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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Deuteronomy 34

 

 

Verse 1-2

XXXIV.

DEATH OF MOSES.

(1) Pisgah.—See Numbers 21:20. The word seems to mean a height.

(1, 2) The Lord shewed him all the land of Gilead, unto Dan, and all Naphtali . . . unto the utmost sea—that is, He showed him all the land which was to be given to these several tribes. Whether He then showed it to him under the names which are given here or not is a question we cannot answer. Many deeply interesting queries suggest themselves here. Did Moses go up alone? or did Joshua accompany him? Who wrote these particulars of what was shown to him, and how were the particulars known? I am disposed to believe that as Elijah and Elisha “still went on and talked,” until that chariot of fire appeared which “parted them both asunder,” so it was with Moses and Joshua—that Moses’ minister attended him until Jehovah withdrew him from his sight. But it speaks well for Joshua’s character—in fact, it is altogether characteristic of the man—that in this record of the death of the great lawgiver he should have concealed himself and every other figure from sight except Jehovah and His servant Moses. Rashi, in his comment on this scene, says that the Lord showed Moses not only the land, but what should happen therein, in every part. But of this we know nothing. We know that the spectacle was complete. Probably “the eye that was not dim” was enabled to see farther than human eye ever saw from such a height before. “The utmost sea” is full fifty miles away from that spot.


Verse 3

(3) And the south—i.e., the Negeb.

And the plain—i.e., the plain of Jordan.

The valley of Jericho.—The city of palm trees may or may not be identical with that place.


Verse 4

(4) This is the land which I sware unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, saying, I will give it unto thy seed: I have caused thee to see it.—“That thou mayest go and say to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, The oath which He sware to you, the Holy One, blessed be He! hath performed it,” is Raehi’s comment. But in Paradise they scarcely needed Moses to tell them of His faithfulness.


Verse 5

(5) So (better, and) Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord.—Literally, upon the mouth of the Lord, and hence the Jewish interpretation that he died by a kiss! But the language of the sacred narrative is too simple to need even this interpretation. For many years it had been the habit of Moses to do everything “at the mouth of the Lord.” Only one fatal mistake mars the record of obedience. It was but one last act of obedience to lie down and die at the word of Jehovah. It is extraordinary, when we consider the story of Moses’ last days, how wholly self is cast aside. There is no anxiety about the unseen world, and no positive expression of hope. St. Paul says far more than Moses about his prospects in the life to come. To Moses, death is a source of anxiety on account of his people, and a source of pain to himself, because he cannot go over Jordan and see the works of Jehovah on the other side. Beyond this, his reticence is absolute, and his calm silence is sublime. But he died in the company of Jehovah, and may well have felt that he would not lose His presence in the other world. “Underneath were the everlasting arms,” as he had said but just before. Jehovah was with him, and he feared no evil. He was so fearless, that it does not seem to have occurred to him to say that he did not fear.


Verse 5-6

The Death and Burial of Moses

So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord. And he buried him in the valley in the land of Moab over against Beth-peor: but no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day.—Deuteronomy 34:5-6.

The more carefully we study the Old Testament, the more we shall be convinced that it contains a development of truth, not merely by spoken revelations, but through events and incidents divinely arranged, and made the subjects of thought to those ancient believers, under the teaching of God’s Spirit. These incidents are planted like seeds in the popular heart, and grow up slowly into leaf and flower in recognized doctrines. This was Christ’s own method of instruction in His miracles and parables, and we may expect to find it in the Divine history throughout. No one can close the Old Testament and open the New without seeing that, during the interval, immense progress had been made in the unfolding of religious truth. The expectation of a Redeemer and a redemption had become clear and concentrated, and the belief in an eternal life, and in the resurrection, was held by many. There is, we believe, no satisfactory way of accounting for this but by the work of God’s own Spirit, in the heart of thoughtful men, using for His instrument the revelation which had already been given. Let us take the account of the death and burial of Moses, and seek to show how it was fitted to be such a source of fruitful reflection to the Old Testament Church.

The text is in three parts—

I. The death of Moses was at God’s command: “So Moses died according to the word of the Lord.”

II. His death took place before Israel entered the land of promise: “Moses died there in the land of Moab.”

III. He was buried by God and his sepulchre is unknown: “He buried him in the valley, but no man knoweth of his sepulchre.”

I

Death at the Command of God

“So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord.” The Hebrew is “according to the mouth of Jehovah”; the meaning is “according to the command of Jehovah.” The same expression is translated in the case of Aaron’s death “at the commandment of the Lord” (Numbers 33:38).

Mouth in the sense of command is a common Hebrew idiom; nevertheless the Jews understood it here literally, and from the paraphrase in the Targum arose the Rabbinic legend that Moses died by the kiss of God.

i. The Common Destiny

We live to die. When or where, it is vain to inquire; but that we must pass through the gates of death, no room is left for us to doubt. It is the common lot. Death is life’s shadow. It is not coeval with life, but it is coexistent with it. Wherever you find the one in this world of ours, you find the other. There is not a tree that grows, not a bird that sings, not a flower that blooms, not a child that laughs, not a man that toils, not anything that lives, but is destined to die. So Moses, the servant of the Lord died.

There is no pause in the succession. “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever,”—that is, throughout these successive generations of men. It abides, but they are gone. The mount from whose flaming summit the voice of God came forth still looks down upon the depths around it, and the dreary wilderness beyond it; but Moses, the tribes, and the tents of Israel have disappeared. The Sea of Tiberias still lies embedded, bright and blue, amid the hills of Galilee; but the men who crowded its shores to listen to the voice of One who spake as never man spake are nowhere to be found—all are “gathered to their fathers.”

Leaves, leaves, dead leaves of autumn everywhere!

They reddened all the floor of Fontainebleau

And rustled under every heedless foot.

They choked the gutters of the streets and filled

The carts of scavengers. They danced before

My steps, an eerie ghostly dance, and touched

My cheek and wailed about my ears. “Brief life

Is theirs,” said one who, passing, deemed he knew

My thought. “Brief life?” I captured one and read

A long, long story on its rusty face,

An age-long tale of life upon the tree

Alternating with death upon the ground.

I saw the forest dropping wintry tears

On leaves slow lapsing back to formlessness.

I saw the little sun, the little frost

Of verdant life, the fall, the death again.


The myriads and myriads of leaves

That make the forest mould cried out to me:

“Infinity, eternity we taste

Who have not breath enough to die, but what

Of man?” The roadway echoed to my steps:

“Infinity, eternity, but what

Of man?” And when I had attained the town

Each foot that hurried through the falling night

Beat oat the words: “To-day the little sun

The little frost of life, but yesterday

We were not, and to-morrow shall not be—

Infinity, eternity, but what

Of man?”1 [Note: Anna Bunston, The Porch of Paradise, 3.]

