Expositor's Bible Commentary
Give ear, O ye heavens, and I will speak; and hear, O earth, the words of my mouth.
THE SONG AND BLESSING OF MOSES
(A) THE SONG OF MOSES
Deuteronomy 32:1-52CRITICS have debated the date, authorship, and history of this song. For the present purpose it is sufficient, perhaps, to refer to the statement on these points in the note below.
But in discussing the meaning and contents of the song the differences referred to cause no difficulties. On any supposition the time and circumstances, whether assumed as present, or actually and really present to the prophet’s mind, can clearly be identified as not earlier than those of the Syrian wars. Accepted as dealing with that time, this poem takes its place among the Psalms of that period. Its subject is a very common one in Scripture: the goodness of Yahweh to his people, and their unfaithfulness to Him; His grief at their rebellion; His punishment of them by heathen oppressors; and His turning in love to them, along with His destruction of the nations who had prematurely triumphed over the people of God. Practically this is the burden of all the prophecies, as indeed it may be said to be the burden of the whole Book of Deuteronomy itself. Here it is stated and elaborated with great poetic skill; but in the main, the essential thought, there is little that has not already been elucidated.
As regards form the poem is among the finest specimens of Hebrew literary art which the Old Testament contains. Every verse contains at least two parallel clauses of three words or word-complexes each, and the parallelism in the great majority of instances is of the "Synonymous" kind; that is to say, "the second line enforces the thought of the first by repeating, and as it were echoing it in a varied form." But into this as a foundation there is wrought a great deal of pleasing variation. The two-clause verses are varied by single instances or couplets or triplets of four-clause verses; while in two cases, at the emphatic end of sections, in Deuteronomy 32:14 and Deuteronomy 32:39, the rare five-clause verse is found. Further, the synonymous parallelism is relieved by occasional appearances of the "synthetic" parallelism, in which "the second line contains neither a repetition nor a contrast to the thought of the first, but in different ways supplements and completes it," e.g., Deuteronomy 32:8, Deuteronomy 32:19, and Deuteronomy 32:27.
The contents of the song are in every way worthy of the origin assigned to it, and higher praise than that it is impossible to conceive. Beginning with a fine exordium calling upon heaven and earth to give ear, the inspired poet expresses the hope that his teaching may fall with refreshing and fertilising power upon the hearts of men, for he is about to proclaim the name of Yahweh, to whom all greatness is to be ascribed. In Deuteronomy 32:4 ff. the character and dealings of Yahweh are set over against those of the people:-
"The Rock! His deeds are perfect, For all His ways are judgment; A God of faithfulness and without falsity, Just and upright is He."
They, on the contrary, were perverse and crooked; and, acting corruptly, they requited all Yahweh’s benefits with rebellion. To win them from that perverseness, he calls upon his people to look back upon the whole course of God’s dealings with them. Even before Israel had appeared among the nations, Yahweh had taken thought for His people. When He assigned their lands to the various nations of the world He had always before Him the provision that must be made for the children of Israel, and had left a space for them from which none but Yahweh could ever drive them out. For He had the same need of and delight in His people as the nations had in the lands assigned to them, the lot of their inheritance. And not only had He thus prepared a place for Israel from the beginning, but He had led him through the wilderness, through the waste, the howling desert.
"He compassed him about, He cared for him, He kept him as the apple of His eye."
To depict the Divine care worthily, he ventures upon a simile of a specially tender kind, rare in the Old Testament, but to which our Lord’s comparison of His own brooding affection for Jerusalem to that of a "hen gathering her chickens under her wing" is parallel.
"As an eagle stirs up her nest, Flutters above her young; He, Yahweh, spread abroad His wings, He took him, He bore him upon His pinions."
All the hardship and the toil were of God’s appointment to drive His beloved people upwards and onwards. Whatever they might think or believe now, it was Yahweh alone, without companion or ally, who had done this for them, borne them up through it, and had bestowed upon them all the luxury of the goodly land once promised to their fathers. Even from the rocks He had given them honey, and the rocky soil had produced the olive tree. They had, too, all the luxuries of a pastoral people in abundance, and the wheat and foaming wine which were the finest products of agriculture.
In every way their God had blessed them. They had all the prosperity which a complete fulfillment of the will of God could have brought, but the result of it all was unfaithfulness and rejection of Him. Jeshurun, the upright people, as the sacred singer in bitter irony calls Israel, waxed fat and wanton. Instead of being drawn to God by His benefits, they had been puffed up with conceit concerning their own power and discernment. Full of these, they had mingled idolatrous rites with their worship of Yahweh. He had suffered them to read the results of their own unfaithfulness in defeat at the hands of their foes.
Instead of seeking the cause of their ill-success in themselves, they had found it in the weakness of their God. All the victories Yahweh had given them over foes whose strength they had feared were forgotten, and they "despised the Rock of their salvation." They had adopted new and upstart deities whom their fathers had never heard of, who as they had come up in a day might disappear in a day, and neglected the Rock who begat them.
