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29. Remember This Song! (Deuteronomy 31:16-22; 32:1-47)

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Life of Moses (29)

September 23, 2018

When you come near the end of years of ministry, you think about the question, “What has the Lord done through me that is of eternal value?” Moses must have been thinking about that when he wrote the majestic Psalm 90. In the final verse (Ps. 90:17) he prays, “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us; and confirm for us the work of our hands; yes, confirm the work of our hands.” I pray that often!

As Moses came near the end of his life, the Lord told him that in the future, Israel would break their covenant with the Lord and play the harlot with the false gods of the Canaanites (Deut. 31:16). As a result, in judgment the Lord would bring many evils upon them. So the Lord directed Moses to write a song as a witness against unfaithful Israel (Deut. 31:19-21). They were to teach this song to their children as a warning about what happens when you forsake the Lord and follow false gods. So Moses wrote this second song (Exodus 15 is his first song) and taught it to Israel.

God wanted Israel to remember and sing Deuteronomy 32 down through their generations, but it may have been a song that Israel wished they could forget. You’ve had songs that get into your head and you can’t get them out until they just about drive you crazy! We don’t know the tune of Moses’ song, but God wanted it to stay in the Israelites’ heads forever. Someday we’ll hear this song, because in Revelation 15, John saw the saints in heaven singing the song of Moses, praising God for His greatness, righteousness, truth, and holiness. It teaches us:

To avoid turning away from the Lord, we should remember and sing songs that tell us who God is and who we are so that we appreciate what He has done for us in Christ.

It would take many sermons to work through this song in detail, but there are three general lessons:

1. God wants us to remember and sing spiritual songs to warn us of the dangers of turning away from Him.

When God told Moses that in the future, Israel would break God’s covenant and play the harlot with foreign gods, Moses must have felt as if his life’s work was going down in flames! He had put up with hardship, grumbling, criticism, and rebellion from these people for the past 40 years, but his hope no doubt was that once they got into the Promised Land, they would finally become the kingdom of priests and holy nation that God had proclaimed them to be (Exod. 19:5-6). But now he hears this grievous word that after his death, Israel would forsake the Lord and turn to other gods. So God gave Moses this song to teach Israel who He is and to warn them of the consequences if they turned away from Him.

Although God prophesied that Israel would turn to idolatry, it was not inevitable that everyone would do so, if they heeded God’s warning. We need to understand that whatever God foreknows, He foreordains. In other words, God doesn’t just sit in heaven and look down on earth to see in advance what direction the parade will go. Rather, He determines the parade route. He “works all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11; Job 42:2). And so God not only foresaw Israel’s future apostasy, which He announces here (Deut. 31:16); He also foreordained it, yet in such a way that He was not responsible for their sin. While we can’t understand how God can foreordain evil and yet not be responsible for it, the Bible often teaches that very thing (e.g. Acts 2:23; 4:27-28).

When God tells us in His Word what the future holds, it is not so that we can draw up nifty prophecy charts. It’s so that we will heed His warning and not fall into the sins that will happen in the future. And, it’s so that we will not be surprised or discouraged when we see these things taking place. For example, the Bible tells us that in the future, there will be a time of great apostasy, when many professing believers will fall away (Matt. 24:10-12). Many will be deceived by the man of lawlessness (2 Thess. 2:3-12). But knowing that this will happen does not mean that it’s inevitable that we will be part of that future apostasy. Rather, we can be on guard not to fall into spiritual deception. And, we’ll be ready to endure persecution and hardship for the sake of the gospel.

In the introduction (Deut. 32:1-2), Moses calls upon heaven and earth to let his teaching be as refreshing rain on the earth. But the bulk of the song describes terrible judgment, not refreshing showers! How can this be? Warnings and descriptions of future judgment are a means of blessing if we heed the warning. It’s as if I warned, “Don’t go near the edge of the Grand Canyon. Many have fallen in the past and there will be many who fall and die in the future.” That predictive warning does not make it inevitable that you will fall over in the future. If you take the warning to heart, you will be blessed to avoid becoming a victim of my prediction.

