Back in Numbers 27 the Lord announced to Moses that he would die before entering the Promised Land of Canaan. He was allowed to see it, when the Lord brought him up a high mountain and allowed him to see the land. However, Moses would not enter the land. And the Lord announced that Joshua would become the leader of God’s people in place of Moses. And so, at that time, Moses laid his hands on Joshua and commissioned him to be leader of the people. Then, in Deuteronomy 1, Moses explained to the people that the reason he would not enter the land was because the Lord had become angry with him. God was angry with Moses, because Moses had disobeyed and dishonoured the Lord when Moses struck the rock in order to bring water out of it, instead of speaking to it, as the Lord commanded him. He therefore dishonoured the Lord before all the people. And so, because the Lord was angry with him, he swore that Moses would not lead the people into the land. That honour was bestowed on Joshua instead.
So, that’s what we read in Numbers 27 and Deuteronomy 1. In today’s passage — Deuteronomy 31 — Joshua is publicly commissioned as leader. So, back in Numbers 27, Moses commissioned him privately. In chapter 31, he does it publicly, so that all the people would see for themselves that they were to follow Joshua from that time on.
And today’s passage also contains instructions for the Levites and elders about reading the law of the Lord to all the people regularly so that they would learn to fear the Lord and carefully obey his commands. And Moses also warned the people that they would rebel against the Lord and become unfaithful. So, today’s chapter is about three things: their new leader; the reading of God’s word; and their inclination to sin.
Verses 1 to 8
We read in verse 1 how Moses once again addressed all of Israel. He tells them that he’s 120 years old. One of the commentators points out that Moses’s life can be broken up into three forty-year periods. The first forty years was his life in Egypt. The second forty years was his life in Midian. And the third forty years was his life in the wilderness. In Egypt, he was regarded as a prince, the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, until he intervened to save one of the Israelites who was been beaten by an Egyptian. When the Pharaoh heard about it, he tried to kill Moses. But Moses fled to Midian, where he lived for forty years in obscurity. But then the Lord appeared to him in the burning bush and called him to lead the people out of their slavery and into the Promised Land, a journey which was to take forty years.
And now, at the end of those three forty year periods, Moses is no longer able to lead the people. But this was not due to old age or ill health. According to Deuteronomy 34:7, his eyes were not weak and his strength had not gone. But the Lord had decreed that he would not cross the Jordan river, but would die on the east side of the river, outside of the Promised Land. Nevertheless, even though Moses would die, the Israelites need not be afraid or worried, because while earthly leaders come and go, the Lord is a rock who remains the same. And just as the Lord had been with them before and had led them through the wilderness, so the Lord their God would lead the way for them across the River Jordan and into the Promised Land. Like a mighty warrior, he would go before them, leading the way. And he will destroy the nations they meet in the Promised Land, so that they will be able to take possession of the land. So, even though Moses will no longer be with them to lead them, the Lord would still be with them to help them. He is, after all, their true leader. He is their King, who goes before them.
But, of course, the Lord leads his people by means of human leaders. For forty years, he led them by means of Moses. And now, he would lead them by means of Joshua. So, as Moses says in verse 3, Joshua will cross over ahead of them. He will lead the way.
But — and again to reassure them — Moses reminded them of what the Lord had already done for them. When Sihon king of Heshbon and when Og king of Bashan attacked them, the Lord helped them to stand firm and to win the victory, so that their enemies were destroyed. And what the Lord did to Sihon and Og, he will do to the Canaanite nations. He will deliver the nations to them and the Israelites must do what God had already commanded them, which was to destroy the nations so that the nations would not be able to lead the Israelites astray.
And look at verse 6. Moses tells the people to be strong and courageous; and do not be afraid. Do not be terrified of the Canaanite nations. Why should they be strong and courageous and not afraid? Because they’re a mighty nation? Because they’re powerful soldiers? No, it’s because the Lord their God will go with them and he will never leave them or forsake them. That’s the reason for their confidence: they’re not to be self-confident, but they’re to be confident in the Lord, trusting in him to help them, just as he helped them in the past.
