Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
And Moses went and spake these words unto all Israel.XXXI.
Deuteronomy 31:1-8. MOSES RESIGNS HIS CHARGE AS LEADER TO JOSHUA.
(1) And Moses went and spake.—The expression is unusual. Possibly it means “went on to speak.” The Palestine Targum has, “He went into the house of instruction and spake.” The LXX. have apparently preserved a different reading, and say, “And Moses made an end of speaking these words” (like Deuteronomy 32:45), as if the Hebrew were vay’cal instead of vay-yelek. A transposition of two letters would make all the difference.
(2) I am an hundred and twenty years old this day; I can no more go out and come in.—The description of Moses’ death in Deuteronomy 34:7, says, “his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated.” Yet he may have felt within himself that his work was done. “I have no longer authority, for the authority is taken from me and given into the hand of Joshua” is one interpretation. And it suits with what follows. “The Lord hath said unto me, Thou shalt not go over this Jordan.”
(3) The Lord thy God, he will go over before thee . . . Joshua, he shall go over before thee.—Can it be accidental that Jehovah and Joshua are spoken of in exactly the same language, and that there is no distinguishing conjunction between them, the “and” of the English Version being supplied? “Jehovah, He is going over; Joshua, he is going over.” Verbally, the two are as much identified as “The God who fed me all my life long unto this day, the Angel that redeemed me from all evil” (Genesis 48:15-16). The prophetical truth of this identification is too remarkable to be missed.
(4) As he did to Sihon and to Og.—The value of these two conquests, before Israel passed the Jordan, was inestimable, as an encouragement to them to persevere.
(5) According unto all the commandments.—The Hebrew word for “commandments” is in the singular, Mitzvah, the principle of action.
(6) Be strong and of a good courage, fear not, nor be afraid.—Here this is addressed to the people in the plural number. The same thing is said to Joshua in the next verse.
(7, 8) And Moses called unto Joshua.—In these words Moses formally delivers the charge of the people to Joshua, to lead them over Jordan.
And Moses wrote this law, and delivered it unto the priests the sons of Levi, which bare the ark of the covenant of the LORD, and unto all the elders of Israel.Deuteronomy 31:9-13. MOSES RESIGNS HIS CHARGE AS LAWGIVER TO THE PRIESTS.
(9-11) And Moses wrote this law, and delivered it unto the priests . . . And . . . commanded them, saying . . . thou shalt read.—This must be distinguished from the deliverance of the “book” to the Levites in Deuteronomy 31:25-26. The deliverance here must be understood as a charge and a trust conveyed to the priests, making them responsible for the “reading of the law,” and for the instruction of the people. This is the special duty of the priests. They are said to “bear” the ark of the covenant here; not because they always carried it (they did sometimes, as in Joshua 3), but because they were responsible for it, just as they were also responsible for the exposition of the law (Deuteronomy 17:9). This is another example of the distinction between priests and Levites in the book of Deuteronomy.
(10, 11) At the end of every seven years, in the . . . year of release, in the feast of tabernacles . . . thou shalt read this law.—The fulfilment of this command, as far as the reading of the law is concerned, is described in Joshua 8:34-35; and again “at the feast of tabernacles” in Nehemiah 8. That the law read on these occasions was especially the book of Deuteronomy appears from the Talmudical treatise Sotah (p. 41), where the reading of it by the king is described as beginning with Deuteronomy 1:1 : “These are the words.” It is in this connection that the story is told of Agrippa that he wept when he came to Deuteronomy 17:15, “Thou mayest not set a stranger over thee.” But they said, “Fear not, Agrippa, thou art our brother,” and he then finished the reading. It was read from a platform erected in the forecourt of the temple. From this passage it is clear that the “reading” was understood to refer specially to the book of Deuteronomy.
(13) That their children . . . may hear.—It is obvious from this that the existence of many copies of the law was not contemplated by the writer. Comp. Deuteronomy 6:6-7 : “These words shall be in thine heart, and thou shalt teach them.”
And the LORD said unto Moses, Behold, thy days approach that thou must die: call Joshua, and present yourselves in the tabernacle of the congregation, that I may give him a charge. And Moses and Joshua went, and presented themselves in the tabernacle of the congregation.Deuteronomy 31:14-23. JOSHUA IS APPOINTED BY JEHOVAH TO MOSES’ PLACE.
(14) Thy days approach that thou must die: call Joshua, and present yourselves.—What Moses had already done before Israel (Deuteronomy 31:1-8) is now ratified by Jehovah to Joshua and Moses.
Moses and Joshua went.—We may compare this scene with that which is described in Numbers 20:25-28, when Aaron and Eleazar went up to Mount Hor, in order that the priesthood might be transferred from one to the other. Elijah and Elisha, in like manner, went together over Jordan, when Elijah was about to depart (2 Kings 2). For the last time it is recorded here that Jehovah met Moses face to face in the tabernacle. Their next meeting was on Mount Nebo, and the next “within the veil !”
And the LORD said unto Moses, Behold, thou shalt sleep with thy fathers; and this people will rise up, and go a whoring after the gods of the strangers of the land, whither they go to be among them, and will forsake me, and break my covenant which I have made with them.(16, 19) Behold, thou shalt sleep with thy fathers . . . now therefore write ye this song.—This prophecy that the children of Israel would forsake Jehovah and break His covenant is not a little remarkable, when we consider His dealings with them as a nation. It is one of the many proofs in Holy Scripture that our Creator is not like the man in our Lord’s parable, who “intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first and counteth the cost, whether he hath sufficient to finish it.” When He chose Israel to be His people, He knew the risk of doing so, and He provided for it beforehand. Not less when He said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness,” did He provide the means of forming in us the Divine character by all that Christ has done. The fall is recorded in the third chapter of Genesis. Redemption and restoration are exhibited in type and symbol in the second chapter. God brought Israel into Canaan in full foreknowledge of what the people would become when there.
