Moses’ Triple Disappointment
When Moses went to Egypt at God’s command, he told the Israelites that God had seen their misery and had sent him to lead the people to freedom. The Israelites received Moses’ report enthusiastically and worshiped God.
Then Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh to tell him to let the Israelites go. Things did not go quite so well this time. Pharaoh accused the Israelites of being lazy and increased their workload. The Israelites, in turn, blamed Moses for their misery, saying to him, “The Lord look upon you and judge! You have brought us into bad odor with Pharaoh and his officials, and have put a sword in their hand to kill us” (Exodus 5:21). Moses, in turn, became discouraged with God and prayed, “O Lord, why have you mistreated this people? Why did you ever send me?” (Exodus 5:22)
Moses arrived at the place God told him to go. He did what God told him to do. We tend to expect that God owed it to him to make things turn out well. But at this point, nothing is going well. Moses faces a Triple Disappointment: The prejudice of the Egyptians, the anger of the Israelites, and his own discouragement with God.
The prejudice of the Egyptians: In typical human fashion, Pharaoh assumes the worst about a people whose ways he does not understand, and he treats them accordingly. Pharaoh commands his taskmasters, “You shall no longer give the people straw to make bricks, as before; let them go and gather straw for themselves. But you shall require of them the same quantity of bricks as they have made previously; do not diminish it, for they are lazy; that is why they cry, ‘Let us go and offer sacrifice to our God.’ Let heavier work be laid on them; then they will labor at it and pay no attention to deceptive words” (Exodus 5:7-9).
In his novel Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck describes a conversation between two men watching those who had been hit by the Dustbowl and by the Great Depression as they move west looking for work in California:
“What a hard-looking outfit!”
“Them Okies? They’re all hard-lookin’.
“…I’d hate to start out in a jalopy like that.
“Well, you and me got sense. Them…damn Okies, got no sense and no feeling. They ain’t human. A human being couldn’t stand it to be so dirty and miserable. They ain’t a hell of a lot better than gorillas.” (p. 301)
Whether in Egypt or in the United States, when we look upon a group of people with prejudice, we injure them.
The anger of the Israelites: Moses had come to help these people. They should be grateful, but they are not. They vomit all of their frustration on Moses.
Aristotle once remarked, “Anybody can become angry—that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way—that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.” The Israelites are angry at the wrong person and to the wrong degree.
There are many things in life that deserve our anger, but let’s be careful to be angry at the right persons for the right reasons and to the right degree.
Discouragement with God: In his discouragement with God, Moses questions why God sent him. Moreover, Moses accuses God of mistreating the Israelites. Many of us are uncomfortable with expressions of doubt by Moses or by others who are supposed to be our spiritual leaders. But doubt is not entirely bad. Frederick Buechner points out, “Doubts prove that we are in touch with reality, with the things that threaten faith as well as with things that nourish it. If we are not in touch with reality, then our faith is apt to be blind, fragile, and irrelevant.” Moses was in touch with reality. His faith was not blind, fragile or irrelevant.
When we find ourselves feeling discouraged with God, for whatever reason, may our doubts keep us in touch with reality so that our faith will not be blind, fragile or irrelevant.
What Matters is God’s Presence
God came to a shepherd in the desert of Midian and said to him, in essence, “I have an important job to be done in Egypt, and I have chosen you to do it.” But Moses answered God, in essence, “Sorry, God, but, in your perfect wisdom, you’ve made a big mistake.”
Over the span of two chapters in the book of Exodus, Moses sets forth his arguments to convince God of what a mistake God made in choosing Moses for this job.
Moses begins with the question (or accusation), “Who am I?” It’s a good question. Moses is not the leader of an army that could oppose Pharaoh. The only ones following him are a bunch of sheep. Over and over again in Scripture, we find that it is the least significant persons who are assigned the menial task of watching sheep. Moses has no track record of success as a rescuer. Many years earlier he had tried to intervene on behalf of Hebrew slaves. He had failed; then he ran away. Now he is around eighty years old. Who would think of assigning such an old man to such a strenuous mission?
Later Moses makes the case that he is not a spiritual giant. He doesn’t even know the name of the God who wants to send him to Egypt (Exodus 3:13). The Egyptians believed that if you knew the secret name of a god, that god would be obligated to come to your aid when you called out that god’s name. Since Moses does not know the secret name of god, he has no power to control spiritual forces.
