And I sought the LORD at that time, saying,…
When we read the history of a nation as we do in the Old Testament, we cannot but be struck by the extent to which a nation depends upon its representative men. Its ambitions, virtues, and hopes may be what you please, but they must find visible embodiment and capable instruction in some great and commanding personality. One lesson of the opening chapter of Deuteronomy is that nations, as a rule, are not very sympathetic with those on whom the burden of their affairs is laid. They heap responsibilities upon their leaders, and leave them to carry weights beyond human strength. They hardly think of their limitations as men like themselves, who, besides the public duties which they discharge, have a spiritual life of their own to care for, a conscience of their own to keep right with Goal a spiritual ladder to climb, individual convictions, and a soul to save. They do not consider that God is looking on at the trial of a strong but weary spirit, while men may be doing their best to make the trial to turn out to his hurt. This passage shows us this great man in the last year of his life. The dying of Moses had been extended beyond the common measure of humanity, and his experience had been as various as his life had been prolonged. He had seen the courts of Pharaoh; he had dwelt in the tents of Midian for forty years, and for forty years more he had never escaped from the pressure of the tens of thousands of Israel. He knew the worry of his public position, and he knew also the awful message of God. The greatest figure in the Old Testament, as far as we can judge greatness, his heart was most deeply pledged to his people, and the promise God made to them. The day was long passed when he had identified himself with Israel for weal or woe. At the close of his long life — with the wonderful experience of what God had done lying behind him — what was the thought that rises to Moses' lips? It is that all this has only been enough to awaken hope — "O Lord God, Thou hast begun to show Thy servant Thy greatness and Thy mighty hand." The mysterious name of God, which our Bible translates, "I am," has been rendered by some scholars, "I will be; I will do what I will do. It is My very nature to be a God of unimaginable promise, doing for those who look to Me far more than they can ask or think." I believe that rendering is as legitimate as the more metaphorical one. At any rate, this is the conception of the Divine nature which experience has enforced upon Moses. At the end of his long life he can only feel that God has begun to show His greatness. If he is sure of anything, it is that God can do more and will do more than He has done yet. His very name is a name of promise. Now, that is a worthy spirit with which to come to the close of one's life. Death is a decisive end for us — the close of all our work on this scene. But if we have been in the company of God and learned to know Him, we will not measure His work by anything we have seen. Though our strength is spent, He has no more than indicated His purpose and excited His people's interest and hopes. When St. Paul was ready to die he wrote to Timothy, I have finished my course. But if he had been able to see what we see now, would he not have exclaimed, as Moses did, "O Lord, Thou hast begun"? There is a famous passage in Latin poetry in which the founder of the Roman race is taken to the end of the world and shown the fortunes of posterity. The grand figures of later history pass in magnificent procession before his eyes. But what Moses felt was far better than any such vision. He had faith that the work which had been so much to him was in God's hands, and that though his part in it was all but over, God's was only beginning. It is easier to apply this consideration to New Testament times. When the last of the Apostles died, what had God done in the world? He had kindled His little sparks of light here and there in the darkness of heathendom. But the whole framework, the whole spirit of society were pagan. A society like that in which we live, in which there is an instinctive recognition of Christ as final moral authority, in which children are baptized in His name — such a society was beyond the Apostles' vision, and perhaps beyond their conception. The Lord had more to do for the world than they had seen. It is the same now. Generation after generation passes, men grow old and grey and die in the work of the Lord, yet that work is ever beginning. We see the authority of Christ extending even in Christendom. We see the application of His will becoming more constant and thorough. They grow old, not to be pessimists, not to lose hope in the world because their own eyes are dim or their natural force abated, but with their hearts young within them; eager and interested in what God is doing; sure that the best is yet to be. Moses, with this noble faith in God's purpose, offered passionate prayer to God — "I pray Thee let me go over and see the good land." We can hardly imagine the interest of Moses in Canaan. It was the land of the fathers — Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It was the land God had chosen as the inheritance of Israel. It was the goal of forty years' wanderings. It was at length, for the second time, and after a faithless generation had perished in the wilderness, within their sight. It was not God's will that