Remember, chapters 1 and 2 have set the stage for the account of the deliverance of Israel from Egypt that follows. In chapter 1 we read of the oppression of the Israelites under the rule of an Egyptian dynasty that had no loyalty to Joseph or his descendants and wished to employ the nation for slave labor and in chapter 2 we read of the birth, boyhood, and young adulthood of Moses, the man whom the Lord will use to bring Israel out of Egypt. We left Moses in exile in Midian. As is so often the case, the Lord works according to a timetable very different from our own. Who would have thought that fourteen years would pass between the dramatic conversion of the Apostle Paul and the commencement of his main work. Israel remained oppressed in Egypt while her deliverer seems to us to be twiddling his thumbs in Midian. But now, in chapter 3, events begin to occur that will set in motion the plan of God to deliver his people from their bondage in Egypt.
Jethro is another name for Reuel, as he is called in 2:18. He is described as a “priest of Midian.”
Moses was doing what he apparently mostly did in those days, he tended his father’s sheep. The Hebrew verb suggests that this was his customary work. He was a shepherd. It was preparation for his later work as the shepherd of Israel, as he is called in Isaiah 63:11. In any case, in looking for good pasture for his flock, he traveled some distance and found himself near Mt. Horeb, which, like Jethro, also has another name, Mt. Sinai. It is here referred to as “the mountain of God,” in all probability because of what will soon happen there.
The “angel of the Lord” = “Yahweh present in time and space.” [Ellison, 16] It is a “reverential synonym” for the Lord himself as the context makes clear. [Cole, 64] In other usages of “angel of the Lord” in theophanies, divine appearances, it is also a way of speaking not of an angel but of the Lord himself. There is no visible appearance indicated except that of the burning bush itself. Moses sees the bush and hears God speak. The “angel of the Lord” in v. 2 is the “Lord” and “God” of v. 4.
Bushes can catch fire, even spontaneously, in the dry desert under the hot sun, but what made this miraculous was that, though the bush burned, it was not consumed. You are aware that we use the symbol of a burning bush, with the legend in Latin “And yet it was not consumed,” as one of our bulletin covers. It has long served in Presbyterian circles as an image of the church and of God’s presence in the church. It is doubtful that we should impute such an explicit symbolism here in Exodus 3:2. However, it is true to say that fire is one of the recurring symbols of God’s presence in the Bible. We’ll see this fire again later in the exodus narrative (13:21) and at Mt. Horeb (19:18). Here it is the fire that is emphasized, being mentioned four times in vv. 2-3 alone. The burning bush is mentioned only once more in the Bible, in Deut. 33:16 where, in reference to God himself, we read of “the favor of him who dwelt in the burning bush.”
In the ANE it was a nearly universal belief that the place in which a god had revealed himself became holy; it belonged to the god and partook of his sanctity. That idea was to bedevil Israel through the ages to come as she accepted an all too physical notion of God and his presence. It is otherwise in the Bible. Fact is, God appeared to Moses in a place whose location remains unknown. In fact, despite some claims to the contrary, we cannot even locate Mt. Sinai or Horeb with certainty. The Bible does not give us a specific geographical location for the mountain, even given its immense importance as the place where God would reveal his Law to his people. Unlike Islam, there is no practice of pilgrimage to holy sites in the Bible and, even in the case of the pilgrimage feasts three times a year in Jerusalem, the rationale for going to Jerusalem was that the temple worship was located there, not because of events that had happened in Jerusalem in the past. God didn’t live at Sinai or in Jerusalem. The highest heavens cannot contain him, as Solomon said at the dedication of the temple, and his followers could find him anywhere.
God identifies himself first as the God of Moses’ own father, the God of whom he was taught, the God he was taught to worship and to trust in by his own parents. But then he goes further and identifies himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Israel’s patriarchs. The patriarchs were mentioned last, you remember, in 2:24, God’s ancient covenant with them given as the reason why God was about to act on Israel’s behalf. That Moses understood precisely who this God was is indicated by his reaction to what he was told. Obviously he couldn’t see God, but Moses didn’t even want to look at the fire, the symbol of God’s presence. In any case, the knowledge of God that Moses will bring to Israel will not be knowledge of a God they have not known before, but a fuller knowledge of the God they have long known.
