By J.R. Miller
"Moses the servant of the Lord died." The death of Moses was a sore disappointment to him. He wanted to live longer. He thought his work was not finished. There is a story of a man who had wasted his years in sin. At last he came back to God and was saved. He rejoiced in the hope of eternal life. Yet he was unhappy. He longed to live. When a friend asked him if he was afraid to die, he replied: "Oh, no, I am not afraid to die. I know that I am forgiven. But I am ashamed to die. I have nothing but a wasted life to bring to God." That was not the feeling of Moses. He had filled his one hundred and twenty years with noble service. But he longed to finish what he had begun. He had brought his people out of Egypt. He had given them their laws. He had trained them for national life. He had led them through the wilderness. He desired to take them now into the land of promise.
But this was denied to him. He besought God to let him go over to see the good land beyond the Jordan. But the Lord would not relent, would not change his purpose. "The Lord was angry with me for your sakes, and hearkened not unto me. . . . speak no more unto Me of this matter." So he had to go away and leave his work incomplete--that is, as it appeared to himself. The people were ready at last to enter the land of promise, and he who for forty years had been training and leading them--could not go over with them, could not share in their final triumph, could not enter into the joy of conquest. No wonder Moses was bitterly disappointed.
But when we think of it, no one ever leaves his work finished in this world. No matter how diligent we may be in duty, how careful we are to leave nothing unfinished, when we are called away--our hands will still be full of things not finished. One sows, another reaps. One lays the foundation, another builds up the wall. Only one Man who ever lived, could say He had accomplished all that had been given Him to do.
A business man went home one evening, expecting to come back to his office in the morning to take up his work again. But he died that night. There was a letter on his table half written --indeed, it ended in the middle of a word. All about were things he had begun. It will be so with all of us. We will leave engagements unmet for the next day, plans that we have made which we cannot carry out, hopes that have filled our minds and hearts, which we have not realized.
Moses was disappointed when he had to die. But there was more than disappointment--there was tragedy as well. It was sin that prevented him from taking his people over and finishing the great work of his life.
We turn back and read the story. It was at Meribah, in the Wilderness of Zin. There was no water, and the people became clamorous, grew angry with Moses and blamed him, wishing they had died back in the wanderings. The Lord bade Moses to take his rod and then speak to the rock that it might give out its water for the people. Moses obeyed--but he was angry and seems to have failed in the exactness of his obedience. He said to the people: "Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?"
It was a pitiful sight. Moses was called the meekest man. His task in dealing with his people was a hard one. They were always complaining and murmuring. For all the forty years, Moses did not once lose his temper with them nor say one impatient word. Now, however, in an unguarded moment, he lost his self-control and spoke impatiently, unadvisedly. He showed his passion also in his words: "Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?" forgetting to honor God. He had been commanded also to speak to the rock. Instead, he lifted his rod and smote it--not once only--but twice, pounding it in his anger! The Lord's anger was kindled against Moses. Instantly the sentence was uttered: "Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them."
We may think this a small sin--to be so severely punished. We must remember, however, that Moses stood for God, and it was his duty to bear with the people as God Himself did. God would not have lost patience and temper as Moses did, and Moses disappointed God. We may not say, either, that any sin is small. And the holier the man and the more sacred his mission--the greater is even the least departure from right.
There is something startling, too, in the form of the punishment. The sin of Moses made him unfit to finish his work. Do we know that our sins may not leave their hurt upon us in such a way--that God cannot depend upon us for the delicate work He had been expecting us to do? A great surgeon said that he did not drink--never tasted liquor--because he was a surgeon, and any moment might be called to perform some operation on which life depended. He had found that drinking wine, however moderately, made his hand less steady, and thus less ready for the work of a surgeon. So he never tasted alcohol that he might never be unfitted for his work. There are things that unfit us for our duty, and which we must scrupulously shun.
We do not know how many of us are living below our best--because sin has hurt us. Sin means missing the mark--it means failure. The sin of Moses came between him and the completion of his work. It is sin that makes the work of so many of us so imperfect, that prevents us from reaching the fulfillment of our highest dreams.
