus as the King of the Jews, but as the apostle John pointed out, the Jews did not.

He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. – John 1:11 ESV

It’s interesting to note that, at the end of his Gospel account, Matthew records the reaction of a group of Roman soldiers who had witnessed the death of Jesus. They had most likely participated in the mocking and abuse that preceded His crucifixion. One of them may have nailed up the sign that hung above His head, which read, “The King of the Jews.” They most likely took part in the nailing of Jesus to the cross on which He died. But when Jesus had breathed His last, Matthew records that their perception of Jesus was radically altered.

When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” – Matthew 27:54 ESV

Jesus was born the King of the Jews. And He died the King of the Jews. When He came into this world, He was worshiped by Gentiles from a foreign land, bearing gifts worthy of a king. When He died, He was surrounded by Gentiles of Roman birth, holding swords and spears, but offering Him the greatest tribute they could bring: They acknowledge that Jesus was the Son of God. And Matthew will spend the rest of his Gospel, defending and proving that Jesus was indeed the King of the Jews and the Son of God.

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.
The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson
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The God Behind the Blessings

“Let Reuben live, and not die,
    but let his men be few.”

And this he said of Judah:

“Hear, O Lord, the voice of Judah,
    and bring him in to his people.
With your hands contend for him,
    and be a help against his adversaries.”

And of Levi he said,

“Give to Levi your Thummim,
    and your Urim to your godly one,
whom you tested at Massah,
    with whom you quarreled at the waters of Meribah;
who said of his father and mother,
    ‘I regard them not’;
he disowned his brothers
    and ignored his children.
For they observed your word
    and kept your covenant.
10 They shall teach Jacob your rules
    and Israel your law;
they shall put incense before you
    and whole burnt offerings on your altar.
11 Bless, O Lord, his substance,
    and accept the work of his hands;
crush the loins of his adversaries,
    of those who hate him, that they rise not again.” Deuteronomy 33:6-11 ESV

Moses begins his pronouncement of blessings on the 12 tribes with Reuben. This is in keeping with Reuben’s position as the first-born son of Jacob. And Moses seems to echo the sentiments of Jacob when he bestowed the following blessing on Reuben hundreds of years earlier:

“Reuben, you are my firstborn, my strength,
    the child of my vigorous youth.
    You are first in rank and first in power.
But you are as unruly as a flood,
    and you will be first no longer.
For you went to bed with my wife;
    you defiled my marriage couch.” – Genesis 49:3-4 NLT

Reuben had sinned against his father and against God, having slept with his father’s concubine Bilhah. This was a crime punishable by death, and yet, Reuben was allowed to live. But as the words of Jacob reveal, Reuben and his descendants would pay for dearly for his sin. The Reubenites would be one of three tribes who asked for and receive land on the east side of the Jordan, choosing to settle outside the land of promise. In time, they would lose their prestige, fading in prominence and number. It is interesting to note that the tribe of Reuben produced no judges, prophets, or rulers. In spite of his sin, Reuben was allowed to live, but his descendants would never enjoy fulness of life.

Moses deviates from Jacob’s order of blessings by skipping over the tribes of Simeon and Levi and focusing on Judah. And Moses’ blessing, while shorter in length, contains some of the same thoughts as those expressed by Jacob. Both men saw Judah as the preeminent tribe among the 12. Jacob had predicted Judah’s rise to prominence, describing his son as a young lion that grabs its enemies by the neck. Jacob mentions the king’s scepter and the ruler’s staff, symbols of power and authority, and states that from this tribe will come one to whom these things rightfully belong.

“Judah, your brothers will praise you.
    You will grasp your enemies by the neck.
    All your relatives will bow before you.
Judah, my son, is a young lion
    that has finished eating its prey.
Like a lion he crouches and lies down;
    like a lioness—who dares to rouse him?
The scepter will not depart from Judah,
    nor the ruler’s staff from his descendants,
until the coming of the one to whom it belongs,
    the one whom all nations will honor.
He ties his foal to a grapevine,
    the colt of his donkey to a choice vine.
He washes his clothes in wine,
    his robes in the blood of grapes.
His eyes are darker than wine,
    and his teeth are whiter than milk.” – Genesis 49:8-12 NLT

This prophetic statement concerns the coming Messiah, Jesus Christ. Jesus was born of the tribe of Judah and was a descendant of King David. The scepter and the ruler’s staff belong to Him. And in John’s vision of Jesus recorded in the book of Revelation, he describes Jesus as “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David” (Revelation 5:5 ESV). Obviously, the tribe of Judah would play a significant role in God’s plan of redemption for the world. It would be through this tribe that the Savior would come. And Moses, seeming to understand the future significance of this tribe, pronounces a blessing, asking God to protect and provide for them.

The great king David would come from the tribe of Judah. And it would be he who elevated the nation of Israel to greatness, establishing them as a major political and military force in that region of the world. And after God eventually divided the kingdom of Israel in half, the southern portion would take on the name of Judah, further enhancing this tribe’s prominence among the 12.

Next, Moses turns his attention to the tribe of Levi, and he has much more to say about this tribe than Jacob did. Not only that, his words concerning Levi are much more positive than those of Jacob.

“Simeon and Levi are two of a kind;
    their weapons are instruments of violence.
May I never join in their meetings;
    may I never be a party to their plans.
For in their anger they murdered men,
    and they crippled oxen just for sport.
A curse on their anger, for it is fierce;
    a curse on their wrath, for it is cruel.
I will scatter them among the descendants of Jacob;
    I will disperse them throughout Israel.” – Genesis 49:5-7 NLT

Jacob had a reason to be upset with these two sons. They had brought shame to the house of Jacob by their deceitful treatment of the Hivites. The story is a complicated one, but involves the rape of their sister, Dinah, by “Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land” (Genesis 34:2 ESV). Rather than seeking revenge for the rape of his daughter, Jacob determined to make a treaty with the Hivites, agreeing to allow intermarriage between their two nations, in direct violation of God’s command. Jacob’s sons demanded that Jacob require the circumcision of all the males among the Hivites as part of the agreement. When the Hivites had agreed and followed through on their commitment to be circumcised, Levi and Simeon “took their swords and came against the city while it felt secure and killed all the males” (Genesis 34:25 ESV). And rather than bless them, Jacob had issued a curse, predicting their ultimate dispersal among the rest of the tribes of Israel. And little did he know, that is exactly what would happen. But not as he suspected.

The book of Exodus records a seminal event in the history of Israel. Moses had been on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments from God when he received the news from God that things were not going well back in the camp of Israel. Moses descended the mountain only to find the people of Israel reveling before the golden calf they had constructed in his absence. While he had been on Sinai receiving God’s law, the people had been in the valley worshiping a false god they had made with their own hands. After destroying the idol they had made, Moses turned his anger against the people of Israel.

So he stood at the entrance to the camp and shouted, “All of you who are on the Lord’s side, come here and join me.” And all the Levites gathered around him.

Moses told them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Each of you, take your swords and go back and forth from one end of the camp to the other. Kill everyone—even your brothers, friends, and neighbors.” The Levites obeyed Moses’ command, and about 3,000 people died that day.