That’s the intent of this song. One way to heed the warning of future apostasy is to sing spiritually edifying songs as we gather each week.

2. The songs we remember and sing should tell us who God is and who we are.

John Calvin opens The Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. by John T. McNeill [Westminster Press], 1:1:1) with this provocative statement: “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” McNeill notes (p. 36, note 3), “These decisive words set the limits of Calvin’s theology and condition every subsequent statement.” So in one short sentence, Calvin sums up everything he’s going to say for the next 1,500 pages! True and sound wisdom consists of knowing God and knowing ourselves as revealed in Scripture.

A. The songs we remember and sing should tell us who God is.

Moses begins (Deut. 32:3), “For I proclaim the name of the Lord.” The Lord’s name refers to all that He is, the sum of His attributes. His name is His person as revealed in His Word. I can’t work through this song verse by verse, but here are seven truths that highlight who God is:

1) God is Yahweh, our great covenant God, the Rock.

“The Lord” (Deut. 32:3) translates Yahweh, God’s covenant name that He revealed to Moses at the burning bush, where He told Moses to tell the Israelites, “I AM has sent me to you” (Exod. 3:14-16). It was by His name Yahweh that the Lord promised to deliver Israel from bondage in Egypt (Exod. 6:2-8). The Lord Jesus claimed to be “I AM” when He told the Jews who challenged Him (John 8:58), “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am.” He is the mediator of the new covenant, which is better than the old (Heb. 7:22; 8:6).

Also, Moses proclaims (Deut. 32:3), “Ascribe greatness to our God!” God alone is truly great! Even the greatest and most powerful human leaders are not great in comparison with God. Nebuchadnezzar thought that he was great as the ruler and builder of Babylon, but God humbled him and made him act like a beast in the field and eat grass until he recognized (Dan. 4:25), “that the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind and bestows it on whomever He wishes.”

God is also “The Rock” (Deut. 32:4). This points to His stability and unchangeableness. He is a place of refuge and security for His people. We can build our lives on Him as our sure foundation (Matt. 7:24-27). He is not moved by storms. He can be counted on in every situation.

Note, also verse 31: “Indeed their rock is not like our Rock.” “Their rock” refers to the false gods of the Canaanites. It points to idols that people trust in. Some trust in money, thinking that it will bring them stability and security in life. But billions of dollars will be worthless when you die and stand before God (Luke 12:15-21). Others trust in pleasure, but sensual pleasures quickly fade as we grow old and die. Others trust in relationships with a spouse, family, or friends. Such relationships are a gift from God. But death can quickly rob us of our cherished relationships. Whatever rock you put your trust in is not like our Rock, the living and true God. He alone ultimately satisfies, both for time and eternity (Ps. 16:11).

2) God is perfect, just in all His ways, faithful, and righteous.

Deut. 32:4: “His work is perfect, for all His ways are just; a God of faithfulness and without injustice, righteous and upright is He.” God’s ways are how He deals with people. Here it especially applies to God’s dealings with Israel in the wilderness. They grumbled and did not submit to His ways, even though He abundantly provided for them. They often accused God of cruelty and unfaithfulness by bringing them into the wilderness to kill them. Thus God says of Israel in the wilderness (Ps. 95:10), “For forty years I loathed that generation, and said they are a people who err in their heart, and they do not know My ways.” He is perfect, just, faithful, and righteous.

3) God is our Father who bought us, made us, and established us.

Deut. 32:6b: “Is not He your Father who has bought you? He has made you and established you.” A few times the Old Testament states that God is Israel’s Father (Isa. 63:16; 64:8; Mal. 2:10). It mentions more frequently that Israel was God’s son (Earl Kalland, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan], ed. by Frank Gaebelien, 3:201). God was Israel’s Father because He brought them as a nation into existence. Jesus often taught that we are to approach God as our loving Father (Matt. 6:9, 26, 32; etc.).

