By Titus Chu
Moses was 120 years old when he died. According to Stephen’s word in Acts 7, his life can be divided into three periods of forty years each: forty years in Egypt as a prince, forty years shepherding sheep in the wilderness of Midian as a nobody, and forty years leading the children of Israel to mount Sinai and then to the good land as a man bearing a divine commitment. During his first forty years, Moses mainly experienced God in His sovereignty.
According to Pharaoh’s decree, Moses should have been killed as a baby, but God exercised his sovereignty to save him in the best possible way. His mother put him in a basket and set the basket in the Nile River. He floated in the river to where Pharaoh’s daughter would see him. She rescued him out of the river and hired his mother to be his wet nurse (Exo. 2:1–10). Who but God could have arranged all this?
His mother likely used this time to tell him his true identity and all the stories of his Hebrew heritage. She surely told him how God created everything, how man failed, and how God called Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. She must have told him how Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery and how God used this to bring all his family to Egypt to save them from famine.
Moses was raised in Pharaoh’s own household where he received the best education and training in all of Egypt. Here he ate the best food, which may have made him taller and stronger than most. If anyone knew that God was sovereign, it had to be Moses.
Based on all of this, it seems safe to assume that Moses knew he was special—that he was to be the one who would release his brethren, the children of Israel, from their Egyptian bondage. There were three ways he might accomplish this.
First, he could assassinate Pharaoh. This was pretty risky.
Second, he could wait for Pharaoh to die naturally and pass the throne on to his daughter, Moses’ adoptive mother. Then he could wait for her to die and pass the throne to him. At that point he could release the children of Israel easily and legally with just a decree, but this would take too long.
Third, he could do something to force the issue immediately. Whether he acted by plan or by impulse, this was the choice he made. He went out of the palace and found an Egyptian mistreating an Israelite. Mistreatment like this probably happened all the time, so it would not have been hard to find. Moses killed the Egyptian and saved the Israelite. I believe Moses did not do this just to protect that particular Israelite, but to spark a rebellion among all the Israelites so he could become their leader and save them all from bondage. Based on God’s sovereignty toward him up to this time, such a plan surely must have seemed to have been God’s will. But the children of Israel did not respond in this way, and Moses was forced to flee to the wilderness of Midian (Exo. 2:15).
Shepherding in the Wilderness
What a contrast the wilderness presented to Moses’ life in the palace of Egypt. In Egypt he was part of the royal family and a future Pharaoh, so everyone bowed to him. In the wilderness, he was a shepherd, a nobody. Even the sheep may not have obeyed him. The palace was full of the smells of sweet incense. His shepherd’s house smelled of animals and dirty things. In the palace, servants jumped to prepare his bath. In the wilderness there might not even have been a bathroom. Yet Moses knew that if God was sovereign while he was in Egypt, God was just as sovereign while he was in the wilderness.
When things go well for us, we like to praise the Lord and tell everyone how He is with us. But when we get rejected from the school we want to attend, or get passed over for the promotion we think we deserve, do we still see God’s hand? Can we still praise Him and testify of His sovereignty? The apostle Paul wrote that we as believers should be found “always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father” (Eph. 5:20). All things means all things, not just the good things. Moses must have learned this lesson. There is no record in the Bible that he ever complained of his change of status. It seems Moses still sensed that God was his, even in the wilderness.
When we have the Lord, all other things seem less important. The smell of dirty sheep filled that little hut where Moses lived, but it didn’t matter because God was also there. It seems Moses was very restful. He may have been more free to enjoy God in that hut than he had ever been in the palace. If we have such a realization, we will be restful in our situations also.
Still, Moses must have had questions. He must have wondered why God saved him from the river as a baby, why he was raised up by his mother to have all the riches of the Jewish faith, and why he was given all that wonderful Egyptian education, even to the point he could be a commander leading the Egyptian army. Why did God do all this, and what good would it do now? Was all this just so that he could shepherd sheep in the wilderness? It must have seemed to Moses that God was just having fun, and that all his good beginning was pointless vanity.
Because of his Egyptian education, Moses was able to write. Probably most shepherds could not do this. Eventually he would write the entire Pentateuch with all its history and poetry, but this would be long after his time as a shepherd. At this point, every desire to do things was gone, but everything of his constitution remained.
He did do some writing as a shepherd. He wrote, “Lord, You have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were born Or You gave birth to the earth and the world, Even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God” (Psa. 90:1–2). Who would expect someone who lived with sheep to write such a thing? If he could, Satan would have asked him, “Where is this habitation? I don’t see it.” Moses would have had to answer, “I can’ t show you, but I know it is true.”
Moses continued, “As for the days of our life, they contain seventy years, Or if due to strength, eighty years, Yet their pride is but labor and sorrow; For soon it is gone and we fly away (v. 10). Moses must have been close to 80 when he wrote this, so he was no doubt thinking his end was near. This is also hard to understand, because so many with him lived so long. If we consider his brother Aaron and his sister Miriam, living longer doesn’t seem to have been so unusual. Even Moses’ father-in-law Jethro was likely close to the same age.
It seems Moses was not in the right place to write about dwelling places and the end of his life. But he knew God and insisted that God was there as his dwelling place. This was just as true in the wilderness as it was in the palace. He also knew that his days were in God’s hands. How long he lived was up to God.
A Divine Commitment
What Moses wrote in Psalm 90 showed a great understanding and trust in God, but it was not a vision that could control his life. That came when he met God at the burning bush. That bush was used to hold the flame but was not consumed. This was a picture of the rest of Moses’ life, and the life of every true servant of the Lord. Moses met God at this bush, and from that point on he was captured and controlled by what he saw (Exo. 3:1–10). This vision became his commitment and changed the direction of his life.
The everlasting God spoke to the 80 year old Moses. Moses’ reaction now was very different than it would have been 40 years earlier. All his zealousness was gone. He felt that he had only a few years left, and that confronting Pharaoh and leading the children of Israel out of Egypt was no job for an old man. He no longer had the time, energy, or reputation needed for the task. But God insisted, and Moses had no choice.
Moses confronted Pharaoh and brought the children of Israel back to the very mountain where he was called by God at the burning bush. God told Moses, “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself” (19:4). God doesn’t bear us on eagles’ wings so we can can get a good job and have a happy life. He does so to bring us to himself.
God told Moses and the children of Israel, “If you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (vv. 5-6). God wants to make us His possession even though all the earth is already His. He wants to make us His kingdom, His priesthood, and His holy nation (1 Pet. 2:9). The people’s response was both foolish and positive: “All that the LORD has spoken we will do!” (Exo. 19:8). It was foolish because it was impossible for them to fulfill. It was positive because it showed they had a desire for God and to live for Him. Their destiny was set by the sovereign God and a controlling vision. We should all pray that our sovereign God would grant us such a controlling vision with a divine commitment.