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Nile and Nebo
It is a long way from the Nile to Nebo a long way, not in mere distance geographical, but in experience, in trial, in work, in suffering in all that goes to make up the sum total of the mystery of human life. It is well for us to have opposite points, that we may sometimes look at the one and at the other, at the beginning and at the intermediate end: and so measure off life in great sections, and consider it well, as if it were an entirety between the two points. Thus we set up judgment-seats, and form exact moral estimates of what we are and what we have done; and thus we hasten on to the day of audit and final and irrevocable settlement. If Moses could have seen the whole at one view, could he have lived? No man can see God and live: can any man see his own life, in all the minuteness of its detail, in every throb of pain, in every streak of blood, in every strife of battle, and go through it? Would not the sight kill him? Would it not become a burden which he could not sustain, from which he would shrink in utmost terror and despair, saying, I cannot undertake it; let me die, and not live? Thus God is the supreme mystery. But there are mysteries under his being which help to illustrate its profoundness and its majesty. We ourselves are mysteries, and life is an invisible wonder, and is dealt out to us a moment at a time, for who of us could be entrusted with a whole week together? Our breath is in our nostrils; the little light that is in our eye is but a flash upon the surface, and may pass in a moment. Our life is but a vapour which cometh for a little time, and then passeth away. The vision is shown little by little just one circumstance at a time; and we cannot take up the next loop along with the present loop: we must knit patiently, tediously, a loop at a time, taking up all the allotted thread until our portion of work is completed. Let us study our own life in the light of this suggestion. Let any man who has lived not merely existed any man who has had to struggle for life, to fight for bread, to scheme with all cunning-ness of thought that he might maintain his foothold upon the land, compare the first point of his recollection with his present position, and then say whether he would like to do all the battling over again, and endure all the suffering once more; or say whether it would be possible to live the whole life in one day's agony. This is God's way of educating us. This is the way against which we chafe and kick, as men might kick against pricks: so we bruise ourselves, and let our life ooze out in blood, instead of accepting the method, saying, We brought nothing into this world, nor did we ask to come into it: but loyally, with fulness of homage, we submit to thy way in the world, reading all its books one by one, gathering up what little store of wisdom it may hold; and at the end, not now, we can pronounce our opinion upon it. Every man who has lived a varied, eventful, struggling life is himself a miracle. Let him soberly think over the case where he began, where he has for the moment ended; let him compare the Nile with the Nebo, and say whose handiwork is displayed in all the figure of life who drew that geometry, who coloured that picture, who brought all those innumerable lines into focus and final meaning. The individual lines appear to be simple enough, little and short enough to have sometimes next to nothing in them; then they become related, mutually attached and reciprocal in influence and in colour. Behold how the miracle expands and brightens, until standing before it we say, Surely this is God's handiwork; all this looks like what we behold in wondrous nature; there is unity here, shape, meaning; presently we shall hear voices in this temple, and own our life-sanctuary to be the house of God.
Could we see life as a whole, would it be worth living? No man can answer that question, because having lived it we answer it with our experience, not with our imagination. Still, the question is not without keenest interest. Could we see the whole, is life worth living? It is often a weary experience, a keen disappointment, a reaping with blunt sickles in fields that grow nothing but darkness; the morning brings its hope, and night never fails to come with its disappointment; in the morning good resolutions nerve the little strength, and at night the good resolutions are brought home dead angels, white and cold. We must not answer from our imagination, from our momentary passions and affections, from individual instances, saying, Yes: to have seen that one face was worth living a life of agony; to have felt that one little gentle touch was worth all the sorrow that could be crushed into seventy years. That is an emotional or imaginative, not a philosophical answer. The question is, Could we see life as a whole, all its days and nights of joy and sorrow, life and death, anguish and gladness, mountain and vale, light and gloom is it worth living? What does it all come to? To die on the softest bed, what is it but to have a luxury in which there is no enjoyment? To die amid all pomp and circumstance, what is it but to see the perfection of irony? Thus we talk outside the Bible. To open the Bible for our answer is not our immediate purpose. We are speaking now of life in itself, by itself, and without any of those religious influences and ministries which constitute what is known as supernatural action. Begin your life upon the earth, study it within the lines of the earth, and finish it at the grave, so that the last dig of your spurs into the steed of your life shall make that steed leap into the tomb the goal! the winning post! Is it worth doing? Occasional joys say, Yes; great disappointments say, No. A noisy controversy goes on within the mind and heart: now we say it is worth living, and now we declare in another tone that life is not worth living; and thus we are of no certain opinion for two days together, so quickly do tears follow laughter. Read the fourth verse:
"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." ( Deu 34:4 )
