Chapter 3: The Prayers of Moses
by Walter A. Boyd, N. Ireland
It is not uncommon to hear someone speak about a person’s prayer life, referring to that part of their life which is set aside for speaking to God. When examining the life of Moses as recorded in the Pentateuch, it is immediately noticeable that Moses spoke often to God. Yet, at the same time, it is very difficult to separate a distinct section of his activities as his prayer life. That is simply because it appears that Moses lived his life in such close communion with heaven that he was continually conversing with his God. For Moses, prayer seemed to be the immediate action in every situation; whether in joy, sorrow, trial or triumph, he spoke with his God.
As we examine the prayers of Moses we will find that he engages in every facet of prayer in his communion with God: at various times and in various places he is seen in personal supplication, Ex.4.1, or national intercession, Num.14.13, or spiritual exultation, Exodus chapter 15. There are occasions when his prayer is very detailed, Exodus chapter 33, and on other occasions he casts himself before God with a seeming inability to express the great burden that he carries, Ex.17.4. One of the most striking features of his prayers is the beautiful balance between his deep reverence for God and his intimate familiarity with God. Moses used simple yet expressive language to converse with God, yet he never became unduly familiar in how he addressed God. The deep reverence in his soul is clearly manifested in his attitude and approach to the Lord as he prayed.
Another initial observation is that in the first eighty years of Moses’ life there is no record of any prayers! It may well be that there were some during his first forty years, certainly during his childhood days under the care of his mother he would have known the practice of family prayers before he was taken to the palace by Pharaoh’s daughter. If there were, we are not told. It is much more likely that there were prayers in his life during the second forty years, when he spent his time as a shepherd in the isolation of the wilderness. During those years in the wilderness he had plenty of time to ponder the mistake he had made in slaying the Egyptian, Ex.2.12. The third period of forty years commences with Moses in the presence of God at the bush that "burned with fire" Ex.3.2. God initiates the conversation by speaking in Divine grace to Moses, who had made such a great blunder in the service of God forty years beforehand. Similarly, that third forty-year period concludes with Moses in the presence of God and God initiates the conversation by speaking to Moses, but this time in Divine government, Deut.34.4. This shows us a two-fold lesson in life. Firstly, after a period of coldness there must be renewed dealings and conversation with God before further service, and secondly, the end of a life of useful service can be tinged with sadness as a result of past disobedience.
We will examine a few of the significant highlights in the prayers of Moses chronologically, that is, the order in which they appear in the Holy Scriptures.
EXODUS CHAPTERS 3 - 4
In this well-known incident at the burning bush, God initiates a conversation with Moses in which we have not just the first recorded words of Moses in forty years but the first recorded prayer of his lifetime of eighty years! For Moses, it may well have been the first time in forty years that he had heard the voice of God.
There are general features in this great event that we should not pass over quickly, since they are full of meaning to the believer who wants to know God better. The ‘ordinary’ very quickly becomes extraordinary when God intervenes in the affairs of life.
We will pay attention to these ordinary things in this remarkable incident by noticing the significance of the place.This conversation that would shape the rest of his life and bring him into a life of service for God took place in a desert. He was far from the world’s hustle and bustle. Similarly, if we are to hear the voice of God and understand His claims on our lives we will need to get away from the rush and din of the world that clamours for our attention. This place was likely no different from any other area of the wilderness; just a flat uninteresting place whose only attraction was shelter or some little pasture for the flock. For Moses this was just his ordinary job in the ordinary place on an ordinary day, but for him it was about to become very interesting. God was about to change the mundane landscape of Moses’ life by making a few adjustments to the laws of nature. A bush was about to burst into flames and remain burning without being burnt up. A bush burning in the desert might at first sight appear to be a common occurrence. Moses turned aside to see why an insignificant desert scrub bush had burst into flames yet remained unconsumed, and in so doing he heard the voice of God. Moses learned an important lesson in this first encounter with God; he learned to notice the significance in the insignificant. In hearing the voice of God and discerning the will of God we need to have our spiritual eyes opened to detect the significance of Divine action in the insignificant affairs of life. Why did we get that ‘strange’ phone call? What was the significance in that ‘chance’ encounter? We should learn to examine everyday things for evidence of God behind them. Before Moses could grasp the significance of this event he had to stop, look and then listen. How seldom we take the time to examine the mundane things that take place around us, thus closing out the voice of God in circumstances.
Notice the name. The mountain was called "Horeb", meaning dry or desolate. As far as men were concerned this was a dry, desolate and uninteresting place. It became the very opposite to Moses! Similarly, while those unaccustomed to spending time alone with God regard prayer as a boring waste of time; we should quickly learn by experience that the place in which time is spent in God’s presence is anything but dry or desolate.
Notice the significance of the task. The little task in secular things is about to be overtaken by a great task in spiritual things. The man who is leading the flock of his father-in-law, Ex.3.1, is going to be commanded to lead the people of God ("My people"), Ex.3.7. God requires a man who can do three things to further His programme for Israel and bring about their liberty. He needs a man to declare His promise to Israel, Ex.3.13,14; the ancient covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob has not been forgotten by God! God needs a man to declare His programme to Pharaoh, Ex.5.1; the evil deeds of Pharaoh have not been ignored by God! God needs a man to display His power in Egypt, Ex.3.10; the mighty power of Egypt will not hinder God! In order to equip Moses to do these three things, God brought him to the burning bush to witness Divine power. While there, God spoke to Moses with assurance of the Divine purpose for Israel and to make him aware of the Divine programme in which he will be permitted to participate.
