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Sermon preached on Deuteronomy 31:30-32:521 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 12/05/2010 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“He Will Provide Atonement For His People”
Here we have the Song of Moses. It was introduced in chapter 31, which we studied last time. Today we’ve read the song itself and now have the opportunity to study it. Last time we saw how this song was meant to be a warning to Israel. It would warn them of the consequences of forsaking the one true God. It warned them of the consequences of breaking the covenant that they had with God. That’s certainly a dominant theme in this song. The song has a lesson to teach – turning from God has consequences.
We call this a song, because chapter 31, verse 30, calls it that. To what degree they actually sung this or just recited it, is an open question. Probably some of both. But the song certainly is Hebrew poetry, which itself is a very broad category. In addition, this song has the marks of wisdom literature as well. It has some similarity to the Proverbs, which of course is also written poetically. You’ll notice this right in the opening verses. Verse 1, “Give ear… and hear the words of my mouth.” Verse 2, “Let my teaching drop as the rain.” These opening verses are typical of what you see in some of the other wisdom literature in Scripture, such as the opening chapters of Proverbs. There and her you see the author calling you to take careful heed to his teachings.
And so this would have been a poetic song that was in the wisdom literature category. It has features of both the psalms and proverbs. Of course, there are psalms that clearly are proverbial in nature. Psalm 37, for example. This song is something like that. It’s poetic, it’d be memorable, particularly in the Hebrew, and it’d be instructive. As it said in chapter 31, this would be something to teach to the next generations. They should memorize this. They should sing and recite it to themselves all the time. They should contemplate and consider its message.
A central part of that message is stated right at the start. Verse 4. “Ascribe greatness to our God. He is the Rock.” It goes on to say that he is perfectly just, repeating this idea in typical Hebrew poetic fashion. The first real teaching of this song is that God’s glory is proclaimed and the people are called in turn to glorify him. And the description given here of God being their rock is introducing a theme used throughout this song. Who would be their rock? Would it be the one true God? Or would they try to set false gods as their rock? That’s the question dealt with throughout this song. And so right at the start, this song calls the people to set God as their God and to glorify him. In contrast, he is exalted as a just God. This means that they should not be surprised if he judges them when they rebel against him. This is what they should learn from this song. They need to hold fast to God and his covenant laws. That’s what Moses says in summary after the song as well, verses 46-47. They are to set their hearts on the words of this song and learn that lesson, that they may live.
And so this song teaches and it warns. It points to God’s future justice when Israel would later turn from God to idols. When they did, they’d be punished severely. That’s what this song teaches. It’s a function of this just and righteous God. That’s what the people needed to remember and contemplate. And yet this song doesn’t only teach about that warning. It also points to the hope of God’s compassion that restores and forgives and atones for the sins of this people. It ends with a triumphant note. Not a triumph of Israel’s faithfulness. But a victory of God’s covenant loyalty and steadfast love and unending mercies, even to his wandering people.
So let’s walk through the main ideas of this song. We can divide up those ideas into three main points. We’ll see the predicated failure of Israel in this song. We’ll see the promised punishment as a result. Lastly, we’ll see the restoration that’s also promised; how the people will find grace and relief when they hit rock bottom. You’ll see these points in the outline in your bulletin. This song essentially takes us through this story of sin, punishment, and restoration, in Israel’s history. As we study this song, we’ll learn about this history. But we’ll also see how it’s painting the picture of a bigger history. A history that looks to Christ; both to the need for Christ and to the grace that comes in Christ. That’s where we’ll find our connection with this Song of Moses. Let’s dig in.
We’ll begin then considering the foreseen failure of Israel. Right after this song begins by pointing us to God’s glory, we are immediately confronted with Israel’s waywardness. Verse 5. “They have corrupted themselves; a perverse and crooked generation.” The song’s first teaching is about God’s glory and justice. But quickly the song sets overall context for what’s going to be discussed in this song: Israel’s rebellion. Israel’s waywardness. This song is like a short story, and it’s going to describe how the just God handles an unjust people. In a short story, you typically have a conflict presented at the start. Verses 5-6 present that conflict right away. It’s the conflict of a sinful rebellious people that had turned away from their God. God had been a father to them. Verse 6 says that he bought them, made them, and established them, but they’ve turned away.
