Longings for the Land
Adapted from a Sermon by Horatius Bonar, 1867
“And I pleaded with the LORD at that time, saying, ‘O Lord GOD, you have only begun to show your servant your greatness and your mighty hand. For what god is there in heaven or on earth who can do such works and mighty acts as yours? Please let me go over and see the good land beyond the Jordan, that good hill country and Lebanon.’ But the LORD was angry with me because of you and would not listen to me. And the LORD said to me, ‘Enough from you; do not speak to me of this matter again. Go up to the top of Pisgah and lift up your eyes westward and northward and southward and eastward, and look at it with your eyes, for you shall not go over this Jordan. But charge Joshua, and encourage and strengthen him, for he shall go over at the head of this people, and he shall put them in possession of the land that you shall see.’ So we remained in the valley opposite Beth-peor. (Deut 3:23-29)
The scene here, lies in "the valley near Beth-peor," at the base of the hills of Moab, a long grey ridge of barren mountains that overshadows the Dead Sea and the plain of Jordan. The land was as inhospitable as the people, and no doubt Israel was glad at the prospect of leaving it behind.
The time is the end of the forty years' wandering in the desert. The tribes of Israel are just about to pass over into Canaan. The promised land lies just before them, with only a few miles of rugged country and the Jordan in between. A few weeks, perhaps less, will bring them over. All their desert warfare, and toil, and travelling are done. They have, as it were, come up to the gate of Eden, and have nothing to do but to go in and exchange hard work for rest, barrenness for fruitfulness, mountains of bare rock, and plains of scorching sand, for fresh fields and vineyards, and rich plains, and hills waving with olive terraces to the summit.
This nearness to the long-looked-for land stirs up the spirit of Moses, and he resolves to make one more effort to be allowed to enter. Entering into it had been his hope from the day he left Egypt. The land flowing with milk and honey had been constantly before his eyes. And though God had let him know that, on account of his offence at Meribah-Kadesh, he was not to enter the land; yet now, when placed within sight of it, the longing to enter it rises up within him in all its force, and he resolves to attempt, once again, to ask be allowed to enter, if only that, perhaps, he may be permitted to set foot in it before he dies.
Let us note, then, the following points in this narrative:
I. Moses' desire to enter the promised land.
(1.) It was a strong and deep desire; the strongest and deepest desire of his soul in regard to anything earthly. Is our longing for the heavenly Canaan as vehement as his for the earthly?
(2.) It was a holy desire. There was nothing carnal in it; nothing of the flesh or of self. It was the desire of a holy man for a share in the fulfillment of the divine promise.
(3.) It was a patriotic desire. Canaan was his true homeland, though he had never dwelt in it. It was the home of his fathers, and the inheritance of his children, the land in which Israel's hopes were wrapped up. As a patriot, Moses could not but long to enter in.
(4.) It was a natural desire. Though brought up in ease and luxury, for now eighty years he had been a dweller in tents in the wilderness, a man without a home. How natural then that he should be weary of the desert, and long for a resting-place!
(5.) It was a desire connected with the welfare of his nation. Israel was to be blessed in that land of blessing, and it was his desire to see his nation settled in the Lord's land.
(6.) It was a desire connected with the glory of God. He knew that God was about to choose a place where he would set his name, and show his glory. He had once before pleaded, "Show me your glory;" (Ex 33:18) and what could be more desirable in his eyes than that he should see the manifestation of this glory, and witness the mighty power of God in the land which he knew was to be the center and stage of all these?
Moses's desire, then, seems to be a reasonable, proper, and truehearted desire. We greatly sympathize with the old man of 120 years in the feelings which he expressed here; we would kneel down beside him, and plead with God that he would not deny the request of his aged servant. It is only but a small request; and how blessed for the old man, like Simeon, to get the fulfillment of his lifetime's longings before he dies!
It was not, indeed, for salvation he was pleading—all that was settled long ago between him and his God; but as the saved man, as a son and heir, he was asking for an opportunity to see with his own eyes this part of his inheritance—asking to set his mortal foot upon a land which, in resurrection, he knew he would, in days to come, walk on with immortal foot, and gaze upon with immortal eye.
He was now within sight both of the earthly and the heavenly Canaan; the upper and the earthly glory were both before his eyes; he longed to depart, and to be with Christ, which is far better; ( Phil 1:23) but still, with all the heavenly full in view, and ready to be entered on, he still desired the vision of the earthly; he still pleaded, "Please let me cross the Jordan to see the wonderful land on the other side, the beautiful hill country and the Lebanon mountains."