You will remember that, in jousting with the Sadducees, the Lord Jesus cites the first half of 3:6 as proof of the resurrection. The fact that God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, must mean that they will continue to live as the human beings that they were. As Jesus put it then, “He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” God could not then be the God of those men, so long dead, were they not still living and still to live. Every detail of the Bible has its importance. I am not going to preach a sermon on the resurrection from this paragraph, it is not the paragraph’s main point, but Jesus himself indicates that I could preach such a sermon and be entirely faithful to the text.
We have God using the same loaded verbs that we read in 2:24-25: God saw, he heard, and he knew. The repetition of 2:24-25 in 3:7 indicates that what God is doing, speaking to Moses from the burning bush, is taking steps to address Israel’s plight in Egypt. We have not yet been told what God plans for Moses but we know it has to do with Israel’s deliverance.
“Come down” i.e. from heaven. It is an anthropomorphism, to be sure, but expresses the divine majesty. He must come down to us.
“milk and honey” are synecdoches for agricultural production and described the bounty of the land into which the Lord will bring his people. The list of the peoples who now inhabit the land to which God will take Israel serves two purposes: 1) first it identifies it as the land that the Lord had long before promised to Abraham; and 2) that it is a fertile, settled land that will have to be taken from its present inhabitants.
The bombshell. Midian was now home for Moses. Egypt was a place of danger for him, though the Lord will soon tell him that it is not as dangerous as he might have thought. Everyone who had been seeking his life had died by this time.
At this point it is a natural question and perhaps an expression of an appropriate humility. After all, he is now an outlaw, an exile, and a simple shepherd. What is more, he has no particular standing among the Israelites and his one effort to intervene in their affairs ended badly. But self-distrust is only a virtue if it leads to trust in God. As Moses has time to think about it, he may have realized that his peculiar upbringing in the Egyptian court prepared him for this role, but as he hears more and thinks more of what this calling will actually require of him, his doubts begin to surface in a new and less praiseworthy way. We’ll read of that in chapter 4.
The question is not who is Moses; the question is who is with Moses! And the fact that God knows in advance precisely how everything is going to turn out should silence all doubts about the Lord’s plan. Of course, as a sign, that still requires Moses to proceed in faith. The proof that God will be at work in and through him will be that God’s plans will come to pass and Israel will leave Egypt and worship at this same mountain. Well, Moses won’t see that happen until he has already stuck his neck out!
Now, if you read the commentaries on this famous and important paragraph of the Bible, one thing they will point out is that there is something very typical about this encounter between Moses and the Lord at the burning bush. As the calling of a prophet it has many similarities to what we find in Isaiah 6, Jeremiah 1, and Acts 9. In each case there is a shattering encounter with the holy God and there is an assignment given. As simply an instance of man’s encounter with God, it has many parallels in the Bible, and, of course, chief among them is the encounter of Israel with God later in this same place: the revelation of God’s holiness, the fear of the people, and their being summoned to serve the Lord. As indicated in v. 12, what Moses experienced, Israel will experience. Moses’ experience here foreshadows the experience of God’s people as a whole. We pointed out last time that this is characteristic of the Bible’s pedagogy. The great men of biblical history – the Abrahams, Moseses, Davids, Pauls – represent every Christian and their lives become models, patterns for every believer in God and Christ. Indeed that has continued to be the case. If we want to understand conversion we look to the paradigm conversions, what the Puritans called “election conversions,” of Augustine, of Luther, of John Wesley, or Charles Spurgeon. All conversions are not like those, of course; most are not so dramatic, so sudden, or followed by such a consequential Christian life. But we can see conversion and its nature and meaning in those larger than life conversions of those great Christian men. Well so it is here in Exodus 3. We have here a larger-than-life illustration of the life of every believer in this remarkable incident in the life of Moses.
This history functions on two very distinct levels. In the first place, we have the history itself, the unfolding drama of the exodus, and this is a necessary first step: Moses’ call and commissioning by God to lead Israel out of bondage. Moses here receives the authority he needs to lead Israel, the specific direction that he is to follow – more details will be given to him later in this same episode, in the remainder of the chapter – and the confidence to undertake such a daring assignment: to confront Pharaoh, to assume leadership of the Israelites, and to lead his people out of Egypt when the Egyptians would have every reason to insist that they stay. The outworking of this divine call to Moses will occupy not only the next some chapters of Exodus but, in a way, the remainder of the Pentateuch.
