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Bible Commentaries

The Church Pulpit Commentary

Deuteronomy 34

Verses 4-6


‘And the Lord said unto him, 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 with thine eyes, but thou shalt not go over thither. 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 a valley in the land of Moab, over against Bethpeor: but no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day.’

Deuteronomy 34:4-6

There are few more impressive and pathetic passages of Scripture than that which deals with the end of Moses.

Perhaps we may just note two characteristics of Moses which have marked, and always will mark largely, the greatest men and, to a certain extent, the best men in the world.

I. First of all, there is his personal unselfishness.—He did not choose his own career. It was not his own wish to become the leader of his people. You see, on the contrary, how he shrinks from it again and again. So far as we can see, he would have been quite content to live and die as a shepherd keeping the sheep of his father-in-law, and when the Divine message comes to him he rather shrinks from it than is ready to accept it. Time after time he tries to escape the task, and he cannot escape it. There is the sense of a Divine call. The necessity is laid upon him. And I think that is a characteristic which one notices so often in the greatest and the best men—that they feel they have, in the true sense of the word, ‘a call.’ They feel the necessity laid upon them. They do not choose their own paths, or their own work. You see it again and again in the pages of Scripture, or outside of it. Over against these, with their Divine calls and Divine visions, there are the politicians striving for the spoils of office, or there are the ecclesiastics striving for good places. Perhaps you and I, when we see sometimes a work which we feel we must do, which we have got no personal inclination to do, we are summoned by no personal ambition, we hear within ourselves (for I suppose God still calls people) the same voice that once called Moses from the sheepfold that he might feed Jacob his people and Israel his inheritance.

II. And, secondly, there is this mark of greatness about Moses—that he was before his time.—He had visions and glimpses of things into which others after him should enter, but into which he should never enter himself. In this power of vision and willingness to wait, to work for a future which they themselves cannot enjoy, we have surely another mark of greatness; and here we may recall many names. Some of you will remember a certain passage in Macaulay, in which Bacon, the father of Inductive Science in this country, is compared with Moses. He, in his day, could see none, or very few, of the triumphs which were to arise, but, as in a vision, he could see the centuries rolling out before him. Like Moses, he looked over the promised land, though he himself might not enter in.

Or, if you come nearer to our own times, is not that the mark of such a man as Ruskin, who was called a mere visionary? This was the mark of Ruskin above most of our teachers in this country—that the very things for which he was reviled and abused, and for which he was called utterly impossible in his own day, have gradually and silently been accepted by large numbers of people. He looked over the land, though he could not enter in. In the preface of his work, ‘Unto this Last,’ he talks of certain practical schemes (he calls them practical, other people called them impracticable in his day) for the old and destitute, and now we have even Parliament discussing Old Age Pensions, as if it were within the view of practical politics.

In may seem that we are speaking in this fashion of great men, and that such discourse has little practical bearing for ourselves, for most of us do not aim at or pretend to greatness. Let me suggest one or two thoughts which seem to be suggested by the text, and which may be applied to some of ourselves:

( a) ‘I have caused thee to see this land, but thou shalt not enter in.’ Is it not true of all lives of men who have any high purpose at all in them, that they always have glimpses of better things than they ever actually attain? Of all lives which have any high purpose? If you have a low purpose, you may achieve it. If you set out in life desiring that you may eventually have a carriage and pair, you may attain that and stop. But the higher the aim, the greater seems to be the failure; and men are always conscious that they see greater things than they actually reach. It is true of all, I think, who have a strong sense of duty. They are only conscious of all they have lost. They die at last, never having attained to what they aimed at, but only having had some distant vision of the palms and of the sea.

What does all this mean? Why these baffled efforts in this world? Why does God give us these glimpses of better things, and yet never seem to satisfy us?

( b) The promised land is used for the vision of heaven. This I take to be the meaning of all visions we have here. God gives them to us, but He does not give us the perfect satisfaction. Men die, not having received the promises, only that they may receive them better; only that all their visions may have a greater fulfilment at last; only that eyes which have been baffled, as it were, by glimpses of truth and beauty and loveliness and goodness, to which they have never attained, may have at last their entire and perfect satisfaction. ‘Thine eyes shall see the King in His beauty.’

( c) And then, once more, in the words ‘No man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day,’ may we not think of all the forgotten dead, and all those of whom it may be said, in a different sense from Moses, that no man knoweth their sepulchres unto this day? History preserves for us, we know, a few great names, and forgets and buries all the rest. But the best work in the world has doubtless been done by many whose names are not remembered—by forgotten heroes and unremembered saints.

There are times when this seems a sad thing. We all of us know the lament of the poet as he stands in the country churchyard, and looks on all those nameless tombs, and fancies to himself that in this or that spot are laid perhaps

(1) ‘The superior blessedness of the heavenly life to which Moses was removed, could not obliterate while it atoned for the loss of the opportunity to enter Canaan. There were two great disappointments in Moses’ life—once when his brethren at the start rejected him, and again when at the close, entrance upon Canaan was denied him. All lives have their disappointments, and sometimes the greater the life is the greater the disappointments may be. Moses had not had an easy life. No truly noble soul can expect entire ease in this world. But Moses did his duty. Duty was the characteristic note of his career. And so his death was a glad crowning, rather than a sad conclusion, and opened up magnificent vistas of celestial opportunity and blessing, in comparison with which the grapes of Eshcol and the milk and honey of Canaan were as nought.’

