Gleanings In Exodus
by A. W. Pink
4. Moses At The Burning Bush
In our last chapter we saw how Moses’ attempt to deliver Israel was inopportune, for God’s time had not arrived. Moreover, the leader himself was not fully prepared, nor were the Hebrews themselves ready to leave Egypt. The impetuosity of Moses caused him to act with a zeal which was not according to knowledge and this, as is usually the case, brought him into serious trouble. The king sought his life, and to escape him, Moses fled into Midian. So much for the human side. Turning to the Divine, we are made to wonder at and worship before the infinite wisdom of Him who maketh the wrath of man to praise Him and who bringeth good out of evil.
God had an important work for Moses to do and for this he must be prepared. That work was to lead His people out of Egypt, and conduct them unto the promised inheritance. And for this work Moses was not yet equipped. It is true that this one who had become the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter had received a thorough education, for he was "learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians." Nor was he any longer a youth, but now forty years of age—in the very prime of life. Nor was he only a student or theorist—he was "mighty in words and deeds" (Acts 7:22). What, then, was lacking? Surely here was one who possessed all the necessary qualifications for leadership. Ah, how different are God’s thoughts from ours! "That which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God" (Luke 16:15). What we have enumerated above were but natural attainments and acquirements; and the natural man is set aside before God, for no flesh can glory in His presence (1 Cor. 1:29).
The "wisdom of the Egyptians", profound as men esteem it, was, after all, only "the wisdom of the world"; and that is "foolishness with God." The colleges of this world cannot equip for the Divine service; for that we must be taught in the school of God. And that is something which the natural man knows nothing about—"And the Jews marvelled, saying, How knoweth this man letters, having never learned?"—in their academies (John 7:15). To learn in the school of God, then, Moses must turn his back on the land of the Pharaoh’s. It is so still. The heart must be separated, the spirit divorced from the world, if progress is to be made in spiritual things. "The hand of man can never mould a vessel ‘meet for the Master’s use’. The One who is to use the vessel can alone prepare it."
"Now Moses kept the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian: and he led the flock to the backside of the desert, and came to the mountain of God, even to Horeb" (Ex. 3:1). From Egypt to "the backside of the desert", from the palace to the sheepfold, was a radical change for this man who was yet to fill so important a role. Tending flocks seems a strange preparation for one who was to be the liberator of a nation of slaves. And again we are reminded of how different are God’s thoughts and ways from man’s. And the ways of God are not only different from ours, but they are obnoxious to the flesh: as Genesis 46:31 tells us, "Every shepherd is an abomination to the Egyptians." Thus God leads His servants to take that very place which is hateful to worldlings.
"The ‘backside of the desert’ is where men and things, the world and self, present circumstances and their influences, are all valued at what they are really worth. There it is. and there alone, that you will find a Divinely-adjusted balance in which to weigh all within and all around. There are no false colors, no borrowed plumes, no empty pretensions. The enemy of your souls cannot gild the sand of that place. All is reality there. The heart that has found itself in the presence of God at ‘the backside of the desert’, has right thoughts about everything. It is raised far above the exciting influences of this world’s schemes. The din and noise, the bustle and confusion of Egypt, do not fall upon the ear in that distant place. The crash in the monetary and commercial world is not heard there; the sigh of ambition is not heard there; this world’s fading laurels do not tempt there; the thirst for gold is not felt there; the eye is never dimmed with lust, nor the heart swollen with pride there; human applause does not elate, nor human censure depress there. In a word, everything is set aside save the stillness and light of the Divine presence. God’s voice alone is heard, His light enjoyed, His thoughts received. This is the place to which all must go to be educated for the ministry; and there all must remain if they would succeed in the ministry" (C. H. M.).
What strikes us as even more strange is that Moses should have to remain forty years in Midian. But God is in no hurry; nor should we be—"He that believeth shall not make haste" (Isa. 28:16). There is much here which every servant of God needs to ponder, particularly the younger ones. In this day it is the common custom to pitchfork new converts into Christian activities without any serious inquiry as to their fitness for such solemn and momentous duties. If a person is "mighty in words and deeds" that is considered all that is necessary. "Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the Devil" (1 Tim. 3:6) might as well not be in the Bible, for all the weight it has with most of our moderns.
In a place of retirement Moses spent the second forty years of his life; a place where every opportunity for communion with God was afforded. Here he was to learn the utter vanity of human resources and the need for entire dependence on God Himself. To be much alone with God is the first requisite for every servant of His. But why is it that no details are recorded of God’s dealings with His servant during this interval? Practically nothing is told us of the experiences through which he passed, the discipline of which he was the subject, the heart exercises he suffered. As in the case of the training of the prophets, John the Baptist, Paul in Arabia, this is passed over in silence. Is it because God’s dealings with one of His servants are not fitted to another? Are there not some things we can learn neither by precept nor example? Certain it is that there is no uniform curriculum in the school of God. Each servant is dealt with according to his individual needs and disciplined with a view to the particular work which God has for him to do.
"And he led the flock to the backside of the desert, and came to the mountain of God, even to Horeb" (v. 1). Horeb was the name of a mountain range; Sinai, the "mount of God" (see Exodus 24:12, 13), was a particular peak in that range. It was in this same mount that, centuries later, the Lord met with and commissioned Elijah (1 Kings 19:4-11), as, perhaps, it was also at the same place He gave the Gospel of His glory to the apostle Paul (Gal. 1:17; 4:25).
"And the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt" (Ex. 3:2,3). Here was a wonder which all the magicians of Pharaoh could not produce. Here was something which must baffle all the wisdom of the Egyptians. Here was a manifestation of God Himself. The Hebrew word here for "bush" occurs in only one other passage, namely, Deuteronomy 33:16, where we read, "And for the precious things of the earth and fullness thereof, and for the good will of Him that dwelt in the bush." In this verse the word for "dwelt" is "shall-chan." It was, then, the Shekinah glory which was now displayed before the wondering eyes of Moses. This, we take it, is the meaning of "the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame" here manifested in the Shekinah-glory.
The "Angel of the Lord" was none other than the Lord Jesus in theophanic manifestation, for in verse 4 He is denominated "Lord" and "God." This sets forth a truth of vital moment to the servant of God. Before Moses can be sent forth on his important mission he must first behold the ineffable glory of the Lord. To serve acceptably we must work with an eye single to God’s glory, but to do this we must first gaze upon that glory. It was so here with Moses. It was thus with Isaiah (Isa. 6). It was the same in the case of the great apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 9:3, etc.). Make no mistake fellow-laborer, a vision of the glory of God is an essential prerequisite if we are to serve Him acceptably.
Ere considering the Lord’s words to Moses, let us first turn aside and view the "great sight" of the Burning Bush. We are satisfied that there is much here of deep significance; may God grant us discernment to understand and appreciate.
Spiritually the Burning Bush speaks of the Gospel of God’s grace. The symbol used was unique and startling. A bush burned with fire, and yet the bush (in that and desert a most inflammable object) was not burnt. Here was a mysterious phenomenon, but it set forth a mystery far more profound—the former natural, the latter moral. Fire in Scripture is uniformly the emblem of Divine judgment, that is, of God’s holiness in active opposition against evil. The final word on the subject is, "Our God is a consuming fire" (Heb. 12:29). Here, then, is the deeper mystery: How can God, who is ‘a consuming fire’—burning up all that is contrary to His holy nature—reveal Himself without consuming? Or, to put it in another form: How can He who is "of purer eyes than to behold evil and canst not look on iniquity" (Hab. 1:13) have to do with men, other than in judgment! Nothing but the Gospel contains any real solution to this problem. The Gospel tells of how grace reigns, not at the expense of righteousness, but "through righteousness, unto eternal life, through Jesus Christ our Lord" (Rom. 5:21).
And how has this been accomplished? By the Holy One of God being made a "curse" for us (Gal. 3:13). It is deeply significant that the word "seneh" means "thorny bush", for thorns are the lasting reminder of the curse (Gen. 3:18). Into the place of the curse entered our blessed Substitute. The fierce flames of holy wrath engulfed Him, but, being "mighty" (Ps. 89:19), they did not, and could not, consume Him. The "Root out of a dry ground" perished not. It was not possible that death should hold the Prince of life. Three days only did He remain in the tomb: on the third day He came forth triumphant, and is now alive for evermore. And it is as the God of resurrection He now saves. Note how this, too, comes out in our type. Said the Savior to the Sadducees, "Now that the dead are raised, even Moses showed at the bush, when he called the Lord the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. For He is not a God of the dead, but of the living: for all live unto Him" (Luke 20:37, 38). And how perfect this type is: it was not until after the Deliverer (Moses) had been rejected by Israel (Ex. 2:14) that God thus revealed Himself at the bush!
But there is a dispensational significance as well. Equally clear it is that the Burning Bush was a figure of the nation of Israel. At the time the Lord appeared here to Moses, the Hebrews were suffering in "the iron furnace of Egypt" (Deut. 4:20), but fiercely as the flames had burned against them for fully forty years, they had not been consumed. And so also has it proven all through these many centuries since then. The fires of persecution have blazed hotly, yet have they been marvelously, miraculously sustained. And why? Ah, does not our type make answer? God Himself was in the Burning Bush; and so He has been with Israel. Just as He was there with the three Hebrews in the midst of Babylon’s furnace, so has He been with the Jews all through their checkered history. In the day to come this will be fully owned, for then shall it appear, "in all their affliction He was afflicted, and the Angel of His presence saved them" (Isa. 63:9).
While the miraculous preservation of Israel during all their fiery trials is no doubt the prominent thought here, there are others equally significant. The symbol selected by God was most suggestive. It was not in a majestic tree of the forest that God appeared to Moses, but in a humble acacia, or thorn-bush of the desert. And how fitly this represented both the lowly origin of the Hebrew people—"A Syrian ready to perish was my father" (Deut. 26:5); and their subsequent history—a separated nation, dwelling as it were in the desert. Nor is this all. This humble bush, which possessed neither beauty nor comliness, became, temporarily, the abode of Jehovah, and from it He revealed Himself to Moses. And has it not been thus with Israel: it is from their midst God has manifested Himself. Finally, the fact that it was an acacia bush burning with fire, represented in a forceful figure the spiritual history of Israel—bearing thorns rather than fruit, and in consequence, being chastened of God. Naturalists tell us that thorns are abortive branches, which if developed would bring forth leaves and fruit.
"And when the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I. And He said, Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground" (vv. 4, 5). How this helps to interpret for us the moral meaning of the "flame of fire"—the activities of Divine holiness. The Shekinah-glory which abode upon the mercy-seat over the ark was not only the evidence of Jehovah’s presence in Israel’s midst, but was the manifest emblem of His holiness—abiding in the Holy of Holies. It was in holiness God was about to deal both with the Egyptians and with His own people, and of this Moses needed to be instructed. He must put off the shoes of every day walk and life, and draw near in the spirit of true worship. Another important lesson is this for the servant of God today. Each laborer in the vineyard needs to keep constantly before him the fact that the One with whom he has to do, and whom he serves, is holy, thrice holy. A realization of this would check the lightness and levity of the flesh.
"Moreover He said, I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. And Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look upon God" (v. 6). Thus the Lord stood revealed before Moses as the covenant-keeping God, the God of all grace. When God picked up Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and made them the fathers of His chosen people, it was not because of any excellence in them, seen or foreseen; rather was it His pure sovereign benignity. So, too, now that He is about to redeem the Hebrews from the land of bondage, it is not because of any good in them or from them. It is as the God of Abraham—the sovereign Elector; the God of Isaac—the almighty Quickener; the God of Jacob—the long-suffering One; who is about to bare His arm, display His power and deliver His people. And in this same threefold character does He act today. The God of Abraham is our God the One who sovereignly chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world. The God of Isaac is our God—the One who by His own miraculous power made us new creatures in Christ. The God of Jacob is our God—the One who bears with us in infinite patience, who never forsakes us, and who has promised to perfect that which concerns us (Ps. 138:8).
"And the Lord said, I have surely seen the affliction of My people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows (v. 7). Mark carefully the condition of these Hebrews: crushed by the cruel oppression of Egypt’s slavery; groaning beneath the iron rod of Pharaoh. And how this pictures the condition of the natural man, the bond-slave of sin, the captive of the Devil. This is true not only of the slave of lust or the helpless victim of drugs, but of the moral and refined. They, too, are in bondage to gold, pleasure, ambition, and a dozen other things. The "affliction" which sin has brought is everywhere to be seen, not only in physical suffering, but in mental restlessness and heart discontent. The varied "lusts of the flesh" are just as merciless as the Egyptian taskmasters of old; and the "sorrows" of sin’s slaves today just as acute as those of the Israelites midst the iron furnace of Egypt. What woe there really is behind the fair surface of society! How fearful the misery which has come on the whole race of man through sin! How great the need for the Savior! How terrible the guilt of despising Him now that He has come!
"And the Lord said, I have surely seen the affliction of My people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows" (v. 7). The One speaking here is termed in the second verse "the Angel of the Lord." This we know from Malachi 3:1, and other scriptures, was Christ Himself, in theophanic manifestation. It is very helpful and instructive to trace Him as "the Angel of the Lord" all through the Old Testament. The first time He is thus brought before us is in Genesis 16:13: "And she called the name of the Lord (the "Angel of the Lord", see vv. 9, 10) that spake unto her, Thou God seest me: for she said, Have I also here looked after Him that seeth me?" The second occurrence is in Genesis 21:17 "And the Angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven, and said unto her, What aileth thee, Hagar? Fear not; for God hath heard the voice of the lad where he is." Thus, in the third reference here in Exodus 3, we have combined the "seeth" and "heard" which are the central things in the first two. Let the interested reader follow out the other references for himself. How blessed for us to know that there is One above who never slumbers nor sleeps, but "hears" and "sees" all our afflictions!
"For I know their sorrows" (v. 7). With this should be compared Exodus 2:23: "And it came to pass in process of time, that the king of Egypt died: and the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage." The tenderness of the original is hidden by this rendering. The R. V. gives it: "And it came to pass in the course of those many days, that the king of Egypt died", etc. How these words throb with Divine compassion. There were between fourteen and fifteen thousand "days", during that forty years of Moses’ sojourn in Midian; and each of them were days of anguish for them. But God had not ignored them, nor been indifferent to their hard lot—"I know their sorrows." How blessed for us, in times of stress and distress to remember that there is One above who takes notice. This was how Job consoled himself (see Job 23:10). The Call Moses received and his Responses thereto we reserve for separate consideration.