“The Death of Moses’ Deuteronomy 32:48-52; 34:1-12 November 8, 1992

Text Comments

Last Lord’s Day we considered, from chapters 28-30, the blessings and curses of the covenant God has made with us his people. The following chapters deal with certain administrative matters, repeat certain admonitions and predictions from earlier chapters — both in prose and poetry — and give us Moses’ blessing of the tribes of lsrael one by one. There is much of interest and importance in this material, and I was greatly tempted to expand this series of sermons still further, but I restrained myself. Much of the matter we have encountered before in the book and, I think, it is time to be done. But, we could not finish without attention to the stirring conclusion which narrates the death and burial of, shall we say it, the greatest man but one ever to live in this world.

32:49     To the east of the north end of the Dead Sea.

34:3  The places mentioned are listed in the order they would appear to a man facing north and then moving his eyes counterclockwise — first to the west, then to the south.

34:7   A remarkably old age, given the fact that in Moses’ own Psalm 90 we read that the years of our lives are three score years and ten, or, if by reason of strength, four score. His contemporaries didn’t live longer than we do.

Moses was a giant of a man. He is one of the church’s greatest heros. Excepting the Lord Christ himself, and perhaps John the Baptist, whom the Lord says may have been his equal, it is hard to think that the earth has been more unworthy of a man than it was of this man, Moses, or that a bigger man has ever walked in this world. When the image of God in man, renewed by grace and the Spirit of God, is made to shine brightly, extraordinary men and women are the result. And we know of no more extraordinary man than Moses or of a more extraordinary life than he lived. Wonderful as the miracles the apostles performed, they were not as great as those God wrought through Moses. As full of pathos, and suffering, and power, and goodness, and accomplishment as were the ministries of Peter and Paul, Moses as God’s minister, towers above them, a titan, a colossus, who as God’s servant and on Christ’s behalf and wielding the power of the Holy Spirit, virtually alone, over and again, stood between the church of God and extinction.

Small wonder then that his death was no ordinary death. Indeed only two other mere men in human history stand above Moses for the manner in which God brought their lives to an end, and those two men — Enoch and Elijah — never actually died! Moses died, but in the very presence of God and was then buried by the Lord himself, or his angels. Matthew Henry refers to it as a ‘euthanasia’ — ‘a delightful death.’

However, as extraordinary as Moses’ death was, as remarkable and unique, we should not miss the point that Moses’ death and burial are clearly to be taken by us as a figure for the death of all believers in Christ. This whole part of Scripture is full of such timeless moments and figures, in which the various aspects or moments of salvation itself are represented in historical events. We know well enough, because the Scripture itself points to the way in which the Exodus, the wilderness, and the promised land come to represent the beginning, the pilgrimage, and the consummation of the Christian life. We are well acquainted with the way that in various hymns, black spirituals, and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress crossing the Jordan River becomes an image of death, with heaven on the other side.

There can be no doubt that Moses’ death, being so strikingly larger than the normal experience of the saints, is likewise such a figure for that death which comes to all the children of God and for the nature and manner of our dying. It is true that this is history and is the account of the great man’s actual death, but this is also salvation history and an enacted lesson about the death of all those who die in Christ.

Let me show you in six particulars, how Moses’ death serves to teach us about our own death, if we, like him, die in the faith of Christ. There are no doubt others, but let me draw your attention briefly to six particulars of his death which likewise will be true of ours, if we are in Christ when we die.

First, Moses had a definite appointment with death. In 32:50 the Lord tells his servant that after he has seen the promised land from the top of Nebo, he will die there in the mountains. And so, when Moses left the camp of Israel to walk into the hills, he knew and everyone else knew that he would not return. Imagine being an Israelite that day, watching the great man’s back as he strode away from the camp, continuing to watch him until you could see him no longer. And is not this last act of Moses so perfectly characteristic of the man? It is hard to face death when you are still in full possession of all your powers, as Moses was, when you feel as if you could live on for years yet. But, without complaint, without hesitation, he bid farewell to his loved ones, to his friends Joshua and Caleb, and to the people and took his staff and walked away. Did he turn one last time at the summit of the last hillock where he could still see them all and wave a final farewell? I know and you know he didn’t dawdle on that last hike. He walked steadily, his heart aflame with thoughts of all that had gone before and of all that was soon to come.