We will now look beyond the general features of this incident and examine some of the particulars of the occasion.
There is very clear evidence of the nearness of the relationship between God and Moses. Likely, until now Moses was not living in the good of that relationship but God wants to remind him of it by calling his name twice, "Moses, Moses". God did not do that because Moses was hard of hearing; it was done in eastern communities to manifest the special relationship between persons, in this case between God and Moses. Look at the double calls in the Bible and see that as the reason for God calling someone’s name twice. Moses was being reminded that all had not been lost. In spite of the awful wreckage in his life through a moment’s ill-thought action in Egypt when he slew the Egyptian, God had not thrown Moses on the scrap heap. Acts 7.25 makes it clear that Moses had been made aware of God’s design for him to be a leader of his people before he slew the Egyptian. This is very encouraging to any who feel they have missed the way or messed things up so badly that God can no longer use them. Forty years in the desert have taken their toll and Moses has by now lost his self-assertiveness and ambition. The isolation of the desert has smoothed the rough corners off him and he is now able to see things differently than when he was a prince in the Egyptian palace.
The promptness of Moses’ reply is strikingly obvious. He had been drawn to this strange sight to examine why the bush was not consumed, then suddenly out of the bush God called "Moses, Moses", 3.4. Moses did not run away with fright nor was he startled into dumb silence: he promptly answers "here am I" 3.5. We could easily understand if Moses had been over-cautious and delayed in answering, but he immediately responds to the voice. The conversation between God and Moses in chapter 3 consists of two distinct parts: God’s revelation and Moses’ response.
The holiness of the ground is impressed upon Moses, 3.5. This initial lesson is quickly learned by Moses and will be seen in his life and service from then until his death. Moses is learning that where God is, the ground is holy. Very soon he would be tasked by God to superintend the building of a sanctuary for God, the tabernacle, which would reveal the same principle of holiness. The term "sanctuary" conveys the meaning of a holy place. Also, the structural layout of the tabernacle with a portion separated from the rest by a dividing curtain conveys the concept of holiness. A quick search in the concordance for the word "holy" in the Pentateuch will show that holiness is one of its major themes. The holiness of the immediate presence of God and holy ground, demand that Moses removes his shoes. The practical lesson is obvious: Moses must learn that the presence of his holy God has an effect upon him personally. It is not the plush and luxurious surroundings of a man made ‘sanctuary’ that affects Moses’ demeanour and dress; it is the presence of Jehovah, his God, in the most remote place in the desert. Similarly in our day, we ought never to lose sight of the fact that my reverence or otherwise for God is manifested in my dress and demeanour in His presence. In a day when casual dress and behaviour in the presence of God are becoming prevalent, we need to be reminded of the attitude of heart that Moses displayed.
God then reminds Moses of His relationship with Moses’ forebears; "I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob" v.6. This revelation of God as the God of his ancestors should have been a great encouragement to Moses. For no doubt he would have known of the promise made to Abraham by God hundreds of years earlier: that He would bring Israel out of the land of their affliction after four hundred years. The God Who made a covenant with Abraham is now beginning to move in fulfilment of that promise. And that same God is speaking personally to Moses! Any wonder Moses was afraid to look intently upon God, 3.6? However, Moses’ prayer life is going to develop in intimacy with God to such an extent that years later he is going to ask God, "shew me Thy glory" Ex.33.18. His communion with God started very small and weak in chapter 3 but develops to a level of maturity in chapter 33 that is seldom seen.
Having established the principle of His holiness and relationship to Moses’ forebears, God then reveals to Moses His grand plan of deliverance for the nation of Israel. In giving Moses the details of that plan, God also reveals Himself in a three-fold way: His omniscience, His omnipresence, and His omnipotence.
Omniscience is revealed in the fact that God has "surely seen the affliction" of His people which are in Egypt, 3.7. He had "heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters", and He says "I know their sorrows". What an encouragement for believers today: God sees our afflictions, God hears the cries wrung from the heart of a saint under pressure and God knows the bitter sorrows that those afflictions stir in the heart.
Omnipresence is revealed in the assurance that God is "come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey" 3.8. This ought to encourage Moses who is being sent into Egypt to lead the people out; he is not going alone, God has already come down before him and will be there to bring the people out. Moses is just going to be a human helper in the great Divine plan.
Omnipotence is revealed in the purpose of God "to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey" 3.8. Moses would have known the detailed inner working of the Egyptian government and the military forces available to Pharaoh to carry out his orders. How would thousands of prisoners who had known nothing other than total subjugation for their wholes lives, ever be able to overcome the mighty power of Egypt? God had answered that question before it even entered Moses’ head!
At the start of the conversation, Moses is being assured that God is in total control and is able to retain that control throughout this project of deliverance. Had Moses really grasped the significance of this, he would have been saved many a heartache at what later seemed to be insurmountable obstacles in his leadership. For the first time, God describes Israel as "My people" 3.10. By this, Moses is reminded that God is in control of His treasured possession Israel in spite of how hopeless things until then had appeared.
