A person’s last words provide an unusual amount of insight into their values, affections, and beliefs. As the last words of our Lord manifest His confidence in the efficacy of His cross-work and His reunion with His Father after wrath (Jn. 19:30), Moses’ last words provide valuable insight for fallen men and women on how to live with our covenant God. This sermon was taken from two texts at the end of Deuteronomy, with the first part comprising a kind of application and the second being the narrative upon which it is based.
A. God’s Judgment Executed (32:44-52)
After Abraham, Moses was the most important figure in Jewish culture and life. After all, he provided the Jewish people with their most complete revelation of the character and will of their covenant God up to that point. He delivered the revelation that gave them their religious, cultural, and national identity. He introduced them to the God who saved them from Egypt. And yet, he was a fallen sinner just like them. He was required to cling tightly to every word the Lord revealed to him, and not deviate an iota. Why? Because he was the representative of God to the people, so he had to manifest God’s holiness in a special way. And that was why when he struck the rock instead of speaking to it (Num. 20:8-13; cf. 27:12-14)—a seemingly minor infraction, if we’re honest with ourselves—he was sinning. He was treating God’s words as though they could be selectively obeyed, as though they weren’t tightly binding on him to the letter. His rebellion in this was no different than the rebellion of the people he thundered against, as just as they were put to death over forty years of wandering, Moses would die, too.
Deuteronomy 32 covers the final day of Moses’ life. The judgment has fully and finally come. God had graciously allowed him to stay alive so he could provide guidance and leadership to the children of the wilderness generation, and model for them a godly and humble life (evidenced especially in these final words). But now, it was time for God’s holiness to be manifested. Knowing this, Moses gives his final words to God’s people, telling them two key things they should do and one reason why.
- Take God’s words to heart (v. 46a)
Is this not what Moses failed to do at Meribah? God told him to speak, not strike. Yet God’s Word apparently did not apply to him so completely. There is a bittersweetness to Moses’ words here. He knows from experience what it costs to treat God’s words as though they are optional, or non-authoritative. He warns his beloved people—whose parents’ bodies are strewn along the wilderness for their own rebellion!—“don’t do what I did. Listen to every word He speaks to you. Don’t play with them. Don’t ignore them. Don’t reinterpret or soften or redefine them. God is devastatingly, blindingly, awesomely holy, and He deserves to be obeyed completely.” To take something to heart means to esteem, treasure, allow to impact your thinking, to live in light of, to set your heart upon (Ezekiel 44:5 has the same idea). Those who do this don’t shirk God’s words; they don’t treat them as optional or as up for debate. They do not view the Christian life as a process of negotiation between peers, as Dan Phillips has said. When God says something, assuming it has been properly understood, they believe and obey. They receive them as the final authority, as the source of guidance and direction and radical reorientation of the sinful heart, thinking, and affections. They do not treat them flippantly or indifferently, but love them and hold fast to them as the source of life and blessing.
2. Command your children to observe God’s Law (v. 46b)
“Observe” means to look intently at something with the intent to follow through on or obey it. More generally, it can refer to any careful, intentional watching of something. God uses it when commanding Abraham to keep the covenant (Gen. 17:10), of God’s guarding of Jacob until he returned to the Promised Land (Gen. 28:15), of failing to watch an ox known to gore people (Ex. 21:29), and of the Israelites’ need to revere the Angel of the Lord (Ex. 23:21). Here, Moses is exhorting the people to teach their sons and daughters what he failed to do at Meribah. Isn’t it interesting that an author of Scripture, who was used of God in a way we will never and can never be, was capable of and engaged in such a blatant disregard of God’s revelation? Knowing what this disobedience has cost him, Moses pleads with these people—their own parents casualties of God’s righteous wrath—to teach their children to submit to, love, and cleave to the words Yahweh’s mouth speaks.
The Reason Why
The reason Moses tells them to do these things is because the words God speaks are the life of His people. I believe life here should be taken in its broadest sense; the Word gives spiritual life in regeneration (James 1:18), it sanctifies the new life (Jn. 17:17), it causes the life to flourish and be enriched, as God means it to be (Jn. 10:10), and it also enables that flourishing life to continue as long as possible (Eph. 6:2-3). The Word is as good as our life. If we value its fruitfulness, quality, longevity, and usefulness—as well as our ability to bear fruit for God, and the simple fact that we would be spiritually dead apart from God speaking through the Word—then we must value and honor His Word.
