Songs and music give us an incredible way to communicate with one another.
Hearing a song at a particular point in our life can change our entire outlook on life either positively or negatively. Songs convey messages in ways that the mere spoken word or the written word often struggle to achieve. Music speaks to our hearts.
When it comes to songs, we rarely listen to the words and think about what is being communicated. We hear a catchy tune or a clever “hook” and we sing along as best we can. How many of us can, upon hearing a few notes of a song, almost instantly sing it, even if we haven’t heard it in decades. We struggle to remember names, dates, and places, but let a familiar song be heard on the radio and the lyrics fly out of our mouths with rote ease. How many people, to this day, if you learned the “A,B,C’s” song in elementary school, especially in the United States, still sing it if you’re having to alphabetize something?
Songs stick in our minds, that is why God commanded Moses to write down a song (Deuteronomy 31:19-22) to teach to the Israelites who were preparing to enter Canaan. This song explains in simple terms the theological history of the world to Israelites, and to us as readers of the preserved text, which we look at as we continue in our study of the book of Deuteronomy.
Scripture and Summary
Following the commissioning of Joshua, and the writing of the song that the Israelites were to learn, the narrator sets the stage for the teaching of the song to the people of Israel.
This section gives us an introductory call to attention and a purpose statement.
In verse one Moses addresses both “the heavens…and…the earth” admonishing them to “hear the words of [his] mouth”. He is not addressing the physical structures of the universe but the residents of them, both embodied and spiritual. There is no one in either realm that should ignore what is about to be said.
What Moses, and later utterers of this song, is about to speak is spoken of as “doctrine (ESV)” or “teaching (NKJV/NIV)” in verse 2 that is equated to a “gentle rain” that is beneficial to growth. In this comparison this teaching gives life in the same way that a gentle rain refreshes wilted and dying plants.(1)
In verse 3, the “name of the LORD” and the “greatness of our God” find contraposition. The “name” here is not merely the construct of letters that give a linguistic identity but who YHWH is over and against the other gods and the claims made about them. This also gives us insight into a theological concept within the context of the song, as it is not merely YHWH who is God, but the “name of the LORD” who is God: two distinct personages who are worshipped together as the singular God of Israel.
Here we see a new name introduced for God: “The Rock”. This name will be revisited in future passages, but in this section, The Rock is identified as “God” (v4) and with “the LORD” (v6). In this section we see The Rock portrayed as “faithful” and “just” (v4) in contrast to Israel who “deals corruptly” (v5). Further (v6) identifies The Rock as Israel’s “father” who both “made and established” them, meaning that Israel is totally dependent upon YHWH, that they would not exist without him.(2) This is a subtle call back to the childlessness of Abraham and Sarah and that it required divine intervention for them to conceive the child who would eventually become the father of the patriarch from whom the nation takes its name.
In this section we find the key element to unlocking the biblical worldview and making sense, ultimately of the mission of Christ.
The charge to “remember” in verse seven is one that requires conscious effort. This is not merely a matter of simple recall, but of intense consideration of facts that are about to be highlighted in the narrative. Two groups are highlighted, “fathers” and “elders”, as to whom one was to engage with: immediate family and the extended community.
Verse 8, depending upon the translation, demonstrates a break in the textual tradition as the Dead Sea Scrolls and Septuagint preserve similar readings here that is different from the Masoretic text tradition. The ESV stands uniquely among English translations as it reflects the older, more authoritative reading reflected in the older traditions, whereas other English translations reflect the later reading.(3) What we have to note here is that this verse, in it’s authoritative reading, provides an explanation that is fundamental to the biblical worldview because it explains the existence of pagan religions and why YHWH is completely different and unique.(4) This uniqueness also explains why Israelites were called to live in utter distinction from the other nations.(5)
Verse 8 draws from the Babel narrative, making that its reference point.(6) Prior to that point the rebellions of men had been dealt with pointedly through exile, in the experience of Cain, and direct intervention, as in the flood narrative. At Babel, God—named as the Most High— subjected man to spiritual powers that they then followed gladly, while reserving rights to establish his own people at some later time, a people that was now learning this song. Moreover this brief section serves to contrast between the pagan world, which cast the gods as dividing up the nations between themselves and Yahweh parting out the nations by his own authority.(7)
As YHWH had ordained a people for himself of his own making in the previous section, this section casts YHWH’s selection in mythic and symbolic terms. The God of Israel exerts his will by seeking out Jacob. Here YHWH is portrayed as faithful, caring, and intensely attentive. Moreover, YHWH is demonstrated as having done this of his own accord and by his own power. Not even Jacob, the object of YHWH’s attention, could claim any part in the effort.
This section provides the stark contrast between God and Jacob’s descendants. Named here as “Jeshurun”, a name which means “upright one”, Israel’s rampant unfaithfulness is colored satirically.(8) The word appears in adjective form earlier in 32:4 to describe YHWH. It appears in its form as a name 4 times, 3 times in Deuteronomy, 32:15, and in 33:5 and v26, and later in Isaiah 44:2.
Continuing along the lines of the ironic naming of Israel, this section delivers a specific accusation of unfaithfulness on the part of Israel: “They have made me jealous with what is no god; they have provoked me to anger with their idols (v21).” God’s demand for holiness among his people following his expressions of mercy and care for an undeserving people are rebuffed and the penalties for violating the covenant are set loose and Israel, who abandoned God, find themselves abandoned by God.(9)
The final section of the song begins with a promise: Yahweh does not forget his loyal servants.
However, this cannot happen until the people are thoroughly purged of their idolatry.
The narrative shifts back from the contents of the song to the teaching of the song by Moses and his assistants. The purpose of the song is explained to the people as well as a reminder that faithlessness will not be tolerated.
What does it take to bring what matters to mind? Usually it is tragedy.
We don’t have active, cultic idol worship going on in culture, but we do have distractions that pull us away from what should be our focus. We do have things that demand allegiance, that are okay with divided loyalties, as long as it is anything other than the Lord Christ Jesus. Even those who count themselves as loyal, often are inattentive if not downright apathetic about their faith.
Believers are responsible for an active faith, a consecrated loyalty. The song set out in Deuteronomy 32 was meant to serve as a reminder for the people of Israel, its repetition and reproduction was meant to serve as a reminder of who Yahweh is, what he did do, and what he would do.
Believers should reflect on the songs spread throughout scripture and incorporate them and the theological expressions that they contain and reflect upon them, allowing the truth contained therein to manifest in thought and deed. Reflecting on God’s holiness and mercy should make us more compassionate. Reflecting on his justice should make us determined to see true justice done. Reflecting on God’s hatred of evil should make us desire to rid ourselves of every evil desire and action. In doing so, we vindicate a holy and just God who reigns over creation with absolute sovereignty.
1. Rushdoony. p.496
2. Bruggemann. p. 278
3. Michael S. Heiser. Deuteronomy 32:8–9 and the Old Testament Worldview. In Faithlife Study Bible. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
6. Michael S. Heiser. Deuteronomy 32:8 and the Sons of God. In Faithlife Study Bible. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
7. Bruggemann. p.278-9
8. Ibid. p. 279
9. Ibid. p. 280