As Moses responds to God he manifests a common human trait that is readily seen, even in our prayer lives. His attention is focussed on himself rather than on God. God has asked him to perform a great task and Moses is overwhelmed by the greatness of the task and his own littleness in comparison. "Who am I, that I should go unto Pharaoh, and that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt?" Ex.3.11. Notice that Moses still calls his kinsfolk "the children of Israel", whereas God has just called them "My people". Had Moses been listening carefully, he would have understood that since Israel were God’s people, God would be responsible for their safety, not Moses. That would have made it easier for Moses to accept the task in the knowledge that God would look after His own people. How often in our prayers we fail to listen accurately to what God says to us. God communicates His mind to us as we pray, by the Holy Spirit bringing to our minds the Holy Scriptures. When He does that, we should pay careful attention to what those Scriptures say, for they are conveying the mind of God for the matter about which we are praying.
God reveals the certainty of His presence. In v.12, God immediately assures Moses that He will be with him, "certainly I will be with thee", and that He has sent him, "this shall be a token unto thee that I have sent thee". The token to assure Moses is that when he had "brought the people out of Egypt", he would "serve God upon this mountain". Notice that God still requires Moses to act in faith; the token is still ahead of him and will be granted after he has brought Israel out of Egypt.
In vv.13,14 Moses is still doubtful and asks God what he will do when Israel asks him for the name of his God Who has sent him to lead the people? God then reveals the perpetuity of His person. "And God said unto Moses, "I AM that I AM:" and He said, "Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, ‘I AM hath sent me.’"
Even though God gives Moses an extended assurance, Ex.3.15-21, he is still not satisfied. Moses speaks again to God and says that "they will not believe me" Ex.4.1. How often our prayers are like that of Moses! God speaks clearly and yet we either fail to hear or refuse to listen to what He tells us as we pray.
In response to Moses’ remonstrations God gives him a two-fold sign involving his hand and his rod, Ex.4.2-9. Moses is still not convinced and comes back to God with what he sees and another problem; "O my LORD, I am not eloquent ... I am slow of speech and of a slow tongue" Ex.4.10. For a man who claimed to be "slow of speech" he had quite a lot to say.
God responds yet again to Moses’ perceived difficulty by giving him Aaron his brother to help him, Ex.4.14. On later occasions when Aaron misbehaved and brought the judgment of God upon the nation, Moses would likely look back to his early remonstrations with God and wished that he had just done what God had said, without all his excuses. When we pray to God and He gives us assurances of His presence and power, we should accept those assurances immediately, rather than keep praying with continual and new requests to God concerning the matter that burdens us.
Even though we have spent quite a lot of time and space on Moses’ first prayer without exhausting its lessons, we can see that Moses was at least exercised before God about what God said to him. We should not be too quick to blame Moses for lack of faith or submission to God’s plan. This is his first recorded experience with God for many years and subsequent prayers of his reveal that he matured and grew in his knowledge of, and intimacy with, God.
EXODUS CHAPTERS 5 – 7
At the beginning of chapter 5, Moses and Aaron go to Pharaoh and announce God’s audacious plan to have Israel released from bondage. Pharaoh refused to recognise God and dismissed them with an instruction to the taskmasters to increase the burden and hardship for Israel, 5.1-14. The leaders in Israel complained to Pharaoh and he tells them that it is their own fault for being idle and wanting to leave Egypt to worship their God, vv.15-18. Pharaoh is insinuating that their hardship is God’s fault.
As a result, the leaders of Israel come to Moses and Aaron, 5.19-21, and blame them for their added hardship. What a shock for Moses. In trying to do the will of God and act in the light of what God had told him in prayer, Moses encountered further problems. But God was not finished: the story had only begun!
Moses’ prayer at the end of chapter 5 was brief and very direct. He simply asked God to explain why He had done this to Israel, and why He had sent Moses to deliver them, 5.22,23. Moses then goes on to tell God that He had not delivered Israel (see 5.23). It almost appears that Moses is being disrespectful to God, and it certainly sounds as if he is upset at what he perceives to be God’s failure to keep His promise. Perhaps Moses’ inexperience was at play here. Sometimes we manifest the same impatience that betrays immaturity in our dealings with God.
However, God is gracious and patient and gives Moses a further revelation of His greatness, 6.1-8. In the good of that renewed revelation of God’s greatness, Moses went to the people but "they hearkened not unto Moses for anguish of spirit, and for cruel bondage" 6.9. Poor Moses, he must have wondered where all this was going to end. He seemed to be going round in circles; the more he did God’s will the more difficulties piled in upon him. Don’t be discouraged when this happens in your life. Perhaps you have acted upon what you were certain was clear guidance from God as you prayed about a certain matter, and instead of it resolving the problem, it just added to it. God has a two-fold purpose in it all: to deepen your trust in Him and lessen your dependence upon yourself.
In 6.13, God gave Moses and Aaron a further instruction to go to Pharaoh, which they did (see 7.6). One of the lessons Moses and Aaron were learning was that obedience to God’s Word is important. On this occasion Moses was given a further demonstration of God’s power, by his shepherd’s rod being turned into a serpent and back to a rod. Moses was then told to go to Pharaoh and cast his rod down before him. He did, and Pharaoh saw Moses’ rod turn into a serpent. However, far from being impressed, Pharaoh called in his magicians, who replicated the same act, whether by trickery or satanic power.
EXODUS CHAPTERS 8 – 10
In these chapters we have a series of instructions from God for Moses in relation to Moses’ repeated appearances before Pharaoh in an attempt to secure the release of Israel. Interspersed among the interviews that Moses had with Pharaoh were the plague-judgments that God poured upon Egypt as Moses lifted his hand and rod in obedience to God.