(2) ‘With the vision of the burning bush Moses began his work, with the vision of the promised land he closed it. Not in the midway of his toilsome days, and not when the sun of his life was at its zenith—not then did God transport him to a mountain and give him a Pisgah-sight of Palestine. It was when his sun was westering to the sea, that he cried, like aged Simeon in the Temple, “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace.” Have we not something similar in the life of Jesus? The baptism and the dove are like the burning bush. For Christ, as for Moses, there is sweet revelation at the beginning of the public work. Then follow, for Jesus, years of toil and strain, and not in the midst of them does the transfiguration come; it comes, like the vision of Canaan, on the mount, when the hours of the Redeemer upon earth are numbered. Let us be brave, then, if for a little while in the stress and strain of the years we see no glory. Let us press towards the mark—redeem the time—be instant in season and out of season. Our coming to Christ, and our call, were very real, we remember the vision of a former day; but before the end we shall have yet brighter discoveries, if we but follow on to know the Lord.’


‘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 a valley in the land of Moab, over against Bethpeor: but no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day.’

Deuteronomy 34:5-6

What thoughts must have filled Moses’ mind when he left the camp for the last time, and climbed to ‘the top of Pisgah’! The long years of toil and responsibility were over. The load was off his shoulders at last. If there was sadness mingling with his thoughts, and something of the awe which must ever creep into a heart when face to face with death, and some regret that he was not to be allowed to put the top-stone on his work, nor tread the blessed soil of the land, yet perhaps the uppermost feeling was relief that he had received his discharge at last. Note three points.

I. The penalty of transgression.—‘His eye was not dim,’ and surely that last look must have been long and steadfast, and as it ranged over the wide expanse, must have lightened, rather than aggravated, the sense of privation in his exclusion from the land. That exclusion was penal, and the punishment may seem severe. But the lesson it teaches is that the nearer to God a man is, and the more he is privileged to speak with Him as with a friend, and the loftier is his position as representing Him to others, the heavier the guilt of his sins, and the more unsparing the loving chastisement for them. That pathetic, lonely figure on Pisgah, gazing and gazing on the sunny distances never to be trodden by him, though the crowd down in the camp, who had sinned more gravely, were to traverse and possess them, forces home that solemn thought on us.

II. Removal on the eve of success.—Moses was blessed above most of the great leaders and creative spirits, in that he did see the end of his toil as on the eve of realisation, and that his last look was not backward on foiled hopes and shattered plans, nor forward into a dim and questionable future for the cause for which he had worked. It is given to none of us to leave behind us finished tasks. ‘One soweth and another reapeth,’ and the sower seldom sees, much less gathers, the harvest. There is but One of whom it can be said, ‘His hands have laid the foundation of the house, His hands shall also finish it.’ The rest of us must be content to build a stone or two, and then to leave the trowel and the hammer to others. Moses had been lonely in his life, from the days when, in Pharaoh’s court, he nourished thoughts all alien to his surroundings, through his solitary years as Jethro’s shepherd in the desert, and not less so when he led the horde of cowards and murmurers. It was in keeping with his life that he should die alone, up there on the heights; for he had lived on high, alone with God. He died ‘according to the word of the Lord,’—literally, ‘by the mouth of the Lord,’ a phrase which gives occasion for the beautiful Rabbinical legend that God kissed him, and he slept. Death may be for us all, not a dragging us hence, reluctant and resisting, but a drawing to God by the disclosure of His love attracting the child to its Father.

III. The solitude and mystery of death.—God buried Moses, and then buried his sepulchre. Where among the savage gorges of Moab it lies ‘no man knoweth.’ And so all fear of superstitious veneration being paid to it was avoided. The grave was as fitting to his character as the death, and suggests the contrast between itself and that new tomb in a garden close to a city wall in which the Prince of Life lay. The mystery and loneliness of death were symbolised by the one, the other ‘brought life and immortality to light,’ and has peopled the solitude with one Presence. Jesus has died alone, that none henceforward may be without a companion in that hour. Moses’ grave was unknown, for Moses, dying, ceased to be Israel’s leader. The people had to turn away from him to other guidance, but Jesus still leads the generations on.


(1) ‘Great as Moses was, his death made not the slightest difference in the onward march of God’s people. In the first verse of Joshua we read: “Now after the death of Moses, the servant of the Lord, it came to pass that the Lord spake unto Joshua,” and the remark that, “God’s work does not cease because a leader dies, nor God’s utterances cease because a prophet dies,” conveys a much-needed lesson. We must not lean too heavily upon any human leader or prophet. All are fallible; all pass away. God’s work and God’s utterances are the important and lasting things.’

