One day, as Moses journeyed out of the palaces of the Pharaoh of Egypt to see how his Hebrew people were living, he saw a slave being beaten by an Egyptian. The aggression of the Egyptian enraged Moses. Coming to the defense of the man, Moses struck and killed the Egyptian and hid his body in the sand.
Mistakenly thinking that this act would be commended by the Hebrew people, the very next day Moses tried to intervene in a dispute between two Hebrew men. To his probable surprise, instead of recognizing that Moses could be the person who could lead their people to freedom, one of the men chided him, “Who made you ruler and judge over us? Are you planning to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?”
This failure in what Moses saw as his noble attempt to help his people hit him hard. He fled Egypt and retreated to the distant and isolated land of Midian. In his desire to free his Hebrew people, Moses may have been correct in his assessment of the value of what he tried to do, but incorrect in how he tried to go about doing it. It was a failure from which it took him forty years to recover.
Moses tried to put that catastrophe of the rejection of his people behind him by fleeing, but he found that he could not escape. A failure of this magnitude will always follow one wherever he goes.For forty years Moses lived with this great failure shadowing him. It was forty years before God could next put that task before him.
Moses Again Knows Failure
That occasion of God calling on Moses came at the incident of the burning bush on a mountain in the land of Midian that they called “Horeb.” We know this mountain also as Sinai. It was there that God put before Moses the task of rescuing the Hebrew slaves from Egypt. After many objections on the part of Moses, he finally agreed.
This task, this Exodus, is one of the major events in the history of God’s people, and one that we know well. It was when God demonstrated his own great power. Unlike Moses’ first attempt at freeing his people, this time it was this power of God’s that accomplished this freedom, not the leadership of an influential man. The Exodus was the showing of God’s sovereignty. It was a demonstration of His dominion and authority.
But God did involve Moses in this effort. God had chosen Moses to lead the people. One would think that this would have been encouraging to Moses, but even after that second effort, even after that greatly successful rescue of the people out of Egypt, Moses faced other failures. One of these came at the very same mountain where God had first called him to this present task. Ironically, this failure came to him on the same mountain Horeb.
The story of that failure goes like this:
The Hebrew people were camped at the foot of that mountain on their way through the wastelands of the Sinai Peninsula. During the days when they were at camp, Moses had gone up on that mountain to receive the Word of the Lord. That “Word,” as you remember, was physically condensed in the form of two stone tablets— “Tablets of the Testimony inscribed by the finger of God.”
But while Moses was up on the mountain, the people down below grew impatient. Their hearts turned from the way in which the Lord had given to them. They collected the gold earrings and necklaces from among the people, and gave them to the Aaron, the leader in charge. Aaron then cast them together, and then using an engraving tool, he fashioned an image of a calf. (Exodus 32)
When Moses came down from the mountain to see what had happened, his confidence in his own task of leadership left him. The commitment to the work to which he had given himself was deeply shaken. So great was his insecurity at that point that he let his anger take control. Apparently, he became angry also at God, losing confidence even in the Word which the Lord had delivered to him. Moses threw the two tablets of stone to the ground, shattering them to pieces.
The Anger of God
In some ways the anger of Moses was understandable, because God was also angry. God was angry with the Israelites. The making of this idol had happened not long after the Lord had said to Moses, “This is what you are to tell the Israelites: ‘You have seen for yourselves that I have spoken to you from heaven. You are not to make any gods alongside Me; you are not to make for yourselves gods of silver or gold’” (Exodus 20:21-22 BSB).
But now God said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against Me, I will blot out of My book. Now go, lead the people to the place I described. Behold, My angel shall go before you. But on the day that I settle accounts, I will punish them for their sin” (Exodus 32:33-34 BSB).
God then sent a plague on the people because of what they had done with the calf that Aaron had made.
But the task that the Lord had given to Moses was not yet complete.
God then said to Moses, “You must now leave this place of Horeb, you and the people you brought up out of the land of Egypt. You must continue on to the land that I promised. I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out any who would oppose you. But I also want you to know that I Myself will not go with you, because you are a stiff-necked and obstinate people” (Exodus 33:1-3).
Actually, God was so angry with the unfaithfulness that the people showed at the mountain that he said if he were to go with them, he might end up destroying them on the way!
God said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites, ‘You are a stiff-necked people. If I should go with you for a single moment, I would destroy you. Now take off your jewelry, and I will decide what to do with you’” (Exodus 33:5).