In the old times, before the settlements in the great north-west, when the fur companies would establish here and there a great trading post and send out their trappers to all parts of the country, trails were made in every direction, but they all ended at the post. North, south, east, west, for hundreds of miles in every direction, along large rivers, following small streams into the mountains, crossing lakes, searching through deep canyons, the trails would wind, but you could begin a hundred miles away, on any one of them, and however devious its course might be, it would end at the trader’s camp. The grave is the end of the trail of this world’s life. A man may start where he will. He may climb the heights of wealth or traverse the deep canyons of poverty. He may follow up the mountains of hard struggle or paddle his canoe on a stream of idleness. But when you get to the end of the trail, it is all the same. It is an open grave. Whether he brings many pelts there or few, however great or small have been the spoils of his life chase is of no account, for the grave is too narrow to hold any of them. We brought nothing with us into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. God help us that we may learn over again the old, old lesson that we learn so often and forget so soon—that we are with rapid feet following the trail to the grave. As we go over the trail but once, we never know how near the end is. It may be a long way off. It may be just over the hill.1 [Note: L. A. Banks.]

ii. At the Word of God

All life in the universe, our existence now and for ever, depends upon the Divine will. No one ever died a moment sooner than God designed, or lived a moment longer. We are entirely in His hands. He gave us birth. He willed our being. He placed us here, according to His wisdom, as was best for us. He takes us hence when it is best for us. We talk of accidental deaths, and premature graves. The language has really no meaning; it expresses notions, not truths. What are chances to us are purposes with God. Our course, from first to last, is ordered by Him. We not only come but go at His bidding. He gives life when He pleases, and when He chooses He takes it away. “All the days of my appointed time will I wait, till my change come.”

From out what Silent Land

I came, on Earth to stand

And learn life’s little art,

Is not in me to say:

I know I did not stray,—

Was sent; to come, my part.

And down what Silent Shore

Beyond yon little door

I pass, I cannot tell;

I know I shall not stray,

Nor ever lose the way,—

Am sent; and all is well.2 [Note: William Channing Gannett.]

There is an inscription on the tombstone of a little child in one of our country churchyards, as follows:—

“Who plucked that flower?” cried the gardener, as he walked through the garden. His fellow-servant answered, “The Master” and the gardener held his peace.

“I was dumb, I opened not my mouth; because thou didst it.”1 [Note: J. Davies.]

iii. The Death to die

Moses came to his death with courage and confidence. The reason for this is an open secret. Many years before, he had made the supreme choice of his life. He had chosen rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy for a season the pleasures of sin. And all the years of his experience since had but confirmed that great choice. He had given himself over to be guided by the Spirit of God. He had communed with God in joy and in sorrow, in hours of glorious victory and amid the gloom of stinging defeat; he had come to trust God with all his heart and soul; with every drop of his blood he was sure that God meant him good. Now, though his strength was unabated and his eye not dim and he must have had many natural desires to complete the work on which he had laboured so long, and to see his people safely housed in the Promised Land, he went without a word of complaint or of doubt to lay his body in the grave.

My own feeling now is that everything which has hitherto happened to me, and been done by me, whether well or ill, has been fitting me to take greater fortune more prudently, and to do better work more thoroughly. And just when I seem to be coming out of school—very sorry to have been such a foolish boy, yet having taken a prize or two, expecting now to enter upon some more serious business than cricket, I am dismissed by the Master I hoped to serve, with a—“That’s all I want of you, sir.”2 [Note: A. C. Benson, Ruskin: A Study in Personality, 156.]

I was sitting in my study one Saturday evening, when a message came to me that one of the godliest among the shepherds who tended their flocks upon our Highland hills was dying, and wanted to see his minister. Without loss of time I crossed the wide heath to his comfortable little cottage. When I entered the low room I found the old shepherd propped up with pillows and breathing with such difficulty that it was apparent he was near his end. As soon as the door was closed he turned his grey eyes upon me and said, in a voice shaken with emotion: “Minister, I’m dying, and—I’m afraid!” I began at once to repeat the strongest promises with which God’s Word furnishes us, but in the midst of them he stopped me. “I ken them a’,” he said mournfully; “I ken them a’, but somehow, they dinna gie me comfort.” I took up the well-worn Bible which lay on his bed and turned to the twenty-third Psalm. I slowly repeated the verse, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me.” “You have been a shepherd all your life, and you have watched the heavy shadows pass over the valleys and over the hills, hiding for a little while all the light of the sun. Did these shadows ever frighten you?” He looked at me with curious eyes. I continued, “The shadow of death is over you, and it hides for a little the Sun of Righteousness, which shines all the same behind it; but it’s only a shadow. Remember, that is what the Psalmist calls it—a shadow that will pass; and when it has passed, you will see the everlasting hills in their unclouded glory!” The old shepherd covered his face with his trembling hands, and for a few minutes maintained an unbroken silence; then, turning upon me a face now bright with an almost supernatural radiance, he exclaimed, lifting his hands reverently to heaven: “Ay, ay! I see it a’ now. Death is only a shadow, with Christ behind it—a shadow that will pass.”

When death is coming near,

When thy heart shrinks in fear

And thy limbs fail,

Then raise thy hands and pray

To Him who smooths thy way

Through the dark vale.


Seest thou the eastern dawn,

Hear’st thou in the red morn

The angel’s song?

Oh, lift thy drooping head,

Thou who in gloom and dread

Hast lain so long.


Death comes to set thee free;

Oh, meet him cheerily

As thy true friend,

And all thy fears shall cease,

And in eternal peace

Thy penance end.1 [Note: De la Motte Fouqué.]

iv. Death less than Life

1. Scripture speaks much of life and little of the manner of dying. Men imagine that the hour of death is the greatest test of faith in God, and thus they are not satisfied unless they know that in the last hours of a great and good man that faith shone out with unusual splendour. The Bible speaks of the battle of life as the real test of faith; and having told us that its heroes fought that battle faithfully, it does not stay to tell us whether their faith flashed out brightly in the end. Men think of death as a dark and awful mystery to be undergone with all possible heroism, and thus they inquire eagerly after death-bed experiences, and delight to dwell on triumphant departures. The Bible speaks of the death of the good as of the entrance into the blessed presence of Him whom they had served here; and having told us that His servants served Him, having spoken of their Divine heroism in living and doing, it seldom describes the close of their course, leaving us to feel that God took care of them then. Thus we have no long description of the death of Moses. The book, indeed, does record his last words to the people, but in them he speaks not of his own feelings, but of God; he does not attract their attention to his experience, but shows them how God had guided every step of their way. And thus, in speaking of a man whom it describes as one of the greatest prophets of all time, God’s Book says with sublime simplicity, “So Moses died, and the Lord buried him.”

Jewish, Mussulman, and Christian traditions crowd in to fill up the blank. “Amidst the tears of the people, the women beating their breasts and the children giving way to uncontrolled wailing, he withdrew. At a certain point in his ascent he made a sign to the weeping multitude to advance no farther, taking with him only the elders, the high priest Eliezer, and the general Joshua. At the top of the mountain he dismissed the elders, and then, as he was embracing Eliezer and Joshua, and still speaking to them, a cloud suddenly stood over him, and he vanished in a deep valley.” So spoke the tradition as preserved in the language, here unusually pathetic, of Josephus. Other wilder stories told of the Divine kiss which drew forth his expiring spirit; others of the “Ascension of Moses” amidst the contention of good and evil spirits over his body. The Mussulmans, regardless of the actual scene of his death, have raised to him a tomb on the western side of the Jordan, frequented by thousands of Mussulman devotees. But the silence of the sacred narrative refuses to be broken. “In” that strange land, “the land of Moab, Moses the servant of the Lord died, according to the word of the Lord.” “He buried him in ‘a ravine’ in the land of Moab, over against the idol temple of Peor.” Apart from his countrymen, honoured by no funeral obsequies, visited by no grateful pilgrimages, “no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day.”1 [Note: A. P. Stanley, History of the Jewish Church, i. 178.]

The Bible is the book of life. Its pages teem with biography; they contain but scant memorials of death. The only death they describe at length is that of Him who in dying slew death. The very minuteness of the description there shows how unique and all-important it was. Men make more of death than of life as a gauge of character. A few pious sentences spoken then will go far to efface the memory of years of inconsistency. God makes most of life.2 [Note: F. B. Meyer.]

