Scripture Reference: Exodus 17, Numbers 20, Deuteronomy 3, Psalms 90
Failure At The Finish LineDr. Erwin W. Lutzer | August 1, 1993
Selected highlights from this sermon
Moses made a mistake. In his anger, this seasoned man of God failed to obey the instructions God gave him, and because of that, he didn’t get to cross into the Promised Land.
In this message, Pastor Lutzer looks at this story from the perspective of Moses, the Israelites, and God. And in doing so, we discover that any sin, no matter how big or small, will have consequences.
Failure at the Finish Line! Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Christians never failed? Wouldn’t that be great? Wouldn’t that be wonderful if we always made wise decisions that we never committed ourselves to debts we couldn’t pay? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we never spoke hastily and said some things that we later on would regret? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Christians always married well and they would seek God and find someone who would be fulfilling and they could live happily ever after? It would be wonderful, but it ain’t so!
In fact, even the great Moses, of all people, made a serious error and disobeyed God near the end of his life, and he was disciplined for it. In order for us to understand what happened and some of the implications, there are several passages of Scripture I invite you to look up with me because they are all connected. And when we all begin together we will all end together.
First of all, Exodus 17! The children of Israel have just crossed the Red Sea. This is very early on in their journey, and the Lord says in verse 6 (The people were very thirsty and they were complaining to Moses and wondering where they were going to get water from.): “Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.” And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. And he smote the rock and water came out and everyone was refreshed, and the two million people weren’t angry with Moses anymore. It’s a wonderful story!
Well, now what we need to do is to skip ahead 40 years and turn to the book of Numbers, chapter 20. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers chapter 20. Here we have a story that is so similar that when you read it you think it’s the same event, but I can assure you it isn’t. It’s an event that takes place nearly 40 years later because Miriam dies at this juncture, and she dies just before the Israelites go into the land.
Remember that at this point they have been wandering because they looked at the land at Kadesh Barnea and decided that they could not go in. I’m regretting that the series that I’m preaching on the life of Moses is coming to a close because there are many, many instances in his own life that we should have covered. But remember that the Israelites looked at the land at Kadesh Barnea, and God said, “No,” and God said, “You’ve been in the desert for two years. Be in the desert for another 38.” And now we come to the end of that period.
And the children of Israel are thirsty again and it says in Numbers 20:8 through 11: “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Take the staff (the rod), and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle. And Moses took the staff (the rod) from before the Lord, as he commanded him.
Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, (And now look at what we read.) and he said to them, ‘Hear now, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock?’ And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock.” Disobedience from a seasoned man of God!
Now, what I’d like to do today is to look at this failure on the part of Moses from three different perspectives, and we’re going to see its implications and its application for us today, so stay with me as we go through the text.
First of all, let’s look at this story from the standpoint of Moses. Moses might have looked at what he did and said to himself, “I was justified in what I did,” first of all because he had gone through a lot of internal struggles. Even as a man 80 years ago he had been rejected in Egypt, you remember, when he thought that the children of Israel would understand how that God, by His hand, would deliver them. And so he still felt that hurt of rejection and now he has been in Midian for 40 years, and he’s been in the desert for 40 years, and for 40 years all that he has listened to are the grumblings and the complainings of the people, and he is saying, “I am fed up. I am tired of the whole thing. Can’t you give a guy a break?”
Furthermore, look at the circumstances in which he lost his temper. These people were absolutely vicious in their criticism. And by the way, who were these people? These were not the same ones back in Exodus 17. No, we’re talking about 37 years later. This is the new generation which held so much promise. And look at the way they are reacting to him. These are the ones who are going to go into the land. The old generation has almost died off. There are a few stragglers who still have to die in the next couple of months, and then it’s all over, and they are ready to go into the land with the new generation. And notice how they assail the motives of Moses, and they question his integrity.
In Numbers 20 it says in verse 3: “And the people quarreled with Moses and said, ‘Would that we had perished when our brothers perished before the Lord! (We wish we’d have died in those plagues.)’” Verse 4: “Why have you brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness, that we should die here, both we and our cattle?” First of all, they are saying to him, “You brought us here in order that you might see us die.” And then they are saying, “You broke a promise.”
