Great Texts of the Bible
The Burning Bush
And the angel of the Lord appeared unto Moses in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.—Exodus 3:2.
1. It was a very sharp descent from Pharaoh’s palace to the wilderness; and a shepherd’s life was a strange contrast to the brilliant future that once seemed likely for Moses. But God tests His weapons before He uses them, and great men are generally prepared for great deeds by great sorrows. Solitude is “the mother-country of the strong,” and the wilderness, with its savage crags, its awful silence, and the unbroken round of its blue heaven, was a better place to meet God in than the heavy air of a palace, or the profitless splendours of a court.
2. Among the desolate solitudes of Horeb, occasional fertile spots are to be found. A thin alpine turf covers the soil, whose verdure forms a delightful contrast to the awful sterility of the naked rocks around. A perennial spring oozes up in some shady cleft, and sends its scanty rill down the mountain-side, marking its course among the crags by a green streak of moss and grass which its life-giving waters have nourished. To one of these little oases Moses led the flock of Jethro, his father-in-law, at the close of his sojourn in this secluded region. He had probably given up all thought of Israel’s deliverance, which had been the dream of his youth; and in the peaceful and monotonous occupation of a shepherd hoped to end his days. But God had a higher destiny in view for him, for which he had been insensibly trained by his meditative employment amid the solemn influences of the lonely hills. This was, unknown to himself, to be the last day of his shepherd life. The skill and fidelity which had been exerted in tending sheep were to find nobler scope for their exercise in guiding and training men.
The Preparation of Moses
1. “In process of time the king of Egypt died,” probably the great Rameses, no other of whose dynasty had a reign which extended over the indicated period of time. If so, he had while living every reason to expect an immortal fame as the greatest among Egyptian kings, a hero, a conqueror on three continents, a builder of magnificent works. But he has won only an immortal notoriety. “Every stone in his buildings was cemented with human blood.” The cause he persecuted has made deathless the banished refugee, and has gibbeted the great monarch as a tyrant, whose misplanned severities wrought the ruin of his successor and his army. Such are the reversals of popular judgment; and such the vanity of fame.
Nought but a gust of wind is earthly fame,
Which blows from this side now, and now from that,
And, as it changes quarter, changes name.
Renown of man is like the hue of grass,
Which comes and goes; the same sun withers it,
Whereby from earth the green plant raised was.1 [Note: Dante, Purg. xi. 100–2, 115–17 (trans. by Paget Toynbee).]
2. “The children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried.” Another monarch had come at last, a change after sixty-seven years, and yet no change for them! It filled up the measure of their patience, and also of the iniquity of Egypt. We are not told that their cry was addressed to the Lord; what we read is that it reached Him, who still overhears and pities many a sob, many a lament, which ought to have been addressed to Him, and is not. Indeed, if His compassion were not to reach men until they had remembered and prayed to Him, who among us would ever have learned to pray to Him at all? Moreover He remembered His covenant with their forefathers for the fulfilment of which the time had now arrived. “And God saw the children of Israel, and God took knowledge of them.”
3. While this anguish was being endured in Egypt, Moses was maturing for his destiny. Self-reliance, pride of place, hot and impulsive aggressiveness, were dying in his bosom. To the education of the courtier and scholar was now added that of the shepherd in the wilds, amid the most solemn and awful scenes of nature, in solitude, humiliation, disappointment, and, as we learn from the Epistle to the Hebrews, in enduring faith. Wordsworth has a remarkable description of the effect of a similar discipline upon the good Lord Clifford. He tells—
How he, long forced in humble walks to go,
Was softened into feeling, soothed, and tamed.
Love had he found in huts where poor men lie,
His daily teachers had been woods and rills,
The silence that is in the starry sky,
The sleep that is among the lonely hills.
In him the savage virtues of the Race,
Revenge, and all ferocious thoughts were dead:
Nor did he change; but kept in lofty place
The wisdom which adversity had bred.
