And I sought the LORD at that time, saying,…
Disappointment — the very word has an unpleasant ring; but who is fully able to describe the painfulness of the reality which this word indicates? Just picture to yourself a traveller making his preparations in another portion of the world to visit his dearest friends once more before he dies. For years he has been making his arrangements with the utmost carefulness; at the appointed time he has embarked with all his property, and he has safely managed through the greater portion of his journey, though most dangerous. But suddenly there rises up a violent storm that makes the masts and tackling crack, the flail craft, though in view of the desired haven, sinks to the bottom, and the wanderer, who came expecting rest within the circle of his friends, finds but a grave down in the gloomy depths. "How sad a picture!" you exclaim. It is no sadder, we reply, than the reality of many lives on earth. The public life of Moses, as Israel's lawgiver and guide, is, as it were, a picture set within a flame of two great disappointments. The first is the occasion when, on slaying the Egyptian, he fancies that his brethren should acknowledge him. as their deliverer, and finds himself most cruelly betrayed; the second, when he sees be is refused an entrance to the promised land.
I. THERE KNEELS IN PRAYER A GODLY MAN TO WHOM, AS WE CAN SEE AT ONCE, SUCH INTERCOURSE WITH GOD IS NOT A DUTY MERELY, OR A HABIT, BUT A PLEASURE AND DELIGHT. Must we now picture Moses in the stillness of the tent of witness, or in the boundless temple of creation, or in the solitude of waking night? It is enough for us that he now ventures, all alone with God, to place upon his lips the prayer that had been already lying heavily upon his heart for days and weeks, and he receives the answer which you know so well, but which produced, upon a heart like this, such an amount of grief. Well may we, first of all, speak of dark dealing in God's providence. For who is he whom we now see driven from the throne of grace with such inexorable severity? Is it a wicked man, to whom the wise king's words apply in all their force, "He that turneth away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer shall be an abomination"? Nay, but it is the special favourite of God, who often could succeed, by powerful intercession, in averting from a hundred thousand guilty heads the sword of justice when it had been raised to smite. What does he ask, that he thus stirs the wrath of Him to whom he speaks? Some special recompense, perhaps, for years of toil; or possibly, release from that most arduous post which he approached with such reluctance. Nay; he merely asked for a free entrance, a short stay, in the evening of his life, in that inheritance which God had promised to the fathers. How was that prayer expressed? Was it with an excessive urgency, unsteady faith, in an uncourteous tone? Nay; he himself is not afraid to own that he but asked a favour as a guilty one; and it is quite impossible to listen to his prayer without perceiving there the spirit of profound humility and the most hearty gratitude Are there not many who have had such an experience as Moses underwent? A lovely prospect smiled on you, a pilgrim on life's path; it seemed to you a very Canaan of terrestrial luxury; then you put forth your strongest efforts to attain that height and call the treasure yours. Alas! you see the palm trees of Canaan, but it is not permitted you to rest beneath their shade. Where would I stop, even if out of the book of each man's life I wished to do no more than indicate the chief among the sealed-up pages bearing the superscription "Unanswered prayers"? Verily, the Lord did not without good reason say of old that He would dwell in the thick darkness.
II. BUT IS IT REALLY HE, THE ONLY WISE, THE GRACIOUS ONE, THE GOD UNCHANGEABLE IN RIGHTEOUSNESS, WHO DWELLS IN THIS DARKNESS? Before you hesitate to answer this in the affirmative, look back a moment from the valley opposite Bethpeor, where the conclusion of this chapter places you, to Kadesh, which you know so well. Such a refusal, which, viewed in itself, seems almost quite inexplicable, harsh, at once appears in another light, when you have heard not merely what the heart of Moses says, but also what his conscience tells. We know full well there is a thread — often, indeed, invisible, yet natural, and such as none can break — which forms a bond between our conduct and our destiny; and if the history connected with each one of you were accurately known to us, it would be far from difficult to prove that God has really good reason for the choice He makes of such steep paths for some. At one time, weak in body, you pray vainly for recovery of health and strength, and you exclaim, "How dark my path!" But did you not, in younger days, employ your powers, when they were fresh, as instruments of sin? May not your present suffering, besides, be a sharp thorn that must remind you, through the flesh, how deeply you once fell Or yet again, some wretched father may be now beseeching God to bring his lost son back into his arms and to the home of God — but all in vain; the blinded one holds on in the broad path that leads to death. But have you ever thought upon the time when your own mother vainly urged you to forsake the sinful path? and have you also said within yourself, "I am but punished now, in my own family, for sins committed in my youth"?
