We read last week of how the Lord predicted that his people would go astray in the Promised Land. Instead of remaining faithful to the Lord — who had rescued them from Egypt; and who had brought them through the wilderness; and who had given them the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey — they would go after other gods to worship them. Instead of keeping the covenant, and doing all that the Lord commanded, they would break the covenant and disobey his commandments. And so, the Lord instructed Moses to teach the people the song contained in chapter 32. The people were to learn it; and it would be a witness against them in the days to come. So, look back to verse 21 of chapter 31 where the Lord said:
And when many disasters and difficulties come upon them [disasters and difficulties which the Lord will send to chastise them for their unfaithfulness], this song will testify against them, because it will not be forgotten by their descendants.
Songs stick in our heads, don’t they? We hear a song on the radio a few times and we can’t get it out of our heads. And people listen to songs when they’re teenagers; and decades later, they still remember the lyrics; and when they hear the song being played somewhere, they can sing along easily, because the words have become imprinted on our memories. I can still remember my school song which I used to sing more than 30 years ago at prize ceremonies and other special occasions. And what’s remarkable is that the school song is in Latin. So, while I don’t know what the words mean, I remember the words.
And the Lord wanted Moses to teach this song to the people; and by remembering it, it would testify against them whenever they turned away from the Lord. And who knows? By remembering the song and by remembering all that the Lord had done for them in the past and all that he had promised to do for them in the future, they would return to the Lord and seek his forgiveness for all that they had done wrong.
And so, let’s turn to this song which the Moses taught to the people. After the opening two verses, verses 3 to 6 compare what God is like with what the people are like. And then, in verses 7 to 14, we have a reminder of how the Lord has been gracious and kind to Israel in the past. Verses 15 to 18 are about the unfaithfulness of the people. Verses 19 to 25 are about the curses the Lord will send on his unfaithful people. But though the song testifies to the wrath of God, it also makes clear in verses 26 to 43 that the Lord will not abandon his people completely.
Verses 1 and 2
And you’ll see from the very last verse of chapter 31 — which should really be the first verse of chapter 32 — that Moses recited the words of this song from beginning to end in the hearing of the whole assembly. So, everyone was to hear and learn this song. The men and women and the children and the aliens — or foreigners — who were living among them. Everyone was to learn it.
And the song begins by calling on the heavens and the earth to listen and to hear the words of this song. They are being called as witnesses to the songs. And the song is meant to be instructive. It’s not designed to entertain, but to instruct and to teach. That’s clear from verse 2, where Moses says that he wants the teaching contained in the song to fall like rain and the words of the song to descend like dew and like showers on new grass. Well, when dew and rain fall on the grass, it causes the grass to grow. And so, this purpose of this song is to instruct the Israelites so that they will grow: grow in their obedience to the Lord and in their faithfulness to him. The Lord has given them a song to sanctify them, so that they will become more and more willing and able to do God’s will here on earth.
Verses 3 to 6
And then, in verses 3 to 6, the song compares what God is like with what the people are like. ‘I will proclaim the name of the Lord’. I was saying on Wednesday evening, that in the Bible God’s name refers to more than the name by which God is called. It also refers to what God has revealed about himself; and so it refers to his reputation and to what he has become known for. I said on Wednesday that we use the expression in the same way, because we talk about what this person or company is known for or what that person or company is known for. Fiat has a name for selling small cars, whereas Ferrari has a name for selling fast cars. And so, when the song says that ‘I will proclaim the name of the Lord’, it’s not referring so much to God’s name, but to his nature, to what he’s like.
And what is God like? Well, he’s a great God, isn’t he? That’s what the next line refers to: the greatness of God. And he’s a rock. The image of a rock — as we I was saying this morning — conveys the idea that God provides protection and strength and security for his people. He shelters his people from trouble; and his people are able to cling to him for protection. Whereas everything around us changes and is uncertain, God is a rock who does not change; and we can always rely on him to help us.
And his works are perfect and his ways are just. Well, our works always fall short of perfection, because we get things wrong all the time. But everything God does is perfect and everything he does is just, which means it’s right. We do something and people complain that it’s not right or it’s not fair. But no one can say that about the things God does, because his works are perfect and his ways are right.
He’s a faithful God who does no wrong. So, his people can always trust in him and rely on him, because he is faithful to his promises. And he never does anything wrong. He’s upright and just. In other words, he’s faultless.