During these plagues Pharaoh hardens his heart, and suggests various compromises to Moses to ease the disaster brought upon Egypt by the plagues. On occasions Moses entreats the Lord at Pharaoh’s request, 10.17,18, but the climactic events of chapter 12 are soon to take place. God is about to redeem Israel from bondage. Pharaoh has hardened his own heart and the entreaties of an able intercessor like Moses are not going to change Divine purpose. There are occasions like that in our lives. We genuinely pray for something, but God graciously does not answer our requests as they do not fit into His plan.
EXODUS CHAPTER 15
The amazing feat of Divine deliverance for Israel is now past; they had never known anything like it before in their history. Every Israelite that came out of Egypt under Moses’ leadership had only ever known bondage. Now upon release, Moses leads them in a song of praise. What an experience it must have been to stand with the millions that were there, and to hear them sing their praise to God.
Their song was composed by Moses and commences with a look back at what they had just experienced: the overthrow of their enemies, 15.1-10. It continues with a look up at the greatness of their God, Jehovah, 15.11-13. The song concludes with a look forward to where God is going to bring them: "Thou shalt bring them in and plant them in the mountain of Thine inheritance, in the place, O LORD, which Thou hast made for Thee to dwell in, in the Sanctuary, O LORD, which Thy hands have established. The LORD shall reign for ever and ever" 15.17,18.
Upon completion of their song, Israel moves out into the wilderness under the direction of Moses as he follows the cloud that signalled God’s abiding presence with them. They go only three days’ journey and find no water. They proceed a little further to a place called Marah where the water was bitter. In dire straits they react as they will always do in difficulty: they murmur against Moses. Moses sets a pattern in his reaction that he almost always follows when he is in difficulty from now on. He "cried unto the LORD", 15.25. We are not told the content of his prayer. The Lord graciously heard and provided the answer Moses needed, by showing him a tree. There are times when God does not answer our prayers by speaking to us, but instead He will show us something in life that we can use to alleviate the problem. Hence the need to remain alert when praying about any matter. Don’t just listen to what God says, but look at what He is showing you in the circumstances of life around you.
EXODUS CHAPTER 17
In Exodus chapter 16 we have the record of how God provided Israel with miraculous food called manna when they entered the wilderness of Sin. As before, Israel had murmured against Moses and Aaron, and God intervened to support their leadership by providing bread from heaven.
Now in 17.1-7, Israel move from the wilderness of Sin at the commandment of God and come to Rephidim. Upon setting up camp they discover that there is no water, 17.1. True to form, the people murmur against Moses and demand water, 17.2. Their increasing thirst caused an increase in their complaining against Moses to such an extent that "Moses cried unto the LORD, saying, ‘What shall I do unto this people? They be almost ready to stone me’" 17.4. The seriousness of their grumbling is seen more clearly in 17.7, where it is identified as questioning the presence of God. God had promised to be with them and they are now questioning God’s honour, implying that God has not kept His word.
Moses’ prayer comprises a very straightforward question; "What shall I do?" Moses is showing us again that when we are at a total loss as to what we should do, our immediate recourse should be to the Lord. God was not at a loss what to do as a result of Moses’ question, He knew exactly what to do and gave Moses a very precise instruction. Nor will God be beaten by any situation for which we cannot find the answer. The lesson from this prayer of Moses is two-fold: we should appeal immediately to God when a crisis arises; and we can have confidence that God has the solution to the problem we bring. And yet again, God demonstrates His great grace in a situation where we might think He would judge the unbelieving people. He bountifully meets their need for water by providing another miracle, 17.6,7.
In 17.8-15 we have the first serious threat to Israel from without: the insidious enemy Amalek appeared and "fought with Israel" 17.8. While there is an abundance of practical teaching in the chapter, because of the remit of this chapter we will have to restrict our comments to Moses’ prayer.
Moses’ actions as a leader are most instructive. He based his course of action upon what God had told him to do at Rephidim in vv.5,6. Moses is building upon previous experience with God. In the same way that he had taken his rod and stood upon the rock at Horeb, 17.6, so too in 17.9 he takes his rod and stands upon the mountain. As he stood above on the rock there were people in great need when Amalek attacked. Moses could neither meet the need of water in 17.1-4, nor the need of military power against Amalek in 17.8, but his God could!
The picture presented by Moses on the top of the hill is beautifully instructive. He is seen as the intercessor for the nation in their need. Alongside Moses on the hill are Aaron and Hur, together presenting a picture of priestly intercession. The symbolism in Moses’ uplifted rod is that of imploring the provision of God and invoking His power. It was, after all, "the rod of God" 17.9. Moses is acting in priestly capacity as he intercedes for the people. The meanings of the names of the two men alongside Moses help to fill out the detail of their intercession. Aaron means "highly exalted," and Hur means "fine white linen". We can detect here a picture of the intercession of our Great High Priest, Who in all the perfection of His manhood is "highly exalted" Phil.2.5-9. The tribal affiliations of these two men also add to the picture. Aaron is from the tribe of Levi, and Hur from the tribe of Judah. This presents a picture of intercession that carries features that are priestly (Levi) and royal (Judah). Similarly, our Great High Priest is after the order of Melchisidec (royal) and according to the pattern of Aaron (priestly). When the enemy strikes we can avail of His intercessory work in heaven at the Father’s right hand.