Then Moses told the Levites, “Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of the Lord, for you obeyed him even though it meant killing your own sons and brothers. Today you have earned a blessing.” – Exodus 32:26-29 NLT

The tribe of Levi stepped up and used their swords to defend the integrity of God’s name and mete out His justice and judgment against all those who had participated in the idolatry and spiritual adultery. And as a result of their efforts, the Levites were set apart for the service of the Lord. They would become the priestly order, tasked with representing the rest of the tribes before the Lord and for the care and transport of the tabernacle. And when the nation of Israel conquered the land of Canaan, the Levites would not be given land as an inheritance but would be given cities scattered throughout the tribes of Israel, in fulfillment of Jacob’s words.

The Levites had used treachery and deceit to repay the Hivites for the rape of their sister, but they had been motivated by a desire to avenge her mistreatment. They had also stood opposed to the treaty their father had made with the Hivites, knowing that it was improper for them to intermarry with these uncircumcised pagans. But while their hearts had been in the right place, they had taken matters into their own hands and violated the treaty their father had made. Yet, hundreds of years later, God would redeem the Levites, raising them up and using them to serve as His agents of judgment against their own brothers and sisters.

And Moses blesses them for their role as God’s intercessors. They had been used by God to avenge His holy name and mete out His judgment against the wicked at Sinai. And they had been set apart as priests, teaching Israel God’s laws, and offering sacrifices on their behalf so that they might remain in a right standing with God. At Sinai, the Levites had shed the blood of their brothers and sisters in order to assuage the righteous anger of God. But in the tabernacle, they would spill the blood of innocent bulls and goats, pouring it out as a sacrifice to God on behalf of the sins of the people.

From the days of Jacob to the time of Moses, God was working behind the scenes,  orchestrating events in such as a way that every blessing bestowed by each man would be fulfilled. But these blessings were not the words of men. They were the Spirit-inspired will of God. Neither Moses or Jacob fully understood the full import of their words or the exact nature of their outcome. But God did. He was and is sovereign over all. And while the tribe of Reuben would settle outside the land of promise, they would assist the rest of the tribes in conquering and possessing their inheritance. And God would raise up the tribe of Judah, allowing them to produce the future Messiah, the Savior of the world. The Levites, while cursed by their father for their deceit, would be redeemed by God and used to carry His tabernacle, communicate His law, and care for the spiritual needs of His people.

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.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

One Last Word

1 This is the blessing with which Moses the man of God blessed the people of Israel before his death. He said,

“The Lord came from Sinai
    and dawned from Seir upon us;
    he shone forth from Mount Paran;
he came from the ten thousands of holy ones,
    with flaming fire at his right hand.
Yes, he loved his people,
    all his holy ones were in his hand;
so they followed in your steps,
    receiving direction from you,
when Moses commanded us a law,
    as a possession for the assembly of Jacob.
Thus the Lord became king in Jeshurun,
    when the heads of the people were gathered,
    all the tribes of Israel together.” Deuteronomy 33:1-5 ESV

For his final act as the spiritual leader of the nation of Israel, Moses chose to pronounce blessings upon the 12 tribes. In a sense, this was his official last testament. God had just informed Moses that this day would be his last. He would soon be ascending Mount Nebo in the land of Moab, on the eastern side of the Jordan, outside the land of Canaan. Once there, Moses would die, at the ripe old age of 120. The Scriptures are cloaked in mystery when it comes to the details regarding the death of Moses. But it was according to God’s plan and solely based on His timing. The mantel of leadership had been passed to Joshua. The people had been reminded of their responsibility to keep the covenant they had made with God. They had been warned of the consequences should they choose to do so. And, unfortunately, God had revealed that they would prove unfaithful and unwilling to keep His commands, eventually experiencing all the judgments He had warned them about.

But before he passed off the scene, Moses chose to pronounce blessings on the tribes of Israel. This is similar to the blessings pronounced by Isaac (Genesis 27) and Jacob (Genesis 49) on their sons as they lie on their deathbeds. Moses, as the spiritual father of the children of Israel, was communicating his last testament or will. This “blessing” was his gift to the people, his “invocation of good.” For 40 long years they had made his life miserable with their bickering, moaning, constant complaining, and stubborn refusal to remain faithful to God. Yet Moses, with a true shepherd’s heart, displays his deep love for them and his desire that they would succeed and not fail.

It’s likely that Moses modeled his blessing after that of Jacob recorded in Genesis 49. And it’s interesting to note the similarities between these two testaments or will. Genesis 47 contains the details regarding the closing days of Jacob’s life.

Thus Israel settled in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen. And they gained possessions in it, and were fruitful and multiplied greatly. And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years. So the days of Jacob, the years of his life, were 147 years. – Genesis 47:27-28 ESV

Jacob was the father of the 12 sons from whom the 12 tribes of Israel would come. But Jacob and his sons were living in Egypt when the end of his life drew near. They had moved there to escape a famine in the land of Canaan. And they had found help in the form of Joseph, the son of Jacob who had been sold into slavery by his own brothers. During his time in Egypt, Joseph had been elevated by God from slave to sovereign. He had become one of the highest-ranking officials in the land, second only to the Pharaoh. In his official capacity, Joseph provided his family with land and employment as shepherds. And as the text indicates, they “were fruitful and multiplied greatly.”

But 18 years later, as Jacob lie dying, he called his 12 sons together and he blessed them. They had moved to Egypt in order to escape a famine in the land of Canaan, the land of promise. But they had stayed much longer than they had planned, and now Jacob, facing death, gave his blessing to his sons.

Moses, facing his own death, looked on all the descendants of these 12 men and determined to offer his own blessing. But now they stood on the edge of Canaan, poised to enter the land their forefather, Jacob, had been forced to leave nearly five centuries earlier. Many years had passed by and during that time, the nation of Israel had seen it all. They had experience the oppression of slavery and the joy of release from captivity. They had witnessed the miracles of the ten plagues, the spectacle of the parting of the Red Sea, the provision of their needs as they made their way to the promised land, and memorable moment when God appeared on Mount Sinai and delivered His law to them.

Jacob had blessed his sons. Now Moses was going to bless their descendants. But before he began, he provided them with a brief history lesson. He reminded them how God had repeatedly appeared to them in the wilderness. He describes the mountains of Sinai, Seir and Paran. From these lofty heights, close to God’s heavenly dwelling place, God had made Himself known to the people of Israel. It was to Mount Sinai that God had descended, accompanied by fire, smoke, thunder, and lightning. From Mount Sinai God had given His law to Moses. The Holy One had condescended and made Himself known to men. He had revealed Himself to Moses and shared His holy law with the people of Israel. He had made a binding covenant agreement with them, vowing to give them the land of Canaan, just as He had promised to Abraham.

For Moses, all of this was evidence of God’s love.

Yes, he loved his people,
    all his holy ones were in his hand;
so they followed in your steps,
    receiving direction from you. – Deuteronomy 33:3 ESV

God had loved them. He had guided them. He had protected them with His hand. And He had been their king.

“Thus the Lord became king in Jeshurun,
    when the heads of the people were gathered,
    all the tribes of Israel together.” – Deuteronomy 33:5 ESV

Moses had been their leader, but God had been their King. From the day they had left Egypt to the moment they arrived on the shore of the Jordan, God had been their sovereign King and Lord. This great God, who rules in the heavens, had deemed to bring His reign to earth, designating the people of Israel as His holy nation, His royal priesthood, and His chosen possession.