On the other hand, God’s people have acted corruptly towards him. Instead of behaving like obedient children, they have shown themselves to be a warped and crooked generation and people who are foolish and unwise. Isn’t he your father? Isn’t he your creator? Didn’t he make and form you? And so, since he’s their father and creator, they ought to have loved and served him. But instead, they’ve rebelled against him and they have repaid his kindness with ingratitude.
And so, the Lord has been faithful and everything he does is perfect and good and right. But they are a wicked people, who have acted corruptly. And so, in years to come, when the people have turned from the Lord to worship idols, this song — which was imprinted on their memory — would come to them and would convict them of their sinfulness, because is speaks to them of God’s goodness and their own wickedness.
Verses 7 to 14
Verses 7 to 14 are also a reminder of how the Lord had been gracious and kind to Israel in the past.
So, the song calls on the people to remember: remember the days of old. If you can’t remember, ask your father and the elders and they will tell you about it. They will tell you of the time when God divided all mankind. Do you see that in verse 8? It’s not entirely clear, but that could be a reference to the Tower of Babel when God scattered the people over the face of the earth. However, what is clear is that Jacob — which is another name for the people of Israel — was God’s own allotted inheritance. In other words, of all the nations of the world, God chose them to be his own special people. And so, the song talks about how God found them in a desert. It’s referring to their time in the wilderness after the Exodus, when God appeared to them in Mount Sinai and entered into a covenant with them, promising to be their God. From that time on, he shielded them and cared for them and guarded them as the apple of his eye. In other words, he kept his eye on them always. And just as an eagle hovers over its young and spreads its wings to catch them and to carry them, so the Lord hovered over his people to protect and guard them. According to verse 12, the Lord alone led them. He led them by means of the glory-cloud which signified his presence with them. No foreign gods were with them in the wilderness to help them or to guide them. The Lord alone did it.
And he made them ride on the heights of the land, it says in verse 13. And he fed them with the fruit of the fields. He nourished them with honey and oil, with curds and milk and with fattened lambs and goats, with choice rams and the finest grains and with wine. These are all ways to convey how the Lord blessed them and filled their lives with good things to enjoy. Instead of bringing them down, he lifted them up. Instead of leaving them hungry, he filled them.
So, verses 7 to 14 speak of God’s electing love and his ongoing care. Not only did he choose the people of Israel to be his own special people, but he cared for them continually. And so, again, we can imagine the people singing this song — in years to come — and the words of the songs convicting them, because they had turned away from the Lord, who had been so good and kind to them. He was under no obligation to choose them, but nevertheless he freely and gracious chose them to be his. And having chosen then, he cared for them continually, providing them with all they needed and more. And yet, instead of loving and serving him, they went astray. The Lord was the only one who helped them in the wilderness, but they had turned from him to false gods who cannot help them. And so, the song was designed to testify against them and to convict them of their sin and rebellion.
Verses 15 to 18
According to verses 15 to 18, the people responded to God’s kindness by forsaking the Lord.
‘Jeshurun’ in verse 15 is another name for Israel. If you’ve got an NIV and can read the footnote, you’ll see that it says that Jeshurun means ‘The upright one’. And so, it’s an ironic name for Israel, because they were far from being upright. And they grew fat and kicked. I remember visiting my relatives on their farm in Donegal and they always warned us to watch out when the cattle were being fed in the barn, because often — and without any warning — they would kick at you with their rear legs. And Israel responded to the Lord’s kindness by kicking out at him. They became heavy and sleek like a fat cow. And they abandoned the God who made them. They rejected the Rock their Saviour. They made him jealous with their foreign gods.
The relationship between God and his people is often likened in the Bible to the relationship between a husband and his wife. But, of course, often in the Bible, this metaphor is used to make the point that Israel is like an unfaithful wife. Instead of loving the Lord and being devoted to him, Israel was unfaithful to him and went off after other gods. And so, they provoked the Lord to jealousy and to anger by devoting themselves to idols. They sacrificed, not to the Lord, but to demons, which are not God. Instead of remaining faithful to the Lord, who has been with them from the very beginning, they have gone after new gods. And so, they have forsaken the Rock who fathered them; and they have forgotten the God who gave them birth. He gave birth to them in the sense that he made them a nation. And so, they owe their existence to him; but instead of loving and serving him, they have forgotten him and all he has done for them.
