Almost, But Not Quite - Numbers 20:1-3; Deuteronomy 34:1-7

Lessons in the Wilderness  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented
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Our life is a serious of moments.  And some of those moments impact us for the rest of our lives.

The pass that was dropped in the big game

The stock you failed to invest in (or did invest in)

The moment of rage that caused you to hurt another

The job you took (or didn’t take)

The moment of passion that led to an out of wedlock pregnancy

The angry words that spewed hate an inflicted scars that never healed or the word of encouragement that inspired you.

Life is a series of inter-related moments. And if we were to visit with Moses I think he would have a truckload of these moments that he would consider memorable.  When asked about the high points of his life, surely Moses would point to His experiences of talking with God “face to face”; the burning bush that didn’t burn; the parting of the red sea; the incredible miracles in the desert.  I can only imagine the hours we could spend mesmerized by these accounts from the lips of Moses.

However, if you were to ask Moses about the things he regretted in his life the two things that I think would be at the top of his list would be the two occasions we are going to look at this morning.  This morning we focus on two events at the end of Moses’ life.  The first deals with a moment of frustration that turned into the regret of a lifetime, and the other event, the touching account of the death of Moses.


It was apparently the first month of the 40th year of wandering in the wilderness. There is a new generation of people in Israel.  Moses had just had to bury his sister.  He had reached that point in his life when many of his friends had died.  In this time of grief and transition he had to face another crisis with the Israelites.

There was no water and people began to panic.  They complained, they hurled attacks at Moses, and he was angry.  We don’t know why Moses got so angry.  Maybe it was the strain of grief, maybe it was the weariness of the years, maybe it was concern that after 40 years the Israelites were going to do something stupid again and they would end up wandering another 40 years. All we know is the people were complaining and Moses was mad. We read,

6 Moses and Aaron went from the assembly to the entrance to the Tent of Meeting and fell facedown, and the glory of the Lord appeared to them. 7 The Lord said to Moses, 8 “Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly together. Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water. You will bring water out of the rock for the community so they and their livestock can drink.” [Numbers 20:6-8]

God in His incredible mercy and grace gives Moses simple instructions, “Take the staff, SPEAK to the rock, and water will come out.” After these instructions, Moses heads back to the people and we read the account that Moses regretted most in his life.

9 So Moses took the staff from the Lord’s presence, just as he commanded him. 10 He and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock and Moses said to them, “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” 11 Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank. [Numbers 21:9-11)

Moses struck the rock instead of simply speaking to it as he was commanded.  To you and me it seems like a pretty minor offense for a guy who has been so faithful. But God sees it differently.

“Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.”  [Numbers 21:9-12]

God presents three indictments of Moses and Aaron.

1.      Moses did not do what God told him to do.  And anytime we disobey the Lord we imply that our way is better. We make it seem that God’s way is inferior to us.  We make it appear that God is incompetent and needs our correction.  That’s not just true with Moses, it’s true in our lives too.  Disobedience is an act of arrogant defiance.

2.      He did not honor God as holy.  Moses said to the people, “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” Did you get that?  It wasn’t, “Must GOD bring water from the rock again, it was, must WE bring water from the rock.  Not only did Moses disobey God, He took credit for God’s work.

3.      And these things happened in the sight of the Israelites.  This was no private sin.  It was a public sin.

Lessons . . .

There are several important lessons here. First, we learn that it is important to keep anger in check. It seems that Moses did what he did out of his frustration with the Israelites.  But that’s no excuse.  The Bible is constantly warning us about the dangers of anger.  When we are angry we

Say things that hurt

We attack rather than encourage

We do things we would never think to do otherwise because we are out of control

We rush blindly into sin (someone is angry so they get drunk, buy something they can’t afford, get involved in a stupid relationship)

Anger is a dangerous emotion. We combat anger by heading it off at the pass.  We need to see anger rising and back away.  In angry times we must give the Lord the things that upset us.  It doesn’t matter how strong a believer you are . . . sin is always a threat.  And it is always a greater threat when we are angry.

Second, we learn that obedience is not open to negotiation. You know the old saying, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. God does not call us to be as obedient as possible . . . .He calls us to be obedient.  Any compromise with sin is an erosion of character. Any time we know what is right to do and disregard it we are committing treason against the Lord.  As I said previously, we are saying by our actions that we know better than the Lord.  Are you compromising with God’s commands?

In your morality?

In your finances?

In your willingness to forgive?

In your business ethics?

In the way you handle promises?

This passage is a warning to us. We may think little compromises are no big deal. But God sees the little compromises much like a Doctor sees a little cancer in a lymph node. It is the beginning of spiritual death and needs immediate attention.

