by John M. Riddle, England
In his inimitable way, Mackintosh points out that “the last words of the lawgiver were words of unmingled blessing … We have meditated upon the marvellous song, with its mingled notes of grace and government: but we are now called to hearken to words of most precious benediction, words of sweetest comfort and consolation, words flowing from the very heart of the God of Israel and giving His own loving thoughts respecting them, and His onlook into their glorious future”1. It would be difficult to find a better introduction to this chapter than that!
- 1. Mackintosh, C.H. “Genesis to Deuteronomy – Notes on the Pentateuch”. Loizeaux Brothers, New Jersey, 1972.
Brown points out that “Moses’ final words in these concluding chapters are so superbly balanced. The song in chapter 32 is intentionally severe as it emphasises its stark truth with reiterated warnings. The message in chapter 33 is more personal, expounded with warmth and compassionate understanding. Both aspects are necessary; it is not always easy for God’s messengers to maintain the necessary balance”2. Deuteronomy chapter 33 may be divided as follows:
- The Lord’s past care for them – vv.1-5
- The Lord’s present purpose for them – vv.6-25
- The Lord’s future blessing upon them – vv.26-29
- 2. Brown, R. “The Bible Speaks Today – The Message of Deuteronomy”. Inter-Varsity Press, England, 1993.
Israel was about to cross the Jordan and claim their God-given inheritance. It was not a case of negotiating the river and then fanning out to colonise the land at leisure. Possession of Canaan required a determined campaign against strong opposition, and for all the people knew, nothing had changed since their spies reconnoitered the land some forty years previously: “the people be strong that dwell in the land, and the cities are walled, and very great” Num.13.28. Moreover, the man who had led them for those forty years was about to leave them. In human terms, the future looked rather uncertain. Therefore, Moses calls upon the people to remember the Lord’s power and provision for them in the past. Brown puts it like this: “At a time when the natural preoccupation of the tribes was to look ahead to a threatening future, here is a deliberate act of ‘looking back’ to a treasured past”3. Moses’ brief review of past events centres on the unchanging God, of Whom he is later to say, “The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms” Deut.33.27. Israel would cross the Jordan without Moses, but they would not embark on the journey without God.
- 3. Brown, R., ibid.
The blessing of Moses, “the man of God” v.1, therefore, commences by calling upon the entire nation to remember:
- How the Lord led them – v.2
- How the Lord loved them – vv.3-5
Moses is the first to be called “the man of God”. Compare, for example, 1Sam.9.6; 1Kgs.12.22; 1Kgs.17.18; 2Kgs.4.7; Jer.35.4; 1Tim.6.11.
How the Lord Led Them – v.2
“And he said, ‘The Lord came from Sinai, and rose up from Seir unto them; He shined forth from mount Paran, and He came with ten thousands of saints: from His right hand went a fiery law for them.’” We should notice at least three things here:
The Places to Which He Took Them
Sinai, Seir and Paran all play a significant part in Israel’s history:
It was at Sinai that the Lord said, “Now therefore, if ye will obey My voice indeed and keep My covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto Me above all people”, to which “all the people answered together, and said, ‘All that the Lord hath spoken we will do’” Ex.19.5-8. It was there that “Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet with God” Ex.19.17, and it was there that the commandments, Ex.20.1-17, and the “judgments” Ex.21.1, were given. However, that was not all. The words “The Lord came from Sinai” indicate that, having given them His Word, He went with them on the journey. While believers today “are not come unto the mount that might be touched” Heb.12.18, they are not any the less in relationship with God, subject to His Word, and in the enjoyment of His presence.
It is not without significance that we are told that “there are eleven days’ journey from Horeb by the way of mount Seir unto Kadesh-barnea” Deut.1.2. According to Gesenius4, the verb ‘to rise’ here in Deut.33.2 (“rose up” A.V.), means ‘to scatter rays’ and is used in connection with the sun. Therefore, the phrase “rose up from Seir unto them” could indicate the way in which the Lord illuminated the path of His people through difficult and dangerous territory.
- 4. Gesenius. “Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament”.
It was at Paran that the guiding cloud first stopped after Israel left Sinai. “And the children of Israel took their journeys out of the wilderness of Sinai; and the cloud rested in the wilderness of Paran” Num.10.12. Gesenius5 explains that the verb “shined” (“He shined forth from mount Paran”) means ‘to give light, to be bright’ and is “especially used of Jehovah as appearing in very bright light”.
- 5. Ibid.
In summary, all three places are connected with the presence and guidance of God, reminding us that “He hath said, ‘I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee’” Heb.13.5. The Lord’s people can say, “Thou compassest my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways” Ps.139.3.
The Power Which He Exercised for Them
“He came with ten thousands of saints.” This evidently refers to the presence of angels: “The chariots of God are twenty thousand, even thousands of angels: the Lord is among them, as in Sinai, in the holy place” Ps.68.17. Brown calls this, “God coming … escorted by angels in triumphant procession”6, reminding us that He is “the Lord of hosts” Who “doeth according to His will in the army of heaven” Dan.4.35. While we are told that the literal translation is “He came from the ten thousands of holy ones” R.V.; see also J.N.D., there can be little doubt that the Authorised Version gives the sense of the words, and this is corroborated by the rendering “with holy myriads” J.N.D. margin. Compare Dan.7.10.
- 6. Brown, R., ibid.
