"And Moses returned unto the Lord and said, 'Oh! this people have made them gods of gold. Yet now, if thou wilt, forgive their sin; and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written.'"
This is one of the most difficult passages in the holy scriptures. Many haven attempted to explain it, and in our apprehension, failed in the attempt. Some will entertain like opinion of the following. Perhaps justly. We are no less fallible than others.
In matters which have engaged the attention of the learned, and in which they have differed, assurance is not perhaps to be expected. But as we are forbidden to call any man master, we have ventured to judge for ourselves respecting the meaning of the text, and now lay before the reader the result of our attention to it; not wishing to obtrude our opinion upon him; but leaving him to form his own as he may find occasion.
Some suppose that a person must be willing to be damned for the glory of God, or he cannot be saved; and this scripture hath been alleged in proof. After a few observations, to shew that the supposition is erroneous and absurd; we shall exhibit the various constructions which have been put on the text, by several expositors; then give our own sense of it; and close with a few reflections.
The supposition that man must be willing to be damned, in order to be saved, is in our apprehension, erroneous and absurd. It supposes a desire of God's favor to be an unpardonable offence; and a contempt of it a recommendation to his regard! It supposes that God will banish those from his presence who long for it; and bring those to dwell in it who do not desire it! A supposition, which, in our view, carries its own confutation in it. For the all important inquiry is, confessedly, how to obtain salvation? The solution which the supposition exhibits, is this, by being willing not to obtain it!
God cannot issue an order, making it the duty of man to be willing to be damned. To be willing to be damned, implies a willingness to disobey God, refuse his grace, and continue in unbelief and impenitence! Should we suppose it possible for God to issue the order, obedience would be impossible, and equally to those of every character. The hardened sinner, cannot be thought capable of love to God, which will dispose him to suffer eternally for God's glory. He may do that which will occasion eternal sufferings, but not out of obedience to God -- not with design to glorify him.
Neither can the awakened sinner be considered as the subject of such love of God. They see indeed the evil. Awakened Sinners are not lovers of God. They see indeed the evil of sin, and are sensible of its demerit? that they deserve destruction. But this doth not reconcile them to destruction, and make them willing to receive it. They tremble at the thoughts of it, strive against sin, and cry after deliverance. Were they willing to be damned, they would not be afraid of being damned, or seek in anyway to avoid it.
It is equally impossible for the saint to be reconciled to damnation as will appear, by considering what it implies. It implies the total loss of the divine image, and banishment from the divine presence and favor! It implies being given up to the power of apostate spirits, and consigned to the same dreary dungeon of despair and horror, which is prepared for them! It implies being doomed to welter in woe unutterable, blaspheming God, and execrating the creatures of God, "world without end!"
When people pretend that they are willing to be damned for the glory of God, they "know -- not what they say nor whereof they affirm." They leave out the principal ingredients of that dreadful state. Bid they take them into the account, they would perceive the impossibility of the thing. To suppose it required is to blaspheme God -- to pretend that man can submit to it, is to belie human nature -- to conceive that a child of God can reconcile himself to it, is to subvert every just idea of true religion. To require it, God must deny himself! To consent to it, man must consent to become an infernal! The statement of the case is a refutation of the scheme.
But if God's glory requires it, will not this reconcile the good and gain their consent?
God's glory doth not -- cannot require it. "The spirit of the Lord is not straightened." Human guilt and misery are not necessary to God's honor.
It is necessary that divine justice should be exercised on those who refuse divine grace; but not necessary that men should refuse divine grace. "As I live, saith the Lord God. I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live."
Such is the language of revelation; and the measures which God hath adopted relative to our guilty race speak the same language. He hath provided a city of refuge, and urges the guilty to "turn to the strong hold." -- He weeps over obstinate sinners who refuse his grace? "How shall I give thee up? How shall I deliver thee?" But rejoiceth over the penitent, as the father rejoiced over the returning prodigal.
