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Bible Commentaries
Deuteronomy 31

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Verses 1-8


By proposing to the people the choice between blessing and curse and life and death, Moses has completed the unfolding and diligently teaching of the law (Deuteronomy 1:5) and completed the legislation. To finish all the work the LORD has given him, some things have to happen. Just before his death he wants to hand over the leadership of the people to Joshua. He then wanted the book of the law he had just written to be kept by the priests next to the ark of the covenant.

The LORD also commands him to write another song and to teach it to the people as a testimony. About the contents of that song we read in Deuteronomy 31-32. In Deuteronomy 33 we hear how this man of God blesses the tribes of Israel in a farewell speech. Finally, Deuteronomy 34 describes the death of Moses. Herewith the Pentateuch closes.

Moses Encourages the People and Joshua

Moses knows that the time to say farewell has come. In Deuteronomy 31:14 the LORD tells him so too. He is now one hundred and twenty years old, far above the age that other people reach, as he himself says in the psalm written by him (Psalms 90:1; Psalms 90:10). God has something to say to us with His life. It is not for nothing that the Scriptures divide his one hundred and twenty years of life into three special periods of forty years (Acts 7:23; Acts 7:30).

Moses says farewell, but does not leave the people to themselves. Joshua will take over and continue his task. We do not hear any complaint or reproach from Moses. With love he passes on the leadership. It is in God’s way to determine that not he, but Joshua will bring the people into the land.

In Joshua we have a picture of the Lord Jesus leading His people through the Holy Spirit. In our time the Holy Spirit leads the church through brothers who have authority by their way of life and wisdom. Not acknowledging this is a denial of the authority of the Spirit.

In every possible way Moses encourages both the people and Joshua. He recalls the victories over Sihon and Og. When we think back to the victories God has given us in the past, it also encourages us with a view to a future battle. What God has done in the past, He can still do today. This idea gives confidence for the future.

Men who have walked with God in their lives are pre-eminently capable to encourage others. The encouragement “be strong and courageous” is not a hollow sound, nor is the promise that the LORD will go with them and not fail or forsake them. Moses has shown and experienced this himself.

“Not fail” means that we can always count on Him for advice and guidance, for strength and courage. “Not forsake” means that He is always with His people on the way to and in the battle in the land to make it their own. So He is always with us, to help us make our blessings our own and enjoy them with Him. He is with us according to His promise until our whole task on earth is accomplished: “And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age”. (Matthew 28:20). Therefore we do not have to fear for the enemy, for “if God [is] for us, who [is] against us?” (Romans 8:31).

We too always need to hear this encouragement. Blessed when God gives people who have experienced this in their lives and encourage us with this. In this way, Paul encourages the Corinthians: “Be on the alert, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong” (1 Corinthians 16:13). Also the Hebrews are encouraged: “He Himself has said, “I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you”” (Hebrews 13:5). We are also encouraged by these Scriptures.

Verses 9-13

Reading of the Law Every Seven Years

After Moses has transferred leadership to Joshua in the presence of all of Israel, he takes the book of the law he has written. He makes sure that the people will always be reminded of God’s Word. In the same way Paul, when he says farewell, commends the believers “to God and to the word of His grace” (Acts 20:32). Peter also wants God’s people to always be reminded of God’s Word when he is no longer there: “Therefore, I will always be ready to remind you of these things, even though you [already] know [them], and have been established in the truth which is present with [you]” (2 Peter 1:12-1 Chronicles :). People fall away, but God’s Word remains.

This section is about the Word of God. Next the authority of the Spirit, presented in Joshua, belongs the Word of God. God’s Spirit and God’s Word belong together. The authority of the resurrected and glorified Lord who exercises that authority through His Spirit and guides us through His Spirit will never conflict with the Word of God. It is always consistent with it.

Knowledge of God’s Word is of great importance to test everything that presents itself as the voice of the Spirit. We can read and study God’s Word at home, but here is the reading in a meeting of God’s people. The meetings to proclaim the Word are of great importance. The expression “the place which He will choose” appears here for the last time in this book. It gives extra emphasis to the meeting of the church around the Lord Jesus to listen to God’s Word.

The reading should be done in the year of remission of debts, the sabbatical year (Deuteronomy 15:1) and at the Feast of Booths (Deuteronomy 16:13-Ezra :), which is celebrated when the whole harvest has been harvested. That is the appropriate time to read out the whole law. At this Feast of Booths in the sabbatical year not only the men are present (Deuteronomy 16:16), as in the six previous years, but also the women and children come.

This seven-yearly reading is not a substitute for teaching in the houses (Deuteronomy 6:1-1 Samuel :) or teaching by priests (Deuteronomy 17:11; Deuteronomy 24:8). It is much more to support and confirm or, if necessary, to correct all other teaching. It will bring the thoughts of the people as a whole back into line with the Word of God. This will save the unity of the people.

Both the sabbath year and the Feast of Booths speak of the kingdom of peace. That is the time when all God’s promises have been fulfilled and everyone lives in their original inheritance. Reading the law will bring to the people the memory of all these promises and the ways of God to its fulfilment. The people only can confirm that all that God has said has come true. They will honor Him for it.