"Moses . . . died there . . . according to the Word of the Lord." When it is said that he died according to the word of the Lord, one thought is that a word of God called him away. It is sweet to know that the death of no servant of God is accidental. No holy man dies--while God wants him to live.
There are other things to notice in this account of the dying of Moses. He died alone. No one accompanied him as he went away from his people and friends--no one but God. We are inclined to pity him, thus lacking in his last moments, the companionship of loved ones. Like pathos was there in the dying of Livingstone, in the depths of Africa, in his hut at midnight, alone. It seems to us that death is robbed of much of its bitterness, when loved ones sit by the departing one, holding his hand, hearing his last words, breathing their prayers and speaking their thoughts of comfort. But really every one of us must die alone. Our friends may sit round us, singing songs of faith, imprinting kisses of farewell--but there can be no companionship in dying. Dying is always a lonely experience.
Never was there such another funeral as that of Moses. No such honor was ever given in burial to any other man. There have been funerals in which the world's pomp was magnificent, but never before nor since was there such pomp as there was when Moses was buried. No one saw it, and no one can describe it. The record is in a single line: "And He buried him." God buried him.
"He buried him in a valley near Beth-peor in Moab, but to this day no one knows the exact place." An old writer says: "God buried him and then buried his grave." We think it a comfort to know where our loved ones sleep--that we may go and stand by their graves and think of their beautiful lives, and that we may keep the spots where they sleep beautiful by our gentle care. But no pilgrim feet ever went to the grave of Moses, since no one knew where to find it. But his is not the only unmarked grave in the world. In soldiers' cemeteries, on battlefields, are many mounds with no name on the little board or stone, with only the word "UNKNOWN" to mark them. Thousands, too, have gone down in the sea, and countless others have perished on desert sands, and no man knows of their sepulcher. God buried these, too, and God knows where they sleep.
There was a wreck on the sea, and among many bodies gathered by gentle hands, was that of a baby. There was nothing to identify the body. Its name could not be found. So they put it in a little grave and set up a little stone, on which they cut the words: "God knows."
Moses died and was buried--but was not forgotten. "The children of Israel wept for Moses . . . thirty days." No doubt their grief was sincere. When he was gone from them--they saw how true a friend he had been to them, how he had loved them and given his life to them and for them. We cannot but remember, however, how they had treated him, how they had broken his heart many, many times while he was with them. We cannot help saying that it would have been far better if they had shown their love in obedience, gratitude and kindness when he was living and serving them--instead of in wailings of grief when he was gone. Let us not keep our flowers for our friends' coffins. Let us strew them along the rough paths on which they walk in life!
Moses died--but his work for the Lord was not interrupted. He grieved because he could not lead his people into the promised land. He thought that was part of his life-work. But it was not--that was Joshua's work. We think the taking away of this or that person--will prove an irreparable loss. So it seems--but God's work does not depend on men. "God buries the worker--but carries on the work." Moses died--but Joshua is ready, and as soon as the thirty days are over, the people cross the Jordan. Let us do our little part of God's work faithfully and well--that is all we have to do.
Moses died--but he is living yet. No one knows where his grave is--but it is not a grave, which enshrines a man's influence. Think how Moses lives in the world--in the nation that he led out of bondage, trained, educated and founded; in the laws that he formed and gave to the world; in the institutions that he established; in the influence of his life among men and upon them. No grave of Moses is needed to keep his name alive.
Let us seek to make our lives immortal--not in monuments, not in riches and earthly honors--but by making the world better, by putting touches of beauty into other lives, by teaching and blessing little children, by encouraging the weary and disheartened, and by comforting human sorrow. Then we shall need no grave, with its marble memorial, to keep our name alive. We shall live--in the things we have done!
Some day, people will be talking of our death and burial. We need not dread the end. Let us live faithfully while we live. Let us be indeed servants of Jehovah, servants of Jesus Christ. Let us give our lives unsparingly, withholding nothing that we have to give. Then it will not matter what day or what hour God calls us apart--and tells us our work here is done and that we are wanted at HOME!