But the history also functions paradigmatically as an account of a man’s encounter with God, any man and any believer. That is very clear given the way this encounter, for all its utter uniqueness, is so like so many other such incidents recorded in the Bible. Take note of what we find here that we find everywhere in God’s dealings with human beings in grace and with his people.
- First, we find him meeting them, surprising them really, in the commonplace.
When does Moses encounter God? He is doing his daily work. He is in the midst of his ordinary routine. God, as it were, “comes down” from heaven to interrupt Moses in the middle of his working day. Moses didn’t rise that morning to meet with God at a burning bush. He rose and did what he did on most days, looked to the needs of his father-in-law’s flocks. And he was in the midst of doing that when God came near to talk to him. It was a surprise, as so often in God’s dealings with men. And so it was in many of these “encounters” that are narrated for us in Holy Scripture. Isaiah didn’t go into the temple to behold a vision of God. He was there to worship as he often was. He was devoting himself to the ordinary routine of that worship when God interrupted his life and revealed himself in holiness and glory. And so Paul. Where is he met by the risen Christ? Walking along the road on his way to his next assignment. That was the very last thing that Paul imagined would happen to him. But God is sovereign and he demonstrates that sovereignty in the way in which he determines time, place, and manner of his encounters with human beings.
We worship a God of the commonplace and the routine. He is as likely to meet you in the middle of your daily work – whether at the office or the kitchen sink – as he is to meet you in some exotic location to which you have gone precisely for the purpose of a meeting with God. He is more likely to meet you in the ordinary routine of Lord’s Day worship than on a retreat for the purpose of spiritual advance. Alexander Whyte tells of a winter vacation he took and of it coming to its end and of his fear that he would have spent several weeks and never have met with God. And so he stole out of the house and took a long walk along the country roads of the mountainous west of Scotland. He walked and prayed and tried to find God and had no success at all. And then, as the daylight began to fade and he needed to turn for home, he found himself standing before a great mountain, covered with snow, and, suddenly, unexpectedly, the Lord met him. The text from David’s psalm shot into his heart, “Wash me, and I will be whiter than snow,” and, he says, “in a moment I was with God, or, better, God was with me.” But, I have tried to do the same thing on a number of occasions and rarely has it worked. It is far more likely, in my experience, that God will draw near to me when I am in the middle of my ordinary routine, whether it is my work or my worship on the Lord’s day than that I can, somehow, determine the time and place of God’s meeting with me. Spurgeon certainly had no idea that the little chapel into which he turned one snowy Sunday morning as a sixteen year old would prove to be his Bethel or his burning bush.
Moses could have looked for God all over that wilderness and wouldn’t have found him. God found Moses when he was faithfully performing his daily work. There is something wonderfully encouraging, I think, for us all in the fact that God met Moses when he was meeting the ordinary responsibilities of his daily life. God will choose the time, the place, the manner. We must continue to live our life as Christians, praying to God and trusting him, reading his word and obeying it, but we wait on God to reveal himself to us. We are not in charge of his schedule, but he know ours
- Second, not only does God meet his people in the commonplace, in the common run of their lives and duties, he meets them personally.
We take far too much for granted the extraordinary thing that we read here. “Moses, Moses!” God calls him by name. He comes down from heaven, down so far, and calls an individual man by name. Do you remember when Abraham sent Hagar away with her son Ishmael. They got out into the desert a ways, too far from water, and she realized she and her son were going to die, and she walked away from the boy and began to sob. She couldn’t stand the thought of her son dying. Couldn’t bear to watch him die. And God called to Hagar and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid…” [Gen. 21:17] The modern reader misses the significance of that address. This is the only instance in all of the many thousands of ancient Near Eastern texts where a deity, or his messenger, calls a woman by name. [Waltke, “The Role of Women in Worship in the Old Testament,” 7]
Well, whether a man or a woman, a prominent man like Moses or an insignificant woman, like the one Jesus met and spoke to at the well in Samaria, God calls people by name. The nations may be as a drop in the bucket before him, but he knows the name and the life of every single human being, and he knows, in the far deeper sense of the word, the lives of his children, his people.