III. But our sphere of contemplation tends to widen out on every side. IT IS NOT MERELY TO THE PREVIOUS HISTORY OF MOSES, BUT ALSO TO THE NEEDS OF ISRAEL, THAT WE MUST LOOK TO FIND THE TRUE SOLUTION OF THE ENIGMA CONNECTED WITH THE FIRM REFUSAL TO ACCEDE TO HIS REQUEST. If we mistake not, the providence of God becomes apparent here after His righteousness; and when we take a step still further in advance, we find that we can readily extol Him for a wise arrangement in His providence. Moses was but a man; it is impossible that one man should do everything; it must, too, be acknowledged that he was more fitted to guide Israel through the wilderness than lead them into Canaan. When we so rashly raise a loud complaint because our prayers remain unanswered, do we not far too frequently forget that we are here not for ourselves, but with and for each other; and that He who makes provision for the wants of all, without respect of persons, frequently must quite withhold something from one, that the fulfilment of his wishes may not turn out for another's injury? How much more lightly would our disappointments press on us had selfishness less influence; and what a multitude of instances does history afford in which God often, in His wisdom, gave no answer to men's prayers — at least, delayed His answer — so that in what saddens us there might be found a germ of what would work for others' good.
IV. BUT SOMEONE MAY REPLY, IT SURELY MUST HAVE SADDENED MOSES' HEART TO THINK THAT HE HAD BEEN INCITED TO THE SACRIFICE OF HIS OWN PERSONAL, LEGITIMATE DESIRE FOR ISRAEL'S BENEFIT. Such an objection might be called a fair one, if the man of God, through what he was deprived of, had been really too great a loser in the case. But just as many a hard, uncomely shell often conceals a kernel of the sweetest fruit, so it is with God's chastisements; the very rods employed in smiting drop with blessing from the Lord. He is deprived of — yes, Canaan; and that word means — does it mean everything? No, in the eye of faith it is not everything; it merely seems so to the mind of Moses now. Canaan is — and how could it be otherwise? — his earthly ideal; but ideals seldom gain by being realised, and even the Land of Promise offers no exception to the melancholy rule that there is far more pleasure in desire than even in the actual enjoyment of prosperity. But will it be impossible to forfeit Paradise even in Canaan? Shall sin be unknown there? Shall death have no dominion there? Does it make such a mighty difference to one like Moses whether death takes place on Nebo or, a few months later, upon Zion hill? for surely to such minds and hearts the whole earth is a land of sojourning, where all is strange. Has he been thinking of the daily cross he must expect, because within the first few weeks he only looks upon sad scenes of blood and tears, and afterwards finds out that Israel has certainly changed for the better as regards their dwelling place, but not in heart? Many an earnest prayer for longer life is utterly refused, that so the eye, closed ere the day of evil comes, may not perceive the misery to follow us.
V. WE PLACE OURSELVES UPON THE STAND POINT OF THE WORLD TO COME, AND THEN THE BLESSING IN DISGUISE APPEARS TO US AS AN ETERNAL GROUND OF GRATITUDE. But do you not yet feel convinced, with us, that Moses has received the punishment of his offence wholly within this present life, and that the temporary loss has been abundantly made up by God in heaven? Well may we rest assured that all the friends of God will have much cause for gratitude in heaven, but more especially for this — that He has said so often, in this world, through His strong love, "No more of this!" But do we not begin to find this out even on this side of the grave? Many of you, in silent admiration, must acknowledge that the principle of everlasting joy would never have been drawn out in your hearts had not the Lord been pleased to lead you through this world by paths where pains and crosses are familiar things. But the poor heart, that has been cured of lusting by the sorrow it has felt, finds constantly, in overwhelming measure, how the All-sufficient One, in a most wondrous way, makes up for what He has Withheld by giving us Himself.
(J. J. Van Oosterzee, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And I besought the LORD at that time, saying,