Don’t get into the habit of thinking you can retire in the Christian life. You may retire from your job, but as long as you are living, there is work to be done and there is a testimony to bear. This is true of Moses, and he does his work to the very end.
Deuteronomy 31 contains four charges. Three are from Moses—to the people, to Joshua, and to the priests—and the fourth charge is from God to Joshua, in which God says that the time is coming when they are going to prove unfaithful to Him. Now the interesting thing about these charges is that the same themes recur. So the best way of studying them is not to move through this chapter section by section, but, rather, to look at the main points. These themes are very important, and they need to be taken into consideration as they pertain to our own lives.
The first theme is that God will go before them in the conquest. The chapter begins by Moses acknowledging that he is now very advanced in years. He is 120 years old, and no longer has the strength he used to have, and is no longer able to lead the people and bring them into the land. We’re told later that when Moses died, his strength was not abated and his eyes were still keen (see Deut. 34:7). But here in chapter 31 Moses is acknowledging that the days of that kind of leadership are over for him. Nevertheless, Moses says that although he cannot lead them, God Himself will do it. The people were not to forget that God was with them and is going to be with them to the very end.
Now notice how this theme is repeated. In verses 2-3 Moses said to the people: “I am now a hundred and twenty years old and I am no longer able to lead you. The LORD has said to me, ‘You shall not cross the Jordan.’ The LORD your God himself will cross over ahead of you. He will destroy these nations before you, and you will take possession of their land.” We find this same theme in verse 8, in Moses’ charge to Joshua: “The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” And then, finally, when God Himself has a charge for Joshua, you find the same thing: “Be strong and courageous, for you will bring the Israelites into the land I promised them on oath, and I myself will be with you” (v. 23).
It’s hard to read those verses without recalling an earlier incident back in Exodus 33, when God had told Moses that He wasn’t going to go with the people Himself anymore. He said he would send an angel, but He Himself would not go with them because they were an unruly people who would certainly rebel against Him, causing God to destroy them in His anger. In a great example of impassioned, fervent prayer, Moses prayed that God would nevertheless go with them. If God did not go with them, Moses did not want to go. He would rather stay in the desert for the rest of his life and die in the wilderness at the base of Sinai than go to the promised land without the Lord’s presence. If God would not go with the people, Moses asked how anyone would know that God really favored them. The people of Israel would be just like any other people. They may or may not succeed, but it’s only if God would go with them that people are really going to know that God was their God and come to know Him.
At the very end of Moses’ life, he reminds the people of what God said He would do. God promised He would go with the people through the conquest. God had promised that to Moses, and so now Moses tells the people that they can count on it.
This promise applies to us as well. Shortly before His ascension into heaven, the Lord Jesus Christ promised, “I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). Just as Moses assured the people that the great God of the nation would go with them, so we have the assurance that the Lord Jesus Christ is going to go with us.
I wish we would think, say, believe, and act the way Moses did in Exodus 33. He did not want to go to Canaan unless the Lord went with them. Christians are very wise if they learn this lesson. We must always follow the Lord and go where He goes, always desiring His presence and seeking His blessing. If God goes with you, you will prosper. But if you are going your own way, you will not.
The second theme we have in Deuteronomy 31 is to be strong and courageous. This is an encouragement to the people in general, and to Joshua in particular. This is important because we would tend to think that if God is going to go before us and give us the blessing, we don’t have to do anything. However, throughout Scripture God’s presence and our courage always go together. God is with us and for that very reason we must be courageous. Now notice how often this is expressed. We see it in verses 6, 7-8, and 23. This theme also continues in the book of Joshua, which follows the book of Deuteronomy. God speaks to Joshua in the first chapter, telling him the same thing in verses 6-7, and 9. Then, also in chapter 1, the people give this charge to Joshua in verse 18. Later on, in chapter 10, Joshua says the same thing to the people: “Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. Be strong and courageous” (v. 25). It’s worth noting that David seems explicitly and consciously to pick up on these words when he charges Solomon not to be afraid but to have courage (see 1 Chron. 28:20).
Why all this emphasis on courage? The obvious answer is that we tend to be so fearful. God is with us but He is an invisible God. We can’t see Him. It’s very hard for us to believe in things we can’t see. But we can see our enemies, and they are all around us. We see them, but we don’t see God, and so we tremble.