Verse 5: “And why have you made us come up out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place? It is no place for grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, and there is no water to drink.” That’s an interesting remark. Whoever said that the desert was going to be the place of fruit and vines? It was Canaan, and they weren’t there yet, but they are angry because they are thirsty. And so they hurl all of this into the face of Moses. He goes to God, and God says, “Moses, stand at the rock (probably a rock at which you drank many, many times). There is a stream there that is probably dried up by now, but if you speak to the rock, water will flow.” And so Moses stands there, and he is so angry he takes his rod and he smites the rock twice, and it felt good to get all of that anger out of his system. If you asked Moses, “What do you think of your disobedience?” at this point in his life he would say, “I was perfectly justified.”
Well now, let’s look at this disobedient act from the standpoint of the people. What would they say? Well, to the people—to the congregation, it was a matter of indifference. They didn’t care. First of all, they didn’t know what God had actually said to Moses. You see, they were not privy to this communication, and Moses I don’t imagine stood up and said, “Folks, God told me to speak to the rock, but I am so mad that I’m going to hit it twice.” He probably didn’t say that. They don’t know what went on in that private conversation, and so they said, “Well, whatever he does, that’s no big deal.” They were not aware of the fact that their leader was having an integrity crisis with reference to obedience, and furthermore they were filled with joy because you did read it did you not? Verse 11: “And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock.” The congregation says, “We’ve got water. Who cares about the technicality. Our beasts and our children and our wives, we all have water to drink—cool refreshing water, and that’s really what matters.” From the congregation’s perspective, indifference!
Well, let’s look at God’s perspective. How did God view this? Verse 12: “And (But) the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” Oh! God was displeased.
This morning in the car on the way to church our 15-year old daughter, Lisa, said to me, “Well, Dad, what is it that you’re going to preach on this morning?” I said, “Moses, who disobeyed God by striking the rock instead of speaking to it.” She said, “Dad, don’t you think God was kind of harsh to not let him into the land just because he did that?” So I reached back and I shook hands with her in the back seat, and I said, “Lisa, just listen to my sermon today.” So Lisa, wherever you are, just listen to the sermon today, and we’ll let the rest of you listen too.
You see, in the first instance in Exodus 17 we know that that rock represents Christ. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10, “They drank of that rock and that rock was Christ.” In Exodus 17 God says, “Smite the rock,” because Jesus Christ will be smitten with the rod of judgment on the cross.” And when Moses struck that rock perhaps God, the Son, said to God, the Father, “In a few generations that’s what’s going to be happening to Me. I am going to be smitten with a rod of judgment.”
Now when they come to the rock the Lord says, “Speak to the rock,” because Jesus Christ had to die only once. He was smitten only once, and the water flowed, which is symbolic of the Holy Spirit. And now when we want to drink and be refreshed by the power and the graciousness of the Holy Spirit, all that we need to do is to speak to Christ. We believe on Him, and when be believe, “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus.” God wipes the condemnation away because He bore our condemnation.
But now when we need fellowship with God all that we need to do is come to that rock and speak. He’s even better than that. Jesus, when He was here on earth, said, “Ho, everyone that thirsts.” He said, “Those who are athirst come and those who believe on Me, from within them shall flow rivers of living water.” The Holy Spirit will actually gush up from within you, and you will be spiritually refreshed, said Christ.
And so, you see, there was some typology here that Moses messed up. And so God says, “You were to speak to the rock, and I’m asking you to speak to the rock, and because you smote the rock, you disobeyed me very clearly. You will not enter into the land.”
You say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, did Moses know all of that?” No, I don’t think Moses knew that. But, you know, it wasn’t important for Moses to know all that. What was important is that Moses obeyed even if he did not fully understand. And you know that that is true of us too.
You know, there are some churches that believe that it’s okay to have women as elders, and they ordain women as elders. Now we here at The Moody Church don’t believe that because we think that the New Testament is very clear that the level of leadership as elders in the church is really a responsibility that men have. Now, women can have many responsibilities in the church, and we as a church need to constantly be rethinking the role of women to understand that God has given them all the gifts that men have. They have a lot of spiritual insight and they can serve, and they can work in many different capacities. But the question of eldership, which is debated by some, seems to be very clear in the Scriptures.
Now if you ask me why God gave that pattern, and why He gave those instructions I can’t tell you because you and I know that there are many women who are gifted, talented, godly, sensitive, filled with wisdom who may in some senses be more qualified than some male leadership that sometimes comes to the surface. But did you know that it isn’t important for us to know the whys and the wherefores? It is important for us to obey even when we do not understand.
