These be the words—this is the opening to a book that has been described as one of the most dramatic in the whole of the Bible. The drama of the book of Deuteronomy focuses on the lone figure of Moses as he delivers his final, moving words to Israel—words which served to remind them of the past—of Yahweh’s constant care for them despite their ingratitude and faithlessness: and words which warned them of the future as they are about to inherit the land promised to their fathers.

Deuteronomy is the title of the book in the Septuagint, meaning “this second law” (from Deuteros, second and nomos, law), taken from the phrase found in chapter 17:18, “And it shall be when he sitteth upon the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write him a copy of this law in a book out of that which is before the priests the Levites…”. Whilst this is not the more correct title, this verse certainly contains a principle we would do well to implement in this far-off time. The simple, practical exercise of regular ‘Bible Marking’ has inestimable value in our daily walk through this ‘wilderness of life’. It is a practice which appears to have seriously declined in recent years and it is to the great detriment of the life of ecclesias and individuals. Let us resolve to take up our pens and physically implement the principle expressed in this passage.

The title of the book as we have it in our English Bible is really expressive of a repetition of principles already stated, but which are now presented to the people to ensure that they were not overlooked. There was a need to remind Israel of the purpose of their call out of Egypt, and the book of Deuteronomy accomplishes that. In the words of Stephen, Israel at that time constituted “the ecclesia (or ‘called out’ community) in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38). Now the time had come to enter their inheritance—“Behold, I have set the land before you: go in and possess the land.…”

The simple expression ha dabarim—“the words”, is the title of the book in the Hebrew Scriptures. “The words” are the last words of Moses spoken in a series of addresses, quite possibly all in one day. That day was the first day of the eleventh month of the fortieth year: it was Moses’ 120th birthday (31:2), and it was also the day when Moses’ work with Israel was to end and he was to be taken up to Mount Nebo to view the land that he could not enter, and then to die (34:7).

From time to time throughout the book we are reminded that Moses is excluded from that promised land as the thought breaks out in his poignant cry—“Yahweh was angry with me for your sakes.” And when the thought is not present in words, it is none-the-less present as inspiration for the passionate appeals and denunciations with which he seeks to make the covenant, of which he has been the giver and interpreter, a power to motivate the people to faithful obedience when he is no longer with them.

During the latter part of April and the beginning of May we read the book of Deuteronomy a chapter or two each day: but there is perhaps no other work in which so much is to be gained by attempting to read the whole at one sitting, before we begin our daily portion. For this exercise some preparation should be made in the way of separating the substance from ‘accessories’ so that one may concentrate only on the speeches and songs of Moses themselves without disturbing the flow. There is a lengthy section containing the book of the covenant, which, important as it is, can well be omitted at the first reading, together with certain other explanatory comments (see breakdown).

The Circumstances—the forty years of wandering had almost ended. The fortieth year had seen many significant events, including the death of Miriam in the first month, the death of Aaron in the fifth month and now the impending death of Moses in the eleventh month.

Events of the Fortieth Year

Israel arrive in Kadesh in the first month Num 20:1

Miriam dies and is buried in Kadesh          Num 20:1

Moses smites the rock in Meribah              Num 20:2–13

Eleazar replaces Aaron as High Priest       Num 20:23–26

Aaron dies in Mt Hor                                     Num 33:38

War with Arad the Canaanite king              Num 21:1

The Brazen Serpent                                        Num 21:4–9

Travelling through wilderness of Moab      Num 21:10–16

Victory over Sihon the Amorite                    Num 21:17–32

Victory over Og, King of Bashan                  Num 21:33–35

Prophecy of Balaam                                        Num 22 to 24

The sin of Baal-Peor                                       Num 25

Census taken of the People and Levites     Num 26

Joshua appointed to replace Moses            Num 27:15–23

Offerings and Feast Days ordained            Num 28 to 30

Conquest of the Midianites                          Num 31

Reuben and Gad inherit East of Jordan    Num32

The borders of the Land detailed               Num 34

Levitical cities designated                           Num 35:1–5

Cities of Refuge appointed                          Num 35:6–34

Moses’ last words—

1st day of 11th month             Deuteronomy

The Locality—the locality is described in detail in  Deuteronomy 1:1. Since it is impossible to identify  many of the places geographically, the importance  of the record must be found in the significance of  the names.

“Wilderness”—midbar, pasture land, from the  root dabar (singular of dabarim, the Hebrew title  of the book) to lead, hence to shepherd. In a natural  sense it is “a place of shepherding and grazing for  flocks; pasture land as distinct from arable land”. In  a spiritual sense, the wilderness of life is therefore  the place of putting things in order by speaking  and leading.

“On this side Jordan”—beyond Jordan, cp  Numbers 35:1 “… and Yahweh spake unto Moses  in the plains of Moab by Jordan”.

“In the plain”—arabah from a root meaning  sterile, dry, waste: the deep depression that stretches  from the Sea of Galilee, south to the Red Sea.

“Over against the Red Sea” – literally, “opposite  to Zuph”: the place of reeds—a fitting symbol of the  land of Egypt, the land of sin and death, from which  both Moses and Israel had been delivered.

Paran”—place of beauty or glory: it will in the  future be the place from which Yahweh’s glory will  commence to shine forth into all the world (Deut  33:2; Hab 3:3).