(16) And break my covenant.—With this, contrast Judges 2:1 : “I said, I will never break my covenant with you.” The phrases are identical in Hebrew. Comp. 2Timothy 2:13 : “If we believe not, yet He abideth faithful: He cannot deny Himself.”
Then my anger shall be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them, and I will hide my face from them, and they shall be devoured, and many evils and troubles shall befall them; so that they will say in that day, Are not these evils come upon us, because our God is not among us?(17) Are not these evils come upon us, because our God is not among us?—A confession made freely by them at this present day.
And I will surely hide my face in that day for all the evils which they shall have wrought, in that they are turned unto other gods.(18) I will surely hide my face.—“As though I did not see (them) in their distress” (Rashi).
Now therefore write ye this song for you, and teach it the children of Israel: put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me against the children of Israel.(19) Put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness.—This method of perpetuating the truth was even better adapted to the times and to the condition of the people than the delivery of a written law. It was not possible to multiply copies of the law among them to any great extent; but the rhythmical form of the song would make it easy to be retained in their memories. There is reason to believe that Samuel, the first person who (so far as we know) effected anything of importance towards the establishment of a system of religious education in Israel, employed the same means for the purpose, viz., psalms and spiritual songs. The first companies of prophets were evidently singers and minstrels (see 1Samuel 10:5-6; 1Samuel 19:20-24); hence their remarkable influence over Saul. And if they taught the psalms to the people, as they learnt them under Samuel and David—especially historical psalms, like the 78th, 105th, and 106th—a very efficacious means of spreading the knowledge of God in Israel was in their hands.
And it shall come to pass, when many evils and troubles are befallen them, that this song shall testify against them as a witness; for it shall not be forgotten out of the mouths of their seed: for I know their imagination which they go about, even now, before I have brought them into the land which I sware.(21) This song . . . shall not be forgotten out of the mouths of their seed.—And it is not forgotten now. St. Paul made special use of it in the last days of the second Temple. This song is a favourite piece of Hebrew poetry to this day. Rashi observes: “This is a promise to Israel that the law shall not be utterly forgotten by their seed.”
I know their imagination.—Heb., yêtzer, the same word employed in Genesis 6:5; Genesis 8:21. It is the word commonly used in Rabbinical literature for the evil nature or good nature in any man. The nature which they are forming, or making, this day, would be a literal rendering of the sentence in this verse. And yet with all this, He made Balaam say, “He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob nor seen perverseness in Israel” (Numbers 23:21). Comp. 1Chronicles 28:9, “The Lord . . . understandeth all the imaginations of the thoughts,” and Psalm 103:14, “He knoweth our frame (yêtzer); He remembereth that we are dust.”
And he gave Joshua the son of Nun a charge, and said, Be strong and of a good courage: for thou shalt bring the children of Israel into the land which I sware unto them: and I will be with thee.(23) And he (Jehovah) gave Joshua the son of Nun a charge.—This is the first record of God’s direct communion with Joshua. He was with Moses on the mount during the first forty days, and “departed not out of the Tabernacle” when they came down (Exodus 24:13; Exodus 33:11). But we have no note of any Divine communication made to Joshua apart from Moses before this. It ratifies Joshua’s appointment as leader of Israel.
And it came to pass, when Moses had made an end of writing the words of this law in a book, until they were finished,Deuteronomy 31:24-28. DELIVERY OF THE BOOKS OF MOSES TO THE LEVITES.
(24) When Moses had made an end of writing.—This means the completion of the books of Moses as he delivered them to Israel; not merely Deuteronomy, as above, in Deuteronomy 31:9, but the whole, including the song mentioned in Deuteronomy 31:22. The song was probably the end of the book as delivered to them by Moses.
In a book.—’Al-sêpher; upon a roll. The Pentateuch is written upon a single roll to this day.
(25) The Levites, which bare the ark.—Observe this, and comp. Deuteronomy 31:9, above.
(26) In the side of the ark.—More literally, beside, Rashi says, “The wise men of Israel differ about this in the treatise Baba Bathra (in the Talmud). Some of them say there was a leaf or slab projecting from the ark outside, and there the book was placed. Others say that it was placed beside the tables of the covenant in the ark itself.”
(28) Gather unto me all the elders.—In like manner Joshua gave a special charge to the elders at the close of his life (Joshua 23).
For I know that after my death ye will utterly corrupt yourselves, and turn aside from the way which I have commanded you; and evil will befall you in the latter days; because ye will do evil in the sight of the LORD, to provoke him to anger through the work of your hands.(29) In the latter days.—A not uncommon prophetical expression, used with some considerable latitude. It occurs for the first time in Genesis 49:1. (See also Numbers 24:14 and Deuteronomy 4:30. ) Some would refer it to the “days of the Messiah,” and make it almost a technical term. But a comparison of these few passages will show that it cannot be tied strictly to any one period.
And Moses spake in the ears of all the congregation of Israel the words of this song, until they were ended.(30) And Moses spake . . . the words of this song.—The exodus of Israel begins and ends with a song of Moses. The song of Exodus 15 is usually referred to as the “Song of Moses,” and is thought to be intended in Revelation 15:3-4. But there is a remarkable resemblance between Revelation 15:3 and Deuteronomy 32:3-4, which see.