The Death of Moses

So Moses the servant of the LORD died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the LORD . . . 

And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face. 

Deuteronomy 34:5, 10

The journey of Moses’ earthly life was all but ended. It had been a long life and eventful, with many strange and different paths to be traveled. But now he had journeyed as far as he could go. Israel, the nation which he loved so dearly and had led so far so tenderly, must go on without him. He had prayed that it might be different. Repeatedly he had cried to God to forgive his sin and allow him to go on over Jordan to finish the work now so nearly completed. But it had been denied him. All that remained now was for him to speak his parting words to Israel, to ascend the mountain appointed by God, and there within sight of Canaan to die.

It must have been with a heavy heart that Moses called the people of Israel to him, and with heavy hearts that the people came. Moses knew and the people knew that they could go no farther together. The parting could not be easy. Though the people had often murmured against Moses, there had developed a deep and abiding love between them. Now their parting was bound to hurt, but it could not be avoided. Moses had much on his heart that had to be said. A few words would not suffice. His parting words constituted three different discourses spread over weeks and months of time. They fill most of the book which we call Deuteronomy.

The first discourse of Moses contained a review and a reminder of all that the Lord had done for their nation in the past. There were no longer many living of those who had taken part in the original exodus from Egypt, only those who had been under twenty years of age at the time. It was necessary, therefore, that Moses should remind them of the marvelous works which Jehovah performed in their behalf as He brought their fathers to the very gates of Canaan. He reminded them again of the repeated sins of their fathers that had kept their nation now for forty years from entering the land of promise. And in conclusion he urged them to learn from the lesson of their fathers, and to go forth in obedience to Jehovah their covenant God.

The second discourse of Moses in a large part constituted a repetition of the laws that had been given to Israel at Sinai and thereabouts. And still it was much more than a repetition; it was more of an interpretation and application of the law. From this portion the book of Deuteronomy receives its name meaning “the second law.” In it Moses stressed the principle of the law, as he said, “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God is one LORD: and thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might, and these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart.”

The third and final discourse was turned in consideration of the future. It gave commands to Israel concerning the recognition of the law with its blessings and cursings by Israel when they should come to mounts Gerizim and Ebal in the land of Canaan. But what was more, it gave them remarkably detailed prophecies of what would happen to their nation in future ages when they would fall into the ways of sin.

Through the days and weeks in which these discourses were being delivered Moses gradually began to warm again to the wonderful truth which he for the last time was being given the opportunity to proclaim. He lived again in memory the trials and hardships of the exodus with the wonderful works of deliverance wrought by Jehovah in their behalf. His heart thrilled anew as point by point he again instructed the covenant people in the deep spiritual wisdom of God’s law. He felt more than ever before the serious responsibility that fell to Israel to keep that law and the immensity of blessings and cursings that would come as a result upon the nation. The more Moses spoke, the more he gradually forgot about himself and his impending death. His mind became filled with concern for Israel his beloved nation and all of his last effort was put into impressing upon the people the importance of abiding in complete obedience to Jehovah. As the time went on and his death approached him closer, his enthusiasm seemed to grow ever stronger instead of waning as might have been expected. When finally he came to the end of his discourse there was no longer any tone of bitter resignation; he concluded as though with a shout of triumph, with a song of exaltation. It was a wonderful hymn of praise that broke forth from Moses’ lips:

“Give ear, O ye heavens, and I will speak;

And hear, O earth, the words of my mouth.

My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distil as the dew, as the small rain upon the tender herb, and as the showers upon the grass: Because I will publish the name of the LORD, ascribe ye greatness unto our God.

He is the Rock, his work is perfect: for all his ways are judgment;

A God of truth, and without iniquity, just and right is he . . .”

Not only did Moses sing this song, he insisted that the people learn it and sing it after him. It was a glorious Psalm praise and the last words of instruction which Moses left with the people whom he loved so dearly. It expressed as nothing else the note of triumph that characterized his life now unto the very end.

One thing only remained now for Moses to do. Turning to each of the tribes of Israel individually he pronounced the blessing of God upon them. It was much like the pronouncements of a father over his children and reminiscent of the blessings which Jacob many years before had pronounced upon the fathers of those same tribes. For forty years Moses had been in very fact as a father to the whole of the nation of Israel. The parting words which he now spoke were filled with all the tender concern which he felt for this people which he had guided so carefully through all of the dangers of the wilderness. But even more he spoke to them as a prophet of God so that Israel might be assured that all which he spoke concerning them was truth. His words were not such as could be ignored. These were the last words of God to be spoken through Moses his servant. Especially the closing words were filled with glorious promise, “The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms: and he shall thrust out the enemy from before thee; and shall say, Destroy them. Israel thou shalt dwell in safety alone; the fountain of Jacob shall be upon a land of corn and wine; also his heavens shall drop down dew. Happy art thou, O Israel; who is like unto thee, O people saved by the LORD, the shield of thy help, and who is the sword of thy excellency! and thine enemies shall be found liars unto thee; and thou shalt tread upon their high places.”

While these words were still echoing in the ears of all Israel, Moses turned to leave the plains of Moab where they were camped and began to climb the slopes of Nebo. And somehow in that departure there was not the undertone of extreme sadness that might have been expected. It was an old man whom they were watching but his shoulders were still strong and upright. The head was white with age but it was held as firm and confident as ever. So often Israel had watched the figure: of Moses making its way up among the mountain peaks, and now as always it seemed that he was going with the purpose of communing with his Maker. He had left them with a message of joyful promise, and the same confidence seemed to carry him on as he ascended before their eyes closer and closer to heaven. It might have been a lonesome figure disappearing alone in the distance except that all Israel knew so well that he went in communion with Jehovah.

Also for Moses there had come a new assurance and confidence which he had not expected. To leave the nation of Israel so close to the goal of all his labors had appeared to him an almost impossible thing. But as he had sought to encourage the children of Israel at his departure, he had found himself to be strengthened and encouraged as much as anyone else. He had left the camp of Israel; but he was not alone. The Lord was with him and he had found peace with the fact that he could not enter the earthly Canaan. His thoughts were turned more and more to the better Canaan where he would soon find his dwelling place, and its promise was more than enough to comfort his soul. Arriving at the top of Nebo Moses looked out across Jordan to the land beyond with peaceful satisfaction. The air was clear and even from this great distance the land was beautiful to behold. Its verdant green was rich and fruitful looking as a land that was blessed by the hand of the Lord. It was enough for Moses just to know that soon his people would enter in and possess that land. God stood by his side and said, “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.”

There with that beautiful vision before his eyes, Moses died. It was a quiet and peaceful death. We are told as though with special significance that it was by the “word of the LORD,” and the old Jewish Rabbis liked to render this “by the kiss of the LORD.” In a very special sense God gathered Moses into death. There were no natural causes; God just determined that it was time for Moses to be taken from this earth. And God also provided for his body, burying it in a sepulcher not known unto man.

It was finally the children of Israel and not Moses who found this death to be most painful. Gradually they began to realize what it would mean not to have Moses with them any more. Although Joshua would carry on Moses’ work, he would never really take Moses’ place. Moses was a unique figure in the history of the Church. Never again would there be a mere human prophet who would know the Lord so intimately, face to face. His life in so many respects had been a visible demonstration of the grace of God and of the Gospel, He was a mediator through whom Israel had stood before the greatness of the living God. Henceforth they could only look forward to the day of which Moses spoke when he said to them, “The LORD thy God will raise up unto thee a Prophet from the midst of thy brethren, like unto me; unto him ye shall hearken” (Deut. 18:15). He would be the fulfillment of which Moses was only the type.