Gateway to the Classics: Moses and the Exodus by Rev. J. Paterson Smyth
Moses and the Exodus by  Rev. J. Paterson Smyth

Lesson XXIII

Preparing for the End

Read Deuteronomy XXXI.

§ 1. Was Moses' Life a Failure?

W E are now drawing to the close of the history of Moses. An old man, lonely, disappointed, suffering for his own fault. Do you think it a prosperous, satisfactory close?

There are many people in the world who think that happiness and prosperity and gratified ambition are the great boon to be desired as the result of a life. I'm afraid it is the commonest notion. We see it in the usual stories for children and the novels for grown-up people. In these the good child, in the end, gets all the nice things, the faithful lovers are happily married, the good people end their lives in comfort and prosperity, every one that deserves good receives his good in full earthly  measure. Do you think that is what always happens in real life? I do not. I do think that all who deserve good do receive good, but not always in mere earthly  measure and of mere earthly  things. What do I mean by that? Yes. God has much nobler rewards for a faithful life than earthly success and money and high position, and nice carriages and servants. God does not seem to think these the chief good for men. What does God think the very best thing for us? High character, that we should be faithful and brave and unselfish and good. For it is only that type of person that can enjoy the delight of the endless life to come. You see the joy of that life will be the joy of character, the joy of goodness, the joy of likeness to the nature of God, the sort of pure beautiful pleasure that comes to a boy or girl now after doing kindly, unselfish, helpful things at cost of trouble and deprivation to themselves. So, naturally, in God's sight the highest reward of a beautiful life is a beautiful character, the most satisfactory close does not consist of riches and position and fine carriages and servants. Why? Because they must all be left behind at death. The most satisfactory close of a life consists in the fitness it has gained for all the continued life of love to God, and beautiful, unselfish service of others for all eternity.

So now I ask your opinion again about the end of Moses' life? Instead of dying in great honour and glory a mighty king, with an adoring nation at his feet, as some of us think he deserved, we see him going to his death alone, without friend or child or wife beside him—with God's chastisement upon him. So I ask your opinion, was it a satisfactory close to his life, or was his life a failure? Do you think any man ever went away into the new life beyond the grave more fitted for a glorious, happy future? We shall see more about that new life of his in the next chapter. We now go on with the story.

§ 2. Preparing for the End

The wars of Moses were over. He had conquered the tribes that barred the way to Palestine. He had led the people to the border of the land over which he must not pass. And now the time must come that he must die. Not quite of old age, for "his eye was not dim nor his natural force abated." (xxxiv. 7). Why, then, must he die? (See Numbers xxvii. 12-14.) The Lord had said to him, "Get thee up into Mount Abarim, and see the land; and when thou hast seen it, thou shalt be gathered to thy fathers; thou shalt not go over thither, for ye rebelled against My commandment in the desert of Sin, in the strife of the congregation, to sanctify Me at the water before their eyes."

Humbly and obediently the old man bowed to that decree, though it deprived him of the dearest wish of his life. Read all through his closing words—no grumbling nor repining. His grand faith in God rose superior to all. He knew that he was punished justly, and that it was best for him to be punished, that whatever God did must certainly be best. A beautiful spirit in which to die.

For months before he had been looking forward to his death, preparing the people for it, talking and teaching and advising them. Where do you find all this? All the Book of Deuteronomy is his touching series of discourses in these solemn days when the people knew the end was drawing nigh. I wish we could go over those discourses together—like the advice of a father to his children, like the farewell sermons of a very loving, earnest pastor to his people. I think they must often have brought tears into these people's eyes. He recounted the whole story of their wanderings, and showed how good God had been to them. And they would not forget the Lord their God, but love Him and cleave to Him always, and renounce idolatry and impurity and wickedness of every kind. Oh, how eagerly and passionately he pleads with them, and then how solemnly he warns them! "See," he says, "I have set before thee this day life and good, death and evil; in that I command thee to love the Lord thy God, and to walk in His ways; that the Lord thy God may bless thee in the land whither thou goest in to possess it." Oh, I think they are such noble, beautiful, touching words, these last discourses of Moses! If I knew nothing of his story before, these pleadings alone would make me love and admire him.

§ 3. What He Did on His Last Birthday

Now, on the last birthday of his life (how do you know it was his birthday? How old was he?) he calls his dear people together again for his last words. There are three things especially he wants to talk about. What are they? (vv.  1-14.)

