Expositor's Dictionary of Texts
And Moses went up from the plains of Moab unto the mountain of Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, that is over against Jericho. And the LORD shewed him all the land of Gilead, unto Dan,The Death of Moses
'Unto the mountain of Nebo, to the top of Pisgah' (v. 1). There were other Old Testament death-scenes transacted on the mountains. It was on Mount Gilboa that Saul leaned upon his spear and slew himself. And it was on the summit of Hor that Aaron died. It was near the top of Pisgah that Balaam said, 'Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his'. Compare these two. Very near the place where Balaam was Moses died. Yet what a difference! There are many, says Matthew Henry, who desire to die the death of the righteous, but do not endeavour to live the life of the righteous.
According to the word of the Lord (v. 5)—literally, according to the mouth of the Lord; whence grew the popular belief that God kissed Moses and he died.
Life's Unfinished Tasks
Moses, after so many years of toil and suffering, stands at the border of the Promised Land, but is not allowed to cross that border. One sin kept him out. Very few of us are allowed to finish the work to which we have set our hand, and we are called from our work just when the reward of completed labour is almost within our reach.
I. These words come to the thinker, to the man who seeks an answer to the questions of the reason, to him who would read the riddle of the painful earth. What do our greatest scientists know of matter? What matter is in itself they cannot tell. Or the thinker may ask what is space? What is time? Again we ask, Is there a Divine and Sovereign Will in the universe? Is there some far-off Divine event to which the whole creation moves? These are but a few of the questions thinkers have been discussing for nearly three thousand years. To every thinker, who struggles to reach the region of metaphysical or scientific certitude, there come the words that came of old to Moses.
II. But these words come not only to the man of thought, but also to the man of action—the reformer, the statesman, the philanthropist, the inventor, the artist. Livingstone devoted thirty years of his life to Africa, and travelled thirty thousand African miles, that he might not only bring to that dark Continent the blessings of the Christian religion, but also that he might open it up to legitimate traffic, but he died before his task was done. It is said of Opie, that great painter, that despairing of reaching his ideal of artistic perfection, he one day flung down his brushes and cried, 'I never, never shall be a painter'. Why, we ask, are men snatched away thus prematurely? It is something to have seen the land as Moses did, even from afar. Saint Columba, ere he died, had a vision of the fame and the influence of the little island of Iona. Those who have lived like Moses and Saint Columba died assured that their labours were not in vain.
III. These words also come to the saint. The Christian is one who is always looking forward to an ideal, to complete conformity to the image of Christ, to moral likeness to God in a human being. But that ideal the true Christian knows he has never attained.
—T. B. McCorkindale, Christian World Pulpit, vol. LXXIV. p. 75.
Illustration.—Max Müller, the great German philologist, while a young student in Paris, conceived the ambition of being enrolled amongst the members of the French Academy. He received that coveted honour and many another besides, for he was made a member of almost every learned society in Europe. When his youthful ambition was realized, he entered in one of his letters the words so full of pathos, coming from the pen of a man whose life was singularly fortunate: 'The dream of the reality was better than the reality of the dream'.
References.—XXXIV. 4.—J. M. Neale, Readings for the Aged (3rd Series), p. 9; Sermons Preached in Sackville College Chapel, vol. i. p. 160. Bishop Woodford, Sermons, p. 27.
A Death in the Desert
The lessons of that death may best be learned if we bring them into contrast with another death and another grave—those of the Leader of the New Covenant.
I. The Penalty of Transgression.—A little sin done by a loftily endowed and inspired man ceases to be small. The smallest sin has in it the seeds of mortal consequences; and the loftiest saint does not escape the law of retribution. Turn to the other death—His death was 'the wages of sin' too, and yet it proclaims 'the gift of God,' which is 'eternal life'.
II. The Withdrawal, by a Hard Fate, of the Worker on the very Eve of the Completion of his Work.—It is the lot of all epoch-making men that they should toil at a task the full issues of which will not be known until their heads are laid low in the dust.
III. The Lesson of the Solitude and Mystery of Death.—Moses in that solitude had the supporting presence of God. There is a drearier desolation, and Jesus Christ proved it when He cried 'My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?'
