Deuteronomy 31

Assurance of God’s Presence with Israel After Moses’ Death

Deuteronomy 31:1-8

Moses, at the age of one hundred and twenty (40 years in Pharaoh’s court, 40 years in Midian, 40 years as leader of Israel), announced to the people that a transition of leadership would take place prior to their crossing the Jordan (31:2). Moses told the people that he would be unable to cross the Jordan with them (31:2). They could, however, be assured of the Lord’s presence with them as Joshua led them across the Jordan into the Promised Land (31:3). While there are periods of transition in human leadership among the Israelites, there is always a continuity of divine leadership. Wesley said, “God buries His workmen, but carries on His work.”

Practical Consideration: No man is indispensable but all men should be faithful. It is a humbling thought to know that God’s work will go on after we have gone on! While no man is indispensable, all men should be faithful. Every man has a responsibility to faithfully serve the Lord while he has opportunity. In the New Testament, James was the first apostle to be martyred for his faith. His brother John was the last apostle to die. One lived a short life and the other a long life, but both lived faithful lives. And God’s work has continued through the centuries.

Moses also assured the people that God would overthrow their enemies west of the Jordan (31:4-6) just as surely as He had overthrown their enemies east of the Jordan (31:4). Moses told the people to “be strong and courageous” and “not be afraid or tremble” at the people in Canaan (31:6). It was such fear that had paralyzed their fathers at Kadesh-barnea and kept them from entering the land.

Moses then presented Joshua to the people as his successor (31:7a). Joshua was an excellent successor to Moses for several reasons.

First, because Joshua was a man who was experienced in battle (Exodus 17:8-16). He led the Israelites in the defeat of the Amalekites at Rephidim.

Second, because Joshua was a man who was trained under Moses. He accompanied Moses to Sinai (Exodus 24:13) and was with Moses when the Israelites sinned against God by constructing the golden calf (Exodus 32:17-18).

Third, because Joshua was a man with the ability to correctly judge a situation (Numbers 14:6-9). He and Caleb were the only two spies who felt confident that the Promised Land could be conquered.

Fourth, because Joshua knew how to stand firm in the midst of a difficult situation and intense opposition (Numbers 14:10). He did not change his views (regarding the ability to take the land) in the face of public pressure. God honored the faith of Joshua and Caleb by allowing them to live to enter the Promised Land (Numbers 14:30, 38).

Moses publicly commissioned Joshua to succeed him (31:7-8). Thomas Carlyle said, “Show me the man you honor and I will know what kind of man you are, for it shows me what your ideal of manhood is and what kind of man you long to be.” Joshua was a man of integrity. He lived a credible life before the Israelites. He was qualified to lead others. Albert Schweitzer said, “Example is not the main thing in influencing others; it is the only thing.” Moses wanted for the Israelites to know that he had confidence in Joshua. Notice the following things concerning the public commissioning of Joshua.

First, Moses assured the people that Joshua was God’s choice to be their next leader: “Joshua is the one who will cross ahead of you, just as the Lord has spoken” (31:3).

Second, Moses assured Joshua that God would guide him: “And the Lord is the One who goes ahead of you” (31:8a).

Third, Moses assured Joshua that God would empower him and be present with him: “He will be with you. He will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear, or be dismayed” (31:8b).

Practical Consideration: Leaders need encouragement, too. Moses took proper steps to affirm and encourage Joshua before the people. Moses’ public affirmation of Joshua helped the people understand that they should have confidence in the new leader. Moses’ encouragement of Joshua helped the new leader understand that he should have confidence in God. Moses reminded Joshua that he would not have to lead alone. God would guide and assist him. Someone has noted, “There is no inspiration so great as to feel the influence of a spirit greater and nobler than our own. When we listen to His voice, when we are ready to do His will, our whole nature is liberated and exalted, and out of this the greatest and noblest work comes” (Dr. Allon as quoted by James Wolfendale).

Instructions Concerning Public Reading of the Law

Deuteronomy 31:9-13

Moses “wrote this law” (31:9) and charged the spiritual leaders (31:9) with the responsibility of reading it “in front of all Israel” (31:11) every seventh year at the Feast of Booths (31:10). The leaders were responsible for cultivating knowledge of God’s word among the people. According to Deuteronomy 16:16, only the males were required to be present for the major feasts. But on every seventh year every member of society was to be present for this particular reading of the law (31:12). There was a two-fold purpose for this reading of the law.

