By Horatius Bonar, 1867
The scene here lies in "the valley near Beth-peor," at the base of the hills of Moab, that long grey ridge of barren mountains that overshadows the Dead Sea and the plain of Jordan. The land is as inhospitable as the people, and no doubt Israel was glad at the prospect of leaving it behind.
The time is the end of the forty years' sojourn in the desert. The tribes are just about to pass over into Canaan. The promised land lies before them, with but a few miles of rugged country and the Jordan between. Some weeks, perhaps less, will bring them over. Their desert warfare, and toil, and travel are done. They have, as it were, come up to the gate of Eden, and have nothing to do but to go in and exchange labor for rest, barrenness for fruitfulness, mountains of bare rock, and plains of scorching sand, for fresh fields and vineyards, and rich plains, and hills waving with olive terraces to the summit.
This nearness to the long-looked-for land stirs up the spirit of Moses, and he resolves to make one effort more to be allowed to enter. Entrance into it had been his hope from the day he left Egypt. The land flowing with milk and honey had been constantly before his eyes. And though God had intimated to him that, on account of his speaking unadvisedly with his lips at Meribah Kadesh, he was not to enter the land; yet now, when placed within sight of it, the longing to enter it rises up within him in all its force, and he resolves to attempt, once again, to obtain entrance, if that, perhaps, he may be permitted to set foot in it before he die.
Let us note, then, the following points in this narrative—
(1.) It was strong and deep; the strongest and deepest desire of his soul in regard to anything earthly. Is our longing for the heavenly Canaan as vehement as his for the earthly?
(2.) It was a holy desire. There was nothing carnal in it; nothing of the flesh or of self. It was the desire of a holy man for a share in the fulfillment of the divine promise.
(3.) It was a patriotic desire. Canaan was his true fatherland, though he had never dwelt in it. It was the home of his fathers, and the inheritance of his children, the land in which Israel's hopes were wrapped up. As a patriot, Moses could not but long to enter in.
(4.) It was a natural desire. Though brought up in ease and luxury, for now eighty years he had been a dweller in tents in the wilderness, a man without a home. How natural that he should be weary of the desert, and long for a resting-place!
(5.) It was a desire connected with the welfare of his nation. Israel was to be blessed in that land of blessing, and he desired to see his nation settled in the Lord's land.
(6.) It was a desire connected with the glory of God. He knew that God was about to choose a place wherein to set his name, and to show his glory. He had once before pleaded, "Show me your glory;" and what could be more desirable in his eyes than that he should see the manifestation of this glory, and witness the mighty power of God in the land which he knew was to be the center and stage of all these?
Moses's desire, then, seems a reasonable, proper, and truehearted desire. We greatly sympathize with the old man of 120 years in the feelings here expressed; we would kneel down beside him, and plead with God that he would not deny the request of his aged servant. It is but a small request; and how blessed for the old man, like Simeon, to get the fulfillment of his lifetime's longings before he die! It was not, indeed, for salvation he was pleading—all that was settled long ago between him and his God; but as the saved man, as a son and heir, he was asking for a nearer sight of this part of his inheritance—asking to set his mortal foot upon a land which, in resurrection, he knew he would, in days to come, tread with immortal foot, and gaze upon with immortal eye. He was now within sight both of the earthly and the heavenly Canaan; the upper and the nether glory were both before his eyes; he longed to depart, and to be with Christ, which is far better; but still, with all the heavenly full in view, and ready to be entered on, he still desired the vision of the earthly; he still pleaded, "Please let me cross the Jordan to see the wonderful land on the other side, the beautiful hill country and the Lebanon mountains."
There was nothing wrong, or carnal, or low in this desire to look upon the earthly. That which is earthly is not necessarily carnal, and that which is material may be as spiritual as that which is immaterial. There may be a carnal view of things heavenly, as truly as there is a spiritual view of things earthly. The former is that which unbelief always takes, the latter is that which faith realizes. It is not spirituality to abuse the body, to despise matter, to soar above the clouds. True spirituality is that which accepts material things as those which God created and pronounced good; which loves to visit them, and gaze on them in faith, as manifestations of the glory of the invisible God; as helps to the understanding of the great mystery of godliness, "God manifest in the flesh."
