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Deuteronomy 31:14-23 meaning

The LORD summoned Moses and Joshua to the tent of meeting in order to commission Joshua as Israel’s new leader. He also asked them to write a song that will serve as a witness against Israel when they turn from the LORD to other gods and break God’s covenant.

This section switches to the LORD's speech. In this narrative, God reminded Moses that he was about to lie down with his fathers, meaning that the time for him to die was near (v. 14). For this reason, God told Moses to call Joshua in order to present themselves at the tent of meeting so that He might commission Joshua. The tent of meeting did not always refer to the Tabernacle. It also referred to a tent Moses placed outside the Israelite camp where he met with the Suzerain (Ruler) God (Exodus 33:7-11). In any case, the LORD was about to express His presence as He did over the tabernacle while Israel wandered in the wilderness.

Once Moses and Joshua were at the tent of meeting, the Lord appeared in the tent in a pillar of cloud, and the pillar of cloud stood at the doorway of the tent (v. 15). The pillar of cloud was one of the ways the Suzerain God manifested Himself to His covenant people, especially during their wilderness wandering (Exodus 13:21-22, Numbers 11:25). The appearance of the LORD emphasized how solemn and important this moment was. He was going to reveal an important prophetic word to Moses and Joshua.

The LORD then reminded Moses that he was about to lie down with his fathers (v. 16), and afterwards the people of Israel would arise and play the harlot with the strange gods of the land, into the midst of which they were going. For the people to follow the pagan gods around them meant that they would deliberately forsake their Suzerain (Ruler) God and break His covenant which He had made with them. Israel would fall into idolatry by worshiping the pagan gods of the Canaanite nations. What would follow such idolatry would be the practices that attended it, which were exploitative, where the strong took advantage of the weak (Leviticus 18). This would be in complete contrast to God's command for the Israelites to serve Him by loving their neighbors as themselves (Leviticus 19:18).

Because of this future disobedience, God's anger would be kindled against them in that day (v. 17). The result was that He would forsake them and hide His face from them. The word forsake (Heb. "'āzab") means "to leave," "to abandon," or "to stand at a distance." The LORD would disassociate Himself from His people because they had forsaken (or abandoned) Him (Deuteronomy 28:20, 29:25). God had assigned to His people the "job" of being a "kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:6). Their "deal" with God was that He would bless them if they would serve one another and show the world a better way to live. If they didn't, then God would need to disassociate from them, lest the world misunderstand His ways.

For the LORD to hide His face means that He would withdraw His presence from the Israelites. Also, hiding His face would be the opposite of letting His face "shine" on them (Numbers 6:25 - 26), resulting in the loss of His blessing. Israel needed to perform its proper function in order to obtain God's blessing.

On the surface, this harsh statement seems to contradict God's promise to Israel stated earlier in this chapter.

"Be strong and courageous, do not be afraid or tremble at them, for the LORD your God is the one who goes with you. He will not fail you or forsake you."
(Deuteronomy 31:6)

There are two possible ways to reconcile God's promise to "never forsake you" in Deuteronomy 31:6 with His prophetic warning: My anger will be kindled against them in that day, and I will
forsake them and hide My face from them
in Deuteronomy 31:17.

The first way to reconcile God's promise to never forsake Israel and His prophetic anger is to distinguish two different applications of forsake.

One application of forsake is related to Israel's acceptance which is permanent, absolute, and unconditionally given by God; God will never forsake His people from being His precious possession.

The other application of forsake is related to Israel's fellowship with and approval from God - this is conditional, based on their faithfulness to their covenant with Him under the Law. God forsakes fellowship with His people when they forsake following His ways.

God's promise to never forsake Israel in Deuteronomy 31:6 uses the first application. The prophecy I will forsake them in Deuteronomy 31:17 uses the second application.

God has never and will never forsake Israel (in the first sense) as His precious possession, because of His love for them (Deuteronomy 7:6-8, Romans 11:26-28). Israel is God's bride and He will never refuse to accept or forsake her as His own. Israel is fully accepted by God, its position with Him is unconditionally given by God.

