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Now Moses kept the flock of Jethro his father in law, the priest of Midian; and he led the flock to the backside of the desert, and came to the mountain of God, even to Horeb.

And the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.

And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.

And when the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I.

And he said, Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.

Moreover he said, I am the God of thy father Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. And Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look upon God. Exodus 3:1-6.

The children of Israel at this time were nearing the end of their four-hundred-year bondage in Egypt. They were approaching the time of their deliverance. God was preparing them for that deliverance through the oppression of the Pharaoh who knew not Joseph, even up to the present time. They were now crying to Jehovah for deliverance because the bondage and oppression had become unbearable.

“And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. And God looked upon the children of Israel and God had respect unto them” (Ex. 2:24, 25). God answered their cry in that, while He was preparing them for deliverance, He was also preparing the deliverer. This was Moses, who was born in their midst and who was schooled in the courts of Pharaoh and then fled to Midian.

In Midian, Moses dwelt with Jethro, also called Reuel, who was a God-fearing man, a priest of God. He was a descendant of Abraham by Keturah. Moses took care of his sheep and married his daughter, Zipporah.

At the present time we find him leading the flocks to the backside of the desert to Horeb. Here God called His chosen deliverer from behind the flocks of Jethro, first of all appearing to him in a remarkable wonder, that of the burning bush that was not consumed. It is to this wonder that our attention is drawn.

Various interpretations have been given to this burning bush. For a proper understanding of this wonder there are four elements that must be distinguished. These are the bush itself, the fire, the speech from the midst of the fire, and the fact that the bush was not consumed. What Moses saw was a spiked, gnarled, thorny acacia tree, the only thing of significant size in the wilderness.

The bush represents the people of God as they are being afflicted (v. 7). That the bush is not consumed is in harmony with Malachi 3:6: “For I am the Lord, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed.” The bush pictures Israel as a thing of no significance, as a thorny bush in the wilderness, not a cedar of Lebanon but a bush that is easily consumed by fire, completely helpless over it. God’s people at this time were in the fire of tribulation.

The fire represents Egypt and its fiery oppression. As an iron furnace Egypt was threatening to consume and destroy Israel. The fire also represents the holy presence of God Himself. Our God is a consuming fire. The flame of fire is God’s holy presence, which sets the bush on fire. To harmonize these two ideas we must see that it is always God that is afflicting His people. He may use means, like Egypt, the world, the power of darkness, and the seed of the serpent. All the affliction comes in the sovereign purpose and at the discretion of Jehovah. This is one of the elements of the promise in Genesis 3:15 (that there would be enmity). This is also seen in Genesis 15:13: “And he said unto Abram, Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years.”

The historical application of this relationship is that Egypt was oppressing Israel, acting as rational, moral, responsible creatures, out of a motive of hatred. Ultimately, however, it was the sovereign, covenant God using Egypt as the furnace. It was also prophetic of Israel later. There would be affliction in the desert (plagues, serpents); affliction in the land of Canaan, where there would be famines and pestilences; affliction at the hand of the Assyrians and Babylonians; and carnal Israel. The great lesson of this revelation to Moses and for all the church is that when God’s people are afflicted it is the covenant God who casts them into the furnace of tribulation. This in the narrower sense.

In the wider sense, this is characteristic of God’s grace throughout. God loves His people from eternity with a predestinating, determining love. He ordained that they should be His covenant people among whom He would dwell. But the people of God are by nature corrupt, dead in trespasses and sin, born in communion with a world that is under wrath and condemnation, enemies of God, working for the devil. The result when the holy God comes into covenant contact with His sinful people is that the bush (His people) burns, set afire by God’s holy anger. As a refiner’s fire it must burn until all the corruption is burned away. Surely, it would seem, Israel shall be consumed.

The wonder is that the bush and Israel (His people) are not consumed. That bush, burning with a terrible flame, should have been reduced to ashes immediately. From a spiritual, ethical point of view the same may be said of God’s people. When the fire of God burns, and when the flames of tribulation are kindled, there is, humanly speaking, no hope, for there is no good in us. If the fire of God’s indignation must burn until all that is of sin and corruption is burned away, it must be necessary that Israel, God’s people, be consumed. There is no reason why they should not be, for they are no better than the Egyptians.

But they are not consumed, because of the fact that the covenant Jehovah is in the midst of the bush. So He identifies Himself in verse 6. He is the same covenant God who chose His people, to dwell among them, the same God who promised to establish His everlasting covenant with them. Because His promise is sure and unchangeable He has made provision for their being able to pass through the fire of His holiness unscathed. That provision is none other than the Angel of Jehovah (v. 2). He is God’s messenger, through whom God dwells among His people. He appears often in the history of the old dispensation (to Abram, to Hagar, to Jacob). He is the angel of God’s presence (Peniel—“I have seen God face to face”). He is the Old Testament prefiguration of Christ, the Son of God come in the flesh, identifying Himself and uniting Himself with that burning bush. In and through Him God reveals Himself as preserving His people in the very midst of the fire, so that they are not consumed.

God anointed Christ to be Head of the elect, so that He might take upon Himself their sins and bear God’s wrath. At the cross, all the waves of God’s wrath go over Him. At the cross, you see the fullest realization of the awesome spectacle of the burning bush (4th cross word). Yet He is not consumed, for He is the Son of God, who appears out of the flames in the glory of perfect righteousness. He is in the bush, in His people, with His righteousness, grace, and Spirit. Therefore, all that is of the bush by nature may burn away, but that which is of Christ is imperishable. Thus it is with Israel typically and by promise. Thus it is with the entire church in reality. Thus it is finally, in the last fire, the fire in which all else burns. In it the church shall not perish, but have everlasting life.

The help and hope of God’s people are not in themselves. Only in the Angel of Jehovah is the surety that they shall not perish.