IV. The Uselessness of a Dead Leader to a Generation with New Conflicts.—Moses did his work and was laid aside. Christ, and Christ alone, can never be antiquated.
—A. Maclaren, The Freeman, 4 May, 1888.
References.—XXXIV. 5, 6.—J. W. Boulding, Sermons, p. 1. J. E. Walker, The Death of Aaron, and the Hidden Grave of Moses, No. 12. C. Kingsley, The Gospel of the Pentateuch, p. 222.
The Significance of the Burial of Moses
I. I have often put to myself the question: Suppose this fragment of the Bible had been lost, should we drop any flower from the garland of revelation? I think we should. I think there is one thing revealed here which is quite unique and which is planted here alone; I mean the fact that there is such a thing as burial by God.
II. Some of the deepest distresses of bereavement come from the denial of funeral rites. Where the body is buried in the mine, where the body is engulfed in the sea, where the body is stretched on the battlefield indistinguishable amid the mutilated slain, there is a deeper tone added to the heart's knell. It is a note which Christianity has rather increased than diminished, for the doctrine of resurrection has consecrated the body and made its very dust dear. To such a state of mind what comfort this passage brings! Here is an explorer lost in the mountain snow. His friends know he is dead; and it adds to their pain that no human lips have consecrated his dust. And to them there comes this voice: Ye that weep for the dead, ye that lament the burial rites denied, know ye not that there are graves which are consecrated by God alone! Where the prayer is breathed not, where the Book is opened not, where the wreath is planted not, where the human tear is shed not, there may be a burial of unsullied solemnity—a burial by the hand of your Father. There are consecrated graves where priest never stood, where mourners never knelt, where tear never fell. There are spots hallowed by your Father which to you are barren ground. God's acre is larger than the churchyard. Out on yon bleak hillside He wrapped your friend to rest in a mantle of spotless snow. Is not that bleak hillside God's acre evermore? Is it not as holy to you as if you had brought sweet spices to the tomb? It has no chant but the winds, no book but the solemn silence, no bell but some wild bird's note, no wreath but the wreath of snow; yet there is no more sacred spot in all the diocese of God.
—G. Matheson, Messages of Hope, p. 50.
Prof. Harper thinks that the fact that the grave of Moses is unknown is indicative of truth: 'Though it would be absurd to say that wherever we have the graves of great men pointed out, there we have a mythical story, it is nevertheless true that in the case of every name or character which has come largely under the influence of the myth-making spirit, the grave has been made much of. The Arabian imagination here seems to be typical of the Semitic imagination; and in all Moslem lands the graves of the prophets and saints of the Old Testament are pointed out, even, or perhaps we should say especially, if they be eighty feet long. Though a well-authenticated tomb of Moses, therefore, would have been a proof of his real existence and life among men, the absence of any is a stronger proof of the sobriety and truth of the narrative.'
References.—XXXIV. 6.—H. J. Buxton, God's Heroes, p. 52. Bishop Goodwin, Cambridge Lent Sermons, p. 253. XXXIV. 10.—J. H. Jellett, The Elder Son, p. 77. XXXIV. 10-12.—W. M. Taylor. Moses the Lawgiver, p. 451.
And all Naphtali, and the land of Ephraim, and Manasseh, and all the land of Judah, unto the utmost sea,
And the south, and the plain of the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees, unto Zoar.
And the LORD said unto him, This is the land which I sware unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, saying, I will give it unto thy seed: I have caused thee to see it with thine eyes, but thou shalt not go over thither.
So Moses the servant of the LORD died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the LORD.
And he buried him in a valley in the land of Moab, over against Bethpeor: but no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day.
And Moses was an hundred and twenty years old when he died: his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated.
And the children of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days: so the days of weeping and mourning for Moses were ended.
And Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom; for Moses had laid his hands upon him: and the children of Israel hearkened unto him, and did as the LORD commanded Moses.
And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face,
In all the signs and the wonders, which the LORD sent him to do in the land of Egypt to Pharaoh, and to all his servants, and to all his land,
And in all that mighty hand, and in all the great terror which Moses shewed in the sight of all Israel.