This brief, but significant reminder prefaces all that Moses is about to say to the 12 tribes. As God’s leader, he spoke only by God’s authority. It was essential that the people understand that God was going to continue to be their king. Moses was going away, but God would be with them. Joshua was going to step into the role of shepherd, but God would remain their Great Shepherd. Moses could pronounce a blessing, but only God could fulfill it.

The Israelites needed to understand their complete dependence upon God. Moses was leaving them, but they had no reason to fear. God would be going before them. He would be with them. And the blessings Moses pronounced on them would be totally up to God to fulfill. Like Jacob, Moses knew that any and all blessings come from God, not men. The future of Israel was in the hands of their King and Lord.

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.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

No Empty Word

39 “‘See now that I, even I, am he,
    and there is no god beside me;
I kill and I make alive;
    I wound, and I heal;
    and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.
40 For I lift up my hand to heaven
    and swear, As I live forever,
41 if I sharpen my flashing sword
    and my hand takes hold on judgment,
I will take vengeance on my adversaries
    and will repay those who hate me.
42 I will make my arrows drunk with blood,
    and my sword shall devour flesh—
with the blood of the slain and the captives,
    from the long-haired heads of the enemy.’

43 “Rejoice with him, O heavens;
    bow down to him, all gods,
for he avenges the blood of his children
    and takes vengeance on his adversaries.
He repays those who hate him
    and cleanses his people’s land.”

44 Moses came and recited all the words of this song in the hearing of the people, he and Joshua the son of Nun. 45 And when Moses had finished speaking all these words to all Israel, 46 he said to them, “Take to heart all the words by which I am warning you today, that you may command them to your children, that they may be careful to do all the words of this law. 47 For it is no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess.” Deuteronomy 32:39-47 ESV

This was no vapid ditty to be sung with a light heart or whistled absent-mindedly as one walked along their merry way. This was a poem containing the words of God and they were powerful and portentous. As God had told Moses, this divine ode was intended to act as a witness against the Israelites, testifying in advance to their future disobedience and unfaithfulness.

And while this song might be best classified as belonging to the blues genre, it contained more than a hint of hope and a glimpse of God’s gracious compassion and goodness. Yes, He was going to punish Israel for their spiritual adultery, but He also reveals that He will one day redeem and restore them. He will keep His covenant promises. While they would prove to be unfaithful and disobedient, God would never fully forsake them. There would be ramifications for their unfaithfulness and unrepentance though.

“I will hide my face from them;
    I will see what their end will be,
for they are a perverse generation,
    children in whom is no faithfulness.” – Deuteronomy 32:20 ESV

The end would come, in the form of the Assyrians and Babylonians.

Outside, the sword will bring death,
    and inside, terror will strike
both young men and young women,
    both infants and the aged.
– Deuteronomy 32:25 NLT

But God would repay these nations for their role in Israel’s demise. God, “the Rock,” would pour out His vengeance and wrath upon all those who took advantage of His people.

I will take revenge; I will pay them back.
    In due time their feet will slip.
Their day of disaster will arrive,
    and their destiny will overtake them.
– Deuteronomy 32:35 NLT

And all of this will be possible because God is God. There are no other gods beside Him. He has no competition. The nations of the earth are no threat to Him. The kings of the earth are set on their thrones by Him. The plans of all men are established by Him.

“Look now; I myself am he!
    There is no other god but me!
I am the one who kills and gives life;
    I am the one who wounds and heals;
    no one can be rescued from my powerful hand!”
– Deuteronomy 32:39 NLT

This message is an integral part of the song. God’s sovereignty and power were non-negotiable and non-debatable aspects of His character. That is why God could demand that Babylon and Assyria call on “their rock” and see what good it would do them. They would be left all alone and at the full mercy of “The Rock” of Israel.

But notice what God declares about Himself. He kills and He gives life. He wounds and He heals. He has the power to remove or to restore, and the choice is completely His. He can bring the full force of His wrath to bear or He can choose to extend His grace and mercy, bringing healing and wholeness. It is completely up to Him.

And God warns, “when I sharpen my flashing sword and begin to carry out justice” (Deuteronomy 32:41 NLT), you better watch out because He finishes what He starts.

he will avenge the blood of his children;
    he will take revenge against his enemies.
He will repay those who hate him
    and cleanse his people’s land.” – Deuteronomy 32:43 NLT

This news was meant to cause rejoicing among the people of Israel. This was the upbeat portion of the song that was intended to bring a smile to the face of God’s people, even in light of all the dire predictions of doom and gloom. While the message of this poem contained ample cause for sadness, it also provided a reason for rejoicing.

God wins. He will avenge His people. He will repay their enemies. He will accomplish His plan concerning the people of Israel – in spite of their unfaithfulness and His well-justified punishment of them. And after Moses taught the words of this song to the people, He commanded them to burn them into their collective memory.

“These instructions are not empty words—they are your life! By obeying them you will enjoy a long life in the land you will occupy when you cross the Jordan River.” – Deuteronomy 32: 47 NLT

All that Moses had taught them, which included the laws of God and the words of this song, were to be recalled, recited, and revered. From the promise of blessings and the warning of curses to the assurance of His presence and the threat of His abandonment, all of these matters were to be passed down from generation to generation. They were to remember the ways and the words of God. They were to teach them to their children. And, more importantly, they were to obey the words of God.

The promised land lay before them. But so did the decision to either obey and disobey God. They had been warned what would happen if they disobeyed. They had even been told that they would disobey. But God assured them that His will would be done, with our without them. His redemptive plan would be accomplished in spite of them, not because of them. Why? Because He alone is God.

Look now; I myself am he!
    There is no other god but me! – Deuteronomy 32:39 NLT

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.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

When All Is Lost, God Is Near

28 “For they are a nation void of counsel,
    and there is no understanding in them.
29 If they were wise, they would understand this;
    they would discern their latter end!
30 How could one have chased a thousand,
    and two have put ten thousand to flight,
unless their Rock had sold them,
    and the Lord had given them up?
31 For their rock is not as our Rock;
    our enemies are by themselves.
32 For their vine comes from the vine of Sodom
    and from the fields of Gomorrah;
their grapes are grapes of poison;
    their clusters are bitter;
33 their wine is the poison of serpents
    and the cruel venom of asps.

34 “‘Is not this laid up in store with me,
    sealed up in my treasuries?
35 Vengeance is mine, and recompense,
    for the time when their foot shall slip;
for the day of their calamity is at hand,
    and their doom comes swiftly.’
36 For the Lord will vindicate his people
    and have compassion on his servants,
when he sees that their power is gone
    and there is none remaining, bond or free.
37 Then he will say, ‘Where are their gods,
    the rock in which they took refuge,
38 who ate 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!’” Deuteronomy 32:28-38 ESV

Israel had enemies. From their days of captivity in Egypt to their journey to the promised land, the people of God had found themselves opposed by foreign nations. Even on the eastern side of the borders of Canaan, they had been forced to fight the forces of  Og and Sihon, two Amorite kings who had refused to allow the Israelites to pass through their land. But God gave the Israelites victory over these enemies, allowing the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh to settle there.

And there would be plenty of other enemies on the other side of the Jordan, once the Israelites crossed over and began their conquest of the land of Canaan. There would always be enemies of God and His people. And the song God had given to Moses to teach to the people of Israel contained foreboding warnings about future enemies who would defeat the Israelites and take them captive. They would be used by God to punish the Israelites for their persistent and unrepentant rebellion against Him.

