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Bible Commentaries
Exodus 3

Parker's The People's BibleParker's The People's Bible

Verses 1-12

Moses At Horeb

Exo 3:1

So ends the romance of the young hero! We have often seen brilliant beginnings turn to cloudy endings. A man has come out very sensationally for a day or two, and then has subsided into commonplace and obscurity. But what would Moses have been had he pursued the line upon which he so vigorously commenced? Suppose that from day to day he had gone abroad smiting men, where would the story of his life have ended? It was but a poor way, after all, of attacking the moral confusion of society. It is not much in the way of reform and progress that any man can do with his mere fist. On the whole, therefore, we are glad that a pause has come in the destructive though chivalrous career of this young smiter. It was not amiss, perhaps, for him to knock down one or two men, and to frighten away from the well a number of cowardly shepherds; but as a life course it was morally shallow and politically self-defeating. We must have something more fundamental than we have yet seen, or Moses will be provoking reprisals which no individual arm can resist. It is then not a subsidence into commonplace that we find in this verse; it is going into the severest and most useful of schools the school of loneliness, meditation, self-measurement, and fellowship with God. Fiery natures must be attempered by exile and desertion. They must be taught that the end of merely manual or military reform is unsatisfactory. Men can be held by the throat only so long as they are unable to take revenge; but they may be held by the heart evermore. All true reforms and all beneficent masteries are essentially moral. We must exchange rough and romantic chivalry for the deep, calm, vital revelation which emancipates and purifies the spiritual nature of mankind. This is no anticlimax in the history of Moses! Moses has been looking upon the outside of things; now he must be trained to estimate spiritual forces and values.

"And the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed" ( Exo 3:2 ).

A beautiful conjunction of the natural and supernatural. A bush burned into a sanctuary! Though the heavens cannot contain the Great One, yet he hides himself under every flower, and makes the broken heart of man his chosen dwelling-place. So great, yet so condescending; infinite in glory, yet infinite in gentleness. Wherever we are, there are gates through nature into the Divine. Every bush will teach the reverent student something of God. The lilies are teachers, so are the stars, so are all things great and small in this wondrous museum, the universe! In this case it was not the whole mountain that burned with fire; such a spectacle we should have considered worthy of the majesty of God; it was only the bush that burned: so condescendingly does God accommodate himself to the weakness of man. The whole mountain burning would have dismayed the lonely shepherd; he who might have been overwhelmed by a blazing mountain was attracted by a burning bush.

"And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt. And when the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I" ( Exo 3:3-4 ).

Many a man has been led through the gate of curiosity into the sanctuary of reverence. Moses purposed but to see a wonderful sight in nature, little dreaming that he was standing as it were face to face with God. Blessed are they who have an eye for the startling, the sublime, and the beautiful in nature, for they shall see many sights which will fill them with glad amazement. Every sight of God is a "great sight"; the sights become little to us because we view them without feeling or holy expectation. It was when the Lord saw that Moses turned aside to see that he called unto him and mentioned him by name. This is indeed a great law. If men would turn aside to see, God would surely speak to them. But we do not do this. We pass by all the great sights of nature with comparative indifference, certainly, as a general rule, without reverence. The sea wants to speak to us, but we listen not to its sounding voice; the stars are calling to us, but we shut them out; the seasons come round to tell their tale, but we are pre-occupied with trifling engagements. We must bring so much with us if we would put ourselves into healthful communion with nature: we must bring the seeing eye, the hearing ear, and the understanding heart: we must, at all events, be disposed to see and hear, and God will honour the disposition with more than expected blessing.

"And he said, Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground. Moreover he said, I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. And Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look upon God" ( Exo 3:5-6 ).

Curiosity must not become familiarity. The difference between the creature and the Creator must always be infinite. Is not all ground holy? Is not God everywhere? Certainly so; yet it hath pleased God to mark special lines and special places as peculiarly holy. We are not to treat all places alike. Every successful appeal to man's reverence redeems him from vulgarity. When a man loses his sense of religious awe, he has exhausted the supreme fountain of spiritual joy. He then measures everything by himself: he is to himself as God, and from the point of self-idolatry he will speedily sink to the point of self-despair. It is only the good man who can be satisfied from himself, and this is only because goodness has its very root in God.

