Saturday Mar 18, 2023

D90 - Deuteronomy 31:1-13 - Opening to Moses’ Final Speech Concerning his Death and Appointing Joshua as his Successor


     In these final four chapters (31-34), we transition from Moses to Joshua as the leader of Israel, as God will work through Joshua to bring His people into the land of Canaan. In these closing chapters, Moses gives great attention to the Torah as God’s Word which provides a framework for the covenant relationship between God and His people. The Torah is the basis for success, if the people are positive to God and and walk in obedience to His Word (Deut 11:26-28). According to Eugene Merrill, “Israel was not to be a nation of anarchists or even of strong human leaders. It was a theocratic community with the Lord as King and with his covenant revelation as fundamental constitution and law. The theme of this section is the enshrinement of that law, the proper role of Mosaic succession, and the ultimate authority of covenant mandate over human institutions.”[1]Lastly, these final chapters will focus largely on Moses’ pending death and his encouraging Joshua to take his place as the nation’s leader. Peter Craigie states:

  • "The approaching decease of Moses, which has already been anticipated (see Deut 1:37–38 and 3:23–29), now becomes the central focus for the remaining chapters of the book. Moses is aware of his approaching death, and in the light of that fact he once again encourages the people in their faith and takes care of some final practical matters relating to the covenant community. First he encourages the people as a whole (vv. 1–6), and then, in the presence of the people, he encourages Joshua in particular, who would soon be assuming the role of leadership (vv. 7–8)."[2]


     This pericope opens with Moses speaking to the nation of Israel as a whole. The text reads, “So Moses went and spoke these words to all Israel. 2 And he said to them, ‘I am a hundred and twenty years old today; I am no longer able to come and go, and the LORD has said to me, “You shall not cross this Jordan’” (Deut 31:1-2). Here, we see Moses reminding his people, for the third time, that God has not granted him permission to enter the land of Canaan because of his prior disobedience (Deut 1:37; 3:23-29; 31:2). Earl Kalland states, “Moses did not die because his natural strength was gone (Deut 34:7) but because the time for Israel’s entrance into Canaan had come, and Moses was not to enter the land. That was precluded by his arrogance before the people at the waters of Meribah when he struck the rock twice to bring out water though the Lord had told him only to speak to the rock.”[3]And Eugene Merrill notes:

  • "With his admission that he was a hundred and twenty years old, Moses was tacitly preparing the people for his death. He was forty when he fled Egypt to find refuge in Midian (Acts 7:23), eighty at the time of the exodus (i.e., forty years earlier than the present time; cf. Deut 2:7; 29:5), and now three times forty. There was no mistaking the meaning of this periodizing of Moses’ life. The first two eras culminated in escapes from mortal danger into the deserts. This time, however, there was no escape, for his sin in the desert had effectively closed that door (cf. Num 20:12; 27:12–14). The urgent need for orderly succession was most apparent."[4]

     Moses continues his address, saying, “It is the LORD your God who will cross ahead of you; He will destroy these nations before you, and you shall dispossess them. Joshua is the one who will cross ahead of you, just as the LORD has spoken. 4 The LORD will do to them just as He did to Sihon and Og, the kings of the Amorites, and to their land, when He destroyed them. 5 The LORD will deliver them up before you, and you shall do to them according to all the commandments which I have commanded you” (Deut 31:3-5). Though Joshua was going to lead God’s people into the land, everyone was to know it was ultimately the Lord who was leading them to victory and blessing (Deut 31:3; cf., Deut 1:30; 9:3; 20:1-4).

     Moses provides divine viewpoint to the nation so they would be strengthened in their inner person to face the challenges ahead. Moses told them, “Be strong and courageous, do not be afraid or tremble at them, for the LORD your God is the one who goes with you. He will not fail you or forsake you” (Deut 31:6). Here was a promise of God’s presence and protection as they followed His directives and went into the land of Canaan. According to Earl Radmacher, “The Lord was the Divine Warrior, the commander-in-chief of Israel’s forces. He will not leave you nor forsake you: Moses reminded the people that God had promised to remain with them, to protect them, bless them, and fight for them (Josh 1:5; 1 Ki 8:57).”[5] The confidence of the Israelites was not drawn from their own abilities, but from the Lord’s ability to lead them and to give them victory. This required them to maintain mental focus on God throughout the journey, even when they were facing their enemies in combat. The Israelites were to focus on God while slaying their enemies. This requires discipline of mind and will.

