Deuteronomy 34
Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
We have in this concluding chapter the remarkable account of the death and burial of Moses. He had, as we have seen, blessed the tribes; he had laid his hands on Joshua (ver. 9), and thus ordained him, so to speak, to the leadership; he had given his manuscripts to the priests to be deposited in the ark; and now all that remains for him to do is to take the course God indicated to the mountain-top, see the Promised Land, and die. It has suggested some noble sermons, to which we would at once refer before proceeding with a few observations suggested by the history.

I. LET US NOTICE THE VIEW OF CANAAN AND OF LIFE FROM THE MOUNTAIN-TOP. It is evident, we think, that Moses went up the mountain without an escort. He was going up to hold high communion with God, as he had done on Sinai. Mountain-tops are favorite places for communion with God in the case of busy men like Moses and our Savior (cf. Luke 9:28). It was a sublime solitude, filled with the presence of God. Sooner or later, God draws his servants upwards out of the bustle of life to have special communion with him and finish their course with joy. Moses, moreover, had an undimmed eye at this time, and his natural force was in no wise abated. His outlook was consequently clear. The land of promise lay out before him in all its attractiveness, and he could have wished to cross the Jordan and see it, and the goodly mountain, Lebanon. But the view of it, clear and glorious, is all that in the present life he is to receive. Now, it is sometimes insinuated that saintly, self-denying men, whose lives according to worldly notions have been incomplete and unsuccessful, are unable to form a proper judgment about their careers, and must regret them. But as a rule, God gives in life's last hours the "undimmed eye," and his servants are enabled to see life's relations clearly, and the land of promise under the sunset glow. They regret their incomplete lives as little as Moses did his from the mountain-top. Jonathan Edwards notices, in his 'Notes on the Bible,' that "God ordered that Aaron and Moses should go up to the tops of mountains to die, to signify that the death of godly men is but an entrance into a heavenly state;" and Baumgarten has made a similar remark regarding the death of Aaron. "The circumstance that it was expressly fixed that Aaron should die upon a mountain, and so upon a place which through its very nature points to heaven, the seat of Jehovah, throws into the darkness of his death a ray (Strahl) of hope." The mountain-tops to these great brothers were indeed the gate of heaven, whence clear views of life and of the hereafter were obtained.

II. THE CIRCUMSTANTIALS OF THE DEATH OF MOSES ARE UNIQUE IN THEIR SIMPLE MAJESTY. It has been said that the presence of Moses on the mount of Transfiguration must have suggested a contrast between his death on the top of Pisgah and our Lord's approaching death amid the mocking crowds at Jerusalem. And what a contrast there is between the two departures! In the one case, the servant of God dies amid the solemn grandeur of the hills, with the sunset glow around him - dies, as some Jewish doctors say, "of the kiss of the Eternal;" in the other case, our Lord dies amid the ribaldry and scoffing of overcrowded Jerusalem. There may have been an clement of sadness in Moses dying on the threshold of the Promised Land; but there was an element of glory in the death-bed among the mountains.

III. GOD IN HIS LOVE NOT ONLY TOOK CHARGE OF THE DYING BUT ALSO OF THE DEAD. He died with God; and God buried him. No wonder the poetess calls it "the grandest funeral that ever passed on earth."

"And had he not high honor? -
The hill-side for his pall;
To lie in state, while angels wait
With stars for tapers tall

And the dark rock-pines, like tossing plumes,
Over his bier to wave;
And God's own hand, in that lonely land,
To lay him in the grave!" This disposal of the body, as well as of the departed spirit, was surely a significant act on the part of God. He took the matter as completely out of the hands of Israel, as in the Resurrection our Lord's body was taken out of the keeping of the Roman guard. Was it not to indicate that the body as well as the soul is to share in the redeeming care of God, and so far an earnest of the resurrection?