There was also the education of advancing age, which teaches many lessons, and among them two which are essential to leadership—the folly of a hasty blow, and of impulsive reliance upon the support of mobs. Moses the man-slayer became exceeding meek; and he ceased to rely upon the perception of his people that God by him would deliver them. His distrust, indeed, became as excessive as his temerity had been, but it was an error upon the safer side. “Behold, they will not believe me,” he says, “nor hearken unto my voice.”
It is an important truth that in very few lives the decisive moment comes just when it is expected. Men allow themselves to be self-indulgent, extravagant, and even wicked, often upon the calculation that their present attitude matters little, and they will do very differently when the crisis arrives, the turning-point in their career, to nerve them. And they waken up with a start to find their career already decided, their character already moulded. As a snare shall the Day of the Lord come upon all flesh; and as a snare come all His great visitations meanwhile. When Herod was drinking among bad companions, admiring a shameless dancer, and boasting loudly of his generosity, he was sobered and saddened to discover that he had laughed away the life of his only honest adviser. Moses, like David, was “following the ewes great with young,” when summoned by God to rule His people Israel. Neither did the call arrive when he was plunged in moody reverie and abstraction, sighing over his lost fortunes and his defeated aspirations, rebelling against his lowly duties. The humblest labour is a preparation for the brightest revelations, whereas discontent, however lofty, is a preparation for nothing. Thus, too, the birth of Jesus was first announced to shepherds keeping watch over their flock. Yet hundreds of third-rate young persons in every city in this land to-day neglect their work, and unfit themselves for any insight, or any leadership whatever, by chafing against the obscurity of their vocation.1 [Note: G. A. Chadwick.]
4. When the hopes of his youth were dead, buried, and forgotten, when his fiery spirit was tamed into patience, and his turbulent passion stilled into solemn repose—at last, Moses came out of school. Then, but not until then, was he openly consecrated as God’s missionary to rescue the Israelites from their grinding bondage and their great despair; to organize them into a nation, to give them their holy laws, and to be their leader along a pathway of miracle to the Promised Land. Not a lesson had been left, not a moment had been lost, for he needed the weary discipline and gathered force of all those quiet years before he could obey his high vocation and do his great work well.
In darkness, underneath the January rime and frost, God is getting ready the royal glories of June. The flower that is to burst open to the sun at a certain hour six months hence, He has even now in hand. By silent and mystical touches He is already educating the tree to bear its autumnal clusters, and it is His ordination that there shall be eleven months of husbandry for one month of harvest. In the spiritual field you may trace the action of the same law. Man is often in haste; God never. We would give the largest measure of time to results; He gives the largest measure to preparations. We burn with eagerness to bring our instrumentalities into action, for we are apt to value that agent most whose work makes most show in a report, or whose life is longest before the public eye. He, on the contrary, often brings His most honoured servants through a long strain of trial and a long path of obscurity to fit them for some short service that is, after all, unknown to human fame; for a single word spoken in a breath, or a single deed, over and done in a day, may heighten the joy of heaven, and break into issues that will flow on for ever. Years may be needful to prepare you for saying “Yes” or “No” in some one critical moment, and many a man may be in training all his life for the work of life’s last hour. We sometimes try to reap in sowing time, but He never sends forth fruit until the season is fitted for the fruit, and the fruit for the season.1 [Note: C. Stanford.]
Look not thou down but up!
To uses of a cup,
The festal board, lamp’s flash and trumpet’s peal,
The new wine’s foaming flow,
The Master’s lips a-glow!
Thou, heaven’s consummate cup, what need’st thou with earth’s wheel?
But I need, now as then,
Thee, God, who mouldest men;
And since, not even while the whirl was worst,
Did I,—to the wheel of life
With shapes and colours rife,
Bound dizzily,—mistake my end, to slake Thy thirst:
So, take and use Thy work:
Amend what flaws may lurk,
What strain o’ the stuff, what warpings past the aim!
My times be in Thy hand!