According to verse 18, the Lord saw this and rejected them, because his sons and daughters made him angry. Just as parents might become angry with rebellious and ungrateful children, so the Lord became angry with the Israelites. And so, in his anger, he decided to hide his face from them. In other words, he turned his back on them. Let’s see what their end will be. That is: let’s see what will happen to them, once the Lord stops watching over them and stops protecting them. In the song, the people are compared again to unfaithful children and to an unfaithful wife who makes him jealous. And so, he will turn his back on them and make then envious and angry by means of other nations. In other words, just as they forsook him to go after other gods, he will forsake them and go after other nations. And the reason he’s prepared to abandon them like this is because a fire has been kindled by his wrath, a fire that will devour the earth and its harvests and will set on fire the foundations of the mountains. They have provoked the Lord to wrath.
And so, in years to come, when the people were in exile, for instance, living far away from the Promised Land, they would remember this song and it would convict them, because it teaches them that the reason the Lord turned his back on them and let them go into exile, to a far off land, where they were ruled over by foreigners, is because they had forsaken the Lord their God. Instead of loving and serving him, they had turned to idols which are nothing and can do nothing. And so, they provoked him to wrath and he sent them away. The song was designed to convict them, so that they would repent and return to the Lord.
Verses 19 to 25
And in verses 19 to 25, the song describes the curses which the Lord will send on his unfaithful people. It speaks of calamities and arrows and famine and pestilence and plague and wild beasts and vipers. In the street, the sword will make them childless. Young men and women will perish. Infants and grey-haired men will likewise die.
And, of course, if you know your Old Testament history, you’ll know that these things took place. The people were unfaithful to the Lord, and so he sent calamities on the land. They suffered from drought and disease and many died. The Lord was angry with them and he sent on them all the curses he warned them about.
Verses 26 to 43
However, though the song testifies to the wrath of God, it also makes clear that the Lord will not abandon his people completely. That’s what verses 26 to 43 are about. The Lord will destroy his enemies and deliver his people.
So, look at verses 26 and 27. The Lord said he would scatter his people and blot out their memory. However, he will not completely destroy them. One of the reasons he will not completely destroy them is because their enemies would only misunderstand and say that they were the ones who were responsible for destroying Israel. In other words, the enemy nations would boast about their greatness, instead of acknowledging that they only succeeded against the Israelites with the help of the Lord. And so, in order to avoid that misunderstanding, the Lord refused to destroy his people completely.
Some commentators think that verses 28 to 30 are referring to Israel. So, Israel was without sense and didn’t understand what God was doing. However, it’s more likely that these verses are referring to the enemies of Israel. God used them — nations like the Assyrians and Babylonians — to punish the Israelites. But the Assyrians and Babylonians did not realise that their success was due, not to their own ability, but to the Lord who enabled them to overwhelm the Israelites. So, didn’t the Assyrians and Babylonians realise that they only succeeded because the Lord had given the Israelites into their hands?
And then, the song compares these enemy nations to Sodom and Gomorrah to make the point that they are as wicked as Sodom and Gomorrah. And so, in verses 35 and 35 the Lord declares that in due course their foot will slip. That is, the foot of the Assyrians and Babylonians and every other nation who attacked the Israelites will slip. God will one day avenge the enemy nations and he will repay them for what they have done to his people. Their day of disaster is near; and their doom rushes upon them.
The NIV says in verse 36 that the Lord will judge his people. Now, when we hear the word ‘judge’, we tend to associate it with condemnation. But the point of verse 36 is that the Lord will judge between his people and the nations; and while he will take vengeance on the nations, he will have compassion on his people. The time will come when God will have mercy on his people, because their strength has gone and they’ve been completely humbled. When they’re been humbled like that, he will come to rescue them.
God appears to be taunting the Israelites in verses 37 and 38. When their strength is gone and they’ve been humbled, he will say to them:
You trusted in those gods! Let them rise up and help you!
And they will then realise that — in contrast to those false gods which can do nothing — the Lord is the only God. ‘There is no god beside me’, he says in verse 39. The idols in which they once trusted can do nothing, but he — the Lord God Almighty — is able to put to death and to bring to life; he’s able to wound and to heal. He’s able to give life and to take it.