IV. THE PRIVACY OF THE TOMB IS ALSO INSTRUCTIVE. Manifestly all Israel saw was the retirement of Moses to the mount; for the rest, his death and his Divine burial, they were dependent upon faith - they believed him when he told them he was going away by death, and that they need make no preparations for him, as God would bury him. Had it not been for his prophetic notice, they might have concluded he was translated. It was a matter of faith entirely, and no searching could bring it within the range of sight. The privacy of the tomb compelled them to take the funeral and burial on trust. The mourning and weeping for a month arose really from faith; Moses was not - God took him; but they had only Moses' word for it that he was to die with God, and be buried by him. And God's dealing with our dead must remain still a matter of faith to us, though of fruition unto them. We believe the very dust of the saints is dear to God, but we have to put their remains in a coffin, and deposit them amid common clay. We believe their spirits are in his safekeeping, but they send no messages and make no sign. If sense is the measure of our knowledge, then assuredly we may put Christian hope into the realm of beautiful dreams, of which there is as little sensible evidence as of Moses' tomb. But there are "foundations of faith" as strong as those of sense and sight. In such assurance, we believe that God took charge of Moses, body and soul, and will take as real and as faithful charge of us. - R.M.E.

A man's death is in keeping with a man's life. You cannot have a tropical sunset in an arctic zone. It is vain to live the life of the voluptuous, and desire "the death of the righteous." Enoch's death corresponded with Enoch's life. The spirit of Elijah was characterized by heavenly fire: he ruled men with burning words of truth; it was, therefore, meet that he should depart as a king, "in a chariot of flame." Our Lord's whole life was a crucifixion - sublime self-sacrifice; it was fitting, then, that he should die upon a cross. Moses was transcendently great; in native grandeur he towered like a mountain above his brethren. To be in the society of God was his delight; hence there was a propriety that he should die alone, and upon the mount with God.

I. THE DEATH OF A GOOD MAN HAS MANY GRACIOUS MITIGATIONS. It is not un-mingled sorrow. The evil in it is reduced to an infinitesimal point. It is a passing cloud, while the sun in its strength shines on the other side, and often penetrates the thin vapor. It is not the valley of humiliation, but the mount of communion. Visions denied to us before are vouchsafed to us now. God is nearer to us than ever yet; and though earthly friends cannot accompany us along the mystic path, strong angels are at our side to bear us on their wings to the glory-land.

"The chamber where the good man meets his fate
Is privileged above the common walks of life;
Almost upon the very verge of heaven."

II. DEATH OFTEN REVEALS TO US WHAT WE MIGHT HAVE ATTAINED. In the hour of dissolution, Moses saw what he might have enjoyed if he had neglected no opportunity in the past. That faulty past is irrecoverable. We may obtain pardon the most ample and complete; but we cannot regain lost ground. Well for us if, on our deathbeds, we have only one fault to bemoan; and yet one fault may entail immeasurable loss. When we stand face to face with death, we shall see the value of life as we have never seen it yet; we shall lament our negligence's as we have never lamented them before. What illustrious characters we might have acquired! What conquests of good we might have won! What service for God we might have wrought! Alas! some well-meant purpose still remains immature!

III. DEATH TO A GOOD MAN IS NEEDFUL FOR FULL POSSESSION. The land which God had sworn to give to Abraham and his seed, Moses was permitted to see, and in part to possess. Yet, had he gone over Jordan and endured the fatigues of battle and dwelt in the land, his soul would not have been satisfied therewith. As his powers of soul matured and ripened, he would have desired a better inheritance than Canaan could yield. The old yearning would have come back again, "I beseech thee, show me thy glory." The soul yearns for knowledge which earth does not permit. We long to pass the barriers of darkness and tread the plains of everlasting light. Impatiently the spirit beats against the bars of this fleshly cage, and longs to find her proper wings. We must pass through the dark gateway of death ere the soul can enter upon the full "inheritance of the saints."

