Mount Nebo: Disappointment, then Hope

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Scripture Readings: Deuteronomy 34:1-12 (text); Hebrews 3:1-6
May 16, 2010

In 1981, I joined a group of people on a climb up Mount Rainier east of Seattle, Washington, at 14,410 feet, the highest mountain peak in the continental United States. From about 5,400 feet, I made it up to a place called Disappointment Cleaver at about 12,000 feet, where a very steep climb starts. This is the place where climbers who are not able to continue because of sheer exhaustion turn back and make their way down again to the base camp. I remember the name of this place, because on my first major mountaineering experience, I turned back here, disappointed that I could not continue the climb.

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Climbers at Disappointment Cleaver on Mount Rainier
Climbers at Disappointment Cleaver on Mount Rainier (click to enlarge)
The following year, I made the summit and my perseverance was rewarded with a spectacular view from the top. I could see a 360-degree panoramic view of mountains, valleys and rivers for hundreds of miles, all the way to the skyscrapers of Seattle and the Pacific Ocean.

Remember Numbers Chapter 20? Israel complained—again—that there was no water, so God commanded Moses go to speak to the rock at Meribah. In his exasperation with the never-ending grumbling of the rebellious Israelites, Moses struck the rock twice. Because of his disobedience, God meted out his justice against Moses and Aaron: they would not be able to lead the people into the Promised Land. Like all the first generation Israelites, they would die in the wilderness without entering Canaan. Was this punishment too severe for such a minor offense? No, God was clear that he could not wink at their unbelief and dishonor of his holiness,

And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them” (Num 20:12).

We come now to the point in Israel’s history at the end of Moses’ life. The book of Deuteronomy is a series of three long sermons of Moses as they were camped in the plains of Moab, just beyond the River Jordan. He wanted to remind Israel of its past mistakes to encourage them to obey God and not to make the same mistakes that their parents did in their 40 years in the wilderness.

The Death of Moses by the Providence Lithograph Co. (1907)
The Death of Moses by the Providence Lithograph Co. (1907) (click to enlarge)

Near the beginning of the book, God instructed Moses to go to a mountain where he will show him the extent and the beauty of the Promised Land he is giving to Israel before he died, “Go up to the top of Pisgah and lift up your eyes westward and northward and southward and eastward, and look at it with your eyes, for you shall not go over this Jordan” (Deut 3:27). Although he disobeyed God that one time, Moses was rewarded with a view of Canaan from the top of Mount Nebo. How disappointing that must have been to Moses!

But it was not all disappointment. God also assured Moses that Israel, after he died, will be ably led by Joshua, a Spirit-filled man, in their conquest of the Promised Land.

How true this is in our lives! Life is full of disappointments, but as Christians, even in these disappointments, God gives us hope. Our nights can be terribly dark, but the bright morning dawn comes after each night. Joy is sweeter when it follows bitter mourning.

Disappointment, then hope: this is what we will study this afternoon:

1. Disappointment Outside the Promised Land
2. Hope in New Leadership

Disappointment Outside the Promised Land

Mount Nebo is assumed to be Jebel Neba today, about 2,600 feet high. Another mountain, Mount Pisgah, is also mentioned. Some scholars believe that Mount Nebo is the mountain range, and Mount Pisgah is a specific peak along this range.

Today, those who have been to the summit of the mountain says the view is spectacular and panoramic. As we read in our text, God showed Moses a 360-degree view of the Promised Land as far as the eye can see from the top: from the north, going counterclockwise to the west, to the south, to the east, then back to the north.

In verse 4, God reminded Moses of his unfailing promise of a land he will give to their forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. To Abraham, he promised, “To your offspring I will give this land” (Gen 12:7). Even Joseph told his brothers before he died as the vice-regent in Egypt, “God will visit you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (Gen 50:24). God promised him that someday, his body would be taken by his people back to Canaan.

As Moses enjoyed the sighting of the land that the people will inherit, God again told him, “I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there.” Earlier in Deuteronomy 32:49-50, God commanded Moses to go up the mountain and that he would die there on the mountain. How disappointing that would have been to hear! After faithfully obeying God’s commands, suffering with the people in the barren wilderness, and looking forward to this day for 40 years, Moses is not allowed to enter the Promised Land. It was hard for Moses to accept God’s decision not to allow him to lead the people into the land. This is why in Deuteronomy 3:23-29, we read about how Moses pleaded with God one last time to let him enter,

“O Lord God, you have only begun to show your servant your greatness and your mighty hand. For what god is there in heaven or on earth who can do such works and mighty acts as yours? Please let me go over and see he good land beyond the Jordan, that good hill country and Lebanon.”

