Great Texts of the Bible
And it came to pass, when Moses came down from mount Sinai … that Moses wist not that the skin of his face shone by reason of his speaking with him.—Exodus 34:29.
Whatever view we take of the manner in which God communicated to Moses those moral truths which are contained in the Ten Commandments, we cannot fail to recognize the grandeur and the importance of the event. The lawgiver ascending in sublime solitude the mountain, from whose base the multitude and their flocks were far removed—the forty days of intimate colloquy with God—the cloud of the Divine Presence surrounding the hilltop—the power of a Divine illumination glowing with such splendour that the people shrank from the lawgiver’s pure bright gaze—these are, as it were, the solemn surroundings of an event which marks an epoch in the world’s history. To this day, those Ten Commandments are the basis of our national jurisprudence, and the tests and guides of our personal morality.
In the Mount
1. Mountains.—It is perhaps impossible to estimate the influence which mountains have on the thought and imagination of a religious mind. There is a solemn grandeur about mountain scenery which projects an impress upon life and character. The summit of a mountain is instinctively connected in the human mind with thoughts of God and an approach to the Infinite. Throughout the Bible there is abundant illustration of this mountain influence. The ancient Hebrew poets dwelt among the mountains. Mountains filled their imagination and inspired their songs. Nature taught them to love the mountains and to find in them a meeting-place with God.
Both in the life of Moses and in the life of Christ, mountains were the scene of many of the most signal events of their histories. Like two rivers, the secrets of their power are up among the silent hills. Horeb, with its flaming bush, Sinai’s rugged peaks, invested with dark clouds of the Divine glory, Pisgah, commanding the extended landscape of Canaan’s fertile valleys and fruitful slopes, and Nebo, where he went up to die, are mountains that correspond in the life of Moses to Hattin and Hermon, the lowly Calvary and beautiful Olivet, in the life of Christ. It was on those meeting-places of earth and heaven, far above all noise and din of men, that Moses so often spoke with God, and received strength for his arduous mission, and it was in the solitude of the hills—not rugged, fire-coloured, beetling cliffs like those of the desert, but hills mantled with foliage, around whose breast the vine threw her tendrils, and on whose brow the olive and the pine held the harp of their branches to the winds—it was in the solitude of such hills that the Son of Man wrestled in His nightly prayer, and held those deep communings with His Father which renewed His strength. God has dignified those grand temples, eloquent in silence, with events far more sublime than their own majesty, and far more awe-inspiring than their own stupendous forms.
We lingered long, for dearer
Than home were the mountain places
Where God from the stars dropt nearer
Our pale, dreamy faces.
Our very hearts from beating
We stilled in awed delight,
For spirit and children were meeting
In the purple, ample night.1 [Note: A. E., The Divine Vision, 56.]
2. Moses a man of prayer.—To a man who trusts in God responsibility must always be an impetus to prayer. And so it was in the life of Moses. We cannot read the story in the early books of the Bible without having the truth brought very closely home that Moses was a man of prayer. He never forgot the need of supplication, of asking God to help him in every hour of his difficulties as he led the children of Israel through the many trials of the wilderness. He never forgot that he was in God’s hands. He did not think of how he himself could gain honour, but he remembered that we must seek first the honour and glory of God. And so throughout his life he was one who spent much time in God’s presence, and all this had an effect upon his character.
3. Moses in communion with God.—Prayer, in its most perfect form, is communion with God. It is in communion with God that every soul finds satisfaction for its highest needs, and there is also a sense in which all who are called upon to lead Christ’s flock must experience a greater need than those who are led. How keenly this need is sometimes felt by us may be fitly expressed in the words of Longfellow—
O blessed Lord! how much I need
Thy light to guide me on my way!
So many hands, that, without heed,
Still touch thy wounds, and make them bleed!
So many feet, that, day by day,
Still wander from thy fold astray!