And having said all that to the Israelites, Moses summoned Joshua to come forward. And in the presence of all the people, Moses told Joshua to be strong and courageous, because he must go with the people into the land and must divide it among them as their inheritance. In other words, Joshua must lead them.
So, this is Moses’s charge to Joshua. But just as he did with the Israelites, so he does with Joshua: Moses reassured him. He reassured him by reminding him that the Lord will go before him and will be with him. The yous in this verse are singular, which means Moses is addressing Joshua personally and he wants him to know that the Lord will be with him personally. The Lord will never leave you, Joshua. The Lord will never forsake you, Joshua. So, there’s no reason to be afraid. There’s no reason to be discouraged. The Lord is with you.
And so, there you are. Moses their leader is about to die. But, nevertheless, they could still count on the Lord who would be with them and who would go before them to help them overcome their enemies and take possession of the land. And the Lord would lead them by means of an earthly leader. And promised to be with the earthly leader too.
Just as Moses pointed to the Lord Jesus, so Joshua points to the Lord Jesus. When God’s people were slaves in Egypt, God sent Moses to deliver them from their misery. And now, he’s sending Joshua to bring them through the River Jordan and into the Promised Land.
And, of course, the Lord God saw us in our sin and misery. By nature we’re sinners who sin against the Lord continually. And because we’re sinners who sin against the Lord continually, we’re under his wrath and curse and we’re justly liable to all the miseries of this life and to eternal punishment in the life to come. But instead of leaving us in our sin and misery, the Lord God was gracious and merciful and he sent his Son into the world to deliver us from our sin and misery and to give us everlasting life in the Promised Land to come. Just as God sent Moses first and then Joshua to deliver his people from their slavery and to bring them into the Promised Land, so he has sent his one and only Son to deliver us from our sin and misery in this life and to give us eternal life in the presence of God in the new heavens and earth.
The Israelites were not able to free themselves from their slavery in Egypt, but God freed them. And the Israelites were not able — by themselves — to take possession of the Promised Land, but the Lord went before them and helped them. And we’re not able to free ourselves from our sin and misery. And we’re not able to take possession — by ourselves — of the Promised Land to come. But God frees us by his Son and by his Son he will lead us along the narrow path that leads eventually to eternal life in his presence. He will lead us; and all we have to do is follow him, which means we have to trust in him and keep trusting in him, throughout our lives, not turning away from him, not giving up, but continuing to trust in him always.
In verse 3, Moses said of Joshua that he would go cross over ahead of the people. And, of course, that too is true of the Lord Jesus, because after his death and resurrection, he ascended to heaven. He’s gone ahead of us, leading the way, preparing the way, for all his people. Remember what he said to his disciples in John 14? He said he was going away to his Father’s house to prepare a place for his people. And when everything is ready for us, he’ll return so that where he is, we will be also. He’s gone ahead of us. And when the time is right, he’ll come for us. And none of his people — none who trust in him — will be lost, but all will be saved.
So, Joshua points us to Christ. And just as the Israelites had to follow Joshua and follow him, so you need to follow Christ. You need to trust in him, because he’s the only one who is able to bring you into the Promised Land to come.
Verses 9 to 13
Let’s move on to verses 9 to 13, where we’re told that Moses wrote down ‘this law’. It’s not clear what exactly ‘this law’ refers to, but it probably refers to what we’ve been reading in Deuteronomy since chapter 5. That is, ‘this law’ is the Ten Commandments and Moses’s explanation and application of the Ten Commandments in chapters 6 to 26. In any case, Moses gave it to the Levites and to the elders of the people. And Moses commanded them to read this law to the people regularly. So, at the end of every seven years, in the year for cancelling debts, when all of Israel have gathered in Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles, the Levites and elders should read this law before the people. And, of course, everyone was to hear it: the men and the women and the children and the aliens or foreigners living among them. All of them were to gather in Jerusalem to hear the reading of God’s word. And the reason given for hearing God’s word is that they will learn from God’s word to fear the Lord their God and to follow carefully all the words of this law. And their children, who don’t know the law, are to hear it, so that they will grow up, fearing the Lord their God.