Third, we learn that leaders must be held to a higher standard.  James wrote, “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” (James 3:1).  Why is this true?  It’s because people follow their leaders.  So when a leader rebels, when a leader stumbles, others will follow suit.  Think about it,

A leader who is a complainer, sows seeds of discontent and a negative attitude in those they lead

A leader who is deceptive in some areas leads people to distrust them in all areas and their followers become cynical.

A leader who is uncommitted to their work, will find that they have uncommitted followers

A leader who is worldly will produce followers that are even more worldly.

A leader who is careless with his language will have profane followers

A leader who is lazy will find that they have followers who don’t care

When we were on vacation in August we were in East Dubuque for a boat ride.  When we were leaving, I was leading the pack of cars back to our home for the weekend.  I didn’t really know where I was going.  So I turned down a road and promptly ended up at a dead end.  Naturally, the cars behind me assumed that I knew where I was going (an assumption they would not make again) and they followed me.  In much the same way a leader must be held to a higher standard because when they turn the wrong way, others turn with them.

Please hear this you who lead.  Those who serve on boards and committees, those who teach, those who have positions in the public eye: with your privilege comes greater responsibility.  With your influence comes greater accountability.


For 40 years of his life Moses had been leading the children of Israel to the Promised Land.  For 40 years he was looking forward to the day when he would take his first steps on the land that God had promised so many years ago to Abraham.  Now, that day would never come.  I’ve got to think that this fact was his second greatest regret.

Imagine what is must have been like. Suppose you were building your dream house. You had invested years in planning and even more years saving for the home you’ve always wanted. Imagine seeing problem after problem solved by God’s gracious intervention. In the midst of frustrating delays you knew that God was blessing your work.

Now suppose, as the work neared completion, God said to you, “I want you to head out to the work site.  See the finishing touches being put on the house.  And once you have seen, you will die”.  After all that work and planning, how disheartening to never be able to live in that home.  Maybe you would feel that life had been wasted.  Maybe you would feel cheated.

But there is more going on here. At the end of Numbers 20 we read the account of the death of Aaron. Within the last year Moses buried his sister, was told that he wouldn’t enter the Promised Land, and buried his brother. His brother, the man who served as his spokesman for each of those 40 years was now gone.  One wonders if Moses felt desperately alone. He was the oldest man around now by quite a bit.  He knew his days were numbered.

Maybe you have been there.  Your parents are gone.  Your friends are dying and maybe your spouse is gone. You feel the dust of life in your face as you feel it pass you by.  Maybe you have said to someone, “I just wish I would fall asleep some day and not wake up.” The handwriting is on the wall and the wall is getting closer and closer.  You wake up each day wondering how many days are left.

This is the situation when we read Deuteronomy 32:49-51 God tells Moses that it is time to die.

49 “Go up into the Abarim Range to Mount Nebo in Moab, across from Jericho, and view Canaan, the land I am giving the Israelites as their own possession. 50 There on the mountain that you have climbed you will die and be gathered to your people, just as your brother Aaron died on Mount Hor and was gathered to his people. 51 This is because both of you broke faith with me in the presence of the Israelites at the waters of Meribah Kadesh in the Desert of Zin and because you did not uphold my holiness among the Israelites.

So Moses climbed Mount Nebo knowing that he was climbing to his death.  When he reached the top of the mountain the Lord showed him the whole land . . .Then the Lord said to him, “This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.”

5 And Moses the servant of the Lord died there in Moab, as the Lord had said. 6 He buried him in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day no one knows where his grave is. 7 Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died, yet his eyes were not weak nor his strength gone. [Deuteronomy 34:5-7]

Now think about what we just read.  Look at those first few words, “Moses climbed Mount Nebo” Current figures say that Mount Nebo is 2631 feet high!  Remember Moses is 120 years old!  He knows his is about to die but he still climbs the mountain.  It’s not what we expect, is it? How could he climb the mountain knowing it was to his death? I have a suggestion. I think it was because he trusted God. Like Abraham, Moses knew that the “judge of all the earth would do what is right”.  Abraham took his son Isaac onto Mount Moriah to sacrifice him trusting that God had a plan.  And I think Moses climbed Mount Nebo with the confidence that God knew what he was doing.

Faith shines most brightly when the times are confusing, we don’t understand, and yet we still trust God.

When someone filled with life and vitality dies

When the dream job doesn’t come through

When you can’t get pregnant

When the one you love marries another

When the bills threaten to take you under

When it becomes clear that the moment you’ve dreamed of all your life isn’t going to happen.

