Handover (Deuteronomy 31)

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These last few weeks have been slightly peculiar for me.  Anyone who has come to the end of an employment position or even voluntary role will be familiar with this.  I remain employed at the Chapel until the end of the year and part of the eldership. There are lots of things that are happening that need a pastor’s attention and yes as a current member and leader I do have some interest in the development of future vision and plans.  I care deeply about the future of this church family and its witness locally.

Yet increasingly, there is little that I actually can do.  There is no point starting new projects or getting involved in pastoral matters that need longer term input as that will just cause disruption in January.  So my priorities are increasingly turning towards handover. We’ve put together lists of key responsibilities, we’ve identified people to do things and now the main thing will be ensuring that people are comfortable with those responsibilities and saying our goodbyes.

Deuteronomy 31 has that feel to it.  Moses’ time as leader is coming to an end and so there is a hand over to Joshua, to the priests and indeed to the whole people.  The point is this, that the Covenant was not just with Moses as a person or even his generation but was for all the future generations of Israel too.

God’s promises are not just for one or two people or specific special generation at a given time. They are for all generations and all people everywhere. So, as Christians, it is important that even as we know our own time might be short here and even as we are expectant of the Lord’s imminent return that we prepare for the long term of Gospel witness.

V1-6 An old man’s last actions

Moses is now 120 years old.  His life had divided into three parts. The first 40 years were in Egypt, 40 were spent in the Wilderness and then a further 40 leading Israel. He had led the people in his old age.   Now he is increasingly frail and what we would refer to now as “housebound” However he still has a work to do for the Lord.

Additionally, God has told him that he will not pass over into the land with the Israelites due to his expression of frustration and lack of trust at the second occasion when water was brought from a rock.  Israel needed a new leader.

This does not mean that the people will be deserted. They are not going alone. Far more important than Moses’ presence with them was the Lord’s.  He would lead them and fight for them. They would know victories just as they had in the past with Sihon and Og.

A new leader was appointed, Joshua who had in fact served as Moses’ deputy, led the army, remained faithful when the people sinned at Sinai and along with Caleb had been courageous and faithful when the other 10 spies had focused on the negatives in Canaan.

So, the people are urged to go up into the land, following YHWH with Joshua as their leader. They were to show courage and this time not to fear their enemies in the land. They are to do as God had commanded them, a reference to Deuteronomy 7 that required the complete destruction of the enemies of God’s people and their idolatry.

V7-8 Comission

Moses now calls to Joshua and gives him a personal commission.  He too must show courage and strength. The reason for this courage was that first of all they were entering to take the land that God had promised them. Secondly, that God was with him.

V9-13  Reset and Remember

Now Moses writes out a copy of the Law and passes this on to the priests.  The Law is to be read out specifically every seven years at the Festival of Booths when all the people including foreigners in the land were to assemble.  Notice the timing. First of all, the specific festival was a reminder of their time in the wilderness. Secondly the seven-year mark coincided with the return of land, cancelling of debts, release of bondservants and the land lying fallow. Symbolically it was a reminder that there had been a reset. Their dependence was completely on God. You might even see the seventh year as a mini Exodus/exile experience to remind them that they depended on the Lord. The Law is then repeated as they return to their work in the land and their enjoyment of it. Blessing will be about obeying God’s purpose for them and being fruitful.

V14-18 Pessimistic?

God calls Moses and Joshua to the tent of meeting as Moses is getting closer to dying.  God has sobering words for Moses, after he dies, the people will be unfaithful and this will lead to judgement. Notice the pairing in verse 16 and 17, the people will forsake God and so he will forsake them. Notice as well the fire imagery, anger that his kindled and that devours or consumes them. It is important as well to spot that kindling suggests that this is something brought to spark, a flame that starts.  Far from wrath being the natural disposition of God in the Old Testment, his settled relationship is one of compassion to his people, wrath is specifically in relation to wilful rebellion. 