In what a tender manner God reveals himself to the lonely shepherd! He does not say, I am the God of majesty, of eternity, whose habitation is unapproachable, and whose power is infinite. He says, "I am the God of thy father." Could any designation have been more tender? Was it not precisely the best way to arrest the attention and conciliate the confidence of Moses? "I am the God of thy father," the God of thy home, the God of thy fireside, the God around whose name cluster the tenderest and purest associations of life. Who can stoop so condescendingly as God? Again and again in this conference with Moses, God declared himself to be the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. He is thus the God of generations, the God of individuals, and also the God of the whole human family. There is something inexpressibly beautiful in the idea that God is the God of the father, and of the son, and of all their descendants; thus the one God makes humanity into one family; we live in different zones, and acknowledge the sovereignty of different political kings, yet all nations are one, in so far as they worship and serve the same living God.

"Now therefore, behold, the cry of the children of Israel is come unto me: and I have also seen the oppression wherewith the Egyptians oppress them. Come now therefore, and I will send thee unto Pharaoh, that thou mayest bring forth my people the children of Israel out of Egypt" ( Exo 3:9-10 ).

In the eighth verse God says, "I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians," and in the tenth verse he says, "I will send thee unto Pharaoh, that thou mayest bring forth my people." Is there not a discrepancy here? If God himself came down to do a work, why did he not go and do it personally? One word from him would surely have done more for the cause which he had espoused than all the words which the most gifted of his creatures could have used. Looking at this episode as standing entirely alone, it does undoubtedly appear most remarkable that God did not personally execute what he had personally conceived. The thinking was his, so was the love; all the spiritual side of the case belonged exclusively to God; yet he calls a shepherd, a lonely and unfriended man, to work out with painful elaboration, and through a series of most bewildering and discouraging disappointments, the purpose which it seems he himself might have accomplished by a word. We find, however, that the instance is by no means an isolated one. Throughout the whole scheme of the Divine government of the human family, we find the principle of mediation. God speaks to man through man: he did so throughout the history of the Old Testament, and he does so to-day in the gospel of his Son. Undoubtedly this is most mysterious. To our imperfect understanding, it would seem that the direct personal revelation of his presence and glory would instantly secure the results which are so desirable, and yet so doubtful. It is here that Faith must lead, because Reason cannot see the advantages which to ourselves as men, when employed as ministers of God to each other, to our intellectual progress, and to our moral nature are obvious and inestimable. God educates and glorifies us by making us his servants. We learn the highest wisdom and the highest music by repronouncing the words which we have received from the lips of God. Moreover, this principle of individual selection in the matter of all great ministries is in keeping with the principle which embodies in a single germ the greatest forests. It is enough that God gives the one acorn; man must plant it and develop its productiveness. It is enough that God gives the one idea; man must receive it into the good soil of his love and hope, and encourage it to tell all the mystery of its purpose. So God calls to himself, in holy solitude, one man, and puts into the heart of that man his own gracious purpose, and commissions him to expound this purpose to his fellow-men. God never works from the many to the one; he works from one to the many.

"And Moses said unto God, Who am I, that I should go unto Pharaoh, and that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt?" ( Exo 3:11 ).