Moses faced death unafraid, he faced disappointment undeterred because he trusted God. Perhaps in this moment of greatest disappointment we see Moses more faithful than ever before.


God is faithful even when we are not.  Moses failed and lost the opportunity to enter the Promised Land, but God did not forget His promise to Israel.  I suspect if you looked closely as Moses looked over the land, you could detect tears in his eyes.  There were tears of joy at God’s goodness, tears of sadness and regret that he would never step foot in that land.  But God was faithful.  Moses would not see the promise fulfilled, but the promise would be fulfilled.  And we need to keep that in mind, when we pray for the salvation of a friend and it seems like nothing is happening. We need to remember this when we ask God to heal us but the illness lingers. We need to remember this when we pray for a relationship to be mended but it ends in divorce.  People disappoint, but God remains faithful.  He will see us through. He will build the nature of Christ into our hearts.  He will get his children home to Heaven . . . just as He promised.

Leaders pass away but the Lord’s work advances.  Moses was a great man.  Israel missed him when he was gone. But the work continued. No leader is irreplaceable. Whatever God is doing in your life, remember, it is God working through you. And if it were not you, He would work through someone else. We must always remember that it is the Lord who changes lives.  He uses people but those people by themselves can do nothing.

Finally, we can learn that age is more a state of mind than a biological curse.  Look at verse seven, “his eyes were not weak nor his strength gone.”  You have to admire Moses. He was vital and energetic right to the end. That’s the way we should want to be! Chuck Swindoll writes,

You’re just as old as you want to be. I think it is a shame that we don’t live as Moses lived. The late Jim Elliot said, “Wherever you are, be all there. Live to the hilt every situation you believe to be the will of God.” If you’re a student, live it up!  If you’re in business, go for it! If you lose your job, have at it! Really be unemployed. If you’re having a baby, throw a party! If you release your only child to marriage or business, let her go! Live on! Be “all there,” wherever you are.

Stop and think, “What’s the alternative?” Climbing into a closet and pulling the door shut behind you? Sadly, I meet men and women every day who have chosen that path. I know they have because, unlike Moses, their eye is dim and their vigor is abated.    [MOSES p. 343]

Certainly aches and pains come our way and they may slow us down . . . but vitality comes from the mind. Too often people give up.  They stop taking care of themselves because it’s easier to give up. Some people become depressed and whiney. But that’s not the way it has to be.  Like Moses, we can sprint to the finish line.  We can remain positive, enthusiastic and creative in our use of time and energy.  It’s a choice.  Moses chose to live until he died.  Too many choose to die even though they are still living.


You may feel that the story of Moses ends somewhat tragically.  Sure, I bet Moses was disappointed.  Many of us will die without seeing our dreams realized. In fact, that’s the way it is for many visionaries.  Consider the fact that Abraham Lincoln never got to see the country abolish slavery as a whole.  Martin Luther King Jr. never got to see his dream fulfilled.  Soldiers have died on battlefields without getting to see the freedom they were fighting for. Great people have a great vision of the future. They do the best they can and then hand the baton to the next runner.

But before we say good-bye to Moses, let me take you to the New Testament. Look at the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus.

Mt. 17:2-3There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.

Do you know what this means?  It means Moses finally DID make it to the Promised Land.  He finally reached the land he had labored so hard to reach.

Don’t mistake the point here.  This doesn’t mean that everything always works out the way we want it to.  When Moses appeared with Elijah I don’t think Moses was taking pictures of the Promised Land. This piece of land had lost its significance and attraction. Moses had seen the better land. He had seen the land where there are no tomorrows, only today. Moses had seen the land where there are no complaints, no rebellion, no disappointment, and no tears.  Moses had seen Heaven and more importantly he saw the Father with new eyes. Moses now understood that the real promises of God had little to do with the physical land of Israel. It had everything to do with the Savior who stood before Him.  Yes, Moses was finally in the Promised Land . . .but now his eyes were not on the sights, they were on the Savior. . . only and fully on the Savior.

And when you think about it, I believe that was really the lesson that God had been trying to teach Moses all along. He wanted Moses to keep focused on the true treasure.  He wanted Moses to listen to Him because there is no greater wisdom than that which comes from the Lord. He wanted Moses to trust Him with the frustrating times because no one can handle them better.  He wanted Moses to love him more than he loved anything else because everything he was looking for could be found only in the Lord.

And the Lord didn’t just want Moses to learn these lessons.  He wants us to learn them too.  And if we are wise, we will learn the lesson before we do something we will regret for the rest of our lives.

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