January 30, 2008
Numbers — With God in the Wilderness:
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Numbers 27. Last Wednesday night we were in Numbers 26, looking at a long list of the heads of families of the tribes of Israel; and these names were being listed not only for the purposes of selective service, but especially for the purpose of inheritance. And therein lies an irony with the passage we’re reading tonight.
In Numbers 26, all the heads of families of the tribes of Israel are being numbered so that the land, which God had promised to Abraham and to his descendents, which the children of Israel were about to enter into, could be apportioned out appropriately to those families that would be entering into and possessing the land.
Then in the first verses of Numbers 27, verses 1-11, we find out that even the unmarried daughters of Zelophehad, who, under the old Mosaic code did not have a claim to inheriting the land of their father, they were going to inherit land in the land that the children of Israel were entering into — the land of Canaan which had been promised by God to Abraham, and which God through His faithful providence and His miraculous mercy had brought about the children of Israel to be on the verge of entering into.
But tonight, we find out that the man who has led Israel all the way is not going to inherit a parcel of land in the land of Canaan. In fact, he’s not even going to enter in. That’s a sobering thought. And that’s Numbers 27:12-23. Let’s pray before we read God’s word.
Our heavenly Father, we bow before You with our minds and hearts numbed by the shock of the announcement that though all the tribes of Israel will inherit the land, the daughters of Zelophehad will inherit land, but Moses will not. We know that there must be a message for us in this. And indeed there is, because this is Your word and it’s powerful, living and active, and sharper than any two-edged sword; a lamp to our feet and a light to our way. We don’t live by bread alone, we live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. And Your word is profitable for reproof and correction and training in righteousness. And Your word shows us the way of salvation, which is by faith in Jesus Christ. So teach us from Your word tonight. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
As we read God’s word together in Numbers 27:12-23, notice four parts in the story that’s recorded. In verses 12-14, you see the Lord’s address to Moses; in verses 15-17, you see Moses’ prayer to the Lord; in verses 18-21, you see the Lord’s response to Moses’ prayer; and in verses 22-23, you see Moses’ obedience to the Lord’s command.
This is the word of God:
“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go up into this mountain of Abarim and see the land that I have given to the people of Israel. When you have seen it, you also shall be gathered to your people, as your brother Aaron was, because you rebelled against my word in the wilderness of Zin when the congregation quarreled, failing to uphold me as holy at the waters before their eyes.’ (These are the waters of Meribah of Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin.) Moses spoke to the Lord, saying, ‘Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, that the congregation of the Lord may not be as sheep that have no shepherd. So the Lord said to Moses, ‘Take Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is the Spirit, and lay your hand on him. Make him stand before Eleazar the priest and all the congregation, and you shall commission him in their sight. You shall invest him with some of your authority, that all the congregation of the people of Israel may obey. And he shall stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall inquire for him by the judgment of the Urim before the Lord. At his word they shall go out, and at his word they shall come in, both he and all the people of Israel with him, the whole congregation.’ And Moses did as the Lord commanded him. He took Joshua and made him stand before Eleazar the priest and the whole congregation, and he laid his hands on him and commissioned him as the Lord directed through Moses.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
As we ponder this question, ‘Lord, why is the mediator not going into the Promised Land? Why are the people inheriting the promise, but the mediator’s going to die alone on a mountain?’…as we ponder that question, I want us to look at four things tonight, and you see them in those sections that I just outlined for you.
In verses 12-14, I want you to see God’s judgment on Moses — and it’s just. God explains there why He is meting out this sentence on Moses. There’s a very, very good reason. It’s both a reason of justice and it’s a reason of sanctification and pastoral care of the people of God that Moses is receiving this sentence.
Secondly, I want you to see the amazing prayer that Moses lifts up in response. This would not have been the prayer that I would have been praying, were I Moses and had I just gotten this sentence. Moses’ response is far more godly than I would have dreamt to have prayed. His pastoral heart shows through, because this prayer has nothing to do with him. There is not one word of “But, Lord! I’ve done so much for You! I’ve done so much for them!” It’s all about the people of God. It shows you his heart. You see that in verses 15-17.