Moses told the people that God was angry at him as a result of the people’s rebellion against God. Psalm 106:32-33 tells us that the people’s grumbling “made [Moses’] spirit bitter, and he spoke rashly with his lips,” causing God to be “ill with Moses on their account.” Not that he was blaming them for his disappointment, but he wanted to remind the people to obey God and not to make the same mistakes their parents made in the wilderness after they settle in the Promised Land.

Since that fateful day at the waters of Meribah, Moses must have regretted his words and actions there daily, and pleaded with God persistently to allow him to set foot on the Promised Land. So God told Moses, “Enough said! Do not talk to me about this matter again, for I will not change. But since you have been my faithful servant, I will show you the land from the top of Mount Nebo.”

Moses was not alone in his disappointment. And sometimes, disappointments come not just because something that we desired was not God’s will, but also because of a sin that we committed or a mistake that we made.

We see this all over Scripture. Adam and Eve were driven out of the Promised Land after they sinned. Abraham was not patient enough waiting for the birth of his covenant son Isaac, so he took a concubine to have Ishmael. What was the consequence of his impatience? His family became dysfunctional, because his household now consisted of two sons from two wives. King David committed adultery and murder, resulting in the death of his firstborn son.

But sometimes, disappointments come because something we desired is just not God’s will. David was not allowed by God to build the Temple, because he was a man of war. Paul prayed three times that his thorn in the flesh be removed by God. In your job search, you finally found your dream job, but God does not give it to you. Our 12-year-old niece has a life-threatening disease, and if God does not answer our pleadings, we will be disappointed and discouraged. Young men and women, you thought you have found your dream boy or dream girl—loving, tender, handsome or beautiful—but as your relationship progresses, you find out that he or she is not really the man or girl of your dreams. You’re disappointed.

Sometimes as well, you thought you have found the perfect church with the perfect pastor, but there have been many times that you have been disappointed, because there is no such thing in this world and in this age.

There is an ultimate disappointment in the Bible. When the apostles saw Jesus arrested, tried and found guilty, and crucified on the cross, that would have been the greatest disappointment in their lives. Their leader was dead. All his followers were scattered like sheep. What will become of them now? Were all the things he taught them all for naught? Is this the end of their movement?

But again and again, after disappointment comes hope. Jesus rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and now the gospel is being preached throughout the whole world, and the church is made up of innumerable people from all nations, tribes and languages. Moses found this out in the 40 years in the wilderness, when time and again, it seemed that God was ready to destroy them, but God would relent and give them mercy and hope.

He even gave them a new leader after Moses.

Hope in New Leadership

So Moses died on the mountain after seeing the Promised Land from the top of Mount Nebo. Our text says “and he buried him,” but we don’t know who “he” is. From the context, the most plausible “he” would be God himself because no one else was on the mountain. The writer also says that “no one knows the place of his burial to this day.” Why is this? The great Reformer John Calvin might have taken a hint from this story in requesting that his grave be left unmarked. Knowing how Calvin lived his life in humility and knowing how people were so superstitious, he did not want people to be making pilgrimages to his grave, which in time leads into idolatry. Knowing this as well, it might be that God did not want anyone to know where Moses’ grave was.

Moses died in a similar way as his brother Aaron. In Numbers 20:22-29, God took Aaron up to the top of Mount Hor in the land of Edom so he would die there. And when he died, the people grieved for 30 days, just as they grieved 30 days for Moses.

Moses lived 120 years. His life divided into three major parts of 40 years each. Each part prepared him for the next. As a prince in Egypt for 40 years, he learned the Egyptian culture and religion, which would benefit him in dealing with the Pharaoh. After committing a crime against an Egyptian, he fled and lived in exile for 40 years as a shepherd in Midian. There in the wilderness, he became acquainted with the terrain, weather and people of the places where he would lead Israel on their way to Canaan. In the last 40 years of his life, he led Israel from Egypt to the Promised Land. And although his eyesight was good and he was in good health until the day he died on the mountain, he was not able to physically continue. One hundred twenty even during Moses’ time was a very long life. In Psalm 90:10, Moses himself wrote that man’s lifespan is only about 70-80 years.

