by Richard T. Ritenbaugh
CGG Weekly, December 7, 2001
"Life can only be understood backwards; however, it must be lived forwards."
On anyone's list of world religious figures of all time, Moses would certainly rank in the top-5 spots. His impact is still being felt today by both Christians and Jews around the world, yet only true Christians really understand him fully. They see him, not as an archetypical lawgiver or some kind of superman, but as a human like them, to whom God gave skill and guidance in fulfilling a major step in His plan.
His life was like ours, only magnified by events. He learned and grew, failed and overcame. At some points, he struggled to see who God is and what He is doing, and at other times, he saw Him with such clarity that his faith is a shining example of Christian living. His understanding of God—fine-tuned over forty years of personal interaction with Him (Numbers 12:6-8)—is his lasting legacy to us. He was so successful in the job God gave him that the Messiah—the Prophet—was likened to him (Deuteronomy 18:15-19; see also Hebrews 3:2). In this light, his colossal failure in striking the rock at Kadesh stands in stark relief (Numbers 20:12).
His was a life full of lessons and instruction, and at the end of his life, he left Israel and us a song that encapsulates much of what he learned about godly living. This is not apparent at first because it seems to be a prophecy of Israel's future, but Moses himself tells us in Deuteronomy 32:2 that his song concerns "doctrine" (KJV) or "teaching" (NKJV).
What is the doctrine he is trying to explain to us? The doctrine of God Himself! In this song, Moses is "proclaim[ing] the name of the LORD" (see also Exodus 33:12-23; 34:1-9)! He summarizes in Deuteronomy 32:4 exactly what he means: "He is the Rock, His work is perfect; For all His ways are justice, a God of truth and without injustice; righteous and upright is He." An accurate conception of God is a Christian's first concern, for if we truly understand God, we will respond properly to Him and live in a godly manner.
Moses' song breaks down into five sections:
1) Introduction (verses 1-4);
2) God's faithfulness versus Israel's faithlessness (verses 5-18);
3) God's just chastisement of Israel (verses 19-33);
4) God's eventual compassion on Israel (verses 34-42);
5) Conclusion (verse 43).
From this simple summary of the song, we can see the main themes Moses is attempting to expound. First, God is always faithful, right, just, provident, and merciful in all His dealings with Israel. God Himself "found" Israel, and nurtured, protected, and instructed the Israelites "as the apple of His eye" (verse 10). He gave them the best and "choicest" of the earth (verse 14).
Second, the Israelites always forsook Him and turned to other gods, even to the point of sacrificing to demons (verses 15-18). It is the height of irony that Moses uses the term "Jeshurun" to name Israel, as it means "upright one"! Whether this means that God saw Israel in this idealistic way or this is how the Israelites saw themselves is not known, but their actions certainly show them not to be worthy of the name.
Third, God's reaction to their idolatry—various deadly disasters ending in scattering (verses 23-26)—is justified by their faithlessness to the covenant (verses 19-20). Even so, God restrains His wrath, "fearing" (that is, "worried" or "concerned") that Israel's enemies would misunderstand His actions against Israel and take credit for its downfall themselves (verse 27). Moses concludes this section by saying that this happened to Israel because they failed in two areas: 1) foreseeing the consequences of their behavior, and 2) failing to understand God's character.
Fourth, though God takes vengeance and inflicts punishment, He is also a God of compassion and mercy (verses 35-36). Once He sees that the remnant of Israel learns its lesson—that the gods they worshipped are nothing compared to the true God (verses 37-39)—He will pardon them so they can resume their relationship. Maybe then they will understand that what God says He will do—and in spades (verses 40-42)!
To conclude the song, Moses brings in a New Covenant image of the Gentiles rejoicing with Israel because God is faithful to His promises and will provide atonement for His people (verse 43). As Paul shows in Romans 15:8-12, it is through the atoning work of Jesus Christ that salvation has come to both Israelite and Gentile, and they can now sing praises together as His people, spiritual Israel.
After the song was sung, Moses gives Israel a final bit of advice: "Set your hearts on all the words which I testify among you today. . . . For it is not a futile thing for you, because it is your life, and by this word you shall prolong your days . . ." (Deuteronomy 32:46-47). Because of our calling, we have an even greater reason to take this advice from God's servant Moses, psalmist.