Moses' First Failure
Tim Temple


Open your Bibles to Exodus, chapter 2, verse 11:

Exodus 2:

11 And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown, that he went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens: and he spied an Egyptian smiting an Hebrew, one of his brethren.
12 And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he slew the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand.
13 And when he went out the second day, behold, two men of the Hebrews strove together: and he said to him that did the wrong, Wherefore smitest thou thy fellow?
14 And he said, Who made thee a prince and a judge over us? intendest thou to kill me, as thou killedst the Egyptian? And Moses feared, and said, Surely this thing is known.
15 Now when Pharaoh heard this thing, he sought to slay Moses. But Moses fled from the face of Pharaoh, and dwelt in the land of Midian: and he sat down by a well.

One Bible scholar has said that the life of Moses presents a series of striking antitheses. He was the child of a slave, but at the same time, the son of a queen. He was born in a hut, but raised in a palace. He inherited poverty, but enjoyed unlimited wealth. He was the leader of armies and the keeper of flocks. He was the mightiest of warriors and the meekest of men. He was educated in the court and dwelt in the desert. He had the wisdom of Egypt and the faith of a child. He was fitted for the city, but wandered in the wilderness. He was tempted with the pleasures of sin and endured the hardships of virtue. He was backward of speech and yet talked with God. He had the rod of a shepherd and the power of the infinite. He was a fugitive from Pharaoh and an ambassador for God. He was the giver of the law and the forerunner of grace. He died alone on Mt. Moab and appeared with Christ on another mountain in Judea. No man assisted in his funeral and yet God buried him.

The life of Moses was a life of contrasts, a life of antitheses. As I mentioned a moment ago, it is a very fascinating thing to notice that the first details of this life of contrasts that we find recorded in the Scripture are details of a great failure. You know one of the things that all of us recognize if we have studied the Scripture very much is the honesty of the Scripture about even its own heroes. One of the proofs of the inspiration of Scripture, one of the proofs that God Himself has written this material is that it tells us the bold truth about the failures of some of the great men of God. If we were writing the Scripture and claiming that it was from God, we would probably try to paint the heroes as men without flaws and men without failures, but again and again we find that the men of the Scripture are men of failures. God has deliberately included the details of their failures so that we can be encouraged in our own weaknesses, but also we can recognize the ways in which God enables men to overcome failure and the kinds of ways that God can use men even in the light of their failures. We want to think about the life of Moses from this standpoint.

Moses' Misguided Intention

We want to begin first with the misguided intention that Moses had in verse 11:

Exodus 2:

11 And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown, that he went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens: and he spied an Egyptian smiting an Hebrew, one of his brethren.

Before we look at the details of what took place, we want to notice first a couple of phrases that are important in verse 11:

Exodus 2:

11 And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown…

Turn with me to the book of Acts, chapter 7. Here we have a summary of much of Old Testament history. This chapter is the story of the martyrdom of the first Christian who died for the Lord Jesus Christ; his name was Stephen. As Stephen was arrested and ready to face trial, the judge perhaps made a mistake, although I am sure it was all a part of God's plan. He asked Stephen if he had anything to say before they executed him. Stephen said, “As a matter of fact I do,” and proceeded to review the Old Testament for those who were looking on. He preached a beautiful sermon about how all of these things had been brought down to a point of God's planning and how all the events in the Old Testament had looked forward to Jesus Christ.

As Stephen gave that summary of the Old Testament and how it all pointed to Jesus Christ and how Jesus Christ was everything that the Old Testament had promised concerning the Messiah, he summarizes for us some very important information that is not specified in some places in the Old Testament. An example of that is here in the details of the life of Moses. In verse 23, Stephen is talking about Moses and he says:

Acts 7:

23 And when he was full forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brethren the children of Israel.

So we know from this verse that when Moses was grown is a definition of the fact that he was forty years old. That should perhaps serve as a comfort from a practical standpoint to some of us who are approaching that age. You see, if you are anywhere under the age of forty, you are not yet full grown from the biblical definition of things. If you are forty, you are just now full grown. If you are sixty, you are just barely into adulthood because the scriptural definition, evidently, of full grown is forty years old. Of course, this fits with the Hebrew custom of recognizing a man as an adult at the age of forty, even though there were some other ages at which he was allowed to take part in the decisions, etc. But normally a man was considered to be an adult or a mature man at age forty.