Now if you say you are writing that letter, some of you are going to say, “Oh, you shouldn’t have said that this morning because some of those churches that are doing that are being blessed of God. They are growing churches.” Well, I need to point you back to verse 11 once again: “Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod, and water came forth abundantly.” Listen to me very carefully. The blessing of God is not always synonymous with the approval of God. There are some things that God blesses that He may disagree with, and for which there will be discipline and judgment. The bottom line: It is best to obey God even if you do not understand why it is that He gave the commandment. Moses may not have understood, but it is also evident in Scripture that he clearly, deliberately disobeyed.
So God say, “Moses, you will not enter into the land.” Can you imagine the disappointment? This is the moment for which he lived all of those days in the desert, the 40 long years in the hot blistering sand. There was one thing that motivated Moses and that was for the great thrill that he would have to finally get into Canaan, the land that they had been talking about all those years. God says, “Moses, no!”
Do you want a commentary on what really happened? Look at Deuteronomy 3. This is Moses’ own reflection on what happened. The book of Deuteronomy was given just before they enter into the land, just before Moses died, a couple of months after this experience that we were reading about of him smiting the rock in disobedience.
Notice what it says in verses 23 and 24 of Deuteronomy 3: “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?’”
And now he’s pleading: “Please let me go over and see the good land beyond the Jordan, that good hill country and Lebanon.” But he says, “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 (which is Mount Nebo) 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.’”
Folks, take out a moment and think about Moses. To think that God would say, “Moses, you can go to the gate, and your eyes will see it, but there you must stop.” Every dream that he had in the fiber of his body was dashed forever because of one act of disobedience.
How do we look upon this incident? From the standpoint of Moses initially he felt justified. From the standpoint of the people, indifferent! From the standpoint of God, displeased!
You say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, you normally have three points to your sermon, and you’ve given us the three points. You can pronounce the benediction. We can all go home early today, and we can say that Pastor Lutzer must have had a very long vacation because he preached such a short sermon.
You know, all that I presented so far is the introduction. This is the introduction. (laughter) This is it! It’s a little longer introduction than usual, but that’s it. If you think that you’re going to get by that easily, think again, because what I want us to do now is to understand what was going through Moses’ mind, knowing that he would be dead within a year.
What was going through Moses’ mind to know that because of a decision that he made there was failure close to the finish line, and he would have to live with his dreams dashed in the sand? What was he thinking about to handle this experience? And in order to understand that we’re going to look at one of the oldest Psalms in all the Bible. It was a Psalm written by Moses. It was a Psalm written as he was contemplating the judgment of his generation, and to know that he would be a part now of their judgment. And just like they couldn’t go into the land (the older generation), so he couldn’t go in either. And I ask you to take your Bibles and to turn to Psalm 90.
Psalm 90 is written by Moses in an act of contemplation, thinking about his relationship with God in light of his experience in the desert. Psalm 90 is a Psalm that is very melancholic. It is a Psalm that is plaintive. It is a Psalm of wonder. It is a Psalm of meditation, and Moses is trying to put all of these experiences into perspective to gain some kind of an understanding of where it all fits within the program of God, and what a Psalm it is!
I want you to notice three contrasts in Psalm 90. First of all, there is a contrast between the frailty of man and the eternality of God. He begins by saying: “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.” But notice the contrast. “You return man to dust and say, ‘Return, O children of man!’” Moses says, “For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night.” He says in verse 5, “We are like grass that is here today and gone tomorrow.” We are planted and then we disappear and another generation comes.
First of all, I want you to understand the eternality of God. From everlasting to everlasting God endures, though through all generations we come and go, but God is always there. Do you realize that statement means that God is from everlasting not only into eternity but also from eternity past?
This past week I was having lunch with Earl Bowers, and we were discussing the fact that the age of the earth may not be a whole lot more than 15,000 years. The evolutionary theory is based on an idea of uniformitarianism which may or may not be true. But then I said to Earl, “If the earth is only 15,000 years, what in the world (I guess there was no world at that time) was God doing with Himself throughout all those ages of eternity? And Earl looked at me and said, “You know, I’m surprised to hear that from you?” It was a very good, mild, loving rebuke. That was stupid for me to say that. Even if the earth is 4 billion years old, or 4 trillion years, we still have a problem of what God was doing with Himself in the eternity before that. “Even from everlasting to everlasting you are God.” As for man, his days are as grass. He’s here today and he’s gone tomorrow, and a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday. When we pray to God and say, “Oh God, give me ten more years, or give me 20 more years,” it sounds to God, from his perspective, as if we’re saying, “God, give me one more second to live, or two more seconds to live, and please, Lord, at the most, three more seconds to live. That’s all that I want,” because to God it is but a moment of time, and we think it’s a thousand years.
