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Numbers 27:12-23

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v.12     One of the unspoken but obvious personal ironies of the wilderness narrative is that the closer Israel came to the Promised Land the closer Moses came to his death. While the people’s enthusiasm and happiness grew at the prospect of finally taking possession of Canaan, the shades of death drew tighter around Moses himself.

v.14     The mountain peak is identified more specifically as Mt. Nebo in Deut. 34:1. At 2,740 ft. it offers panoramic views of parts of Canaan. Aaron had already died and, if you remember, ascended a mountain to die as Moses would, in Aaron’s case, Mount Hor (20:27). Moses is also reminded by the Lord why he is forbidden to enter the land.

Moses’ death is not recorded until the end of Deuteronomy and he still has work to do in preparing the people for their life in the Promised Land. The reference to his coming death is given here because it is the presupposition of the appointment of Joshua as his successor.

v.16     The identification of the Lord as the God of the spirits of all mankind serves to appeal to his knowledge of human beings, their character, and their faith. The Lord knows which man is equipped for this responsibility.

v.17     The phrase “who will go out and come in before them” is a military idiom. It speaks to that sort of leadership that does not hide in safety in the rear of the army. In the Israeli military today, the officers are noted for their battle cry “Follow Me!” [Milgrom, 234]

v.18     “A man in whom is the spirit” strikes us, as readers of the New Testament, as a reference to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Though that was certainly true in Joshua’s case, it is not probably the meaning of the phrase in this OT context. Rather it refers to the “spirits” mentioned before in v. 15 and thus to Joshua’s character as a brave, wise, and faithful ruler.

v.19     The Bible bears witness throughout its pages to the importance of ceremony. It is not enough to make a decision about a man and to assign him to a leadership role. He must be solemnly commissioned for that role in the presence of the assembly. The Christian practice of ordination is simply another instance of this same concern to express in a ritual way the divine calling of a man as that calling has been recognized in the church. This is God’s way of installing one of his servants or agents and investing him with authority that the church knows to recognize and respect.

v.21     The “some of your authority” indicates that Joshua’s ministry is not going to be precisely the same as Moses’. With Moses the Lord spoke face to face. Joshua, on the other hand, will get his instructions through Eleazar the priest. [Wenham, 194]

Eleazar will apply to the Urim and the Thummim which were in the sole possession of the High Priest. Though no one knows for sure what they were, the best guess is that they were some sort of small objects that may have been thrown or tossed by the high priest and by the way they landed an answer was obtained. Apparently they served primarily in cases of “yes” or “no” decisions: such as whether or not to go to war.

In any case, take note of the difference between Moses and Joshua. It is not enough to say, for example, that they spoke in tongues in the days of the apostles so Christians should speak in tongues today. Fact is, the Bible bears witness again and again to the fact that there have been unique periods in the history of redemption in which things happened that did not later and would not ordinarily occur. There was never again a man quite like Moses who had his measure of access to God. No other leader would ever again go into the sanctuary, speak with God, and come out with the glory of God shining on his face.

v.23     Though there is to be a significant difference between Moses’ ministry and that of Joshua, there is substantial continuity as well. This is indicated by the laying of Moses’ hands upon his successor. The laying on of hands in the Bible is symbolic of transfer: whether the transfer of authority, or blessing, or, in the case of the sacrifices, sin and guilt.

Joshua’s ordination created a kind of co-regency, with both men in the leadership of the people. That would continue until Moses’ death. But it would be the parting of the waters of the Jordan and Israel’s passing into the Promised Land on dry ground that would convince everyone that Moses’ authority had indeed passed to Joshua.

Moses was an extraordinary man and an extraordinary leader. The Bible gives us to believe that there never was nor ever will be someone quite like him. He played a pivotal role in salvation history and is, in one famous statement in John 1, paired with the Lord Christ himself as one of the two great figures of the history of revelation. “The law came through Moses; grace and truth through Jesus Christ.” Though this is only anticipated in our text for this evening, even the manner of his death and burial was unique and spoke to the supreme place Moses occupies in the pantheon of biblical heroes. Some of you may know the wonderful poem of Cecil Frances Alexander entitled “The Burial of Moses.” She reflects on the extraordinary honor it was for Moses to be buried by God’s own hand and remembers that Moses was, indeed, to visit the Promised Land, at least the Mount of Transfiguration, during the ministry of the Lord Jesus, where he appeared with Elijah to speak with Jesus of his “exodus.” Who better to speak with the savior of the world about his exodus than Moses himself!

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 sepulcher,
And no man saw it e’er,
For the angels of God upturned the sod,
And laid the dead man there.

That was the greatest 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 aerie
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 the funeral car;
They show the banners taken,
They tell the battles won,
And after him lead the riderless 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
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 was 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 hills he never trod,
And speak of the strife that won our life
With the incarnate Son of God.

O lonely grave in Nebo’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.

In other words, the manner of Moses’ death and burial was a remarkable witness to the favor in which he was held by the Lord Yahweh himself. “How little there was of death in that dying.” [A. Thompson of Samuel Rutherford’s death, 128-129] None of the kings of Israel, not even David, none of the twelve apostles, not John or Peter or Paul, were afforded such honor as to be buried by the Lord and his angels! This was a great man!