This same conflict is presented again in verses 15-18. There God calls Israel by the name of Jeshurun. That’s a word that means “upright,” as in someone who keeps the moral laws of God. It’s a name we see used for Israel sometimes in the Scripture, a sort of endearing name. Here, however, it gets used in shame. He who should be upright, had instead forsaken God. Verses 15, they had scornfully esteemed the Rock of their salvation. The specific sin is shown in verse 16. They had gone after foreign gods. They stopped glorifying their God who was the rock, and had gone after false gods. Verse 18 says they forgot the God who had fathered them; again that same idea mentioned a moment ago; that God had been their father.
These verses we just referenced mention how Israel had rejected God, despite what God had done for them previously. The verses I’ve read so far mention just briefly some of that past history between Israel and God. He’s their father, their maker, their redeemer, their savior. We see this past history described further in verses 7-14. There it describes how God had taken them from the wilderness, and set him as the apple of his eye, verse 10. He cared for him as an eagle cares for his young, verse 11. At that point, they had no foreign gods in their life, verse 12. Verses 13-14 then describe all the blessings that God gave Israel at that time. These blessings remind you of the covenant blessings mentioned in chapter 28. And so what you have here in verses 10-14 is a recounting of that past history of Israel. It was a history of blessing and privilege. It calls to mind how God took Abraham and set him apart. He cared for the offspring of Abraham. He took them out of a place of wandering. He redeemed them from Egyptian slavery. He settled them into a home in the Promised Land. He blessed them abundantly in that land. When they fell into the rebellion foreseen in this song, this would be their history. This history would make their rebellion all the more deplorable. Look at verse 8. It describes how God had done all these blessings specifically for the nation of Israel; they were treated in a way special and different than all the other nations. They alone had this great place of privilege and blessing. But this song recounts how they spurned that and followed after the gods of the nations. This is what makes their rebellion so deplorable. It’s like spitting in the eyes of their father. It’s like biting the hand that feeds you. It’s repaying good with evil in the worst possible way.
Let’s turn now to consider the punishment for Israel described in this song. A general description of their punishment is seen in verses 23-24. There it describes several of the covenant curses mentioned back in chapter 28: disasters, military defeats, hunger, pestilence, attack of wild animals, etc. That’s a general description of the punishment that would come to them.
But a more detailed description of their punishment begins in verses 19. God’s people had turned away from him, so he would turn away from them. Verse 21 describes the irony of how God would handle them. You see, before Israel was a people; God’s people. And they had a God, the one true God. Instead they’d turn it says in verse 21 to that which is not God. They would follow the foreign gods of the foreign nations. They would go in the way of the nations, those who it says in verse 21 are not a people. The descriptions in verse 21 of the false gods and the foreign nations are actually used like labels or even names in the Hebrew. “Not-a-god” and “Not-a-people” are those names here. Israel was going after Not-a-god, and so God would send against them Not-a-people. Not-a-people would destroy them. The result would be that they would not be a people anymore. Not a people of God, that is. They’d become just like these foreign nations with their false gods that they thought so great. God would then ironically use one of these foreign nations to bring judgment on Israel.
Notice that verse 21 says that God would provoke Israel to jealousy through this. God would use another nation to destroy them, and this should produce jealousy in Israel. Just as God was jealous of Israel’s idolatry, God would make them jealous by being with another nation to bring destruction upon them. God would be with a people even more wicked than Israel, and use them to destroy Israel. In verse 32, this foreign nation that God would use is so wicked that they are likened to Sodom and Gomorrah.
This is supposed to be a wakeup call to Israel. That’s what it means when it talks about Israel becoming jealous. They should see how God is with this foreign nation and become jealous for God to be with them in that way. Notice that in verses 26-27, God considers completely wiping out Israel, but decides otherwise. The reason given immediately there is that he didn’t want the other foreign nation to get the wrong idea. God didn’t want the other nation to think it was by their own strength that they conquered Israel. Even then God wants that other nation to recognize that it was God who gave them the victory. But it goes on to show that God especially wants Israel to recognize that. So God would largely destroy Israel, but he would leave a remnant. That remnant is supposed to become jealous for a relationship with God. They are supposed to analyze the situation and realize that they need God’s presence in their lives.
