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

Lesson XXIV

The Passing of Moses

§ 1. Preparation for Death

I have called this the "Passing of Moses." I think it was more a passing than a death. We have read of the old chieftain's closing days, his faithfulness to God, his affectionate anxiety for the people, his touching farewell to them and their new leader, and how he blessed them with an old man's dying benediction.

And then, almost like the Blessed Lord Himself, "as he blessed them he was parted from them and carried up into"—not heaven—not yet—that cannot be for him until Christ comes for him and for us—but into the fair Waiting Life in the dim Unseen Land where all the great saints and heroes of the past, and all our own dear ones, departed in Christ, though they be perhaps neither saints nor heroes, are waiting, waiting always the second coming of our Lord.

Do you think he knew much about the Hereafter life? We find scarcely any reference to it in his story. It is only our Lord who has fully revealed it. Perhaps it was so important for the Jews to think of God as the living God, the God who was so close to man in this life, a part which we do not think of enough. I don't know. But, anyway, I feel sure that the man who lived so close to God's presence all these years would know as well as we do that death was not the end of his intercourse with God.

I picture him to myself, after blessing the people, quietly returning to his tent for the last time, to spend his night in thoughts of God, or preparing himself for the great event of the morrow—going up into the mountain to die. Have you ever heard people talk of "preparing for death"? Do you think Moses needed much preparing? Ah! I think it is only those accustomed to turn their thoughts much to God during life that can easily do it in preparation for death. I (the writer) have often seen people who have been neglecting prayer and Bible and communion with God all their lives—and, oh, it is a dreary, discouraging thing to see them trying to think of such things when death approaches. It is so irksome and distasteful to them. God is such a stranger to them. And I have seen others whom it was a delight to talk to as death drew near, and the eager eyes looked forward with glad hope to meeting our Lord and the dear ones departed. When should be our preparation for death? All our life, as in Moses' case. First, be sure that there is a true surrender of your life to our Lord to be His soldiers and servants to your lives' end. Try to get the fixed habit of spending some little time, at least every morning and evening, alone with God, reading something about Him in His Word, talking to Him of your failures and your sins, and your longing to be good, and thanking Him for His mercy and love in the beautiful hope He has given you in this world and the next. When you are older have your regular fixed times for Holy Communion, re-consecrating your life and receiving that Divine strength which Christ conveys through that Blessed Sacrament. Then, as life goes on, God will seem very near to you, and life will be beautiful and faithful and unselfish, and death will be very easy and happy as it was to Moses.

§ 2. Weeping Too Late

Many thrilling pictures have come before us in this history, but surely this last one is the most thrilling of all.

I don't think even the young children who crowded out of the tents that morning would ever forget, all the days of their life, that day when the great loving leader and father of his people went up out of their sight alone to die. Do you think they were sorry? (See v.  8), "the days of weeping and mourning." Josephus, the Jewish historian, says, "he withdrew from the camp amid the tears of the people, the women beating their breasts, and the children crying with uncontrolled weeping." Don't you like to see them, loving and crying for him, even then? Ah! there are many like them still. All the days of his life amongst them they were breaking his heart with their petulance and ingratitude, and now, as he is going to his death, they see at last how good and how lovable he was. If he could have come back then I think they would have tried to be good to him.

Do you think that ever happens now? I am afraid I have sometimes seen it, the sobbing and lamenting, and the loving words engraved on the tombstone at the close of a life that has been lived all its days unthanked and unappreciated. Is there anyone in your home that you might have thus to cry for? Examine yourselves. Often we thoughtlessly neglect our own relatives more than strangers.

"We have pleasant words for the strangers

And smiles for the passing guest,

But we hurt our own by look and tone

Though we love our own the best."

Yes! we do often really love them the best, but we don't find it out sometimes till after they are dead. And then we cry our hearts out, and say on our knees, "O God, if I had her back for one day to tell her that I loved her!" Will you think of this at your prayers to-night, and thank God if they are still with you, and tell them you love them, and resolve to be good to them, and make them happy, without waiting till they die?

§ 3. The End—On Earth

So Moses goes away—upward—upward; and the great weeping host follow him with their eyes, from ridge to ridge, from terrace to terrace, to the rocky range of Moab, to the high places of Baal, to the field of the watchers on the top of Pisgah. How lonely he is going up that lonely mountain, without even a child to close his eyes! And yet he is not alone, for the Father is with him, the Father who loves him, who in loving discipline is punishing him to-day.

What solemn thoughts would rise within him as he goes up, as he looks back on his strange chequered life-path, from the home of his boyhood in Pharaoh's palace to the lonely mountain on which he must die to-day, the life-path so wisely and lovingly guarded for him by God.

Now he is nearing the summit, the peak of Nebo. Beneath him with bursting heart he can see the white tents of Israel, his children whom he loved and carried on his heart for forty years. He and they shall meet no more on earth. He turns his eyes away. And as he does so a beautiful sight appears before him. The blue hills and broad spreading valleys of Palestine, the good land and large, the land of his day-dreams for forty years and more. He saw it with his eyes but must not go over thither.