The frailty of man and the eternality of God, and here is the problem. God has put eternity in our hearts, and there is something within us that wants us to be as eternal as God is, and we look around ourselves and see change and decay all around, and one generation goes, and one generation comes, and we think that we’re going to live a long time, and suddenly it is cut short. No wonder we struggle so much. We are beings that want eternity and all that we see is the decay of time.
The first contrast is the frailty of man and the eternality of God. The second contrast is the sinfulness of man, and the holiness and mercy of God. Verse 7: “For we are brought to an end by your anger; by your wrath we are dismayed. You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence.” Five times he uses the words wrath and anger in these verses, and he says we live our lives as a sigh. No matter how good it is, it always goes bad and sour, and in the end we recognize that we are in the presence of a holy and an awesome God, and we begin to see our sins. And even the secret sins, oh God, are totally open in the light of Thy countenance and we ask ourselves, “How can we possibly live?”
And then there is a final contrast and that is between our sighing and our desires and God’s fulfillment of them. He says in verse 13: “Return, O Lord! How long? Have pity on your servants! Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.”
What is the answer to Moses’ plight? The answer is to recognize that in this fleeting life, and it is fleeting, especially to God, even though we wander in the desert… And remember that Moses was in that desert for 38 years, not because of his own unbelief but because of the unbelief of others. And there are some of you who are going through trials, not of your own making. It’s just that somebody else put you into that desert. You are in a ship that is going somewhere, and you are going in that ship but you are not the captain, but you must go with it because of your family, because of your circumstances, and you feel as if you are in that mess not because of anything that you did but because of those around you.
Moses lived that way, as did Caleb and Joshua, but he’s saying, “Oh God, in the desert of our failure, in the desert of our discipline, satisfy us early with Thy mercy. God, help us to understand that when we get plugged into You, we then become as eternal as You are and will live forever. And this great desire that we have to be eternal beings will be fulfilled.”
Do you understand now why there are so many suicides? Do you understand why it is that the world is so frustrated? It is that God made us for Himself. He made us that we might be satisfied only by Him. And people are pouring into their lives every conceivable pleasure, every conceivable relationship. They are trying to plug up their lives with everything that cannot ever, ever satisfy, but we’ve been created by God. “Satisfy us early with thy mercy.”
Yesterday my wife and I drove to Michigan to be with some friends who were celebrating their 50th Anniversary. We had a great time, a great talk in the car with good communication, but I came home and I needed to get alone with God to be satisfied with the Lord. You’ve had that experience, too, where no matter how good the human relationships are, there’s something within that says, “I need to be with God.”
So, the Psalmist says, “Our desire is for eternity,” and we can come to God and we can be satisfied with Him. And then he says, “Establish the work of our hands.” This is in the last part of verse 17. “Confirm for us the work of our hands, yes, confirm the work of our hands.”
You see, there is something within us that says, “I want to make sure that I last forever, and that what I do has some repercussions forever.” And yet our experience is totally contrary to that. You work hard, and people forget about it. I’ve written some things that may have been published once and never republished. They are gone. Nobody reads them. They are gone. And you’ve had the experience of doing something and it is like building a sandcastle along the sea. The water comes and it is gone.
The flood of 1993 along the Mississippi River! People say, “I lost everything I ever had. It’s gone.” How then do we live eternally? How then can there possibly be meaning for life, knowing that eventually everything that we have will be gone in that sense? Well, the answer is there in the text. “Establish thou, confirm thou the work of our hands.” And if it is done for God, the teaching of Scripture is that it isn’t gone. It is lasting forever.
D. L. Moody has been gone since 1899, but look at his impact that continues. And how come it has continued? It is because his life’s verse is on his tombstone there in Northfield. “He that doeth the will of God abideth forever.” That’s the answer to the human dilemma.
