Deuteronomy 32:48-52; 34:1-12
November 20, 2022
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
v.49 The Abarim mountains lie at the northeastern end of the Dead Sea.
v.51 You remember the history. At Meribah, where the Israelites once again complained because of the lack of water in the desert, Moses, having been told to speak to the rock, instead struck it with his staff. Perhaps the impression his action left was that Moses himself had provided the water rather than Yahweh. Moses, the Lord’s man among the people, their spiritual leader, had undermined God’s authority by flaunting his own authority in the sight of them all. As we read here, Moses “did not treat Yahweh as holy in the midst of the people.”
34:1 Pisgah means ridge, so Mt. Nebo would be the summit of the ridge of the Abarim mountains. The way his view is now described is from north to west to south. Of course, he couldn’t see everything; it is hilly country; but he was able to see to the horizon in all three
directions. Gilead, if you remember, was due north, still on the eastern side of the Jordan River where the two and a half tribes – Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh – were to settle. West was to become Ephraim, south was to become the land of Judah.
v.4 If Moses were not permitted to enter the land, he was, at least, given a private visual tour of it, with Yahweh as his tour guide.
v.6 There has been, as you may imagine, a great deal of interest in the phrase “he buried him.” First Jews, then Christians have ordinarily assumed that “he” refers to the Lord himself, the only other person identified in the narrative. There have been many attempts to identify another as the one who buried Moses. The LXX took the singular verb as impersonal and translated it “they buried him.” But all the emphasis here is falling on the extraordinary circumstances of this one man’s death. In any case, that a normal burial by Israelites is meant is contradicted by the final phrase of the sentence: no one knows where he was buried. “The valley in the land of Moab opposite Beth Peor,” suggests a place known to the people. It is probably the same valley mentioned in Numbers 21:20, described as a “valley lying in the region of Moab by the top of Pisgah that looks down on the desert.” That is, a valley near the top of the mountain from which
Moses had been given his visual tour of the Promised Land.
Remember, as extraordinary as some features of this story may be, in the same way, for example, as were the Lord’s miracles reported in the Gospels, the narrative bears none of the marks of mythological writings and all of the marks of history, that is, an account of what actually happened.
The history of Jewish reflection on the death of Moses is interesting. One view of the reason for the circumstances of his death is that, his being such an extraordinary man, his having had such utterly unique privileges – speaking to God face to face, his face afterward reflecting the glory of God, the miracles he performed, and so on – there had to be a powerful statement of his mortality. He was just a man. For that reason also his grave had to remain a secret to prevent undue veneration or worship. Great as Moses was, he was only God’s servant, a man among men whom the Lord had used.
v.8 It is perhaps right to assume that the people of Israel genuinely wept. They had never known another leader. He, virtually by himself, had dragged the people out of their bondage in Egypt to the boundary of the Promised Land. They had seen the remarkable things that he had done. We can well imagine a certain measure of unease, even fear, facing a future without Moses. Joshua was a fine man, but could he do for them what Moses had done?
v.12 There really never has been another man as great in deeds and influence as Moses. He led Israel out of Egypt – the great redemptive event of ancient history – and received, in his own hands and directly from Yahweh himself, the law of God; that law that has so profoundly shaped not only the life of the church but the history of the world. One Jewish commentator suggests that we might read verses 10-12 in this way. Yahweh is saying, “Moses said of me, ‘There is none like Yahweh,’ and so I in turn bear witness that ‘There is none like Moses.’” [Wright, 313]
The Bible bears its own witness to Moses’ greatness. He and his doings dominate the Bible. Moses is mentioned 767 times in the Old Testament and 79 times in the New. He figures in the greatest and clearest proclamation of the incarnation of God the Son. “The Law was given through Moses; grace and truth through Jesus Christ.”
In these occasional sermons I’ve been considering the Bible’s major themes. Tonight, I want to consider the theme of “disappointment.” And here we have a paradigmatic example of disappointment. It is like that of the Apostle Paul with his thorn in the flesh. Here too we have a believing man with his heart set on something, pleading with God for that something, and being refused.
Whether you have stopped to consider this or not, disappointment is not only a major feature of the biblical narrative and the subject of many of its deliverances, humanly speaking, it is one of the greatest obstacles to a living and vibrant Christian faith and, indeed, to salvation itself. Whole books of the Bible are devoted to the reality of disappointment in a believer’s life. Think of Job or Ecclesiastes. More than half of the Psalms are reflections on and prayers to God in the face of the fact that life did not turn out as the believing man had hoped or expected. He was praying precisely because he had been so bitterly disappointed!