In Exodus, chapter 2, we are told in verse 11:

Exodus 2:

11 And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown…

The idea is that the captivity of Moses' people was still going on. They were still in slavery, but as we have seen in our previous lesson, Moses and his parents very probably recognized that God was going to use Moses in a special way. We have studied the fact that God had revealed to Abraham years and years before that his descendants would be in captivity for 400 years, and even though it is not included in the written record of Scripture, it probably passed down by oral tradition through the years. The people who were faithful to God in those days knew that the time would come when they would be delivered from their slavery; and because of the godly people that we have seen Moses' parents to be, there is every possibility that they were aware of that truth that God had revealed to Abraham and they had probably taught their son to be aware of that truth. As we see Moses coming of age, we can imagine that he was beginning to recognize that he was old enough to begin to do God's plan. It is very probable for us to assume that when he became forty years old, he began to realize that the time had come to be used of God, and he began to look around to do something about it.

Chapter 7, also tells us why Moses went out to see his brethren, as it is recorded in Acts, chapter 2, verse 25:

Acts 7:

25 For he supposed his brethren would have understood how that God by his hand would deliver them: but they understood not.

Here is the situation: Moses, recognizing that God was going to use him as the deliverer, recognizing that the time had come for him to take his place in the adult world, supposed that his brethren would have understood that also. As he went out to see his brethren, according to Exodus, chapter 2, it was not just curiosity. It was not just nosiness. It was thinking that God would begin to do the work of delivering the people of Israel from their slavery.

This was a very logical conclusion for Moses to come to because, as we see, he was a man of full maturity. He was an Israelite, so it would stand to reason that God was going to use an Israelite to deliver the Israelites. Another reason is what we read in Acts, chapter 7, verse 22:

Acts 7:

22 And Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was mighty in words and in deeds.

Here was Moses, a mature man, an Israelite, one who recognized that God was going to deliver his people and that he was very possibly the man whom God was going to use. He was educated; he was eloquent; he was active. He was a man learned in the wisdom of the Egyptians and mighty in words and in deeds.

Certainly if you and I had found a man like this who was educated, eloquent and active, we would have immediately formed an evangelistic association and seen to it that he got on national television. We would have assumed that this was the man whom God was going to use. Even though not egotistically, Moses assumed the same thing. He knew that God had qualified him. He knew that he had gifts and talents and opportunities that God did not give to every person, and he was ready to use those for God's service. In fact, if you look at Hebrews, chapter 11, verses 24-26, these verses tell us that Moses had chosen to suffer affliction with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season. History tells us that what that means is that Moses had rejected the throne of Egypt. He was evidently qualified from a human standpoint to be the pharaoh of Egypt.

Tradition tells us that he had been the head of the whole Egyptian army. In fact, there is record of a man, who most historians agree was probably Moses, who led the Egyptian army in at least two extremely successful campaigns against the Ethiopians. He was a man who was highly qualified to lead other men and had been successful in leading other men. This same man who led these successful campaigns against the Ethiopians—if it was Moses, and there is good reason to think that it was—turned down the opportunity to sit on the throne of Egypt on two different occasions. So here was Moses, a man who knew God's calling, a man who recognized the privileges and opportunities that God had given him, a man who had in fact chosen to denounce all the worldly opportunities that he had and stand by faith with God's people. It is only logical to assume that now is the time to go out and do things for God and that others would understand that.