Our faith is not a matter of the detached observation of God and his ways. It is not a matter of our embrace of a particular philosophy of life. It is coming to know God as a person and that happens when he meets us and calls us by name. It is always his initiative, always his invitation by which we come up to him and meet him.
Put your own name in the place of “Moses” in this narrative. Pronounce your own name as you read v. 4. Remember, we have the Bible’s own witness that this account is paradigmatic, it is meta-history, that is, true history, but history that discloses and reveals the nature of things for everyone, not simply for Moses at this moment in his life. Put your own name in the place of Moses and read this account with your name there and you will see in an instant what a remarkable thing is shown to us here and what a remarkable thing it is to have God summon us to himself, summon us by name.
How utterly unique this is. In our day of relativism and pluralism, when we are being told on all sides that all religions are the same, that they are equally true, that they are simply various expressions of the same human longing for the transcendent and the eternal, it is important for me to remind you often how different our faith is and our experience from all the others, how fundamentally different. There is nothing like this in the other religions, God coming down to reveal himself to one person after another; calling that person by name and bring him or her into fellowship with himself. There was no other faith like this, no other religions that promised this in the ANE and there is no other today.
- And then there is a third thing here: not only does God meet men in the commonplace and by name, he draws them to himself across the barrier of his holiness.
In v. 5 we have the first instance in the Bible of the use of the adjective “holy.” The idea occurs before this, but it is perhaps some index of the importance of this episode that it should introduce to us this most important word, a word that is going to figure largely in our understanding of God and of our relationship to him in the remainder of the Bible. You have heard that the root idea of “holy” is “difference” or “otherness.” Things that are “sanctified” or “made holy” in the Bible are things that have been set apart to be different from other things, to have a different purpose or use.
In the ANE generally this idea had little or no moral connotation. For example, the fertility goddess, Astarte, in Egypt was called “Qudshu,” that is, “the holy one.” The name of temple prostitutes who served in ancient Near Eastern fertility rites was often “holy ones.” But, in the Bible, the separateness, the difference of God from man is not only that of two different orders of being. It is that to be sure. We have that idea even here. In the use of the word “holy” what we have learned to call “the antithesis.” There is a distinction between God and man, a most fundamental distinction. Some call it the creator-creature distinction. We are not God and he is definitely not us. He is far above us: eternal, infinite, immutable, omnipotent. All of this is what is meant by saying that God is holy. His being, his nature is other than ours.
But the term holy also refers in the Bible, in its reference to Yahweh, to the living God, to his moral otherness. It describes a difference of moral perfection, of purity, of love between God and man. That is why when God reveals himself to his people that revelation has a moral content, not simply an intellectual one. We get moral laws from God, not simply philosophy or regulations, rules by which we serve his interests. There is an antithesis between right and wrong that is revealed when God makes himself known to his creatures and especially to his people. And so, as one gets to know God, it is our conscience as well as our mind, our understanding, that is constantly challenged. Man’s problem with God – however often he attempts to deny this and with whatever philosophical sophistication – is moral first; moral long before it is intellectual.
The reason why we have heard from several who imagine themselves to be deep thinkers that the recent tsunami in the Indian ocean proves that there is no God is precisely because there is no acknowledgment on their part of God’s holiness. And not holiness simply, but terrible holiness; the consuming fire of which Moses will later speak and the author of Hebrews after him. The problem, the real problem, the real puzzle of this world is not that there was a tsunami but that we were not all swept away in its floods.
And everyone knows that who finds himself, as Moses did, standing on holy ground and fearing the very presence of such a God whose eyes are too pure to behold iniquity, who will by no means clear the guilty, who is angry with the wicked every day, to whom sin is the abominable thing that he hates, and whose wrath can flare up in a moment. Did you notice that it was when Moses was summoned by name by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and when he had taken off his sandals in acknowledgment of God’s holiness, that he turned his face away from the sight of the flames in the bush, the embodiment of the presence of God. Moses was afraid to look at God when he really understood who it was who was talking to him from the bush. Too often we tend to think that we fear God only when we don’t really understand him. In the Bible, the more a man or woman understands God’s otherness, his majesty, his terrible purity, the more he fears him and the more reverence he shows for him.