In this Moses’ situation is like ours. Oh, we do not all know exactly when we are to die. Though it must be said, that in this day and age, most of us live to know about when we are going to die or that we have the disease that is going to kill us and that it has advanced to the stage from which there can be no return. But, whether we die suddenly and unexpectedly or at the end of a long period of sickness and decline, the fact remains that we too have an appointment with death. All our days were numbered for us before there was a one of them. God has already determined the day of our death; it is fixed and cannot be changed. As we read in Psalm 50:5, the Lord sits in heaven and summons the heavens and the earth: ‘Gather to me my consecrated ones, who made a covenant with me…’ And, day by day, year by year, one after another of his children is so gathered to him. [Bill McColley Whyte’s ‘sandglass’; Rutherford: ‘Remember your shortening sandglass.’]

We will not hear it in the same way Moses did — that is not so important — but every one of us will receive the same summons to depart this world. And everyone of us is therefore to be as ready to answer that summons as was Moses, as uncomplaining, as obedient!

Second, Moses went to his death with great regrets. Probably everyone of us, at one time or another, has stumbled over the Lord’s treatment of Moses. It seems to us that, given all that this good man had to endure from this stubborn and ungrateful people, given all that he had so nobly and selflessly done for them and for the Lord, he was punished too severely for his lapse at Meribah. But God knows far better than we the way that both justice and wisdom must take, and we should put our hands over our mouths and keep silent. It is ludicrously unlikely that we would be better judges of these matters than the Holy One of Israel. It was a great crime Moses committed. [Let few be teachers, for theirs is….] And there was probably not a day in his life subsequently that he did not either flare up in anger at himself or suffer some sharp discouragement because of his foolish sin which now meant he would never set his own feet on the soil of the promised land, for Moses as great a punishment as can be imagined. ‘O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from this body of death.’ So he prayed day after day, until the summons came.

For the wrong he had done and for the consequences which had followed it, he walked into the hills with deep regret, and, in that too, he died as all of us will. For all the sins we will want so much never to have committed, for all the results that they had in our lives and in the lives of others, death will come as a bittersweet. And so it behooves us all, considering that fact, to work while it is day, before the night comes when no man can work; to put on righteousness in the fear of the Lord, not, of course, that we will have no regrets when we come to die, but so that we will have many fewer of those greatest regrets of all.

The saddest things of tongue or pen,

to tell the things that might have been.

Still, however, how much more obvious it is that God’s grace had covered all Moses’ sins, and that he went to his grave not bowed down, not fearful for his state and condition, but certain that, despite his great sins, there was forgiveness with God and the warmest welcome for him! Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints!

Third, Moses died within sight of heaven and the future life. This is surely one of the most lovely figures by which this history typifies the death of all of God’s saints. Moses died on the mountain which overlooks the promised land. He died after standing atop that mountain and surveying Canaan to its four corners. And, by the grace and promise of God, and by all that the Word of God tells us about heaven and about how death brings us there, the same opportunity is afforded to us as was afforded to Moses before his death. Canaan was a figure or image of heaven, and Moses doubtlessly saw it that way, as Abraham had before him. But, by faith and by the Bible, we too can look directly past death, over the line, to what Rutherford calls ‘the laughing side of the world.’ How sad if we do not. How much harder it would have been for Moses to die on the east side of Nebo never having caught sight of the land. [Henley vs. Whyte]

This is Isaac Watts’ point in the last verse of his great hymn on heaven:

‘Could we but climb where Moses stood, And view the landscape o’er,

Not Jordan’s stream, nor death’s cold flood, Should fright us from the shore.’

This is what Alexander Whyte was speaking of when he said to his congregation, and especially those in his congregation who were nearer to death than not:

‘ …as I have said to you a thousand times: Have your best books near your deathbed and well within your reach. Aye, have your best books near you while yet death has not knocked at your door. The last time I saw one of our most godly-minded members in his widowed room, he was sitting with his cup of tea on his lonely table, and with his well-worn Bible lying open between his cup and his plate. Do you know that simple-looking sight made a deep impression upon me…. Show me your most favorite books and those nearest your table and your bed, and from them I will read your prospects when you come to die.’ [Thomas Shepard, pp. 132-133] [Whyte’s first pastoral call at Free St. Georges.]