The Provision Which He Made for Them
“From His right hand went a fiery law for them” or “fire to guide them” J.N.D. margin. According to Coates, “this is probably an allusion to the pillar of fire which gave them light”7. The guidance given to His people in this way, described as “a fiery law for them”, was in no way weak or uncertain. The expression “His right hand” signifies power: “Thy right hand, O Lord, is become glorious in power” Ex.15.6. The movements of Israel in the wilderness were governed by the movements of the cloud by day and the fire by night, Num.9.15-23, and while we do not look for such visible phenomena today, we do have the sure and reliable Word of God to guide us as “strangers and pilgrims” in the world, 1Pet.2.11.
- 7. Coates, C.A. “An Outline of the Book of Deuteronomy”. Stow Hill Bible and Tract Depot, London, undated.
How the Lord Loved Them – vv.3-5
These beautiful verses emphasise that the Lord led His people because He loved them. In fact, His love secured immeasurable blessings for them, and we should notice:
The Sovereignty of His Love
“Yea, He loved the people [or ‘tribes’ J.N.D. margin]” v.3. On a technical note, the word “people” is plural, and this normally indicates the Gentile nations. However, the context demands another explanation, and this is given above.
God’s love for His people is not explained. Love is its own motive: “The Lord did not set His love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people: but because the Lord loved you” Deut.7.7,8. There was nothing transient about God’s love for His people: He loved them “with an everlasting love” Jer.31.3. This is emphasised in the New Testament: having said, “For whom He did foreknow … predestinate … called … justified … glorified”, Paul exclaimed, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?”, and continued by saying that nothing “shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” Rom.8.29-39. Having given thanks to God for the believers at Thessalonica, and assured them of his prayers, Paul reminds them of the love that brought about their election: “knowing, brethren beloved by God, your election” 1Thess.1.4, J.N.D.
Jude does not say, “Keep yourselves in the love of God” v.21, without good reason. Failure to do so will be followed by inevitable spiritual decline. At the end of the Old Testament, God’s people doubted His love, Mal.1.2, and the results of this are described as the Book of Malachi proceeds. At the end of the New Testament, the Lord Jesus had to say to the church at Ephesus, “I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love” Rev.2.4. An assembly that has lost its passion for Christ has lost the reason to exist.
The Safety of His Hand
“All His saints are in Thy hand.” As Brown rightly observes, “Though in the Old Testament holy ones [‘saints’ A.V.] is used both of angels and of the Lord’s people, the context makes it clear that the latter are in view here.”8 Centuries later, Jeremiah was commanded to remind God’s people of their early love and devotion to the Lord: “I remember thee, the kindness of thy youth, the love of thine espousals, when thou wentest after Me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown”, with this result: “Israel was holiness unto the Lord, and the firstfruits of His increase” Jer.2.2,3. There can be no holiness without love for the Lord. We all do well to remember the injunction: “But as He which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; because it is written, ‘Be ye holy; for I am holy’” 1Pet.1.15,16.
- 8. Brown, R., ibid.
Those lives which have been consecrated to the Lord are His special care. The Israelites could fear that they might fall into the hands of the Canaanites but, however difficult the way ahead, God had promised to keep them safe in His strong hand. How glad we are that the Saviour said, “I give unto them [His sheep] eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of My hand. My Father, which gave them Me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of My Father’s hand” Jn.10.28,29. David fed God’s people “according to the integrity of his heart; and guided them by the skilfulness of his hands” Ps.78.72. How much more so “the Good Shepherd”!
The Submission at His Feet
“They sat down at Thy feet” v.3. This is not the usual Old Testament word for sitting: according to Gesenius it signifies ‘to lie down’, and he translates, “and they lay down at Thy feet” with the explanation “at the foot of mount Sinai”9. One thing is very clear: by sitting or lying at His feet, the people were in a position to receive instruction: “they sat down at Thy feet; every one shall receive of Thy words”. The “waywardness and willfulness which marked Israel according to flesh”10 is conspicuously absent here! More than that, we learn from this the necessity for quietness and calm if we are to hear the Lord’s voice. The hustle and bustle of life must not be allowed to crowd out our fellowship and communion with Him.
- 9. Gesenius, ibid.
- 10. Coates, C.A., ibid.
This was the place of Mary: she “sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard His word” Lk.10.39. It has often been pointed out that Mary is found at the feet of the Lord Jesus on three occasions. Here, she “sat at Jesus’ feet” and was instructed by Him; in Jn.11.32, she “fell down at His feet” in sorrow; in Jn.12.3, she “anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair”. Mary learned, wept, and worshipped at His feet. Saul of Tarsus, as he was at that time, was “brought up in this city [Jerusalem] at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers” Acts 22.3, but Mary “sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard His word”. Now that is education of the highest order! While the context of Isa.30.7 requires a particular explanation, it is nevertheless generally true that our “strength is to sit still”.
The Sufficiency of His Word
“Every one shall receive of Thy words” v.3, or “Each receiveth of Thy words” J.N.D. The Word of God is addressed to all God’s people and at the same time it is sufficient for each one personally. His “divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness” 2Pet.1.3, and the “all things” includes His Word, which is “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works” 2Tim.3.16,17. It is significant that the law commanded by Moses is called “the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob” v.4. Jeremiah found this inheritance very sweet: “Thy words were found [probably referring to ‘the words of this book that is found’ 2Kgs.22.13], and I did eat them; and Thy word was unto me the joy and rejoicing of mine heart” Jer.15.16.