Imagine, as some Christians do, at least for a time, that being a Christian should mean that everything in one’s life would now go swimmingly well. What a testimony that would be to the truth of the gospel! Unbelievers couldn’t help noticing that she, like all Christians, is always happy; he is unusually successful in whatever he attempts to do; her life is dominated by pleasing, lasting, fulfilling, and fruitful relationships; his character is growing more admirable and worthy year after year. Imagine goodness and blessing spreading outward in every direction from his or her own happy heart and holy life. No punishing setbacks; no jarring, confusing, or debilitating developments; no heartbreak to speak of, no shattering personal failures. Living to a good old age, they would die quietly and peacefully, fully content with and grateful for the life they had lived, eager for heaven which, after all, they have tasted so much of in this world.
It is not, of course, impossible to understand why Christians, especially young or new Christians, imagine that it should be so. If God is for us, who can be against us? If the Lord is our shepherd, surely he will lead us into green pastures and by the still waters. Doesn’t the Lord Jesus himself tell us that his yoke is easy and his burden is light; doesn’t he promise to pour out upon his disciples blessings of every kind: friends, family, houses, fields, and all the rest? Doesn’t the Apostle Paul say that the kingdom of God is a matter of peace and joy in the Holy Spirit?
But we learn soon enough, and are taught often and plainly enough in the Bible itself, that a life of uninterrupted happiness, prosperity, and success, at least as we measure such things, is not to be. Indeed, we are explicitly promised trouble, sorrow, and pain. The Lord Jesus himself reminds us that we must walk the hard and narrow way to eternal life. Every life of which we learn anything in the Bible is a life filled with disappointment; indeed, crushing disappointment. Think of holy Jeremiah, who suffered one blow after another throughout his long life. But honest as Holy Scripture is in preparing us for this, it remains the fact that it is just this disappointment – whether compressed in some catastrophe or spread out over the years of one’s life – that so often withers, if it does not kill or prevent in the first place, true Christian faith from taking wing. People want to be happy. The Bible acknowledges that. So, if they don’t think being a Christian will make them happy, if they observe Christians being unhappy, they decline to become Christians themselves. And, as we have learned, most powerfully from our own experience, nothing can weaken our own faith as Christians, nothing can make us wonder whether the
effort to live for God is worth it, so much as deep, personal disappointment. If faith in Christ isn’t bringing success, why bother?
Disappointment comes in so many forms, does it not? We are today thinking of the last years and the death this past week of our beloved sister, Barbara Simpson. Over her last years, how little she seemed to be, as the Bible would put it, riding on the heights of the land. How unlike the green pastures and still waters! Our plans are blasted by circumstances over which we have no control; in her case a disease such as ALS. Good health deserts us. Cherished hopes remain unfulfilled. Prayers, sometimes our most earnest prayers, remain unanswered, as they were for both Moses and Paul. We must live in this sinful and dying world and it forces disappointment upon us at every turn. Many of you were deeply disappointed by the recent election and what it portends for our nation and the future of our American culture. Others disappoint us. But, worst of all, for perfectly sound reasons, we are so often disappointed by ourselves; by the things we said or did, or the things we should have done but never did. We are, to ourselves, such a massive and perpetual disappointment!
Moses is our example in this, as he is our example in so many ways in the Bible. Think again about this great man. After all, if there is a paradigm believer in the Bible, it is Moses, a man of faith, a servant of God. Are we all not to be as he was in both faith and service? His life, however, was a long series of disappointments, and it ended in a crushing disappointment. It fell to him, by the calling of God, to lead the Israelites, who proved to be times without number ungrateful for his leadership; all too ready to blame him for their troubles. He was raised in the Egyptian court, in luxury and comfort. He was exiled to Midian, and not for a year or two, but for a huge portion of his life: forty years. Living in the desert, doing nothing like what he had prepared himself to do; far from the glittering prospects that had been his in Egypt, a stranger in a strange land. For all he knew this was to be his lot until he died.
And then, when called by God to return to Egypt and to lead the Israelites to freedom, the work turned out to be – no matter the divine power that he was to wield – in many ways a work of unrequited love. People resented him rather than admired him; griped about him rather than trusted his leadership. Given what God had done through him, one would think that Moses, of all men, would have enjoyed a celebrated life among the people. But it was not to be. Indeed, because of Israel’s lack of faith, Moses was to endure another forty years, this time tramping somewhat aimlessly through the wilderness, killing time, watching his life’s hourglass run out.