Yahweh on His part saw all this, and scorned His people and their doings. In a vivid imaginative picture the poet represents Him as resolving to hide His face from them, to see what their end would be. Without the shining of God’s countenance there could be but one issue for a people who were so faithless and perverse. He will recompense them for their doings.
"They made Me jealous with a no-God, They vexed Me with their vain idols, And I will make them jealous with a no-people, With a foolish nation will I vex them."
For the fire of Divine wrath is kindled against them. It burns in Yahweh with an all-consuming power, and fills the universe even to the lowest depths of Sheol. Upon this sinful people it is about to burst forth; Yahweh will exhaust all His arrows upon them. By famine and drought; by disease and the rage of wild beasts, and of "the crawlers of the dust"; by giving them up to their enemies, and by overwhelming them with terror. He will destroy this people, "the young man and the virgin, the suckling and the man of grey hairs" alike. Nothing could save them, save Yahweh’s respect for His own name.
"I had said, I shall blow them away, I shall make their memory to cease from among men: Were it not that I feared vexation from the enemy, Lest their adversaries should misdeem, Lest they should say, Our hand is exalted, And Yahweh hath not done all this."
Nothing but that stood between them and utter destruction, for as a nation they had no capacity for receiving and profiting by instruction. If they had been wise they would have known that there was but a step between them and death; they would have seen that their deeds had separated them from Yahweh, and could have but one issue. Their frequent and shameful defeats should have taught them that, for
"How could one chase a thousand, And two put to flight ten thousand, Were it not that their Rock had sold them, And that Yahweh had delivered them up?"
There was no possible explanation of Israel’s defeats but this; for neither in the gods of the heathen nor in the heathen nations themselves was there anything to account for them. Their gods were not comparable to the Rock of Israel; even Israel’s enemies knew as much as that. Israel might forget and doubt Yahweh’s power, but those who had been smitten before Him in Israel’s happier days knew that He was above all their gods. Nor was the explanation to, be sought in the heathen nations themselves. For they were not vines of Yahweh’s planting, but shoots from the vine of Sodom, tainted by the soil of Gomorrah. They were, perhaps, in race, of the old Canaanite stock; in any case they were morally and spiritually related to them, and their acts were such as brought death and destruction with them. In themselves, consequently, they could not have been strong enough to discomfit the people of God as they were doing, nor could they have been helped to that by any favor of His. Only the determination of Yahweh to chastise His people could explain Israel’s unhappy fate in war.
But Yahweh’s purpose was only to chastise. He was in no way finally forgetful of His chosen, nor of the ineradicable evil of their enemies’ nature. The inner character of men and things is always present to Him, and their deeds are laid up with Him as that which must be dealt with, for it is one of the glories of Deity to sweep evil away and to restore anything that has good at its heart. Recompense is God’s great function in the world, and evil, however strong it may be, and however long it may triumph, must one day be dealt with by Him. It is laid up and sealed
"Against the day of vengeance and of recompense, Against the time when their foot shall slip; For the day of their calamity is at hand, And hastening are the things prepared for them."
Without that, justice could never be done to the people of God; and justice should be done to them when they had been brought to the verge of extinction, when, according to the antique Hebrew phrase, there "was none fettered or set free," none left under or over age. Then when all but the worst had come, Yahweh would demand, "Where are their gods, with whom they took refuge, and who have eaten the fat of their sacrifices, and drunk the wine of their drink offerings?" He will challenge them to arise and help in this last disastrous state of their votaries.
But there will be no response, and it will be made clear beyond all doubting that Yahweh alone is God. He will declare Himself, saying:-
"See now that I, I, am He, And there is no god with Me: I kill, and I make alive; I wound, and I heal: And there is none that delivereth out of My hand."
In that great day of Yahweh’s manifested glory He will stand forth in the fullness of avenging power. Before the universe He will pledge Himself by the most solemn oath to bring down the pride of His enemies. In a death-dealing judgment, such as is seen only when the evil elements in the world have brought about a mere carnival of wickedness, and only universal death can cleanse, He will recompense upon evil-doers the evil they have wrought, and to a renovated world bring peace. There are few finer or more impressive imaginative passages in Scripture than this:-
"For I lift up My hand to heaven, And say, (As) I live for ever, If I whet My gleaming sword, And My hand take hold on judgment, I will take vengeance upon Mine enemies, And I will recompense them that hate Me. I will make Mine arrows drunk with blood, And My sword shall devour flesh, With the blood of the slain and the captives, From the chief of the loaders of the enemy."
With this great vision of judgment the poet leaves his people. For them the first necessity evidently was that they should be assured that Yahweh reigned, that evil could not ultimately prosper. With their whole horizon dominated and illumined by this tremendous figure of the ever living and avenging God, their faith in the moral government of the world and in the ultimate deliverance of their nation would be restored.
The poem closes with a stanza in which the seer and singer calls upon the nations to rejoice because of Yahweh’s people. The deliverance worked for them will be so great and so memorable that even the heathen who see it must rejoice. They will see His justice and His faithfulness, and will gain new confidence in the stability and the moral character of the forces which rule the world.