There is nothing quite like song to make you remember. God made it this way. Therefore, it is little wonder that God had Moses compose a song to help his chosen people, Israel, remember the essence of God’s covenant made at Mt. Sinai. The Song of Witness was to serve as a reminder to Israel for generations to come. It was not to depart from their hearts and lips.
In Deut 31, we find that the stage is set for Moses to pass the torch of leadership to Joshua, who would lead Israel into the Promised Land. Towards the latter half of the chapter there is a very familiar theme being repeated in Israel’s hearing: which is Israel’s ongoing idolatry. In Deut 31.21, God instructs Moses to write a Song of Witness to expose Israel’s sin. What we have in this Song, in Deut 32, is a summary of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) – a summary of the book of Deuteronomy – which penetrates to the heart of God’s covenant made with Moses at Mt. Sinai.
In short, the Song of Witness testifies to God and his ways, and exposes Israel’s sin. Not only is this a Song that Israel must never forget, but it is also one that should never stop playing over in our hearts as well. For like Israel, we are sinners and like Israel we can only escape God’s wrath by trusting in the same promise of salvation made to Abraham in the covenant of grace.
The Song of Witness is divided up into three parts, and as we shall see has many of the key components of a covenant treaty document, which is in fact what the book of Deuteronomy as a whole is. We will look at the first two parts this morning, in vv1-25. However, before we consider the first part, in vv1-14, it is helpful to point out that the predominant mood of this Song is one of covenant lawsuit. God accuses Israel for committing the most heinous of crimes. For they have broken the covenant through their disobedience and have provoked God’s terrible curse toward them.
In Deut 31.30, we are told that Moses spoke the words of the Song in Israel’s hearing. (Israel is on the plains of Moab in the Ancient Near East an they are waiting to enter the Promised Land after wandering in the desert for forty years due to their disobedience.) In Deut 32.1-3, Moses summons the people with words about their covenant God, Yahweh. In v1, Moses invokes heaven and earth – in addition to God – as witnesses against Israel. Israel is in court for breaking the law and the witnesses are the Creator of the universe and his creation.
Right at the beginning of this Song we are also given its purpose. In v2, Moses compares the “teaching” of his Song to “rain” and “dew” that brings life to the earth. The purpose of the witness and testimony of the Song is to bring spiritual life to Israel. What is this “teaching” – the wisdom – that brings life? V3: it is about the “name” of God, which means the Song is chiefly about God’s nature and his magnificent deeds. Thus, the opening words of the Song serve as a call to Israel to worship God and find salvation in him – and not in themselves.
Israel is to worship God because he is their rock, v4. God is as solid and immovable as a mountain in his faithfulness towards his people. His work is perfect and he is guiltless with respect to keeping his end of the covenant.
Now, consider the stark moral contrast between God and his ways, and his people and their deeds in v5. God is perfect, but Israel is not – for she has dealt corruptly with God. In fact, they are “no longer” God’s children, because they are “blemished,” “crooked” and “twisted.” Israel is completely out of harmony in reciprocating God’s covenant love toward them. So Moses interrogates them, v6: So this is how you reward the Lord, you foolish and senseless people?! “Is God not your father, who created you, who made you and established you?”
Notice that there is no reference to a particular instance of Israel’s sin here. It is rather a timeless description of the unfaithfulness of God’s people. It is a window into the depravity of every human heart and its rebellion against God – including yours and mine.
Israel’s unfaithfulness compared to God’s faithfulness
The contrast between God and his people is heightened further in vv7-14, where Moses recalls God’s gracious and loving deeds toward his people. These verses are very much like the historical prologue or introduction to the covenant, found early in Deuteronomy. Here Israel is called to remember the great works of God towards them, not least of which is his deliverance of them from slavery in Egypt.
In vv8-9 we learn that although God is sovereign over all the nations, in his electing love he chose Israel to be his prized possession. God sought and found his people, v10, “in a desert land, and in the howling waste of the wilderness.” Here the reference to “wilderness” can refer to Israel’s slavery in Egypt, the wanderings of the Patriarchs (Jacob referred to as a wandering Aramean) or the desert experience after the Exodus. The point is that God has cared for and delivered his people even when they were most exposed, destitute and distressed. Time and time again God has encircled his people. He has treated his people as he would the very pupil of his eye, with the most delicate care. V11: God has been to Israel like an eagle tending to her young. The imagery here is that God has made a nesting place – a sanctuary – among his people. Even though they are exposed to the howling wilderness, God has been there to protect his people: spreading out his wings to enclose them and catching them when they fall. V12, “the Lord alone guided Israel, no foreign God was with him.” In vv13-14 we are told that the Lord provided Israel with sustenance, which would culminate with the overflowing bounty of the Promised Land: suckled with oil and honey, fed with milk and the fat of lambs, the finest wheat and foaming wine…
And then comes the piercing note in the Song of Witness, which Israel must never forget, and which must echo over and over in our hearts as well.
Israel had everything. They had the love and protection of the God of the universe, who had entered into covenant with them and blessed them beyond compare. And yet, what does Israel do in full view of God and his wondrous deeds? V15: “Jeshurun” (a term of endearment for Israel used ironically here) has grown obese on the pleasures of life. And like a beast who senselessly tries to kills its master, so Israel has kicked against God. “Israel forsook God who made him and scoffed at the Rock of his salvation.”
