God replied to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you” (Exodus 3:14 HCSB).
Was Moses a failure or a success?
At the age of eighty – hardly the right age to start a new career – Moses was commissioned by God to negotiate with Pharaoh, the mightiest ruler of his time, and lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. From a practical perspective, therefore, there were very legitimate reasons for his initial reluctance in accepting this role.
His past failure, when he had attempted something similar years ago, had not been forgotten. Forty years of wandering in the wilderness tending to his father-in-law’s flock had taught him patience and humility, but also filled him with a deep sense of his own insignificance. He was no longer comfortable in the language or company of Egyptian princes, who were known to despise shepherds. His lack of adequate communication skills, he was certain, would prove a barrier.
Yet, he was subsequently to learn that no human or other earthly limitation is a problem for God. He calls us to use the heavenly resources available to us – through our connection with Him – to confront and overcome such limitations. Nor is God particularly impressed by the people, things or events that daunt us. “God chose what the world thinks foolish to shame the wise, and God chose what the world thinks weak to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27 NET).
After God had dealt patiently with each of Moses’ excuses – “Who has made man’s mouth? Or who makes him mute or deaf, or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD... I will be with you… I will perform signs and wonders… I will strike Egypt… make the Egyptians favourably disposed to you, and you shall not leave empty-handed”; he still lacked confidence. He said, “Please, Lord, send someone else”. Nevertheless he set out to obey, after God finally assured him that he would have the assistance of his brother Aaron while confronting the Pharaoh.
As Moses set foot in Egypt, his former diffidence vanished. Thereafter, he never faltered, and his steps seemed propelled by a wind from heaven. Even in the hour when the Israelites faced the Red Sea before them and the Egyptian chariots charging from behind, his eyes were drawn upwards, where the presence of God hovered in the pillar of fire, and everything else shrank to insignificance before such overwhelming power. The waters were divided and an army was routed because Moses trusted in God. God proved Himself to be sufficient as Provider, Defender, Father, Healer, Shepherd or Commander, in every situation that Moses and the Israelites had to deal with.
Coming back to our question, as to whether Moses should be regarded a success or failure, we need to consider several factors. Today, we are too often reminded in our churches of the reasons for Moses’ failure to reach the Promised Land, particularly in contrast to Joshua’s triumphant conquest, and how we might avoid similar pitfalls. In modern terms, he would be called a loser because he had failed to achieve his ultimate objective.
Yet, does not the fault lie in our modern revisionist ways of looking at spiritual things? While it is important for us to be warned about the dangers of not trusting God or of grumbling endlessly as the Israelites were prone to doing, it is equally necessary for us to learn that faith is not a tool to achieve success. While success is often the by-product of faith, there are more important reasons why each of us is given a measure of faith. We walk by faith, not by sight, and this means we learn to overcome our natural hesitancy and limitations to accomplish things for the kingdom of God.
Looking at Moses’ accomplishments, he who was ‘slow of speech’ became God’s spokesman to a whole generation of Israelites, and his law served as their guide for centuries to come, teaching them the wisdom and righteousness of God. He was also the first to receive a clear prophetic insight into the nature of the coming Christ – the Saviour King of Israel – The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him… The Lord said to me, “I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him… I myself will call to account anyone who does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name” (Deuteronomy 18:15-19 NIV).
An important point to note is that like Jesus, Moses had modelled servant leadership among his flock. While Joshua complained (“Moses, my lord, restrain them”) when God poured upon the other elders, a portion of Moses’ anointing, he himself responded with gladness, “Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the LORD’s people were prophets and that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29 NIV)
His prayers and intercession on behalf of his people are an example to us. They teach us about 1. God’s patience and kindness towards us, His chosen people, 2. The importance of seeking God in everything, and 3. The power of prayer to transform the course of events.
When the Israelites had sinned in the matter of the golden calf, God said He “would destroy them— had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the breach before him, to turn away his wrath from destroying them” (Psalm 106:23 ESV). When God offered to make of him (Moses), a nation mightier than the rebellious sinners he had led out of Egypt, he humbly asked for something better – “If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favour with you. Remember that this nation is your people” (Exodus 33:13 NIV).
True, Moses had failed in his endeavour to lead the older generation of Israelites to the Promised Land, and he found himself forbidden to enter it, on account of a single rash act that earned God’s wrath. So he spent the last forty years of his life equipping another generation to win the very prize, which was denied him. Any regret he may have felt at forfeiting that prize was never indulged in a wasteful or destructive manner; instead he devoted the remaining years of his life to the important task of building a nation – in the wilderness – for God. He taught the younger Israelites unselfishly, by precept and example, to obey God and trust in His supernatural power rather than in their own feeble devices. The faith and courage displayed by that generation , as they defeated the giants of Canaan and established a nation, were the fruit of his hard work and perseverance.
All earthly assessment of Moses’ performance in the various roles assigned to him – whether as prince of Egypt, conscientious shepherd, negotiator with the Pharaoh, law giver, judge, military commander, prophet, teacher, intercessor or nation builder – pale to insignificance in the light of God’s appraisal of his worth. Interestingly, and this is a further lesson for us, God’s assessment of his life and work was based primarily on the strength of their mutual intimacy. All our labour, even when directed to achieving spiritual goals, is wasted if the end result is not an ever closer walk with God. “The LORD spoke with Moses face to face, just as a man speaks with his friend” (Exodus 33:11 HCSB).
God’s intense loyalty towards Moses was displayed when He intervened in the quarrel that Miriam and Aaron had with Moses. ‘Then the Lord descended in a pillar of cloud… and summoned Aaron and Miriam… He said: “Listen to what I say: If there is a prophet among you from the Lord, I make Myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream. Not so with My servant Moses; he is faithful in all My household. I speak with him directly, openly, and not in riddles; he sees the form of the Lord. So why were you not afraid to speak against My servant Moses?” (Numbers 12:5-9 HCSB)’.
Moses had learnt through many hardships to see everything – whether people or events – from an eternal perspective. He realised that no earthly honour or triumph could compare with the privilege of being called a friend of God. Although he was never to set foot on the land flowing with milk and honey, he had been invited into the very presence of God, and seen His glory. Like the others listed in the eternal hall of faith in Hebrews 11, he had found a better city “whose architect and builder is God”, and was filled with unimaginable contentment and joy. For he “valued disgrace for Christ above the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking ahead to his reward. By faith Moses… persevered because he saw Him who is invisible” (Hebrews 11:26-27 BSB).
God, grant us the wisdom to seek You above everything this world has to offer, and teach us to humbly persevere like Moses, your servant.