There was nothing wrong, or carnal, or low in this desire to look upon the earthly. That which is earthly is not necessarily carnal, and that which is material may be as spiritual as that which is immaterial. There may be a carnal view of heavenly things, as truly as there is a spiritual view of earthly things.
The first one, the carnal view of heavenly things, is the one which unbelief always takes, the second one, the spiritual view of earthly things, is that which faith sees. It is not spirituality to abuse the body, to despise matter, to be detached and to soar above the clouds. True spirituality is that which accepts material things as those which God created and pronounced good; which loves to visit them, and gaze on them in faith, as manifestations of the glory of the invisible God; as helps to the understanding of the great mystery of godliness, God “was manifest in the flesh." (1 Tim 3:16)
We come to the second point in this narrative:
II. Moses' arguments for entering the promised land.
(1.) The first part of his argument is in verse 24, " ‘O Lord God, you have only begun to show your servant your greatness and your mighty hand. For what god is there in heaven or on earth who can do such works and mighty acts as yours?" It is natural, even in man's works, when we have seen the beginning, to want to see the end; and to expect that he who has shown us the one, will show us the other. Moses feels as if he would be tormented by not seeing the end. He argues that God's willingness to show him the beginning, is a pledge of his willingness to show him all. We may all use this argument. You, who have forgiven me my past sin, will you not forgive all present and all future sin? It is a principle we find in Scripture as Paul writes to the Philippians: “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ" (Phil. 1:6).
(2.) The second part of his argument is that, to stop here, would leave so much undiscovered of his greatness and mighty hand, that, for the sake of the glory to be unfolded, and the power to be revealed, he might expect to be allowed to enter. So great is the undiscovered glory of God, and so desirous is God to reveal it to us, that we also may use this argument with him respecting anything we desire.
(3.) The third argument looks at the very little that he has already seen—only a glimpse. Moses pleads this little, and, because of it, asks to enter Canaan. He had seen much of God's power, yet he speaks as if it were little; not as if undervaluing the past—but still feeling as if it were comparatively nothing.
In the same way, all that we have tasted until now is small. It is in the ages to come that he is to show the exceeding riches of his grace; and therefore we may call the past a little thing, and use it as an argument with God.
We might, perhaps, hesitate to do this, were it not that we call to mind his unspeakable gift, the giving of his Son; and, measuring other gifts with this, we may speak of them as small. We may argue that the blessings we have received are large, when we consider ourselves and our unworthiness; but, when measured with that gift which has purchased everything for us, and which is the pledge of all, they are as nothing.
And therefore let us not be discouraged because of the greatness of the blessings that are sought; rather let us deal with them as Moses did, and, pointing to their greatness, make that greatness our plea. It is a light thing with God to give us anything or everything. Let us ask, and let us expect the best gifts—knowing that he “is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think.” (Eph 3:20)
And now we come to the third point in this narrative:
III. God's answer.
It is not what we would have expected. It falls heavily on us, and it must have fallen still more heavily on the old man's ear. It sounds stern to us. Yet it is the answer of wisdom and love. Three things are recorded here. "But the LORD was angry with me because of you and would not listen to me. And the LORD said to me, ‘Enough from you; do not speak to me of this matter again. Go up to the top of Pisgah and lift up your eyes westward and northward and southward and eastward, and look at it with your eyes, for you shall not go over this Jordan."
(1.) First, there is the anger.
God was angry at Moses, or rather, he had been angry; and the reasons for it were as strong now as at the first. Israel had provoked Moses, and Moses had provoked God. Israel's conduct had roused Moses to speak and act unadvisedly, so that he dishonored God before all Israel. This public act of sin cannot be passed over, even in Moses; for, if God passed over offences in Moses when he was holding the people to account, what would be said? This great dishonor done to God by Moses, though at the close of a long life of consistent service, had to be publicly condemned. This is the anger spoken of. Moses is not to be cut off with the rebels, nor to have a grave in the wilderness; but some notice must be taken of his sin. God will by no means clear the guilty.
(2.) Second, there is the refusal.
The anger leads to refusal of the petition. Often had the petition been presented and refused; now it is presented and refused for the last time. He “would not listen to me!" These are strange words respecting God and his treatment of the prayer of a saint—He “would not listen to me!"
Consider, with what feelings of abasement Moses must have listened to this last refusal! Such a refusal from One who had up until then denied him nothing, from One who had so freely forgiven all his iniquities! How solemnly would he feel, in that hour, the necessity of such a testimony against the sins of his saints! How bitterly did that refusal bring back the memory of his sin!
(3.) Third there is the prohibition.
"Enough from you; do not speak to me of this matter again." This is the final closing of the whole question, the sealing of Moses's lips. He had, doubtless, often spoken to God on the subject; but now he is forbidden even to speak of it again. There is something severe in this command; yet there is something very touching.