And third, I want you to see how the Lord graciously answers Moses’ prayer. You see it beautifully set forth in verses 18-21.
And then, finally, Moses again shows his humility in his faithful obedience to the command of the Lord in verses 22-23. Let’s look at these four things together tonight as we continue to ponder that question: Why is the mediator not going in to inherit the land, but the people are, and even the daughters of Zelophehad?
I. God’s judgment on Moses.
Well, first in verses 12-14, let’s see God’s just judgment on Moses. It almost feels like God is rubbing Moses’ nose in it, doesn’t it?–‘Moses, go up the mountain of Abarim, and look over that lush land that I’m going to give to Israel, this people that you have spent forty years in the wilderness bringing to this place. Please look all over that land. But you’re going to die outside that land, just like your brother Aaron did.’ It almost seems cruel, doesn’t it? It’s not. It’s not. You’ll see more of this. This story is told four times; that’s how important it is, this succession plan from Moses to Joshua. It’s told four times — once here in Numbers, three times in Deuteronomy. It’s Moses’ last sermon.
God wants the people of God to understand why this succession is happening, and why this judgment is being meted out on Moses. It may seem cruel, but it’s not. God tells Moses to go and look at the land, but that he will not enter it. And again, in verse 14, He tells him exactly why. Notice the words: “Because you rebelled against My word in the wilderness of Zin when the congregation quarreled.” In other words, Moses’ sin, especially in his station as the leader of God’s people, and as the one who delivered what to the people?–God’s word to the people! And what did he do at the waters of Meribah? He rebelled against what? God’s word, the very thing that he was called to bring to the people of God. The Lord says, ‘And as a consequence, I was not treated as holy in the sight of My people.’ Moses had done something that was fatal to his continuing moral authority.
I was recently having a conversation with a dear friend who has an unbelieving husband, and her children are rebelling in dramatic ways. And they don’t listen to their father any more because he has in fact committed some of the sins that they are committing, and he has no moral authority to speak into their lives. He’s guilty of the very crimes that he ought to be correcting in them. The Lord’s saying that to Moses: ‘Moses, when the man who spoke My word to the people of God has treated Me — in their eyes, in their presence, in the open in public — as not the Holy One of Israel, you’ve lost the moral authority and capacity to lead My people in the way they need to be led.’
It’s a solemn, solemn thing, isn’t it? Have you ever been sharing the gospel with someone and they say to you, when you ask them, ‘Well, when you stand before God in the judgment, what’s the reason that you’re going to give that He should accept you and let you into His heaven?’ Have you ever heard them give the answer, ‘Well, I’ve tried to live a good life’?
Have you ever had the conversation with them where you said, ‘Well, let me ask you a question. Let’s say we put Josef Stalin and Adolph Hitler on this side, and the Apostle Paul on this side. Now where would you put yourself on that scale? Would you say that you are worse than Josef Stalin and Adolph Hitler? Better than the Apostle Paul? Where would you put yourself’?
And where do they normally put themselves? Well, normally they don’t see themselves as worse than Adolph Hitler and worse than Josef Stalin. Usually they see themselves as somewhere in between the Apostle Paul and Adolph Hitler and Josef Stalin.
And then you tell them, “Well, you know it’s so interesting. The Apostle Paul said that he was the chief of sinners, so he placed himself below Adolph Hitler and Josef Stalin, and that puts you below Adolph Hitler, Josef Stalin, and the Apostle Paul. Now do you think the Lord will accept you on the basis of your deeds?”
You know, we could play a very similar story. If you ask the people, ‘Now where would you place yourself? Would you put yourself with the quarreling, grumbling, rebelling people of God in the wilderness? Are you better than them? Worse than them? Or on the other hand, would you put yourself as better than Moses, the leader of God’s people?’ And most people would somehow, I think, put themselves in between those quarreling, rebelling, complaining children of Israel and Moses. They wouldn’t say they’re better than Moses; they wouldn’t say they’re worse than the quarreling, complaining people of Israel. They would put them somewhere in [there].