But God had a message for these nations. Rather than understand their role as His divine instruments of judgment, they would take credit for the conquest of God’s people, even bragging about their victory and robbing God of glory.

“Our hand is triumphant,
    it was not the Lord who did all this.” – Deuteronomy 32:27 ESV

But God had news for these arrogant and pride-filled upstarts.

“…they are a nation void of counsel,
    and there is no understanding in them.
If they were wise, they would understand this;
    they would discern their latter end!” – Deuteronomy 32:28-29 ESV

God describes them as clueless. When the day came, and they defeated the people of God, they would consider their conquest the byproduct of their own military prowess. These two nations, Assyria and Babylon, would each enjoy unprecedented success, conquering much of the known world and being used by God to punish His rebellious people. Assyria would conquer the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BC. And 136 years later, in 586 BC, the Babylonians would conquer and destroy the city of Jerusalem, leaving the temple of God in ruins.

But God points out the obvious. The only explanation for the future success of the Assyrians and Babylonians would be because God ordained it. The eventual fall of the Israelites would be because “their Rock had sold them, and the Lord had given them up” (Deuteronomy 32:30 ESV). Neither the Assyrians or Babylonians would be able to take credit for the destruction of God’s people. It would be the work of God’s hand, not the result of their superior military strength.

The enemies of Israel would find their victories to be a walk in the park, with one of their soldiers giving chase to 1,000 Israelites, and two putting 10,000 to flight. In other words, their battles would be ridiculously lopsided. But, strange as it may seem, the reason behind their success would be the God of Israel.  And God lets them know that their gods would be no match for Him.

For their rock is not as our Rock;
    our enemies are by themselves. – Deuteronomy 32:31 ESV

They were on their own. Their false gods would prove powerless before God Almighty because they were lifeless. And after self-congratulating themselves for having defeated the forces of Israel, these two nations would find themselves having to answer to God for their actions. Why? Because these pagan nations were no better than Sodom and Gomorrah. They were equally as wicked, like vines branching off of the original plant and producing the same evil fruit.

And God reveals that He already has plans in store for them. He is going to use them to punish His rebellious children, but then He is going to repay them for their involvement.

“I will get revenge and pay them back
at the time their foot slips;
for the day of their disaster is near,
and the impending judgment is rushing upon them!” – Deuteronomy 32:35 NLT

These nations will destroy Samaria and Jerusalem. They will enslave the citizens of Israel and Judah. But they will have to answer to God for their actions. And, one day, God will turn the tables, reversing the fortunes of Israel and extending once again His mercy, grace, and love.

The Lord will judge his people,
and will change his plans concerning his servants;
when he sees that their power has disappeared,
and that no one is left, whether confined or set free. – Deuteronomy 32:36 NLT

Just when things look like they can’t get any worse, God will step in and rescue His chosen people. He will remember and redeem them. He will redeem them from captivity yet again. And He will mock the mighty nations of Assyria and Babylon, challenging them to seek help and hope from their false gods.

“Where are their gods,
the rock in whom they sought security,
who ate the best of their sacrifices,
and drank the wine of their drink offerings?
Let them rise and help you;
let them be your refuge!” – Deuteronomy 32:37-38 NLT

And their calls for help will go unheard and unheeded because their gods are false. The Assyrians and Babylonians would one day find themselves on the wrong end of the world-domination game. They would become the conquered rather than the conqueror. Their 15-minutes of fame would come to an abrupt and ignominious end. Because their false gods would fail to rise up, rescue them, and provide refuge for them. But Israel would experience the gracious hand of God Almighty. Right when their strength is gone, and all hope is lost, their God will show up, and He “will vindicate his people and have compassion on his servants” (Deuteronomy 32:36 ESV).

The Righteous Wrath of God

19 “The Lord saw it and spurned them,
    because of the provocation of his sons and his daughters.
20 And he said, ‘I will hide my face from them;
    I will see what their end will be,
for they are a perverse generation,
    children in whom is no faithfulness.
21 They have made me jealous with what is no god;
    they have provoked me to anger with their idols.
So I will make them jealous with those who are no people;
    I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation.
22 For a fire is kindled by my anger,
    and it burns to the depths of Sheol,
devours the earth and its increase,
    and sets on fire the foundations of the mountains.

23 “‘And I will heap disasters upon them;
    I will spend my arrows on them;
24 they shall be wasted with hunger,
    and devoured by plague
    and poisonous pestilence;
I will send the teeth of beasts against them,
    with the venom of things that crawl in the dust.
25 Outdoors the sword shall bereave,
    and indoors terror,
for young man and woman alike,
    the nursing child with the man of gray hairs.
26 I would have said, “I will cut them to pieces;
    I will wipe them from human memory,”
27 had I not feared provocation by the enemy,
    lest their adversaries should misunderstand,
lest they should say, “Our hand is triumphant,
    it was not the Lord who did all this.”’ Deuteronomy 32:19-27 ESV

We love to talk about God’s love, mercy, and grace. And while these divine characteristics are essential to understanding His nature and bring us great comfort, they can also paint a rather one-dimensional image of God. An overemphasis of these positive aspects of God’s character can cause us to downplay His righteous anger and just judgment. This is one of the reasons so many people find such a disparity between the Old and New Testaments. They see conflicting images of God portrayed and choose the kind and compassionate God of the New Testament over the harsh and seemingly heartless God of the Old Testament.

But there is only one God, and He is unchanging in His nature. Yes, we may prefer to dwell on His more loving and father-like characteristics, but that does not mean He is incapable of displaying anger or dispensing harsh justice when necessary. And while the Old Testament is the primary place where this darker side of God’s character is displayed, it does not mean He has mellowed with time. Here are just a few reminders of God’s unchanging nature.

“For I the Lord do not change…” – Malachi 3:6 ESV

Of old you laid the foundation of the earth,
    and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you will remain;
    they will all wear out like a garment.
You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away,
    but you are the same, and your years have no end. – Psalm 102:25-27 ESV

And there countless passages in both the Old and New Testaments that reveal the righteous indignation of God.

“I, the LORD, will punish the world for its evil and the wicked for their sin. I will crush the arrogance of the proud and humble the pride of the mighty.” – Isaiah 13:11 NLT

In the greatness of your majesty you overthrow your adversaries;
    you send out your fury; it consumes them like stubble. – Exodus 15:7 ESV

“Now I will soon pour out my wrath upon you, and spend my anger against you, and judge you according to your ways, and I will punish you for all your abominations. And my eye will not spare, nor will I have pity. I will punish you according to your ways, while your abominations are in your midst. Then you will know that I am the Lord, who strikes.” – Ezekiel 7:8-9 ESV

But when he [Jesus] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? – Matthew 3:7 ESV

But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. – Romans 2:5 ESV

And in this portion of the song given by God to Moses, the anger of God is clearly revealed.

They have made me jealous…” – vs. 21

“…they have provoked me to anger.” – vs. 21

“…a fire is kindled by my anger…” – vs. 22

“…I will heap disasters upon them…” – vs. 23

I will spend my arrows on them…” – vs. 23

I will send the teeth of beasts against them…” – vs. 24

Not exactly the kind of sentiments you might find on a Hallmark card. These are clear expressions of God’s anger against the people of Israel and the tangible means by which He intends to manifest His indignation. He even goes so far as to say that He would have completely “cut them to pieces” and wiped them “from human memory” (Deuteronomy 32:26 ESV), but He knew their enemies would have taken credit for it.