No wonder that he so inquired. The message seemed to be so much greater than the messenger. Moses herein disclosed the right spirit in which the communications of Heaven are to be received. It is under such circumstances that weakness is strength. When a man can set himself in imagination upon an equality with God, and receive the messages of God as if they were but common words, he is no longer fit to be a minister of light and hope to nations groaning in sorrow, and perishing under oppression. If Moses had not seen the greatness of the proposed ministry, he would not have felt his own inability to discharge it. The idea was too much for him. The proposition blinded him like a sudden and intolerable light Men are the better for this humiliation of their self-esteem. Moses was fully equal to the humble duty which he had undertaken under Jethro his father-in-law, but to go forth as the emancipator of an oppressed nation seemed to overweigh and mock his powers. He works best who magnifies his office. Preachers, teachers, emancipators, and all ministers of good, should see their work to be infinitely greater than themselves, if they would work at the highest point of energy. Let a man suppose his work to be easy, to be beneath him, to be unworthy of his talents, and he will work flippantly, without taxing his strength or making any drain upon the life of his heart. He will not be a worker; at best he will be but a fussy idler in the great field overgrown with the weeds and tares sown by the power of evil.

"And he said, Certainly I will be with thee" ( Exo 3:12 ).

God thus puts himself apparently into a secondary position. Moses is to stand at the front, and, so far as publicity is concerned, to incur the whole responsibility of the proposed movement It was easy for Moses to say that he was prompted of God to make certain representations to Israel and Pharaoh, but how were they to be convinced that Moses was servant and not master? This is the difficulty of all the highest service of life, namely, that the spiritual is invisible, and yet omnipotent; public attention is fixed upon the human agent, and professions of spiritual inspiration and impulse are treated with distrust, if not with contempt, by the most of mankind. It is the invisible Christ who is with the Church. Were he present manifestly, it is supposed that greater results would accrue from Christian service; but the supposition must be mistaken, inasmuch as he to whom such service is infinitely dearer than it ever can be to ourselves has determined the manner of Christian evangelisation. What, then, is the great duty and privilege of the Church? It is to realise the presence and influence of the Invisible. The Church is actually to see the Unseen. There is another vision beside the vision of the body; faith itself is sight; and where faith is complete, there is a consciousness of God's presence throughout our life and service which amounts to a distinct vision of God's personal presence and government.

This incident has brought very closely before me the mystery of what may be termed the Spirit of Destiny. Moses has been, as it were, audibly and visibly called to service and invested with authority. A keen pleasure would seem to attach to experiences of that kind. Surely it was a blessed thing to speak face to face with God, and to go straight away from the communing to do the work which had been prescribed. The directness of the interview, the absence of all second causes and instrumentalities has about it a solemnity which profoundly affects the heart. But is my destiny less Divine because it has been revealed to me under conditions which seem to separate widely between the Creator and the creature? Has God only one method of working in revealing to a man what that man's work in life is intended to be? We do not always see the fountain; sometimes we have to be content to drink at the stream. The danger is lest we imagine the stream created itself, forgetting in our irreligion and folly that the stream is impossible apart from the fountain. A man is sometimes awakened to his destiny by his fellow-men. In other cases a man's destiny seems to be determined by what he calls his circumstances or his environment. But why this wide and circuitous way of putting the case to the mind? We do not depose God by mistaking the origin of our action; we do but show the poorness of our own judgment, or the want of justice which impoverishes our lives of their best qualities. Every man should put to himself the question What is my destiny? What does God mean me to be and to do in the world? This inquiry should shape itself into a tender and continual prayer which will not cease its intercession until a gracious answer gives assurance to the heart that the will of Heaven has been made clear. It is a most pitiful thing that a man should read of Moses being Divinely called to certain service, and forget that he himself is also a subject of the Divine government. If God called any one man to special work, we are entitled to reason upon the basis of that fact that God has a special work for every man to do. It is in our power to turn such miracles into gracious commonplaces by seeking for their repetition in our own lives. It is impossible that God has called us into existence without having some purpose for us to work at within the limit of time. To be here at all is to be in possession of a destiny. It is, indeed, an awful power with which we are endowed, that we can shut our eyes to destiny which is beckoning us to duty, and can, indeed, so pervert and misinterpret circumstances as to press them into a justification of self-will and apostasy. To know that my life may be called to a unique vocation excites me with very tender and anxious emotion. What if I have mistaken the Divine will? What if I am pursuing the wrong road? What if I have been judging by appearances and neglecting the teaching of reality? Has self-interest determined my action? Has self-indulgence wrought its unholy spell upon my energies and affections? Have I been earnestly listening to hear the voice which teaches men the way of duty and the path of sacrifice? Spirit of the Living God, reveal my destiny to me, though it mean pain and loss, continual discipline of fear, or the blessed experience of daily joy. If I may but know thy purpose, such knowledge shall itself be inspiration and defence.