The Strength of His Rule
“And he was king in Jeshurun, when the heads of the people and the tribes of Israel were gathered together” v.5. Solomon said, “Where the word of a king is, there is power: and who may say unto him, ‘What doest thou?’” Eccl.8.4. Jeshurun, Deut.32.15; 33.26, or Jesurun, Isa.44.2, is generally taken to mean ‘the upright one’, although some prefer ‘beloved of Jehovah’. The name “Jeshurun” anticipates the ultimate uprightness of the nation. While Brown states that “the portrait is of God as Israel’s king”,11 it seems more likely that it is actually Moses who is described in this way, but this does not obscure the fact that he exercised Divinely-given authority. The gathered people recognised that Moses ruled for God, and it is important today that assemblies should recognise the authority of their elders. In 1Thess.5.12,13 we read, “And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labour among you, and are over you [take the lead among you] in the Lord, and admonish you; and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake”; in Heb.13.17 we are exhorted to “obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you”. It needs to be said that elders should have the moral right to be acknowledged in this way. The word “rule” Heb.13.17, means ‘to lead’, and this is not always conspicuous in those who claim eldership.
- 11. Brown, R., ibid.
On a technical note, it has been suggested that the words, “Moses commanded us a law, even the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob” v.4, are “evidently not what Moses said, but an explanatory parenthesis, inserted by the writer, who was probably Joshua”12. If this is the case, then the same suggestion would apply to v.5.
- 12. Ellicott, C.J., New Testament Commentary.
In His love for Israel, the Lord had made abundant provision for them in the past. Moses now turns to the blessings that the Lord intended for the various tribes. They could listen to him with the confidence that the God Who had not failed them in the past was perfectly able to achieve His purposes for them, tribe by tribe.
- His love in times past forbids me to think
- He’ll leave me at last in ruin to sink.
- Each sweet Ebenezer I hold in review,
- Confirms His good pleasure to see me right through.
- (John Newton)
It is noteworthy that, unlike the parting blessing by Jacob, no reference is made here to family failure. While Jacob’s final words are described as his “blessing” Gen.49.28, they are equally a prophecy, and outline Israel’s future: “And Jacob called unto his sons, and said, ‘Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you that which shall befall you in the last days’” Gen.49.1. This accounts for the fact that Jacob does not always follow the order of their birth in pronouncing his blessing upon them. He knew that his family (“the children of Israel”) would be marked by “human failure, infirmity, and sin”13, hence he refers to the evil conduct of Reuben, Simeon and Levi. He also knew that, ultimately, his children would be supremely blessed and utterly triumphant, hence the way in which he concludes with reference to Joseph and Benjamin.
- 13. Mackintosh, C.H., ibid.
Joseph had already discovered that his father was a prophet. While Jacob’s “eyes … were dim for age, so that he could not see” Gen.48.10, his prophetic vision was unimpaired: “I know it, my son, I know it: he also [Manasseh] shall become a people, and he also shall be great; but truly his younger brother [Ephraim] shall be greater than he” Gen.48.19.
Apart from the fact that Reuben is mentioned first, the order in which Moses refers to the tribes in this chapter bears no relation to their order of birth, but this does not mean that his mind was wandering! He was evidently in full command of his faculties. Even at “an hundred and twenty years old … his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated” Deut.34.7. The sequence in which he refers to his sons strongly suggests spiritual order and development. The following verses certainly do not describe the tribes as they were naturally. Israel had caused Moses a perpetual headache. Just listen to what he said about them earlier: “I know thy rebellion, and thy stiff neck: behold, while I am yet alive with you this day, ye have been rebellious against the Lord; and how much more after my death?’’ Deut.31.27. However, now there is not the slightest hint of criticism or censure. On the contrary, what follows is a statement of God’s purpose for His people, which He will achieve, Deut.33.28,29.
Reuben – v.6
“Let Reuben live and not die; and let not his men be few.” No mention is made of Reuben’s instability, and no reference is made to his sin, Gen.49.4. While it could be said that the blessings of the tribes therefore begin with the possession of life, it is more likely that the emphasis is on continuity. Attempts have been made to extinguish the Jewish nation. Haman attempted to do this in the days of Esther, and it is not without significance that in “the dark days before their deaths, Jewish inmates of Auschwitz, Dachau, Treblinka and Bergen-Belsen wrote the book of Esther from memory, and read it secretly on Purim” (R.Gordis, “Megillat Esther”, quoted by E.M. Yamauchi in “Bibliotheca Sacra”, April-June 1980).
The words “and let not his men be few” are not easily understood, even when the italicised “not” is omitted (see J.N.D.). Various explanations have been given, but perhaps “let his men be of number” J.N.D. margin, is helpful. According to Coates, it means “each one is taken account of; none are lost in a crowd”.14
- 14. Coates, C.A., ibid.
Leaving aside this technical difficulty, the overall meaning is clear. God’s people were about to enter Canaan, where they would face superior numbers with superior fire-power, but they would emerge victoriously. At the end-time, they will face “the dragon” with all his fearful power, Rev.12.13, but the nation will “live and not die” Deut.33.6. Let us take courage from this: the Lord Jesus said, “I will build My church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” Matt.16.18.