On Wednesday evening we were studying Psalm 19, that psalm which begins by saying that the heavens declare the glory of God and the skies proclaim the work of his hand. And then, after saying how the creation reveals the glory of God, the psalmist went on to write about God’s word, because God not only reveals himself and his glory by what he has made, but also by what he has said in his word. And you’ll know perhaps that he uses different synonyms for God’s word: the law of the Lord, the statutes of the Lord, the precepts of the Lord, the commands of the Lord, the ordinances of the Lord. Those are all words for God’s word. But the psalmist also refers to God’s word as ‘the fear of the Lord’, which stands out as unusual. Why would he describe God’s word as the fear of the Lord? Well, the answer is here in Deuteronomy 31, where Moses explained to the Levites and elders that by reading God’s word, the people will learn to fear God. They will be afraid to disobey him.
And we have in our Bibles a description of one of the times when all of Israel gathered in Jerusalem to hear the reading of God’s word. Do you remember? We read about it in Nehemiah 8 and 9. There we read how all the people assembled in the square before the Water Gate. And Ezra the priest stood on a wooden platform — a pulpit — which had been built for the occasion. And he read from the law of the Lord from daybreak until noon. And it says that all the people listened attentively. He read from the book and the people bowed down and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground. And the Levites who were there instructed the people in the law, so that they could understand what was being read. And do you remember? The people responded to the reading and preaching of God’s word by weeping. Presumably they wept because God’s word convicted them of their sin and guilt and it showed them how they had fallen short of doing God’s will. So, God’s word humbled them.
Now, on that particular day, Ezra told them not to weep, but to rejoice before the Lord. However, in Nehemiah 9 we read how the people re-assembled a couple of days later in order to confess their sins. And so do you see? Having heard God’s law, they realised they had sinned. And so, they confessed their sins, because they were afraid to provoke God’s wrath. After all, doesn’t the Lord warn his people in the law about the curses they can expect to suffer if they disobey him and continue in their sins without confessing them and turning from them? Doesn’t he warn them in his law about the ways he will afflict them if they remain disobedient and unfaithful? And so, having heard about the curses of the Lord, the people confessed their sin. And then afterwards, they renewed their covenant with the Lord and agreed to obey the Lord and to do his will from that time forward.
So, they heard God’s law. And they were afraid, because they had broken God’s law. And so, they turned from their sin and rebellion and they promised to obey him. That’s what happened in Nehemiah 8 and 9 and it’s what Moses instructed the people to do every seven years. Every seven years, they were to assemble in Jerusalem to listen to the reading of God’s law.
And so we gather, now every seven years, but every seven days to hear God’s word: both his law and his gospel. God speaks to us through his law to show us our sins and shortcomings; and the ways we have fallen short of doing his will; and the ways we have offended him by our thoughts and words and deeds. And in his law, he warns us of the penalties we might suffer for disobeying him. Now, I’ve said before that the penalties we might suffer are different from the penalties the Israelites suffered. The penalties they suffered were all to do with the land of Canann: drought and famine and exile. But God’s people no longer live in the land of Canaan; and so, the penalties we might suffer for disobedience are different. Nevertheless, the New Testament — as well as the Old Testament — warns believers that though we will never be eternally condemned for our sins — because through faith in Christ, we have been justified — nevertheless the Lord may still discipline us for our sins, the way parents discipline the sons they love when they’re disobedient. And so, we need to hear the warnings of the Lord; and we need to take heed to what he has said in his word; and we need to be afraid lest we provoke him by our sin.
But then, every seven days, we not only hear the law, which convicts us, but we also get to hear the gospel and the good news of God’s willingness to pardon all our sins for the sake of Christ who died for sinners. He laid down his life to free us from condemnation. He shed his blood to cleanse us from our guilt. And the good news of the gospel is that whoever trusts in him as the only Saviour of the world is pardoned by God and accepted as righteous in his sight and they receive the free gift of eternal life.
And so, we gather every seven days to hear God’s word which convicts us of our sin, but which also reassures us of God’s willingness to forgive us for the sake of Christ the Saviour. And, of course, Moses instructed the Israelites to meet during the year for cancelling debts. And the good news of the gospel, is that because of Christ, who laid down his life for his people, the debt of our sin is cancelled forever.