Perfect the cup as planned!
Let age approve of youth, and death complete the same!2 [Note: Browning, Rabbi Ben Ezra.]
The Approach of God
1. When in this or in any other scene of holy story we meet with One who wears the supreme name, yet holds a subordinate office; who is God, yet sent by God; God, yet seen; God, yet heard—who is this “Traveller unknown”? Not the Divine Father, “for he dwelleth in secret.” Besides, in the economy of grace the Father is evermore the sender, the Son the sent. It must, therefore, be the Son. This thought is our only outlet from a maze of contradictions. Through all time, at first by His visits to our world as a celestial stranger; at last by His life as a man, Christ has been “the angel of the Lord.”
It would be absurd to seek the New Testament doctrine of the Logos full-blown in the Pentateuch. But it is mere prejudice, unphilosophical and presumptuous, to shut one’s eyes against any evidence which may be forthcoming that the earliest books of Scripture are tending towards the last conclusions of theology; that the slender overture to the Divine oratorio indicates already the same theme which thunders from all the chorus at the close.1 [Note: G. A. Chadwick.]
Too often the term “angel” has for us a cloudy and indeterminate meaning; but we should resolve to make it clear. We are apt to use it as a term of race, and to distinguish the natives of heaven as angels, just as we distinguish the natives of earth as men. But it is in reality a term of office, simply meaning an envoy, a messenger, one who is sent. Doubtless any heavenly being who is sent on an errand of love to this globe is for the time an angel; but One there is above all others who deserves the name of angel. Sent not only out from the unknown heavens, but out from the very essence and depth of the unknown God; sent to reveal God’s heart; sent to translate the Divine nature into the conditions of human nature, and to make the Divine Being not only conceivable by that which is finite, but approachable by that which is fallen; sent to discover and accomplish the Father’s purposes of grace, and to fetch home to Him each lost and wandering child—Jesus is the Prince of Missionaries, “the Envoy extraordinary, the Evangelist supreme,” the angel whom all other angels worship, and round whose throne thunders at this moment the mingled music of a numberless company, ceasing not day or night to ascribe to Him all the glory of redemption.2 [Note: C. Stanford.]
2. “Behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.” Here we approach a study in symbols. The vision of a bush burning with fire which did not consume it was full of symbolic meaning to Moses. What he saw outwardly with the natural eye, he was able to discern inwardly with the spiritual eye, because he was ready to see and hear what God would teach him.
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes.
A bush on fire with no human hand to set it alight, no fuel to keep it burning—it was just a picture to Moses of what God could do with him, and a picture to the people of God for all time, of the grace of Him who is willing to dwell in human beings as lowly, as insignificant, as the little thorn bush on the Mount of Horeb.1 [Note: Mrs. Penn-Lewis, Face to Face, 39.]
It needed no great flame to reduce a bush quickly into a heap of white ashes. If, as in that arid region might well have been the case, the bush was scorched and withered—its leaves dead and limp, its branches dry and sapless—the flame would make all the speedier work with it. But the thorn was not consumed; no branch or twig or leaf was even scorched or singed; the flame played round it as innocuously as the sunset glory burns in a belt of wood. The Alpine traveller is familiar with one of the most beautiful sights of that beautiful region. At sunrise the serried pines projected against the sky on some mountain-ridge appear robed in dazzling brightness. The stems and branches lose their opacity, and shine with a transparent glory; while the leaves are burnished till they seem like angel’s wings or fragments of the sun itself. As harmlessly as the sunrise glows in the Alpine pines, so harmlessly did the mysterious flame envelop the bush in the desert, because the Angel of the Covenant dwelt in it. His presence restrained the devouring fire, as afterwards it held in leash the stormy winds and waves of Gennesaret. The law of nature was subject to the stronger law of the Divine will. He made His minister here a flame of fire, and the fire fulfilled His word.2 [Note: H. Macmillan.]