Judah – v.7
The assurance of continuity is followed by the assurance of victory: “Hear, Lord, the voice of Judah, and bring him unto his people: let his hands be sufficient for him; and be Thou an help to him from his enemies [‘against his oppressors’ J.N.D.]”. Judah is given first place on several occasions in the Bible, for example, Num.7.12; 10.14; Judg.1.1,2; Rev.7.5. It has been suggested that “the voice of Judah” is heard in prayer, but Judah does mean ‘praise’, and it is worth saying that miserable people are not likely to make good leaders!
Whilst no reference is made here to the monarchy, Judah was the royal tribe, Gen.49.10, and the Lord Jesus is “the Lion of the tribe of Juda” Rev.5.5. Israel will triumph over all her enemies through Him, and believers today can say, “we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us” Rom.8.37. Very clearly, continuity of testimony (as in Reuben) involves conflict (as in Judah).
It is noticeable that Moses makes no reference to Simeon. We do know, although it is not mentioned here, that, whilst Simeon and Levi were united in “cruelty … anger … selfwill” Gen.49.5-7, it was only Levi who responded to the call, “Who is on the Lord’s side? let him come unto me” Ex.32.26-29. As Mackintosh observes, “Where was Simeon on this occasion? He was with Levi in the days of nature’s self-will, fierce anger, and cruel wrath; why not in the day of bold decision for Jehovah?”15 Perhaps one possible explanation is that the omission of Simeon here is to emphasise the grace of God. He does not raise the question of Simeon’s failure.
- 15. Mackintosh, C.H., ibid.
Levi – vv.8-11
If continuity (Reuben) involves conflict (Judah), then the Lord’s people must ensure that they are in priestly fellowship with God. Without this, all is lost. This is now emphasised. At least three things should be noted here:
Priesthood Is Involved in Guidance
“And of Levi he said, ‘Let Thy Thummin and Thy Urim be with Thy holy one’” v.8. It is generally presumed that the Urim and Thummim were two stones, but this is not actually stated in the Bible. They were certainly used, in some way not clearly expressed, to ascertain God’s will in particular cases, Num.27.21; 1Sam.28.6; Ezra 2.63. It does seem that the high priest placed his hand on them, hence “Withdraw thine hand” 1Sam.14.19. Israel was guided by God through the Urim and Thummim, but He guides us through His Word. This involves fellowship and communion with Him.
Priesthood Is Involved in Instruction
It should be carefully noted that the men who “shall teach Jacob Thy judgments, and Israel Thy law” v.10, were men who had been faithful to God. They had been ‘proved’ at Massah and Meribah, v.8. The allusion to Massah and Meribah is not clear. There is no reference to Levi in Ex.17.1-7 and Num.20.1-13. As Thompson observes, “The present verse suggests that the tribe of Levi may have been approved on these occasions, and some writers have conjectured that they may have acted as they did at Horeb, Ex.32.25-29, or at Shittim in reference to Baal of Peor, Num.25.1-9”16. Reference is made very clearly to Horeb in v.9.
- 16. Thompson, J.A., “Deuteronomy, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries.”
It is most important that men who teach in assemblies should be in touch with God. The Old Testament refers to “teaching priest” 2Chr.15.3, and it was evidently the will of God that the priests should instruct the people: “the priest’s lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts” Mal.2.7. Bible teachers should be priestly men!
Priesthood Is Involved in Worship
They shall put incense before Thee, and whole burnt sacrifice upon Thine altar” v.10. This is quite self-explanatory. But are we functioning in this way? The New Testament describes believers as “an holy priesthood” whose ministry is to “offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ” 1Pet.2.5.
Divine blessing certainly rests upon those who act in this way, v.11, and while we would not use the imprecatory language in the latter part of this verse today (“Smite through the loins of them that rise against him”), rebellion against Divine order is most serious, whatever the dispensation.
Benjamin – v.12
“The beloved of the Lord shall dwell in safety by Him; and the Lord shall cover him all the day long, and he shall dwell between His shoulders.” This indicates the blessing of those who are in the enjoyment of priestly fellowship with God. Brown puts it nicely: “The tribe of Benjamin was never large, Ps.68.27, but they were beloved of the Lord. Despite their limited numbers and resources they could rely upon His support in difficult times, for the Lord shields and protects those who feel weak, inadequate or outnumbered. The one whom the Lord loves rests between His shoulders. God carries His children”17. The Lord had already helped His people in this way, Deut.1.31. In Scripture, the shoulders suggest strength, and it is significant that in the parable of the lost sheep, Lk.15.3-7, the man places it “on his shoulders”. Two shoulders were employed in the welfare of the lost sheep, but only one shoulder in the government of the universe, Isa.9.6. The security of the sinner demands infinitely more of the Lord Jesus than the government of the universe!
- 17. Brown, R., ibid.
Joseph – vv.13-17
The people described in the blessings bestowed upon Reuben, Judah, Levi and Benjamin have a marvellous inheritance! They enjoy fruitfulness and strength. Joseph was given the position of Jacob’s firstborn son, 1Chr.5.1,2. As such he had a double portion of his father’s inheritance and is therefore usually represented in the tribal listings by his sons Ephraim and Manasseh.