Is this mocking the man? Is this God's providence, to show a man what he might have had, and then assure him that he shall not have it to dangle food before the eyes of hunger, and then throw it away, so that the hand of need cannot follow it? Is it God's way to lift a man up to some Pisgah whence he can see heaven, and then cast him down into hell? Is it not cruel refinement? Is this not unworthy of a God of care and compassion and love? Everything depends upon the tone of the reading. The verse might be so read as to involve a charge of mockery against God. The man whose heart is wrong could so read this verse as to turn it into an impeachment against God's considerateness of human feeling. There is a barbarous as well as a civilised mode of reading; there is a reading that misses the whole emphasis, that by a cold monotony levels the hills rather than raises the valleys. Some words are not to be read aloud, because the meaning is not in the letters but in the tone. By looking long at the words and allowing the heart to utter them, we may get some hint of their spiritual music; but to hear our words read by those who do not understand us is to suffer the worst of pain. The iron voice, or the hireling voice, the heartless voice, the grinding, crushing voice how it slays all things! How it will not allow anything to live that has in it one touch of beauty or one hint of immortality! Who can utter the words of the Lord? Reading the words, "Thus saith the Lord," we might well pause there for ever, and say, What he said he must repeat, for it does not lie within the compass of the human voice to reproduce the music of God. Moses was to see that the promise had been fulfilled. He was to be ranked with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in that it was unworthy of him to go into so little a land, so mean a home; enough for the scholars who were behind him, enough for those who were still reading and half-blind, who could scarcely discriminate between the right hand and the left schoolhouse enough for them; but as for Moses after Sinai, after forty days' communion upon the mountain, after the shining face, after all the experience that made him what he was his next movement must be to the eternal Canaan, the better land, the Jerusalem which is above. Moses understood the speech; Moses did not reproach the providence of God. His very acceptance of it was the noblest human confirmation of its beneficence that could possibly be supplied. Where Moses was content we need not chafe.
"And Moses was an hundred and twenty years old when he died: his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated" ( Deu 34:7 ).
Then why did he die? He might have been of use still. If his faculties had all exhausted themselves, it was time for him to lie down, and he was not called upon to work his jaded powers when they complained of weariness and sighed for the rest of the grave; but his eye was as bright as ever, and his natural physical force as complete as ever. From a physical point of view he needed not to die. Nor did he die. The word "die" in relation to Moses is used conveniently, momentarily, as the best word that could indicate a passing incident. Men in the condition of Moses do not die: they are raised, they are translated, or transferred, they ascend; they do not die in the. common and general sense in which that term is accepted. Moses was not killed by work. It is said by some that work never kills any man. What authority they have for speaking so we cannot tell. It is certain, however, that the greatest workers have been amongst the longest livers. Those who have done most have lived most, and sometimes even in natural terms they lived longest. Not always. Herein we must not meddle; there is no calendar by which these things can be fixed, or upon which certainties can be built or speculation affirmed. Moses was not dismissed for inefficiency; he was still the greatest prophet in Israel. It was the king who died when Moses died. Joshua was a child to him, and Joshua would have been the first to say so. Not a man in all Israel dare stand before him, saying, "I could wear thy mantle." When it came to real issue and test of strength, to penetration of insight and reach of judgment, and solidity of character, all men stood in the plain to admire this mountainous man. He was not, therefore, unable to work; he was not inefficient in the service he rendered; he was abler on the day of his death than he had ever been on any day of his life. Then why did he die? He did not die, he ascended. Searchers upon the mountains, diggers in the valleys, said to one another, as they searched and dug in vain, "He is not here: for he is risen." God knows when men ought to die. Do not intermeddle with God. Sometimes the work is completed in our early years. A short day have some lives, but a crowded one; within very limited hours they speak words which can never be forgotten, or sing songs the world will never willingly let die. Thus God keeps us in patient uncertainty, whether we shall perish upon the Nile, or pass away upon mount Nebo, or be found with death set upon the face as a period put to a process of sleep. All this God keeps in uncertainty. We cannot open these doors of mystery. In the midst of life we are in death. No world is so near to us as the world eternal. We speak of making the most of the present: what is the present and the near? It is the eternal, it is the heavenly, it is the divine. It is our mistake to suppose that earth is nearer than heaven. Eternity crowds out time, and presses into interstices which time could never fill. All our days are in God's hands. There is an appointed time to man upon the earth. "One dieth in his full strength, being wholly at ease and quiet.... Another dieth in the bitterness of his soul, and never eateth with pleasure." Forecast we do, and add up the whole multitude of figures, and publish arithmetical results with prodigal hands, but we cannot tell when the dart will strike. We have surrounded the mystery with calculated probabilities, but the mystery itself is a door that cannot be opened.