Moses should live to see the conquest of Canaan. There are people so deeply interested in the evolution of things — as to what practical applications electricity will be put, what Socialism will do in the way of reconstructing society, what will be the position of Christianity and the Church, what will become of the Chinese and Turkish empires — that they can pray to be kept alive to see the end. And if they are not they may leave the world with a keen sense of disappointment. What was the sin of Moses? At first sight it seems very strange. Moses has this testimony given him in the Bible — that he was meek above all men. Yet he was not always meek. He was hot and hasty in his youth when he slew an Egyptian, and the sin of his youth flared up one fatal moment as he struck the rock. At last his sin found him out, and excluded him from the Holy Land. I can imagine someone feeling that in this matter Moses was hardly dealt with, and that the inexorableness of God is painful to contemplate. No doubt it is meant to impress us that way. Believe it in time, all young men and women. There are good things, the best things, the only things you will one day care for, that sin makes impossible; a single bad action can forfeit hopes that you will never be able to redeem. It can draw an invisible line round about you — a line invisible to everyone except God and you — that you cannot cross. Moses is presented here to us learning one of the hardest of all lessons — the acceptance of God's will as it is determined by our own sins. Often our repentance is no better than a desire to escape the penalty of our faults. But our hope lies in accepting, not in rebelling and struggling against, the consequences which God has attached to our sins. To learn humility, to learn that God knows the discipline which is best for us, to learn to walk softly and accept as His will restrictions and losses which our sins have brought with them — that is the secret for restoring the soul. Rebellion does no good. Unbelieving despondency does no good. What is required is that the punishment of our sin be recognised as what it is, and taken as God's will for our good. It is never pleasant, how could it be? The most awful thing in the world, it has been said, is the unpardoned sin, and the next is sin which has been pardoned. To accept the punishment of our iniquity is to have experience of both of these, and we need it to make us hate sin as we should. For remember, though Moses' prayer was not granted, we are not to Suppose that his sin was not forgiven. It is striking that in the New Testament Moses appeared in glory and talked with Jesus of the death He should accomplish in Jerusalem. Thus all the limits which sin had imposed upon his life had vanished; thus he saw how far the grand work of God had progressed. Thus his mind still looked forward to the great event in which that great work should be consummated in the death of Jesus on the Cross. Moses talked of that, for that was his hope as it is ours. It is not true that the consequences of sin are immutable. If that were so there would be no Gospel. By God's will they abide for a time, but there is a world in which curse shall be no more. It is not true that the limitations of sin and its deformities are seen even in heaven. But God's answer to Moses' prayer did not end with His refusal. "Charge Joshua, and encourage him, and strengthen him, for he shall go over before this people, and he shall cause them to inherit the land which thou shalt see." The natural effect of despair is that we lose heart. We lose interest in our work when the accomplishment of it is a thing in which we have no interest. We are not going to be there, why spend ourselves as though we were? To speak like that is to forget that the work is not ours. It is God's. Our interest is not to be limited as if it were a private concern of our own. It is a mark of true goodness when a man can admire and encourage his successor, and keep up his interest and hope in the common cause, though active participation in its affairs has become impossible for him. We sometimes see men who have been great leaders retire with a bad grace. They looked askance at those carrying on their work. They are more ready to be critical and sulky than to cry, "Well done." They are under no obligation to encourage their successors! Over against this set these words of God to Moses, "Charge Joshua." Possibly there are some whose own sins have inflicted losses which are very hard to bear. We might have entered the land of promise. We might have been men and women infinitely different from what we are — brighter, happier, richer in our souls. Well, what does God say after our disappointments? He says what He said to Moses: Do not be selfish, do not sulk; do not let your disappointments, bitter as they are, cast a shadow over your family or over the church. Digest it in solitude. But beyond everything, get above Pisgah and see the goodly mountain of Lebanon, and then, with the glory of that prospect on your face, turn to those whose hearts are cold within them, whose spirits are broken, and cherish and encourage and strengthen them. Tell them what God has prepared for those who love Him, and rejoice with them that they will inherit the land which you have only seen from afar.
(J. Denney, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And I besought the LORD at that time, saying,