That’s what we see described in verses 28-29. Here you see the wisdom literature coming out so clearly. It talks about how Israel at that time would need counsel and wisdom. See the question put to them. Verse 30. How could one chase ten thousand? It’s saying that the other nation would have such an overwhelming victory over them, militarily-speaking. Against all odds, the other nation would have a sweeping victory over them. It should cause Israel to ask — how could this foreign nation have such a tremendously successful military campaign against them? Verse 30 gives the answer. Only if their Rock had sold them. Only if God, the one true Rock, had sold out his people Israel. Earlier this song had said that God had bought Israel; that makes you think of the redemption from Egyptian slavery. Now it says that he had sold them off. You see, that’s the only possible explanation. Verse 31 says that their rock is not like our Rock. It means that the rock of this foreign nation is not like the Rock of Israel. In other words, the false god which this nation trusts in, is not like the real Rock of Israel. Their false god couldn’t give them the victory that’s being envisioned here against Israel. Again, the only explanation is that God had sold them off. He surrendered his people to be destroyed by this foreign nation. This was God’s punishment for them. This thought process should be a wakeup call for them. It should cause them to be jealous to return to God.
On a side note, Paul in the New Testament takes up this idea and uses it to explain the relationship of Jews that reject Christ with Gentiles who don’t. In Romans 10:19 Paul quotes verse 21 in this passage. Paul is using that as analogy to explain how God will use Gentile Christians to spark jealousy in unbelieving Jews. They’ll see how God is with these Gentiles through the name of Christ. They’ll see the grace that ought to be theirs. That should in turn spark these Jews to turn to Christ.
And so my point here is that the song is predicting that God will punish wayward Israel with a foreign nation. He’d sell them out. They’d be destroyed, and only a remnant left. And yet, realize that it would be fair and just for God to sell them completely, every single one of them, and never have them back again. He doesn’t have to keep a remnant. But that’s not what he does. This horrible punishment is not the end of the history of God’s people. That leads us to the third main idea in this song – to consider the restoration promised here. How God holds out the hope of compassion, forgiveness, and atonement.
Look at verse 36. Here we see an explicit promise of future compassion for Israel. It says that he will have compassion on his servants. Notice when it says that compassion will come. “When he sees that their power is gone.” Or in verses 37-38 he asks a sort of rhetorical question of Israel, “Where are their gods, the rock in which they sought refuge… let them rise and help you.” Obviously the answer is clear. The rock they trusted in didn’t turn out so well. Those false gods are no real rock at all. They can’t help Israel. Why can’t they help Israel? Is it just because these foreign gods are less powerful than the Lord God? No, verse 39 clarifies. God says in verse 39, “Now see that I, even, I, am he, and there is no God besides me.” The foreign gods don’t exist. That’s why they couldn’t help Israel. There is only one God. Children, are there more gods than one? No, there is only one God. They’ve been memorizing that in Sunday School.
Verses 36-38 show that God will have compassion upon Israel, amidst their rebellion, but only when they hit rock bottom. When they finally come to their senses. When they recognize the foreign gods don’t exist. When they see that God had sold them out to their enemies. When they’ve virtually lost everything, God would turn and have compassion again on them. I think what’s being described here essentially is repentance. When the remnant of Israel finally gets it, that there is only one true God, and he’s the God who’s blessed Israel so much in the past, then God would turn and restore them. Then they would taste first hand of the promised restoration. We saw that restoration promised in chapter 30 in the narrative of Deuteronomy. Now it’s promised in poetry right here in this Song of Moses.
And so at that point, God would act to save them. And as we could have guessed, God doesn’t just lightly promise a restoration. He swears an oath to bring it about. That’s verse 40, God says “I lift my hand to heaven and say, As I live forever.” He’s taking an oath in his own name. We see that in several places in Scripture when he’s promising the covenant of grace. He confirms with an oath sworn in his own name. That’s what he’s doing here again. That’s of course what the promised restoration was. It was an expression of the covenant of grace. We said when we studied the restoration in chapter 30 that ultimately this restoration looked forward to the new covenant that would come in Christ. We’ll talk more about that in a moment.
But first look specifically at the outcome of the restoration. Look at verse 43. “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with His people; For he will avenge the blood of his servants, and render vengeance to his adversaries; he will provide atonement for his land and his people.” Three things are the outcome of this restoration. First, there will be vengeance. This was described back in verses 34-35 too. Verse 35 is where Paul quotes from in Romans; God saying “Vengeance is mine.” It’s talking here about how God would punish the foreign nation that destroyed Israel; they were even more wicked than Israel. Even though God used them to wake up Israel, they themselves were still guilty for all their sins. God would bring vengeance on this foreign nation and any other of those nations that stand as enemies to God. This ultimately looks forward to the final Day of Judgment where this will find its greatest fulfillment.