Verse 3

"Handfuls of Purpose"

For All Gleaners

"And see... why" Exodus 3:3 .

What serious man is always inclined to do.

What curious man is too prone to do.

What flippant man finds it impossible to do.

The spirit of the inquirer determines the result of the inquiry. Surprises on the journey of life should awaken religious interest. To the attentive eye the so-called continuity of law or sequence is continually interrupted. Phenomena, so called, are as perplexing as the essence of matter itself. There is an unknowable point in phenomena as well as in essences. From the right heart nothing will be withheld that is good for it. There are incidents in our life which appear to be greater than ourselves, or to challenge in us faculties which are either not present, or have not yet been awakened. Men should not run away from great sights. Nothing is to be gained by cowardice. Always distinguish between flippant rashness and daring reverence.

Verse 12

"Handfuls of Purpose"

For All Gleaners

"Certainly I will be with thee." Exodus 3:12 .

The thoughts which arise in connection with this inspiring assurance are such as ought to touch our life at every point. God is the unchanging One. As he had been with Moses, so he promised to be with Joshua; and so from age to age he is the inspiration and strength of his moral creatures. Take this assurance as applying to the whole service of sanctified life, and it entitles us to draw four practical inferences: I. "Certainly I will be with thee." Then man is servant, not master. He should know his place, or he can never keep it. As servant, he should (1) constantly consult his Master; (2) constantly speak in the name of his Master; and (3) constantly be jealous of the honour of his Master. II. "Certainly I will be with thee." Then the work must succeed. What is the guarantee of success? (1) Not human cleverness; ministers may be clever, so may churches, etc.; we may have learned sermons, able sermons, ingenious sermons, etc.; (2) not skilful organisation. Cards, bazaars, registers, circulars, etc., all useless as ends. (3) The word of the Lord is the guarantee of success. "The mouth of the Lord hath spoken it"; "My word shall not return unto me void." III. "Certainly I will be with thee." Then the servant is to be received for the Master's sake. "He that receiveth you receiveth me, and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me." The true minister carries a blessing with him. The Romans were to receive Phebe in the Lord. What a lesson to ministers they are representatives of God! IV. "Certainly I will be with thee." Then there need be no lack of grace or power. "If any man lack wisdom," etc. "Lo, I am with you alway," etc. "Ye have not, because ye ask not, or because ye ask amiss." The servants may take counsel of one another, but not to the interruption of continuous and trustful prayer to the Master. (l) God is with his servants for their comfort; (2) for their guidance; (3) for their safety.

Application Notice (1) the individuality of the promise, "I will be with thee" with the one man; (2) the emphasis of the promise " Certainly." Who is with us in our life-ministry?