“Are saints

Enskied,” I asked, “so linked with living men?”

“The brightest lily of the Lenten woods,”

He said “arrayed in livery of the sun,

Depends upon a buried bulb; the bulb

Depends on mediating leaves that bring

The breath of Heaven to the dust of earth;

And so the Church in glory, rest and war

Has triune life or none. Can clouds exist

Without the sun or sea? Would light and sound

Survive if air were dead? All things that are

Interdepend eternally. Herein

Consists the awfulness of human life,

That no man knows the confines of a sin,

The generations of a virtuous deed;

And hence the obligation to entreat

All men with tender charity, since al.

Are victims if offenders too; and oft

The fractures of the wicked are derived

From flaws of saints. And since one perfect Life

Can leaven all, perhaps one sinning soul

Can stay the bliss of all the Church of God.”3 [Note: Anna Bunston, The Porch of Paradise, 32.]

2. But was Moses’ life so profound a failure? The history before us gives us the answer. The purpose that Moses might not carry out was to be accomplished by Joshua, his successor. His life, therefore, had not failed; the hope he had thought to realize was yet to be realized in another way—for his labour had inspired a man who had caught his spirit, and was to finish the work he had begun. In that knowledge Moses might rest.

There is a spiritual connexion between men. One race is united by spiritual ties of influence to the succeeding race; age is joined by bonds of influence to age. Man is this bond for ever to future generations. He dies, and the spirit of his life is caught by his successors—so even here he “fulfils his course.” Therefore no life is ever lost, no holy purpose ever really fails. The life of Stephen, the first martyr, seemed like a hurried dream; he had just entered God’s army when in the first conflict he died. Men might say “he died before his time.” The Church made great lamentation over him. Its strongest soldier had gone. His life seemed vain. But his spirit entered the soul of St. Paul! So with the martyrs of the first ages. Their spirit lives yet. The mantles of departing prophets fall on other men, and clothe these with power to accomplish the work they had to leave unfinished.

To labour and not to see the end of our labours; to sow and not to reap; to be removed from this earthly scene before our work has been appreciated, and when it will be carried on not by ourselves, but by others—is a law so common in the highest characters of history, that none can be said to be altogether exempt from its operation. It is true in intellectual matters as well as in spiritual; and one of the finest applications of any passage in the Mosaic history is that first made by Cowley, and enlarged by Lord Macaulay, to the great English philosopher, who

Did on the very border stand

Of the blessed Promised Land;

And from the mountain’s top of his exalted wit

Saw it himself, and show’d us it;

But life did never to one man allow

Time to discover worlds and conquer too.1 [Note: A. P. Stanley.]

Each generation, however much it may seem to be absorbed in its own interests, works, not really for itself, but for a generation to come. That sense of incompleteness, of disappointment, which so often hangs like a cloud over the best work—work which has conscience, enthusiasm, and duty in it—is not final, it is only the veil which hides the land of promise from the gaze of the tired worker. Moses had to lay down his life’s work and forgo his own reward just as it seemed within his grasp, but yet he found his vindication in the greatness of a people whom, more than anyone, he had striven to make. He had to let go all the vital interests with which his life was bound up, as it were before his time, and yet time proved that he was right.

When we have done, as Moses did, what we have power and wisdom for, God, in the order of the world, takes the work out of our hands and gives it to another who will do the rest better than we could do it. If we lived on, the work would then be unfinished. It is by our death that it comes to a finish, in the hands of another. A porcelain cup passes, in a great manufactory, from hand to hand till it is completed. A young hand, seeing the cup taken from him without the handle, might think, “Alas, why may I not finish? My work is spoiled.” He does not know that another man in the next room will put on the handle better than Hebrews 1 [Note: S. A. Brooke.]

We are to die; but even I perceive

’Tis not a very hard thing so to die.

My cousin of the pale-blue tearful eyes,

Poor Cesca, suffers more from one day’s life

With the stern husband; Tisbe’s heart goes forth

Each evening after that wild son of hers,

To track his thoughtless footstep through the streets:

How easy for them both to die like this!

I am not sure that I could live as they.2 [Note: Browning, A Soul’s Tragedy.]

II

Death in the Desert

Moses’ time had come. But he was none the less with God. And when he felt the time draw near, he went to the top of a high mountain whence he could see the land of Israel’s heritage. Many have wished—it is especially a prophet’s wish—to be alone in death, alone in the silence of nature, high up, nearer the stars, where one may be able, in the absence of the noise of earth, to realize the nearness of the invisible Spirit. So he was carried to the top of Pisgah, and left in solitude on that peak of Pisgah which is called Nebo; and from thence he saw the country promised to his fathers. It is a mighty landscape, and there is scarcely a point in it which did not afterwards become a memory in the history of the Jewish people, scarcely a name which has not some significance in the spiritual history of mankind. There, to the north, lay Gilead and the mountain plateau divided by the ford of Jabbok, rocky plains, hill pastures, forests of oak and pine; and beyond, Gennesaret and Merom, all the wild land on either side of Jordan, crowned by the eternal snows of Hermon; and Lebanon spread its cedars far away; and towards the Great Sea, he saw the cornfields of Esdraelon, the mount of Carmel, Gilboa, and the broken highlands where Ephraim was soon to couch like a lion in his den. Nearer at hand, more to the west, was the plain of Judah, and nearer still the dry limestone rocks of Judah, where, years afterwards, Israel’s Jerusalem uprose, even more than Rome, the centre of the imagination of the world. And below, right at his feet, lay the Dead Sea, in its crater-cup of hills, and Jericho in its pastures, and the mountain pass that led to the hill that men afterwards called Zion.

This was the land which the Lord had promised to the fathers, for which he had been yearning, and to which all his work had been directed all these years; and now he is to die, as the text puts it, with such pathetic emphasis, “there in Moab,” and to have no part in the fair inheritance.

To Moses, so far as we know, the charm of that view—pronounced by the few modern travellers who have seen it to be unequalled of its kind—lay in the assurance that this was the land promised to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, and to their seed, the inheritance—with all its varied features of rock and pasture, and forest and desert—for the sake of which he had borne so many years of toil and danger, in the midst of which the fortunes of his people would be unfolded worthily of that great beginning. To us, as we place ourselves by his side, the view swells into colossal proportions as we think how the proud city of palm-trees is to fall before the hosts of Israel; how the spear of Joshua is to be planted on height after height of those hostile mountains; what series of events, wonderful beyond any that had been witnessed in Egypt or in Sinai, would in after ages be enacted on the narrow crest of Bethlehem, in the deep basin of the Galilean lake, beneath the walls of “Jebus which is Jerusalem.”1 [Note: A. P. Stanley.]

As Moses looked upon the scene that met his eyes, he thought, “This is the promised land. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob saw it before me. They were but pilgrims in it. I have worked for it; I have come to the edge of it; I may not enter into it.” And as he lay there in the deep silence, his first thought was, no doubt, regret. “Why, having done all I could have done, may I not see the end? Would that I could go with my people and share their glory and their conquest! Does God do right to take me away now? I have borne the burden and heat of the day; why should I not taste of the grapes of Eshcol?”