And here’s the thing. And this is the good news at the end of this song. This is the news that will leave the Israelites with a sense of hope whenever they sing this song. Yes, the song is designed to convict them and to humble them, because they turned away from the Lord to worship idols. But in the end, in the end, the Lord promises to destroy their enemies and to save his people. So, look at verse 40. The song depicts the Lord raising his hand to heaven as if to swear an oath. And he declares that as surely as he lives forever, he will sharpen his flashing sword and he will grasp it in judgment and he will take vengeance on his adversaries and he will repay those who hate him. He’s referring now to the foreign nations, the ones who once attacked the Israelites. The Lord will make his arrows drunk with their blood and his sword will devour their flesh. He will come as a mighty warrior to fight on Israel’s behalf and to destroy the enemy nations.
According to verse 43, Israel will rejoice, because the Lord will take vengeance on his enemies and he will do what? He will make atonement for his land and people. He will make atonement for them. There’s the good news. His people have shown themselves to be unfaithful and disobedient. They were like rebellious children and they were like an unfaithful wife. They provoked his wrath so that for a moment he turned his back on them. But in the end, he will have make atonement for them.
The word ‘atonement’ can mean either ‘to wipe clean’; or it can mean ‘to pay a ransom’. The meaning here is probably to wipe clean, because the Lord is promising his sinful people that he will cleanse their land and the people from the stain and guilt of their sin. He will wash their sins away. Though their sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.
And, of course, what we read here applies to us as well as to the Israelites, because the Lord has been gracious and kind to us. Throughout your life, he has provided for you, giving you one good thing after another. You can think back over your life and remember the ways the Lord has helped you, giving you health and strength and daily food, work and rest, friends and family. When you were in trouble, he came to your aid and he brought you through one crisis after another.
And, of course, he also worked in your life to enable you to believe in his Son in order to receive the hope of eternal life. He sent his Spirit into your life to enable you to believe the good news and to trust in Christ the Saviour. Before you loved him, he loved you. Before you knew him, he knew you. And so, he enabled you to believe. And then, he’s surrounded you with other believers to encourage you and to stir you up to love and good deeds. And he’s given you teachers to teach you God’s word so that you might grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ.
And so, your Heavenly Father has been good to you, providing you with all you need for this life and for the next. He’s helped you every day, filling your life with good things to enjoy. And he enabled you to trust in his Son for eternal life in the Promised Land to come. Just as the Lord was good to the Israelites, so he has been good to you. And yet, how often do we repay the Lord’s kindness to us, not with obedience, but with disobedience and ingratitude? Instead of thanking him, our worship is often half-hearted. Instead of walking in his ways we often go astray. Instead of obeying our Heavenly Father, we disobey him everyday. And instead of trusting in him we worry about many things and we trust in other things which are not God.
But the great good news of the gospel is that the Lord is always willing and able to forgive you and all who trust in his Son. He’s able and willing to forgive you, because the Lord Jesus has made atonement for you. He made atonement for you by shedding his blood on the cross to cleanse you from the guilt of your sins. And no matter what you have done wrong, no matter how terrible your sins, no matter how shameful your sins, the blood of the Lord Jesus cleanses you. By ourselves, we’re unfit to come before the Lord to worship him; and we would be forever shut out of his presence. But whoever confesses their sins to God, and trusts in Christ who died for sinners, receives forgiveness from God.
Do you remember that vision of heaven which John the Apostle received in Revelation 7? He saw a great multitude of people from every nation, standing before the throne of God and in front of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God. And they were worshipping God, who had wiped the tears from their eyes; and who had freed them from all harm; and who had let them drink from springs of living water in order to live forever. And do you remember what they were wearing? White robes. And we’re told that their robes were white, because they’d been washed in the blood of the Lamb. The white robes signified the forgiveness of our sins which we receive through faith in the Saviour.
And so, we can read a song like this one in Deuteronomy 32 and know that it applies to us, because like the Israelites, we are often unfaithful and rebellious, because we break the commands of the Lord everyday and we don’t trust in his fatherly care. We are sinful and we deserve to be condemned. But while this song convicts us, it also fills us with joy and gladness, because we know that Christ our Saviour has made atonement for us and we are washed and cleansed by the blood of the Lamb.