The first part of his argument is in verse 24, "O Sovereign Lord, I am your servant. You have only begun to show me your greatness and power. Is there any god in heaven or on earth who can perform such great deeds as yours?" It is natural, even in man's works, when we have seen the beginning, to desire to see the end; and to expect that he who has shown us the one, will show us the other. Moses feels as if he would be tantalized, almost mocked, by not seeing the end. He argues that God's willingness to show him the beginning, is a pledge of his willingness to show him all. We may all use this argument. You, who have forgiven me past sin, will you not forgive all present and all future sin? "Being confident of this very thing, that he who has begun a good work in you, will perform it until the day of Christ" (Phil. 1:6).
The second part of his argument is, that, to stop here, would leave so much undiscovered of his greatness and mighty hand, that, for the sake of the glory to be unfolded, and the power to be revealed, he might expect to be allowed to enter. So great is the undiscovered glory of God, and so desirous is God to reveal it to us, that we may use this argument with him respecting anything we desire.
The third argument looks at the very little already
seen—only a glimpse. Moses pleads this little, and, because of it,
asks to enter Canaan. He had seen much of God's power, yet he speaks as if
it were little; not as if undervaluing the past—but still feeling as if it
were comparatively nothing. So, all that we have tasted hitherto is small.
It is in the ages to come that he is to show the exceeding riches of his
grace; and hence we may call the past a little thing, and use it as an
argument with God. We might, perhaps, shrink from this, were it not that we
call to mind his unspeakable gift; and, measuring other gifts with this, we
may speak of them as small. We may argue, the blessings we have received are
large, when we consider ourselves and our demerit; but, when measured with
that gift which has purchased everything for us, and which is the pledge of
all, they are as nothing. Let not the greatness of the blessings sought,
discourage us; rather let us deal with them as Moses did, and, pointing to
their greatness, make that greatness our plea. It is a light thing with God
to give us anything or everything. Let us ask, and let us expect the best
gifts—knowing that he will do for us exceeding abundantly above all we ask
III. God's answer.
It is not what we should have expected. It falls heavily on us, and it must have fallen still more heavily on the old man's ear. It sounds stern to us. Yet it is the answer of wisdom and love. Three things are recorded here. "But the Lord was angry with me because of you, and he would not listen to me. 'That's enough!' he ordered. 'Speak of it no more. You can go to Pisgah Peak and view the land in every direction, but you may not cross the Jordan River."
(1.) The anger. God was angry at Moses, or rather, he had been so; and the reasons for it were as strong now as at the first. Israel had provoked Moses, and Moses had provoked God. Israel's conduct had roused Moses to speak and act unadvisedly, so that he dishonored God before all Israel. This public act of sin cannot be passed over, even in Moses; for, if God passed over offences in Moses when he was visiting them on the people, what would be said? This great dishonor done to God by Moses, though at the close of a long life of consistent service, must be publicly condemned. This is the anger spoken of. Moses is not to be cut off with the rebels, nor to have a grave in the wilderness; but some notice must be taken of his sin. God will by no means clear the guilty.
(2.) The refusal. The anger leads to refusal of the petition. Often had the petition been presented and refused; now it is presented and refused for the last time. "He would not listen to me!" Strange words these respecting God and his treatment of the prayer of a saint—"He would not listen to me!" Oh, with what feelings of abasement must Moses have listened to this last refusal! Such a refusal from One who had hitherto denied him nothing, from One who had so freely forgiven all his iniquities! How solemnly would he feel, in that hour, the necessity of such a testimony against the sins of his saints! How bitterly did that refusal call his sin to remembrance!
(3.) The prohibition. "That's enough! Speak of
it no more." This is the final closing of the whole question, the sealing of
Moses's lips. He had, doubtless, often spoken to God on the subject; but now
he is forbidden even to speak of it again. There is something severe in this
check; yet there is something very parental. It shows the intimate terms on
which God was pleased to be with Moses; so that, when His child grew too
importunate, he lays his hand upon his lips, with, Hush, speak no more on
that subject. God is not a man that he should lie. His purpose must stand.