At least he had a magnificent destination to lift his spirits. He had hope that, at least when the journey ended, the Promised Land would prove to have been worth all the effort and all the disappointment that he had endured to get there. But even that was not to be. For Moses, like us, was also a sinner. And for one horrendous stumble Moses was denied the one thing upon which he had set his heart for those long, difficult years. At the last he was not to be given even a taste of the milk and honey; not once to set his foot upon the Promised Land. The goal of his life snatched from him and all because, at a critical moment, he had disobeyed the Lord. It was Moses’ own fault, his own failure, his own sin that led to his being forbidden to enter the Promised Land. He had no one to blame but himself. The people of Israel hadn’t helped him, to be sure. But he was the one who disobeyed. The Lord reminded him of that!
The plain fact of this history is that Yahweh took Moses’ sin more seriously than Moses did. It was a lesson that Moses was slow to learn. He had, apparently, complained for years that he should be able to enter the Promised Land. And it is a lesson that we are slow to learn as well. The Lord takes our sin more seriously than we do. Most of our disappointment isn’t directly punishment for our sins, but some of it is. We may not, we will not, in this life be able to unravel the fabric of our lives to tell how much of our suffering is directly the consequence of our sin, but we cannot be faithful to the teaching of Holy Scripture and not believe that some, if not a good deal of it is precisely that: the punishment of our own sin. Indeed, for Moses that may have been the bitterest disappointment of all. He had done it to himself!
We know that the Judge of all the Earth does right, but at some point in our lives, and perhaps a number of times, we too have wondered what in the world God was doing. Why this? Why me? But surely it puts such questions in perspective when we realize that one of the greatest men in the history of the mankind; one of the greatest servants of God; one whose life had been most consequential for the kingdom of God, one who knew the Lord so well, should have had occasions to ask the same questions.
And we know that Moses asked those questions. We know that he was both confused and broken-hearted by this final disappointment. We know that the Lord’s refusal to allow him to enter the Promised Land was a heavy blow. We know that because Moses mentioned it repeatedly. He had apparently repeatedly plead with the Lord to be permitted to enter Canaan, indeed so often and so earnestly that, finally, the Lord lost patience with him and told him not to raise the subject again. You read this in Deut 3:23-26. If there is proof that the Lord will not spare us from disappointment in this life it is surely found in Yahweh’s sharp rebuke of Moses and his insistence that the matter was closed. “I told you; you are not entering the Promised Land. I will not change my mind!”
But, if he couldn’t talk to the Lord about it any longer, he could still talk to Israel. And he did. He repeatedly reminded them that it was their stubborn refusal to trust and obey the Lord that had tempted him to the anger and frustration that, at Meribah, had led him into sin. “The Lord was angry with me because of you,” we hear him say several times in Deuteronomy. This too is proof, if proof were needed, that his being forbidden to enter the Promised Land was an immense disappointment to Moses. He couldn’t stop thinking about it or talking about it. How like us he was!
But that only makes more interesting and instructive this account of the death of Moses. You see, Moses is, in certain ways, every Christian. This is so often the case in the Bible. We are taught life principles in the form of personal histories; we learn from the lives of others how to live our own and what we may expect in the life of faith. And the more remarkable those personal histories, the more powerful and indelible the lesson. The lepers that Jesus healed – suddenly, dramatically, completely, when no one could heal a leper – becomes in the Gospels one of the great pictures of salvation itself, your salvation and mine. We aren’t lepers, but we were as helpless as they and it took the same supernatural power and loving compassion to save us from our sins as it took to deliver those sufferers to good health again. Well, in the same way, Moses’ death is surely intended to be for us a picture of and instruction in the disappointments of every follower of Jesus Christ. The manner of his death is the Lord’s answer to Moses’ disappointment! Just as Paul’s vision of heaven itself was the Lord’s answer to Paul’s disappointment in never being rid of his thorn in the flesh. The outward details are certainly different, but the fundamental reality is the same. Let me show you that it is.
Every great master of the Christian life will teach us that in the midst of our disappointments in this life the Lord never fails to grant us anticipations of the happiness to come, the eternal happiness that is our inheritance. The Lord, in other words, wonderfully softens the blow. If the Lord must punish us; if he must try us; if he must batter our stubborn hearts into submission; if he must soften our hard hearts and humble them, if getting us safely to heaven requires this tough love, he does not disappoint us without at the same time encouraging us, helping us to see the happy things, the wonderful things that are true even now and the still greater things to come. He remembers to be merciful. He remembers that we are dust. He punishes, but he loves and cares for us at the same time. We are so familiar with this charming story that we may fail to appreciate the remarkable moment.
Here is Moses, an old man, still vigorous, still capable of climbing a mountain, in full possession of his mental powers, so a man living with his disappointment, and now a man who knows that he is about to die; a man who has been told that his journey has ended. Something he so much wanted he will not be given. A crushing disappointment indeed!