Whyte’s own selection of those books by which to see over to the other side before one dies included Richard Baxter’s The Saints Everlasting Rest, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, especially all the river crossing scenes in both parts, The Letters of Samuel Rutherford and Anna Cousins’ poem on Rutherford’s letters, The Sands of Time are Sinking, and, especially, the 14th chapter of John and chapters 21 and 22 of Revelation. This was the reading list he had prepared in advance for himself for the time when God summoned him to die. It would be hard to improve on that list, but have you begun to draw up one for yourself? How are you planning to climb Mt. Nebo when your summons comes? Part of the purpose of the manner of Moses’ death is to teach every believer that he can climb the mountain too. But he or she must be ready and able to do so.

Fourth, God attended Moses’ death. Surely that which most sends chills down our spines in this history is that God himself attended Moses’ death and saw to his burial. What that means we would love to know. Exactly how did Moses die? Did he simply lie down on the mountain side and fall asleep? And how was the grave dug? Did God do it or his angels? We find in this the greatest honor paid Moses and we say to ourselves, quite naturally, if only God would do that for me, I would not only cease fearing death, I would relish death.

But, he does do that for all the saints when they come to die and will do it for you, if only you die in Christ. The Lord Jesus himself, in Luke 16, tells us that when the saints come to die, angels are dispatched to receive them and take them to heaven. And in Isaiah 43:2 he promises us: ‘When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers they will not sweep over you.’

In Athanasius’ Life of St. Antony — one of the first Christian monks — he reports that Antony, in prayer on a desert mountain top one day, actually saw in the distance in the air someone being born heavenward and all who were part of the procession were greatly rejoicing. Antony prayed to learn who this might be and it was revealed to him that it was the soul of Amun, a monk whom Antony knew. Upon investigation it was learned that Amun had died at that very time that Antony saw his soul ascending from the mountain top. Well, I’m not so sure about what Antony saw, but on the strength of the Lord’s own words, I have no doubt that there was great joy for Amun and the angels who escorted him to heaven.

No one knows exactly what those moments will be like, just as we do not know exactly how Moses died. But, I assure you, in Jesus’ name, that they will be moments like nothing you have ever experienced before for wonder and for joy. Because, if you are in Christ, God himself will attend your death. And while he may not actually do the work of opening the grave to receive your body, he will note where it is:

God my Redeemer lives, and often from the skies,

Looks down and watches all my dust till he shall bid it rise.

Fifth, God wrote Moses’ epitaph. It is a wonderful epitaph for an extraordinary man. But it is hardly the only epitaph in the Bible. In fact there are a great many of them. Some quite short, such as the one God wrote for Abraham: that he was ‘the friend of God;’ or for David, ‘that he was a man after God’s own heart.’ Some are longer, such as that for the godly priest Jehoiada: ‘he did much good in Israel, both for God and for his temple.’

But, you see, the Lord promises an epitaph for all his children who walk with him in truth. ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’ And when your life is done, perhaps if you are a Christian at all, nothing is going to matter so much to you as what God is going to write over your life, what epitaph the Almighty will write for you. Will it be such as God wrote for Antipas in Revelation 2:13: ‘My faithful witness.’ Or, for Simeon, the old man who saw Jesus in the temple: ‘He was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel.’ Or for John Knox many centuries later: ‘He never feared the face of men.’ [Even if you got started late: gravestone in a cemetery in Cambridge, England: ‘Here lies an old man who lived but 7 years.’ (Moses’ great work done after he was 80!)]

It is the perfection of a Christian’s death that God will have something fine to write about that saint, something of the life of faith he or she led before Him. What will he write? What will you wish him to write? Death is rushing toward us, life is so quickly passing away. Time runs short. What will you have him write? And if it is to be ‘faithful witness’ or ‘a righteous and devout man or woman’ or ‘well done, faithful servant’ must you not then renew your zeal and ‘forgetting what is behind and straining to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings’ until you are conformed to him? Moses epitaph reminds us that one will be written for us as well. It is a summons to live so as to give glory to God by giving him something to write over our lives when they are done.

Sixth and finally, Moses died in one sense only, or to put it otherwise Moses’ death was temporary! Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Moses’ death and burial is that it was not the last word about Moses. More than a thousand years later, the great man came out of that grave to walk and talk on another mountain top with the Son of God the night of his transfiguration (He did set foot in the promised land!) and to encourage him in the face of his impending death for our redemption. As with the translations of Enoch and Elijah, so with the interrupted sleep of Moses, we are given a sign of our own continuing existence in heaven, even at the moment of our death, and of our future resurrection to everlasting life. Death and burial are a mere stopping off point on the road to Life eternal. The soul is at once in paradise, where the angels carry it, but, even the body is only awaiting its day. What better, what more beautiful sign and demonstration of that than that Moses’ body should live again even in this world. How easy a work it is for God to bring a body back to life, even one that had been in its grave upwards of one thousand, five hundred years.