(1) FAREWELL—He fears they will be cowards again, as in the day of the spies, so he advises them. Don't be frightened or distrustful. Don't fear your enemies. God is with you. As He has been with you all my time so He will be when I am gone (vv.  1-6).

(2) THE NEW LEADER—Then he gives a solemn charge to the man who was to succeed him as leader. Who was it? I think he must always have wished and hoped this. He seemed so to love and trust Joshua and keep him near him, his young lieutenant and friend. And do you remember his first prayer when God sentenced him to die without entering the land? (See Numbers xxvii. 12-18.) I think it was a relief and pleasure to him when God answered him by naming Joshua. He could trust Joshua as he could trust no other man. When we read on in the next volume of this series we shall see how worthy of trust Joshua was. But now the old chief is going away from them all for ever, and he knows, from his own experience, how much Joshua will have to bear, and what dangers are lying before him. So, after his farewell to the people, Moses called Joshua, the son of Nun, and said to him, in the sight of all Israel, "Be strong and of good courage, for thou must go with this people into the land. . . . And the Lord He it is that doth go before thee. He will be with thee. He will not fail thee, nor forsake thee, fear not, neither be dismayed." Is it not touching to see what a perfect trust he had in God? I wish we could all have such!

(3) THE BIBLE—But there is something else to do still on this great last birthday of his—what? (vv.  9-14). To provide for the safe keeping of "the Book of the Law," the first written part of our present Bible. I don't quite know how much is meant by "this Book of the Law." (The common opinion is that the Five Books of Moses, Genesis to Deuteronomy, were all written by him exactly as they stand. But many scholars believe that what Moses left was not this complete work, but only the kernel or part of it and that it was completed and edited by later writers in the Jewish Church. It does not greatly matter. Here we leave it an open question.) Find me some of the passages where we can see Moses writing the beginning of the Bible? (See Exodus xvii. 44; xxxiv. 27;  Deuteronomy xxxi. 19-24.) During these forty years this thinker and writer, who had been brought up "in all the wisdom of the Egyptians," kept his book of records written on parchment or on skins, and probably retained in his own custody. Now some other guardians must be provided. Who? Where was it to be kept? (v.  24.) Yes, the Priests and the lay elders or princes should be in charge of it, and keep it in the side of the ark. Probably there were many copies of it for use in reading to the people. How were these to be kept from error and corruption? (vv.  10-12). At end of every seven years, at the Feast of Tabernacles, they were to hear the whole book recited. Don't you think it was a good plan? Eight hundred years afterwards, in evil days, when Israel was neglecting its Bible, and this Book of Moses had been forgotten and lost, we have an interesting account of how Hilkiah, the priest, found it again (2 Kings xxii. 8-13), and also of a wonderful Feast of Tabernacles in later days, where we see Moses' command exactly fulfilled by Ezra (Nehemiah viii. 2, 3).

§ 4. His Death-Song

Are these the last words of Moses? No. After the great last birthday in the days yet remaining before he should go up to die, solemn thoughts were in the old man's heart, and burst forth in lofty poems to be kept by Israel for ever.

Do you remember how we saw the writing of poems was part of the higher education of the young nobles in Egypt? From all we know of Moses we may well believe he excelled in this. What earlier poem of his have we? (Exodus xv.) The grand Te Deum  for their salvation from Egypt. Now we have the two fine poems as he was leaving the world. It is said that the swan, when dying, sings her beautiful death-song, and Dean Stanley (History of Jewish Church) calls these the swan-song of Moses. Of course, they ought to be printed in poetical form. The first is "THE SONG OF THE ROCK," praising God, who was their Rock and Defence. We can only just look at it now in chap. xxxii. And then the "BLESSING OF THE TRIBES" (chap. xxxiii.). Ah! their faithful, loving old friend cannot go without blessing them. He seems to forget all their cruelty and ingratitude and rebellion against him, and how their murmurings had been the cause of his being shut out of the land. He forgets everything but that they are his people committed to him by God, and that he wants God to bless them before he dies. Is it not a beautiful close to a noble life! Don't you feel more and more sure of our decision at the beginning of this lesson that, in spite of all seeming failure, his life was a grand success, and that he went away into the Unseen Life gloriously fitted for the unselfish activities of the future! God give us all such a life and death as his!

Questions for Lesson XXIII

Now Moses is about to die. Tell some of the sorrow of his old age.

Do you think his life was a failure? Why not?

What does real success in life mean? Money? Fame? Pleasure? What?

Is any good man's life a failure?

What three things did Moses speak of on his last birthday before his death?

What did he direct about the early beginnings of the Bible?

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