Unless thou fill me with thy light,
I cannot lead thy flock aright;
Nor, without thy support, can bear
The burden of so great a care,
But am myself a castaway.
4. Having come down from the Mount, Moses stands before us in the glory of a spiritual transfiguration. What transfigured him? In the answer to this question lies the grand secret of his life. Communion with God: that was what transfigured him, and gave him power. As Moses stands before us with his shining face, he is a spiritual and refined image of the highest dream of aspiring humanity.
When Michael Angelo had finished his famous colossal statue of David, “the giant,” many of his friends who had not seen him during the years when he was working upon it in Florence declared with great surprise that he was changed; his face was changed. And as they looked at the statue, and then at the skilful chiseller, it was seen that he had carved his conception of David, not only into the beautiful white stone, but also, all unconsciously, into the lines of his own beautified, ennobled face.1 [Note: S. D. Gordon, Quiet Talks on Home Ideals, 25.]
He wist not
1. “When Moses came down from the Mount, he wist not that the skin of his face shone by reason of God’s speaking with him.” It is strange that while the multitude recognized the intense spiritual emotion which shone through his flesh—a reflex of the radiance of the face of God—Moses himself was unconscious of it. “He wist not that the skin of his face shone.” Few and simple as those words are, there could be none grander written to the memory of a hero. The noblest and loftiest character is assuredly that of the man who is so absorbed in the divine nature of his calling, and so conscious of the need of those for whom he labours, that he becomes forgetful of the beauty in his character which others recognize, and almost unconscious that he is himself the worker. And so we picture Moses, descending from the Mount into the midst of the people, beautiful with the divine beauty of holiness—the glory of God shining through his features—yet all unconscious of his beauty.
I think the story of the radiance upon the face of Moses may remind us profitably that to forget ourselves is often the most effective way of impressing others. Moses went up to the mountain with a burdened mind, the thought of his nation lying on his heart, and following him even in his moments of devotion. It was for their sake he prayed. He came down with a fresh zeal and insight to that people, but in the noble simplicity of his nature he was unconscious of how radiant and impressive his personality had become. He was not thinking about impressiveness or popularity. What occupied him was a sheer sense of duty to God and man. He wist not that the skin of his face shone.1 [Note: J. Moffatt.]
The change, says Sister Agatha, was so remarkable that she could scarcely believe her eyes. She heard what the man said, but her mind was dazed by the look in his face. It was not the same man. The very features were changed. “I shall never forget that moment, and neither will you, Mr. Taylor!” she exclaims, turning to him with loving remembrance. “We prayed together, and we were very happy, were we not? It was a true case of ‘Once I was blind, now I see.’ The light came suddenly, in a moment, and all was changed.” She turns to me. “His face was transfigured. It was shining.”1 [Note: Harold Begbie, In the Hand of the Potter, 266.]
2. We learn three things from Moses with regard to the beauty of holiness. First, it shines; secondly, it shines by reflection; and thirdly, it shines in a way of which the subject himself is unconscious.
(1) The beauty of holiness is a beauty which shines.—The truth is, of course, a familiar one. Over and over again we meet with the same thought in Scripture as denoting a fact which is at once the believer’s high privilege and his bounden duty. “Arise, shine, for thy light is come”—so runs the herald message in Old Testament prophecy. “Let your light shine before men,” said He who Himself was the world’s light. “Among whom,” says St. Paul, “ye shine as lights in the world, holding forth the word of life.” In consistency with the same idea, ministers are called “stars,” and the churches “candlesticks”: so plain is it that this special aspect of the saint’s life is never lost sight of—its power of self-evidence, its capacity to betray and diffuse itself, so that its existence may somehow be felt, and its influence be somehow recognized.