It was this word from the Lord that hit Moses hard. God told Moses that he would not continue this journey through the wilderness with them. He said that he would watch over the people as they continued on their journey, but He Himself would not go with them.
From this news, Moses would need some time to recover. Although God had told Moses to leave Horeb, Moses was not yet ready to go. He would first need some time with God.
What was Said in the Tent of Meeting
We do not know how much longer Moses and the Israelites stayed in that place, but instead of leaving immediately, Moses set up a tent, a tent which he called “the Tent of Meeting.” This tent was outside of the camp, but still within sight of all the people. It was to that tent where Moses would go when he needed to hear the Word of the Lord and speak with him. Moses knew that his task of leading the people was not yet done, but he was unsure of how to proceed. The assurance from God that he would send an angel before him was not enough for Moses.
“Look,” Moses said to God, “You have been telling me, ‘Lead this people up,’ but You have not let me know whom You will send with me.”
God had told Moses that He was not to go with them, but Moses knew no more than that. God told Moses that an angel would go before them, but this word to Moses apparently was not enough for him.
From Moses’ perspective, in this entire affair from his calling by God, to the delivery out of Egypt, and in the journey through the wilderness up to this point and leading the people, Moses had not previously been in communication with an angel. It had been God who was the one who led him into this work. It was God—not an angel who had spoken with him. It did not seem right to Moses that God would make this change in the plan. Moses reminded God of something that God had told him in the past.
“It was You who called me; it was you who said to me, ‘I know you by name, and you have found favor in My sight.’ Now if indeed I have found favor in Your sight, please let me know Your ways, that I may know You and find favor in Your sight. Remember that this nation is Your people.”
The reasoning of Moses seemed sound. Hearing the logic of Moses, the Lord changed his answer and told him, “My Presence will go with you. It will not be an angel, but I Myself will give you rest.”
It was at that point that Moses spoke the words that I have thought of so often in my work in many places through the years, but never so much as with my present work in Kenya: “If Your Presence does not go with us, do not lead us up from here.”
Questions about Kenya
I bring up the work in Kenya both because it has been the most recent of the tasks with which I have been involved, but also because, like Moses, in it I have at times found myself unsure about how to proceed. In several ways, it has been also the most difficult of the tasks that God has given me to do.
It is not a small undertaking. It involves thousands of dollars each month, and much of my work depends upon the trust in people whom I have known only for a short time. Under ordinary circumstances, I would not think of involving myself under these conditions, and if you know the story of this orphanage in Kenya, you know that for a long time, I first refused to be involved.
But as it was for Moses when God spoke to him from the burning bush, the decision to be involved was not mine to make. God had called me to do this, and I could not continue to refuse his call.
My own experience has not been so deep or so dramatic as that of Moses, but it has been deep enough that I can relate to some of the thoughts that Moses must have had. I have also talked with God about the fact that it was He who called me to this work. It was not my doing and not even my preference.
And like it was for Moses, I have also stumbled at times in this work. I have suffered failures. I have asked God many times, “What do I do now?”
In the work with the orphanage of Kisii and the Log Churches, I have many questions about the future.
“This step of building the school is so overwhelming. How will it ever be finished?”
“Once it is finished, how will we ever staff it?”
“If we are building it to open up opportunities for education for children whose families have no money, how will we ever fund it?”
“Even in the short term, this year we will have four children graduating from secondary school. What will these children do once they have graduated?”
What is Important
All of this has at time been more than a little overwhelming to me. I have also told God, “If Your Presence does not go with me, do not lead me up from here.”
This was the way that Moses was feeling. He was wondering how to proceed. He thought that he needed a more complete vision of what God expected of him.
It was then that Moses made a bold request of God: “Please show me Your glory.”
Moses was asking to know the ways of God in a deeper way. He was asking for the larger picture of the plan. But God knew that for Moses to know more about his plan would not actually be beneficial to him.
“I will pass before you and I will even proclaim my very Name, my Holy name and my unspeakable Name—the LORD—in your presence…but no one is able to see my full face and live.”
God wanted Moses to know that it is He, the LORD, who remains sovereign, and that the full picture of the task and full knowledge will always remain with him.
“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” God told him.
That is a statement of sovereignty. By saying what he did in that statement, God was telling Moses that He alone holds the power of all knowledge.
