‘You will be gathered to your people’, God told his servant Moses, now over a hundred years old and still in good health (Numbers 27:13; Deuteronomy 34:7). How did Moses react to this announcement of his imminent death?
He prayed, not for himself, but for God’s people. All his thoughts were wrapped up in the Jews on the verge of entering the promised land. How would the Lord’s sheep survive without a human shepherd? ‘Appoint Joshua as your successor’, God commands Moses in response to his prayer (Numbers 27:15-23).
What thoughts must have filled Moses’ mind as he looked back on his long and eventful past! No doubt he recalled the different facets of his life: the son of a slave who became the son of a princess; a rich heir to the Egyptian throne who chose poverty and suffering with God’s oppressed people; a shepherd who heard the voice of God at a burning bush; a murderer who became the deliverer of over two million people and led them on a forty-year trek through the wilderness.
Moses had seen God feed his nomad nation with quails and manna, provide water from a rock, and prevent their clothes and shoes from wearing out. Yet, how many times Moses had pleaded with God to spare this ungrateful race!
Moses had already buried his sister Miriam and his brother Aaron. Now, banned from entering the land promised to his forefathers, he looked death in the face. How did he do so?
It is evident from Moses’ farewell speeches, recorded in the closing chapters of Deuteronomy, that his mind was as sound as his body. Therefore he must have experienced mixed emotions as he thought about his approaching death.
Moses felt no physical pain but, surely, the anticipation of separation from his family distressed him. His prayer in Numbers 27 reveals his anxiety concerning the Jews. Furthermore, his own sin of impatience with God’s grumbling people — the cause of his ban from Canaan (Numbers 20) — also grieved him.
Recalling the past, he puts on record his prayer at this time: ‘O Sovereign Lord … Let me go over and see the good land beyond Jordan … But because of you the Lord was angry with me and would not listen to me. “That is enough”, the Lord said. “Do not speak to me anymore about this matter”’ (Deuteronomy 3:24-26).
Moses humbly accepts God’s will as he climbs to the top of Pisgah to view the land from afar (Deuteronomy 3:26). A similar acceptance of God’s will is found in Paul’s prayer concerning the removal of his ‘thorn in the flesh’ (2 Corinthians 12:1-10). The apostle learns to rejoice in the all-sufficient grace of God in his suffering.
The supreme example of submission to God’s will is, of course, our Saviour’s words in the garden of Gethsemane: ‘Not what I will, but what you will’ (Mark 14:36).
Though he lived so long before Christ, Moses understood God’s promise in Numbers 27:13 (‘you will be gathered to your people’) to mean more than burial in a grave. Reading Hebrews 11:26 we learn that Moses, the man of faith, ‘was looking ahead to his reward’.
This expectation of future reward was what made him turn his back on Pharaoh’s palace, preferring ‘to be mistreated along with the people of God’ and regarding ‘disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt’ (Hebrews 11:24-26).
Moses’ anger with God’s people could not rob him of his eternal reward, though it barred him from the enjoyment of Canaan.
Paul echoes Numbers 27:13 in 2 Thessalonians 2:1, where he writes about ‘the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him’. The promise given to Moses, along with Paul’s prediction, point forward to reunion with departed saints. Best of all, it speaks of never-ending fellowship with Christ and the Father.
If we are conscious when death approaches, like Moses we may regret some past action, some major sin. The recollection of a time of previous backsliding may disturb our peace. Whatever the issue, Satan the accuser will not be far away.
If we are to die at peace, we will need to go back to the cross and cry to God for his mercy to cover all our sins and to fit us for heaven. Only Christ and his death can give us comfort as we leave this world.
As death came near to David Dickson, a Scottish Puritan pastor, he spoke these memorable words: ‘I have taken all my good deeds, and all my bad, and cast them in a heap before the Lord, and fled from both, and betaken myself to the Lord Jesus Christ, and in him I have sweet peace’.
Prepared for glory
Why did God tell Moses about his impending death? So that he might prepare for it by prayer. Another reason for this advanced warning was to give Moses time to appoint Joshua, the successor chosen by God (Numbers 27:15-23).
As Moses prays he describes the Jews as a ‘community’ and as ‘sheep’ and so expresses his confidence that God will take care of his own people in the future (Numbers 27:15-16). The Jews belonged to God and to one another.
Turning to the New Testament we read that believers are God’s people and God’s flock (1 Peter 2:9-10; John 10). We are not Christians in isolation but are united by Christ in the church of the living God. We are going to enjoy the presence of God and of one another in glory for ever!
The prediction of Moses’ death underlines the fact that death cannot come until God’s time. God chose the time and then, according to Deuteronomy 34:6, became the undertaker who buried his servant’s body in Moab. He kept the grave’s location secret to prevent the site becoming a shrine.
At death God takes our souls into heaven and watches over our bodies until the resurrection when Christ comes again. On that day God will not forget nor lose any of his people. Every believer, whenever or however he has died, will be present in heaven.