The Fruitfulness of His Inheritance – vv.13-16
It all comes from the Lord: “Blessed of the Lord be his land, for the precious things of heaven, for the dew, and for the deep that coucheth beneath” v.13. According to Gesenius, the word “deep” here refers to ‘waters making a noise’18. We would say ‘springs of water’. The blessing continues with reference to the “precious fruits brought forth by the sun, and for the precious things put forth by the moon” v.14. Thompson explains that “the sun and moon are connected with the seasons, and so are thought of as influencing the seasonal crops”19. Even the mountains and hills are productive, let alone “the earth and fulness thereof” vv.15,16. God’s people had an inheritance in which everything came from Him. They were totally dependent upon Him. It has been pointed out that the Hebrew word meged (translated “precious”) is used five times in these verses: it denotes “that which is of the highest quality”20. There is nothing miserly about God!
- 18. Gesenius, ibid.
- 19. Thompson, J.A., ibid.
- 20. Brown, R., ibid.
It is so today: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places [‘in the heavenlies’] in Christ” Eph.1.3. The “spiritual blessings” are enumerated in the verses that follow: “chosen in Him … predestinated … accepted in the beloved … redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins” vv.4-7. We might well exclaim, “Blessed of the Lord be his land”!
We cannot leave these verses without noticing that at this point Moses interjects something from his own experience: “And let the good will of Him that dwelt in the bush come upon the head of Joseph, upon the top of the head of him that was separated from his brethren” v.16, J.N.D. It was at the burning bush that Moses heard the Lord say, “I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey” Ex.3.8. God had been faithful: Israel now stood on the verge of that “good land” that He had promised them. While we think of Joseph as “separated from his brethren” in the sense of being rejected by them and sold into slavery, Gen.37.26-28, the meaning actually lies in another direction. The word “separated” means ‘consecrated’21 and is usually translated “Nazarite”, for example, Num.6.2,13,18-21; Judg.13.5,7; 16.17. Therefore, the section ends with a notably consecrated man enjoying a rich inheritance.
- 21. Gesenius, ibid.
The Strength of the Inheritor – v.17
“His glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns: with them he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth: and they are the ten thousands of Ephraim, and they are the thousands of Manasseh.” The term “thousands … as in many places of the Old Testament, denotes a military grouping”22. As Brown points out, “agricultural prosperity will be useless unless it is accompanied by military strength. The tribe must have the horns of a wild ox if they are to protect and preserve their abundant crops … God would give them the power to resist their enemies as well as the strength to gather their crops”23. In New Testament language, “for we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places”. We therefore need “the whole armour of God” in order to “be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand” Eph.6.12,13. If not, we will cease to enjoy our inheritance.
- 22. Thompson, J.A., ibid.
- 23. Brown, R., ibid.
Zebulun and Issachar – vv.18,19
Coates puts it rather nicely in saying, “With such moral conditions, and such a wealth of spiritual blessing, as we have seen in Reuben, Judah, Levi, Benjamin and Joseph, there is a fine basis for evangelical activity, and this is set forth in Zebulun and Issachar”24. Both tribes are called upon to rejoice, Zebulun “in [his] going out”, and Issachar “in [his] tents”, and both tribes were involved in calling “the people unto the mountain”. Paul expresses his joy in serving the Lord as follows: “For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of His Son …” Rom.1.9. His service (his “going out”) was permeated with intense devotion; it was far more than a servant doing a job. There was no resentment or complaint. He served gladly and willingly. If the gospel preacher and the evangelist are to serve with joy, then the local assembly ought to be a place where visitors are welcomed by rejoicing Christians. There can be nothing worse than an assembly which is cold, unfeeling and unwelcoming, or, to put it bluntly, ‘dead as a doornail’. In any case, an assembly that does not “call the people unto the mountain” does not have a very bright future.
- 24. Coates, C.A., ibid.
Do notice the two things that would occupy the people who respond to the call: they find fellowship with those who “offer sacrifices of righteousness [not idolatrous sacrifices]: for they shall suck of the abundance of the seas, and of treasures hid in the sand”. In the first place, the Lord receives their worship (“they shall offer sacrifices of righteousness”), and in the second, they are maintained and sustained by drawing on “the abundance of the seas, and of treasures hid in the sand”. As Mackintosh observes so well: “Thus it is always in principle. It is our privilege to rejoice in the Lord, come what may, and to draw from those eternal springs and hidden treasures that are to be found in Himself”25.
- 25. Mackintosh, C.H., ibid.
It is always worth asking, “How would the tribes themselves understand the words of Moses?” In this case, “new forms of trade and commerce will be open to them; with convenient access to sea and lake, they can engage in fishing, and develop skills in the manufacture of dyes (from shell fish) and glass-work (from sand)”26. Zebulun is certainly connected with the sea, Gen.49.13, and Thompson suggests that “it is not impossible that Zebulun and Issachar provided transit areas for the products of the sea without being actually on the seashore”27.
- 26. Brown, R., ibid.
- 27. Thompson, J.A., ibid.
Gad – vv.20,21
The territory allocated to Gad lay on the east side of Jordan. The blessing on the tribe commences with the words, “Blessed be he that enlargeth Gad”! It could therefore be said that the result of calling “the people unto the mountain” with their subsequent involvement in worship and enjoyment of God’s rich provision, v.19, is enlargement. Every assembly ought to have this in mind. We say that “numbers are not everything”, but this hackneyed expression can disguise lack of gospel enterprise.
