The Loneliness of His Old Age
Read Numbers XX. 23 to XXI.10;
§ 1. Miriam's Death
I think the story of Moses' life grows more and more touching and pathetic as it draws towards its close. Last chapter told of the deep sorrow and disappointment that followed his sin, a sorrow and disappointment that seemed to purify his life and draw him nearer to the God who had sent him the sorrow.
Now I see the sadness and loneliness deepening. While they waited at Kadesh, probably after the time of his sin in smiting the rock, Miriam died, and Josephus says Moses mourned for her thirty days, and that the people took part in her great public funeral. Don't you think Moses would miss her, and be lonely without her? You see his was a lonely life at his best. His high position made him lonely, the great difference in character between him and his people would make it worse. I think he would greatly feel Miriam's death. You remember her first appearance? (Exodus ii. 4). Surely he would often think of the story of that wise little sister who had taken care of him in the bulrushes and managed so tactfully with Pharaoh's daughter. Perhaps she had been with him to encourage him when he made his great life decision to leave the Palace in Egypt for the slave huts in the brick-fields. She had led the women in the glad Te Deum of victory at the Red Sea, and she had been with him in all his struggles and all his glory since the Exodus, and except on one occasion, when her feminine jealousy of another woman was roused (Numbers xii. 1), she seems to have been a true and faithful helper. Zipporah seems to have been long dead. I wonder where the two sons were? The old chief seems always so alone. His sister's death would surely make this worse.
§ 2. Aaron's Death
And scarce was she laid in the grave when another bereavement came. What? Did he know it was coming? Yes. Aaron had been included with himself in the sentence of exclusion from the Promised Land. But probably he did not know it would be so soon. Where was the camp now? (xxi. 22). What brought it here? Another disappointment about getting into Canaan. Edom would not let them pass, so they had to turn another way to try. During this time God's direction about Aaron came to Moses. What was it? Aaron's time had come to die. He was to have a grand death. "Take Aaron and Eleazar his son up into Mount Hor; and strip Aaron of his priestly garments, and put them on Eleazar his son, and Aaron shall die there."
Another of the grand features of which the story is so full. The central figure, the aged high priest in his beautiful robes walking feebly up the mountain with Moses and Eleazar, going away from his people for ever. He had loved and worked for them. Yes, and he had grievously sinned with them more than once! (Exodus xxxii.; Numbers xii. 1). What do you think of him now that he is about to go out of our story? Yes, he had shown weakness, cowardice, jealousy, but how often? Do you think it fair to judge his life by these few isolated acts? As you read the whole story—how he had been Moses' helper and spokesman in that long struggle with Pharaoh, and on the whole Moses' faithful comrade all through the lonely desert life—don't you think the trend and direction of his life was towards God? He was a man very inferior to Moses, but I feel sure he was a humble struggler after God.
Don't you think it was with a sorrowful heart that his great brother walked up beside him that day—with a sorrowful heart he looked into his face as he stripped off him one by one his garments of glory and beauty to invest his son and successor in the priesthood? And then as he waited amid the great cliffs as the days passed till death came and he laid in the grave his brother and comrade and friend—don't you think he was sorrowful and lonely?
Then see him return to that troublesome leadership—alone—alone—more lonely than he had ever been in his lonely life.
§ 3. The Loneliness of Old People
I wonder if young people can understand that one of the chief sorrows of old age is that gradually increasing feeling of being alone? As the years go by the friends of our youth drop off one by one and leave us more and more companionless. And as we get older we don't make new friends easily. Acquaintances—yes. Friends—no. The friends that most people value most are the old friends they have made in their younger days when the heart was fresh and green.
It is one of the things that should curb mere worldly ambition. It is God's will for us all to be ambitious, to do good work and get to the top of the tree if we can. But if a man does it merely for the praise and gratification of his friends and comrades, it is so sad when he reaches the top to find most of them gone. The true high ambition to be noble and faithful and good is not saddening, for it goes on into the Unseen Life with us where the old comrades are and we have it and them for ever. But mere worldly ambition for success in order to be praised of men is very disappointing.