Were there no mitigations in the close of the life of Moses? Was all wrought out according to some process of iron necessity? Was it merely a walk up the mountain and a falling down dead, and a being covered with an anonymous sod? There were mitigations in the case, which are open to the eye of ordinary attention. Moses died in God's company:
" the Lord shewed him all the land" ( Deu 34:1 ).
" the Lord said unto him" ( Deu 34:4 ).
"So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord" ( Deu 34:5 ).
"So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, on the mouth of the Lord."
"And he buried him in the valley in the land of Moab, over against Beth-peor" ( Deu 34:6 ).
These are figurative expressions. We do not know the meaning of them and yet we know it well. The text could be so degraded as to present great difficulties to the untutored and unsubdued imagination; but to the fancy that has been chastened by suffering, the picture is full of tenderness. God has buried much in his time; he has been the great grave-digger, he has filled up the tombs of the ages and written the epitaphs of aeons. How he buried Moses we can never know; but having buried him, God knew where he was. The grave was as a footprint to the Almighty: the tomb was as a chosen garden of God. It warms the poor heart, and cheers the dreariness of the spirit to think that God knows where every grave is away out on the sea, down in the green waters, hidden among the marine rocks that human eye may never look upon; in ground blessed by the priest, in land unblessed by any human voice; the great grave loaded with marble and almost resonant with pompous eloquence and eulogium: and the nameless grave, where the beggar who might have been a prince is laid, where the silent poet rots, according to the flesh. God knows every grave the little child's few inches of sod, and the old man's last resting-place, and the sweet mother's, without whom the world would have been a waste. It is enough. These regions are not in our keeping, except in some cases as to their surfaces. The key is in heaven, and as to the time when the door will open, we know not; enough to know where the key is, and to know that it cannot be lost.
"...no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day" ( Deu 34:6 ).
There are unknown graves; there are places that are sacred only to God, because God only knows them. We cannot tell upon what ground we are treading; we do not know who is buried just under our feet. The earth has been a long time in building, bold men and wise men say thousands upon thousands of ages and incalculable periods. What little singing birds were buried just under our feet we cannot tell; or what majestic beasts, or what hints of nobler life, or what men, women, and children, what prophets, sages, martyrs we cannot tell. The house of the living is built upon the house of the dead. The whole world is sacred. We ought to hush our voices in the presence of its historic majesty, and call it the House of God.
Were we to finish here our perusal of the life of Moses, we should feel the incompleteness of the story. It has been full of event: it has kindled into heroic interest here and there, and again and oftentimes; but this cannot be the end. If we had courage enough to turn over the page, we should find that there is more to be read. What we lack in positive instruction, we find realised in positive instinct, in real and indisputable intuition. We do not possess all our riches in the letter. Writing can only go to a certain point; at its best it is but a make-believe, a help by the way, a hint to be going on with. We still have our instincts, intuitions; our mental impulses, convictions, inspirations. We cannot tell anything about them; we feel it is with them as it is with the wind: we hear the sound thereof, but we know not whence it cometh or whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit that has the spirit-eye, the spirit-genius, the prophetic faculty, the seer's agonising gaze. We are not to be bound by letters, and chapters, and verses; we cannot end here. As Moses went up, so must we, and on a later day we must hear more about this man. We are bound to do so by the very covenant of God, for he cannot have made man in his own image and likeness merely for the purpose of burying him in an unknown grave.
Great was Moses!
"And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face" ( Deu 34:10 ).
He was unique; he stands alone; no man can go near him. And yet he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than Moses!
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 34". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Fifth Week after Epiphany