However, Israel's fellowship with God has and will continue to depend on their compliance with the covenant promise they made to Him to follow their covenant/treaty they agreed to enter in to with Yahweh, their Suzerain (ruler) God (Exodus 19:8). When God says He has forsaken Israel, it applies to forsaking keeping his promise to bless them if they would keep His command (Deuteronomy 28:1-14). As contained in the covenant, the treaty provided that God would disapprove of them, remove His blessing, and replace it with cursings if Israel forsook His ways of loving their neighbor, and instead adopted the pagan culture of exploitation and violence (Deuteronomy 28:15-68).

The second way to reconcile God's promise to never forsake Israel is as a Messianic prophecy that was fulfilled during the time Jesus took on the sins of the world.

When Jesus was on the cross, He cried out: "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" (Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:36).

Jesus said this after the three hours of darkness (Matthew 27:45, Mark 15:35) when He suffered the wrath of God and became the sin of the world (2 Corinthians 5:21, 1 John 2:2).

God's unconditional acceptance of all who believe is made possible because Jesus paid our ransom to redeem us from sin. The way God kept His promise to never forsake sinful Israel (Deuteronomy 31:6) was by forsaking Jesus, the Messiah, when He became the propitiation for our sin (Romans 3:25, 1 John 2:2). God made His promise to never forsake Israel (Deuteronomy 31:6) in anticipation of the cross.

The LORD's warning of divine anger and of the future forsaking of Israel as a Messianic prophecy likely applies also to Jesus's position during this time He took on the sins of the world.

Jesus was and is the propitiation (payment for) all of our sins, indeed the sins of the entire world (John 3:16, 1 John 2:2). God's unconditional acceptance of all who believe is made possible because Jesus paid our ransom to redeem us from sin. He was forsaken for our sake.

When God declared Old Testament saints righteous because they believed, as with Abraham (Genesis 15:6) He did so looking forward to the cross. Genesis 15:6 looked forward to the positive outcome of the cross. Deuteronomy 31:17 is prophetic of the terrible and tragic sacrifice of Jesus that made salvation possible.

When God declares all who believe on Him in the New Testament era, it is the same; all are saved who have enough faith to look upon Jesus on the cross hoping to be delivered from the poisonous venom of sin (John 3:14-15).

God receives anyone who believes in Jesus as His. And He unconditionally accepts them as His own because the LORD's anger against sin was satisfied on the cross, when Jesus bore the sins of the world (Colossians 2:14).

Deuteronomy 31:6's promise to never forsake His people has extended to all who believe on Him (John 3:16). Jesus took on our curse of the law (Deuteronomy 131:17) upon Himself so we could be reconciled to God by grace (Galatians 3:14-15).

It is possible that both reconciliations can apply at the same time.

Because the LORD would withdraw His protective presence when His people became idolatrous, they will be consumed, and many evils and troubles would come upon them. Stated differently, the Suzerain God would perform the provision of His covenant/treaty with Israel, and severely punish His people by allowing them to suffer because of the many evils and troubles that would come upon them. Had they been faithful to Him, He would have been faithful to them and protected them from such suffering. The Israelites would suffer the curses described in Deuteronomy 28:15-68. These curses would come upon them for the sole reason that Israel chose them.

Israel's suffering would prompt them to inquire about God's presence among them, saying, Is it not because our God is not among us that these evils have come upon us? God's people would come to the realization that all of this suffering occurred because the LORD withdrew His protection from them.  His treaty with them as their sovereign ruler required that they submit to Him. In the ancient world, the typical treaty would require inferior rulers to pay tribute to the superior/Suzerain ruler. In God's case, His "tribute" was that Israel walk in His ways, and love their neighbors, which was for their own good. In the future, God says they will fail to obey the voice of their Suzerain (Ruler) LORD. They will not pay any attention to His warnings.

God said He would surely hide His face in that day (v. 18). The Hebrew for surely hide is emphatic, saying that it would be a guarantee that He would pay no attention to Israel's afflictions because of all the evil which they would do, for they would turn to other gods. It is interesting that the evil mentioned here would be the result of their idolatry. Israel would need protective help, and God would look away.

In light of the apostasy to come after Moses' death, God commanded Moses and Joshua to write this song for yourselves (v. 19). They were then to teach it to the sons of Israel. God further asked Moses and Joshua to put the song on Israel's lips. Using a song made it easier to memorize this message and pass it on to others than merely repeating a series of statutes. The song was to be on Israel's lips so they would know that they were being judged and that they would know how to regain God's blessing and protection. It was to be taught to all generations so that this song might be a witness for Him against the sons of Israel.