What is our answer for our desire for eternity? Jesus Christ said, “Come and believe on Me and you will live forever.” What is the answer to our problem of our sinfulness? Christ became dust for us. He united dust and divinity. He united God and man and died for us so that we could be accepted by a holy God. And what is the answer to the desire that we have within our soul, but to come to Him, to drink, to be refreshed, to be strengthened, even if we are experiencing a desert that is not of our own making.
I think a key verse in this Psalm is verse 12: “So teach us to number our days.” Now, I don’t number my days. If you came to me and said, “How old are you?” if I’m in a good mood, and I usually am, I might tell you how old I am in years, but I have no idea as to how many days I have lived. But, you see, Moses, numbered not only his days. He could actually number the length of the days he was still to live, and so could the people in the desert.
When God said, You’re going to wander in the desert 40 years,” there’s a man who is 20 years old who says to his wife, “You know, I’m 20 or 21.” If you were 20 you got to go into the land. You were considered the younger generation. At the age of 21 he says, “I know that I’m going to be dead by the age of 61 at the best of circumstances because God says all of us are going to die and we aren’t going to see the land.”
When Moses had this experience there in which he disobeyed God and God said, “You’re not entering into the land,” it was the beginning of the 40th year. He knew that they had to be in the land by the end of the year, and that meant that at best he had 12 months so he could begin to number his days. But the lesson of this text is that all of us must number our days that we might apply our hearts unto wisdom. We must live every single day as if it might be our last, recognizing that God has numbered our days, and we must do all that we possibly can to live however many days He gives us for Him and for His glory. And when we do that we will be satisfied within, and God will establish the work of our hands.
Yes, I know people in the media are saying in the Mississippi flood, “We lost everything.” But I want you to know today that the Christians have lost nothing that will be of any kind of eternal significance. Every deed done, every good act, done in the name of Christ! Every prayer that was offered, every crop that was plowed for the glory of Christ will remain eternally no matter what the floods do.
And so we come to the end of the life of Moses. God takes him to the top of Nebo. He says, “Look this way; look that way. See the land,” and the Bible says that God personally buried him. It’s almost as if the Lord says, “I don’t want to leave this responsibility to anybody else. I don’t want to delegate any of the responsibility. I want to do it myself.”
And then you remember it says in the book of Jude that there was a dispute about the body of Moses. Satan wanted it, and Michael the Archangel was getting into the act and rebuked the devil, and so Moses was buried somewhere, and then you know that eventually he did get into the land on the Mount of Transfiguration as recorded in the New Testament. But for us, at this point in history the curtain closes. And what do you have? All that you have is Moses left with his God. That’s all. Once he was gone it didn’t matter how much criticism the people had given him. It didn’t matter how many years they grumbled. It didn’t matter what names they had called him. It didn’t matter how much they assailed his very motives and his integrity. Nothing mattered because there was a new generation, but Moses was now left alone with his God.
Will you remember that God is with us in our failures. God was with Moses after Moses was told that his days had been severely numbered. And God was with him to say, “Moses, I have an answer for your frailty. It is My eternality. I have an answer for your sinfulness. It is My mercy and your forgiveness. I have an answer for the deep desire of your soul. I will satisfy you. I have an answer for that desire to do something that lasts forever. I will establish the work of your hands. And the bottom line is: “Teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.”
Reverend [Henry] Francis Lyte was a minister in Scotland, dying of an incurable disease. He met with his congregation to say goodbye in a very, very emotional farewell. And a few days later, looking around and back on that experience, he wrote:
Change and decay all around I see,
Oh Thou, who changest not,
Abide with me.
Let us pray.
Our Father, we thank You for Your faithfulness and for Your love. And thank You that You are with us in the wilderness. Thank You, Father, that You did not abandon Moses, though He disobeyed You. To the end of this day You are still satisfying Him, and You are still establishing the work of his hands. Now encourage us.
And for those who do not know Christ as Savior today we pray that they might recognize Him to be their bridge to God, the one who forgives and cleanses and makes right.
Before I close this prayer, if you need to talk to God, would you just talk to Him at this moment? Say, “Oh, God, I come to You in the name of Jesus, and I want to believe on You and I want to trust You to be my Savior.” And for those who know Him as Savior say, “I want to trust You in my desert experience. Come to me and satisfy me right where I am in my need.” You talk to Him.
Hear our prayer, oh Lord, for we are needy. In Jesus’ name, Amen.