The Music and Mountains of Moses



The Music and Mountains of Moses

Having just returned from co-leading a study tour through Israel, Egypt, and Jordan with my father, my mind’s eye is full of biblical places and the people who once inhabited them, such as Moses. I am especially grateful to have once again climbed Mount Sinai and Mount Nebo, singing songs of praise on top to the God who walked with each of His people there, just as He does with me today.

Moses also toured the lands of Israel, Egypt, and Jordan. His many climbs up Mount Sinai came at the beginning of his ministry, and though he spent most of his life in Egypt, right before he died, he climbed Mount Nebo in Jordan to view the land of Israel.

Fascinatingly, these mountaintop experiences that opened and closed Moses’ leadership of Israel were each preceded by a song. The song of Moses and Miriam in Exodus 15, celebrating the crossing of the Red Sea, came just before Israel arrived at Mount Sinai. Moses’ final words to Israel, which took the form of a song and a poem of blessing in Deuteronomy 32 and 33, were uttered just before he ascended Mount Nebo to die.

Just four days ago, I stood on top of Mount Nebo at the end of the study tour, imagining Moses’ thoughts there so long ago, and listening to my father urge us all to look with eyes of faith toward the heavenly Canaan. As our tour group sang songs and shared how God had blessed us on the trip, my thoughts turned to the reasons that songs were so important for communicating the messages God and Moses had to share.

Music helps us to remember. In Deuteronomy, Moses is about to die, and Israel is about to cross the Jordan, and he wants to encourage and remind them of their covenantal commitment to God. He longs to inspire and motivate them, to move their hearts to greater faithfulness to God. Yet the people are already rebellious (Deut. 31:27) and seem to have forgotten all that their parents went through, and how God helped them. So, Moses preached a series of sermons, and then wrote them down, structured in the form of an ancient Hittite treaty or covenant that the people would be familiar with.

And yet, when one thinks of covenants, solemn and somber agreements with lists of requirements come to mind, along with promises and pledges. Although these are part of the picture, the Book of Deuteronomy ends differently, with a song and a poem of blessing. The importance of music cannot be overstated. A song can take us back to a particular time and place decades ago, even for those with dementia. Thus, God called Moses to write a song that encapsulated the covenant. The people were to learn it and sing it and pass it on to their children. This would help them remember all that God had done for them and to pass on the stories of how God had blessed them. The content of Deuteronomy 32, with its many stanzas, reviews and recalls God’s blessings to Israel, along with their rebellion and disobedience. God is gracious, but sin has consequences, and their singing about their past history ensured that it remained more vividly in their minds.1

Not only did music help Israel remember, but 40 years after the Exodus, the song in Exodus 15 had reached far beyond the Israelites. Rahab refers to it in Joshua 2, when talking with the two spies, to indicate that other nations also remember what God has done and “melt away” (Hebrew mug) because of it (Ex. 15:15; Joshua 2:9). Songs are powerful memory devices and teaching tools.

Music leads to prayer. Similarly, music can be a form of prayer, so that the singer is drawn to worship God and communicate with Him in new ways. The song in Exodus 15, written after the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, led the people to celebrate and worship God with exuberance and gratefulness, praising God personally for His victory on their behalf.

The covenant in musical form also makes a fitting end to Deuteronomy, a book that is all about the heart and love and life. Poetic writing itself has a musical quality to it and invites the readers to sing along, remember, and reconnect with God. Through the song, the people personally proclaimed God’s name and character and care for them (vss. 2–14); acknowledged their sin and its consequences (vss. 15–34), and longed for the day of God’s vengeance against His enemies (vss. 35–43).

Music changes hearts. When Moses finished speaking the words of the song in Deuteronomy 32 to the people, he made the statement, “‘Set your hearts on all the words which I testify among you today, which you shall command your children to be careful to observe all the words of this law’” (vs. 46, NKJV). He seems to be referring to the entire Torah, but it is significant that this immediately follows the song. Setting one’s heart on something implies reflection, intentionality, and repetition.

The people are not just to hear and forget, but to examine and analyze and reflect on how the words of the Torah, and especially the song, impact them personally. They are also to be intentional about speaking and singing the words of the Torah and the song. They are to pass it along to their children, and to think about how else and with who else they can share it. The ESV translates the first phrase of verse 46 as “‘Take to heart,’” which indicates the repetition that is also involved in the process. This is not something that they are to do once, but something that becomes a very part of them, and that they repeat often and with joy.

Music brings hope. Moses concludes the song in Exodus 15 with a promise that the people will be planted on God’s own mountain and abode (vs. 17). This future hope is to sustain them during their long wanderings in the wilderness. God promised to bring them to His sanctuary, and He will fulfill His promise.

Although Deuteronomy 32 is a warning to the people of what will happen if they continue in their rebellious ways, if they set their hearts on the song, it will serve to protect them from falling further away from God. Moses concluded this admonition to keep the Torah and the song in their hearts by noting why this is so crucial: “‘For it is no empty word for you, but your very life’” (vs. 47, ESV). The temptation would be to think that these are just words, empty and useless. But in reality, the word brings life; it is not futile! In fact, especially in light of Deuteronomy 30:19, the Torah points to God, who is their life. And the word needs to be passed on to the next generation, to continue this life-giving power that a relationship with God brings.

The ultimate hope is that though there will be consequences for their sins, God will forgive, bring atonement, and destroy their enemies. As they set their hearts on God’s word, God’s song, He is enabled to work through it to reach and change their hearts, since the song will be a witness and testimony to bring the people back (Deut. 31:19–21). In Deuteronomy 32:36, Moses states that “‘the Lord will vindicate his people’” (ESV). God is full of compassion, despite the litany of sins that the previous many verses document. Judgment in the Old Testament is almost always positive when it is for God’s people! It is a vindication of them, because they have accepted His grace and given Him their hearts. Judgment is good news!

So why are these important songs of Moses also followed by mountaintop experiences? It seems that mountains engender similar responses to the music, and perhaps confirm them. For instance, mountains help people to remember. Mount Sinai becomes synonymous with God’s presence throughout the Bible, as people remember all that happened there and reflect on their past history (1 Kings 19:8; Neh. 9:13; Acts 7:38). Mountains also lead people to prayer. God longed to be close to the people on Mount Sinai, to enter into communion together (Ex. 19:1–16).2 Even though the people were afraid and thus unwilling (Deut. 5:4, 5), God often communes with Moses on the mountaintop (Ex. 24:15–18; 34:29).

Experiences on mountains also lead to changed hearts. The people repented and chose God on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18), and Elijah realized God’s love and care for him on Mount Sinai, no longer wanting to die (1 Kings 19).

As we journey toward heaven, may God infuse our lives with the music of His grace and the power of His mountains, just as He did for Moses. May we, as did Moses on Mount Nebo, look and long for the ultimate hope of the heavenly promised land, when all God’s redeemed people will join in the new song of Moses and of the Lamb on the heavenly Mount Zion (Rev. 14:1–3)!

And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God,

and the song of the Lamb, saying,

‘Great and amazing are your deeds,

O Lord God the Almighty!

Just and true are your ways,

O King of the nations!

Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name?

For you alone are holy.

All nations will come and worship you,

for your righteous acts have been revealed’”

(Rev. 15:3, 4, ESV).



1. Portions of this column are adapted from the Bible study curriculum I wrote on the Book of Deuteronomy. See

2. John H. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative: A Biblical-Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1992), 51–59.