The fact that God bought Israel refers to His redeeming them out of slavery in Egypt. He has the right of ownership and they owe Him total submission and allegiance. Even so, we are not our own; we’ve been bought with a price. Therefore we are to glorify God in our bodies (1 Cor. 6:19-20).

4) God is the Most High, sovereign over the nations, who chose His people as His portion and inheritance.

Deut. 32:8, “When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, when He separated the sons of man, He set the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the sons of Israel.” Paul was probably referring to this verse when he told the Athenians (Acts 17:26), “He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation.” Both verses go back to Genesis 10, which records the divisions of the nations after the flood.

The last phrase of verse 8, “according to the number of the sons of Israel,” is unclear, but as one commentator explains (Kalland, ibid. 3:203), “the most probable meaning is that the boundaries of the nations were determined with the intent that Israel would have Canaan because her numbers could be supported in that area. This was done because Israel was central in the Lord’s affection and sovereign planning.”

The Bible teaches that the Lord is our portion and inheritance (Ps. 16:5; Eph. 1:11), but also that we are His portion and inheritance (1 Sam. 10:1; 1 Kings 8:51)! Psalm 149:4 declares, “For the Lord takes pleasure in His people.” It should constantly amaze us that the sovereign over the nations chose us as His portion and inheritance!

5) God is the loving, faithful God who cares for, guides, and sustains His people.

Verses 10-14 chronicle how God found Israel in a howling desert wasteland, cared for him, and guarded him as the pupil of His eye. Like an eagle carefully hovering over its young, God tenderly cared for Israel. Looking ahead to Israel’s inheritance in Canaan, Moses says that the Lord guided him, fed him with the produce of the field, gave him honey and oil from the rock, and provided abundant flocks, food, and wine. Even so, Jesus proclaimed (John 6:35), “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst.” He said (John 10:10b), “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” God sustains and cares for us (1 Pet. 5:7).

6) God is the fearful, righteous Judge of those who reject Him.

This is a major theme in this song (see verses 19-27, 31-35, 40-43). His judgment is certain for all who reject Him. This applies both to those who claim to be His people, but live in disobedience to Him, and also to nations that worship false gods. Note two features of this point:

First, in verses 26-27, speaking in human terms, God says that He would have cut disobedient Israel to pieces and removed the memory of them from earth, except that He feared that Israel’s enemies would boast that they had triumphed, rather than acknowledge that God had done it. The point is, God is jealous for His glory among the nations. It’s the same point that we’ve seen when God told Moses that He would wipe out Israel and make a new nation out of Moses’ descendants. But Moses countered, “Lord, if You do that, the nations will say that You weren’t able to keep Your promises to these people!” (See Exod. 32:9-14; Num. 14:11-21). But God will be glorified when He judges sinners.

Second, the Lord tells Israel that when they turn away from Him, He will use the idolatrous nations to punish Israel and then He will judge those nations because of how they treated Israel (Deut. 32:35-36)! It’s similar to Habakkuk, where the Lord tells the prophet that He is raising up the wicked Chaldeans to judge Israel, but then He will judge the Chaldeans. “Vengeance is Mine” (v. 35) is cited twice in the New Testament, once to prohibit us from taking our own vengeance (Rom. 12:19); and the other time (Heb. 10:30) to warn us that God will judge those who trample Jesus under foot and regard His blood of the covenant as unclean. Jonathan Edwards used “in due time their foot will slip” (v. 35) as the text for his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

7) God is the only God, who kills and gives life, who wounds and heals, from whom none can escape.

God sums up the bottom line of who He is (Deut. 32:39):

‘See now that I, I am He,
And there is no god besides Me;
It is I who put to death and give life.
I have wounded and it is I who heal,
And there is no one who can deliver from My hand.

Since that is who God is, we should worship Him alone and sing songs that exalt Him for his greatness and majesty.

B. The songs we remember and sing should remind us who we are.

As Calvin said, true and sound wisdom, consists both of knowing God and knowing ourselves. He meant, knowing ourselves as God’s Word reveals. We can’t trust our own judgment, because as Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?”