God would not have provided a Savior, and made indiscriminate offers of pardon and peace had he chosen the destruction of sinners, and had their ruin been necessary to his honor. But God hath done these things, and manifested his merciful disposition toward mankind.
We have no need to "do evil that good may come. Our unrighteousness is not necessary to commend the righteousness of God."
How then, are we to understand the prayer of Moses, placed at the head of this discourse -- blot me, I pray that, out of thy book which than hast written?
As this is one of the principal passages of scripture which are adduced to support the sentiment we have exploded, a few things may be premised, before we attempt to explain it.
I. Should it be admitted that Moses here imprecated utter destruction on himself, it could not be alleged as a precept given to direct others, but only as a solitary incident, in the history of a saint, who was then compassed with infirmity. And where is the human character without a shade? This same Moses neglected to circumcise his children -- broke the tables of God's law -- spake unadvisedly with his lips -- yea, committed such offences against God, that he was doomed to die short of Canaan, in common with rebellious Israel.
II. The time -- in which it hath been particularly insisted that a person must be willing to be damned for God's glory, is at his entrance on a slate of grace; but Moses had been consecrated to the service of God long before he made this prayer. Nothing, therefore respecting the temper of those under the preparatory influences of the spirit can be argued from it.
III. Should we grant that Moses here imprecated on himself the greatest evil, a sense of other people's sins, and not a sense of his own sins, was the occasion. But,
IV. No sufferings of his could have been advantageous to others, had be submitted to them for their sake. Had he consented to have been a castaway -- to have become an infernal, as we have seen implied in damnation, this would not have brought salvation to Israel. Moses' hatred of God, and his sufferings and blasphemies, would not have atoned for the sins of his people, or tended in any degree to turn away the wrath of God from them.
It seems surprizing that the whole train of expositors should consider this good man as imprecating evil on himself for the good of others, when it is obvious that others could not have been benefited by it. For though expositors differ respecting the magnitude of the evil, they seem to agree that he did wish evil to himself, and pray that he might suffer for his people! We have seen no expositor who is an exception.
But let us attend to the prayer. Oh! this people have sinned a great sin; yet now, if thou will, forgive their sin; and if not, blot me, I prey thee, out of thy book.
We know the occasion. Israel had fallen into idolatry while Moses was on the mount -- had made an idol, and bowed in adoration before it. God told Moses what they had done -- threatened to destroy them -- excused Moses from praying for them, which had before been his duty, and promised to reward his faithfulness among so perverse a people, if he would now "hold his peace, and let God alone to destroy them." But Moses preferred the good of Israel to the aggrandisement of his own family, earnestly commended them to the divine mercy, and obtained the forgiveness of their sin -- "The Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do unto them." But he gave at that time no intimation of his merciful purpose toward them.
When Moses came down and found the congregation holding a feast to their idol, he was filled with grief and indignation; and took measures immediately to punish their sin and bring them to repentance. He first destroyed their idol and then about three thousands of the idolaters, by the sword of Levi, who at his call, ranged themselves on the Lord's side. The next day, fearing that God would exterminate the nation, agreeably to his threatening, Moses gathered the tribes, set their sin before them, and told them that he would return to the divine presence and plead for them, though he knew not that God would hear him. "Ye have sinned a great sin; and now I will go up unto the Lord; peradventure I shall make an atonement for your sin. And Moses returned unto the Lord and said, Oh! this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them gods of gold. Yet, now, if thou wilt, forgive their sin; and if not blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written."
Moses meaning, while praying for Israel, is obvious; but the petition offered up for himself is not equally so -- blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book.
Four different constructions have been put on the is prayer -- Some consider Moses as imprecating damnation on himself, for the good of his people -- Some as praying for annihilation, that they might find mercy -- Some as asking God that he might die with them, if they should die in the wilderness -- Others, that his name might be blotted out of the page of history, and his memory perish, should Israel be destroyed and not reach the promised land.