God knew that, if He completely destroyed His people, their enemies would arrogantly assume that they were the ones responsible for Israel’s demise.

“Our hand is triumphant,
    it was not the Lord who did all this.” – Deuteronomy 32:27 ESV

And God hates the prideful and arrogant as much as He does the unfaithful and spiritually adulterous. He was not about to give the pagan nations the pleasure of taking credit for something He had done. They were simply instruments in His hands, doing His bidding and acting as His servants. Neither Babylon or Assyria, whom God would use to punish His rebellious people, could take credit for their success. God would raise them up and use them to accomplish His divine will by meting out His just and righteous judgment against His chosen people.

And God points out that His anger was brought on by the actions of those whom He had redeemed and rescued from slavery. His own adopted children had spurned His love and thrown His mercy and grace back in His face through their unfaithfulness.

They stirred him to jealousy… – vs. 16

They sacrificed to demon… – vs. 16

You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you… – vs. 19

…and you forgot the God who gave you birth. – vs. 19

And God makes His damning assessment of His rebellious people.

“…they are a perverse generation,
    children in whom is no faithfulness.” – Deuteronomy 32:20 ESV

What God describes here is serial apostasy. This is not a case of the occasional failure to remain faithful, but of the habitual and willful refusal to follow God’s will. This song is revealing what will become Israel’s because of Israel’s faithlessness.

God will spurn them and hide His face from them. Why? Because that is exactly how they will treat Him. They will turn their backs on Him, choosing instead to worship false gods and demons. They will hide from Him, attempting to disguise their spiritual infidelity and mask their apostasy by feigning faithful adherence to His laws. And so, God will give them a taste of their own medicine. But when God hides His face, the consequences are devastating. When He spurns them, they will experience a form of loss they could have never imagined or anticipated.

God warns of disasters, hunger, plagues, and pestilence. He describes suffering caused by “the teeth of beasts” and “the venom of things that crawl in the dust” (Deuteronomy 32:24 ESV). He foretells of death brought on by the sword and arrows. And no one will be spared. Young men and women will suffer. The nursing child and the old man with gray hair will each endure the same fate. There will be no mercy shown and no grace given.

And while we might not like this image of God, we cannot assume it is somehow incorrect or inconsistent with His character. He is God. And He is fully righteous. All that He does is right, just, and good. In fact, the opening stanza of this poem declared the justice of God.

“The Rock, his work is perfect,
    for all his ways are justice.
A God of faithfulness and without iniquity,
    just and upright is he. – Deuteronomy 32:4 ESV

He is not the one we should judge. He does not deserve our criticism and, most certainly, does not merit our disdain.

“They have dealt corruptly with him;
    they are no longer his children because they are blemished;
    they are a crooked and twisted generation.” – Deuteronomy 32:5 ESV

God had poured out His love, mercy, and grace upon the people of Israel. He had redeemed and rescued them from captivity in Egypt. He had led them across the wilderness and put up with their repeated displays of ingratitude and constant bickering and complaining. He had brought them to the border of the land of promise and watched as they stubbornly refused to enter in because they didn’t believe He would see them through.

And now, as the next generation stood at the very same border, preparing to enter into the land under the leadership of Joshua, God was informing them that their unfaithfulness would continue. They would conquer the land, but would never enjoy victory over their own apostasy. They would experience the power and presence of God, but would constantly turn their back on Him, seeking instead to give their affections to and place their hopes in false gods.

But God had long ago warned them about what He would do if they proved unfaithful.

“You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods. I lay the sins of the parents upon their children; the entire family is affected—even children in the third and fourth generations of those who reject me. But I lavish unfailing love for a thousand generations on those who love me and obey my commands.” – Exodus 20:5-6 NLT

We might not like reading about God’s anger. We may find His judgment difficult to understand or justify. But it is the righteous judgment of God that makes the grace and mercy of God so meaningful. The fact that God would spare a remnant of the people of Israel so He could send His Son as their Messiah shows us just how loving He really is. If we do not understand how just God is in judging those who reject Him and rebel against Him, we will never fully appreciate the value of the mercy and grace He offers. God has chosen to provide justification in place of judgment. He has made a way for sinful men and women to enjoy exoneration rather than condemnation. He has made a way possible for those dead in their trespasses and sins to experience forgiveness and eternal life. And it was all made possible through the death, burial, and resurrection of His Son.

But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. – Romans 5:8 NLT

It is not until we fully understand the justice of God’s wrath that we will fully appreciate the joy of God’s love.

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.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Set Apart By God

10 “He found him in a desert land,
    and in the howling waste of the wilderness;
he encircled him, he cared for him,
    he kept him as the apple of his eye.
11 Like an eagle that stirs up its nest,
    that flutters over its young,
spreading out its wings, catching them,
    bearing them on its pinions,
12 the Lord alone guided him,
    no foreign god was with him.
13 He made him ride on the high places of the land,
    and he ate the produce of the field,
and he suckled him with honey out of the rock,
    and oil out of the flinty rock.
14 Curds from the herd, and milk from the flock,
    with fat of lambs,
rams of Bashan and goats,
    with the very finest of the wheat—
    and you drank foaming wine made from the blood of the grape.

15 “But Jeshurun grew fat, and kicked;
    you grew fat, stout, and sleek;
then he forsook God who made him
    and scoffed at the Rock of his salvation.
16 They stirred him to jealousy with strange gods;
    with abominations they provoked him to anger.
17 They sacrificed to demons that were no gods,
    to gods they had never known,
to new gods that had come recently,
    whom your fathers had never dreaded.
18 You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you,
    and you forgot the God who gave you birth.” Deuteronomy 32:10-18 ESV

The Lord’s song continues. It recounts how God discovered Jacob and his family, the nation of Israel, in Egypt, a desert land. God rescued the descendants of Jacob from their captivity in Egypt, where they had served as the slaves of Pharaoh for hundreds of years. God had heard their cries of despair and had sent Moses to be their deliverer.

During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew. – Exodus 2:23-25 NLT

The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saw the plight of His chosen people and responded with compassion. He protected them like a mother eagle would its chicks. Using Jacob as a synonym for Israel, the poem describes how God cared for His own.

he encircled him, he cared for him,
    he kept him as the apple of his eye” – Deuteronomy 32:19 ESV

Centuries of captivity in a foreign land had not changed God’s feelings about Jacob and his descendants. The circumstances surrounding their years in Egypt were not to be seen as proof of God’s abandonment of them. The promise He had made to Abraham still held. In fact, it was during their stay in Egypt that the family of Jacob increased in number from just over 70 people to a great nation numbering in the millions.

But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them. – Exodus 1:7 ESV

And this meteoric growth was exactly what God had promised Abraham so many years earlier when He had called out of Haran.

I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.” – Genesis 12:2-3 NLT

God had kept His promise. But His ways are not man’s ways. His methods don’t always make sense to us. The nation of Israel was born out of adversity. It grew up in the context of slavery and servitude. It was a nation in bondage, enslaved by the enemy and incapable of delivering itself from its predicament.