But Oh, what an idea of the efficacy of prayer must Moses have had, when he
thought by it to change the purpose of God! This was more than moving
mountains. And how much God must delight in importunity, when he lets it go
so far, and only checks it at the last with a rebuke so gracious and gentle!
IV. God's condescending grace.
Entrance is denied—but a full vision of the land is granted. "You can go to Pisgah Peak and view the land in every direction, but you may not cross the Jordan River." He strains his purpose (if one may speak so) as far as possible, without breaking it. The actual request is denied—but something as like it, and as near to it, as might be, is accorded. He takes him to the top of Pisgah, one of the highest of the mountains of Moab, and from it he shows him the whole land.
Looking westward, he sees Jerusalem, and Bethlehem, and Bethel, with the terraced hills of Benjamin and Ephraim stretching away in the grey distance, to the great sea. Northward, he sees the wooded valley of Jordan, with its forests of palms and pomegranates—the fruitful heights of Galilee and Gilead, up to the snowy peaks of Lebanon, and "that goodly mountain," Hermon. Southward, he sees the wooded hills of Judah, with the vineyards of Eshcol, and the olive heights of Kiriath-Arba in the distance, and perhaps the rising table-lands around Beersheba. Eastward, he sees the forests and pastures of Ammon, already, in part, under the dominion of Israel. The whole compass of the land he is permitted to gaze upon, that he may have a taste of Israel's long-promised inheritance. And Oh, with what intensity of gaze and yearning of spirit must he have viewed that fair expanse of scene!
Thus far grace condescends, showing us to what lengths
God can go, in answering prayer, even when a purpose of his own stands in
the way. How rich must have been that taste of grace to Moses, after the
refusal he had received! How deep his sense of the parental tenderness, the
loving condescension, indicated in this! The denial of the request seems
only to furnish a new opportunity for a manifestation of love, tenderer and
more indulgent, than could have been given by the granting of the prayer.
What an indulged and favored child does Moses seem, even in this very scene
of apparent sternness! O love that passes knowledge! O condescension of God,
to what depths of indulgent tenderness will you not stoop!
Take these threeclosing lessons.
1. See what one sin can do! One sin cost Adam Paradise; one sin costs Moses Canaan. In the case of Moses it is the more startling, because it is a forgiven sin, and he is a forgiven sinner. His sin is forgiven, yet it leaves a stain behind it; it traces a testimony to its unutterable evil on the person of the sinner. It could not cost him the heavenly inheritance; the everlasting covenant and God's electing love had secured that unconditionally and indefeasibly. But it costs him the earthly; for God must give public testimony against a sin publicly committed. O saint, give heed to your ways! Your inconsistencies may cost you dear. They cannot close the kingdom on you; the blood that bought you has bought the kingdom for you—but they may bring you down to a lower level; they may dim the luster of your clothing; they may take out some of the gems of your diadem. O man of God, beware of sin. Keep yourself pure. Walk and speak circumspectly. Follow the Lord fully.
2. See what God's inflexibility is. He cannot change. He cannot call that no sin, which is sin; nor that a small sin, which is a great sin; nor that a private sin, which was a public sin. His purpose is not the easy, pliable, changeable thing which ours is. He is the God only wise, only righteous, only mighty, and is, therefore, above all such vacillations. He is without variableness or shadow of turning; the same yesterday, today, and forever. O saint, remember that you have to do with a holy and unchangeable God! O sinner, think that you have also to do with him, and that this inflexibility is, as yet, all against you! He will not alter either his law or his gospel to suit you. You must take them as they are, or perish forever! It is true that he who believes shall be saved; it is as true that he who believes not shall be damned!
3. See what the grace of God is. Many waters cannot quench it, nor the floods drown it. To what lengths it will go, in order to pardon a sinner or to bless a saint! Believer, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus! Unbelieving man, take refuge now in that rich grace which is still held out to you, for the forgiveness of all your sins, and for the bestowment of blessings, and joys, and hopes—which will make you richer than Israel with his earthly Canaan; gladder than Moses with his bright vision of the land flowing with milk and honey!