Brothers and sisters, to put it another way… Israel is like a spouse who has everything in marriage: a loving and faithful companion who helps provide the protection of a warm home. And yet in spite of all this the ungrateful and self-absorbed spouse has relations with a neighbour in the middle of the family room. Such is the sinfully depraved ingratitude and unbelief that this Song seeks to expose in Israel.
God’s indictment and curse of Israel
This commences the second part of the Song, with the groaning of a gorged and fattened Israel in the background. Listen to the witness against Israel’s sinful folly that continues…
In vv16-17, we read that Israel has shattered the first two commandments. Israel has not loved God, but instead made him jealous with strange gods. In fact, so bent on idolatry is Israel that she has sacrificed to demons that were no gods. They have worshipped gods that their fathers had not even known. As if adultery with a neighbors spouse is not base enough, Israel has gone off with a stray animal from the field. So self-absorbed is Israel, that she, v18, gives no thought to the “Rock that bore her,” she forgets the God who “gave her birth.”
This behavior the holy and just Judge of the universe cannot endure. Therefore, with something like the fiery jealousy of a man whose spouse has been unfaithful, God pronounces a sentence of death upon Israel for her spiritual adultery.
In vv19-25, we read that Israel gets what she deserves – the curses of the covenant, which takes us back to the frightening words of Deut 28. The Lord saw the evidence of Israel’s lust and spurned them, v19. He says, v20, “I will hide my face from them.” This is like God saying I will remove my blessing and favor, and expose you to judgment for breaking my covenant. God will repay Israel for making him “jealous with what is no god,” v21. So God will make Israel jealous with those who are “no people.” God’s holy anger is kindled and swift justice will be executed, v22. There will be no escape from God’s fury – not even the depths of hell will provide a hiding place. God will reverse the natural order to destroy Israel, vv23-24. Disaster will be heaped upon them, hunger will eat at them, plague and poisonous disease will devour them, and the teeth of beasts and venomous vipers will come against them. If this were not enough, v25, war will sweep through the land, even into the city. God will be merciless – not even sparing woman and child. It will literally be hell on earth for Israel!
With this comes the end of the first two parts of the Song of Witness against Israel. The truths of this Song Israel must never forget if they want life.
What about us today?
But, we must not forget the wisdom of the first two movements of this Song either. This is the clear message of the NT. For example, in 1 Cor 10 Paul claims that the example of Israel’s idolatry in the wilderness is instructive for the church today. Here he recounts for the Corinthians and us the story of Israel who once drank from the spiritual Rock, which was Christ, and yet out of sinful ingratitude and unbelief they turned away from God. Instead of exercising faith in God, they lived for their own sinful lusts. To reward their unbelief, which manifested itself in all sorts of acts of idolatry, like sexual immorality, God put many Israelites to death – as many as twenty-three thousand in one day. Paul says in v6, “these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.”
Beloved, the truths of this Song we must never forget. They must keep on playing over and over in our hearts, if we want to have eternal life. For – again – what is the wisdom that this Song intends to teach us?
First and foremost, the background beat of this Song tunes us to our awful predicament under the law due to sin. For like Israel, the inclination of our hearts is naturally bent toward gorging ourselves on the lusts of the flesh, becoming fat on the pleasures of this life and kicking against God with ingratitude. And we do this in full view of God and his merciful deeds towards us. Along with OT Israel, we all fell into sin with Adam in the Garden of Eden and the intentions of our hearts are evil continuously: ever prone to toward idolatry and spiritual adultery. Like Israel, we are all law-breakers. None of us keep the Ten Commandments, as we should. We all deserve the fierce wrath of God.
It is this knowledge of sin that comes through the law that drove the remnant of Israel to God’s promise. Like Israel, it must also drive us to sing with joyful hearts the chorus of this Song: which is God’s promise of grace toward us in Christ. Yes, God is holy and righteous judge. But the Song of Moses also teaches that he is also our gracious redeemer who has acted in love and mercy toward us.
Brother and sisters, children, do you remember what God has done for you? He sought you out when you were still lost in the wilderness of sin and idolatry. He had compassion on you, and he saved you, because he loves you! Like an eagle tending to its vulnerable and exposed young, God has made his sanctuary among us, his church. The holy, jealous, and wrathful God of Israel now dwells in peace among his people! How? The same Spirit that hovered over the deep at creation, that guided and protected Israel in the wilderness, did in the fullness of time empower Jesus to save and recreate a people for own treasured possession, which are you and I.
For, beloved, to know your sin is to know your desperate need for life in Jesus. For Jesus became sin for us. Jesus endured the full fury and indignation of God’s judgment and wrath for us. Jesus received our death sentence so that we now have eternal life. How can we then spurn God in light of such love and mercy?! Therefore, repent of your sins and believe this good news!
The wisdom of this Song, simply put, is to know our spiritual death sentence under the law, which in turn drives us to seek life and liberty in the gospel. For the law teaches us that our righteousness will never avail in God’s courtroom of justice. We are rightly condemned on account of our sin. Only once we know our sin and desperate need can we truly embrace God’s marvelous deeds towards us by faith. For in Christ, God has silenced the loud thunder of the law. And he has put a new song of grace in our hearts, so we can worship in Spirit and in truth, this day and forevermore. Amen.
Simon Jooste, RCSS morning service, March 17, 2013