In that assumption lies one of the most important things that we need to understand as we think about this failure on the part of Moses. That basic assumption was the very problem itself. You see, the problem was that Moses was moving on the basis of logic rather than on the basis of God's direction. Particularly was that true in the dispensation in which Moses lived. If you are familiar with the first five books of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch, and even to a great extent other books of the Old Testament, you know that again and again and again God would speak to a man directly and He would give him clear direction about what he should do. That was one of the characteristics of the Dispensation of the Law, that God spoke clearly and directly. Unless He did speak clearly, men were yet not to move.

That is not entirely true in the day in which we live, as we move by the direction and the guidance of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us. There are times in the dispensation in which we live in which God may not speak as clearly as He did in the Old Testament. There are times in which we must assume from the circumstances around us and from the way that God is leading those circumstances and from the principles from the Word of God, even without an audible voice from God or without a clear cut distinctive sign from God that He is leading; but in the day in which Moses lived and the day in which David lived and the days of that dispensation, a man was not to move until God spoke to him. So a serious mistake that Moses was making was that he was moving out before God told him to. He was moving on the basis of logic rather than on the basis of God's direction.

Let's pause for a moment and think about the important application of that truth. I have just said that there is a dispensational distinction to make, and in the day in which we are living, God does not speak with an audible voice and God sometimes does not speak with as clear direction as He did in those days. I do think that God usually speaks much more clearly than we expect Him to in this dispensation in which we live, and many times we are not sure what God wants us to do because we are not looking at the written message of His Word.

The problems that we face are often the problems that Moses faced, and the mistakes we make are often the mistakes that Moses made, which is that of assuming that because something looks like the way God would do it, that must be what we are supposed to do. This factor seems right and that factor seems right. That is probably the way God would do things if God were doing this, so that must be what God wants me to do.

You see the mistake that Moses made. He had all the right background. He was in all the right circumstances. He saw an opportunity and he assumed that that was what he was supposed to do. The problem was that God had not directed it.

As we seek to serve the Lord, we need to be very, very careful that in our zeal we do not get ahead of the Lord, we do not make the mistake that Moses made of assuming that because the circumstances are right, it must be the thing to do. Many times God does direct on the basis of circumstances. Many times God does direct on the basis of things lining up in the proper order, but we must be careful, even in this dispensation in which we live, that we know that God is leading and not that it is just an interesting coincidence of the alignment of circumstances. This is the misguided intention.

A Misdirected Impulse

Go back to Exodes, chapter 2, and notice that Moses went out to see about his brethren to see how they fared. In verse 12, we find a misdirected impulse, as Moses went out thinking that the people were ready to receive him as their leader, thinking that the time had come for him to deliver Israel from their bondage. In verse 1, he saw the trouble between the Egyptian and an Israelite, so in verse 12 we read:

Exodus 2:

12 And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he slew the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand.

A blatant, clear-cut act of murder. He looked this way and that and when he saw no man, he killed the Egyptian. Not only that, but he hid his body. You need to clearly understand that this was done sincerely and out of a heart of love. Moses murdered a man, the Scripture clearly states, but we have just been thinking about the background out of which Moses came to that situation. He came to that situation believing that it was God's time for him to begin to deliver Israel, so he made a tragic mistake, but he made that mistake sincerely and out of a heart of love.

A more recent comparison of this same situation is the story recorded about Peter. You remember what happened in the Garden of Gethsemane as Judas led the servants of the high priest and the soldiers to arrest Jesus, to betray Jesus. Peter pulled out his sword and cut off the ear of the servant of the high priest. Knowing Peter as we do from the rest of the Scripture, we know that Peter was not just trying to cut the man's ear off. It was not a matter of just inflicting a little bit of pain; it was the fact that Peter intended to cut his head off and the servant just had good reflexes and jumped nearly out of the way, but not quite far enough.

Peter did the wrong thing. Jesus spoke to him and said, “Peter, put up your sword. Don't you recognize that I could call ten thousand angels in a second of time if I needed to? I don't need your protection.”