Later Moses argues that he is not persuasive. “Suppose they do not believe me or listen to me” (Exodus 4:1). Lastly, Moses contends that he is not a good speaker (Exodus 4:10).
Interestingly, God never argues back with Moses. God never tries to convince Moses that he is, indeed, the right person for the job. God never tries to convince Moses that he is, in fact, great enough, or wise enough, or persuasive enough, or anything like that.
When Moses questions who he is for the job, God simply replies, “I will be with you.” According to God, what is most critical for the success of the mission is not the talent of Moses but the presence of God.
When Moses complains that he does not know the name that will enable him to call forth the power of God, God announces simply, “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). This is not a title that will give Moses any kind of control over God. Rather, it is God’s way of announcing that he cannot be hemmed in or nailed down. It is God’s way of declaring that he is and always will be his own person. Moreover, it is God’s way of proclaiming that he is always present and always in the present moment. The key to the success of the mission is not an ability on Moses’ part to control God, but the presence of God, leading Moses.
When Moses argues that he is not persuasive, God tells him to throw his staff on the ground. When Moses does so, the staff turns into a snake. It is not that Moses learned some clever bits of magic to impress the Egyptians. It’s that God reveals his own presence, and God’s presence is impressive.
And when Moses insisted that he was an ineffective public speaker, God assured him, “Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak.” Again, God was making it clear that the key to success was not the talent of Moses but the presence of God.
Like Moses, we may not think that we are much. We may be well aware of our faults and failures. We may think that we don’t know the needed insider information. We may be certain of our lack of persuasiveness and of our public speaking deficiencies. But our shortcomings don’t seem to bother God. He just keeps looking for individuals who are willing to follow him. And if we agree to follow God, what matters most is not our talent but the presence of God. He will easily make up for whatever may be lacking in us.
When Life Stinks
According to John Haggai, “Mrs. Monroe lives in Darlington, Maryland. She’s the mother of eight children…. She came home one afternoon from the grocery store and walked into her home. Everything looked pretty much the same, though it was a bit quieter than usual. She looked into the middle of the living room and five of her darlings were sitting around in a circle, exceedingly quiet, doing something in the middle of the circle. She put down the sacks of groceries and walked over closely and saw that they were playing with five of the cutest skunks you can imagine. She was instantly terrified and yelled, ‘Run, children, run!’ Each child grabbed a skunk and ran in five different directions. She was beside herself and screamed louder. It so scared the children that each one squeezed his skunk. And, as we all know, skunks don’t like to be squeezed.”
That is like the setting we find in Psalm 46. In verses 2-3, the psalm speaks of the earth changing, and the mountains shaking, and the waters roaring, and the mountains trembling. In verse 6, the psalm speaks of nations being in an uproar and of kingdoms tottering. All that had seemed stable to the psalmist is falling apart around him. All that had seemed secure is now a mess.
In the midst of such turmoil, Psalm 46 finds hope in the answers to three critical questions:
- Who is God?
- Where is God?
- What are we to do?
The answer to the first question is presented in the first verse of the psalm: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble,” and in the last verse of the psalm: “The God of Jacob is our refuge.” Even before the Jewish people settled in the land of Israel, God instructed them to build cities of refuge—a place a person could run to if his or her life were in danger. Psalm 46:1 & 11 announce to us that God is our refuge. We can run to God’s protection whenever our life is in danger. Whenever the world around us is in turmoil, God will hold us securely. Thus Psalm 46:1 leads to Psalm 46:2: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change….”
The answer to the second question is given in verses 7 and 11, both of which read: “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.” When it feels that our life is in danger, we do not have to run to a city of refuge; “the Lord of hosts” is already with us. We need not search frantically for where we might be able to find God; “the Lord of hosts” is right here with us. God will never abandon us; he is always at our side and in our soul.
The answer to the third question is offered to us in verse 10: “Be still and know that I am God!” In the midst of fear or confusion or turmoil, what we are called to do is to be still and to keep in mind that God is still God. Leighton Ford remarks, “We can pull down the shades and shut out the sun, but we can never turn the sun’s light into darkness. When the shades go up, the sun is still shining. And when we turn to God, his all-compassionate love is waiting to stream into our life.” Therefore, in the midst of fear or confusion or turmoil, be still and remember that God is still God.