“Tophel”—quagmire, from a root meaning  frivolity and foolishness: the principle is expressed  by Paul in Ephesians 4:17.

“Laban”—the white place of purity and  righteousness (Isaiah 1:18).

“Hazeroth”—sheepfolds cf John 10:1–10.

“Dizahab”—place of gold: the final outcome of  a life of trial sustained by faith (1 Peter 1:7).

“Horeb”—the place of desolation.

“Mount Seir”—the rough mountain of Edom,  signifying a life of battle against the enemy  (Obadiah).

“Kadesh-barnea”—sanctuary of the wandering  son (Deut 1:19).

Eleven days from Horeb (verse 2) is intended  to stand out in contrast to the statement in verse 3.  Eleven is the number of disintegration and  incompleteness typifying the condition of that  generation that could have made the Promised Land  in eleven days, but took thirty-eight years. They  “wasted away” in the wilderness (Deut 2: 1 4,15) but  the journey was not yet complete until they crossed  the Jordan into the Land itself.

One of Moses’ main purposes in delivering the  discourse of Deuteronomy to the people was to instil  in their hearts a godly fear. For “the fear of Yahweh  is the beginning [lit ‘firstfruits’] of wisdom” (Prov  1:7). Deuteronomy instructs that this fear is induced  by “hearing” (Deut 4:10), “doing” (Deut 5:29),  “keeping” (Deut 6:2), “serving” (Deut 6:13), and  “walking” (Deut 8:6) in the principles of the truth.  The fear of Yahweh, however, is not an inarticulate,  superstitious awe of the unknown, but a respectful,  reverential fear induced by love for the one who has  revealed Himself in his Word, and whose goodness  is experienced in the lives of all His saints. Such a  fear will overcome fear of flesh—therefore, Israel  was given repeated exhortations to “fear not what  man can do”.

The following is a general breakdown of the  book, with the sections listed in bold being those it  is suggested should be read at one sitting.

Analysis of the Book

Introduction and general title 1:1–5

Moses’ First Discourse

—He Announces His Deposition 1:6–4:40

The Cities of Refuge appointed 4:41–43

Preface to the Second Discourse 4:44–49

Moses’ Second Discourse

—Delivery of the Covenant to All Israel 5:1–11:32

The Book of the Covenant 12:1–26:19

Ordinance appointing the ceremony  of blessing and cursing 27:1–8

Rehearsal of the ceremony of  the blessing and cursing 27:9–26

Moses’ Third Discourse

—At the Rehearsal of the Blessing  and Cursing 28:1–68

Moses’ Fourth Discourse

—The Covenant in the Land  of Moab 29:1–31:8

Arrangements for regular  reading of the Covenant 31:9–13

Preface to the Song of Moses 31:14–30

The Song of Moses

—Yahweh our Rock 32:1–43

Colophon to the Song of Moses 32:44–47

Preface to the Last Words of Moses 32:48–52

The Last Words of Moses 33:1–29

The Death of Moses 34:1–12

The Drama of the Book

Let us capture the drama of the occasion. Israel are gathered together in the deep hollow that makes the bed of the Jordan on its eastern side (v1). Moses, standing before them, commences in the calm tone of historic survey as he considers in retrospect, Israel’s faithlessness and Yahweh’s care during the previous forty years (v3). He goes to the central incident of the people’s history—the giving of the Law on Horeb (v6)—and tells how the first movement forward revealed the growing Numbers of the people, so that he could no longer support the burden and strife of so vast a nation (v9,10). “Yahweh Elohim of your fathers make you a thousand times so many more as ye are, and bless you, as he hath promised you!”

Continuing on in this manner of narrative review, appeal, ceremonial and fearful denunciation, we come to the personal tenderness of farewell, the climax of song, and the simple story of the solemn and pathetic departure. The end comes: the whole people understand it, and all are waiting to see their leader set out on his last journey on which none may accompany him. Heads of the tribes stand out from the masses of the people, and line the route by which Moses must pass. The magnificent and moving sight of the whole nation kindles in Moses a vision of a glorious future of which past events were but a dim shadow (33:1–5). Then, passing along the leaders of the tribes, he speaks last words to each. When this is complete, Moses lifts his hands and voice in the final blessing (33:26–29).

From the height of lyric poetry and song, we drop to simple, bare prose: fittest of literary forms to convey the solitary journey from which there is to be no return. The going up to the top of Pisgah; the long gaze over the land of promise; the lonely death; the burial in the sepulchre that no man knoweth. “And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom Yahweh knew face to face, in all the signs and wonders, which Yahweh sent him to do in the land of Egypt to Pharaoh, and to all his servants, and to all his land, and in all that mighty hand, and in all the great terror which Moses shewed in the sight of all Israel” (34:10–12). “… So the days of weeping and mourning for Moses were ended” (34:8).

As we stand on the borders of our inheritance, let us review our journey from Egypt: let us renew our covenant with Yahweh, walking faithfully before Him in loving, reverential fear. Let us resolve to rededicate ourselves in His service, “copying” and rehearsing daily “the words of this law”. For soon the “prophet like unto Moses”—the “greater than Joshua”—will arise and call, “Behold, I have set the land before you: go in and possess the Land….”