This is a fact that we all must remember. God is sovereign. He alone knows the full picture and holds in His hands the entire scope of history and eternity.
There is much about the total plan of God that we do not know. I do not mean this only in the case of Moses and the Israelites. It is not only my work in the orphanage. All of us are plagued by questions about our own existence and questions of fairness. At times, this life does not seem to make sense. It does not seem fair.
“Why do the wicked prosper?” The prophet Jeremiah asked. “Why do all who are treacherous thrive?” (Jeremiah 12:1)
the Psalmist Asaph wrote, “My feet had almost stumbled and my steps had nearly slipped, for I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. They have no struggle in their death; their bodies are well-fed. They are free of the burdens others carry; they are not afflicted like other men.” (Psalm 73:2-5 BSB)
There is much about the total plan of God that we do not know.
The LORD told Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”
A Limited Vision
But then God continued, “There is a place near Me where you are to stand upon a rock, and when My glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away, and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen.”
God would not allow Moses to see His full glory or to know his full plan. All things remain in the hands of our Sovereign LORD.
God has also told me that the answers to these questions are too big of a burden for me to know at this time. I cannot know his full will, for “No one is able to see my full face and live.”
Like Moses, I must be content to be led step-by-step.
And so it is with all of us. Some questions of life are too great for all of us. None of us know the difficulties that will arise tomorrow.
The Next Step
Important for Moses is what God told him to do next. This is important also for us.
God did not tell Moses the complete plan for the people of God, nor even for facing the rest of the years in the wastelands of the Sinai Peninsula. He only told him the next step.
“Chisel out two stone tablets like the originals,” God instructed him. “Then I will write on them the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke.”
You recall that Moses threw down and shattered the first pair of tablets. Concerning those first tablets, we are not told how they were made. We actually do not know whether God made the blank tablets, or if Moses made them. We are only told that God gave him the two tablets of stone “inscribed by the finger of God.”
But for this second pair, God explicitly instructs Moses to make the blanks, after which God would again write his law on them.
I do not know if we should draw significance out of this apparent difference in the two instances, but I do know that for our faith to be reconfirmed, it sometimes requires an overture of action on our part to demonstrate our commitment.
In order for our faith to be substantiated and in order that we recognize the sovereignty of God, God gives us the next step only—something for us to do. It will be something that is a step of faith for us.
Then God said to Moses, “Be ready in the morning, and come up on Mount Sinai to present yourself before Me on the mountaintop.”
Obedient to what God told him to do, Moses chiseled out the tablets. He then arose early the next morning, and taking the two stone tablets in his hands, he went up the mountain as the Lord had commanded him.
God then descended upon the mountain in a cloud. Interestingly enough, the first thing that God did was to proclaim His name, “The LORD.”
This is the proper name of God. In most English Bible versions, when this name is written, all capital letters are used—“LORD.” As near as we can come to the original word, it is something like “Yahweh.” It is His holy and unique name, and it carries with it many characteristics and nuances. In this passage, God actually defines much what the name means. We continue to read in Exodus 34:
Then the LORD passed in front of Moses and called out: “The LORD, the LORD God, is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in loving devotion and faithfulness, maintaining loving devotion to a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin.
Yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished; He will visit the iniquity of the fathers on their children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.”
In hearing the name of the LORD, Moses immediately bowed down to the ground and worshiped. “O Lord,” he said, “if I have indeed found favor in Your sight, my Lord, please go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, forgive our iniquity and sin, and take us as Your inheritance.”
Beyond the Whys
Here is instruction for us. When rising from failure and from a loss of what we should do, it does no good to ask many questions of “Why,” or “What will be the outcome.” When facing a difficult circumstance, it does no good to again ask “why”? or what the outcome will be.
What is valuable is in knowing that the presence of the LORD is with us through every circumstance, and that he will give us the next step.
God did not tell Moses that Moses was still to face forty years of tests and trials. God did not tell him that these testings and even failures would actually be with him for the rest of his life! They would not come to an end for Moses, at least in this lifetime. God did not tell him that even after all of this, Moses would not even have the chance to walk into the land to which he was leading the people.
But God did tell him this: “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
Likewise, whatever trials that we face, whatever testings, if we look to our God as the Sovereign LORD, these are also God’s words to us: “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
We do not need to know the entire picture for our lives. Indeed, to know it would not be beneficial to us. What is beneficial is to look to the LORD for the next step—the next step of faith.
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