When dealing with types in the Old Testament, the maximum benefit is achieved by comparing and contrasting the type with Christ. In the previous paragraph we have been comparing the type of Moses on the hill, with Christ in the glory. When the type is contrasted with the anti-type, a lovely lesson is obtained. On the hill Moses needed the help of two men because, as he grew tired and his hands fell by his side, the power from heaven lessened; when he lifted them high, Israel was unstoppable in their conquest of the foe. The contrast is clear. Our Great High Priest never tires, and the availability of power from heaven against the flesh, as pictured in Amalek, is never diminished.
The incident ends with Moses’ hands being "steady until the going down of the sun" 17.12. This is a very encouraging picture of the hands of our Intercessor that will never fall by his side before the battle ends or the day is over. There will be a battle with the flesh until the sun sets upon our dispensation, but we can be sure our Great High Priest will never tire in His intercession for us.
EXODUS CHAPTER 32
The serious events of making and worshipping a golden calf as recorded in vv.1-10 are very sad reading. For a people with such privileges as the abiding presence of Jehovah right in their midst, and the enduring provision of Jehovah in the manna, their sin is almost incredible. As in earlier incidents, we will have to leave the wealth of practical teaching in this incident and concentrate our thoughts on Moses’ prayers in vv.11-13 and then in vv.31,32.
Verses 11–13 - The occasion of Israel’s greatest sin in this stage of the journey from Egypt to Canaan, results in Moses’ greatest prayer until now. In response to the people’s sin his prayer contains two questions and two requests for the Lord. As Moses records the story, he makes it clear that there is no doubt about his allegiance to Jehovah. "Moses besought the LORD his God" v.11. This is in contrast to the people who said that the calf was their god: "These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt" v.4.
Before we examine Moses’ prayer, notice how God speaks to Moses in v.10: "Let Me alone, that My wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them: and I will make of thee a great nation". God’s request for Moses to leave Him alone in His wrath indicates that even before Moses speaks to God about the problem, God knows how Moses will pray. Without diminishing God’s omniscience, this clearly indicates that God knows Moses will react as he always did in a crisis: he will pray about it. What a testimony to Moses as an intercessor. As soon as a problem arises, prayer will be his first recourse. God’s statement in v.10 also indicates a great temptation for Moses: the possibility of a great nation, with him at the head. However, Moses has no interest in personal gain from the people’s sin. His only aim is the maintenance of God’s glory and the furtherance of God’s purpose to bring them out of Egypt into Canaan. This unselfish and unpretentious attitude is one of the reasons he is recorded as being "very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth" Num.12.3. It is also one of the reasons why his intercession on behalf of Israel was effective. He had no ulterior motives.
Moses’ has two questions that go unanswered by God.
- "LORD, why doth Thy wrath wax hot against Thy people, which Thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power, and with a mighty hand?" v.11.
- "Wherefore should the Egyptians speak, and say, ‘For mischief did He bring them out, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth?’" v.12.
Moses is not asking in a spirit of rebellion, nor is he trying to force God’s hand. These are genuine questions. They demonstrate the problem in Moses’ mind. If we know this kind of intimacy with God in prayer, there are times when we will ask questions of Him in our extremity that others, if they could hear, would think were impertinent. Never be afraid to express the deepest thoughts of your heart to God for He knows them anyway!
Moses asks two requests from God which are granted.
- "Turn from Thy fierce wrath and repent of this evil against Thy people" v.12. Theologians have debated for years as to whether God ever changes His mind. Without being simplistic, vv.12-14 make it hard not to conclude that on occasions He does change His mind. Moses asked God to "repent", (change His mind) and "the LORD repented (changed His mind) of the evil which He thought to do unto his people". This demonstrates that praying is a very practical thing to do in a crisis, and it is helpful to remind God of earlier promises He has made.
- "Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Thy servants, to whom Thou swarest by Thine own self, and saidst unto them, ‘I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have spoken of will I give unto your seed, and they shall inherit it for ever" v.13. Here Moses is respectfully pointing out to God that to destroy Israel would mean a failure by Him to fulfil the promises He had made to the patriarch hundreds of years earlier. Moses is also reminding God that these people are His possession, "Thy people", v.12. Was Moses just stating the obvious to God? No, he was demonstrating in his prayer that he understood the Divine revelation given earlier, and that it had a bearing upon his request and God’s answer. We should learn from this how we can intelligently use Scripture in our prayers.
Verses 31,32 - Moses’ second prayer in chapter 32 did not yield the same instant answer as the first, vv.11-13. There had been a purging of the dross in the slaying of those responsible: three thousand men were slain by the Levites, v.28. On the following day the enormity of the people’s sin seemed to hit Moses, for he announced to them, "Ye have sinned a great sin: and now I will go up unto the LORD; peradventure I shall make an atonement for your sin" v.30. Moses then goes into the presence of God, confesses the seriousness of their sin, and prays very directly for their forgiveness. However, Moses adds what seems to be a strange request: if God would not forgive them, He would "blot me, I pray thee, out of Thy book which Thou hast written" v.32. Whether or not we can ever fully understand this request, we can surely see that Moses’ request was not answered, and that an effective intercessor does not minimise sin. It was because he viewed their sin so seriously that he interceded so intensely on their behalf. Perhaps if we were to understand more clearly the dreadfulness of sin, we would be more effective in our prayers for the restoration of those who have fallen.
EXODUS CHAPTER 33
Chapter 33 forms a sequel to the tragic events of idolatry and the ensuing judgment of God upon the people recorded in chapter 32. God demonstrates the reality of His relationship with Moses by speaking with him "face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend" 33.11. There was no doubt about the closeness of their intimacy. Moses then speaks to the Lord and makes a very specific request. In almost all of Moses’ prayers he asks for specific answers.