But, look! Even Moses doesn’t get to go in! If this is not a grand declaration that salvation is not by works, I don’t know what it is. If Moses doesn’t go in, who in the world gets to go in? The Lord’s just telling us ‘No one is immune from My judgment, not even Moses. No one is immune from My justice, not even Moses.’ If Moses doesn’t measure up, are you ready to stand with your good works before the searching gaze of Almighty God?
No, except for grace…except for grace…we’re all undone. Doesn’t the Lord teach us that, even in this seemingly hard judgment that’s meted out on Moses?
II. Moses’ pastoral heart for Israel
Well, there’s a second lesson to learn here as well, isn’t there? And we see it in verses 15-17. We see Moses’ pastoral heart for Israel. Moses’ immediate response to the Lord’s judgment on him is not (as I would have done) to say, “Lord! Give me a second chance! Lord, please let me go!” I don’t know what I would have prayed, but it would have been all about me. Moses doesn’t do that. Immediately he says, ‘Lord, if I’m not going to be the shepherd of Your people, please don’t let them be without a shepherd. Please don’t let them be without a shepherd. Please give them somebody who loves them, who cares about them, who loves You, who loves Your word, who will do what You say. Give them a shepherd.’ His immediate response is to ask the Lord to appoint a faithful shepherd over Israel.
Doesn’t that tell us something about the corporate-ness of the Christian life? Here’s Moses, who of all people on planet Earth knows the power of God as much as anyone, saying that even though the people of God have God to look over them, that they need human shepherds to give them leadership and guidance and care and protection and example and ministry. The Lord’s people need shepherds. It’s a testimony to the fact that we can’t live the Christian life on our own. It’s not just me, Jesus, and my Bible. That’s why there are passages like Hebrews 13:17 — “Obey your leaders,” because we can’t go this thing alone. We need one another. We may think we don’t need one another sometimes, but we always need one another. And Moses, who had seen God’s power displayed more than any human being on earth in his day, acknowledges that the people of God need shepherds. They need leaders.
And I want to ask you something: Does Moses’ response in that prayer remind you of somebody else? Does it? Do you remember the story that’s recorded in both Mark and Matthew, for instance in Matthew 9:35-38, where Jesus is going throughout all the cities and villages teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing diseases and great afflictions? And when He looks out on the crowds… [and here’s Moses on the mount of Abarim, and he’s looking out over the lushness of Canaan, and then he’s looking back over what? A crowd of millions. And he’s praying, ‘Lord, give them a shepherd.’] And look at what Jesus prays:
“And when He saw the crowds, He had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. And then He said to His disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into the harvest.’”
Moses, when he prays this prayer, is foreshadowing the heart of Jesus for His people. Because Jesus wants His people to have faithful shepherds, too.
III. God’s answer to Moses prayer.
The third thing we see in this passage, you see in verses 18-21. The Lord is gracious, and He answers Moses’ prayer for a shepherd for the people and He appoints Joshua to be that shepherd. Joshua is chosen by God to be Moses’ successor, and to serve as a co-ruler for a time. God tells Moses to appoint Joshua in front of everyone, and to give him some of his authority so that in the remainder of Moses’ life, Joshua’s rule will overlap his rule, and together they will be co-rulers over the people of God, and the people of God will become accustomed to Joshua’s leadership and they will trust Joshua’s leadership, and they will follow Joshua’s leadership until a succession plan is laid out.
But isn’t it fascinating, even in verse 21, how the distinction between Moses and Joshua is made clear? Moses spoke with the Lord face to face. The Lord gave Moses a word, and Moses turned around and gave that word to the people. But with Joshua, how will Joshua discern the Lord’s will? He’ll go to Eleazar the priest; Eleazar will consult the Urim and the Thummin; the Lord will reveal through the Urim and the Thummin what the children of Israel are to do; Eleazar will report that back to Joshua; and Joshua will report it to the people of God. Not so with Moses: “He is the servant in all My house, and I speak with him face to face.”