It is the lot of all epoch-making men, of all great constructive and reforming geniuses, whether in the Church or in the world, that they should toil at a task, the full issues of which will not be known until their heads are laid low in the dust. But if, on the one hand, that seems hard, on the other hand there is the compensation of “the vision of the future and all the wonder that shall be” which is granted many a time to the faithful worker ere he closes his eyes. But it is not the fate of epoch-making and great men only; it is the law for our little lives. If these are worth anything, they are constructed on a scale too large to bring out all their results here and now. It is easy for a man to secure immediate consequences of an earthly kind; easy enough for him to make certain that he shall have the fruit of his toil. But quick returns mean small profits; and an unfinished life that succeeds in nothing may be far better than a completed one that has realised all its shabby purposes and accomplished all its petty desires.2 [Note: A. Maclaren.]

That low man seeks a little thing to do,

Sees it and does it:

This high man, with a great thing to pursue,

Dies ere he knows it.

That low man goes on adding one to one,

His hundred’s soon hit:

This high man, aiming at a million,

Misses an unit.

That, has the world here—should he need the next,

Let the world mind him!

This, throws himself on God, and unperplexed

Seeking shall find Him.1 [Note: Browning, A Grammarian’s Funeral.]

What is the meaning, then, of unfulfilled purposes in life? It is evident that Moses felt this as one of the saddest aspects of his departure. The earnest prayer that the Divine sentence should be recalled, and that he should lead his people into their own land, shows how keenly this thought pressed upon him. The answer to that prayer—the permission to behold the land he might not enter—shows this still more powerfully, for it exhibits God’s sympathy with the sorrow that filled his heart. And, indeed, if we reflect on his circumstances at that time, we shall find that they must all have brought before him the mysterious fact that the grand purpose of his life was never to be realized. One thought had given meaning to his history for eighty years—the thought of guiding the nation into the land promised to his forefathers. That must have cheered him through many a desolate day in the wilderness, and it must have helped him to be calm when the people’s murmurings grew loud. The difficulties of their progress, and the apparent disappointment of their hopes would react on him in new power. For difficulties have two effects on man. On the man of feeble purpose they act with a withering might that renders him undecided and desponding; on the man of strong faith and powerful purpose they act like the rocks that, by limiting the space of a torrent, give it greater force—they nerve him to stronger effort, and brace him for more strenuous toil; and every difficulty must thus have inspired the one aim of Moses with fuller energy. His feelings towards the people, too, would exert on that purpose a higher and a holier power. Their welfare had become part of his life. His sympathy with their weakness, their ignorance, their sorrow, must have kindled into burning ardour the desire to bring them to their home. But on the very verge of its accomplishment—on the very border of the land, with its hills in sight—that purpose must be surrendered and he must die.

What was the meaning of his death at that time? The question might have but a feeble interest for us if it were not that the facts of life force it upon us daily. Is it not a mystery by which we all are baffled—a mystery which in some hours we strive to confront because of its deep sadness, and which at other times seems to darken before us through our useless questionings—that the greatest and holiest purposes men cherish seem never to be attained? The common phrase that speaks of men “dying before their time” is the confession of a riddle which cannot be solved. It met the old heathen who, without the light of Christianity, said, in his simplicity, “Whom the gods love die young.” And he has thought but little who has not asked in perplexity, Why should such men die, as if the greatness of their aim had shattered the chain of their earthly life, while those who have no God-given purpose so often live on till a useless old age creeps over them? The truest servants of the Lord come to life’s end with one common confession that they have attained but a fragment of their purposes. The Christian Church repeats from age to age the story that its most earnest men are too frequently the first to die; and no Christian ever awoke to the deep conviction that life was not to be spent in selfishness, but in Christ like effort for man, without discovering that his aim, in this world, is never fulfilled; and that is the world-wide mystery.

His father had several friends, wont to spend an evening hour or two in his study, to which John was now admitted on equal terms. Amongst these was a young advocate, a tall and energetic man, full of vitality, brimming over with good spirits and laughter. He went into the country on some business connected with his profession, slept at a little inn in damp sheets, took a chill, and died of rapid consumption, disappearing from his accustomed place with a suddenness which startled John as if a miracle had taken place before his eyes. The man had been the very embodiment of overflowing health. There had been no natural mounting up to full maturity and gradual decadence to death. In the bloom and vigour of early manhood death smote him and laid him low. That old men should die seemed plain enough; that weakly children should fade from life was grievous, but not mysterious; but that, after all the preparation which youth must undergo to fit the man for life—that, so fitted and equipped, on the very threshold of usefulness and experience, death might leap from an ambuscade and lay him low—that pulled him up from all easy-going acceptance of what to-day and to-morrow had to offer, since the third day might find him face to face with the same dread experience.1 [Note: A. M. Stoddart, John Stuart Blackie, i. 22.]

A famous historian died, leaving incomplete his one master-work to which he had given all his strength and all his love. He was not afraid of death. He set his affairs in order with great thoughtfulness. He said good-bye to his friends with unbroken courage. But one thing broke his heart. He had not finished his book. The long years spent in gathering knowledge and in solving problems; the patient labour to which he had sacrificed pleasures, and riches, and bodily health; they were never to bear their expected fruit. The bitterness of the thought was too much for his fortitude, and his dying cry was a cry of regret: “My book, my unfinished book!”

The English statesman, Pitt, who gave his life to the task of bringing his country through the great struggle with Napoleon, died of the task at forty-seven years of age. His closing moments were made dark and sad by the thought that he must leave the work undone. They brought to him the news of Napoleon’s last victory. He turned his face to the wall, murmuring,” My country! how I leave my country!”

“Go home content, the evening falls,

Day’s tired sinews are unbent;

No more the thrush or linnet calls,

The twilight fades, go home content.”


“Father, the field is but half-turned,

And yet the spring is well-nigh spent.”

“My son, the hour of rest is earned,

The day’s work done, go home content.”

1. The first answer is that the desire of Moses was unfulfilled because of his sin. One of the great truths which the old law and ordinances given by Moses were intended to burn in on the conscience of the Jew, and through him on the conscience of the world, was that indissoluble connexion between evil done and evil suffered, which reaches its highest exemplification in the death which is the wages of sin. And just as some men that have invented instruments for capital punishment have themselves had to prove the sharpness of their own axe, so the lawgiver, whose message it had been to declare, “the soul that sinneth, it shall die,” had himself to go up alone to the mountain-top to receive in his own person the exemplification of the law that had been spoken by his own lips. He sinned when, in a moment of passion (with many palliations and excuses), he smote the rock that he was bidden to address, and forgot therein, and in his angry words to the rebels, that he was only an instrument in the Divine hand. It was a momentary wavering in a hundred and twenty years of obedience. It was one failure in a life of self-abnegation and suppression. The stern sentence came.

It is pathetic to find him among that great company of martyrs for the public good, those who in order to serve their people have neglected their own characters. Under the stress of public work and the pressure of the stupidity and greed of those whom they have sought to guide, many leaders of men have been tempted, and have yielded to the temptation, to forget the demands of their better nature. But whatever their services to the world, such unfaithfulness does not pass unpunished. They have to bear the penalty, whosoever they be; and Moses was no more an exception than Cromwell or Savonarola was, to mention only some of the nobler examples.1 [Note: A. Harper.]

(1) If we ask why that single and apparently trifling disobedience unfitted him to lead the people into the land, while men far more rebellious and with less temptation afterwards became their rulers, I do not know that we can find an adequate reply. It may be that God would show how one act may darken the whole of man’s earthly hopes; how the subtle influence of one act of disobedience—because in disobedience lies the germ of all sin—may pervade with its gloom the whole of a man’s history, and cause his holiest efforts to fail just at the moment they seem about to succeed. In that we have the hidden source of life’s incompleteness unveiled. It may not be true to say that some special and definite sin ever prevents the man who has a great purpose from accomplishing it, but this history points out that the presence of sin has destroyed all the completeness of life, and accounts for all that failure of the holiest aims which saddens and perplexes us.