A “Bush Afire with God”
If a reporter to the Second Virginia Convention at St. John’s Church in Richmond, Virginia, on March 23, 1775, had focused his coverage on the style of clothes the attendees wore that day or on the decorations in the church building, or even if the reporter had gone so far as to quote a Baptist minister’s observation that when Patrick Henry got up to speak he had “an unearthly fire burning in his eye,” but had not covered the substance of Patrick Henry’s speech that day, the reporter would have sorely missed the significance of what happened at that convention. The truly significant thing that happened that day is that Patrick Henry declared, “I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” Those words spurred our nation toward a War for Independence.
I fear that we make a similar mistake when we look at Exodus 3. We become so drawn to the report of the burning bush that is not consumed, or we become so interested in the call to Moses to remove his sandals, that we miss the heart of the passage. The heart of the passage is found in verses 7-8, where God declares, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” The heart of this passage is that God sees the misery of his people, and hears their cry, and acts on their behalf. The heart of the passage is God’s love for his suffering people, and God’s call to Moses to put God’s love into action by rescuing the Israelites from slavery.
In the book Holiness by Grace, Bryan Chappell shares, “One of the most powerful images of my wife’s childhood came when she and a neighbor girl were playing in some woods behind their homes. The neighbor girl wandered from the path and stepped into a nest of ground bees. As the bees began to swarm and sting, the girls began to scream for help. Suddenly, out of nowhere—like Superman, my wife says—her dad came crashing through the woods, leaping over fallen logs, hurdling vines and bushes. He swooped up a girl under each arm and tore through the woods at full speed to get away from the bees. As he ran, the father’s grip bruised the children’s arms, branches scratched their thighs, and thorns grabbed at their clothes and skin. The rescue hurt, but it was better than the bees.”
The heart of that story is not what her dad was wearing, or what kinds of fallen logs he jumped over, but that he heard the girls’ scream and he rushed to their rescue.
Here’s the importance of the burning bush: It caught Moses’ attention. Moses saw it, and he was drawn to it. As Moses stated in verse 3, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.”
And here’s the importance of God’s call to Moses to remove his sandals: Moses listened to what God said to him, and Moses heeded what God told him to do.
Moses was discovering that faith is about paying attention to God and responding appropriately to God. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning put it: “Earth is crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God; but only he who sees takes off his shoes. The rest sit around it and pluck blackberries.”
God saw, and God listened, and God acted.
Moses saw, and Moses listened, and Moses heeded God.
We, too, are called to look, and to listen, and to heed what God would have us to do.
An Invitation to Everlasting Intimacy with God
Psalm 45 is titled “Ode for a Royal Wedding,” but whose wedding is it? The psalm begins with the declaration, “My heart overflows with a goodly theme,” but what is the goodly theme of this psalm?
Consider this psalm from the perspective of God choosing us as his beloved and of God doing his part to secure an everlasting intimacy with us.
Verse 8 begins, “Your robes are all fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia.” Ray Stedman points out, “These are burial spices. You remember that when the women went to the tomb on Easter Sunday morning, they carried with them a quantity of spices–myrrh and aloes–in order to wrap the body of the Lord and preserve it in its death. And yet here these same spices are present at the wedding. What does this mean? This marriage is made possible out of death; somehow out of death comes this fragrant incense that makes glorious the scene of the wedding. You can see how beautifully this fits with what the apostle Paul describes for us in Ephesians 5:25 when he says that Christ loved the church and gave Himself for it. He died for it. He went into the bonds of death for us. Why? In order that He might present to Himself a glorious church, a beautiful bride, without spot or blemish or any such thing.” Eternal intimacy with God is made possible to us because Christ was willing to lay his life down for us.
Verse 8 goes on to say, “From ivory palaces stringed instruments make you glad.” That sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? A wedding in ancient Israelite culture included a new home prepared for the bride by the groom. Jesus speaks of preparing such a home in John 14:2-3 where he says to his disciples (and to us), “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” Psalm 45 tells us that the home our Savior has prepared for us is a place of beauty and glory and joy. Revelation 21:3-4 describes it this way: “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”
Psalm 45:13-14 describes the beauty of the bride: “The princess is decked in her chamber with gold-woven robes; in many-colored robes she is led to the king.” Such beauty is ours when we belong to Christ. Revelation 21:2 declares, “And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” And Revelation 22:14 states, “Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates.” The beauty and the joy of being united to God is expressed most powerfully in the Song of Solomon 6:3: “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” Our greatest beauty and our richest glory are found in being united to God.