IV. THE DEATH OF A GOOD MAN IS IN PART THE PROCESS OF NATURAL LAW, IN PART THE PENALTY OF MORAL LAW. So far as man partakes of animal life, so far he is under the law, which rules animal natures. In every animal species we discern the stages of birth, growth, maturity, decay, death. But man is endowed with regal powers, which give him, in some measure, dominion over his animal nature. Yet, as a fact, men die before their physical powers have decayed. In earlier ages of human history, human life reached to centuries, while now barely to four score years. Moses was called to die, but "his eye was not dim, nor had his natural force abated." In his case we are authoritatively informed that his premature decease was due to guilt. The moral conduct of men does operate, then, in modifying the laws of nature. There is an unseen law - a law of God - which interlaces the laws and forces of the visible world, just as the system of nerves interlaces and animates the muscles of human flesh. The time and the mode of the believer's death are not the outcome of natural law; they are fixed by the wisdom and the kindness of our personal God.

V. THE LIFELESS BODIES OF THE SAINTS ARE THE ESPECIAL CARE OF GOD. "God buried him in a valley in the land of Moab." There is a secrecy and a mystery about Moses' burial, which it would be profanity to attempt to penetrate. On a later page of Scripture we read that, respecting this body of Moses, Michael had a serious dispute with the devil. We feel bound to connect this mysterious disposal of Moses' lifeless body with the appearance of the same glorified body on the Mount of Transfiguration. But the point which concerns us at present is this; God has manifested in various ways his tender regard for the mortal remains of his servants. The elementary particles may dissolve, but the personal organization shall survive. "It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body." Yet, by the conserving power of Deity, it is a body still, though fitted more completely in the future as a vehicle for perception, intercourse, motion, and free activity. We can be well content to entrust every interest we have in life with him "who counts the very hairs of our head."

VI. THE DEATH OF A GOOD MAN IS AN OCCASION FOR EXTENSIVE SORROW. "The children of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days." Although he had often severely censured them, exposed faithfully their faults, and denounced their vices, they knew they had lost a genuine friend. Never would they look upon their noble leader's face again. His fatherly interest in them could never be replaced. Not till he was gone did they learn what a fount of blessing he had been. Had this coming event been steadily kept before them, they would have treated him with more generous esteem, and would have rendered to his counsels a more loyal respect. Now they lash themselves with just remorse. A good man's departure leaves a great vacancy in the Church and in the social circle. Shall we be thus missed when death hath laid us low? Yet the days of mourning even for a good man must cease. There are sterner duties in life demanding unceasing care, and our sorrow for the departed ought to qualify us for future service. - D.

The end of Moses, viewing the land to which he had so long and so painfully been leading the people, yet not permitted to enter it-dying on the threshold of the accomplishment of all his hopes, and leaving Canaan to be won by his subordinate minister, Joshua, - has often been likened to the common fate of the highest characters in history, "removed from this earthly scene before their work has been appreciated, and when it will be carried on, not by themselves, but by others." (See the development of the thought in Stanley's 'Jewish Church,' vol. 1. p. 175, with the application to Lord Bacon by Macaulay.) Often, also, it has been likened to the visions of the "land beyond the flood" received through faith by dying Christians. They, however, see a land into which they are soon to enter; Moses looked on one from which he was debarred. This vision was-

I. A COMPENSATION FOR A GREAT LOSS. Not permitted to enter Canaan, Moses was yet permitted to see it. His eyes were strengthened to take in the vision of its goodliness from north to south, from east to west. How his spirit must have feasted on the widespread prospect! This compensation, we remember, was won from God by prayer (Deuteronomy 3:23-39). We cannot always gain reversal of our punishment of loss; no, though we seek it carefully, with tears (Hebrews 12:17). But, while the losses remain, they may be sanctified to us, and, in answer to prayer, gracious compensations and mitigations granted.

II. A PERFECTING OF HOLY RESIGNATION. Then, no doubt, while looking on that good land, and feeling that he could not enter it, would Moses have his last struggle, and conquer his last lingering wish to have it otherwise than as God willed. We know how sore the struggle in his mind had been, how earnestly he had wrestled with God to have the sentence reversed (Deuteronomy 3:23-29). But it was not to be, and Moses must learn to say, as the Greater than Moses said long after, "Not my will, but thine be done!" (Luke 22:42). Who doubts but that the sacrifice was made? that Moses was brought to the point of perfect acquiescence before he died? And that in truth was a greater compensation than the other. The achieving so great a spiritual victory was well worth the surrender of the land. That victory, too, would take the sting of the trial away. The worst part of a trial - nearly all that is bitter in it - is past, when we are brought to the point of embracing the Divine will in it.