They will say

‘Have not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us?’ (v17)

Yet, I don’t get the feeling that this speaks of heart repentance. It is almost as though they are blaming God and his absence.

V19-22 A Song

God’s response to this is, a song for the people. Moses is to compose and sing this and it will be there as a testimony for the people when they do rebel to call them back. We will find out more about the song in chapter 32.

See that God knows exactly how the people will respond and yet he still chooses to act towards them in love. He still pursues his plan for them and he still provides a way back. This is grace, mercy and love at work. Notice as well that what will cause them to turn away, the circumstances Satan will use is not the hardship and suffering that in fact often causes people to cling on to God more. Rather it will be the complacency that comes with comfort. They will enjoy God’s provision and protection then they will assume it is their own efforts that has brought this about. They will become proud.

This is sobering isn’t it? I remember my last days in my previous job. We had done a lot of work building a team, introducing new systems and improving processes. There was still a lot to be done. So, I had put together a detailed manual of recommendations.  A year after I left, I visited to find that much of what I had recommended had been accomplished. It gave me a sense of real pride and joy.  Another year passed by and I got news that the team had won an award for their work. That was bitter-sweet. I was pleased for my old team and also a little proud again that even indirectly my ideas that been recognised but it was a little disappointing that it happened after I left and the credit went to others.  However, despite all of that, I knew that it wouldn’t be long before the team was split up and processes and systems changed again and probably not for the better.  As Qoholet makes clear, we are like vapour, fragile, fleeting and unremembered. 

Moses is faced with this sobering truth too, that the people will be quick to forget and quick to undo the good things.  It is a mark of God’s love and faithfulness that he continues to provide a way back. 

There are two little observations I want to make here. First of all, before we get absorbed in our attempts to create a legacy, it is important to learn the lesson that our efforts are quickly forgotten and undone. This will guard us against arrogance.

Secondly, we do not lose hope or become bitter because of this because we see God’s grace at work. He is faithful. What happens to Israel and what happens for us is a microcosm of God’s grace in history. He knew before the foundation of the World that we would sin but still created us and prepared a way back even in advance of our fall.

V23 God commissions Joshua

God then commissions Joshua with the same words Moses has used. We often talk about leaders being called.  Now, for some people there is what is often described as an internal calling, a strong sense of God speaking to them and moving them to serve, for others there isn’t this feeling but that does not change the fact that it is God who calls. Now, the primary means for calling should be that a local church recognises and sets you apart for the mission God is calling you too.

V24-30 Moses sings

Moses now passes on the Law for the priests to put with the Ark of the Covenant.  He summarises from them what God has said to him that he knows that after his death there will be forgetfulness and rebellion leading to judgement.

Then Moses sings …

Seeing Through New Covenant Eyes

We started by seeing that the promises of a Covenant are not just for those immediately present and involved but continue throughout the generations.  I would like to highlight two important Bible passages here that emphasise this. First of all, have a look at Colossians 2:18

18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 

Christ’s resurrection marks him out as the firstborn or first fruits of the new covenant. The benefits of that new covenant in Christ flow out to you and me,.

Secondly check out Acts 2:39. Peter is preaching on the day of Pentecost and explaining that what they are seeing is the fulfilment of the Old Testament promise.

39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”

Now, this verse has been badly mutilated in order to build a case for infant baptism by focusing on the promise for “your children” this rips the phrase out the context of a promise “for all who are far off” and for “everyone the Lord our God calls.” The verse is nothing to do with telling people to baptise their kids and promising that faith will be inherited. Rather it picks up the theme in Deuteronomy of telling your children and passing God’s word down the generations. It extends it to show that we have good news to tell beyond our family and community, to the ends of the earth.

The point then is that the New Covenant will reach to all lands and all generations. Therefore, we have a responsibility to be involved in sharing this good news. How are you involved in passing on the promise?


We should be thankful that God’s covenant promise reaches even to us. We should be careful not to be forgetful and to turn our back on God but to remember his covenant faithfulness to us. We should be eager to share the good news with others.

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