Peter was admonished by the Lord, but he did it sincerely. He did it out of a heart of love, but this was misdirected on the part of Peter and on the part of Moses because, again, Moses had decided to do it and not God. Peter decided to do it and not at the instruction of the Lord Jesus Christ. So it is very important to recognize that as we seek to serve the Lord, or even as we are in the process of serving the Lord, it is important that we don't take matters into our own hands.

The first lesson from the failure of Moses is the lesson of jumping out ahead of the Lord, but there is a second lesson intertwined with this, and this is the lesson that is suggested by Moses' activity in killing the Egyptian. It is very similar to the first lesson, and that is that as we serve the Lord, we do not insist on using human methods to do what God is going to accomplish. Moses thus far has made two mistakes. His first mistake is that he has gotten ahead of the Lord. He has assumed that it is God's time to begin to deliver Israel, and as it turns out, the record shows that it is not yet God's time to begin to deliver Israel. In fact, it is going to be another forty years before God begins to deliver Israel. Moses, based on logic, assumed that the time had come; and as he set out to serve the Lord in his own strength, he made the second mistake by taking his own prerogative and following his own plan.

Peter made the same mistake. He was intent on serving the Lord, but he was intent on human methods. He was intent on protecting the Lord Jesus Christ, but he thought that the only way to do it was to use a human method of using a sword. Jesus pointed out otherwise, and so the other important lesson that we can learn from Moses' tragic failure is the lesson that not only do we not get ahead of God, but we must be very careful that we do not insist on using our own human methods in accomplishing God's purposes.

Notice in Exodus, chapter 2, verse 12, that the Scripture plainly tells us that this was an act of premeditated murder. He looked this way and that way. It was no accident that Moses killed this Egyptian. It was a deliberate case of first degree murder. He looked this way and that way.

The interesting thing along this line is that God later is going to accomplish the very thing that Moses was trying to accomplish, and He is going to do it in a much better way. God is going to get the Israelites out of their slavery in Egypt, but He is not going to have to resort to murder at all. Many people are going to die as the plan unfolds many years later.

You are familiar with the book of Exodus, and you know that hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of the Egyptian first-borns died all over the nation on the night of the exodus. God is not averse to using death as an instrument, but God did not have to use murder to get His purpose accomplished. You see, God's purpose was the same as Moses' purpose, but because Moses jumped out ahead of the Lord and because Moses took matters into his own hands, he wound up taking something out of context. He wound up using an instrument that God had not intended to be used. Death was going to be an instrument of deliverance, but death done in God's time and God's way was not going to be a murderous kind of death. The tragedy is that Moses, in getting ahead of God, committed a great sin and did not accomplish the program nearly as effectively as God was going to accomplish it.

The Misunderstood Intervention

In verses 13-14, we find the misunderstood intervention:

Exodus 2:

13 And when he went out the second day, behold, two men of the Hebrews strove together: and he said to him that did the wrong, Wherefore smitest thou thy fellow?
14 And he said, Who made thee a prince and a judge over us? intendest thou to kill me, as thou killedst the Egyptian? And Moses feared, and said, Surely this thing is known.

Evidently, on that first day, the Israelite whom Moses delivered said nothing about it to Moses. Maybe he was so glad to be delivered that he thanked Moses. We don't know because the record doesn't tell us, but Moses thought that his plan was rolling along nicely. He thought that he was beginning to deliver Israel from their bondage, and so he went out the next day for step two of the deliverance of bondage. He saw two Israelites striving with each other. Remember, the day before, it was an Israelite and an Egyptian. Now it is an Israelite against another Israelite, or Hebrew, as they are called here.

As Mosed tries to intervene, there was a great misunderstanding of that intervention. You know, this must have been a very disappointing time for Moses. In fact, as we review the life of Moses, I think that this must have been one of the greatest disappointments and surprises that Moses ever faced. Here he is sincerely trying to help these people, and he is totally rejected. They said, “Who made you a prince and a judge over us?”

I am sure that Moses' first reaction was, “God did. God called me to do what I am doing, and I want you to know that I have given up a whole lot to do it. I could be the king of this whole country and here I am out in the desert settling disputes between you men. God made me a prince and a judge over you.”