The book of the law is given to the priests who carry the ark. It is normally is the task for the Levites to carry the ark (Numbers 4:15). On special occasions the priests do so (Joshua 3:3-Ruth :; Joshua 6:6; 1 Chronicles 15:11-2 Kings :). The book of the law is also given to the elders. They are by their age the natural leaders of the people and should give the example of obedience.

Verses 14-18

The Apostacy of Israel Foretold

The days of Moses are numbered by the LORD (Job 14:5). Now He is going to confirm the succession of Moses through Joshua. Moses has already openly called Joshua to be his successor (Numbers 27:22-Isaiah :) and appointed him (Deuteronomy 31:7). Moses and Joshua stand together in “the tent of meeting”. Then the LORD appears to them in the pillar of cloud. This is the only appearance in this book. It is also the only time that the tent of meeting is mentioned.

True leadership always begins with a special look at the Lord Jesus, in the sanctuary, near to the Lord. Only then can leaders go outside to perform the task given to them. When deeply impressed by the glory of the Lord, they will serve the people as leaders in the right mind.

What the LORD says is not encouraging. He foretells in no uncertain terms that the people will turn away from Him. He does not speak of the possibility of this, but puts it as certainty. After the impression of His glory He now gives them a thorough impression of who the people are. Both impressions are necessary in order to serve on the right way. Something similar we see when Elijah takes his successor Elisha by the hand and leads him along a few places (2 Kings 2:1-1 Kings :). They stop at every place. This is to be impressed on the one hand by God’s vision on them and on the other hand by what man has made of it.

At some point the people will see that the disasters hit them because the LORD is not among them. But God will continue to hide His face from them, for their feeling of God’s absence is not yet true conversion. The LORD hides His face from them by withdrawing from the temple the symbol of His favor and protection, the shechinah, the cloud as the dwelling of His glory (Ezekiel 9:3; Ezekiel 10:18-Psalms :Ezekiel 11:22-Isaiah :). It has not returned to the rebuilt temple in the days of Ezra. This will only happen when the people, that is to say a remnant, have converted.

Verses 19-30

Moses Should Write a Song to Teach

After the book of law comes the song. This is the song written down in Deuteronomy 32. The book and the song form a wonderful duality: God’s counsel contained in His book and His ways of warning and grace contained in the song. It is a sad song that ends happily with the triumph of God’s grace. Is it possible to make a song about the decline and sad history of God’s people? Yes, it is, because it ends well by the grace of God.

Moses teaches the people the song. He teaches them the content of it, he tells them what it means. He lets them repeat it over and over again, so that it is engraved deep in their memory. A national anthem has a powerful influence on the deepest feelings of a people. A song can be learned by heart and taught to the children. The content of the teaching of God’s Word can very well be passed on through a song (Colossians 3:16). But men made songs must be checked if they are according to the Scriptures.

After the command to write down the song, God says, as only He can do, in one verse (Deuteronomy 31:20), what He will do and what the people will do. He fulfils His promise and brings them to the delight of blessing, but the people turn to other gods and despise Him.

He knows their mindset. Their hearts are an open book to Him (Hebrews 4:13). That is why it is all the more striking that He lets Moses write a song. In it are sung of the rebellious deeds of the people and the gracious deeds of God. God needs a just basis for this compassionate action. He has found this in His Son.

After the prophecy of the deviation of the people it is necessary to encourage Joshua again (Deuteronomy 31:23). This time the LORD does that Himself. If young people in the church see much weakness and failure of older believers who should be an example, it is necessary that they seek their strength in the Lord and do not give up. In a time of decline, Paul encouraged his child in faith, Timothy: “You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:1).

Once again, following Joshua’s encouragement, there is an indication concerning the book. Moses commissions the book to be placed next to the ark of the covenant. This determines us by God’s faithfulness to His covenant. When Moses speaks of their rebellion, he speaks not that they were against him, but against the LORD. What is done to the LORD weighs heavier for him than what is done to him.

Moses is ready to pronounce the words of the song which the LORD puts in his mouth. He calls all elders and overseers to him. He takes the heavens and the earth as witnesses against them. It is possible that this means the inhabitants of heaven and earth, men and angels, who will all agree with the truth expressed in this song.

It is also possible that heaven and earth are represented here as persons. The heavens and the earth are maintained by God’s Word and guided to the purpose He has with them (Hebrews 1:3). They do not oppose it (Psalms 119:89- :). Creation speaks a reproaching language for all who disobey God’s commandments (Job 20:27). See also Psalm 19 where God’s creation and God’s Word both bear witness to God’s majesty (Psalms 19:1-2 Kings :).

The words Moses speaks in Deuteronomy 31:29 show a striking connection with the words of Paul in his farewell speech to the elders in Ephesus: “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock” (Acts 20:29). In their farewell address, Moses and Paul both show insight into the true condition of the people to whom they have devoted their lives. They speak prophetic words in view of the development of that people after their passing away, which in both cases have proved to be true.

Bibliographical Information
de Koning, Ger. Commentaar op Deuteronomy 31". "Kingcomments on the Whole Bible". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/kng/deuteronomy-31.html. 'Stichting Titus' / 'Stichting Uitgeverij Daniël', Zwolle, Nederland. 2021.
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