The second outcome of this restoration is hope for the Gentiles. This is described here very subtly, but yet it’s profound. Verse 43 tells the Gentiles to rejoice with his people. This foresees that the Gentiles would be one day included together with God’s people. You see the two options presented for the Gentile nations here are either to be God’s adversary and find vengeance, or to rejoice with God’s people. We’ve seen in the New Testament how this has found fulfillment in Christ in the gospel. Through faith in Christ, both Jew and Gentiles can rejoice together as God’s one united people.
The third thing described here in this restoration is atonement. It says he would provide atonement for his people, and for the land; land which of course that had been affected by their sin. Remember what we have seen in this song. They had corrupted themselves. They had rebelled against God. They had broken God’s laws by having other false gods before the one true God. They had sinned. God couldn’t just overlook sins like this. They had to be atoned for. They had to be covered. Remember, God is just, this song has said. He’d need to atone for the sin. How would he do that? Well, it’s not told in this song. It’s just promised. God promises that he would provide an atonement. Well, he did. In Jesus. In Jesus, God bought back his people, now never to sell us off again. He purchased us, with his own blood (Acts 20:28).
In Revelation 15:3, it has a heavenly vision of the saints one day singing together. And it says that they sing the Song of Moses and the Song of Lamb. It then gives some of the words to that Song. What’s interesting there is that there are two songs of Moses. One here and one in Exodus 15. And the words of the song given in Revelation 15:3, don’t come from either of those two songs of Moses, but from other Old Testament Psalms. But I think that makes sense. You see, it connects the Song of Moses with the Song of the Lamb; the lamb being Christ. It doesn’t say in Revelation that they sing both songs. No, it equates the Song of Moses with the Song of Christ. And then it equates all that with some Old Testament Psalms. But do you see the point? What you have here in this Song of Moses, as well as the other one in Exodus, and in the Psalms, is the Song of the Lamb. It is the story of Christ. Right here, in this song, we can look ahead to what Christ accomplishes for us.
I mean this song tells the whole story of the Bible. The story of Israel’s history is a picture of what God does for all of his chosen people, Jew or Gentile. It’s the story of guilt, grace, and gratitude. We all have sinned. We all have corrupted ourselves. We’ve all stood guilty before God. Yet God in his grace restores us. He brings us out of rock bottom. He shows every true believer in one way or another that he alone is the one true God. And then he graciously forgives us of all our sins as we turn in faith to him; he provides the atonement for those sins through the cross of Jesus Christ. And then in gratitude we can rejoice with all his saved people, just like we are told to do in verse 43. This song, though set in the context of Old Testament Israel, becomes the Song of Lamb. All the songs in the Scriptures may have different words, but they keep singing the Song of the Lamb. They keep expressing the truth of how God saves his people from their sins, all through Jesus Christ.
Maybe some of you here today have hit rock bottom. God calls to you today to recognize that he is God. He offers you salvation. Turn in faith to him today. Find grace and forgiveness and atonement today in the name of Jesus Christ. On the other hand, maybe you’ve not hit rock bottom yet, but you are quickly sliding downward in that direction. I urge you today, don’t wait until you do hit rock bottom to come to the Lord. Realize that you need this one true God in your life. Realize that all the other gods of the world religions are false. They are not gods. That’s what the God of the Bible says right here. If you’re offended by it, I’m just the messenger. It’s right here in verse 39. There’s only one God, and he’ll do whatever it takes to get your attention; to make you realize this. That he might show you his love and compassion. And so place your faith and trust in Christ. Rejoice together with his people in this greatest of salvation.
My closing exhortation to us all is this. God had Israel memorize this Song. It had a lesson to teach, and it gave reason to celebrate the graciousness of God. Though all Scripture is important to study and learn, we saw in last chapter that God had them especially learn and sing this song. I think a fitting application to us is to see the value in learning and singing and reciting certain key scriptures. It’s Christmas time again. This is what Christians especially celebrate during this time of the year. We have songs that we have memorized that remind us the work of Christ. Learn and sing such songs. But, especially learn and sing and recite key passages of Scripture. Key passages that express the Song of the Lamb, that so clearly express the saving work of Jesus who redeemed us and atones for all our sins. God saw a value in this in the Old Testament. There is still great value in this for us as well. Its part of what it means to “rejoice” with his people. When we come and address one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with our heart. Let us do this out of great gratitude toward Christ. Amen.
Copyright (c) 2010 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.