We don't know that Moses said that. There is no record that he did, but I am sure that that kind of thing must have gone through his mind. He had renounced the throne of Egypt. He thought that the people would accept him, but instead they reject him and even mock him and mock his purpose and mock his goal. Maybe at this point Moses even doubted his own calling.

I wonder as we discuss these things if there is not someone who is facing this situation. Things are not going in your ministry like you thought they would. You are sure that God has called you to do this thing. You started out by faith, and you have sacrificed to get to the place where you are for God's service, but things are not going right. People are not understanding. People are not responding.

There could be a number of explanations for that. God uses testing and God uses dry places and God uses valleys in our ministry to draw us closer to Himself, but let me suggest that it is possible that this time of difficulty in your ministry and in your life may not be primarily a testing from God. Could it be that you are at an impasse in your ministry because you have operated on the basis of logic rather than on the leading of God? Could it be that you, like Moses, have taken matters into your own hands, and even though you are basically doing what God has called you to do, you have seen the vision God wanted you to see, and you started out on that vision, but you have taken matters into your own hands? You have begun to run the show yourself and you have begun to use your own methods rather than waiting on God. When that takes place, and if you are in that kind of situation, inevitably there will be the kind of failure and kind of misunderstanding that Moses faced.

Again I say, sometimes God allows people to misunderstand us in our ministry, and sometimes God allows things to not go smoothly for other reasons, so I am not saying that if you are having a hard time, that is what is wrong, but I am saying it is a possibility. That is one of the reasons things do not go well in the ministry. Of course, we stress again and again that each of us has a ministry, not just of those who stand and teach the Word of God in the pulpit. You, in your office or on your campus or in your neighborhood—wherever it is that God has placed you—have a ministry and a calling from God. There are many, many different kinds of ministries, and some of them don't involve a speaking kind of ministry at all. But in any kind of ministry that God has given, you can come to an impasse such as Moses came to because you have taken matters into your own hands or have begun to use your own methods, and you are being rejected and misunderstood by the very people that you thought God had called you to help. The very ministry that you thought God had given you is falling apart around you.

Notice an interesting term in the last line of verse 14 that we are not going to see of Moses very often in his lifetime:

Exodus 2:

14 …And Moses feared, and said, Surely this thing is known.

Here is another clear-cut indication that Moses was out of the will of God. We have already had clear evidence of that: Moses feared. You know, anything that is done in the will of God, anything that God clearly leads us to do, anything that we do in response to the leading of God can be done without fear. It can be done boldly and without question. It can be done with perfect confidence. But one of the gauges by which we can test whether it is the will of God or not is the fear that it might bring into our hearts and lives as we go about it. Human plans, plans that are based on our own way of doing things and not on the direction of God, are always anxious for human approval, and we find ourselves, like Moses, looking this way and that and fearing when we hear things are not being accepted like we thought they would. If you are acting at the will of God, then you can say very clearly, “I care not what man may say about me. This is God's mission and I am doing it in the way God has directed me. I don't care where the chips fall.”

A Merciful Interruption

Moses was not following the will of God and therefore he feared when he heard that things weren't being accepted in the way that he thought they would be, and so we find in verse 15 another very important principle of this failure of Moses. This we refer to as a merciful interruption . Notice:

Exodus 2:

15 Now when Pharaoh heard this thing, he sought to slay Moses. But Moses fled from the face of Pharaoh, and dwelt in the land of Midian: and he sat down by a well.

Moses flees from Pharaoh. Here is the situation as we come to the close of this particular segment of Moses' life. He has been rejected by the people whom he thought God had called him to minister to. He has sacrificed the opportunity to have great power and influence, and it has come to naught. In fact, he is running away from the man who has the position that he had rejected, and yet we are referring to this as a merciful interruption .