Moses describes the strength of Gad: “He dwelleth as a lion, and teareth the arm with the crown of the head”. He continues by recording the fact that the Gadites were not selfish in their enjoyment of their inheritance, but honoured the command of “the lawgiver” (Moses) by agreeing to support their brethren in the conquest of Canaan (“he came with the heads of the people, he executed the justice of the Lord, and his judgments with Israel”). Read Num.32.1-33 and notice that when the time came to enter Canaan (this was still future when Moses was speaking), Gad and his colleagues were as good as their word, Josh.1.10-18, for which they were duly commended, Josh.22.1-3. This reminds us that another result of calling “the people unto the mountain” and its sequel, is fellowship in combating the enemy. The presence of Gad and his east-Jordan colleagues in the battles for Canaan reminds us of Paul’s desire for the assembly at Philippi: “stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel” Phil.1.27.
Dan – v.22
“And of Dan he said, ‘Dan is a lion’s whelp: he shall leap from Bashan.’” Bearing in mind that Gad is described as “a lion” v.20, it can be said, by way of application, that involvement in spiritual conflict requires strength akin to that of a fearless and energetic young lion. Such strength is promised to Dan and to us. We can be and ought to be “strong in the Lord, and in the power of His might” Eph.6.10. But we still have to explain the connection between Dan and Bashan, since there does not appear to be any historical link between them. Dan’s territory, either originally or later, was not located on the east of Jordan. Leaving aside, of course, attempts to alter the text, perhaps the best explanation is given in the commentary by Jamieson, Fausset and Brown: “His proper settlement in the south of Canaan being too small, he by a sudden and successful irruption, established a colony in the northern extremity of the land. This might well be described as the leap of a young lion from the hills of Bashan.”28
- 28. Jamieson, R., Fausset, A.R., Brown, D. “Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible”. 1871.
Naphtali – v.23
The portion of Naphtali reminds us that while we are a warring people like Gad and Dan, we are at the same time a people who have acquired a rich inheritance, which the Lord intends us to enjoy to the full: “And of Naphali he said, ‘O Naphtali, satisfied with favour, and full with the blessing of the Lord: possess thou the west and the south’”. As Coates points out, the words “satisfied … full … possess” convey “a great deal more than having title”29. There is a big difference between familiarity with Bible teaching about our blessings in Christ, Eph.1.3-14, and the enjoyment of them day by day. Jeremiah was a man who enjoyed what he knew: “Thy words were found, and I did eat them; and Thy word was unto me the joy and rejoicing of mine heart” Jer.15.16. It has been said that “the west” is the direction from which the rain came: the “showers of blessing” came from the west, Lk.12.54, and the south is the place of warmth. Achsah had “a south land” as an inheritance, Judg.1.15. Our inheritance is warm with the love of God.
- 29. Coates, C.A., ibid.
Asher – vv.24,25
The final blessing appears to be all-embracing, and it could be said that the words of Moses here describe the result of all that has already been said.
Firstly, assurance for the future: “Let Asher be blessed with children [‘sons’ J.N.D.]”, reminding us that every assembly ought to pray with Rachel, “Give me children, or else I die” Gen.30.1.
Secondly, good relationships: “Let him be acceptable to his brethren”, reminding us that every assembly ought to be a place of which it can be said, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” Ps.133.1.
Thirdly, excellent productivity: “let him dip his foot in oil”, referring to the olive groves. The men of Asher would have understood Moses perfectly since the Galilean highlands (which included part of Asher) were famous for olives. According to Thompson, one of the Jewish Midrashim30 contains the saying, “It is easier to raise a legion of olives in Galilee than to bring up a child in Palestine”31. This reminds us that the “fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace …” Gal.5.22. Coates has an excellent piece here: “A man with his foot dipped in oil will move amongst the brethren in ‘kindness, goodness, fidelity, meekness, self-control’ Gal.5.22,23, J.N.D.”32
- 30. A Midrash is an early Judaic interpretation of or commentary on Scripture.
- 31. Thompson, J.A., ibid.
- 32. Coates, C.A., ibid.
Fourthly, strong security: “Thy shoes shall be iron and brass” or “Iron and brass shall be thy bolts” J.N.D. (According to Thompson33 the word minal means both ‘sandal’ and ‘lock’ or ‘bolt’). Bearing in mind that Asher stretched along the coast from Acre to Tyre and was on the highway by which invaders entered Palestine, strong fortifications were necessary. In other words, a fairly strong case can be made for “bolts”!
- 33. Thompson, J.A., ibid.
Fifthly, unbroken rest: “as thy days, so shall thy strength [‘rest’ J.N.D.] be”. This is a fitting conclusion to the section. Rest is a prominent and characteristic feature of the inheritance, and Moses had said, “ye are not as yet come to the rest and to the inheritance, which the Lord your God giveth you” Deut.12.9. Although it was the Lord’s desire then for His earthly people to enjoy rest in Canaan, this lies still in the future, but every believer rejoices in the Saviour’s words, “Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest … ye shall find rest unto your souls” Matt.11.28,29.
In these delightful verses Moses bursts into praise as he contemplates the ways and purposes of God. Centuries later, having pondered the incomparable mercy of God toward Jew and Gentile, Paul does the same: “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out!” Rom.11.33.
It could be said that Moses makes two major statements: the Lord is unique, vv.26-28 (“There is none like unto the God of Jeshurun” v.26) and the Lord’s people are unique, v.29 (“who is like unto thee, O people saved by the Lord …!”).