(2) ‘ Geikie’s estimate is suggestive. “His sympathy with his charge had been sublime. He could say of himself, that he had borne them as a nurse bears a child. His patience and hopefulness with them had been wonderful. His gentleness and self-oblivion had given him supreme authority and reverence. In all respects, indeed, he has been a man apart from his fellows, and immeasurably above them, and the remembrance that such an one had stood at the cradle of their infant nation gave all its following generations a grand impulse to a noble life.”

But due account should be taken of the strand of weakness in a noble character. Moses was impulsive, quick-tempered. On three occasions, at least, his infirmity led him astray, when he killed the Egyptian; when he threw down the “tables,” or tablets; and when he smote the rock twice.’

(3) ‘A Welsh minister, speaking of the burial of Moses, said: “In that burial not only was the body buried, but also the grave and graveyard. This is an illustration of the way in which God’s mercy buries sin. No one is in the funeral with mercy, and if any should meet her on returning from the burial, and ask her, ‘Mercy, where didst thou bury our sins?’ her answer would be, ‘I do not remember.’ When the merciful God forgives the sin, He forgets it.” ’

Verse 7


‘Moses was an hundred and twenty years old when he died.’

Deuteronomy 34:7

I. The story of the death of Moses is one of the most pathetic in the Bible.—A life that had been spent in the service of others, that had been extended far beyond man’s allotted span, was approaching its end, although, physically, he was as vigorous as ever. Moses had served his generation; he had brought the people to the very borders of the Land of Promise, but he himself was not permitted to see the fulfilment of his hopes. His sin in taking to himself at Meribah the glory due to God was the reason of his exclusion from Canaan, a solemn warning that sin and punishment are inevitably linked together. Like St. Paul, who besought the Lord that his ‘stake in the flesh’ might be removed, Moses prayed for the remission of his punishment. And as St. Paul, though his petition was denied, received the loving answer, ‘My grace is sufficient for thee,’ so Moses, while his prayer remained unanswered, had the comforting assurance that ‘underneath are the Everlasting Arms.’ Jehovah was with him, and he feared no evil. After blessing the people he loved in the triumphant psalm which forms the thirty-third chapter, Moses set out on his solitary journey up the mountain-side. His life had been to a large extent spent in solitude, and in solitude the end was to come. Before he passed away, he was granted a view of the land which the people were soon to possess. The mountain peak on which he stood, now known as Neba, commands a fine view of the country, and in the clear atmosphere of that land it might not require a miracle to enable him to see this. Thus the departing patriarch looked down upon the land promised nearly five hundred years to Abraham, and so soon to be their own possession. Then came the end. Moses gave himself into the hands of God. The man who, like Enoch, had ‘walked with God,’ ‘was not, for God took him.’ It was a beautiful end to a life that had been lived solely and entirely for others. Not after the cruel torture of the cross, as was the case with Jesus, nor at the sword of the executioner, as Paul, but ‘at the kiss of God’ (so the Jewish tradition), his pure spirit stepped over the narrow line that separates the temporal from the eternal, and he entered into the immediate Presence of God, to Whom he had lived in conscious nearness all his days. ‘Where I am, there shall also My servant be.’

‘And He buried him.’ Jesus ‘made His grave with the wicked’; to Moses alone belongs the honour of being buried by the hands of Jehovah Himself.

(1) ‘When Daniel O’Connell, on account of his health, was ordered to leave England, he started for Rome, having had for many years a desire to see that city. In the city of Genoa he was seized with paralysis, so was unable to proceed further, and died there, never having looked upon the longed-for sight.’

(2) ‘Moses yields to Joshua, and Joshua finally to another. No man is indispensable to the divine plan. But to every man is assigned his place and allotted his work. None can afford to be indifferent or neglectful. Let each soul then take care so to live that when its time comes to die, what we call “death” may bring the Pisgah vision and conduct to the Canaan celestial.’

(3) ‘To the eye of the superficial beholder the good and faithful servant is often summoned to cease from his labours at a time when his work is still incomplete, and when his services seem to be most required. A Tin-dale devotes the whole energies of his mind and body to the noble end of translating God’s Word into his native tongue; and just as his life-long efforts were about to be crowned with success, a cruel death snatches him away from a yet unfinished work. A Henry Martyn, intent on the accomplishment of a similar task, is permitted to breathe out, in solitude and in suffering, his last earthly aspirations for the dawn of the new heaven and the new earth wherein shall dwell righteousness. A Patteson, endowed in a marvellous manner with the highest qualifications for the same work, is severed from it by a violent death, inflicted by the hands of those to the benefit of whose souls and bodies he had so cheerfully and ungrudgingly devoted his life. But in each and in all of these cases, precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints. It matters little for such whether their death-bed be surrounded by living friends and relatives, and their resting-place be the peaceful churchyard of their native parishes, or whether amidst the solitude of the desert they breathe their souls into the hands of their Redeemer, or in the depths of the ocean their bodies await the day when the sea shall give up its dead. Alike, as in the case of Israel’s prophet and leader, their souls are secure in the guardianship of their Lord, and their bodies are the objects of solicitude to Him who is the Resurrection and the Life.’

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Bibliographical Information
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 34". The Church Pulpit Commentary. 1876.