How could it be that Moses is fleeing for his life? Notice clearly in verse 15:

Exodus 2:

15 Now when Pharaoh heard this thing, he sought to slay Moses…

Moses was fleeing for his life probably because from the human standpoint this Pharaoh was just looking for an excuse to do Moses in. This Pharaoh, if the historians understand who this man Moses was, who is seeking to kill Moses in verse 15, is only Pharaoh because Moses had turned that position down.

Can't you imagine, in a humanistic kind of world, a man who worshiped idols, if he knew there was someone more qualified for his position than he and that individual had turned the position down but was still alive, don't you think that he would be looking for an opportunity to get rid of that person? Here Pharaoh sees his perfect opportunity. Moses had some popularity among the Egyptians and Pharaoh couldn't just go out and kill him, but now he has an excuse. Moses has murdered an Egyptian citizen and that is all Pharaoh was looking for. Moses knows that his life is in very serious danger and he is running away. He has been rejected. He is afraid.

Why do we then refer to this then as a merciful interruption ? The reason that we say this is based on biblical principle because as we pursue in coming weeks the next event in the life of Moses, we are going to see that God uses the ensuing forty years to make a new man out of Moses. After Moses spends forty years on the back side of the desert being trained by God, he comes back and he is a different man. There is still some polishing God does in the next chapters after he comes back from the forty years, but basically the work is done and God interrupts this self-centered, self-directed lifestyle that Moses is embarking on in chapter 2. He interrupts that lifestyle and He changes Moses and brings him back as a God-centered, God-directed man.

Even though it was a tragic thing from a human standpoint, it was a merciful thing from God's standpoint. Even though it was a tragic thing that Moses seemed, from a human standpoint, to be going from bad to worse, it is a merciful thing from God's standpoint; and God uses that human tragedy, in His grace and in His mercy, to make the kind of man that He can really use. As Moses comes back on the scene, he is the kind of man that God can use.

This is one of the principles that is expressed over and over and over again in the Word of God and one of which we must be aware. By way of review, if not by firsthand information, will you remember that God can never use you, no matter how well-qualified you are until you are ready to let God use you. God can never use you until you recognize that those talents and abilities and background and opportunities are not yours in the first place.

Why you think God let you be born in the social strata in which you were born? Why do you suppose God let you attain the level of education that you have? Why do you suppose God gave you the business ability that you have? Why do you suppose God put you in the firm, the company that you are in today? Why do you suppose God put you in the neighborhood that you are in or on the campus where you are? Do you think those things are accidents? No. Just like Moses, God has carefully guided your life. What a tragedy it would be if God now had to back up and take some time out of His plan to make you what He wants you to be. As we mentioned before, this is why God has included this kind of information in the Scripture, so that we don't have to learn by experience, so we can learn by example.

In I Corinthians, chapter 1, verses 26-29, Paul reminds the Corinthians:

I Corinthians 1:

26 For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called:
27 But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty;

Why do you suppose God does that? God does that because the rich men and the mighty men are all too often too dependent on their own riches and their own might. God chooses people who are aware that they don't have much.

In Proverbs, chapter 3, verses 5-7, we read:

Proverbs 3:

5 Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.
6 In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.
7 Be not wise in thine own eyes: fear the LORD, and depart from evil.

A person who is active and eloquent and educated as Moses was has a very, very, very difficult time obeying Proverbs 3:4-6. It is very difficult to trust

in the Lord and lean not to your own understanding if you have a Ph.D. in understanding or in some related field. It is a very difficult thing to do. God has equipped you perfectly for what He wants you to do, but now before He can use you, He must make you realize by the example of Moses, if you will let Him, or by experience if you won't learn by example, that all of that background and all of that training and all of that experience does not in itself equip you. God wants you to trust in Him, not lean to your own understanding even though He has given you the understanding. Trust in Him and let Him use the understanding that He has given you.

It was a merciful interruption that caused Moses to come to the place that God was able to use him. May God challenge us to not have to have a merciful interruption. Will you recognize that God has equipped you and God has called you and God has put you where you are? Wait for God's direction. Use God's method. Lean not on your own understanding. Acknowledge Him and He will direct your path.

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