Psalm 45:6 makes it clear that the wedding described in this psalm is not the wedding of any earthly king, for every earthly king dies. But the wedding described in this psalm is eternal: “Your throne, O God, endures forever and ever.” The intimacy with God that we are invited into is an intimacy that is everlasting! 1 John 5:11-13 assures us, “And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.”
May We Open Our Eyes
Is justice blind? Or does justice call us to open our eyes to the plight of those who are suffering?
As far back as 2680 B.C. in Egypt—more than a thousand years before the time of Moses, justice has been depicted as a goddess holding a symbol of truth in one hand and a symbol of authority in the other hand. Since the 16th century, a blindfold has commonly been placed over the eyes of Lady Justice to suggest that justice is blind to a person’s social standing and treats everyone impartially.
But if we close our eyes to the wrongs and needs that surround us, will there ever be justice?
Moses was granted unprecedented privilege and opportunity. By law, he should have been thrown in the Nile River as a baby. Instead, he was rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter and raised in the royal courts as a grandson of the king of Egypt. He had everything going for him and could have lived out his years in luxury.
But as Moses was out and about one day, his eyes were opened to the “forced labor” the Hebrew people were suffering. Indeed, Moses “saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew.” Rather than closing his eyes to the mistreatment, Moses struck down the Egyptian in indignation and buried his body in the sand. When Pharaoh learned what Moses had done, Pharaoh sought to take Moses’ life, but Moses fled. Moses travelled east, past the Sinai Peninsula, and sat down for a rest beside a well in Midian.
As Moses sat beside the well, he may have contemplated the sudden upheaval of his life. For forty years, his home had been the courts of Pharaoh, where he enjoyed the luxuries, privileges, and protection that provided. But when he stood up on behalf of an abused Hebrew slave, and when word got out about what he did, his life imploded. What good had it done Moses to meddle in the affairs of others? What good had come from getting involved in somebody else’s fight? The person he had tried to protect remained a slave, and Moses lost everything.
As he sat beside the well, mulling this over, seven sisters, ranging in age from little girls to young women, came to the well with their father’s flock of sheep.
In the ancient Middle East, it was common for the daughter (or daughters) of a family to lead the family herd out to nearby pasture in the morning, to watch them through the day, then to lead them home at the end of the day. For many shepherdesses, the highlight of their day was when they brought their flock to the community well, which was a social gathering place.
But spending time at the community well does not seem to have been the highlight of the day for the daughters of Reuel. They were routinely bullied by a band of shepherds who took advantage of the work the girls did in filling the trough with water, then chasing them away so that they could use it first. The problem was so perennial that Reuel had become accustomed to his daughters coming home late.
But Moses saw what the bullies did to the girls, and he could not bring himself to ignore or overlook what he saw. He steps in to help. The pursuit of justice begins not with blindfolded eyes but with eyes that are open to the suffering of others.
In an article entitled Six Habits of Highly Compassionate People. Hooria Jazaieri points out, “Compassion can be thought of as a mental state or an orientation towards suffering that includes four components: Bringing attention or awareness to recognizing that there is suffering (cognitive); feeling emotionally moved by that suffering (affective), wishing there to be relief from that suffering (intentional), and a readiness to take action to relieve that suffering (motivational). That’s what happened with Moses: He became aware of the injustice that was being inflicted upon those young women. He felt for them; he was moved by their mistreatment and suffering. He wanted these young women to be able to refresh their sheep in the troughs of water which they had filled. So he stepped in; he came to their defense and he watered their flock.
In the book Beautiful Souls: The Courage and Conscience of Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times, Eyal Press tells the story of Paul Gruninger who was dismissed from his job as captain of the police in St. Gallen, Switzerland on April 3, 1939 when it was found that he had falsified hundreds of documents to allow Jewish immigrants fleeing from Hitler to enter Switzerland. Two days later, in a letter to the Swiss government defending himself, Gruninger wrote, “Whoever had the opportunity, as I had, to repeatedly witness the heartbreaking scenes of the people concerned, the screaming and crying of mothers and children, the threats and suicide and attempts to do it, could…ultimately not beat it anymore.”
Like Paul Gruninger and like Moses, when our eyes and ears are open to the suffering of others, it becomes difficult simply to walk away.
God’s call to us is to open our eyes and to open our ears to the suffering and the struggles of others, and to take a stand on behalf of compassion and justice.