The Symbolism of the Burning Bush
“Moses said, I will turn aside now, and see this great sight why the bush is not burnt.” We must, like Moses, turn aside to discern the symbols which lie beneath the vision. The symbolism of the Burning Bush has been variously explained.
1. Some regard it as typical of the incarnation and the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow. The thorny bush represents the humiliation and degradation of the Son of God when He came into our world and assumed the likeness of sinful flesh; the flame that enveloped it is an emblem of the intensity of suffering which He endured in our room and stead from men and devils, and from the Father Himself; while the fact that the bush was unconsumed shadows forth His triumph over all His sufferings—over death and the grave. In visionary form we have here pictured to us the altar, the victim, and the sacrifice of the great atonement.
2. But the Burning Bush has also been taken to represent the condition of the Church. It was exactly suited to the circumstances of the children of Israel at the time. It was the true likeness of their sufferings in the furnace of affliction in Egypt. The thorny bush was a fit emblem of their character and position. As the plant was stunted and depressed by the ungenial character of its situation, creeping over the barren rock, scorched by the sun, and seldom visited by the kindly dew and rain and breeze, its stems producing thorns instead of graceful leaf and blossom-laden branches; so the Hebrew slaves, in their dreary bondage, were morally and intellectually dwarfed, and developed, under the influence of these unfavourable circumstances, the baser and more abject aspects of their nature. The thorn in the wilderness recalls the primeval curse upon man; and we have in the sufferings of Israel a repetition of the sufferings of our first parents after their expulsion from Paradise. The same cause which produced the one produced the other. The thorns of Adam’s lot were the very same as those that stung the Hebrews in Egypt. And, by God’s appearance in the thorn bush, we have the great fact of redemption shadowed forth, that God Himself has gone with us into the wilderness to be the sharer of our doom while redeeming us from it. It is a striking thought that in the very thorn of man’s curse appeared the shining Angel of the Covenant to bless him; that out of the very wood of the thorn bush, which was the symbol of man’s degradation, was constructed the tabernacle which was the symbol of his exaltation through the incarnation of the Son of God.
Thou art burning on, thou ancient tree,
With unabated flame;
The fires of earth have beat on thee,
And thou art still the same:
Thou art not lessened in degree,
Nor tarnished in thy name.
Thou hast two sides of thy life on earth;
One has in dust its share,—
It blends with scenes of pain and dearth,
It touches common care:
The other seeks a higher birth,
And branches arms of prayer.
Oh, Church of the living Lord of all,
Like Him to thee is given
A common life with those that fall,
And an upper life in heaven;
A being with the weak and small,
And a path where stars are driven.
Thy starlight’s glow shall put out the fires
That check thine earthly way;
The burning of thy pure desires
Shall burn thy dross away,
And in the love thy Christ inspires
Thou shalt endure for aye.1 [Note: G. Matheson, Sacred Songs, 138.]
3. Another aspect in which we may consider the parable of the Burning Bush is in the light it casts upon the nature of God. That light has been broadening and brightening from the time of Moses down even to our own age. Consider how God reveals Himself here, as the fire which burns, but does not consume.
(1) In the world of matter.—To the careless eye it seems that the fire of decay is for ever burning up and destroying the material things we see around us; but science teaches us that this is quite false, and that there is no such thing as destruction possible in God’s universe. You may grind a stone to the finest powder and dissipate it to all the winds of heaven, but it is not in your power to annihilate the finest atom of it; it is conceivably possible to gather together all the infinitesimal fragments, when the weight would be found to be exactly what it was before its cohesion was interfered with. You may take solid iron and heat it till it becomes first soft as wax, then fluid like water, and next is changed into vapour; but by so doing you only alter its condition; you cannot destroy the least particle of it. The pool of water, when the sun has dried it all away, is not non-existent, it is only expanded into mist: it becomes part of the cloud which anon will descend again upon the earth in the shape of rain. The tree which after standing for centuries slowly dies and crumbles beneath the withering finger of decay, though it disappears from the visible universe, is not really destroyed; in the shape of carbon and silica and of various gases every particle of it is as certainly in the universe as ever it was, and will be worked up anew into flower and pebble and living thing. And so it is with all that is to be found in God’s creation. In his popular lecture on the burning of a candle, Faraday shows that when the candle has burnt to its socket and apparently been annihilated altogether, every particle of its constituent elements can be gathered together again and weighed and measured.