And it was in the midst of their darkest moment that God stepped in and did for them what they could not do for themselves. He delivered them from bondage. He set them free from captivity. And their rescue is indicative of what God has done for all those whom He has rescued from slavery to sin.

When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. – Romans 5:6 NLT

But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. – Romans 5:8 NLT

Paul describes us as having been “slaves to sin” (Romans 6:20). And Jesus said, “everyone who sins is a slave of sin” (John 8:34 NLT). But He has set us free. And “if the Son sets you free, you are truly free” (John 8:36 NLT).

The Israelites were set free from slavery in Egypt. God guided them out of their captivity, having delivered from the oppressive hand of Pharaoh. And when they left the land of Egypt, they did so with God alone as their guide and companion, having left the false gods of the Egyptians behind them. And God led them, fed them, and protected them all the way through the wilderness. But more than that, He taught them about obedience and faithfulness, using trials and difficulties to increase their trust in Him.

“Remember how the Lord your God led you through the wilderness for these forty years, humbling you and testing you to prove your character, and to find out whether or not you would obey his commands. Yes, he humbled you by letting you go hungry and then feeding you with manna, a food previously unknown to you and your ancestors. He did it to teach you that people do not live by bread alone; rather, we live by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. For all these forty years your clothes didn’t wear out, and your feet didn’t blister or swell. Think about it: Just as a parent disciplines a child, the Lord your God disciplines you for your own good.” – Deuteronomy 8:2-5 NLT

God was gracious and good to the people of Israel, providing them with an abundance of blessings in the form of tangible and practical resources intended to prolong and improve life.

…produce of the fields
…honey for from the cliffs
…olive oil from the hardest of rocks
…butter from the herd
…milk from the flock
…the fat of lambs
…rams and goats of Bashan
…the best of the kernels of wheat
…the juice of grapes

Even in the wilderness, they enjoyed the blessings of God. They ate well and were well-cared for by God. Even their wilderness experience was better than the years they had spent in captivity in Egypt. Walking with God in the wilderness is always better than living in slavery without Him.

God had set apart Israel as His own precious possession. They had done nothing to earn or deserve His gracious deliverance of them. And Moses had made this point quite clear earlier in the book of Deuteronomy.

“For you are a holy people, who belong to the LORD your God. Of all the people on earth, the LORD your God has chosen you to be his own special treasure.

“The LORD did not set his heart on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other nations, for you were the smallest of all nations! Rather, it was simply that the LORD loves you, and he was keeping the oath he had sworn to your ancestors. That is why the LORD rescued you with such a strong hand from your slavery and from the oppressive hand of Pharaoh, king of Egypt.” – Deuteronomy 7:6-8 NLT

The blessings of God were undeserved. His love for them was not based on any inherent worth in them. And He would continue to love them, in spite of them.

But this song was intended to bring witness against the Israelites, convicting them of their unfaithfulness to God. And to do so, it accentuates the unmerited favor of God. When they had been helpless slaves, God heard their cries and rescued them. He set them free from their oppression and misery, making them His own chosen possession, “the apple of his eye” (Deuteronomy 32:10 ESV). But would they remain so? Were the Israelites going to honor the one who set them free by keeping His commands and living in obedience to His will for them?

Even as they stood on the edge of the promised land, preparing to cross over and claim it as their own, God was revealing the sad truth about their fate. They would become slaves yet again. The people whom God had set free would once again find themselves living in bondage and surrounded by false gods and foreign overlords. They had been set apart by God but would choose not to live that way. They had been made His precious possession but would end up as little more than the property of their enemies. And the next verses of the song will explain how this dramatic change in circumstances will happen.

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.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Guilty As Charged

30 Then Moses spoke the words of this song until they were finished, in the ears of all the assembly of Israel:

1 “Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak,
    and let the earth hear the words of my mouth.
May my teaching drop as the rain,
    my speech distill as the dew,
like gentle rain upon the tender grass,
    and like showers upon the herb.
For I will proclaim the name of the Lord;
    ascribe greatness to our God!

“The Rock, his work is perfect,
    for all his ways are justice.
A God of faithfulness and without iniquity,
    just and upright is he.
They have dealt corruptly with him;
    they are no longer his children because they are blemished;
    they are a crooked and twisted generation.
Do you thus repay the Lord,
    you foolish and senseless people?
Is not he your father, who created you,
    who made you and established you?
Remember the days of old;
    consider the years of many generations;
ask your father, and he will show you,
    your elders, and they will tell you.
When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance,
    when he divided mankind,
he fixed the borders of the peoples
    according to the number of the sons of God.
But the Lord’s portion is his people,
    Jacob his allotted heritage.” Deuteronomy 31:30-32:9 ESV

At long last, Moses delivers the words of the song that God had given him. This powerful piece of poetry is really a prophetic oracle, contrasting the greatness and faithfulness of God with the wickedness and faithlessness of His chosen people. God had told Moses that its words would act as a witness against the people of Israel.

“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. – Deuteronomy 31:19 ESV

Every time they heard or recited its words of themselves, they would be convicted and reminded of the cause of their well-deserved guilt and shame. This poem pulls no punches. It is merciless in its exposure of Israel’s unprecedented treatment of their God. The prophet, Jeremiah, would later declare the absurd nature of Israel’s mistreatment of Yahweh, declaring on His behalf, “Has a nation ever changed its gods
(even though they are not really gods at all)? But my people have exchanged me, their glorious God, for a god that cannot help them at all!” (Jeremiah 2:11 NLT)

This poem contains a powerful indictment of Israel’s response to their gracious, all-powerful God. It paints a startling picture, detailing the shocking nature of their future treatment of Yahweh. And the words of this poem, given to Moses by God Himself, are intended to juxtapose Israel’s former glory as God’s children with their future status as abandoned orphans.

“…they are no longer his children because they are blemished;
    they are a crooked and twisted generation.” – Deuteronomy 32:5 ESV

But the opening stanzas of this poem focus on God. He is hailed for His greatness, described as The Rock, and regaled for the perfection of His work and the justice of His ways. He is a God marked by faithfulness and devoid of any iniquity. He is just and upright in all that He does. And these descriptions are meant to make Israel’s decision to reject God all that more egregious. Why in the world would they choose to disobey and abandon a God as great as Yahweh? And this theme of God’s greatness and Israel’s undeserved status as His children is echoed throughout the Old Testament.

“For what great nation has a god as near to them as the LORD our God is near to us whenever we call on him?” – Deuteronomy 4:7 NLT

“How great you are, O Sovereign LORD! There is no one like you. We have never even heard of another God like you! What other nation on earth is like your people Israel? What other nation, O God, have you redeemed from slavery to be your own people? You made a great name for yourself when you redeemed your people from Egypt. You performed awesome miracles and drove out the nations and gods that stood in their way. You made Israel your very own people forever, and you, O LORD, became their God.” – 2 Samuel 7:22-24 NLT

And yet, the words of the song condemn them: “They have dealt corruptly with him” (Deuteronomy 32:5 ESV). And their treatment of God makes no sense. It is unparalleled in its absurdity and stupidity. What would possess them to turn their backs on a God as good and great as Yahweh? Why would they ever walk away from a relationship that provided them with so many blessings?

Their decision to abandon God makes no sense. There is no reasonable explanation that can justify their actions. Which is why they are described as crooked and twisted. In the Hebrew language, these two words are rich in meaning. They describe someone who is deceitful and perverse in heart. They are crafty and adept at twisting words and modeling behavior that is meant to deceive. They can’t be trusted.