One little mark under the arm-pit of a plague-sufferer tells the physician that the fatal disease is there. A tiny leaf above ground may reveal deep below the root of a poison-plant. That little deflection, coming as it did at the beginning of the resumption of his functions by the Lawgiver after seven-and-thirty years of comparative abeyance, and on his first encounter with the new generation that he had to lead, was a very significant indication that his character had begun to yield and suffer from the strain that had been put upon it; and that, in fact, he was scarcely fit for the responsibilities that the new circumstances brought.1 [Note: A. Maclaren.]

(2) People say, “A heavy penalty for a small offence.” Yes! But an offence of Moses could not be a small offence. Noblesse oblige! The higher a man rises in communion with God, and the more glorious the message and office which are put into his hands, the more intolerable in him is the slightest deflection from the loftiest level. A splash of mud that would never be seen on a navvy’s clothes stains the white satin of a bride or the embroidered garment of a noble. And so a little sin done by a loftily endowed and inspired man ceases to be small.

It is one of the laws of the Divine government of the world, that with those to whom God specially draws near He is more rigorous than with others. Amos clearly saw and proclaimed this principle. “Hear this word that the Lord hath spoken against you, O children of Israel,” he says; “you only have I known of all the families of the earth: therefore I will visit upon you all your iniquities” (Amos 3:1-2).

(3) We cannot suppose that the sudden outburst of impetuous temper at Meribah—when his spirit was agitated by a fierce whirlwind of wrath, as a storm sweeping down some mountain-rent on an inland lake—could remain long unforgiven. As far as the east is from the west, so far had that transgression been removed. But though the remission was complete, yet the result lingered in his life, and shut him out from an experience which should have been the crown of his career. “The Lord hath put away thy sin,” said Nathan to the royal transgressor; “but thy child shall die, and the sword shall not depart out of thy house.”

(4) But there is more. Moses was one with Israel. When they sinned he interceded as for himself. When Jehovah made him the offer that He would make of him a great nation, he declined it solely from his love to Israel. He lived for the nation, and for the nation he died. Remember how once he went so far as to say, “If not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written.” In every way he was of the people, bone of their bone, and flesh of their flesh; Israel was hidden in his heart; and out of that master-passion of sympathy with the people came the weakness which at last made him speak unadvisedly with his lips. They strove with God; and though Moses never yielded a point to them in that wicked contest, yet their unbelief so far influenced him that he spake in anger, and said, “Hear now, ye rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock?” Then “the Lord spake unto Moses and Aaron, Because ye believed me not, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them” (Numbers 20:10; Numbers 20:12). Three times in the Book of Deuteronomy Moses tells the people that the Lord was angry with him for their sakes. It was not so much what Moses did personally that involved him in judgment; but he suffered because of his being mixed up with Israel. As the Lord had spared the people aforetime for Moses’ sake, it became necessary that, when he in any measure shared in their great sin of unbelief, he should be chastened for their sake as well as his own. His faith had saved them, and now his unbelief, being backed by theirs, secures for him the sentence of exclusion from the land.

Were not the Israelites much more guilty? Why were they allowed to enter the land from which he was shut out? We are called by Christ’s name; we believe the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ; and we ought to be able to see the answer in the Psalmist’s words: “They angered him also at the waters of strife, so that it went ill with Moses for their sakes.” “For their sakes.” “By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin”; by one man’s endurance of the curse we are all redeemed to God. The Christian doctrine of Atonement is neither an evasion of the law affixing penalty to sin, nor an after-thought supplying the deficiencies of that law; it is the doctrine of human life; it is part of the very constitution of society, that we bear the sins of one another, and are helped by one another’s endurance of penalty. If we find it hard to believe that God is, righteously and graciously, thus visiting the sins of Israel on Moses, is it not because we have not rightly apprehended the righteousness and grace of God in our own redemption? The constitution of society which makes it inevitable that a man shall share in the transgression of his fellows is an integral part of the law which God “magnified and made honourable” in the Cross; it is this that made possible Christ’s sacrifice and mediation.

2. There is sometimes success in failure, sublimity in defeat. If we will consider it, there is nothing more sublime in the history of Moses than the story of his death. Tried by a worldly standard, it seems a poor and shameful ending to such a life. Who so fit, we might ask, to lead the children of Israel into the promised land as he who had, for their sakes, defied the wrath of Pharaoh; who had led them out of Egypt, and shared with them the wanderings of the wilderness; endured their perversity, and often interceded with God on their behalf? But when we speak thus, the poverty and shame are in our way of judging character and its rewards. Whether is better?—honour, or a resolute and chastened spirit? Who is the nobler man?—he who rejoices in the fulfilment of his hopes, or he who knows how to endure, and see the fruit of disappointment?

If we believe to be a meek and humble man is better than any blare of trumpets or pompous triumph, we shall see that God had provided some better thing for Moses than to lead the tribes into the promised land. To me it seems that the man Moses, with eye undimmed and natural force not abated, resigning to another the office he was still fit to bear, quietly accepting the decree which took his leadership from him, is surrounded with a purer lustre than had ever before rested on him; the ascent of Nebo is more glorious than the descent of Sinai.1 [Note: A. Mackennal.]

Moses, the patriot fierce, became

The meekest man on earth,

To show us how love’s quick’ning flame

Can give our souls new birth.


Moses, the man of meekest heart,

Lost Canaan by self-will,

To show, where Grace has done its part,

How sin defiles us still.


Thou, who hast taught me in Thy fear,

Yet seest me frail at best,

O grant me loss with Moses here,

To gain his future rest!2 [Note: J. H. Newman.]

There is little that is wise or noble about Ruskin hitherto. It had been a career of unbroken success of a small and self-centred kind; his genius had showed itself in his incredible laboriousness, and in a vitality of immense elasticity and toughness. But not by these things is the world changed! And now he was to be given a new heart. He was to see and to feel; he was to be mocked and derided; he was to wrestle with hateful thoughts; he was to torment himself over the evils of society: he was to build up an elaborate scheme for its amelioration. His scheme was to fail, and not even to fail nobly; it was to be viewed not only with indifference, but with open ridicule and contempt. Yet he was to become, without knowing it, in his humiliation and pain, more august, more pathetic, more noble, more Divine, till he was to appear in the minds of all who cared for purity and goodness and beauty, like a seamed and scarred mountain peak, above the peaceful valleys, cold and lonely and isolated, and yet looking out across the fields of life to some awful sunrise of truth, climbing and glimmering over shining tracts and unknown seas.1 [Note: A. C. Benson, Ruskin: A Study in Personality, 88.]

Although you seem to till a thankless soil,

Your prayers are never vain, nor vain your toil;

Some fruit you yet may have to cheer your heart,

In some new epoch you may bear a part;

But ev’n if now, through your short span of years

Your work be weary, and no fruit appears,—

Though, in humility, you look within,

Deeming your failure the result of sin,—

It is not so; for still our Father knows

What each requires—on each He still bestows

The discipline most needed; still He weighs

Our work with heavenly scales; our purblind gaze

Finds failure often where He knows success.2 [Note: Mackenzie Bell.]