When Goethe makes Nature sing—
Here at the roaring loom of time I ply
And weave for God the garment thou seest Him by;
and when Tennyson asks—
The sun, the moon, the stars, the seas, the hills and the plains—Are not these, O soul, the Vision of Him who reigns?
they are only putting into poetic form that which is a distinct truth of revelation. And if the material universe is thus a manifestation of God, science has made it abundantly evident that the fire which burns but does not consume, is the aptest possible symbol by which its nature, and the nature of the God who made it, can be set forth to Man 1:1 [Note: A. M. Mackay.]
(2) Amid the play of the forces that are in the world.—Almost the most important truth which science has demonstrated is that which is known as the Conservation of Energy; it establishes the fact that force, like matter, is indestructible, and that it is a fixed quantity in the universe. To the uninstructed mind it seems that energy is always being not only dissipated but destroyed; but this is just as impossible as that matter should be destroyed. When the blacksmith strikes his anvil till his arm grows weary, the force expended is not lost; it has simply changed its form from animal energy to heat, as is proved by the anvil growing hot. The energy residing in the steam which drives our locomotives and our machinery existed in the shape of heat in the glowing fires which created the steam; and before that it lay for centuries latent or hidden in the coal, which was dug out of the bowels of the earth; and earlier still, long, long ages ago, it manifested itself in vegetable energy, for what is now coal was once living forest; and earlier still it was manifested in the heat of the sun, which was taken up into the growing trees: so that in one sense the light and heat which our fires give forth are just the sunbeams which have been for ages imprisoned and hoarded up for the use of man. And while we can thus trace backward the force which drives the engine, we can follow it after it has done its work. It is neither lost nor destroyed. It is dissipated into the atmosphere in the form of heat, and perhaps will next manifest itself in an electrical form, in the tempest which rends the air and wraps the heavens in flame. All this is not mere conjecture. Just as it can be shown by delicate experiment that the candle which has burnt to its socket is still in existence in its every atom, so it is shown by the dynamometer that force never is and never can be lost. There is always the appearance of the annihilation of energy; there is never the reality. Force also resembles the bush which Moses saw; it is ever burning, yet it is never consumed. And when we remember that all energy, as all matter, comes from God and is a manifestation of God, we perceive how truly the vision which Moses saw was a symbol of the nature and the mode of operation of the Great “I AM” who creates and sustains all things.
There is unity amid all diversity, persistence amid all the ebb and flow of the visible universe. Let us once truly grasp this truth, and we shall no longer be moved to melancholy by the reflection that “change and decay in all around we see.” We shall be able believingly to say to God—
Though earth and man were gone,
And suns and universes ceased to be,
And Thou wert left alone,
Every existence would exist in Thee:
There is not room for Death,
Nor atom his might could render void;
Thou, Thou art Being and Breath,
And what Thou art may never be destroyed.
(3) In the sphere of life.—Life, we know, comes from God. His is the Spirit which animates all living things; in Him we live and move and have our being. In fact, He is the Life: it is only when He letteth His breath go forth that the face of the earth is renewed, and men and the lower creatures are created. And of life we may make exactly the same statement as we have made of matter and of force: it is indestructible. It may change its form and its mode of manifestation: but it cannot be annihilated or destroyed. Life in the universe—like matter and like force—seems to the uninstructed mind to burn to the socket and to go out; there seems to be such a thing as death: but in sober reality we may well accept the poet’s dictum that “There is no death; what seems so is transition.” Nature herself gives us a hint of this. In autumn there seems to be a final decay and dissolution, but it is only life disguising herself and going into hiding; spring shows that there has been no real diminution of the vital forces in our world, but probably rather an increase.