But before we go on to look at the next section of the passage, notice that the New Testament reiterates Moses’s instructions about reading God’s word in Deuteronomy 31. So, Paul the apostle instructed Timothy, an elder in the church, to preach God’s word. God’s word, he said, is breathed out by God and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness. So, preach God’s word. Be prepared in season and out of season. Correct, rebuke and encourage, with great patience and careful instruction. So, Moses commanded the priests and elders to read God’s word to God’s people. And Paul the apostles commanded Timothy to preach God’s word to God’s people.
And in his letter to the Ephesians, Paul instructed parents to bring up their children in the training and instruction of the Lord. In other words, just as the children in Old Testament times were to be taught God’s word, so children today are to be instructed in God’s word.
Moses’s instructions to read God’s word to the people still stands today. And so, we meet together, every seven days, and on other occasions as we have opportunity, to do precisely that. And the goal of such instructions is so that we might fear the Lord and be careful to obey him.
Verses 14 to 29
Let’s move on now to verses 14 to 29. The Lord instructed Moses to call Joshua to come to the Tent of Meeting, where the Lord would commission him. And the Lord appeared before them in that glory-cloud which represented the presence of God in their midst. And the Lord spoke to Moses to foretell how the people would soon become unfaithful. They will go after foreign gods. And they will forsake the Lord. And they will break the covenant. And so, the Lord foretold how he would be angry with them and would bring on them the curses contained in the covenant: all kinds of disasters and difficulties. He will hide his face from them, because they in their wickedness turned to other gods.
And since this was going to happen, he wanted Moses to teach them a song which would testify against them about their sin and rebellion. Though they will forget the Lord, they will remember the words of the song. And the words of the song appear in chapter 32, which I hope to preach on next Sunday.
But then, in verse 23, the Lord began to speak to Joshua. The Lord spoke to him and said to him:
Be strong and courageous.
In other words, you don’t need to be anxious. You don’t need to worry, because you will surely bring the people into the Promised Land. I will be with you.
And then, in verse 24, we read how Moses instructed the Levites to take the Book of the Law and to place it beside the ark of the covenant. Like the song, it will be a witness to the people, testifying against them about their sin and rebellion. ‘I know how rebellious and stiff-necked you are’, Moses said in verse 27. And he’s referring to all the people, and not just the Levites. If they were rebellious in the days of Moses, how much more rebellious will they be after Moses has gone. After my death — he said in verse 29 — you are sure to become utterly corrupt and to turn from the way he commanded them. And so, in days to come, disaster will fall on them, because they will do evil in the sight of the Lord and they will provoke him to anger by worshipping false gods which they will make with their own hands.
Application 3 and Conclusion
You might be wondering how Moses could be so sure? How could he know that the people would rebel against the Lord? Well, the reason he was so sure was because he was simply repeating what the Lord had told him in verses 16 to 18, where the Lord foretold they unfaithfulness and rebellion.
And look as well at what the Lord said in verse 21:
I know what they are disposed to do.
I know what they are inclined to do.
The Lord knew what the people were disposed and inclined to do, because he knows that by nature we’re sinners; and as sinners, we’re inclined to do evil and not good. And so, you see, we need not only forgiveness — and we all need forgiveness, because every day we sin against the Lord and disobey his commands — but we need not only forgiveness, but we need God the Holy Spirit to renew us more and more so that we become more and more willing and able to do God’s will. We need the Holy Spirit to help us to put to death the sinful deeds of the body and to lead us in the right way. We need the Holy Spirit to come to transform and to renew our minds so that we’ll offer ourselves to God as living sacrifices, dedicated to doing his will. We need the Holy Spirit to come and to produce his fruit in our hearts so that our lives will display love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and goodness and faithfulness and gentleness and self-control, instead of the works of the flesh which are evil. We need the Holy Spirit to come to teach us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled and upright and godly lives in this present age.
And so, as we gather in church every seven days to hear God’s word, we must pray for the Holy Spirit to come and to work through the reading and preaching of God’s word to change us, so that instead of being inclined to do what is evil, we will be inclined more and more to do what is right, while we wait for Christ our Saviour to come and to bring us to the True Promised Land in the new heavens and earth.