Also, they’re foolish and senseless. Only a fool would turn his back on the one true God. Which is exactly what King David wrote in his psalm.

Only fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, and their actions are evil; not one of them does good! – Psalm 14:1 NLT

The Hebrew word translated as “senseless” is actually the word for “wise.” But it can also mean “wily, shrewd, cunning.” In other words, they are marked by human wisdom. But the Scriptures have much to say about such individuals, and none of it is good.

There is more hope for fools than for people who think they are wise. – Proverbs 26:12 NLT

What sorrow for those who are wise in their own eyes and think themselves so clever. – Isaiah 5:21 NLT

The way of a fool is right in his own opinion – Proverbs 12:15 NLT

And these foolish, in all their self-inflated wisdom, have to answer the question: “Is this how you repay the Lord?” (Deuteronomy 32:6 ESV). If they were as smart as they thought they were, would they really want to treat God so flippantly and irreverently?

He is their Father and the one who created them. They owe their very existence to Him. And all they had to do was look back over their long and storied history as a nation to find proof of God’s goodness and greatness. They could ask their fathers and the elders of their people, and they could regale them with stories of God’s mighty acts on behalf of Israel. In fact, if the people of God had been faithful, they would have been sharing the stories of God’s greatness with each successive generation. The psalmist describes this process of cross-generational instruction which was intended to teach the children all the amazing stories of God’s past actions on behalf of His people.

Pay attention, my people, to my instruction!
Listen to the words I speak!
I will sing a song that imparts wisdom;
I will make insightful observations about the past.
What we have heard and learned—
that which our ancestors have told us—
we will not hide from their descendants.
We will tell the next generation
about the Lord’s praiseworthy acts,
about his strength and the amazing things he has done. – Psalm 78:1-4 NLT

But the people of Israel seem to have suffered from both short- and long-term memory loss. They didn’t pass on the stories of God’s mighty acts. They failed to tell the next generation of the Lord’s praiseworthy acts and the amazing things He has done. Which is why the book fo Judges opens up with the sad statement:

…another generation grew up who did not acknowledge the LORD or remember the mighty things he had done for Israel. The Israelites did evil in the LORD’s sight and served the images of Baal. They abandoned the LORD, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of Egypt. – Judges 2:10-12 NLT

How easy it is to forget the goodness and greatness of God. How quickly God’s people can find themselves losing the memory of God’s past activity in their lives. And forgetfulness leads to faithlessness. Our failure to recall God’s faithfulness in the past results in a tendency to doubt God for the future. We can even lose the ability to recognize His activity in the here-and-now. And when we do, we begin to act as if there is no God. And, in doing so, we become fools.

As the poem of God points out, the descendants of Jacob were going to forget who they were. They would lose sight of their unique status as God’s chosen people, living in the land He had graciously apportioned to them. Their privileged position as His treasured possession would become a distant memory, causing them to seek and to serve false gods.

But the song is far from over. God’s indictment of His people is far from finished. Their abandonment of Him would be complete, and His discipline for their treachery would be fully justified.

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.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Joshua and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

23 And the Lord commissioned Joshua the son of Nun and said, “Be strong and courageous, for you shall bring the people of Israel into the land that I swore to give them. I will be with you.”

24 When Moses had finished writing the words of this law in a book to the very end, 25 Moses commanded the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, 26 “Take this Book of the Law and put it by the side of the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, that it may be there for a witness against you. 27 For I know how rebellious and stubborn you are. Behold, even today while I am yet alive with you, you have been rebellious against the Lord. How much more after my death! 28 Assemble to me all the elders of your tribes and your officers, that I may speak these words in their ears and call heaven and earth to witness against them. 29 For I know that after my death you will surely act corruptly and turn aside from the way that I have commanded you. And in the days to come evil will befall you, because you will do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger through the work of your hands.”  Deuteronomy 31:23-29 ESV

The commissioning of Joshua by God seems a bit anticlimactic, doesn’t it? It takes just one verse to record the whole affair. There were no animals sacrificed, no anointing oil poured over the head of Joshua. A comparison between his commissioning and that of Aaron reveals some remarkable and glaring contrasts.

And Moses brought Aaron and his sons and washed them with water. And he put the coat on him and tied the sash around his waist and clothed him with the robe and put the ephod on him and tied the skillfully woven band of the ephod around him, binding it to him with the band. And he placed the breastpiece on him, and in the breastpiece he put the Urim and the Thummim. And he set the turban on his head, and on the turban, in front, he set the golden plate, the holy crown, as the Lord commanded Moses. – Leviticus 8:6-9 ESV

And he poured some of the anointing oil on Aaron’s head and anointed him to consecrate him. And Moses brought Aaron’s sons and clothed them with coats and tied sashes around their waists and bound caps on them, as the Lord commanded Moses. – Leviticus 8:12-13 ESV

Yet, all Joshua got as a word of encouragement from God: “Be strong and courageous, for you shall bring the people of Israel into the land that I swore to give them. I will be with you” (Deuteronomy 31:23 ESV).

But even these words of encouragement and affirmation had to come across as a little underwhelming to Joshua. After all, he had just heard God say that the people of Israel would prove to be rebellious and unrepentant, earning them the full weight of the curses Moses had warned them about. So, while God provided Joshua with the assurance that he would be successful in his new role as leader of the people of Israel, it had to have been bitter-sweet news to his ears. Yes, Joshua would accomplish his God-given assignment and lead the people into the land of Canaan, but how could he forget the fact that they would not be allowed to stay there. The day would come when they would be destroyed by their enemies and taken as captives to foreign lands.

And even after his rather abrupt and abbreviated commissioning, Joshua had to hear Moses repeat the warning God had delivered to them in the tent of meeting.

I know how rebellious and stubborn you are. Behold, even today while I am yet alive with you, you have been rebellious against the Lord. How much more after my death!” – Deuteronomy 31:27 ESV

Put yourself in Joshua’s sandals. He has just been commissioned the new leader of the people of Israel and yet when he and Moses step out of the tent of meeting, he doesn’t even get an introduction. There is no official announcement of the leadership transition from Moses to Joshua. It’s almost as if Joshua simply stood in the background, eyes wide with shock and surprise. He had just seen the Shekinah glory of God, heard the voice of God, and was still digesting the devastating news from God that the nation of Israel would end up back in captivity one day. And just as he is about to take over the reins of leadership, he has to sit back and hear Moses accuse the people of being rebellious and stubborn.

And Moses wasn’t done. He had one more punch to the gut he wanted to deliver.

“I know that after my death you will surely act corruptly and turn aside from the way that I have commanded you. And in the days to come evil will befall you, because you will do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger through the work of your hands.” – Deuteronomy 31:29 ESV

I can’t help but imagine how Joshua felt as all this transpired. Here he was getting ready to lead the people of Israel into the promised land, not exactly an easy task, and Moses was busy stirring up and offending them. On top of that, Joshua had just been informed that, while the whole conquest-of-the-land initiative would be a success, it would prove to be shortlived and irrelevant.