Nature gives us no such unassailable proof of the indestructibility of life as she does of the indestructibility of force and of matter. Rather, at first glance, she would seem to show us that the individual life can be destroyed, for we cannot trace it as we can the individual atom of matter and of force; its place in this world knows it no more. But this only points us to the fact that there is an invisible, a spirit world, which we cannot reach by our material senses. For the analogy of Nature will not let us for one moment suppose that life can really be annihilated. If science teaches one thing more clearly than another it is this, that there is Unity in Nature. If matter cannot be destroyed, if force cannot be destroyed, we may feel certain that neither can life. If it be objected that we cannot see what has become of the soul after death, it is a sufficient reply to say that neither could men in Moses’ time have known what became of material substances when they were burned with fire and disappeared from all human cognizance.
The flame may rise, the bush may burn
In deserts lone and bare:
There is no waste of any bloom
While God is present there.
The sun of human joy may set
Behind the stormy Cross:
While faith within the twilight kneels
There is not any loss.
Some homeless prayer may be at night
A wanderer on the moor,
But while it names the Blessed Name
It never can be poor.
(4) We find a meaning for the vision in history.—This vision would teach Moses, and surely it should teach us, that—in spite of all appearances to the contrary—there is permanence underlying God’s purposes and will, and the love which informs those purposes. Moses may have heard of the promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, concerning their descendants, that they should become a great nation and should be a blessing to all the world. How had God kept His promises? The Israelites for centuries had been degraded and ill-used as hardly any other nation before or since. Would it not seem that God had changed His intentions and had forgotten to be gracious? But no, it was in appearance only—as the bush burned but was not consumed. And now at last the time had come which was to explain the past and make glorious the future.
Let us believe that God’s will is unchangeable, and at the very moment of seeming frustration is completing itself. Exercise this faith with regard to any question that perplexes. It is not the will of our Heavenly Father that one of earth’s little ones should perish. He willeth that all men should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. Believe that He will have His will. If it is written that “our God is a consuming fire,” it must be a fire that consumes only the chaff, only the evil in men. This is the meaning of all sorrow and discipline on earth, and I believe it will one day be seen to be the meaning of what we speak of as eternal punishment. So far as there is a spark of good left in a bad man, the fire of God’s love will burn, but not consume. Believe that God’s purpose will not be frustrated in the accomplishment of that “one far-off Divine event to which the whole creation moves.” And believe meanwhile
That nothing walks with aimless feet;
That not one life shall be destroy’d,
Or cast as rubbish to the void,
When God hath made the pile complete.
Banks (L. A.), On the Trail of Moses, 33.
Campbell (R. J.), Sermons Addressed to Individuals, 207.
Davies (D. C.), The Atonement and Intercession of Christ, 162.
Gunsaulus (F. W.), Paths to Power, 9.
Liddon (H. P.), Bampton Lectures (Our Lord’s Divinity), 53.
Maclaren (A.), Expositions: Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers , 19.
Macmillan (H.), The Garden and the City, 80.
McNeill (J.), Regent Square Pulpit, i. 97.
Neale (J. M.), Sermons Preached in Sackville College Chapel, iv. 251.
Norton (J. N.), Short Sermons, 305.
Parker (J.), The City Temple, ii. (1872) 51.
Peabody (F. G.), Mornings in the College Chapel, 2nd Ser., 95.
Penn-Lewis (Mrs.), Face to Face, 34.
Stanford (C), Symbols of Christ, 61.
Vaughan (D. J.), The Days of the Son of Man, 209.
Wilson (S. L.), Helpful Words for Daily Life, 197.
Woodrow (S. G.), Christian Verities, 34.
British Congregationalist, July–Dec., 1908, 102 (Jowett).
Christian World Pulpit, xliv. 20 (Mackay); lviii. 246 (Muir); lxvi. 267 (Cleal).