3. One thought remains. The desires of Moses, unfulfilled here, were fulfilled in a higher sense elsewhere. The history before us may be silent, but we cannot be silent. By looking at the death of Moses in the light of the revelation brought by Christ we can speak with confidence. Christ redeemed all life—He glorified it all—therefore we may believe that no earnest efforts of this life are ever, for the man himself, really unfulfilled. And if that does not seem to prove their actual fulfilment, we may get some light on the subject by referring to a great law that pervades all the government of God. God leaves none of His works unfinished. In the world of nature no atom is lost, although we may not see the fulfilment of every existence because of our blindness. In the world of souls we perceive glimpses of the same law. Every act of the Spirit has an end which it completes, for every act has had its share in making us what we are. We are linked to our past. We find it out unmistakably now and then. If that be true, do you think that the holy purposes God has inspired us with have no fulfilment somewhere and somehow within our own experience? Can you believe that they are doomed to perish except in the possible effect they may have on other men? Does God inspire men to work through the turmoil and the doubt—through the mystery and sorrow of life—and leave those high desires to fade, having no consummation in the blessed life of Heaven? No! we must believe that, though in a different way, they are fulfilled there. We must believe that the spirit is everlasting, although the outward actions may die. We must believe that Moses, though he might not himself accomplish the purpose of his life and lead the people into rest, yet found that the great hope which had burned through storm and darkness upon earth, was consummated in nobler service and in a grander scene when he joined the companies who sing the song of Moses and the Lamb.

When men die in the fulness of their powers, as Moses died, we think that there is a waste of power. So there might be, if the power of those who die were really extinguished. But that is not our belief. Our belief is that it is expanded, ennobled, set at once to work, that it can do its work better, that its energies are more developed, that the range and objects of its work are tenfold greater and more numerous than they are on earth. Waste! when God and His work are everywhere. Waste! when the whole universe of humanity in the other world is open to him whom we have lost on earth. Waste of power! It is a thought impossible to the Christian man as he looks upon his dead.1 [Note: Stopford A. Brooke.]

(1) The Israelites themselves would discern, if dimly, this truth. The great truths of life and immortality must surely have begun to stir in the hearts of thoughtful men when they knew that “the Lord buried him.” Shall God, then, pay such regard to the perishable frame, and neglect the nobler part which dwelt in it? The outward shape and fashioning of clay, made of the dust and returning to it, was this then Moses, and not rather the living soul, breathed into it by God, as Moses himself records? And can the Maker put so disproportionate an estimate upon His own handiwork, as carefully to store up the casket and throw away the precious jewel which it held? Could we cherish the portrait of one beloved and leave himself to perish, when we might save him by stretching out the hand? Can this be the kindness of God to His friends?—for either He must wish to preserve the souls of His servants and want the power, or He must possess the power but want the wish; and where, in the one case, would be a God worthy of reverence, or where, in the other, a God who could attract our love?

When men become assured of His power, that He is the Father of spirits, and when He proves His regard for the frail and fading form, the burial of Moses might become God’s way of leading reflective men out to hopeful thoughts of the spirit that had given such brightness to the now darkened face. When such questionings arose, “Wilt thou shew wonders to the dead? Shall the dead arise and praise thee?” (Psalms 88:10); then a record like this might lead to the conviction, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Psalms 116:15). “Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth; my flesh also shall rest in hope. Thou wilt shew me the path of life” (Psalms 16:9; Psalms 16:11).1 [Note: John Ker.]

(2) Moses’ sin was blotted out, and he knew it, although the earthly effect of it remained. But if compensation is to be complete it must include the removal of the earthly penalty. The perfect idea of God’s forgiveness is that He should take away not merely the inward pain of sin but the outward stigma of it, and that He should make all life what it would have been without that sin, or still richer and higher for the very fall and rising. The spiritual Physician should not only heal the wound but obliterate the scar, and give “beauty instead of burning.” In the case of Moses this does not at first appear. “The Lord buried him,” but not in Canaan; and He showed him the land, but did not permit him to tread it. To an ancient Jew this must for a while have seemed strange almost to harshness,—to think that the meanest in all their tribes should enter and look on it, and eat of its plenty and drink of its sweet, and that he who had toiled and agonized for this lifelong end, so faithful to God and so self-sacrificing, should be excluded! No Israelite could look round on that noble home and the rejoicing family which dwelt in it without thinking of the great leader who stumbled at the door and lay buried by the threshold. Is Canaan then all, and is the whole life of Moses shut up in wanderings through a wilderness? Slowly but irresistibly the thought of another land must have risen, must have dawned upon the mind’s eye—a land of which this earthly one was only the symbol, and which must have given Moses perfect compensation for all he lost in death. It could not be otherwise. They were attracted and compelled to it by all they knew of God and of His servant. It was God’s very purpose in these events to educate them to a belief in another world, and to give them some faint conception of it—a world where the things and ties of earth are carried up to a heavenly temper and perfection. When a prophet came in after ages with the promise, “Thine eyes shall see the king in his beauty: they shall behold the land that is very far off” (Isaiah 33:17), it must have been felt by many to be suitable to this death of Moses, and may have had its origin in his last look, which took in “the precious things of heaven,” as well as “the precious things of the earth and the fulness thereof.”

(3) And to Moses himself this vision would not be wholly denied. We may well imagine as the evening deepened on the mountain-top, and the land below grew dim in mist, and Moses felt God draw nearer in the twilight, that the same thoughts entered into the soul of Moses, and his regret for not entering the land passed finally away. Nothing was left but death and God. Why should he ever have regretted that? There, only wars, fresh cares, new pain, day after day, of weary battle would await him. Here, in death, there was another Canaan, the substance of the shadow he had pursued so long. In it there were green pastures and still waters, and the Shepherd of the soul.

To dying men still comes the vision of the goodly land beyond the Jordan. It is not far away—only just across the river. On fair days of vision, when some strong wind parts the veils of mist and smoke that too often dominate our spiritual atmosphere, it is clearly visible. But the vision is most often reserved for those who are waiting on the confines of the Land, ready for the signal to enter. They tell us that on that borderland they hear voices, and discern visions of beauty and splendour of which heart had not conceived. Dr. Payson said, shortly before he died, “The Celestial City is full in my view. Its glories have been upon me; its breezes fan me; its odours are wafted to me; its sounds strike upon my ears, and its spirit is breathed into my heart.”1 [Note: F. B. Meyer.]

On one occasion Dr. Kidd was alluding to the unwillingness which even good people sometimes had to die. “It just reminds me,” he said, “of what happened when I left the auld hoose. When a’ the furniture was oot, and a’ the rest had gane to the new ane, I couldna leave; I paced up and doon the room in which my children were born; I gazed upon the wa’s of the chamber where I studied and wrestled with God, and I couldna tear myself away. But Betty, the servant, came, and she said, “Come awa’, sir, come awa’; the time’s up, and the ither hoose is far better than this.”2 [Note: J. Stark, Dr. Kidd of Aberdeen, 141.]

III

An Undiscovered Grave

There is something strange and altogether singular in this, that Moses, the greatest of all the Old Testament prophets, should find a resting-place in the earth and no man be able to point it out. The sepulchres of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are known among the groves of Hebron; the bones of Joseph, after many wanderings, rest in Shechem, in that parcel of ground which his father gave to him, the best beloved son. Rachel’s tomb, watered by many a tear, stands on the way to “Ephrath, which is Bethlehem”; for there her strength failed her, and she sank, as did all the ancient saints on the way to that birthplace of hope. The sepulchre of David is by Jerusalem, the home of his heart. But the last abode of Moses, the servant of God and the lawgiver of Israel, is claimed by no city in the wide land.