III. A TRANSITION TO A HIGHER HOPE. Is it possible to think that Moses, in laying down his life on that mountain summit, believed that he was laying it down forever? Could he believe, after all the relations of friendship which had subsisted between him and Jehovah, in view of that land of promise from which he was debarred, and at this very moment of his greatest spiritual triumph, - that his death ended all? that there was no hereafter? that there was no compensation beyond? We may rather believe that, in this very perfecting of his soul in its holy acquiescence in the Divine will, there would spring up in his mind a holier hope - a trust and assurance that all he now surrendered would be made up to him in some better form in heaven. What we part with on earth for Christ's sake are our ultimate gains. - J.O.

Lessons from it -

I. GOD WILL HAVE NO ONE, LIVING OR DEAD, TO STAND BETWEEN HIS CREATURES AND HIMSELF. "He dies apart, and is buried in secret, where his grave can be dishonored by no pilgrimage, and where no false veneration can rear altars to his memory."

II. GOD WISHES MEN TO SEE SOMETHING MORE LEFT OF HIS SERVANTS THAN THE OUTWARD SHRINE. They had the life and words of Moses, which his shrine might have obscured. It was expedient that even Jesus should go away, that his spiritual presence and the spiritual significance of his work might be fully realized (John 16:7).


IV. GOD WOULD TEACH MEN THAT HE HAS A RELATION TO HIS SERVANTS WHICH EXTENDS BEYOND DEATH. "Can the Maker put so disproportionate an estimate upon his own handiwork, as carefully to store up the casket and throw away the precious jewel which it held?"

V. GOD WOULD TEACH MEN THAT HIS REGARD IS NOT CONFINED TO ANY CHOSEN SOIL. "In a valley in the land of Moab." We have one more lesson from the New Testament -

VI. THAT THE SEEMING FAILURE IN A TRUE LIFE MAY AT LAST HAVE A COMPLETE COMPENSATION. Moses did at last, with Elias, tread the soil of Palestine, and there see "the King in his beauty" (Matthew 17:3). (Dr. John Ker.) - J.O.

Although dead, Moses still ruled. His spirit reappeared in his successor. The principles of Moses had been planted in the nature of Joshua: these had flourished and come to maturity. The memory of Moses was still a mighty power in Israel, and they "did," all through the days of Joshua, "as the Lord commanded Moses." The legislator had molded and trained the warrior. Moses was promoted to higher honor, because Joshua was better qualified for this new work - the realization of Israel's destiny.

I. NOTE THE HIGH QUALIFICATION OF JOSHUA. He was "full of the spirit of wisdom." This is a rare gift. By nature he had been endowed with strength and fearless courage, so that he had been military lieutenant to Moses all through the desert. He was illustrious also for diligence and fidelity in a long career of service. Among the spies dispatched to Canaan, he (in company with Caleb) had been "faithful among the faithless found." Now to courage and unbending loyalty there was added another endowment, and this in amplest measure: he was "filled with the spirit of wisdom." "To him that hath, it shall be given."

II. OBSERVE THE METHOD BY WHICH THIS WISDOM WAS ACQUIRED. "Moses had laid his hands upon him." We need not limit our thoughts to a solitary act, even though it might be a solemn and religious act. We may rather think of the plastic, formative influence which Moses had exerted over the growing character of this young man. It is astonishing what immense power God has entrusted to our hands for fashioning and embellishing the spiritual nature of men. By a wise employment of spiritual energy, we can direct into right channels the lives of many; by implanting right principles into youth, and by awakening into vigorous activity the latent forces of character, we may elevate a city - we may influence the destinies of the world.

III. MARK THE BENEFICIAL EFFECT. "The children of Israel hearkened unto him." Moses influenced for good his servant Joshua. Joshua influenced for good the nation of Israel. The twelve tribes felt the force of Joshua's character, and yielded to the wisdom which he displayed. They were a different people as the consequence of Joshua's leadership. He touched, through Israel, the fortunes of the world. The high example of Joshua provoked the imitation of the tribes. His combined wisdom and energy led them on to triumph. By virtue of his superlative wisdom he became, in God's hands, a Savior, and remains, in name and office, the type of the world's Redeemer. - D.