This song jars us by portraying God’s greatness, goodness, and faithfulness, but then hitting us with Israel’s sin. After telling us (v. 4) that God is the Rock, whose work is perfect, whose ways are just, that He is faithful, righteous, and upright, verse 5 declares,

“They have acted corruptly toward Him,
They are not His children, because of their defect;
But are a perverse and crooked generation.

Jesus used that last line to verbalize His exasperation over the unbelief He encountered (Matt. 17:17).

Then after telling how God tenderly cared for Israel (Deut. 32:7-14), verse 15 jars us: “But Jeshurun grew fat and kicked.” Jeshurun means, “upright one,” and here refers sarcastically to Israel. After God’s tender care, they should have been upright; instead, they kicked the gracious Shepherd who provided abundantly for them. Moses goes on (vv. 15b-18) to describe the depths of their defection from the Lord:

Then he forsook God who made him,
And scorned the Rock of his salvation.
“They made Him jealous with strange gods;
With abominations they provoked Him to anger.
“They sacrificed to demons who were not God,
To gods whom they have not known,
New gods who came lately,
Whom your fathers did not dread.
“You neglected the Rock who begot you,
And forgot the God who gave you birth.

This terrible indictment is not describing true believers in the Lord (“They are not His children,” v. 5). God is condemning the Israelites who had seen God’s grace and love, but had rejected Him to follow false gods.

When God saves us, He gives us a new nature that loves Him and seeks to know Him more deeply. And yet, as Paul lamented (Rom. 7:18), “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not.” My understanding is that he was referring to his life after he was saved. I do not agree with those who claim that believers have only a new nature, but not the old. Whether you call it the old nature or the flesh, I can sing, “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love.” The closer we draw to the “unapproachable light” (1 Tim. 6:16) of God’s presence, the more we become aware of the remaining corruption that dwells within us. And so all the more we need to judge our sin, guard our hearts, and walk in moment-by-moment dependence on the Lord. Finally,

3. When we see who God is and who we are, it leads to heartfelt worship because of what He has done for us in Christ.

At the end of his song (v. 46), Moses tells Israel to take all these words of warning to their heart. As Jonathan Edwards argued (The Works of Jonathan Edwards [Banner of Truth], A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, 1:236), “True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections.” In other words, when we truly know God, it affects our hearts, which includes our will and understanding. Moses adds (v. 47) that to obey God’s warning through this song was not just an idle singing of a song, but it was their life.

The only way that such a strong warning that confronts our many sins can be life for us is if God provides a way to forgive our sins. Moses alludes to this at the end of the song (v. 43) when he says that the Lord “will atone for His land and His people.” In the Old Testament atonement was through animal sacrifices. For us, Jesus is God’s perfect and final sacrifice. He is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). If you trust in Him, your sins are atoned for and you receive eternal life.

The catalyst for heartfelt worship is when you see God as He has revealed Himself in the Bible and you see yourself as justly deserving His wrath. But then you see the surpassing riches of His grace in sending His own Son to die for your sins (Eph. 2:4-7).


In 1715, Louis XIV of France died. He called himself, “Louis the Great.” His court was the most magnificent in all of Europe. He even planned his funeral to be spectacular. To dramatize his greatness, his body was put in a golden coffin. He had given orders that the cathedral be dimly lit, with only a special candle set above the coffin. Thousands waited in hushed silence. Then Bishop Massilon began to speak. Slowly reaching down, he snuffed out the candle, saying, “Only God is great!” (Source unknown)

May our singing help us to remember: Only God is great! We’re not great. But we have a great Savior! Cling to Him! Worship Him alone!

Application questions

  1. Many argue that believers can lose their salvation if they turn away from the Lord. How would you refute this?
  2. Some Christians believe that if God decreed evil, then He is responsible for it. But what is the unbiblical conclusion if He did not decree evil? What verses show that He did decree it?
  3. Why is it spiritually important to affirm that believers still have an old sin nature (or, “the flesh”)? What danger is there if we deny it?
  4. When (if ever) should you try to help a sinning Christian who now doubts his salvation gain assurance of salvation?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2018, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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