I think one of the saddest and most sobering verses in Scripture is Numbers 20:12.
"But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, 'Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.'"
Moses twice struck the rock in anger instead of speaking to the rock, as a result, he forfeited his earthly experience of entering the "land flowing with milk and honey" (Numbers 14:8), which God had promised to his people.
For forty long, arduous years, Moses had faithfully led God's adulterous, idolatrous people through the wilderness. He had stood in the gap between this unfaithful, quarreling nation and their faithful, loving God. He had served them, governed them, and advised them. He had interceded on their behalf, time and again, even averting God's just judgement upon them. He had celebrated victories with them. He had grieved over their sins, desirous of so much more for them. He had journeyed all these years alongside them through the wilderness experience they brought upon themselves.
And yet. . .God did not take these realities into account in Numbers 20.
This has always pained my heart.
Recently in my morning quiet time, troubled yet again as I read this account in Numbers, the Spirit's highlighter ran across two phrases in verse twelve. I knew God wanted me to pause and ponder each:
trust in me enough
honor me as holy
In God's sentencing of Moses (and Aaron as well), God in no uncertain words gave his reason for the consequence given. Moses did not trust God enough to do exactly what God said, and in not doing so, he did not honor the holiness of God in front of the very people who continually doubted their Creator and disregarded his honor. And even though it might seem so harsh, especially knowing the ungrateful, unruly people Moses had been called to lead and the length of time he'd already been leading them, when we really push ourselves to Scripturally examine the level of intimacy and experiences this servant-leader had been privileged to have with the Most High, it becomes clearer to our understanding—though the Most High doesn't need our understanding or approval in anything he chooses to do—why God, "the Judge of all the earth" who always does what's right (Genesis 18:25), would issue this hard judgment.
Much had been given Moses.
Therefore, much had been required.
However, somewhere in the time prior to this Numbers 20 account, Moses had stopped guarding his own heart and allowed frustration, anger, and resentment to get a foothold. And instead of keeping a right perspective, that this entire situation was really an issue—once again, as it had been so many times before—between the hearts of these unruly children and their God, Moses made it all about the burden he was carrying. This is evident in Moses' words before he struck the rock, as he angrily asked,
"Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?" (10; emphasis mine)
There are two things that are clearly apparent in Moses' question.
The first is that Moses' heart was full of cursing, where the Israelites were concerned. This is why he couldn't hold back from verbally assaulting them. Jesus' words are true that "the mouth speaks what the heart is full of" (Matthew 12:34). Of course, the people were certainly the "rebels" that Moses had called them, which is not surprising because this was the generation of children who'd learned firsthand how to be rebellious—grumbling and complaining, doubtful, idolatrous and adulterous—just like their parents who'd already died in the wilderness. But they were also the "apple of [God's] eye" (Zechariah 2:8), his "treasured possession," the people he'd called and chosen "out of all the peoples. . of the earth" to be his very own (Deuteronomy 7:6).
I also think it's worth noting that nowhere in Moses' prior exchange with God at the beginning of Numbers 20 did God verbalize anger about the people's need of water, even as full of complaining as they were. And I can't help but wonder if Moses, in his own internal vexation, was disappointed about this, disappointed that God's holy heart didn't line up with the present condition of his unholy heart. Frustrated that God didn't express the righteous anger he had shown times before, which had even prompted Moses' intercession for the Israelites, diverting God's wrath.
But in the opening verses of Numbers 20, the only anger we read of is the peoples', and it's all negatively directed towards Moses and Aaron, as had been done so many times before. Obviously, this time it really got to Moses. Got to his head. Got to his heart. And made its way out of his mouth, though he had just earlier been "facedown and the glory of the Lord had appeared to him" (6) in the tent of meeting, specifically instructing him what to do.
The second thing Moses' question evidences is that in this moment, he had put himself in the place of God. "Must we bring you water out of this rock?" Moses asked. Instead of acknowledging God's power and provision, Moses had put himself in God's position. It wouldn't be God who would bring the water forth from the rock, but Moses and Aaron. With his revealing words, it's clear that he had made it all about man's service, all about himself.
Compare this with the previous time God used Moses to bring water from a rock, some forty years earlier, recorded in Exodus 17. The people quarreled with Moses about having no water, Moses fell facedown before the Lord, the Lord told Moses what to do, and Moses did it. Nothing more. Nothing less. But in Numbers 20, what comes out of Moses' mouth is a dead giveaway that he had been in a place of carelessness about guarding his heart, which allowed sin to take root and disobedience to come natural.
A distrust of God's ways and a disregard of God's honor.
For any servant of the Most High, whether in a position of leadership or not, always foundational to obedience are these two questions:
Do I trust him enough to do exactly what he says, no matter how strongly I might think or feel otherwise?
Will I choose his holiness and honor over temporary satisfaction and gain?
Recently, I received a text from my mother. She had noticed that in the previous days prior, I had made a couple posts on social media about the power of the tongue, and she wanted to share with me a Scripture she had read earlier in the day, some words out of James.
"My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment. For we all stumble in many things. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body. Indeed, we put bits in horses’ mouths that they may obey us, and we turn their whole body." (3:1)
In this well-known chapter about the tongue's potency and the destruction it can bring, James starts by pointing out that a teacher—a proclaimer and pronouncer of the true words of God—will be held to a higher standard for the words he or she speaks. James, led by the Holy Spirit, minces no words as he describes the tongue's power to be used for evil. He minces no words as he addresses believers who "praise our Lord and Father" and yet "curse human beings who have been made in God's likeness," which "should not be" (9-10).
As I considered James 3:1 and the verses that followed, I saw a connection between James' teaching and Moses' experience in Numbers 20. And I felt a sobering heaviness
—a personally convicting, sobering heaviness—concerning the seriousness of spiritual leadership, the proclamation of God's Truth, the guarding of the heart, and the government of the tongue.
Even Moses, the great prophet-leader of the Old Testament, the deliverer of God's people, the humble man the Great I AM spoke with "face to face" (Numbers 12:8), was not exempt from forfeiting the full earthly experience of the promise fulfilled, which God desired to give him. Because Moses did not trust God enough to honor him as the Holy God he is, evidenced by Moses' words and his actions, from a distance he only saw with his eyes—eyes that had been allowed to actually "see the form of the Lord" (Numbers 12:8)—the territory God had promised his people (Deuteronomy 33:4),
How unfortunate. How sad.
And a most sobering lesson to ponder and heed.
A closing thought. . .
In spite of the heartbreak of Moses' experience, my heart is especially encouraged by the affection and tenderness of God in Moses' last days. Deuteronomy 33:6-7 reads,
"[God] buried [Moses] in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day no one knows where his grave is. Moses was a hundred and twenty years old, when he died, yet his eyes were not weak nor his strength gone."
Moses spent forty years in Egypt, forty years in the desert, and forty years in the wilderness. 3 cycles of 40, each a number of significant Biblical meaning—a detail that should not go unnoticed. And even though the Lord issued a just consequence for this leader's disobedience, by refusing something he had longed and waited for, the Lord didn't allow this faithful servant, his close friend, to end out his life in dimness of vision or weakness of person.
Rather, until he took his last earthly breath, he had clear sight and staying strength.
And the very hands of God placed his body in the ground.