The science of physiognomy tells us how the various qualities of intellect and the different dispositions and emotions of the soul are expressed in the facial features; so that you can, to some extent at least, read a man’s temperament in his complexion and measure his intelligence by the gleam in his eye. And the spiritual nature infallibly expresses itself by signs and symbols not less legible. A rapture always bewrays itself. Faith is written upon the brow. Hope beams in every eye-glance. Patience is registered in the lips’ placid repose. All happy people are beautiful while they are happy. The effect is unconscious to the subject of it, but it is not imperceptible to the observer. Sanctity can never be a secret. The holy life is a perpetual evangel, and a perennial benediction.2 [Note: J. Halsey.]
Lady Westmoreland thus writes of Jenny Lind’s singing: “When the time came for her song—I do not know what it was—my mother used to say it was the most extraordinary appearance she ever remembered. The wonderful notes came ringing out, but over and above that was the wonderful transfiguration, no other word could apply, which came over her entire face and figure, lighting them up with the whole fire and dignity of her genius. The effect on the audience was simply marvellous, and to the last day of her life my mother used to recall it vividly and its effect upon her. When she reached home my father asked her, ‘Well, what do you think of Meyerbeer’s wonder?’ She answered, ‘She is simply an angel.’ ‘Is she so very handsome?’ ‘I saw a plain girl when I went in; but when she began to sing her face literally shone like that of an angel. I never saw anything or heard anything the least like it.’ ”1 [Note: W. W. Tulloch, “Picture Point and Parable,” in Sunday School, iii. 307.]
You have seen those porcelain transparencies which, when the light is on them, are only roughnesses and wrinkles, unmeaning ridges and deep dusty shadows. But when the light is through them, what a transformation! Now, it is some “human face divine,” or an exquisite landscape, or a group of lovely flowers. So there are faces which, when the light shines only on them, are what is called “plain.” But when the light shines through them, it is “as though it had been the face of an angel.”
(2) It is a beauty which shines by reflection.—Pass from the nature of this beauty to the secret of it. Once and again this phenomenon of a physical change is met with in Scripture, and nowhere is it mentioned save in connexion with one and the same fact as its reason—immediate communion with God. Take the case of the Saviour on the Mount. The fashion of His countenance was altered, and His raiment became white and glistering, till the glory dazzled the disciples above, and attracted the multitudes below. What had His occupation been? He had been holding fellowship with His Father in prayer. So, too, in Gethsemane. There was a transfiguration there, and a brightness all over His face; for when He stepped from the shadow to confront the mob, the vision was such that they all reeled backward, and fell to the ground. This was just when He had wrestled with God and attained, amid strong crying and tears, the blessing of a peace passing all understanding. So, too, with Stephen, whose face in the council chamber, and doubtless also in death, was to them that beheld as the face of an angel. The transfiguration took place while God gave him grace to look up and behold an open heaven and a waiting Christ. And so it was with Moses. He attained this beauty by looking on God; his countenance was such that the Children of Israel could not steadfastly behold it, because it was the reflected glory of God. The radiance had been caught by him during the “forty days and forty nights” in the lonely mountain where the Lord spoke to him “face to face as a man speaketh to his friend.” The secret of all Christian shining is the same. Communion with God—that is the source it must spring from, lending sanctity to the character, and beauty to the very face. To see God’s face is to shine; to keep seeing it is to keep shining. It is thus that the marvel of the story is repeated, and God’s praying saints come forth from this privacy with their faces aglow; and the dying grow luminous on their beds, till the watchers wonder. And where is there brightness like the brightness of heaven? They are all lustrous there. “Then shall the righteous,” it is said, “shine forth in their heavenly Father’s kingdom.”
How lovely seems the sun to us,—at night,
When his soft light dawns on us from the moon!
’Tis the sun’s light and not the moon’s, although
She is so near, and he has dropped from sight.
Hast thou done some good deed, and therefore now
A human face smiles on thee through its tears,—
Then see there, too, the Godhead’s mediate face,
Soft-beaming as the solar-lunar light.1 [Note: A Layman’s Breviary.]