Leaving out of view our Lord Jesus Christ, there is no man who has left so deeply the impress of his character upon the world as the Jewish legislator. By no man have so many and such mighty works been achieved. By no man has such wise legislation been devised for the government of human society. By no man has a great national emancipation been so skillfully and successfully executed. At the time of our Lord, Moses still wielded a mighty scepter among the Jewish nation; and from that day to this, the influence of Moses has been powerfully felt. The history of the Western world would have been very different from what it is, if Moses had found an early grave among the rushes of the Nile. The secret of it is - he was a "man of God."

I. COMMUNION WITH GOD IS THE HIGHEST ADVANTAGE MAN CAN ENJOY. The friendship of a wise and great man is an inestimable boon. To be in the society of a good man for an hour leaves a purifying and an elevating stimulus behind. We feel better and nobler for the contact. And if the friendly influence of a good man can find its way to intellect and conscience and feeling, how much more can the influence and energy of God! There is no doubt that God can find access to the nature he has made, and can enrich it with all good. The question is whether, considering our great demerit, Will he? This question also is completely answered by himself. He invites us to the closest friendship - welcomes us to fullest intimacy. The words of Jesus Christ suffice to allay all doubt, "If any man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him." We may not have visions of God precisely after the form and fashion that Moses had: these were adapted to a particular state of human development; but we may have contact with God as close - communion as sweet and tender, as ever Moses enjoyed. "The fellowship of the Holy Ghost" is our special privilege. To us "the Spirit of truth" is given. And "truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ."

II. COMMUNION WITH GOD PRODUCES REAL GREATNESS OF CHARACTER. As a result of the intimacy between God and Moses, we read, there "arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses." Intercourse with God purifies every feeling, elevates every aspiration, energizes every sterling principle, ennobles the whole man. The creative influence of the Almighty renews our innermost life. In the presence of God we become ashamed of our meanness and pride and folly. We see and feel how noble it is possible to become. We confess into his fatherly ear our sin: we resolve to do better in the future. The assurance of his sympathy and aid encourages us. We grow up into his image; we gradually find that this is our proper destiny - "to be conformed to the image of his Son."

III. COMMUNION WITH GOD GIVES US POWER OVER NATURE AND OVER MEN. It is admitted by scientists that the human will is the greatest force known, save the power of God. Now, fellowship with God strengthens that will. To his chosen friends, God conveys new power. On man was originally bestowed complete dominion over nature; and this prerogative is to be restored through the man Christ Jesus. Thus the prodigies wrought by Moses are declared to be signs - symbols of greater things yet to be achieved. Our Lord has taught us that true faith can overturn the mountains. The possessor of faith is predicted to outstrip even Christ in mighty deeds. - D.

It was a greatness entirely unique. "There arose not a prophet," etc. (ver. 10). His greatness lay largely in character. As a man - in respect of qualities of character - Moses was one of the greatest men who have ever lived; perhaps, all things taken together, the greatest next to Christ. But so entirely is Moses the man lost in his relation to God as instrument of his will and work, that his greatness in the former respect is not in these verses even referred to. Moses is overshadowed by the God of Moses, whose power he wielded, and in whose Name alone he wrought. This greatness of Moses arose -

I. FROM THE RELATION OF PECULIAR INTIMACY HE HELD TO GOD. "There arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face" (ver. 10). In this greatness Moses stood alone till there arose that greater Prophet, whose advent he had predicted (Deuteronomy 18:18).

II. FROM THE GREATNESS OF HIS WORK. (Ver. 11.) He was sent to Egypt to deliver Israel. In this also a type of Christ.

III. IN THE POWER OF GOD PUT FORTH THROUGH HIM. (Vers. 11, 12.) True greatness therefore lies:

(1) in power of near approach to God;

(2) in great work done for God; and

(3) in spiritual power exerted through God acting m and with us. - J.O.

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