The Bible is a history of God’s work in the world, but, because it is and because of the way God works in the world, it is a history as well of great men. The Lord uses men to accomplish his will in the world and he uses great men at the turning points of the history of salvation: to carry the church through a time of testing, to purify her of error, to lead her into new conquests, and so on. The Bible is a book of heroes and the history of the church that follows the biblical history continues to be the story of the heroes of the faith. It is a fact that can be hard for people to accept in our egalitarian, democratic day, but the history of the church is in fact largely a history of her great men as it was in the biblical times. We often wish we knew more about what the ordinary believer’s life was like; what he or she was doing; how they were serving the Lord, but we usually know comparatively little about such things. A record of the ordinary life of Christians is rare among the materials of church history. We have to piece such information together from hints here and there.

What we know is the career, the accomplishments, and the controversies of the church’s great men. It is through them that the Lord shaped the life of his church and through them that the gospel passed into the possession of the nations of the world. Imagine early church history without the history of the life and work of the apostolic fathers, of Origen, Tertullian, Cyprian, Athanasius, Chrysostom, Augustine, or Jerome. Imagine Reformation history without the personal history of Luther, Calvin, or Knox. Imagine attempting to tell the story of the Great Awakening without recourse to the life and work of Whitefield, the Wesleys, and Jonathan Edwards. Imagine attempting to recount the missionary advance of the 19th century without knowledge of the great missionary pioneers and statesmen themselves: Carey, Morrison, Livingstone, Taylor and all the rest. The Lord has made the world and the human race to function – for good or ill – according to the leadership of human beings. When the race is led astray, it is gifted, powerful, influential men who do the leading. And, contrarily, you never in biblical or church history find the church in good fettle without consecrated and gifted leadership. She can be ruined by unfaithful leaders – and often has been – but she never prospers without faithful and gifted leadership. It is a law of God’s cosmos.

And, I guarantee you, when the stories of 20th century and 21st century Chinese Christianity and Indian Christianity and African Christianity are written, they too will be a narrative dominated by great personalities, great men who did great things in the power of the Lord.

Now, to be a great man one certainly never had to be a perfect man. The Bible’s heroes and the heroes of Christian history since have invariably had feet of clay. Moses was a very great man but he had his weaknesses and we are given to see some of them. He was churlish and ungrateful, almost cowardly when first faced with the Lord’s summons to lead Israel out of Egypt. And, of course, as we are reminded in v. 14, there was a particularly serious and public moral failure that stained his life and ministry. And what of David and his great sins, or those of Solomon, or Hezekiah? What of Peter’s betrayal? In the world of God’s grace, true human greatness can be achieved even by deeply sinful men.

What marked these men, that in which their true spiritual and moral greatness invariably consisted, was their unusual measure of care and concern for the kingdom of God. These were men committed to far more than their own personal advancement, or their own personal peace and pleasure. They longed to see the truth of God and the grace of God and the glory of God hold sway in the church and in the world.

This is what is so strikingly and beautifully revealed about Moses in v. 15. Moses was just told by the Lord that his death was imminent. He has had the place of his death pointed out to him: “Go up this mountain…” He has been reminded that he must die because of his own sin. And what does Moses ask the Lord?

We might well imagine what he would ask: “Lord is there nothing I can do to avert this sentence. I deeply regret what I did at Meribah. I am willing to do anything to demonstrate my repentance.” Or, perhaps he would ask, “Lord, how am I going to die? What will happen to me at the top of the mountain?” Or as a husband and father, Moses might have asked, “Lord, what of my wife and children? What will become of them?”

And, at some point, indeed, perhaps he asked such questions. But the question that we know he asked and that the biblical writer saw fit to record was this: “What will become of the people after I am gone?” He wanted to be sure that they would be well led, that they would win their battles and remain faithful to the Lord. This seems to me to be of great importance; that we should hear Moses saying this upon hearing the news of his soon-coming death. It is the mark of the man and of his life that he cared so for the kingdom of God and was so deeply invested and so personally in its fortunes.

This is, of course, by no means the only instance of a great Christian leader, on his deathbed, expressing concern for the house and people of God. Not only before the delirium overtook Robert McCheyne at the end of his life but even afterwards, he was overheard constantly speaking to and about his congregation, their spiritual life, their future. He was often heard in prayer for them. At one point, after warning them of the reality of eternal judgment, he was heard to pray:

“This parish Lord, this people, this whole place!…. Do it thyself, Lord for thy weak servant…. Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou has given me!” [Bonar, Memoir, 189-190]

It is the heartfelt concern for the people of God – not for a cause or an idea or a program, but for the people of God themselves, their spiritual life and the blessing of God among them and through them – that is the mark here of Moses’ greatness and continues to be the mark of the greatness of all the church’s finest men. They were men who were concerned for their own souls and so were concerned for the souls of others. Augustine had the penitential psalms written on the wall above his bed so that he could pray them over and over as he lay dying. But in his last days he was preeminently concerned with the spiritual welfare of his flock.

