Bible Commentaries
Deuteronomy 32

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

Verses 16-44

The Song Concerning the Lawsuit of God (31:16-32:44)

Besides the book of the Law, which is to guide the life of God’s vassal-subjects and to defend his character when he punishes his people, there is attributed to Moses here a second "witness" for God against the nation. It is in the form of a song which is to be learned and passed down to subsequent generations (31: 19-21). When Israel callously breaks the Covenant by idolatry and experiences the awesome judgments of God, the song will remind the sufferers of the meaning of their misfortunes and of the justice of God in thus afflicting them. It will point out to them the baseness of their apostasy and show how they may once again experience God’s mercy.

It is widely agreed today that the song contained in chapter 32 is old. It may have been composed as early as the eleventh century B.C. and is hardly later than about the seventh. Thus it had been in use for a considerable time before its incorporation in this section of Deuteronomy.

In form it seems to follow the pattern of the covenant lawsuit, which provided the thought framework for the activity of the great ethical prophets. The covenant lawsuit rests back on the covenant form proper, as seen in the Hittite suzerainty treaties and in the Israelite adaptation of this form. The prophets, seeing that the terms of the Covenant had been broken by Israel’s idolatry, represented God as assembling his heavenly court and arraigning the guilty Israel before the bar of justice (see 1 Kings 22:19; Psalms 82:1). Heaven and earth—apparently meaning the heavenly beings who preside over heaven and earth (Deuteronomy 32:8)—are called upon to bear testimony (or to hear the case) against Israel as violators of the terms of the Covenant (Psalms 50:4; Isaiah 1:2-3; Jeremiah 2:12-13; Micah 6:1-2). Israel, being justly condemned in the court of heaven, is promptly sentenced. It is the role of the prophet, to whom this knowledge is revealed, to go to his people and make known Israel’s guilt before the bar of God and the coming penalty, if immediate repentance is not forth-coming (Isaiah 1:2-20; ch. 6).

The song in Deuteronomy 32 reflects many of the elements of the covenant lawsuit, although it develops them with some freedom. It begins with a summons to the witnesses, heaven and earth (vs. 1). It reviews the gracious attitudes and deeds of God, centering in his choice and loving care of Israel as his special people (vss. 4, 7-14). It proceeds to a formal indictment of the nation for its base ingratitude as manifested in its forsaking God and worshiping idols (vss. 15-18). It records God’s condemnation and sentence, which consists of humiliation at the hands of enemies and affliction by natural calamities (vss. 19-29). It yet sets forth grounds for hope: God will not give his people up to utter destruction; his agents of judgment will themselves be judged when Israel turns away from impotent idols (vss. 30-38). The God who alone is sovereign will manifest his mighty power in the destruction of Israel’s enemies (vss. 39-42). The song concludes with a summons to the nations to praise the God who vindicates his people and who cleanses away the defilement of their land (vs. 43).

There are many beautiful and theologically meaningful passages in the song, especially those which set forth the righteous character and provident care of God. He is the Creator-Father (vs. 6), who cares for his children as the parent eagle watches over the young eaglets. If, in their efforts to fly, their strength fails, the mighty parent bird swoops underneath and bears the fledglings up, until they can take to wing again (vs. 11). The Father is also "the Rock" (vss. 4, 15, 18, 30, 31), the firm support and refuge of his people. His sovereign power is directed by love. His aim is the purgation and establishment of his people (vss. 36-43). He will tolerate no infidelity; he alone is God (vs. 39).

Verses 45-47

The Passing of the Old Leader (32:45-34:12)

The Final Exhortation (32:45-47)

The song ended, Moses now offers his final exhortation to absolute obedience to the Law. The expression "all these words" of verse 45 refers to the Deuteronomic discourses as a whole, not to the words of the song, as the closing phrase of verse 46 plainly shows.

The listeners are told to "lay to heart [literally, "set your heart to"; that is, "take to heart"] all the words which I enjoin upon you [literally, "which I am testifying against you"]" and to teach them to their posterity. Here God’s revelation of his will in the Law is considered as a testimony against man’s sin. Obedience is a life-and-death matter, not a triviality with inconsequential results (vs. 47).

Verses 48-52

The Preparation for Death (32:48-52)

Moses is now instructed to ascend Mount Nebo in the Abarim Mountains opposite Jericho (about 12 miles east of the mouth of the Jordan) for a view of the land prior to his death. (For a discussion of the relation of Pisgah to Mount Nebo and the reasons for Moses’ exclusion from the Promised Land see the comment on 3:23-29.)

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Deuteronomy 32". "Layman's Bible Commentary".