You see, when you take the step from Moses to Joshua, it’s a step down. The whole prophetic office in Israel began unlike anything else in life. It began in its high form, and it was all downhill from there. From Moses to Isaiah is down; from Moses to Jeremiah is down; from Moses to Malachi is down; from Moses to Samuel is down. No one, not any of the prophets of the old covenant, could match Moses — not even Joshua, who would take the children of Israel into the land. The whole narrative stresses here this unique, matchless, close communion that Moses had with the Lord. And that’s interesting, isn’t it? I mean, the whole narrative is give and take — Moses spoke to the Lord, so the Lord said to Moses, Moses did as the Lord commanded. It’s back and forth. The Lord speaks to Moses, Moses speaks to the Lord, the Lord speaks to Moses, and Moses does what the Lord says. You see a picture of this communion.
It was said of one great leader that his life was not service punctuated by prayer; his life was prayer punctuated by service. The point of that was not that he went about doing Christian things all of his life, and then he withdrew to his closet and he had communion with God. It was that he lived communion with God, and in the midst of that communion with God, he did service. That’s a good description of Moses, isn’t it? It ought to be an aspiration for us in our communion with the living God.
One last thing.
III. Moses’ final obedience to God.
You see in verses 22-23, Moses’ obedience to the Lord’s command. You know, it reminds me here a little bit of Samson. You know Samson had been a great judge and leader of the Lord’s people, and by his sin he had fallen grievously. And yet in his last act he brought more judgment on the enemies of God’s people than he had in the whole course of his leadership of the people of God. It’s a beautiful last act of obedience and faithfulness to the Lord that the Lord honored. And here, though Moses has stumbled so grievously, in the very act of obeying the Lord’s command and giving them Joshua, he was bringing enormous blessing to Israel, just like Samson did in his last act.
But you’re still wondering about that question, aren’t you? After all that Moses has done, after all his faithfulness, why do you suppose that Moses doesn’t get to go into the land? Why does the shepherd — the mediator of Israel, who has interceded with them before the Lord, who has led them all the way — on the very verge of the Promised Land, why does he die alone on a mountain?
Well, in Matthew 26:31-32, the Lord Jesus will say to His disciples,
“You will all fall away from Me this night, for it is written ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the flock will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.”
Or, in John 10:11,
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.”
Or, in Hebrews 13:20, where we hear about
“…The God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant….”
Or, in Acts 20:28, where we hear the Apostle Paul say to the elders,
“Pay careful attention to yourselves, and to all the flock in which the Holy Spirit has made you shepherds or overseers, to shepherd the church of God, which He purchased with His own blood.”
You see, the cost of the entrance of the people of God in the Promised Land that He has prepared for them will be the Mediator…the Son experiencing exile from that Promised Land; experiencing being cut off from that Promised Land; experiencing being crushed for our iniquities; experiencing the wrath of God in our place, on a hill outside the city walls of Jerusalem. And Moses in his very last act is a picture of the Mediator to come.
I can’t leave it there, though. I’ve got to give away part of the story that Deuteronomy, especially Deuteronomy 30, and Psalm 90 tells. You can cheat and go read those passages tonight. But here’s the story: Moses never sets foot in the Promised Land, but when he closes his eyes in death… when he opens them again, he is in the presence of the One that he has foreshadowed. He will converse with that One before the eyes of Peter in the inner sanctum about the exodus that that One will accomplish in Jerusalem.
For though he did not enter into the earthly Promised Land, yet he entered into that which the earthly Promised Land is only a faint shadow of, and which awaits all those who trust in the Mediator who died on a hill alone, outside of Jerusalem, so that we might all enter into the rest which had been prepared for us from the foundation of the world.
Our Lord and our God, we thank You for Your word. We pray that You would impress upon us again the greatness of the cost of our redemption, even as we behold Moses the mediator being withheld the pleasures of entering into the earthly Promised Land. We contemplate Your Son not only not entering into the Promised Land, but bearing hell itself in our place that we might with Him live and reign in Your final Promised Land, the new heavens and the new earth, forever. We thank You that because He had no sin in Him, death could not hold Him. And so He ever lives to intercede, and He awaits and prepares now to come and bring us into that great reunion, if we will but trust in Him. Grant us, then, trust. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Would you stand for God’s blessing.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.