Ephesians 6:2-3 contains an interesting new covenant promise for church saints. That Paul is applying a promise form the Mosaic Covenant to church age believers is itself very noteworthy. But we should note the context of that Mosaic promise to gather the full weight of Paul’s words. The Mosaic Covenant promised tangible, earthly flourishing for obedient believers. Deuteronomy 28 is a clear example of this. It is a mistake to transpose these promises wholesale into new covenant life (as prosperity teachers are wont to do). However, knowing the broader context of the Exodus promise—granting God’s people a unique level of blessing and provision simply because they are set apart as His people, and act like it—is massively encouraging as we make sacrifices to obey the Lord Jesus! For the extension of life should not be taken as a strict statement of mere clinical longevity, as though God is only speaking of numerical extension. Rather, He is promising a truly flourishing life—true prosperity—with a long life in which to enjoy it and use it to glorify Him and bless others. The favor of God, whatever precise form it takes, is far better than any fleeting pleasure offered by sin. Praise God for His kindness in blessing us here as well as for eternity!
B. Moses’ Legacy (34:1-12)
This section deals with Moses’ actual death and the rich legacy he leaves the covenant people.
1. A Land Not Possessed, But Bequeathed (vv. 1-4)
This might be called the Lord’s “no, but.” Moses was refused entrance into the Land, yet God graciously takes him up to the mountain and shows him the Land he will not see until the Millennium. This is not a cruel trick on the part of our God, watching Moses long for something He withholds from him. God knew Moses could accept His will (note Moses does not fight death or challenge God in any way), and that miraculously revealing to him the full breadth of the Land would only cause Moses to rejoice and bless God for His faithfulness to His people. Of course, even under Joshua the entirety of the Land was not yet claimed, as pagan outposts remained which later caused Israel’s downfall through syncretism. But Moses sees the Land as his people will, and he knows shortly they will finally experience the promise of God as His people. He knows the program will go forward, that promises will be realized and God’s plan will advance—and that God is big enough and wise enough to care for Israel without Moses. What a gracious act of our Heavenly Father, to give the repentant rebel what he needs to die in faith and joy!
2. A Name to be Remembered (v. 5)
Further mercy is displayed in Moses’ divine epitaph. The one who dies because of his rebellion is yet called the “servant of Yahweh.” “Servant” is more literally “slave.” It is used of the individual OT worshipper (Ps. 119:140), the covenant community (Ps. 135:1), and the Messiah Himself in His humiliation (Is. 42:1, 49:5). Though the same word is not used, citizens of the eschatological kingdom are said to serve Yahweh and His Messiah (Dan. 7:14). This term as used of Moses contains hints of the imputed righteousness of Christ which is fully revealed in the new covenant. Despite his sin, his sin that requires a very stiff penalty, God does not see Moses as a rebel. He moves the author of this chapter (likely Joshua) under His inspiration to call Moses His slave. That is how God sees Moses. His rebellion does not define him. God’s regenerating call and transforming work to make him what he should be does. And that is how God sees us.
3. A Peculiar Burial (v. 6)
God Himself buried Moses. We aren’t told why, though most commentators surmise it is because of the tendency of the Israelites to make idols out of what were mere tools in God’s hands (the Ark of the Covenant, for example). Here is God’s knowledge of and protection of His people. Moses has just finished blood-earnest pleading with them to obey Yahweh and love His words. Chief among these is the all-encompassing ban on idolatry. Doubtless Moses has been pleading with Yahweh the entire journey up the mountain to guard the people he loves from foolish disobedience. God knows the tendencies of His people. And He answers Moses’ prayer, and protects His people, because He wants to bless them, not judge them as He did to Moses.
4. A Faithful Legatee (vv. 7-12)
A legatee is one who receives a legacy. This is Joshua, who was raised up by God to take Moses’ place and lead the people into the Land. But what is interesting about this section is it points us to the Greater Joshua and the One greater than Moses. Since Moses died no prophet arose in Israel like him, who spoke with God face to face (v. 10). But Moses himself promised a coming Prophet who would speak God’s Word and to whom the people would be held accountable (Deut. 18:15-18). This final section points us to the One who not only speaks the words of God, but is God Himself, come to rescue us from everything that makes us like Moses the rebel and whose blood transforms us into Moses, the joyful slave of the Lord.