First, to “hear and learn and fear the Lord your God, and be careful to observe all the words of this law” (31:12). The people at large did not own copies of the Scripture. They depended on hearing the word of God taught by the community’s spiritual leaders and their parents.

Second, to pass the word on to the next generation (31:13): “And their children, who have not known, will hear and learn to fear the Lord your God … ” (31:13).

Moses understood the importance of reading, studying, and obeying God’s word. George Mueller said, “The vigor of our spiritual life will be in exact proportion to the place held by the Word in our life and thoughts. I solemnly state this from experience of fifty-four years. I have read the Bible through a hundred times and always with increasing delight. Each time it seems like a new book to me. Great has been the blessing from consecutive, diligent, daily study.”

Practical Consideration: Everybody needs to hear God’s word. Deuteronomy is filled with references to the importance of reading, studying, obeying, and sharing God’s word. Moses impressed upon the people the importance of studying God’s word in private and in public, in the home as well as in the place of worship. An important theme that is woven into the fabric of Deuteronomy is summed up in Proverbs 13:13, “The one who despises the word will be in debt to it, But the one who fears the commandment will be rewarded.”

God’s Charge to Moses and Joshua

Deuteronomy 31:14-23

These verses record the minutes of a private meeting between God, Moses, and Joshua (31:14). The private meeting was held in the “tent of meeting” (31:14) where God appeared “in a pillar of cloud” (31:15). The purpose of the meeting was two-fold.

First, God called the meeting for the purpose of commissioning Joshua as the new leader (31:14, 23).

Second, God shared some bad news with Moses (the past leader) and Joshua (the future leader) regarding the Israelites: they would inevitably follow after and serve strange gods and break the covenant in spite of the goodness of God (31:16, 20). The people would do the very things they had been repeatedly warned not to do. Their disobedience would result in the judgment and punishment of God (31:17-18). God would hide His face from them (31:17-18 and 32:20). Without the presence of God the people would become the easy prey of every hostile power surrounding them. God instructed Moses to write a song that would testify to future generations concerning what God had done for them and why they had experienced judgment (31:19-22).

Consider the impact of such news on the two leaders.

Moses must have felt the full impact of the news that the people he had led for forty years would, at a future date, “turn to other gods and serve them, and spurn [God] and break [His] covenant” (31:21).

Joshua never said a word. What must this future leader have thought as he heard the news that the people he was being commissioned to lead would eventually forsake God? From the moment he received his assignment he knew it was going to be tough. Neither his leadership nor the reading of the law every seventh year (31:9-13) would keep the people from eventually breaking the covenant. And yet, Joshua accepted his assignment. God comforted Joshua with the assurance that he would successfully lead the Israelites into the Promised Land (31:23). But more important, God assured Joshua that He would be with him (31:23). Moses knew the loneliness of leadership. Joshua too, would experience the loneliness of leadership. But, God would be with him. Joshua, like Moses, would not have to lead alone.

Instructions Concerning Placing the Law Book by the Ark

Deuteronomy 31:24-29

Upon completing the book containing the words of the law (31:24), Moses gave it to the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant (31:25). He instructed them to place the book beside (not in) the ark of the covenant where it would serve as a reminder to the people of what God had done for them and what God required of them (31:26). Moses then spoke to the people words that expressed his disappointment in them. Moses told the people that because they had been rebellious while he was alive (31:27), he had no reason to believe that they would do otherwise after his death (31:29).

Moses’ Song of Witness

Deuteronomy 31:30 – 32:47

The use of the “song” was a good way to encourage the people to memorize the message. Paul knew the importance of communicating messages in song when he encouraged the Ephesians to “[speak] to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:19). Donald F. Ackland comments, “Moses’ song, committed to memory and passed from generation to generation, would be a ‘witness’ (v. 19) for God … Throughout the centuries, the psalms of Israel and songs of Christian faith and testimony have rendered similar service. When stored in people’s minds they have been used by the Holy Spirit to bring conversion’s blessing or to restore flagging faith.” The song of Moses is believed by scholars to be in the form of a covenant lawsuit.

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