(3) It is an unconscious beauty.—Moses “wist not that his face shone.” That is the supreme height of spiritual loveliness: to be lovely, and not to know it. Surely this is a lesson we all need to learn. Virtue is so apt to become self-conscious, and thus to lose its glow. Take the grace of humility. Humility is very beautiful when we see it unimpaired. It is exquisite with the loveliness of Christ. But there is a self-conscious humility which is only a very subtle species of pride. It is possible to boast of our humility. There are men and women whose only source of pride appears to be their modesty. How often we meet with men who, when requested to do some service, immediately hoist the flag of their humility, and declare that they are of the humble sort, and prefer to keep in the shade! Humility takes the lowest place, and does not know that her face shines. Pride can take the lowest place, and find her delight in the thought of her presumably shining face. Self-consciousness always tends to sour humility, and pervert it into pride. “Moses wist not that his face shone.”
In all regions of life, the consummate apex and crowning charm of excellence is unconsciousness of excellence. Whenever a man begins to suspect that he is good he begins to be bad; and every virtue and beauty of character is robbed of some portion of its attractive fairness when the man who bears it knows, or fancies that he knows, it. The charm of childhood is its perfect unconsciousness, and the man has to win back the child’s heritage, and become as a little child, if he would enter into and dwell in the Kingdom of Heaven. And so in the loftiest region of all, that of the religious life, you may be sure that the more a man is like Christ, the less he knows it; and the better he is, the less lie suspects it. The reasons why that is so point, at the same time, to the ways by which we may attain to this blessed self-oblivion. Let us, then, try to lose ourselves in Jesus Christ. That way of self-oblivion is emancipation and blessedness and power.1 [Note: A. Maclaren.]
We are told in the Life of Peter Thompson of the East London Mission that a lady who had worked most successfully for many years with him was going to the Foreign Field, and it was on the paucity of results in her work amongst East London girls that she turned her eyes. She was depressed, and as a send-off the superintendent suggested a supper for a very large number of girls of the class amongst whom she had moved—a supper such as the one with which she had inaugurated her work. He was prepared to spend a goodly sum to make the evening a success. In a week or so she returned in perplexity. The number he had mentioned of such girls was not forthcoming. He said not a word until the worker realized the position. She, in company with others, had been instrumental in altering the character of that particular neighbourhood, and slowly but with insistence, the truth took hold of her that her work had not been in vain.2 [Note: R. B. Thompson, Peter Thompson, 135.]
The Man that went the cloud within
Is gone and vanished quite;
He cometh not, the people cries,
Nor bringeth God to sight:
Lo these thy gods, that safety give,
Adore and keep the feast!
Deluding and deluded cries
The Prophet’s brother-Priest:
And Israel all bows down to fall
Before the gilded beast.
Devout, indeed! that priestly creed,
O Man, reject as sin;
The clouded hill attend thou still,
And him that went within.
He yet shall bring some worthy thing
For waiting souls to see;
Some sacred word that he hath heard
Their light and life shall be;
Some lofty part, than which the heart
Adopt no nobler can,
Thou shalt receive, thou shalt believe,
And thou shalt do, O Man!1 [Note: Clough, Poems, 19.]
Back (W. J.), in A Book of Lay Sermons, 247.
Christopherson (H.), Sermons, 148.
Dinwoodie (J.), Outline Studies, 3.
Gray (W. A.), The Shadow of the Hand, 177.
Gregg (D.), Our Best Moods, 239.
Halsey (J.), The Beauty of the Lord, 18.
Jowett (J. H.), Meditations for Quiet Moments, 22.
Maclaren (A.), The God of the Amen, 259.
McFadyen (J. E.), Thoughts for Silent Hours, 95.
Shore (T. T.), The Life of the World to Come, 159.
Christian World Pulpit, xiv. 115 (Wonnacott); lxxvii. 180 (Moffatt).
Church Pulpit Year Book, vii. 194.