It is not possible, of course, to plan one’s last words for who among us knows precisely which words will be our last.

“I’ve never felt better,” were the last words of Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

“I am about to – or I am going to – die, either expression is correct.” were the last words of Dominique Bourbours, a French grammarian.

I like much better, John Newton’s last words:

“I am still in the land of the dying; I shall be in the land of the living soon.”

But Moses is better still. “What about the church, Lord? Who will lead them? Please provide for them a man whose character is better than mine; a man who will keep them faithful to you; a man who will lead them in victory; a man who will ensure that Israel walks with you.” To turn away from oneself at the announcement of one’s death is the truest form of Christlikeness and so the truest form of fitness for leadership in the kingdom and church of God.

And it is absolutely right for us to link Moses’ leadership – and that of the long line of noble Christian leadership – to that of Christ, the greatest of all Christendom’s great men. The text invites us to make the comparison when, in v. 17, we read the phrase, “like sheep without a shepherd,” the very phrase we encounter in the Gospels. Christ had compassion for the people of God of his day because “they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” [Matt. 9:36] In a variety of ways Moses points us to Christ. Christ, we read in Acts 3, was the prophet like Moses who was to come. Both Jesus and Paul make a point of saying that Moses spoke of Christ, that the coming savior was a key part of his message. So much was Christ his message that the Lord confidently asserted that if a person wouldn’t believe Moses, he wouldn’t believe in Jesus even if he rose from the dead as he was eventually to do. The author of Hebrews also compares Moses and Christ. He says that Moses was faithful in all of God’s house but that Jesus was faithful as a son over God’s house.

But here is another way in which we see Christ in Moses: by way of Moses’ example, and, in particular, in his selfless concern for the people of God. He didn’t want to see God’s children as sheep without a shepherd any more than Jesus did. He had the same longing to see the Israel of God triumphant in the world and faithful to God’s covenant.

All of this is so familiar to us that we are always in great danger of taking it entirely for granted. But Jesus came into the world and then forgot himself – to an extent we can hardly begin to understand – he ignored the ordinary interests of human life, he ignored the things that would have made his life easier and more pleasurable, and devoted himself to what had to be done for the welfare of those for whom the Father had sent him into the world. He came not to be served but to serve and to give himself a ransom for many. And in that, as he often taught us, he left us an example that we might follow in his steps, “As I have loved you,” he said, “so you love one another.”

If you think you understand that, if you think you grasp what it means always to bear the welfare of others on your heart, just ask yourself this simple question: how much, and how often do I have the welfare of others on my heart? How much do I think about the happiness of others? Don’t count your children because in a profound, almost mystical way, the welfare of your children is your own welfare; the happiness of your children, your own happiness. Your children, as the Puritan put it, are simply a piece of yourself wrapped up in another skin.

No, how often are you worried about how well others are doing, how sad or how difficult their lives may be, what struggles they must endure? I know you. I know you think about others in this way. You surely do. But I also know our nature and our sinfulness and our selfishness and I know how little of our time and energy is taken up with such thoughts. We think about our own happiness much, much more than we think about the happiness of others. Indeed, much as we are ashamed to admit it, even our concern for others often harbors selfish interests: their troubles have become our troubles in some way; their deliverance would be a relief to us.

But Moses’ response to the news of his impending death and the way this reminds us of Christ himself challenges us to imagine a life in which one is always thinking about the problems, the troubles, the needs of others and almost never thinking about one’s own ups and downs, one’s own happiness or sadness. It is very hard for us to imagine such a life. But that was Christ’s life all his life. He was thinking all the time of others (us included!), working all the time on our behalf, carrying all the time our burdens in his heart. Extraordinary! We make the Lord’s life too simple by failing to ponder what sort of life it must have been, what an utterly unique life it had to be for its selflessness, its self-forgetfulness, its constant concentration on the welfare of others.

To the extent that Moses was like that – and our text suggests he was very definitely like that – to that extent he was a very great man and the manner of his death and burial bear testimony to that greatness. And the commendation of Moses for his living concern for the people of God – even in the hour of his own death – is an example for us. We are to aspire to that sort of greatness ourselves. We are no Moses, to be sure; nor, for that matter, are we Joshua. But it is the glory of our faith that it summons all of us to greatness, to nobility, to true and eternal goodness. It is not enough for us simply to fill the box or check the square, to be satisfied with pedestrian accomplishments. What we are to be seeking after, in imitation of Jesus Christ, is the mighty life of selfless love, or a concentration on the life of others, or, to put it simply, the love of God with all our hearts and the love of neighbor as ourselves. Every day we are to judge ourselves and direct our steps according to this rule and nothing else: “Consider the interests of others more important than your own.” This is what Moses did so beautifully here. We – you and I – content ourselves with too little in following after Christ. No, much, much more: others, the welfare of others and the church of God!

It is the glory of our faith and the proof of its truth that it summons us to reach so high, to aspire to such nobility, and, in particular, to aspire to great things for the sake of others, not ourselves.