1. The first thing to notice is that the grave is not unknown to God. As it is in death, so is it in the grave—alone yet not alone. Moses dies alone, with no hand to clasp his, none to close his eyes; but God’s finger does it. The outward form of his death is but putting into symbol and visibility the awful characteristics of that last moment for us all. However closely we have been twined with others, each of us has to unclasp all hands, and make that journey through the narrow, dark tunnel by ourselves. We even live alone in a real sense, but we each have to die as if there were not another human being in the whole universe but ourselves. But the solitude may be a solitude with God. Up there alone, with the stars and the sky and the everlasting rocks and menacing death, Moses had for companion the supporting God. That awful path is not too desolate and lonely to be trodden if we tread it with Him. Moses’ lonely death leads to a society yonder. If you refer to the 32nd chapter you will find that when he was summoned to the mountain God said to him, “Die in the mount whither thou goest up, and be gathered unto thy people.” He was to be buried there, up amongst the rocks of Moab, and no man was ever to visit his sepulchre to drop a tear over it. How was he “gathered unto his people”? Surely only thus, that, dying in the desert alone, he opened his eyes in the city, surrounded by “solemn troops and sweet societies” of those to whom he was kindred. So the solitude of a moment leads on to blessed and eternal companionship.

As we trust God to supply the needs of the body in life, so let us trust Him for its burial in death. He marks where the dust of each of His children mingles with its mother earth. When a grave is opened, His eye rests on it; and though no foot may ever tread its soil, no hand keep it decked with flowers, He never forgets it; and none will be overlooked when the archangel blows his trumpet over land and sea.1 [Note: F. B. Meyer.]

Into the silent, starless Night before us,

Naked we glide;

No hand has mapped the constellations o’er us,

No comrade at our side,

No chart, no guide.


Yet fearless toward that midnight, black and hollow,

Our footsteps fare:

The beckoning of a Father’s hand we follow—

His love alone is there,

No curse, no care.2 [Note: Edward Rowland Sill.]

2. Again, no man must take from God the honour which belongs to Him alone, or stand between Him and the worship of His people. The first great lesson which the Jewish people were to be taught was the supremacy of the one true God. This was the indispensable basis of every other revelation,—the one God, alone, supreme,—and then His attributes, His law, His way to man. They were taken from among the nations, and reclaimed from idolatry to carry this truth to the world; and then, when sovereignty was established, mercy could be fully proclaimed. It was the lifelong work of Moses to fix this truth of God’s sovereignty. The word given him to bear was, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord.” All his labours and his trials arose from the difficulty of impressing this on their deep and constant conviction, and his death would have brought him no regret had he felt assured that his work was done. How solemn and pathetic his warnings to cleave to the true God, and wander to no other, as if he felt already the misgivings of their defection. And yet what he had done for them made it not unlikely that their reverence for him might prove their snare, and that they might be tempted to give him the place he desired to secure for God. Death, which lifts every great man higher, might have raised Moses above the lesson of his life—the unapproachable supremacy of God Himself. The deification of their heroes was the manner of the nations round them; it was the atmosphere of the age; and in this event we can surely see a means taken to guard the Israelites from the temptation. Had Moses himself obtained his choice, it would have been that, in death, he might carry out the lesson of his life, and here he gains it. He dies apart, and is buried in secret, where his grave can be dishonoured by no pilgrimage, and where no false veneration can rear altars to his memory. And this first lesson did not fail. The nation worshipped many strange deities, but it never gave the place of God to His prophets. If any life could have tempted them to such a course it would have been that of Moses, and when God removes him from their sight, and leaves no relic for sense or imagination to build its worship on, there is no successor of Moses who can assume the place.

How constantly the heroes of other nations have become their gods; how naturally the tomb becomes an altar, and the shrine a temple. Never was there hero that might more readily receive the idolatrous regard of a nation than he whose memory was so immediately associated with their religion, to whom they owed their national existence, their very liberties, their lives, their hopes. How easily would the burial-place of such a saint and hero become a place of pilgrimage and an object of worship. Seven hundred years afterwards Hezekiah is distinguished as the bold reformer who broke in pieces the serpent of brass which Moses had made. “Unto those days,” we are told, “the children of Israel did burn incense to it.” Thus is it that for Israel’s sake Moses is led up the mountain-height away into that utter loneliness; and there he dies, and God buries him, and no man knoweth the place of his sepulchre unto this day.1 [Note: M. G. Pearse.]

3. In the history of the greatest and the best, the tomb is often remembered and the life forgotten. It is an easier thing to revere the dust than to follow the example. There is an admonition in the Bible, “Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation” (Hebrews 13:7); and here, at the commencement of the lengthened roll, God inscribes it on an emphatic act. He takes away the grave of Moses that they may have before them, in full and undisturbed relief, the man himself. His words, living and dying, his walk with God till God took him, all that he was to God and to them, in self-devotion and affection, these survive him and can never die. If they came to his grave, they approached the creature and its fleeting part; but in coming to his words and his life they come to Moses himself and to God.

Men are liable to underrate the great and good in their lifetime, but after their departure they discover their goodness, and seek to compensate for their own neglect by extolling their memory. This is often true regarding men of genius. During their lives they have been misunderstood by those who cared not for their aims; but when they have passed away, the world has discovered its loss, and sought by posthumous praise to atone for its neglect. Many a gifted spirit, in uttering the truth by which he has been inspired, has met with mockery and malicious misrepresentation, but when death has stilled the restless heart of the thinker, the men who reap the results of his work attempt by laudation to obliterate their opposition; and many a servant of God has worn out life and hope in self-sacrificing labour, and been opposed by those he was trying to help; and it has not been until God has taken His servant home that they have discovered the true nature of his work.

The sepulchre of the greater Prophet than Moses is equally unknown, and may we not wonder that Christians, under a system of spirit and life, have been more slow than Jews to learn the lesson? Once, and once only, were men invited to “see the place where the Lord lay,” that they might be assured it was empty, and refrain from seeking any more the living among the dead. If research the most patient has hitherto done aught, it has been to show that the spot has left no trace upon our earth. God has made the march of armies and the desolation of centuries do for the sepulchre of Christ what His own hand did for the grave of Moses.1 [Note: John Ker.]

4. The lonely death and the lost grave are signs of honour.

(1) Notice the title given to Moses: “So Moses the servant of the Lord died.” It is a title given to him by Jehovah Himself: “My servant Moses” (Numbers 12:7). What an honourable title it is! And Moses was this of choice, for he willed to be the servant of God, rather than to be great in the land of the Pharaohs. Such he was most perseveringly throughout the whole of his life. Such he was most intensely; for he waited upon God for his directions, as a servant waits upon his master; and he endeavoured to do all things according to the pattern which was shown him in the holy mount. Though he was king in Jeshurun, he never acted on his own authority, but was the lowly instrument of the Divine will. Moses was faithful to God in all his house, as a servant. You neither see him overstepping his office nor neglecting it. His reverence for the Lord’s name was deep, his devotion to the Lord’s cause was complete, and his confidence in the Lord’s word was constant. He was a true servant of God from the time when he was appointed at the burning bush until the hour when he surrendered his keys of office to his successor, and climbed the appointed mount to die.

