Israel stood on the border of the great blessing toward which they had looked for generations. But one of them was not going to receive it. Moses, the only leader they have known, would not be crossing. This is one of the great tragedies of biblical history. It should cause us to think. What had gone wrong? Why was Moses excluded? What lessons are to be learned from his exclusion? Why is this story mentioned so often, and from multiple points of view?
It is fair
Moses missed a blessing, not an entitlement. Moses was not being treated unfairly. The Lord did not owe him anything when he called him from herding his father-in-law’s sheep. It was by grace that Moses received that call and vision. It was by grace that he received the power to work wonders in Egypt. It was by grace that he received the law, the water, the manna, the quail.
God owed Moses nothing. God owes me nothing. He owes you nothing. We must learn that. If we do not get over our childish tendency to demand entitlements, there is no hope for us. We come before God as humble sinners seeking grace, or we might as well not come before him at all. Coming before him to demand rights is just to deepen our guilt. He does not owe us.
The sin of the people
Moses missed out, in part, because of the sins and the needs of the people. There are at least two ways in which the people contributed to this tragedy.
Israel’s constant complaining wore Moses down and clouded his focus (Dt 1:37; Num 20:2-3, 10). We should not excuse our own sin by blaming others. We are responsible for our own actions. But it is true that sometimes our actions cause others to be tempted (Lk 17:2). People who continually make life bitter for their leaders share the blame when those leaders fail (cf Heb 13:17).
Their unjustified focus on Moses really made it imperative that he not continue as their leader. They had come to think of Moses, rather than the Lord, as the one who had saved them from Egypt (Ex 32:1). It was not good for Moses and not good for Israel either. They were putting him in the place of God.
Even in human organizations it is often considered unhealthy to allow one person to be in the top leadership position for too long. In the United States, the practice was for the president to serve no more than two terms. It was not a law, but it was the practice of every president to step down after eight years in office. In 1940, Franklin Roosevelt violated that practice. He ran for a third term and then in 1944 for a fourth. Although he had been an effective administrator, and was considered a national hero by many people, the law was later changed so that this could never happen again. Many people, even in his own party, came to feel that Roosevelt had hurt the country by staying in office too long.
Of course, church leadership is different. We should always have more than one elder at a time in the church (Titus 1:5). In that case, church leaders may sometimes serve effectively for a longer time. But when people start putting a church leader in the place of God, it is time for that leader to move on.
Israel was no longer responding properly to Moses and God decided that it was time for Moses to move on. So, in a sense, the death of Moses was not just a punishment to Moses because of his rash words, it was also that which was best for the people. Since the people had put Moses in God’s place, it was time for a new leader. In order for Israel to understand that it was God who was leading them into the promised land, He chose Joshua to replace Moses.
Moses missed out mainly because of his own failure to put the Lord first. I know that a lot of preachers have taught that Moses’ sin was in striking the rock rather than speaking to it. But the scriptures state that it was his failure to honour God, not only in what he did but especially in what he said. Yes, the people were unfair to Moses, and they bear responsibility for that. But Moses spoke the rash words. He bears the responsibility for what he said.
He said, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” (Num 20:10)
Do you see the problem with those words? Those words do not honour God (Num 20:12). The “we” could include the Lord, but it certainly includes Moses and Aaron. At best it put Moses and Aaron on a level apart from the people and on par with God. At worst it is all about Moses and Aaron and the Lord is left in the shadows. Moses makes it sound as if he and Aaron are the ones bringing water out of the rock. When this event is recorded in one of the Psalms, it is the words of Moses that are condemned, not what he did in striking the rock.
“They angered him at the waters of Meribah, and it went ill with Moses on their account, for they made his spirit bitter, and he spoke rashly with his lips.” (Ps 106:32-33, emphasis added)
We need to ask ourselves if our words honour God as they should. We are to live the Christian life in a way that causes people to honour the Lord (Mt 5:16). We must not do good deeds in a way that causes people to honour us (Mt 6:5,16-18).
We also need to be careful that we do not focus so much on the reward that we forget the giver of the reward. Peter Craigie suggests that Moses may have become so focused on the land promise that he was looking to the land rather than to the Lord (127). It is better to have our focus on the Lord who gives the gift rather than on the gift itself. Our attitude needs to be that expressed in the hymn “The Sands of Time.”
The Bride eyes not her garment,
But her dear Bridegroom’s face;
I will not gaze at glory,
But on my King of grace:
Not at the crown He giveth,
But on His pierced hand;
The Lamb is all the glory,
Of Emmanuel’s land!
It is not easy for leaders to lead well. People tend to get the wrong impression. People will often begin to focus on the human leader rather than the Lord. It is not easy for us to keep our own focus on the Lord rather than on the blessing he gives. But we must try to keep the focus on him.
Plenty of lessons for us
They stand on the border of the promised land, and Moses will not be going over. It is their fault to some extent, and that is what is emphasised here in Deuteronomy. They needed to learn how they had wronged Moses so that they would not treat Joshua the same way.
But it was also Moses’ own fault. He failed to honour the Lord at Meribah. He spoke rash words that placed himself in the forefront.
It may also just be the fact that it was time for a change of leadership. It was time for someone other than Moses to lead.
If our concern is the glory of God, rather than our own advancement, we will accept the fact that sometimes this is the case. This event is recorded repeatedly and from different points of view because it is so very relevant to us in several different ways. God’s grace was good to Moses, but he did miss the one big blessing that he most wanted. God’s grace has been wonderfully good to us. Let us not take God’s grace for granted and end up missing greater blessings. Let us never put ourselves at the centre and push the Lord into the shadows. And let us never tempt one another in that direction.