In describing the way in which the Lord comes to the aid of His people, Moses refers to His “help” and to His “excellency” v.26, and in describing the benefit that His people receive, Moses refers again to the Lord as their “help” and their “excellency” v.29. In relation to Israel’s enemies, the Lord would act on their behalf: “He shall thrust out the enemy from before thee” v.27, enabling His people to overcome them: “thine enemies shall be found liars unto thee; and thou shalt tread upon their high places” v.29.
The Lord Is Unique – vv.26-28
“There is none like unto the God of Jeshurun, who rideth upon the heaven in thy help, and in His excellency on the sky. The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms: and He shall thrust out the enemy from before thee; and shall say, ‘Destroy them.’”
The Lord is described as “the God of Jeshurun” v.26 and “the eternal God” v.27.
“The God of Jeshurun” – v.26
As already noted, Jeshurun is generally taken to mean ‘the upright one’, although some prefer ‘beloved of Jehovah’. On the basis of the former meaning, as we have said, the name “Jeshurun” anticipates the ultimate uprightness of the nation and therefore refers to their unassailable position in the will of God, although alas this has not been reflected thus far in their history. The purpose of God for His people is emphasised in the prophecy of Isaiah, where Jeshurun occurs as Jesurun: “Yet now hear, O Jacob My servant; and Israel, whom I have chosen: Thus saith the Lord that made thee, and formed thee from the womb, which will help thee; Fear not, O Jacob, My servant; and thou, Jesurun, whom I have chosen” Isa.44.1,2. The combination of “Jacob” and “Israel”, and “Jacob” and “Jesurun”, points to God’s settled purpose for the nation. Like their ancestor, they will bear the name “Israel” in reality: “Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God, and with men, and hast prevailed” Gen.32.28. They will also bear the name “Jesurun” in reality: “Thy people also shall be all righteous: they shall inherit the land for ever, the branch of My planting, the work of My hands, that I may be glorified” Isa.60.21.
Under Divine constraint, Balaam was obliged to say, “He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath He seen perverseness in Israel” Num.23.21, and God has never lost sight of His object in choosing Israel, even though they were totally unworthy of such a calling. Having recalled Israel’s abundant blessings, Moses was obliged to say, “But Jeshurun waxed fat, and kicked: thou art waxen fat, thou art grown thick, thou art covered with fatness: then he forsook God which made him, and lightly esteemed the Rock of his salvation” Deut.32.15. However, “the God of Jeshurun” will achieve His purpose: having purged His people, leaving “in the midst of thee an afflicted and poor people” who will “trust in the name of the Lord”, they will become “Jeshurun” in truth: “The remnant of Israel shall not do iniquity, nor speak lies; neither shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouth: for they shall feed and lie down, and none shall make them afraid” Zeph.3.12,13.
This is an eloquent reminder of the New Testament exhortation, “walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called” Eph.4.1. This has been conspicuously absent in the case of Israel, but as those who are “in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption” 1Cor.1.30, we must “adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour in all things” Titus 2.10.
“The God of Jeshurun” is not “a detached and distant deity”34: He “rideth upon the heaven in thy help, and in His excellency on the sky” Deut.33.26. According to Gesenius35 the word “excellency” means ‘magnificence’ or ‘majesty’. This striking statement combines His majesty and power with His care and concern for His people. David calls upon Israel to “extol Him that rideth upon the heavens” Ps.68.4, and another unnamed Psalmist calls upon his own soul to “bless the Lord … who maketh the clouds His chariot: who walketh upon the wings of the wind” Ps.104.1-3. There can be no doubt that this was particularly meaningful at the time when Israel was poised to invade Canaan and during the subsequent conquest of the land. There is no doubt either that it has relevance to the end-time when, at the very moment of apparent defeat, the Lord shall “go forth, and fight against those nations, as when He fought in the day of battle. And His feet shall stand in that day upon the mount of Olives” Zech.14.3,4.
- 34. Brown, R., ibid.
- 35. Gesenius, ibid.
How encouraging to remember as well that He is not ‘a detached and distant deity’ so far as we are concerned! Paul testified to this in saying, “At my first answer no man stood with me, but all men forsook me … Notwithstanding the Lord stood with me, and strengthened me; that by me the preaching might be fully known, and that all the Gentiles might hear: and I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion” 2Tim.4.16,17. We can rest in His promise: “I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee” Heb.13.5.
“The eternal God” – v.27
If as “the God of Jeshurun” He comes from above to help His people, then as “the eternal God” He both surrounds His people and stands beneath them with Divine support: “The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms”. This beautiful statement has brought strength and comfort to generations of believers, and we should notice the following:
The Guarantee of His Support: He is “the eternal God”
The undeviating testimony of Scripture is that God is without beginning and without end. He is “the everlasting God” Isa.40.28; Rom.16.26. His name is “from everlasting” Isa.63.16. Moses exclaimed, “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever Thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, Thou art God” Ps.90.2. In the New Testament, He is called “the King eternal” 1Tim.1.17, or “the King of the ages” J.N.D./R.V. margin, reminding us that in His sovereignty He presides over every period both in time and eternity. In short, the title “the eternal God” reminds us that He is always present and will never fail. Indeed, He cannot fail!