In the prayer of vv.12,13, Moses asks the Lord to show him His way, so that he might know Him. Moses’ words are very instructive. In effect he says, "Let me get to know Thy way, so that I might get to know Thee." Moses understands that he can only get to know God by getting to know His plan for the future of the nation. When God reveals His plan for the future, He is, in effect, revealing Himself. For us this means that, as we get to know the plan God has for our lives through His Word, we are getting to know more about Him. There is no other way to know God experimentally than through the knowledge of His desires and obedience to His will for our lives.
The answer to the prayer of vv.12,13 is in v.14 when God replied, "My presence shall go with thee, and I will give thee rest". God is telling Moses that he can be sure he knows God when he enjoys God’s presence with him. The same applies to us today: we can be sure we know God when we experience and enjoy His presence daily. The only indication of the will of God that Moses needed was the Divine presence. We might feel that we would be better Christians if we had more knowledge about God: that is, theology. But actually what we should seek is more knowledge of God. That knowledge of God is experienced in His presence and enjoyed by the power of the Holy Spirit. We should continually ask ourselves, is there anything about our lives that grieves the Holy Spirit? If there is we are not enjoying the presence of God, and therefore not developing in our knowledge of Him.
In vv.15,16, Moses goes on to discuss with the Lord the importance of His presence; not just for the success of the journey but also as a testimony to the nations around of Israel’s separation unto the Lord. Moses understands that there is no point in him talking about being separated unto Jehovah if he is not enjoying the presence of Jehovah. Nor should we expect people to believe by our lives that we are a separated people if there is not the evidence of the presence of God to corroborate that claim. The one paramount manifestation of separation is the presence of God. That is a practical challenge!
In vv.17,21-23, God grants Moses’ request, not because of his forceful reasoning but because Moses has demonstrated to the Lord that he understands the importance of the continuing presence of God. It appears that, by Moses' prayer-request and reasoning as he talked with God, he "found grace" in God’s eyes. Moses’ prayers were not some daily, ritual repetition; he manifested spiritual intelligence that pleased God. When God told him that he had found grace in His sight, Moses then made an advance on his earlier request; this time he said "shew me Thy glory" v.18. You will observe the close harmony between these three facets of God that Moses discussed in his prayer: the presence of God, the knowledge of God, and the glory of God. We should seek to emulate Moses’ intimacy and intelligence in prayer and desire that we would experience these three facets of our God. The glory of God is only ever seen in the presence of God, and the knowledge of God is only ever grasped in the presence of God.
EXODUS CHAPTER 34
God has granted Moses’ request and shown him His glory, 34.5-7. Moses immediately bowed towards the ground and worshipped. In his prayer he asks for the Lord to be among His people, grant forgiveness, and retain them as His inheritance. Even though God had graciously answered Moses’ earlier prayer, he takes nothing for granted. Such is the attitude of a reverent saint, even though he has spoken very plainly and intimately with the Lord, he dare not presume upon Divine grace. Neither should we. However often God answers our prayers, we should always approach Him in reverence and with recognition of His grace.
The results of Moses’ prayer life become manifested in his countenance. When Moses descended the mountain in v.29, his face radiated the glory of God in Whose presence he had been, and he wasn’t even aware of it. The radiance was such that Moses had to veil his face when he talked with the people of Israel. His prayer life was manifested in his countenance. There is a challenge for us; is the time we spend in the presence of God revealed in our countenances, without saying anything about it?
NUMBERS CHAPTER 11
There are brief prayers at the end of chapter 10 and the start of chapter 11 that we will pass over. In 11.11-15 we have one of the longer prayers of Moses, and indeed one of the most intense. Israel had rejected the manna, vv.4-6, and God’s anger "was greatly kindled" v.10. Notice that the leader, who was in tune with God, "also was greatly displeased" v.10. A deep prayer life like that of Moses means that he is in complete harmony with the attitude of God against sin. One of the tell-tale signs that our prayer life is out of tune is when we begin to tolerate sin. Are you no longer shocked by sin? Do you not even raise an eyebrow when foul language is uttered in your presence, or sin is openly flaunted before you? If so, the reason is that you have lost your intimacy with God; your prayer life is on the wane.
Moses’ prayer reveals the consternation of his soul. But notice in the words he expressed that he had lost sight of what God expected of him as a leader. "Wherefore hast Thou afflicted Thy servant?" v.11. The pressure of a complaining people had worn him down to the point where he felt that by their disobedience God was afflicting him! One of the early signs of discouragement is when you feel that the pressures of life are an affliction from the Lord. God was not responsible for Israel’s sin, nor for Moses’ afflictions.
Moses goes even further in v.11, to ask "Wherefore have I not found favour in Thy sight that Thou layest all the burden of this people upon me?" Moses’ thoughts are in disarray. God had not laid the burden of the people upon him, for He had stated earlier that He would go with him, Ex.3.12 and 33.14. Secondly, God had told Moses, "thou hast found grace (favour) in My sight and I know thee by name" Ex.33.17. Yet the pressures of life and leadership had caused Moses to forget the plainly revealed mind of God. In vv.12,13 Moses expresses his deepest concerns, further demonstrating that his thinking has gone astray. In v.14 he states something that if he had acknowledged earlier, he would have saved himself a lot of mental turmoil: "I am not able to bear all this people alone, because it is too heavy for me." Of course he is not able. Of course they are too heavy for him. Why did he ever think otherwise? Sometimes we get the wrong idea of what God expects from us in His service, and the result is massive discouragement. The earlier experience that Moses had of the presence of God and the knowledge of God seems to have been lost, and discouragement develops into despair. That despair is expressed in a request that God would kill him right away: "Don’t delay, Lord, just get it over with. Much better if I wasn’t around." Poor Moses! He has got so far down that he asks the Lord to do something that he ought to know would not be in His will.