     Next, Moses called to Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel, “Be strong and courageous, for you shall go with this people into the land which the LORD has sworn to their fathers to give them, and you shall give it to them as an inheritance. 8 The LORD is the one who goes ahead of you; He will be with you. He will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed” (Deut 31:7-8). Here again is divine viewpoint given to Joshua to strengthen and encourage him to the task ahead. This helps us see Moses’ greatness, for rather than be bitter that he could not enter the land, he graciously hands the mantle of leadership over to his successor, Joshua. And Joshua had been known by the people for many decades. Warren Wiersbe states:

  • "Joshua wasn’t a stranger to the people of Israel, for he’d been serving them well ever since they left Egypt. He was Moses’ servant long before he became Moses’ successor (Ex 33:11; see Matt 25:21). It was Joshua who led the Jewish army in defeating the Amalekites when they attacked the nation after the Exodus (Ex 17:8–16), and he had been with Moses on Mount Sinai (Ex 24:13; 32:17). Joshua was one of the twelve spies who scouted out Canaan, and he and Caleb stood with Moses and Aaron in encouraging the people to trust God and claim the land (Num 13–14). In answer to Moses’ prayer for a leader to succeed him, God appointed Joshua and Moses commissioned him before the whole congregation (Num 27:12–23)."[6]

     The text informs us, “So Moses wrote this law and gave it to the priests, the sons of Levi who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD, and to all the elders of Israel” (Deut 31:9). Here we have one of the clearest statements in Scripture about Mosaic authorship, as the text tells us, “Moses wrote this law” and handed it over to the priests for safekeeping (cf., Deut 31:24-25). The written law is mentioned elsewhere in the book (Deut 28:58; 29:20-21, 27). God created language which He intended to serve as a means of theological expression between Himself and mankind. Sin has corrupted the human nature, and fallen mankind often uses language contrary to God’s original purposes, either excluding Him from their thoughts and words, or creating a god of their own imaginations and worshipping the creature rather than the Creator.

     The law was for the nation as a whole, to educate and guide them into the Lord’s will, as they learned and lived it day by day. Next, we learn, “Then Moses commanded them, saying, ‘At the end of every seven years, at the time of the year of remission of debts, at the Feast of Booths, 11 when all Israel comes to appear before the LORD your God at the place which He will choose, you shall read this law in front of all Israel in their hearing’” (Deut 31:10-11). Under the Mosaic Law, all financial debts were forgiven every seven years (cf. Deut 15:1-2). God had established a seven-year cycle the nation was to follow, and this ended when the Feast of Booths was celebrated. At the end of every seven years, those Israelites who had made loans to others within the covenant community were to release them from any remaining debt. The Hebrew word for remission is שְׁמִטָּה shemittah, which means a letting drop. According to Eugene Merrill, “The lender must simply forgive the debt as a necessary consequence of God’s declaration of a “time for canceling debts” (Deut 15:2). This was, as already noted, at the end of seven years, a period not necessarily commencing with the making of the loan but, as v. 9 makes clear, a universally recognized year of release (cf. Ex 23:10–11; Lev 25:2–4).”[7]

     The Feast of Booths (סֻכָּה sukkahhut, shelter) was also known as the Feast of Tabernacles and was an autumn festival that took place in the month of Tishri, which corresponded to September-October. The tabernacles were basically huts constructed of tree branches and foliage, and the Israelites were to live in these temporary structures for seven days (Lev 23:39-43). At the end of every seven years, during the time of the Feast of Booths, Israelites were to cancel any debts owed by their fellow Israelites (Deut 15:1-3; 31:10). According to Earl Radmacher, “These sacred feasts were celebrated by all people and were joyous expressions of gratitude to God (2 Chr. 30:21). They included processions, dancing, and the enjoyment of food and drink (Lev 23:40, 41; Judg 21:19–21).”[8]

     It was during this time of remission of debts that the priests in Israel were to read the Torah publicly so that God’s people would know how they were to live before the Lord and experience His blessings (cf., Ezra 7:10; Neh 8:1-6; Mal 2:4-7). God gave His Word to His people, but they were to be responsible with how they handled it. The priests were to communicate it to the nation as a whole (Deut 31:10-11), and parents were to teach it to their children (Deut 6:6-7). These public readings of God’s Word would serve to educate future generations about the Lord and their covenant relationship with Him. Of course, the clear communication of God’s Word to others must be met with positive volition by succeeding generations for God’s blessings to follow. Daniel Block notes that “future readings of the Torah will provide succeeding generations with regular opportunities for renewal and actualization of their covenant relationship with Him.”[9]

     Moses concludes this pericope, saying, “Assemble the people, the men and the women and children and the alien who is in your town, so that they may hear and learn and fear the LORD your God, and be careful to observe all the words of this law. 13 Their children, who have not known, will hear and learn to fear the LORD your God, as long as you live on the land which you are about to cross the Jordan to possess” (Deut 31:12-13). All the residents of the nation were to assemble every seven years for the public reading of the book of Deuteronomy. Earl Kalland correctly notes:

