The Song Of Moses Unfortunately, Deuteronomy 32 does not get the attention it deserves. While this chapter is commonly called the Song of Moses, it is actually a song which God gave to Israel for a very specific purpose. After Israel’s first generation out of Egypt failed to enter Canaan and died in the wilderness, the second generation stood on the plains of Moab ready to enter the Promised Land. At that time Moses spoke to them regarding their heritage, the promises which God made to them, and their responsibility to faithfully follow Him. Essentially, this is the content of the Book of Deuteronomy. However, as Moses finished speaking, God gave him a song for Israel with this specific purpose: “This song will testify against them.” The Lord would bring Israel into the Promised Land and prosper them, but then they would pursue other gods, reject Him and be judged. It is at that time, when calamities had come upon them because they rejected the Lord, that this song would be the Lord’s witness against Israel (31:19-21 NIV). Given the significance of this song, it is no wonder that, in later centuries, God’s prophets referred to it to call Israel back to the Lord.
Although the Song of Moses is a negative witness against Israel, it is introduced with a positive declaration. First, the speech is characterized as “teaching” (Dt. 32:2), using a Hebrew expression which emphasizes understanding. The proper understanding of the teaching would be as dew from heaven with its refreshing effect on tender herbs and grass. Thus, the Song is a witness to the Lord’s abiding love for His people, and its thrust is to their salvation. This positive characterization is next associated with the name of Yahweh, who is praised for His greatness, perfect work, righteous ways and upright character. Thus, while including a complaint followed by both a statement of judgment and one of deliverance, the overall scope and purpose of the Song is a proclamation of the name of the Lord.
The next section of the Song presents the judgment of the Lord upon His people who, in response to God’s favor, would forsake Him for false gods. Yahweh would respond by abandoning those who had abandoned Him. Thus the primary failure of Israel is seen as forsaking their God for false gods.
The announcement of judgment is followed by a declaration of deliverance. However, this deliverance is not primarily for Israel’s sake but rather for preempting any misunderstanding among the nations regarding who is behind these events. Israel’s desolation must be understood as the Lord’s work rather than that of any world powers. Accordingly, the deliverance is for the sake of defending the name and glory of Yahweh!
Finally, the Song declares the mystery of the Lord, namely, His personal intervention which includes the twofold concept of punishing His enemies and delivering His servants. However, in revealing the Lord’s judgment on His enemies and deliverance of His people, it becomes difficult to ascertain who really are His enemies and who really are His servants. This tension is carried through in the end of the Song which calls all people to “rejoice” – the nations as well as His people (Dt. 32:43). The reason for this celebration is to show that the Lord has delivered His servants and judged His enemies, atoning for His people. But once again, the way the words “servants” and “enemies” are used seems to purposely raise the nagging question, “Who really are His servants, and who really are His enemies?” This causes the ancient Israelites and the modern day believers to ask themselves which they really are (Mk. 14:17-19).
The Song of Moses is a witness for Yahweh and against Israel. Within the context of the failure of His people in forsaking the Lord for false gods, the Song proclaims the incomparability of Yahweh as seen in the deliverance of His people, both in the past and in the future. Further, the message is presented in a manner which causes the reader to face the question of where he stands in reference to God – an enemy worshiping false gods or a faithful follower.
The introductory section of these chapters introduces its overall theme. First, the Lord announces comfort for His people – that the time of Israel’s suffering is over and her iniquity is pardoned. However, He also indicates that the reason for this action is that through the salvation of Israel the Lord will display His glory to all flesh. This is the main theme throughout Isaiah 40-48: the display of the incomparability of Yahweh. He will not give His glory to another (42:8; 48:11), all the earth is called on to give glory to Him (42:12), and His own have been created for His glory (43:7).
This introduction is followed by a section which provides further development of the same concepts: Yahweh’s supremacy as He intervenes in the world in judgment and deliverance is proclaimed; His word is supreme over all mankind (40:6-8); He is superior to all the nations as evidenced by His infinite power and understanding (40:12-17); He is superior to all false gods as evidenced by the fact that He is the creator (40:18-25); Yahweh is aware of His people’s plight and is all powerful to deliver them (40:26-31). Thus, in his presentation of deliverance for Israel, Isaiah presents as his overall concern the same theme as the Song of Moses – the presentation to all nations of God’s supremacy through the salvation of His people.
The next section of Isaiah 40-48 contains a three-part cycle of challenges and declarations of deliverance. The first part focuses on the nations, and includes a challenge which presents the Lord’s power over history and the nations’ dependency on false gods (41:1-7). The declaration of deliverance presents Yahweh’s intent to use His people to punish the nations (41:8-20).
The second part focuses on false gods. The challenge is to the gods of the nations, and is based on supremacy in understanding and ability to intervene in history (41:21-29). Then deliverance and justice are declared, based on the Lord’s creative power in contrast to the powerlessness of His enemies and their false gods.