How did God deal with His petulant servant? Notice the kind and gracious way in which God answered Moses’ prayer. Even though Moses was completely wrong in his petition, God deals very gently with the discouraged servant. The "God of all comfort Who comforteth us in all our tribulation" 2Cor.1.3,4, recognises the problem of His servant’s ‘burnout’ and provides the answer to his prayer in vv.16,17. Moses got the answer, but certainly not in the way he asked or expected. Even when God provided the answer in vv.16,17, Moses continued to remonstrate with Him in vv.21,22. Again God answered Moses’ request. This time God answered by simply reminding Moses of His power and intention to complete His purpose in delivering Israel. There may be times when discouragement causes us to utter things in the presence of God about which we are later embarrassed. The great encouragement is that God is patient and kind, and supplies comfort to deal with the cause of our impatience. He very wisely overlooks the extreme requests that we make. It is very fortunate for us that God does not answer all our prayers in the way we request. God is not just powerful; He is also patient.
NUMBERS CHAPTER 12
The interesting pattern in the book of Numbers is that most of Moses’ prayers are initiated by the sin of others. How much does the sin of others drive us to prayer? It is much better to discuss the wrongdoing of others with God in the secrecy of the private place of prayer, than to make them a matter of general gossip.
Miriam and Aaron, the sister and brother of Moses, had openly criticised Moses and challenged his right to leadership. Even before Moses had time to say or do anything about it, God descended to the camp and called the three of them out from their tents to the door of the tabernacle, 12.1-5. There God made a very public announcement of His pleasure with Moses and His displeasure with Miriam and Aaron. Moses did not have to pray that God would come to his defence; God did it immediately without being asked. Upon God leaving them, Miriam was struck with leprosy. Aaron asked Moses not to "lay the sin upon them" v.11. In other words, Aaron asked Moses to relieve them of the burden of their sin’s consequences.
How would we have responded to such a request? The natural reaction would have been for Moses to say that he could do nothing about it; it was now in the Lord’s hands. Moses might have said that he did not initiate the action. It was God Who had done it, therefore he could not influence it. However, he immediately "cried unto the LORD, saying, heal her now, O God, I beseech Thee" v.13. Notice that Moses does not address God here as Jehovah, but as El, "The Mighty One". This situation is going to require the power of God, and Moses addresses His God appropriately. God graciously answers Moses’ prayer, but not before discipline is exercised. Moses had learned enough of God to know not to try to negotiate a different response from Him in respect of how Miriam is to be brought back into the camp. A man who knows the mind of God will know when it is appropriate to make a further request, and when to accept the answer as final.
NUMBERS CHAPTER 14
Yet another occasion of sin by Israel causes Moses to pray to God. The well-known incident at Kadesh-Barnea, where the ten spies with an evil report persuaded the nation to refuse to enter the land, caused the Lord to be angry, 14.1-12.
This is the second time that God threatens to destroy the nation and start all over again with Moses as the head of a new nation. It would take a very spiritual man to resist the temptation to tell the Lord to proceed! What an elevation that would have been for Moses. Notice how he expresses himself before the Lord in his prayer of vv.13-19. In a long protracted discourse, Moses points out (similar to what he did in Exodus chapter 32 at the sin of the golden calf) that the honour of the Lord will suffer if He wipes the nation out. He tells the Lord that the Egyptians will laugh, v.13, and the Egyptians will tell the Canaanites, v.14, and the testimony of Jehovah’s power will be tarnished, vv.15,16.
Moses’ request in vv.17-19 is remarkable: "And now, I beseech Thee, let the power of my Lord be great, according as Thou hast spoken, saying, The LORD is longsuffering and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression ... Pardon I beseech Thee, the iniquity of this people according unto the greatness of Thy mercy, and as Thou hast forgiven this people from Egypt even until now." In effect, Moses is telling the Lord that the greatest demonstration of His power is manifested in His mercy. It would have been a clear manifestation of Divine power had God wiped them out in judgment; but what a greater manifestation to the nations around there would be in His pardon! Once again, God grants Moses’ request and tells him that the pardon is in direct response to what he has just said. "And the LORD said, I have pardoned according to thy word" v.20.
This is another instance of the power of prevailing payer. "The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much" Jms.5.16. Never hesitate to pray about serious matters, and don’t be vague: make direct and specific request to God, based upon His earlier revealed plans and will.
NUMBERS CHAPTER 16
In v.15 we have yet another of Moses’ very brief and specific prayers, but this time with a noticeable difference. In this case Moses was not just angry but "very wroth". The cause of his anger was not simply because Korah, Dathan and Abiram challenged his leadership, but also because of their refusal to meet him and accept his counsel, v.12. In their refusal they demonstrated that their minds had become so twisted with sin that they had lost grip on reality. They likened Egypt, the land of their bondage and hardship, to the land of promise; "thou hast brought us up out of a land that floweth with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness ..." v.12. This is typical of how Satan distorts the thinking, and rebellion becomes irrational.