Verses 13-22

Moses Excuses Himself

Exo 3:13-14

The wisdom of Moses is seen in the nature of the inquiry which he proposed. He was resolved not to go a warfare at his own charges. Every man should know upon whose business he is going in life. Who is sending me? is an inquiry which a man should put to himself before venturing upon any course that is doubtful, hazardous, or experimental. Moses wished to be able to identify the personal authority of his mission. It was not enough to have a message, he must also know the name of the Author. There are some doctrines which are independent of personality; there are others which depend upon personality for their authority and beneficence. Amongst the latter are all religious doctrines and appeals. The Giver is greater than the gift. The Speaker is greater than the speech. To know the Speaker is to have deep insight into the meaning of the words spoken. The answer returned to Moses was the sublimest reply ever made to reverent inquiry. God announces himself as Personal, Independent, Self-existent. There is no word to qualify or limit his personality it is, so to speak, pure being it is infinite life it is the fountain out of which all other lives start on their little course. Mark the comprehensiveness of the name. It relates not only to being, but to character, to self-completeness; it is the ONE life which can live without dependence and without society. The element of sublimity must be found in religion; the measure of the sublimity is the measure of the condescension. A man proceeding to his work under the influence of such a revelation as was granted to Moses must be superior to hardship and triumphant in the presence of difficulty. A man's inspiration should always be in excess of the duty which is imposed upon him. The inspired man descends upon his work and conducts his service with an overplus of power; but he whose inspiration falls below his duty toils fretfully and unsuccessfully, and eventually becomes the prey of the spirit of the hireling. It is here that the Christian worker actually triumphs in his labour, and rejoices even in persecution and tribulation: God the Holy Ghost is in him, and so the whole tone of his life is infinitely superior to the influences which seek to distract his attention and baffle his energy. In the absence of God the Holy Ghost, Christian service becomes a toil, and ends in failure and mortification: but under the influence of the life-giving and light-giving Spirit of God, sorrow itself is turned into joy.

Notwithstanding this revelation, Moses was unable to overcome his infirmity; he still doubted, as well indeed he might, in the presence of such a vocation as had probably never been addressed to man. Let us listen to his excuses, and we shall see how unbecoming it would be on our part to sneer at a man upon whom the Divine burden pressed so heavily. Moses himself was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision, nor did he doubt the authority with which he had been charged; but a difficulty presented itself from the other side. Moses thus puts the case:

"And Moses answered and said, But, behold, they will not believe me nor hearken unto my voice: for they will say, The Lord hath not appeared unto thee" ( Exo 4:1 ).

Human distrust is a difficulty which every preacher, teacher, and holy labourer has to encounter. All great movements are carried by consent of parties. God himself cannot re-establish moral order without the concurrence of the powers that have rebelled against his rule. Moses had difficulty to fear on the side of Israel, as well as on the side of Pharaoh. His message was to be addressed, in the first instance, to the children of Israel. The tidings of their proposed deliverance might be too much for their faith. They had been the sufferers of so many terrors and disappointments, they had been so long buried in the darkness of despair, that the gospel of emancipation might appear to them to be but a mocking dream. What if they should hear the message of Moses, and treat it in a spirit of unbelief? The suggestion of Moses was not at all unreasonable. He will work none the less effectively for putting these preliminary inquiries, provided he does not carry them to the point of excess. So long as they come out of a humble and reverent spirit, God will answer them with gracious patience; but should they become degraded into mere excuses, or discover a cowardly spirit, the patience of God will become a flame of judgment. After all, the spiritual labourer has less to do with the unbelief of his hearers than with the instruction and authority of God. We have to ascertain what God the Lord would have us say, and then to speak it simply, distinctly, and lovingly, whether men will hear or whether they will forbear. The preacher must prepare himself for having doubts cast upon his authority; and he must take care that his answer to such doubts is as complete as the authority itself. God alone can give the true answer to human doubt. We are not to encounter scepticism with merely ingenious replies and clever arguments, but in the power and grace of the living God.

Moses, having being furnished with signs by which to convince the children of Israel that he was the messenger of God sent to redeem them from the oppression of Egypt, might be supposed to be fully qualified for his mission. Surely, there is now an end of inquiry and debate upon his part. Not so, however; Moses fell back upon his own unworthiness.

"And Moses said unto the Lord, O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither heretofore, nor since thou hast spoken unto thy servant: but I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue. And the Lord said unto him, Who hath made man's mouth? or who maketh the dumb, or deaf, or the seeing, or the blind? have not I the Lord? Now therefore go, and I will be with thy mouth, and teach thee what thou shalt say" ( Exo 4:10-12 ).