As Abraham received in Scripture, as his special designation, the title of “the Friend of God” (2 Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8; James 2:23), so Moses bears the title of “the Servant of the Lord” (Exodus 14:31; Numbers 12:7; Deuteronomy 34:5; Joshua 1:1; Hebrews 3:5). The special quality which this epithet marks is his unswerving faithfulness—that absolutely unshaken fidelity to God which characterized him throughout his entire career, alike at Heliopolis, where he worshipped God daily outside the walls of the city, turning towards the sun-rising; in Midian, where he proclaimed by the name of his son that God was “his help” (Exodus 18:4); in his dealings with Pharaoh, wherein from first to last he followed exactly all the directions that God gave him; and in his leadership of the people, which was little less than a constant pleading to them of God’s claims, God’s will to bless, God’s power to punish. Moses was “faithful” to God “in all his house” (Hebrews 3:5); i.e. in the entire government and administration which he exercised for forty years over Israel, God’s “house” or “household.” He was ever witnessing to them for God. “Stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord” (Exodus 14:13); “the Lord shall fight for you” (Exodus 14:14); “at even, then ye shall know that the Lord hath brought you out” (Exodus 16:6).1 [Note: G. Rawlinson, Moses, 200.]

(2) The people of Israel must be taught, in the beginning of their history, that the messengers of truth do not come from their midst, but from a Master above. Man’s philosophy is the offspring of the soil of this earth. It appeals to man’s reason and finds there its reward. But God’s law descends from God’s throne, and while it meets the requirements of man’s nature, it is not responsible to them. Every true bearer of it has his errand from God, gives his account to Him, and finds his reward in God at last.

How faithfully to men, and also how kindly, would all our work be done, if we had our account not to them, but to God, ever in our eye! Moses ascends the mount to learn God’s will, and, when he has finished his work, he goes to Him to die, and to find from Him his sepulchre. He, whose servant he is, takes him back into His keeping, in the spirit of that grand old psalm which comes down to us as “A prayer of Moses, the man of God” (Psalms 90); “Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations.”

(3) There is another point in connexion with his death that expresses the kindness of the Lord. We know we must die, and, knowing this, we have the wish to die among our own; to be tended in our last moments by our dearest ones on earth; and when all is over (is it not also true of most people?) to be laid beside our kindred.

As if the quiet bones were blest

Among familiar names to rest.

And whilst this is true, it is also true that, should any of our household be “sick unto death,” our desire is that they should die at home. If we should hear of our absent child being dangerously ill, our first thought would be to get him home; and if he were too ill to be removed, we would then arrange to go to him, and nurse him wherever he might be, until death relieved us of our sad but loved charge. So Moses was well cared for in his death; for God, like a comforting mother, took him into His own care, and laid him down to rest. He loved him, and so brought him up into one of His upper chambers, where, tended by Himself, the good man remained until he died, and then the Friend, who had been with him in his dying, laid his body in its unknown grave. “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.”

I heard a daughter say, not long since, speaking of her mother’s long and fatal illness, “I am so thankful I was able to nurse her, and do everything for her with my own hands all the way through to the end.” And when she spoke the words it was quite evident that the facts she stated gave her the deepest satisfaction and joy.1 [Note: A. Scott.]

What a marvellous coming forth of the Lord God out of the thick darkness is here! Moses must die; but no human friend may wait upon that hallowed death-bed, no human eye may watch the ebbing of that preternatural strength, no human hands may lay that flesh, which had shone with the reflection of the uncreated glory, in the dust. God will be all in all to His servant; about him to protect him, above him to draw him upwards, beside him to uphold, beneath him to sustain. Comfort and help in the dark hour must come to Moses direct from God. The utterances which hang around that solitary departure are the Divine words, “I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward.”2 [Note: Bishop Woodford.]

Is not this the manner in which all saints die? Their death is precious to the Lord, and after the troubled day of life—agitated in its early morning by the trumpet calling to battle; fretted through an overcast noon by the pressure of its responsibilities and cares; lit in the evening by the rays of a stormy sunset, piercing through the cloud-drift, the tired spirit sinks down upon the couch, which the hands of God had spread, and He bends over it to give it its good-night kiss, as in earliest days the mother had done to the wearied child. That embrace, however, is the threshold, not of a long night of insensibility, but of an awakening in the supernal light of the everlasting morning.1 [Note: F. B. Meyer.]

When all my lessons have been learned,

And the last year at school is done,

I shall put up my books and games:

“Good-bye, my fellows, every one!”


The dusty road will not seem long,

Nor twilight lonely, nor forlorn

The everlasting whip-poor-wills

That lead me back where I was born.


And there beside the open door,

In a large country dim and cool,

Her waiting smile shall hear at last,

“Mother, I am come home from school.”

Literature

Banks (L. A.), On the Trail of Moses, 277.

Beaumont (J. A.), Walking Circumspectly, 131.

Brooke (S. A.), The Old Testament and Modern Life, 157.

Danks (W.), The Church on the Moor, 94.

Davies (J.), The Kingdom without Observation, 187.

Hull (E. L.), Sermons preached at King’s Lynn, iii. 119.

Ker (J.), Sermons, i. 153.

Kingsley (C.), The Gospel of the Pentateuch, 238.

Maclaren (A.), Expositions: Deuteronomy–1 Samuel, 77.

Maclaren (A.), The Unchanging Christ, 181.

Meyer (F. B.), Moses, the Servant of God, 185.

Minifie (W. C.), The Mask Torn Off, 135.

Myres (W. M.), Fragments that Remain, 42.

Parkhurst (C. H.), A Little Lower than the Angels, 174.

Pearse (M. G.), Moses: his Life and its Lessons, 279.

Rendall (G. H.), Charterhouse Sermons, 24.

Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xxxiii. (1887), No. 1966.

Woodford (J. R.), Sermons, Old Testament Series, 27.

Christian World Pulpit, xx. 3 (Scott); xxxiii. 138 (Mackennal); lxiii 326 (Lefroy).

Churchman’s Pulpit: Sunday after Ascension Day: ix. 12 (Jannings), 14 (Myres), 16 (Danks), 18 (Bradley), 20 (Goodwin).

Preacher’s Magazine, v. (1894) 257 (Pearse).

20th Century Pastor, xxi. 145.


Verse 6

(6) And he buried him.—Moses is alone in this honour. The Son of God was buried by sinful men. Moses was buried by Jehovah.

But no man knoweth of his sepulchre.—I have always believed that the contention between Michael and the devil about the body of Moses (Jude 1:9) was in fact, a struggle for his body—that Moses was to be raised from the dead, and that Satan resisted his resurrection. When the contest took place we cannot say. But Moses, who died and was buried, and Elijah, who was translated, “appeared in glory” on the holy mount, and the New Testament gives no hint of difference between them. We do not know how Moses could have appeared as a disembodied spirit so as to be seen of men.


Verse 8

(8) The children of Israel wept for Moses . . . thirty days . . .—As they did for Aaron, his brother (Numbers 20:29). It is remarkable that the burial and the tomb of Aaron are only alluded to in Deuteronomy 10:6. (See Note and Excursus on that passage.) Miriam was buried in Kadesh (Numbers 20:1).


Verse 9

(9) And Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom.—Probably we should connect this with the preceding verse, “The days of mourning for Moses were ended,” and ended more naturally because Joshua proved so well able to meet the wants of the people.

Moses had laid his hands upon him.—See Numbers 27:18; Numbers 27:23. It is the first example of “ordination” in Holy Scripture.


Verse 10

(10) And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.—Probably these words are later than the time of Joshua, when longer experience gave men the power to see how far inferior the prophets were to their great predecessor in this respect. The difference is most clearly set forth in Numbers 12:7-8. (See Notes on that passage.)

 


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 34:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/ebc/deuteronomy-34.html. 1905.

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