It shows the intimate terms on which God was pleased to be with Moses; so that, when His child grew too insistent, he puts his hand on his lips, with a, “Hush, no more talk on that subject.” God is not a man that he should lie. His purpose must stand. But think of what an idea of the efficacy of prayer must Moses have had, when he thought by it to change the purpose of God! This was more than moving mountains. And how much God must delight in perseverance, when he lets it go so far, and only puts a stop to it at the last with a rebuke so gracious and gentle!
And now we come a the forth and last point in this narrative
IV. God's condescending grace.
Entrance is denied—but a full vision of the land is granted. "Go up to the top of Pisgah and lift up your eyes westward and northward and southward and eastward, and look at it with your eyes, for you shall not go over this Jordan.” He strains his purpose (if we may say with reverence) as far as possible, without breaking it. The actual request is denied—but something as like it, and as near to it, as might be, is granted. He takes him to the top of Pisgah, one of the highest of the mountains of Moab, and from it he shows him the whole land.
Looking westward, he sees Jerusalem, and Bethlehem, and Bethel, with the terraced hills of Benjamin and Ephraim stretching away in the grey distance, to the great sea.
Northward, he sees the wooded valley of Jordan, with its forests of palms and pomegranates—the fruitful heights of Galilee and Gilead, up to the snowy peaks of Lebanon, and "that good hill country," of Mt. Hermon.
Southward, he sees the wooded hills of Judah, with the vineyards of Eshcol, and the olive heights of Kiriath-Arba in the distance, and perhaps the rising table-lands around Beersheba.
Eastward, he sees the forests and pastures of Ammon, already, in part, under the dominion of Israel. He is permitted to gaze upon the whole range of the land, that he may have a taste of Israel's long-promised inheritance. And think with what an intensity of gaze and yearning of spirit must he have viewed that beautiful expansive scene!
Thus far grace condescends, showing us to what lengths God can go, in answering prayer, even when a purpose of his own stands in the way. How rich must have been that taste of grace to Moses, after the refusal he had received! How deep his sense of the parental tenderness, the loving condescension, which this implies! The denial of the request seems only to provide a new opportunity for a manifestation of love, tenderer and more indulgent, than could have been given by the granting of the prayer. What an indulged and favored child does Moses seem, even in this very scene of apparent sternness! Here we have a love that passes knowledge! Consider the condescension of God, to what depths of indulgent tenderness he will not stoop!
And as we come to a end, take these three closing lessons.
1. First, see what one sin can do!
One sin cost Adam Paradise; one sin cost Moses Canaan. In the case of Moses it is the more startling, because it is a forgiven sin, and he is a forgiven sinner. His sin is forgiven, yet it leaves a stain behind it; it traces a testimony to its unutterable evil on the person of the sinner.
It could not make him lose the heavenly inheritance; the everlasting covenant and God's electing love had secured that unconditionally and unchangeably. But it costs him the earthly; for God has to deal publicly against a sin committed in public.
And so, believer in Christ, pay great attention to your ways! Your inconsistencies may cost you dearly. They cannot close the kingdom on you; the blood that bought you has bought the kingdom for you—but they may bring you down to a lower level; they may dim the luster of your clothing; they may take out some of the gems of your diadem. Believer, beware of sin. Keep yourself pure. Guard your conscience. Walk and speak prudently. Follow the Lord fully.
2. Second, see what God's inflexibility is.
He cannot change. He cannot call that no sin, which is sin; nor that a small sin, which is a great sin; nor that a private sin, which was a public sin. His purpose is not the easy, pliable, changeable thing which ours is. He is the God only wise, only righteous, only mighty, and is, therefore, above all such inconsistency. With him “there is no variation or shadow due to change. (James 1:17) He is “the same yesterday, today, and forever.” (Heb 13:8)
Believer, remember that you have to do with a holy and unchangeable God!
And unbeliever, think that you also have to do with him, and that this inflexibility is, as yet, all against you! He will not change either his law or his gospel to suit you. You must take them as they are, or perish forever! It is true that he who believes shall be saved; it is as true that he who does not believe shall be damned!
3. Finally, see what the grace of God is.
Many waters cannot quench it, nor the floods drown it. To what lengths it will go, in order to pardon a sinner or to bless a saint! Believer, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus! Unbelieving man, take refuge now in that rich grace which is still, for now, held out to you, for the forgiveness of all your sins, and for the granting of blessings, and joys, and hopes—which will make you richer than Israel with his earthly Canaan; gladder than Moses with his bright vision of the land flowing with milk and honey!
For what god is there in heaven or on earth who can do such works and mighty acts.