Now comes the end. We cannot follow him farther—he passes from view as he reaches the cloud-capped summit to be alone with God in the grand solitudes of the mountains. Who can imagine the solemnity of that hour! The Jews have a beautiful old legend about it—how the Angel of Death approached him, but drew back in terror as he saw the light of God shining on his face. "I may deepen Gehenna into a lower depth, but over the son of Amram I cannot prevail. His face is like that of a seraph in the heavenly chariot—his visage is shining with the radiance of God." Again he approached him, but he dared not strike. Then Moses stood up in prayer, and cried, "O Lord of the universe, who wast revealed to me in the Burning Bush—remember that Thou didst carry me up into Thy presence forty days and forty nights—have mercy upon me; hand me not over to the Angel of Death!" And his prayer was answered, for He who ruleth in the highest heavens Himself stooped down to receive the soul of Moses. The Almighty with a Divine kiss received his soul. As it is written (Deuteronomy xxxiv. 5), "Moses, the servant of the Lord, died by the mouth of the Lord."

But the Bible gives no warrant for any fanciful stories. With silent reserve it only tells us this: "Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab over against Bethpeor, but no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day." That is all we know. At the moment of his death God and he were alone together. No hand of man closed his eyes. No human implement dug his grave. In some sense that we can never know

"The Angels of God upturned the sod,

And laid the dead man there."

That was the grandest funeral that ever passed on earth,

To lie in state while angels wait and the taper stars gleamed forth,

And the dark rock pines like the tossing plumes over his bier to wave,

And God's own hand in that lonely land to lay him in his grave.

O lonely grave in Moab's land, O dark Bethpeor's hill,

Speak to these curious hearts of ours and teach them to be still,

God hath His mysteries of grace—ways that we cannot tell,

He hides them deep like the hidden sleep of him He loved so well.

§ 4. His Life after Death

So at last we have come to the end of Moses' life. Have we? Ah! no, only of the first great chapter of it—the part of it lived here.

Side by side with this life runs the mysterious Unseen Life where far the greater part of God's great Church is to-day, living and loving and waiting for His coming. At the moment of death we enter it. We see others in it. We can recognize them in it. Remember what our Lord told the dying thief as they were both about to pass over its border together, "To-day thou shalt be with Me," which surely means, "This day we shall meet at the other side and recognize each other as the two men who hung together on Calvary." Think of the countless millions in that Waiting Land. Paradise is not the final Heaven, but it is, as it were, the courtyard of Heaven. It is not the Palace of the King, but, as it were, the precincts of the Palace. And St. Paul said, when he expected to go there "unclothed"—without the body, that he expected to be "with Christ" (Philippians i. 23).

I think all the wonder and beauty of what Moses saw from the mountain just before his passing away was as nothing to that which he saw a few minutes after it. The Sadducees thought he was dead with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. How did our Lord correct them? God, He says, calls Himself their God long after they had passed from earth. He would not do so if they were dead, for "God is not the God of the dead, but of the living." (Mark xii. 27).

I think of Moses closing his eyes on Mount Nebo. I think of them opening in a few minutes on a "light that never was on sea or land." I think what gloriously unselfish work would be given there to a man so gloriously unselfish. I think how he would learn the full meaning of the law at Sinai and the Blood sprinkling and the Day of Atonement.

Do you think this is all mere idle guessing? Do you think we can know nothing about it since no one has come back to tell us? It is not so. Did not this man come back? When? Where? On the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew xvii. 3;  Luke ix. 30) to talk with our Lord "of His decease which He should accomplish at Jerusalem." Don't you think then he had learned in the meantime more about the Atonement and the Blood sprinkling that pointed to Christ?

It gives one such a curious feeling this following Moses into his new life. It is like "going to the end of the world and looking over the wall." I wish I could really look over that wall in the long years after Moses passed in! How eagerly he and the other great waiting souls must have been watching the events of the Redemption! How gladly he came out to talk with Christ "of His decease which He should accomplish at Jerusalem." With what joyful worship they would meet our Lord when "He descended into Hades." How wonderful to see this man Moses who long ago on earth had been admitted into the counsels of God—to see him still admitted into these high counsels in the Waiting Land. How else should he come out to confer with his Lord about the Crucifixion in Jerusalem?

Would it not be nice if we could continue our study of his life, and have further sets of chapters, "Moses' Life in the Unseen"? We cannot. Why? We have not the materials yet. Yet.  Some day we shall. There may be some who have begun with us these chapters about Moses here on earth, and who have since passed into the Waiting Land and learned perhaps very wonderful things about the rest of his story there, things which the writer of these pages was unable to tell them. For remember we are talking of a living man—a man whom we shall ourselves probably see some day when we go into that mysterious land and ask questions of what has puzzled us, and meet those gone before us "whom we have loved long since and lost a while."

Questions for Lesson XXIV

Do you think Moses needed much preparation for death? What is the best preparation for death?

Picture in words that touching, sorrowful scene of Moses' departure from his people.

Does anybody know about his actual death or his grave?

Could you repeat any part of Mrs. Alexander's poem, "The Death of Moses"?

Is Moses dead now? Once he came back to earth to meet our Lord. When?

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