"Blot me" (saith Mr. Cruden) "out of thy book of life -- out of the catalogue, or number of those that shall be saved -- wherein Moses does not express what he thought might be done, but rather wisheth, if it were possible, that God would accept of him as a sacrifice in their stead, and by his destruction and annihilation, prevent so great a mischief to them." *
* Vid. Concordance, under BLOT.
Docr. S. Clark expresseth his sense of the passage to nearly the same effect.
Did Moses then ask to be made an expiatory sacrifice for the sin of Israel! Or did he solemnly ask of God what he knew to be so unreasonable that it could not be granted!
There is no hint in the account given of this affair, that Moses entertained a thought of being accepted in Israel's stead. He did not ask to suffer that they might escape -- he prayed to be blotted out of God's book, if his people could not be forgiven -- If thou wilt, forgive their sin; and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written.
Mr. Pool considers Moses as praying to be annihilated that Israel might be pardoned! "Blot me out of the book of life -- out of the catalogue, or number of those that shall be saved. I suppose Moses doth not wish his eternal damnation, because that state would imply both wickedness in himself and dishonor to God; but his annihilation, or utter lose of this life, and that to come, and all the happiness of both of them. Nor doth Moses simply desire this, but only comparatively expresseth his singular zeal for God's glory, and charity to his people; suggesting that the very thoughts of the destruction of God's people, and the reproach and blasphemy which would be cast upon God by means thereof, were so intolerable to him, that he rather wished, if it were possible, that God would accept him as a sacrifice in their stead, and by his utter destruction prevent so great a mischief." *
* Vid. Pool in locum.
Could the learned and judicious Mr. Pool seriously believe that inspired Moses prayed for annihilation! Or consider him as entertaining a suspicion that a soul could cease to exist! Or could he conceive him as deliberately asking of God to make him an expiatory sacrifice! Or harboring a thought that the sin of his people might be atoned by his being blotted out from among God's works! -- Strange!
Mr. Henry considers Moses as praying to die with Israel, if they must die in the wilderness. -- "If they must be cut off, let me be cut off with them -- let not the land of promise be mine by survivorship. God had told Moses, that if he would not interpose, he would make him a great nation -- No said Moses, I am so far from desiring to see my name and family, built on the ruins of Israel, that I choose rather to die with them." *
* Vid. Henry in loc.
If such is the spirit of this prayer, Moses does not appear resigned to the divine order, but rather peevish and fretful at the disappointment of his hope, which he had till then entertained. He had expected to lead Israel to the land of promise; if not indulged, seems not to have cared what became of himself or his family; and is thought here to address his maker, offering distinguishing favors to him, as Daniel did Belthazzar -- "thy gifts be to thyself, and give thy rewards to another -- I desire none of them for myself or mine -- If Israel die in the wilderness, let me die with them" -- From angry Jonah such a reply to the kind offers of a gracious God might not surprize us; but it was not to have been expected from the meekest of mankind. DOCT. HUNTER, in his biographical lectures, explodes this idea of Moses' asking to be damned for the salvation of Israel, and shews the absurdity of that construction of the text, but understands him as praying to die himself, before sentence should be executed on his people, if they were not pardoned. And in the declaration, whosoever hath sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book, he discovers an intimation, that that offending people should die short of the promised land! A discovery without a clew. This sin of Israel was pardoned. Sentence of death in the wilderness was occasioned by a subsequent act of rebellion, as will be shewn in the sequel.*
* Vid. Hunter's Lect. Vol. iv. Lect. iv
Mr. Fismin considers Moses as here praying to be blotted out of the page of history, if Israel were not pardoned; so that no record of his name, or the part which he had acted in the station assigned him, should he handed down to posterity. An exposition differing from the plain language of sacred history -- Blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book, which thou hast written. The page of history is written by man.
Such are the constructions which have been put on this scripture. The considerations which have been suggested, oblige us to reject them all, as founded in mistake. Our sense of the passage, and the reasons, which in our apprehension, support it, will be the subject of another discourse.