Scripture Sketches: Death of Moses

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From a merely “secular” point of view, Moses was by far the most successful man that ever lived. The victories of military conquest are mere animal triumphs compared with the achievements of a man who awakened and humanized a great nation of hopeless slaves, dragging them out of the gigantic power of ancient Egypt, then taking them a forty years' journey through one of the most horrible and desolate deserts in the world, in the torrid plains of which he organized them by a system of law, government, and religion, which has been the admiration, and to a great extent the model, of all civilized peoples for more than three thousand years. The “rationalist” —who is credulous enough to believe anything that suits him—believes that Moses did all this (which he cannot dispute) without special divine assistance; but it is much easier to me to believe in monks' miracles than in skeptics' “rationalism,” which requires credulity with a capacity for swallowing difficulties like that of a boa-constrictor. It is a thousand times easier for me to believe that Moses accomplished what he did by the special aid of God's power, wonderful as that is, than that he achieved such marvelous results by unaided human effort. But however he did these things, he is still before us as the most successful man that ever lived. All the Alexanders, Canars, and Napoleons were mere vulgar little sordid earth-robbers, by comparison with this stupendous constructive genius.
And yet when he came to die, his whole life and work seemed to be the most disastrous failures. The nation which he had sacrificed himself to rescue and benefit was in a position of imminent danger in the midst of a torrid desert, the promised land hardly yet in sight after forty years' wandering and suffering, during which nearly the whole of the persons composing the original expedition had perished, whilst their descendants and survivors attributed all their sufferings to his meddlesome interference and agitation in stirring up the discontent of their fathers at a time when they were luxuriating in the voluptuous delights of the flesh-pots, cucumbers, onions, and garlic—the veritable potage jardiniere, et ragout a la mode, Egyptienne—which everybody knew their affectionate masters used to dispense to them in those good old times. Exasperated at last, by the long course of unjust treatment he had received, so-far as for a moment to lose his habitually calm self-command, Moses falls under the worst cloud that has ever overshadowed hint—divine displeasure,—and dies under a sort of chastisement from God before entering the promised land, or seeing the fulfillment of any of their hopes. This was the only thing needed to fitly close a life of saintly sacrifice, sorrow, and disaster. There, one would think, the ironical course of events might have stopped. It seemed an overflowing of the cup that the spirits should struggle over his dead body, that “Saint” Bernard should justify his causing the loss of two million lives in the crusades by comparing himself with Moses, and that Thomas Paine should have called him a Well, never mind what he called him: I own that it would have been still worse if he or Mr. Buchanan had praised him.
So that while the life of Moses was essentially more fruitful than any (save one, of course) that ever existed, temporally and outwardly it was no more than a barren and gigantic failure. Let us in these times of universal struggle for the front places at all cost; when all things are being judged by their outward success; when the gospel of “getting on” in this life is the most popular creed; when the “fittest” always “survives “, with the blood of the unfittest on his hoof,—let us turn aside and behold in the death of that old man in the solitude of Pisgah's mount, the glorifying of Failure, the apotheosis of Disaster. Let us consider how many there have been whom their contemporaries have frantically, applauded for their present successes, whose work soon perished; and how there have been also those whose lives were persecuted, calumniated, and apparently unfruitful, but who nevertheless planted some seed that has since become a forest, or discovered some God-given treasury of resource for men. We think of the disastrous lives of some of those whom the world now acknowledges to have been its greatest benefactors; of Galileo and Columbus in their cells, of the poverty of Guttenberg, Fabricius, and Homer, of Milton in sickness, blindness, imprisonment, and penury; of More, Russell, Sidney, and Raleigh on the scaffold, of Huss and Ridley dying in the flames, Hampden in the battle, Regulus in the spiked barrel, Esop thrown over the precipice, the Founder of the Dutch liberties, with his work yet all unaccomplished, shot like a mad dog on the staircase and dying muttering, “God pity this poor people.” We think also of that cloud of divine witnesses, “who wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins: being destitute, afflicted, tormented; of whom the world was not worthy.” And we think of “Him whom man despiseth, whom the nation abhorreth,” Who said “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for naught and in vain; yet surely my judgment is with the Lord and my work with my God,” —the termination of whose work at one time seemed to be a few dismayed and horrified peasants standing around a cross.
When the end comes, and Moses is sentenced to die, leaving his work all unfinished, he receives the decree with characteristic dignity and submission. In nothing he says or does is there the slightest trace of bitterness or repining. The harsh imperious words which he had said to his brethren at Meribah were very few and never repeated. He now gives a last address and charge to them, in which he unfolds their high and glorious destinies, and concludes: “There is none like unto the God of Jeshurun, Who rideth upon the heaven in thy help, and in his excellency on the sky. The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms...Happy art thou, O Israel”! He bates no jot of heart or hope for them, though he knows he shall see none of their triumphs; and as to himself we know that those of the old covenant were not given the same definite hopes of happiness in a future life that Christians have now received. He then ascends the mountain alone. Death is always lonely: On mourra seul; but this is peculiar in its desolate surroundings. Mercy is however mingled with judgment and God grants him for the moment a transpiercing gaze that scans the whole of that. fair and glorious land which his people should ultimately attain. Then he dies and the devil, who never could make much use of him when he was alive, struggles hard to snatch his body in order to turn it to some use now that he is dead. Happily Michael the archangel defeats this purpose.
The people wept for him: of course,—when he was dead. If they had listened to him a little when he was living, or shown him a little loyal co-operation, and refrained from worrying him with every kind of unjust treatment when he was wearing out his great soul in their service, they need not perhaps have wept so soon nor so bitterly.