It is clear from the wording of Moses’ prayer that he was deeply wounded by their allegations against him when he said to the Lord "I have not taken one ass from them, neither have I hurt one of them". The strong wording in his request reflects the depth of his hurt, "respect not Thou their offering". The tense he used indicates that he meant ‘don’t ever respect their offering.’
However, while we may understand why Moses was so deeply affected by their criticism, and feel that it was hardly in order for him to direct God like that, his prayer language shows that he knew how God felt about their sin. God’s unreserved judgment against them demonstrates that He did exactly what Moses requested, see vv.28-33. God viewed their sin in the same way as Moses did. God didn’t have to make any adjustments in order to accede to Moses’ request. Moses and God were in harmony against the people’s sin. Here is yet another indication of the deep, spiritual maturity of Moses. His prayer life shows that he intimately knew the mind of God and was able to ask in accordance with the Divine will. Do we have such knowledge of His will in the things we pray for?
NUMBERS CHAPTER 21
The incident of the "fiery serpents" and the "serpent of brass" is very well known, even to Sunday School children. In this incident there is a prayer of Moses about which we have very little detail. We do not know how long or short it was, since it is tersely stated, "And Moses prayed for the people" v.7. What did he ask for? We are not told.
Here we have a useful lesson for those involved in the spread of the gospel. Included in this incident are the three indispensable requirements for God’s blessing on those who have been struck down by the plague of sin.
The Request presented by the bitten Israelite. A sinner will never get relief from the sting of sin if he does not ask to be saved. Sinners are not saved as automatons. The sinner must desire salvation. Hence the need when presenting the gospel to make clear that the unsaved are sinners and under the condemnation of God.
The Request petitioned by Moses. A sinful people needed someone to make request to God on their behalf. The apostle Paul gives us an example of this in Rom.10.1: "Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer [‘supplication’] to God for Israel is, that they might be saved." In our prayers for the unsaved we should be persistent and specific "that they might be saved".
The Remedy prepared by the Lord. Immediately upon presenting his petition, v.7, "the LORD said unto Moses, "Make thee a fiery serpent and set it upon a pole ..."" v.8. God did not immediately save all the bitten Israelites. He did not delay in answering the supplication of Moses, but first of all the will of the needy victim had to be involved. A serpent of brass was to be placed on a pole, with the instruction "that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived" v.9. Nor will God delay in revealing the remedy of salvation in Christ to the sinner. When we pray for a person’s salvation and God answers by revealing to him or her the claims of the gospel through the work of the Holy Spirit, how the sinner responds to that revelation of the gospel determines whether or not they get saved. God will not save sinners against their will.
NUMBERS CHAPTER 27
Here we have the record of the final prayer of Moses. After a long and busy life of serving God as the leader of His people, Moses has been told that it is time to come home. He will not be permitted to enter the land of promise towards which he had marched for 40 years. There was no bitterness in Moses’ heart, another evidence of a man whose heart was in tune with God.
If you were faced with a direct communication from heaven like this, how would you pray? Would your prayer be marked by recrimination and protest? Would you try to strike a deal with God to get Him to relent? The chief concern in Moses’ prayer is for the people of Israel. Yes, the people who had been such a bane to him throughout his service! He was praying for the same rebellious people who at times had driven him to the point of despair! As you read the prayer you can feel his pity and concern for the people of God.
"Let the LORD, the God of the spirits of all flesh, set a man over the congregation,which may go out before them, and which may go in before them, and which may lead them out, and which may bring them in; that the congregation of the Lord be not as sheep which have no shepherd" vv.16,17. With discernment and experience Moses knew that if left to themselves the people of Israel would soon wander like sheep having no shepherd. His concern was that God would raise up a leader to look after them and provide spiritual guidance until they were safely in the land.
How easy it would have been in those circumstances to make requests that focussed on himself. Not Moses; he was too meek for that sort of selfish behaviour.
Even though this chapter of the book has exceeded the length suggested, we cannot close without a brief mention of this Psalm. It is important to our chapter because:
It is the only Psalm identified with Moses in its heading
It is the oldest psalm in the whole Psalter, and
Moses is described as "Moses, the man of God".
The contents of the Psalm reflect many of the experiences of Moses during his lifetime of service for God.
As the author of Genesis, Moses, by Divine inspiration, revealed the creation of the world. In Ps.90.2 he speaks of the mountains being "brought forth". Moses begins the Genesis record of creation by telling of a God Who was already there: "In the beginning God ..." Gen.1.1. He speaks of the Sovereign Lord in similar terms, "Even from everlasting to everlasting, Thou art God".
As the leader of Israel in the wilderness Moses had seen God move in judgment to such an extent that the "children of men" v.3, were "carried away as with a flood" v.5. He had been with Israel when they confessed that they were "consumed by Thine anger and by Thy wrath are we troubled" v.7.
As the earliest Psalmist, Moses writes in the oldest Psalm in the book, of his God Who transcended all time, "From everlasting to everlasting Thou art God" v.2.
Moses, as "the man of God" (see the Psalm’s inscription) knew the intimacy of dwelling with God, v.1. The whole psalm reveals a man who was happy to speak to God. In speaking to Him, Moses was concerned with knowing the presence of God, v.13, and doing the will of God in a way that pleased Him, vv.16,17.
These are all features of the prayer life of one who is designated by God as a "man of God". The definitive feature of every man of God is that he is a man of prayer.