When a man once feels in his soul the burning flame of the divine glory, the spotless holiness of the God who inhabits eternity and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see; I say, let a man or woman, boy or girl, once feel that, come face to face with that, sense the weight of that in his heart, he or she will not be the same person ever again. It is a striking thing and a thing much to be remembered by us who do not see the Lord but must believe him and believe in him, that, according to the teaching of the Bible, the thing that will finish God’s work in us, forever purify and transform us, forever end the possibility of our sinning ever again, is simply that we shall see Jesus Christ in his holy glory.
It is not the glory of our faith that God calls us by name. It is the glory of our faith that this God, the living God, the holy God, stoops down to call us, the unholy, by name and then, by his grace, makes us holy like himself. Holiness is the very reason for the history of the world. It takes so long to make sinners like us holy; the work is so deliberate. It takes so much time. And God will not be finished until all his people are ready to be made finally and eternally holy, like himself.
What the burning bush reveals, in other words, is that nature is not a barrier that excludes God, but a veil that hides him from sight and his working in the world from our view. He is always present. He knows where Moses is. He knows his name, his past and his future, as he knows yours. But it is no small thing for a man to know God, to be called into his presence. It is not something that a man can arrange. It is not an appointment that man can make for any time he pleases. The initiative is always God’s. But when he draws near, as he does in the commonplace of our lives, when he makes himself known to us by calling us by name, and when we are made to feel the extraordinary thing it is for mere human beings, and sinners, to be brought into the presence of the divine holiness, then, then we have seen and felt, at least for those moments, we have seen and felt the true meaning and the true secret of life: that God, the living God, the holy God should make himself known to us, one by one.
The burning bush does not mean that we will have Moses’ experience, to be sure. We will not see a bush that burns but is not consumed. There will not be the miraculous in our encounters with God. But it will be the same God as spoke to Moses, the ground made holy in the same way because God is there, the same holiness investing that encounter with eternal weight.
Every time we come into God’s house, every time we open our Bibles with a sincere heart, every time we lift up our spirits in prayer, we draw near to the burning bush, to the Lord who dwells in the bush, as Moses would later put it. Sometimes the encounter is more immediate, emotional, powerful, tangible, memorable. Sometimes it is known only by faith. But whether the one or the other, whether Moses at the burning bush or Moses later at his evening prayers, it is the same reality: the holy God, calling his people by their names, and summoning them to himself, one by one.
Jesus, where’er thy people meet,
They there behold thy mercy-seat:
Where’er they seek thee, thou art found,
And every place is hallowed ground.
The episode of the burning bush is of great importance to the unfolding history of the exodus. It is also of great importance for the picture it gives us of God stooping down to call a man by name, which happens not once or a few times in some distant past, but vast multitudes of times every single day.
Some years ago, in the 1970s – as we learned at Prayer Meeting last Wednesday night watching a stirring documentary on Christianity in China over the past several generations – God came near and spoke to a saintly Chinese pastor, another Moses, Moses Xie. He had been a prisoner for 12 long years on account of his Christian faith, had not seen his family in that time, and had begun to despair. He made an unsuccessful attempt to kill himself. That night in the jail, after confessing his great sin to the Lord, the Lord came near to him and said to him, obviously in a different way than he spoke to Moses from the burning bush, but just as really, “My grace is sufficient for you.” And that encounter changed Moses Xie’s life. God’s grace was sufficient for the 10 more years of his imprisonment. And now, after those more than 20 years in prison, and as an older man, he has a remarkable ministry to thousands of Chinese Christians. With the first Moses the summons was to confront Pharaoh and the encouragement was that God would be with him to help him. With this second Moses the summons was to remain faithful in prison and the encouragement was that God would be with him to help him. In the case of each man, it was the identity of the God who spoke to him that made the words he heard powerful to transform his life. It was the holy ground on which he found himself, holy because God is holy, that made that encounter so memorable and so powerful. And it was the fact that the living God came down from heaven and called him by name, one in the desert wastes of Midian, the other in a Chinese labor camp, that made both men feel that their lives would never, could never be the same.