Moses has now descended from the high level of the argument, and narrowed the case into one of mere human personality. He has forgotten the promise, "Certainly I will be with thee." The moment we get away from Divine promise and forget great principles, we narrow all controversy and degrade all service. Self-consciousness is the ruin of all vocations. Let a man look into himself, and measure his work by himself, and the movement of his life will be downward and exhaustive. Let him look away from himself to the Inspirer of his life, and the Divine reward of his labours, and he will not so much as see the difficulties which may stand ever so thickly in his way. Think of Moses turning his great mission into a question which involved his own eloquence! All such reasoning admits of being turned round upon the speaker as a charge of foolish if not of profane vanity. See how the argument stands: "I am not eloquent, and therefore this mission cannot succeed in my hands," is equivalent to saying, "I am an eloquent man, and, therefore, this undertaking must be crowned with signal success." The work had nothing whatever to do with the eloquence or ineloquence of Moses. It was not to be measured or determined by his personal gifts: the moment, therefore, that he turned to his individual talents, he lost sight of the great end which he was called instrumentally to accomplish. How sublime is the rebuke of God! Cannot the Maker of man's mouth touch with eloquence the lips which he has fashioned? What is human eloquence but the expression of Divine music? Pedantic rhetoricians may fashion rules of their own for the refinement of human speech, but he who waits diligently upon God, and whose purpose is to know the will of God that he may speak it to men, will be entrusted with an eloquence rhythmic as the sea, and startling as the thunder. Rhetoric is the gift of God. Eloquence is not a merely human attainment. The secret of convincing and persuasive speech is put into the hearts of those who forget themselves in their homage to God and truth. Moreover, God condescended so far to the weakness of Moses as to find for him a coadjutor in his mission to the children of Israel and to the king of Egypt. Aaron could speak well. Moses was a thinker; Aaron was a speaker. Aaron was to be to Moses instead of a mouth, and Moses was to be to Aaron instead of God. Thus one man has to be the complement of another. No one man has all gifts and graces. The ablest and best of us cannot do without our brother. There is to be a division of labour in the great work of conquering the world for God. The thinker works; so does the speaker, so does the writer. We are a chain; not merely isolated links; we belong to one another, and only by fraternal and zealous cooperation can we secure the great results possible to faith and labour. Some men are fruitful of suggestion. They have wondrous powers of indication: but there their special power ends. Other men have great gifts of expression; they can put thoughts into the best words; they have the power of music; they can charm, fascinate, and persuade. Such men are not to undervalue one another; they are to co-operate as fellow-labourers in the kingdom of God.

Here we leave the region of the miraculous and come into relations with which we are painfully familiar. Man excusing himself from duty is a familiar picture. It is not a picture indeed; it is a personal experience. How inventive we are in finding excuses for not doing the will of God! How falsely modest we can become! depreciating ourselves, and putting ourselves before God in a light in which we could never consent to be put before society by the criticism of others. Is not this a revelation of the human heart to itself? We only want to walk in paths that are made beautiful with flowers, and to wander by streams that lull us by their own tranquillity. Nerve, and pluck, and force we seem to have lost. In place of the inventiveness of love we have the inventiveness of reluctance or distaste. It should be our supreme delight to find reasons for co-operating with God, and to fortify ourselves by such interpretations of circumstances as will plainly show us that we are in the right battle, fighting on the right side, and wielding the right weapon. The possibility of self-deception is one of the most solemn of all subjects. I cannot question the sincerity of Moses in enumerating and massing all the difficulties of his side of the case. He meant every word that he said. It is not enough to be sincere; we must have intelligence and conscience enlightened and enlarged. Mistakes are made about this matter of sincerity; the thing forgotten being that sincerity is nothing in itself, everything depending upon the motive by which it is actuated and the object towards which it is directed. The Church is to-day afflicted with the spirit of self-excusing: it cannot give, because of the depression of the times; it cannot go upon its mighty errands, because of its dainty delicateness; it cannot engage in active beneficence, because its charity should begin at home; it cannot enter into ardent controversy, because it prefers the comfort of inaction. Churches should not tell lies to themselves. The first great thing to be done is for a man to be faithful to his own heart, to look himself boldly in the face, and speak the clear truth emphatically to his own consciousness.

Bibliographical Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Exodus 3". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jpb/exodus-3.html. 1885-95.
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