  • "Attendance at the feast was to be a joyous occasion for all the people: men, women, sons, daughters, menservants, maidservants, Levites, aliens, fatherless, and widows (Deut 16:14). The law was to be read before all these people (Deut 31:12). The children were singled out for special mention because they did not know the law (Deut 31:13). This reading of the law once every seven years would not be sufficient to inculcate its teachings in the minds of either the children or the adults. This septennial reading does not obviate the teaching ministry of the home (Deut 6:1-9) or that of the priests (Deut 17:11; 24:8; Lev 10:11). It is meant, rather, to strengthen these other teaching procedures, to focus the attention of the people as a nation on the revelation of God on a dramatic and joyful occasion. It would also dramatize the learning of the law for those children and others who had not been reached by the other teaching procedures in home and tabernacle."[10]

     The nation’s future blessings were dependent on their knowledge of God’s Word and regular application of it to everyday life. For those who were older and knew the Lord’s Word, it would serve to remind them and reinvigorate them in their relationship with God. For those who were younger, it would introduce them to God and His Word and provide the basis for a blessed life (Deut 11:26-28). Based on God’s directives to His people, it is assumed three groups of people possessed copies of the Law. First were the priests, who were required to teach it to others (Deut 31:9; cf., Ezra 7:10; Neh 8:1-6; Mal 2:4-7), and help adjudicate legal matters (see Deut 21:5). Second was the king, who was required to write out his own copy of the law and carry it with him all his life and to study and live by it (Deut 17:18-20). Third were the parents in the home who were instructed to teach it to their children day by day (Deut 6:6-7). According to Jack Deere, “It was rare for an individual to possess a copy of the Scriptures. A person gained a knowledge of the Scriptures through being taught by his parents and the priests and through its public reading at times like this. So the public reading of the Law was of great significance.”[11] Learning God’s Word was to lead to a healthy fear of the Lord. The fear of the Lord is a repeated theme throughout Deuteronomy (Deut 6:1-2, 24; 10:12, 20; 14:23; 17:18-19).

Present Application

     As God’s people, we are reminded over and over that God is with us (Heb 13:5), and for us (Rom 8:31). God, who helped His people in the past, still helps His people today, “For He Himself has said, ‘I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you,’ so that we confidently say, ‘the Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid. What will man do to me?’” (Heb 13:5-6). When the writer to Hebrews says, “so that we confidently say”, he’s referring to the self-talk that goes on in our heads when we face a challenging situation. We do well to remember that adverse situations are inevitable, but stress in the soul is optional, as we can take up “the shield of faith” (Eph 6:16) and protect ourselves from the enemy’s attacks. Living every moment in the light of that truth helps to strengthen us to face each day with confidence. This requires a disciplined mind and a walk of faith as we intentionally bring God and His Word into every event. Christian courage is the result of a mind saturated with God’s Word and operates by faith in the face of adversity. When faced with a crisis, focus of mind and faith in God operate together like a hand in a glove. And whatever the crisis we’re facing, whether the charge of the elephant or the charge of the mosquito, we can stand confidently on God’s Word and be courageous in the moment.

     And, as God’s people, we are to “encourage one another and build up one another” on a regular basis (1 Th 5:11; cf. Heb 3:13). To encourage (in-courage) someone is to impart courage to them so they can be sustained in a difficult situation. It is to cheer them on, to build them up, to boost their morale, to strengthen them internally so they will move forward to achieve a goal. Athletes understand the power a coach or fans have when cheering them on. Words are often the most common means of encouraging others. Solomon tells us, “Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs it down, but a good word makes it glad” (Prov 12:25), and “The Lord GOD has given Me the tongue of disciples, that I may know how to sustain the weary one with a word” (Isa 50:4a). Christian courage is not the absence of fear; rather, it’s the overcoming of fear to do that which God says is right. Let us always be good students of God’s Word so that we can operate on divine viewpoint and obey His directives. In this way, we will learn to live righteously in a fallen world and to encourage our brothers and sisters in Christ to walk in truth and love, and to be a light for others by sharing the Gospel and communicating His Word to those who will listen.



[1] Eugene H. Merrill, Deuteronomy, vol. 4, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994), 395.

[2] Peter C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976), 369.

[3] Earl S. Kalland, “Deuteronomy,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), 191.

[4] Eugene H. Merrill, Deuteronomy, vol. 4, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994), 397.

[5] Earl D. Radmacher, Ronald Barclay Allen, and H. Wayne House, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary (Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers, 1999), 265.

[6] Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Equipped, “Be” Commentary Series (Colorado Springs, CO: Chariot Victor Pub., 1999), 178.

[7] Eugene H. Merrill, Deuteronomy, vol. 4, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994), 243.

[8] Earl D. Radmacher, Ronald Barclay Allen, and H. Wayne House, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary (Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers, 1999), 265.

[9] Daniel I. Block, The NIV Application Commentary: Deuteronomy, ed. Terry Muck (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 725–726.

[10] Earl S. Kalland, “Deuteronomy,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), 193–194.

[11] Jack S. Deere, “Deuteronomy,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 317.

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