The third part is more developed than the previous two in that it is chiastic (cross-like) in its structure (AB C B’A’). The issue seems to be the challenge – this time to the nations, in view of the Lord’s deliverance of His people – to accept salvation from Yahweh as opposed to the other gods they had been trusting, focusing on the Lord’s incomparability. The chiastic structure can be seen as follows: A – Israel’s deliverance as a witness to the nations of Yahweh’s incomparability (42:19-43:13); B – Israel’s deliverance in spite of her sin as a witness to Yahweh’s incomparability (43:14-28); C – Israel’s forgiveness and deliverance as a witness to Yahweh’s incomparability (44:1-23); B’ – Israel’s deliverance (in view of the forgiveness in C, with no mention of sin) as a witness to Yahweh’s incomparability (44:24-45:17); A’ – Call to the nations to accept deliverance in view of Israel’s witness to the incomparability of Yahweh (45:18-25).
In A, the Lord declares deliverance for His people, in spite of their sin and failure (42:19-25), as a witness to all the nations (43:8-13), as He intervenes in history on their behalf. In B, the Lord again declares deliverance for His people, again in spite of their sin and failure (43:22-28), as He intervenes on their behalf for a witness to Himself. In C, the center and hence the focus of the chiasm, the Lord again declares deliverance for His people. However, in this case Israel’s sins are not mentioned, but rather their forgiveness (44:22). Once again, this deliverance is from the incomparable Yahweh (44:6-8) in contrast to the vanity of other gods (44:9-20). In B’, as in B, the Lord declares deliverance for His people as a witness to all the nations (45:6,14). However, in view of the forgiveness of sins mentioned in C, the failure of His people is now omitted (passed over). The chiastic pattern concludes with A’ which is Yahweh’s call to all the earth, in view of the witness of Israel’s example, to come to Him, the Incomparable One, for their own deliverance.
Isaiah 40-48 ends with a call from Yahweh to His people to listen, pay attention and respond appropriately to the deliverance which He is providing. First He pleads with His people to listen (46:3-13), followed by declaring judgment on Babylon (47:1-15). Then, in summarizing all the key issues, He once again pleads with His people to listen (48:1-22). Those who have been hypocrites (48:1-2), whom the Lord judged as He had predicted (48:3-4) in order that they not attribute it to other gods (48:5-8), He will now deliver for His own sake (48:9-11). They are called upon to listen (since Yahweh is the Creator, the one who predicted and will carry out, the one who teaches His people for their benefit), and to declare Yahweh’s deliverance to the entire earth (48:12-21). The section ends with an ominous warning: “‘There is no peace,’ says the LORD, ‘for the wicked’” (48:22).
The foregoing review shows that the purpose of Isaiah 40-48, just as the Song of Moses, is to proclaim the incomparability of Yahweh. In both passages that purpose is achieved by the same means, the demonstration to all nations of the supremacy of the Lord over all other gods in the deliverance of His people. Finally, throughout both Deuteronomy 32 and Isaiah 40-48 there seems to be intentional obscuring of whether the message is primarily for the nations or for Israel, while simultaneously presenting a tension between Israel’s sovereign election and her responsibility to faithfully respond.
This brief look at the Song of Moses and Isaiah 40-48 reveals several important features of salvation as seen in Isaiah. The context in which Isaiah speaks is a time of Israel’s failure, and He calls upon Israel to recall God’s word to Moses and the witness that had been given 600 years earlier for such a time as this. They were on the verge of falling under God’s judgment for forsaking Him for false gods (Isa. 1-39). But in spite of the fact that they had failed and were about to experience the promised judgment, they also had the assurance that God would provide deliverance. But the salvation God would provide would not be because of their improved conduct, but rather because God was displaying His glory. Even if Israel failed to represent Yahweh to the nations, He would ensure that His glory be presented to all peoples, if not through faithful Israel, then through His forgiveness and restoration of faithless Israel. However, even as this message was presented to Israel in Moses’ day in a way which caused them to ask themselves whether they were the Lord’s servants or His enemies, Isaiah presents the promise of future deliverance in the same way.
What can we as Christians today understand from this presentation of salvation by Isaiah? First and foremost is the fact that God provides salvation because of His glory which He will not give to another. However, even though we are recipients of His grace in receiving His salvation, we too must question ourselves as to whether our conduct is consistent with that of the Lord’s servants or that of His enemies. Of course, from the perspective of divine election, we know that, as believers in Jesus Christ, our salvation is never in jeopardy. However, even though we may be assured of God’s deliverance, we must continually balance that assurance with our responsibility to live faithfully as His representatives in the world, proclaiming by word and deed His incomparability to all.
By Tom Keiser
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org