Surely, nothing ought to be more certain to us, as we think of our coming death, than that it is not the end, but the beginning: the beginning of the soul’s perfect and sinless life in the presence of the glory of God and the resting of the body while it awaits the consummation of all things and its reconstitution into immortality on the great day. Moses’ death reminds us of this too!

A great man’s death we have narrated for us here, but also a picture of every Christian’s death: as an appointment God has made for us at a definite time, as a step we must take with some deep regrets but may nevertheless take with wonderful confidence, as a step we take within sight of the world to come, as a step which God himself will attend and which we will not make alone, as the point at which our divine epitaph will be written, and as by no means the end but the beginning of our lives.

However unique Moses’ death may have been, in all of these ways it is like our own. And that should wonderfully nerve us to prepare to die well as Christians should — like Moses did — and inspire us to set about making sure that when our summons comes, we will die, as Moses did, in the strength of the Lord and the light and comfort of his Word (there is only one chance to die well). I think there can hardly be a thing our society needs more, in this day when the reputation of the Christian church is at such a low ebb, than to see Christians die as Christians should, as Moses did, with backs straight and eyes clear. And if Christians can die like that, then it is certain they will also live much better than many now do.

I debated with myself whether I should conclude this sermon with the wonderfully moving poem by the Irish poet and hymnwriter, Cecil Frances Alexander, entitled ‘The Burial of Moses.’ It is perhaps easier to understand when read than when recited. But it is surely one of the greatest of Christian poems and one I find so spiritually inspiring and impressive, I decided to read it nonetheless. In it she compares Moses’ funeral to that which would typically be given to a great military figure, or philosopher, or poet in her day in Ireland or England. And then she remembers that Moses, who was forbidden to enter the promised land with Israel, did, at last set foot on it some many centuries later.

If a philosophy or religion does not help you to die, it will not help you to live. But our holy faith, alone among all philosophies, helps us not only to die, but even to find in death the truest fulfillment of our lives. Moses’ death is one grand illustration of how this is so!

The Burial of Moses

By Nebo’s lonely mountain,

On this side Jordan’s wave

In a vale in the land of Moab,

There lies a lonely grave.

And no man knows that sepulchre,

And no man saw it e’er,

For the angels of God upturned the sod,

And laid the dead man there.

That was the grandest funeral

That ever passed on earth;

But no man heard the trampling,

Or saw the train go forth:

Noiselessly as the daylight

Comes back when night is done,

And the crimson streak on ocean’s cheek

Grows into the great sun;

Noiselessly as the springtime

Her crown of verdure weaves,

And all the trees on all the hills

Open their thousand leaves;

So without sound of music

Or voice of them that wept,

Silently down from the mountain’s crown

The great procession swept.

Perchance that bald old eagle

On gray Beth-peor’s height,

Out of his lonely eerie

Looked on that wondrous sight:

Perchance the lion stalking,

Still shuns that hallowed spot,

For beast and bird have seen and heard

That which man knoweth not.

But when the warrior dieth,

His comrades in the war,

With arms reversed and muffled drum,

Follow his funeral car;

They show the banners taken,

They tell the battles won,

And after him lead the masterless steed,

While peals the minute-gun.

Amid the noblest of the land

We lay the sage to rest,

And give the bard an honored place,

With costly marble drest,

In the great minster transept

When lights like glories fall,

And the organ rings and the sweet choir sings

Along the emblazoned wall.

This was the truest warrior

That ever buckled sword,

This the most gifted poet

That ever breathed a word;

And never earth’s philosopher

Traced with his golden pen,

On the deathless page, truths half so sage

As he wrote down for men.

And he had not high honor,–

The hillside for a 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?

In that strange grave without a name,

Whence his uncoffined clay

Should break again, O  wondrous thought!

Before the judgment day,

And stand with glory wrapped around

On the hills he never trod,

And speak of the strife that won our life

With the Incarnate Son of God.

O lonely grave in Moab’s land!

O dark Beth-peor’s hill!

Speak to these curious hearts of ours,

And teach them to be still.

God hath his mysteries of grace,

Ways that we cannot tell;

He hides them deep like the hidden sleep

Of him he loved so well.