But Yahweh himself accompanied Moses to the top of Pisgah. Precisely how that happened and what that means we cannot say. But in some ineffable way, it was the Lord himself who pointed to the north and explained what Moses could see in that direction; then to the west, and then to the southwest. I’m sure the Lord took his time and explained something of how Israel would occupy that land, what they would find there, what things would happen there. I’m sure he provided more detail than is recorded for us as he showed Moses the Promised Land upon which he had set his sights for the previous 40 years. Though shut out of the Land, he nevertheless was given to see it as no man in this world has ever seen it! Indeed, he saw it as no Israelite would ever see it! Disappointed as he must have been, no man was given a greater privilege in the hour of his death than this man.
And so it has been for untold multitudes of Christians ever since. In the midst of their darkness they have seen a great light. In a letter to a friend, Malcolm Muggeridge wrote, “The only thing that really teaches one what life’s about – the joy of understanding, the joy of coming in contact with what life really signifies – is suffering, affliction.” [Happy Days were Here Again, 411] I think we all know, don’t we, that had Moses entered the Promised Land, seen a bit of it for himself, and died there a few days or months later, he would not have seen, he would never have felt, he could not have understood, what he saw and felt and understood on that mountain top with God himself by his side and speaking into his ear. Lots of people would enter the Promised Land, but only Moses was given a tour of it by the Almighty himself!
And then, there is this. The Lord may punish, but he also rewards, and where sin has abounded, grace will much more abound.
If, in the perfect wisdom of God, Moses had to die when he did; if he had to be buried outside the Promised Land, what magnificent compensation it was that he should be, alone of all men, buried by the hand of God himself. And, as if that were not enough for this man, the day would come, more than a thousand years later, when he would set his foot on the top of another mountain, this time, finally within the Promised Land, to speak with Yahweh once again, the Lord God now incarnate, of Christ’s soon-coming sacrifice for sin. I wonder, don’t you, if in that conversation with Elijah and the Lord Christ atop the Mount of Transfiguration, Moses didn’t find a moment to recollect that day atop Pisgah, perhaps even to confess once again the sin that had kept him out of the Promised Land so long before, one of the sins for which the Son of Man was about to shed his blood.
Matthew Henry calls Moses’ death a euthanasia, a good dying. Another wise man says, “How little there was of death in that dying.” [A. Thomson, Samuel Rutherford, 128-129] Do you not suppose, as I do, that the Lord had him lie down, gently touched him, and Moses simply went to sleep, his soul to awake a moment later in the true and eternal Promised Land. Do you see this? If this is punishment, Lord, give me more of it. Yahweh wielded the rod, but ever so gently and kindly!
We are not as great as Moses and will not be buried by the Lord himself. But surely we are right to expect that, when they finally walk us to our graves, the Lord will accompany us every step of the way. He has promised that he will never leave us or forsake us. As we look toward the Promised Land, he will show us what we can expect when we are finally there. If we are not as vigorous in our old age as Moses was, with faith in Christ our hearts we can still be young and full of life. As the poet has it:
“To things immortal time can do no wrong,
And that which never is to die, forever must be young.”
And, if people will know where our graves are, certainly God will too. I love the lines of Isaac Watts.
God my Redeemer Lives,
And often from the skies
Looks down and watches all my dust
Till he shall bid it rise.
What human being, facing death, could want more than that! So, see a sinner suffering disappointment for his sin. But see, at the same time, a sinner saved by grace being showered with blessings to compensate for his loss. And, in your mind’s eye, see him shortly thereafter in the true and eternal Promised Land. And in all of that, what did Moses have that Christ has not guaranteed to all of us?
Indeed, add it all up and who would not have wanted Moses’ death rather than a few days or months in some small part of the Promised Land. When the time comes and you can speak to Moses yourself, surely this is what you will want to know; what happened that day on Pisgah! True, the Lord was with Moses in an unprecedented way; but, if not so visibly, he promises to be with us, even when we pass through deep waters. True, Moses’ death was a euthanasia, but Christ himself, standing outside the tomb of Lazarus, promised that those who believe in him will, in fact, never die; not as death must be for those without Christ; not death in any lasting sense; not death as the beginning of the second death, not death as something to fear. For us it will be one short, dark passage to eternal light, entrance into heaven, and the presence of God and the saints.
Cecile Francis Alexander, the author of such hymns as “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” “Once in Royal David’s City,” and “There is a Green Hill Far Away,” also wrote a magnificent poem entitled “The Death of Moses.” It is too long to read in its entirety, but here are some verses that should lift our spirits.
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.
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
Where 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 had he 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 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.
Do you see? Do you see in how many ways the same can be said of every Christian for whom the Lord has ordered disappointment and of every Christian who must eventually die? Do you see in how many ways the same things can be said of you? O Lord, “speak to these curious hearts of ours, and teach them to be still.”
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