The Availability of His Support: “The eternal God is thy refuge”
He is “our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” Ps.46.1. Brown makes the point that “after years in the wilderness, frequently striking their flimsy tents, they will soon encounter well-fortified cities with huge walls and strong gates. Their frail camps would shelter vulnerable, almost defenceless communities”, and asks, “How would they fare?”, with the answer, “The Lord guaranteed His invincible spiritual fortifications”36. Solomon would have entirely agreed: “The name of the Lord is a strong tower: the righteous runneth into it, and is safe” Prov.18.10. Believers today can rightly say, “A glorious high throne from the beginning is the place of our sanctuary” Jer.17.12. When Judah, under Ahaz, sought help from Assyria, Isaiah counselled otherwise: “Sanctify the Lord of hosts Himself; and let Him be your fear, and let Him be your dread. And He shall be for a sanctuary” Isa.8.13,14. The “glorious high throne” to which we resort is elsewhere called “the throne of grace” Heb.4.16, and “the throne of the Majesty in the heavens” Heb.8.1.
- 36. Brown, R., ibid.
The Strength of His Support: “And underneath are the everlasting arms”
The Old Testament has a great deal to say about “the arm [singular] of the Lord”, usually in connection with His ability to deliver His people and to destroy their enemies. But here Moses refers to the “everlasting arms [plural]” of the Lord, emphasising that His support is completely reliable at all times and in every way. His strength is complete. Unlike ourselves, the strength of His arms can never diminish or be diminished: “for the arms of the wicked shall be broken: but the Lord upholdeth the righteous” Ps.37.17. His “everlasting arms” are employed in tender ministry: “He shall gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom” Isa.40.11. He did this when here on earth: “‘Suffer the little children to come unto Me’ … And He took them up in His arms, put His hands upon them, and blessed them” Mk.10.14-16.
With such a God, Israel was assured of victory: “He shall thrust out the enemy from before thee; and shall say, ‘Destroy them.’” v.27. This was certainly fulfilled in the conquest of Canaan, of which it was said, “they got not the land in possession by their own sword, neither did their own arm save them: but Thy right hand, and Thine arm” Ps.44.3. The Lord “thrust out the enemy” from before them. However, Israel was required to fight (“Destroy them”), reminding us that although we are assured of “the power of His might”, we are required to “put on the whole armour of God” in order to “withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand” Eph.6.10-13. At the end-time, Israel will again enjoy Divinely-given victory, and “the governors of Judah … shall devour all the people round about, on the right hand and on the left” Zech.12.6. While “Judah and Israel dwelt safely, every man under his vine and under his fig tree … all the days of Solomon” 1Kgs.4.25, there can be little doubt that Moses anticipated Israel’s Millennial blessings in saying, “Israel then shall dwell in safety alone: the fountain of Jacob shall be upon a land of corn and wine; also His heavens shall drop down dew” Deut.33.28. Compare Jer.23.6: “In His days [when the King reigns] Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely”. The expression “the fountain of Jacob” appears to refer to Jacob’s descendants: “And Israel shall dwell in safety alone, The fountain of Jacob, in a land of corn and new wine” J.N.D. The Revised Version reads similarly. Dew is a symbol of Divine blessing, for example, Hos.14.5.
The Lord’s People Are Unique – v.29
“Happy art thou, O Israel: who is like unto thee, O people saved by the Lord, the shield of thy help, and who is the sword of thy excellency! And thine enemies shall be found liars unto thee; and thou shalt tread upon their high places.” It has been nicely said that “no one was like them because no one was like Him, v.26”37. Israel had every reason to be a happy people. Having cried to the Lord for blessing upon their “sons … daughters … garners … sheep … oxen”, David exclaimed, “Happy is that people, that is in such a case: yea, happy is that people, whose God is the Lord” Ps.144.12-15. Every believer can say, “Happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in the Lord his God” Ps.146.5. We should notice that three reasons are given for the happiness:
- 37. Brown, R., ibid.
The Lord Was Their Saviour: They were “saved by the Lord”.
Like Mary, every believer should be able to say, “my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour” Lk.1.47. He is “God our Saviour” Titus 1.3; 2.10; 3.4. The Lord Jesus is “our Saviour” Titus 1.4; 2.13; 3.6.
The Lord Was Their Shield: He was “the shield of thy help”.
The Psalms abound with references to the Lord as the “shield” of His people, for example, Ps.3.3; 5.12; 28.7; 84.11, and Agur said, “He is a shield unto them that put their trust in Him” Prov.30.5. The Lord protects His people today, not necessarily from physical harm and danger, but from the spiritual harm that Satan and the powers of darkness would endeavour to inflict on the children of God, enabling them to say, “we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us” Rom.8.37.
The Lord Was Their Sword: He was “the sword of thy excellency”
He not only defended His people (“the shield of thy help”), He defeated their enemies. The Midianites discovered that the Lord was the sword of His people when the cry rang out, “The sword of the Lord, and of Gideon”, and “the Lord set every man’s sword against his fellow, even throughout all the host” Judg.7.20-22. His sword has not lost its keen edge, and we must “take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” Eph.6.17.
With the Lord as their salvation, their shield and their sword, Israel could expect victory over their enemies: “And thine enemies shall come cringing to thee; and thou shalt tread upon their high places” J.N.D., reminding us that “the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds” 2Cor.10.4. Our enemies may not come ‘cringing’ to us, but “God … hath highly exalted Him, and given Him a name which is above every name; that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” Phil.2.9-11.