This is probably not the way Joshua had envisioned his tenure as the shepherd of Israel beginning. This entire section of the book of Deuteronomy is weighted with a dark sense of foreboding. This should have been one of the most eagerly anticipated events in Israel’s long and storied history as they prepared to cross over the border and begin their conquest of the land promised to them by God centuries earlier. But rather than joy and celebration, the occasion was marked by sadness and disappointment. The party balloons had popped. The candles on the cake had blown out.

And Moses told the people that the law itself would bear witness against them. He instructed the Levites to “Take this Book of the Law and put it by the side of the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, that it may be there for a witness against you” (Deuteronomy 31:26 ESV). His handwritten copy of God’s commandments would be a constant presence among the people, practically screaming out its judgments against them every time they violated its contents.

Moses assembles all the elders and officers of the 12 tribes and calls heaven and earth to witness against them. But what does this mean? How do the heavens and the earth bear witness against the nation of Israel? Well, in the opening stanza of the song that God gave Moses, we read these words: “Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak, and let the earth hear the words of my mouth” (Deuteronomy 32:1 ESV).

Moses was going to sing the words of God’s song to the people, and the first words would be addressed to the heavens and the earth. It is as if God is saying, “If you won’t listen, creation will.” The rest of the creative order will hear the commands of God and bear witness against the Israelites for their stubborn refusal to do as He has said.

In a sense, Moses is saying that the heavens and earth will still remain, even after the Israelites are long gone. The sun, moon, and stars will still be in the sky long after Israel is exiled from the land of promise. They will look up from their new home in Babylon and see the same unchanging scene in the heavens, but they will be in captivity. The land of Canaan will remain right where it was when they left. Nothing will change about it except the identity of those who occupy it. The earth will keep spinning. The sun, moon, and stars will keep shining. Canaan will remain a land flowing with milk and honey. But the fate of the Israelites will be markedly different than it had been.

“…in the days to come evil will befall you, because you will do what is evil in the sight of the Lord.” – Deuteronomy 31:29 ESV

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.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Read It and Keep It

Then Moses wrote this law and gave it to the priests, the sons of Levi, who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and to all the elders of Israel. 10 And Moses commanded them, “At the end of every seven years, at the set time in the year of release, at the Feast of Booths, 11 when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God at the place that he will choose, you shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing. 12 Assemble the people, men, women, and little ones, and the sojourner within your towns, that they may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God, and be careful to do all the words of this law, 13 and that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God, as long as you live in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess.” Deuteronomy 31:9-13 ESV

Moses is about to commission Joshua as his official replacement. But before he conducts that auspicious ceremony where he will turn over the leadership of the people of Israel to his successor, Moses called together two other groups of God-appointed leaders. One was the priests, who were all members of the tribe of Levi. God’s appointment them as priests is recorded in the book of Numbers.

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Bring the tribe of Levi near, and set them before Aaron the priest, that they may minister to him. They shall keep guard over him and over the whole congregation before the tent of meeting, as they minister at the tabernacle. They shall guard all the furnishings of the tent of meeting, and keep guard over the people of Israel as they minister at the tabernacle. And you shall give the Levites to Aaron and his sons; they are wholly given to him from among the people of Israel. And you shall appoint Aaron and his sons, and they shall guard their priesthood. But if any outsider comes near, he shall be put to death.” – Numbers 3:5-10 ESV

The tribe of Levi had been set apart by God as substitutes for the firstborn sons of Israel. As a result of His sparing of all the firstborn male Israelites during the final plague in Egypt, God had claimed them as His own. They were to be dedicated to Him. But He later appointed the Levites to serve in this role. They would be the tribe from which the priestly order would come – the men who would serve in the tabernacle and offer sacrifices to God on behalf of the people. So, these men played an important role in the lives of the Israelites.

The second group of leaders Moses called upon was comprised of the elders of Israel. Back during the days when Israel was making their way from Egypt to the land of Canaan, Moses had become overwhelmed by the weight of his leadership responsibilities. So, God had provided him with a solution.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them, and bring them to the tent of meeting, and let them take their stand there with you. And I will come down and talk with you there. And I will take some of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them, and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so that you may not bear it yourself alone. – Numbers 11:16-17 ESV

The nation of Israel had grown too large for one man to lead them effectively. So, God provided Moses with a system for delegating authority among a group of well-qualified men. Their job was to come alongside Moses and to help him bear the burden of the people. And as Moses, prepared to turn over leadership to Joshua, he wanted the sons of Levi who served as priests and the elders of Israel to understand that they would play an important role in the future of the nation.

Moses provided them with a copy of the law and with instructions to guard and protect it. This document was going to be vital to the nation’s spiritual well-being. It would be the key to Israel experiencing the blessings of God. And Moses instructed these men to set aside a day every seventh (sabbatical) year on which they would call for a national assembly and read the law in the hearing of the people.

“At the end of every seventh year, the Year of Release, during the Festival of Shelters, you must read this Book of Instruction to all the people of Israel when they assemble before the Lord your God at the place he chooses. – Deuteronomy 31:10-11 ESV

It was essential that the people remain well-educated concerning the content of God’s law. Not long after Moses had received the law from God, he had told the people of Israel:

“…you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up. Tie them to your hands and wear them on your forehead as reminders. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” – Deuteronomy 6:6-9 NLT

And God had given a command concerning the kings who would eventually reign over the nation.

“…when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel.” – Deuteronomy 17:18-20 ESV

By commanding the audible recitation of the law every seventh year by the priests and elders of Israel, Moses was ensuring that the people would have a regular reminder of their commitment to the law. Not only that, he tied it to the annual Feast of Booths, which was a commemoration of Israel’s release from captivity. As part of the feast, they constructed temporary “booths” or “tabernacles” meant to remind them of the years their ancestor spent wandering in the wilderness of their way to the land of promise.

The feast was timed to occur immediately after the fall harvest, and it was accompanied by sacrifices, offered in thanksgiving to God for His gracious provision. It was at this joyous occasion that the law was to be read aloud to the entire population of Israel “at the set time in the year of release, at the Feast of Booths” (Deuteronomy 31:10 ESV).

And Moses commanded that this solemn convocation was to include “the people, men, women, and little ones, and the sojourner within your towns, that they may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God, and be careful to do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 31:12 ESV). No one was to be left out. And an important byproduct of this event was the instruction of their children regarding the law of God. 

“Do this so that your children who have not known these instructions will hear them and will learn to fear the Lord your God.” – Deuteronomy 31:13 NLT

And this reading of the law was to take place every seventh year for as long as the people of Israel lived in the land of Canaan. And since God had promised the land to them as a permanent possession, that means Moses expected the priests and elders to see their commitment to holding this solemn assembly as perpetual and never-ending in nature.

It’s interesting to note that, by spacing this reading of the law at seven-year intervals, there would have been thousands of 7-year-old children attending the festival who had born into the Jewish community during the gap years. These children would have been mature enough to hear the law and understand it. So, if they had not had parents who taught it to them, they would at least hear it for themselves on their 7th birthday and every seventh year after that.

To say that the law was important to God would be a vast understatement. He cared greatly about His law and was adamant that His people know it and obey it. He wanted them to live their lives by it. He demanded that they be committed to it. He wanted the leaders of His people to be the protectors and disseminators of it – for generations to come. And this law was not just a list of rules to keep. It was written documentation of the commitment the people of Israel had made. They had promised to keep all the commandments of God, and He was not going to allow them to forget the nature of that commitment.

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.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson