The Prince of Egypt, The Servant of God: It Isn’t Over ’till It’s Over!
Come December, a wonderful movie will appear in theaters all over this country. It is an animated feature film entitled The Prince of Egypt, and it tells the Biblical story of Moses in a powerful and inspiring way. It’s a movie which both adults and children can enjoy and appreciate, therefore, I hope that all of you will make plans to see it. And in order to enhance your experience of the movie, I am spending these weeks with you, looking at how Moses, the Prince of Egypt, became Moses, the Servant of God …
Life isn’t fair—just ask Moses.
Here was Moses being told by God that he could not cross over into the Promised Land. I mean, Moses never asked for the job of leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. He never asked for those emotionally-wrenching confrontations with his adopted brother, the Egyptian Pharaoh. He never asked for the nerve-shattering experience of crossing the Red Sea with the thundering chariots of the Egyptians right behind them. He never asked for forty years of wandering in the wilderness with these stubborn, stiff-necked, bellyaching people. He never asked for the thankless task of putting up with their constant complaining and their cutting criticisms. Moses never asked for any of that. But when God called, Moses responded. He took up the task to which he had been drafted and he set out toward the goal. And what was the goal? The Promised Land. Moses was charged with the responsibility of bringing God’s people to God’s land. Now once, in the course of those forty years, Moses blew his cool. Frustrated by these people who caused him such endless headaches, once—that’s all, just once—he misused the power that God had given him. And because of that one sin in what seems a dreadfully cruel twist of fate, when they finally got within sight of the Promised Land, God said: “Well, there it is Moses, the Promised Land. Take a long, hard look at it if you wish, but you’ll never feel it beneath your feet.”
This last chapter in the Book of Deuteronomy in the Bible is a chapter I frequently reread, but I must tell you that I never read it without a complex mixture of anger, frustration, tears and hope. We are told that Moses climbed to the top-most peak of Mount Nebo, which is called “Pisgah.” From that vantage point, 4000 feet above the Dead Sea, he was treated to a breathtaking panorama of the Holy Land. Beneath him flowed the Jordan River from the Sea of Galilee in the north to the Dead Sea just to his left, creating the lush green Jordan River Valley. Straight ahead in the distance, his eye fell upon the mount where years later the temple of Jerusalem would rise, and near it, the Mount of Olives. To the northwest there was Mount Tabor jutting up out of the flatlands. Beyond that, barely visible in the distance was Mount Carmel, and a scant glimpse of the Mediterranean Sea. Imagine what he must have felt as his eye took in the sight of that glorious land stretched out before him, and imagine what he must have felt as his ear took in the word of God: “There it is, Moses, the Land of Promise—the land flowing with milk and honey. You can look at it, but you cannot go there.”
It just doesn’t seem fair, now does it? Well, when you look at the story superficially, there was nothing fair about it. But when you look at the whole story, and when you begin to understand what God was doing in the midst of that story, then your feelings of anger and frustration are replaced by tears of joy and hope. You see, while at that moment it may have seemed that the story was over, it wasn’t over. With God, it’s never over ‘til it’s over!
Though the story of Moses looked like it was over, it wasn’t over because God’s idea is always a better idea.
God knew that when those Israelites crossed over the Jordan into the Promised Land, there were going to be many battles which would have to be fought. And while it is true that Moses was rather well preserved for a man of 120 years, he was still no “spring chicken.” So God had prepared a young, strong, aggressive man named Joshua to lead the forces of Israel into battle once they moved in to occupy the Promised Land. God knew that under those circumstances the people would need the leadership, not of an old man, as great and magnificent as Moses was, but of a young, dynamic military leader. Yet how could Joshua ever have exercised authority over the people with great old Moses still around? Moses stood head and shoulders above all others. In fact, Deuteronomy states that “his eye was not dim nor had his natural force abated.” So how could Joshua have mustered a response for the people as long as Moses was still on the scene? It was necessary for Moses to be taken out of the picture. God knew best what the people most needed at that point.
The powerful truth that comes from this story is that while we may not get to the Promised Land, while we may not see all our dreams in life fulfilled, there will be others whom God will use to keep the dreams alive. Martin Luther King Jr. had a great dream and vision for America in our time. In spite of the tough and turbulent sixties, amidst the jails, the tear gas, the police dogs, the venom and the bitterness, Martin Luther King was able to hold on to his vision and his dream. There came that memorable August day at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. where King articulated that dream in what many regard as one of the most powerful addresses ever delivered, calling America to live up to its ideal of freedom for all. Not quite five years later, in the last speech he ever delivered, making a haunting allusion to Moses, Martin Luther King said: “I have been to the mountaintop. God’s allowed me to go up to the mountain and I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to that promised land. And so I’m happy tonight … Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” After that speech, King returned to his motel room in Memphis and was cut down by an assassin’s bullet. But the dream had already been passed on. What one man could not do, thousands upon thousands of Joshuas have begun to do. The dream still lives.
I love the way Augustine expressed it. He said: “Sometimes God denies the form of our desire in order to grant us the substance of our need.” In other words, God does not always give us what we want so that He can give us what we really need. When Moses, the Prince of Egypt, became Moses, the Servant of God, he learned that great truth: God’s idea is always the best idea. It’s a truth you and I need to learn as well.
Though the story of Moses looked like it was over, it wasn’t over because God never closes a door without opening a window.
Do you know who said: “God never closes a door without opening a window”? It was Helen Keller. She was blind. She was deaf. She was unable to speak. Yet she said: “God never closes a door without opening a window.”
As Moses stood on the slopes of Mount Nebo, he looked out at all he had worked for and struggled for during all those years. It was the Promised Land, shimmering in the white light of the Middle Eastern sun. And God said to him: “I have let you see it with your eyes but I will not let you cross over there.” God closed the door. But I think it’s quite clear that God went on to say something else to Moses. I think He said: “Moses, you will not go into the Promised Land now, but instead you will come to be with me in the land of greatest promise, which is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Yes, I believe that God closed the door to the Promised Land, but I think He then opened the window to nothing less than heaven itself.
Just look at what happened years later. You can read it for yourself in Luke 9. We are told that Jesus and three of His disciples climbed Mount Tabor. There, Jesus was transfigured before them, transformed into shimmering glory. And then it says the two men stood with Him in that shimmering glory. One was Elijah; the other was Moses. Think of it. At long last Moses’ final prayer was answered. He stood on the soil of the Promised Land, confirming the fact that just as God delivered the Israelites from the shackles of Egypt, so He will deliver His people from the shackles of death.
Please don’t make the mistake of thinking that The Prince of Egypt is just another movie, and please don’t make the mistake of saying: “I don’t go to movies anymore.” Go to this one. It’s not just another movie. It is, I believe, nothing less than a window into the Scriptures. A clear-eyed viewing of the movie and an open-eyed reading of the Biblical record will reveal a powerful portrait of Moses. Here was one who was weak and even cowardly at some moments, angry and even murderous at other moments. He was deeply flawed, sometimes even dysfunctional, and yet God tapped him for true greatness. In forty tortuous years as a stuttering shepherd, shy of leadership skills and haunted by his own crimes of passion, followed by another forty years as the reluctant leader of a band of recalcitrant people wandering in the wilderness—all of it transformed Moses into one who would alter the course of human history forever. I love the way Elie Wiesel expresses it:
Moses, the most solitary and most powerful hero in Biblical history. The intensity of his task and the scope of his experience command our admiration, our reverence, our awe. Moses, the man who changed the course of history all by himself; his emergence became the decisive turning point. After him, nothing was the same again.
It is not surprising that he occupies a special place in the Jewish tradition. His passion for social justice, his struggle for national liberation, his triumphs and disappointments, his poetic inspiration, his gifts as a strategist and his organizational genius, his complex relationship with God and His people, his requirements and promises, his condemnations and blessing, his bursts of anger, his silences, his efforts to reconcile the law with compassion, authority with integrity—no individual, ever, anywhere, accomplished so much for so many people in so many different domains. His influence is boundless, it reverberates beyond time.
So how do I know that God and Moses are together in heaven? Well, our Presbyterian Confession of Faith has this line within it: “The work of redemption was not wrought by Christ until after His incarnation, but then the effects and the benefits of that redemption were communicated back across time to the beginning of the ages to all of God’s elect.” Make no mistake, Moses was one of God’s elect. And so I believe that that day on the slopes of Mt. Nebo, Moses heard the promise and saw the window and understood. Because the Prince of Egypt became the Servant of God, he learned that God never closes a door without opening a window. That’s a truth you and I need to learn as well.
We come to the final lines of the story of Moses. We do not know precisely how death came for him, but after studying this passage in Deuteronomy 5 and after reading the writings of the old Jewish rabbis on the subject, let me tell you what I think happened.
Martin Buber likened the great man Moses climbing up Mount Nebo to “one of those noble animals who leave the herd in order to perish alone.” But Moses was not alone. He was attended by the God he had served so long. I think the two of them stood together there for a long while, looking out over God’s land. The two of them were as different as night and day but to see them standing there together you would have thought they were brothers. They had had their ups and downs. Sometimes they worked together like a hand and a glove, other times they were like the poles of two magnets pushing each other away. But through it all, each of them had fulfilled his part of the contract. Now the project was over. There was nothing more for them to do together, but neither of them really wanted to say it out loud. And so there they stood, shoulder to shoulder, saying things like, “Do you remember the time when … ?” and “Wasn’t that something when … ?” Then came the end. The Jewish tradition describes it like this:
When he reached the top of the mountain, he halted. You have one more minute, God warned him so as not to deprive him of his right to death. And Moses lay down. And God said: Close your eyes. And Moses closed his eyes. And God said: Fold your arms across your chest. And Moses folded his arms across his chest. Then, silently, God kissed his lips. And the soul of Moses found shelter in God’s breath and was swept away into eternity.
I think that’s the way it was. The Hebrew phrase used to describe the moment in Deuteronomy 34:5: “So Moses died by the mouth of Yahweh.” The death of Moses, then, is an ironic reversal of God’s gift of life to Adam. God put His lips to Adam and breathed life into him, but now God put His lips to Moses and drew the life out of him. This is so beautiful that I can scarcely find words to describe it. Once again, the Hebrew says: “He buried him.” Who is the “He”? I think it is God. I think God picked up the body of His beloved Moses and buried it where no one knows so that people would worship not the dead Moses, but the living God whom Moses had served. In the seldom-read Epistle of Jude there is an unusual reference to the fact that the archangel Michael and the devil fought over the body of Moses. He was so great a man, this Prince of Egypt, this Servant of God, that heaven and hell fought over his body.
A poet has written that Moses is like a finger pointing to Christ. And so he is, this Egyptian prince—murderer, shepherd, spokesman, miracle-worker, liberator, and God’s hero and friend. Through him was born a hope that another would come, a new Moses greater than the first, who would bring a new law; this one written not on stone tablets but on human hearts. A new Moses greater than the first, who would lead his people, not to some earthly promised land but to the land of ultimate promise in the Kingdom of Heaven. And come He did. And we call His name Jesus because He saves His people from their sins …