The reason God wanted Moses and Joshua to teach the song to the Israelites was because He knew what they will do when He brings them into the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey, which I swore to their fathers (v. 20). The LORD promised to give them victory over the Canaanites, give them the Promised Land, and to bless them. And the LORD would fulfill His side of the covenant. But God knew that a new generation would arise that would become entitled, and begin to seek their own way.

The LORD knew that His people Israel, once they occupied the Promised Land and they have eaten and are satisfied and become prosperous, then they will turn to other gods and serve them, and spurn Me and break My covenant. To spurn (Heb. "nā'aṣ") means to "despise," "treat with disrespect," or "have contempt for." The people would willingly reject their Deliverer/Provider and also fail to live up to their agreement to abide by the covenant they made with their LORD (Exodus 19:7-8).

Material possessions and physical comfort would lead Israel to indulgence and entitlement, which in turn would cause them to abandon the Suzerain God and seek the pagan ways of self-indulgence and exploitation (see Leviticus 18 for a list of common pagan practices). This warning was clearly spelled out in Deuteronomy 8:11-16. The Suzerain (Ruler) God would bring His vassals (Israel) to the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey, that is, an abundant and prosperous land. God would bless Israel to the point of excess and His blessings would cause Israel to take their prosperity for granted.  This would in turn cause the people to lose their need for the LORD and forsake Him and to turn to other gods,. In general, pagan gods were means to justify fleshly behaviors, particularly sexual immorality.

However, Israel's idolatry would not go without negative consequences. As the Suzerain God said earlier (v. 17), many evils and troubles would come upon Israel (v. 21) and when that happened, this song would testify before them as a witness (for it shall not be forgotten from the lips of their descendants). In particular, when Israel sunk to becoming exploitative, God would give them over to be exploited by conquering nations (Deuteronomy 28:25-35).

God provided Moses and Joshua with this song because He knew the people's intent which they are developing today before He had brought them into the land which He swore. God knows every thought of humans (Hebrews 4:12). Nothing can be hidden from Him because He is all-knowing (omniscient). As God said in Jeremiah 17: "I, the Lord, search the heart, I test the mind, even to give to each man according to his ways, according to the results of his deeds."

Thus the song (Deuteronomy 32:1-43) would ultimately function as teaching material to motivate Israel to remain faithful to the LORD, and to witness for God against his faithless people when they failed to follow Him. It also taught them about the sovereignty of God over all creation and His just punishment of sins. In this song is a reminder that Israel had agreed to obey the provisions of God's covenant law, and to abide by the adverse consequences of disobedience.

So, Moses obeyed the LORD and wrote this song the same day, and taught it to the sons of Israel (v. 22).

Having commanded Moses and Joshua to write the song and teach it to the Israelites (vv. 14-22), the Suzerain God now turned His attention to Joshua. He commissioned Joshua the son of Nun, and said, Be strong and courageous (v. 23). As the new leader of Israel, Joshua needed to be bold and firm because he would bring the sons of Israel into the land which the LORD swore to them. God had promised to protect Israel, and assure them victory. But He expected the people to have the courage to fight. His blessing would come through their obedience. The people needed a courageous leader.

God concluded His speech to Joshua by reassuring him of His presence, saying, I will be with you. Throughout the Old Testament, the Suzerain God promised His abiding presence with many of His chosen leaders. He promised to be with Isaac (Genesis 26:1-3, 24), Jacob (Genesis 28:10, 15, 31:3), and Moses (Exodus 3:12).

God's presence with His people guaranteed success, protection, and victory. That means, for an Israelite leader to be successful, he must first and foremost obey the LORD.

It is important to note that although there were substantial adverse consequences for Israel if they choose to disobey their covenant agreement, God would never forsake them as His people. God chose Israel to be His people not because of their performance, but because He loved them (Deuteronomy 7:6-8). In the Song of Moses in Chapter 32, God will make clear that out of His judgment when they disobey Him will come their deliverance by God's hand:

"For the LORD will vindicate His people,
And will have compassion on His servants,
When He sees that their strength is gone,
And there is none remaining, bond or free."
(Deuteronomy 32:36)


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