I think, too, there is a great difference between the old age of mere worldly people, with no high desires, and the old age of the strugglers after God and good. Both are a bit lonely, but the latter are peacefully lonely, with a deep interest in the life to come, and eager looking forward to it, to get their puzzles answered, to meet their dear ones, to look into the face of Christ. I (the writer) am thinking just now of a distinguished man whom I know; very old and very famous. His highest ambitions have been realized. He has got fully to the "top of the tree." But he told a friend of mine one day lately how lonely it was. No wonder. The dear young wife who had been his comrade in his early struggles, and who was so proud of him, was gone, and his honours had lost most of their value since she was not by to share them. All his closest old friends are gone. He entered into the high reward of his life-work too late—alone. Thank God that he was able to add that across the river of death are waiting for him most of those whom he loved the best. Across the Unseen is the goal of his life.
§ 4. How God Prepares His Children for Bed
Thus God deals with us all as life goes by. Is it hard on us, do you think? I think it would be but for the fair life beyond. As it is I think it is God's kind way of making it easier and pleasanter to us to go away into that life beyond.
It is, I think, like a little child tired out by its birthday party, tired out and needing sleep; but the comrades are not gone, and the toys are spread about, and it seems so hard to be told to go to bed. But by-and-by the children go home, and the toys one by one are put away, and the lights are being put out through the house as mother takes the weary little boy to his cot. It is easy to go now, especially if he knows that the morning, when it comes, will bring back to him the toys and the friends again. Thus I think God was preparing Moses for his going to sleep, and thus He is preparing old people that you and I know. He is letting them lose the old comrades and the interests that filled up the busy earthly day, till at last they are willing to go to sleep in the glad hope of awaking in the morning in the Life Beyond with the old comrades waiting, and the new blessed unselfish life interests for all eternity. Does it seem so hard to you now that God lets them grow lonely?
§ 5. The Brazen Serpent
Read Numbers XXI. 4-10.
We cannot pass over this incident, if only on account of our Lord's reference to it. What? (John iii. 14). Where had Aaron died? Now they were moving on after his death, going round the border of Edom to find another entrance to Palestine. What were their feelings? (v. 4). Discouraged by reason of the way. It was a depressing time for them, and surely much more so for Moses—why? Death of Aaron and Miriam—sentence of exclusion from Palestine, etc.
Once more we have the old familiar cry of the murmuring against God. It is a comfort that this is the last time in this story. I think the new generation was much better than the old, who had by this time nearly all died in the wilderness. What was the cry now? What punishment? Travellers say that this part of the desert is infested with poisonous serpents. They were now allowed to increase more than usual and became very dangerous; so that the people lived in terror, never knowing when they might touch or tread on one of the venomous creatures. "Fiery" probably refers to the burning inflammation of the bite.
So they repented again. I wonder if they ever repented except when they were hurt? What did God tell Moses to do? Was it not a much simpler way than to give each one medicine or send a doctor to each? And all could have the remedy. It only needed looking up. How could this cure anyone? Just because God chose to attach the cure to it. The wounded people just believed God's word and looked up and at once were cured.
Our Lord uses the story as a beautiful type of what? How is it so? What is the venomous disease in us? Did you ever feel it in you? At what times specially? What is the Divine cure for the ill temper and disobedience and wrong of every kind? Every time you feel it, go and kneel down and think of the Blessed Lord hanging bleeding on the Cross for us and for our sins. Look up to Him and say, "Lord, who wast lifted up to heal us—heal me!" Do you understand fully how this cures you? Did the Israelites understand fully? Just like them—we look up and beseech Him earnestly to make us whole and trust Him to do it. He cares far more than we do about the result.
Questions for Lesson XXII
Another death in Moses' family. Whose?
Who else of the family had died not long before?
Make picture in words of Aaron's death.
What makes life more lonely as people grow old?
What is the teaching of that picture in this lesson, about tired child going to bed?
Tell the story of the brazen serpent.
Tell of our Lord's reference to this.