If Moses wrote the first five books of Scripture—Genesis to Deuteronomy—how is it that he could write an epitaph for himself in verses 10-12? Some say Joshua added these verses. Others believe that Moses wrote all of these in anticipation of his death and he knew even the details of his last few hours because God revealed them to him. His epitaph says,

And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, none like him for all the signs and the wonders that the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, and for all the mighty power and all the great deeds of terror that Moses did in the sight of all Israel.

Moses was unique as a prophet of Israel—there was no one like him before or after him. How was he unique? Like all prophets, he not only talked to God, he also spoke God’s word to the people. But he was the one whom God appointed as leader of the nation that he chose from among all the peoples of the earth. God commissioned him to lead Israel out of slavery from Egypt through mighty and powerful signs and wonders in the sight of Pharaoh and all Egypt and all Israel. Moses led them to Mount Sinai where God for the first time made a covenant with his chosen nation. He led them through their wilderness wanderings for 40 years. Now, Israel was about to enter the Promised Land, and his work was done. He was Israel’s founding father.

Not only was Moses the greatest of all Old Testament prophets. He also displayed his godly character as a meek and humble servant before God and before the people. After Aaron, Miriam and other Levites questioned his leadership, Moses did not respond in anger and indignation, but let God do the talking. Numbers 12:3 says, “Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth.”

There was none like him, before him and after him, until another prophet, John the Baptist, arrived on the scene. Jesus said this much about him, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Matt 11:11). As Moses was unique in his role in the founding of God’s chosen nation Israel, so was John the Baptist in his role as the forerunner of Christ. He prepared the highway for coming of the Lord and his kingdom, preaching, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie” (Mark 1:7), and urging the people, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2).

But again, Moses himself prophesied that there will be a prophet who would come from Israel—the greatest of all prophets:

“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen… I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him” (Deut 18:15, 18-19).

This prophet will speak only God’s words. His life will be lived in perfect righteousness and obedience to God’s commands. Not only is he the greatest prophet; like Moses, he is also meek and humble. Isaiah described this prophet as someone like a lamb, meek all the way to his slaughter, “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth” (Isa 53:7).

He not only spoke God’s words, he fulfilled them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34). In fact, in accomplishing his work, he was persecuted and suffered a cruel death. He was despised and reviled, but he did not strike back, “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Pet 2:22-23).

Like Moses, God’s humble servant all the way to his death at Mount Nebo, Jesus “made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:7-9).

Moses the shepherd led his people, the sheep of God’s pasture, all the way through the valleys of the shadow of death in the wilderness until they reached the gates of the Promised Land. Like Moses, Jesus performed mighty signs and wonders before Israel. Like Moses, Jesus is the Good Shepherd who leads his people towards their heavenly promised land.

But unlike Moses, Christ is able to accompany his people in crossing the earthly Jordan River into their heavenly Canaan. And unlike Moses, he himself was the Lamb who sacrificed himself on the cross to accomplish his work. After he was crucified on the cross of Calvary, he rose again from the dead, ascended into heaven, from where he leads his people one at a time to their heavenly home. From his heavenly throne, he brings all of the disappointments, sufferings, joy and thanksgiving of his people waiting in this world before the Father in heaven.

For this reason, Jesus is counted by God as greater than Moses, indeed, the greatest Prophet, having more glory than Moses, who was faithful over God’s house as God’s servant. Jesus is faithful over God’s house, not only as a Suffering Servant, but also as the Son of God. As a result, we have hope in him as our Leader (Heb 3:2-6).

Before Moses died, he commissioned Joshua as Israel’s next leader, “And Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him. So the people of Israel obeyed him and did as the Lord had commanded Moses.” Joshua, you remember, together with Caleb, were the only two spies who believed God’s promise that he will give the Promised Land to them in spite of all the mighty inhabitants and well-fortified cities of the land, while the other ten did not have faith in God.

He was full of the spirit of wisdom not only because he had great faith in God, but also because Moses laid his hands on him. Not that laying on of hands gave the gift of the Holy Spirit to Joshua, because Joshua is described as “a man in whom is the Spirit” even before Moses laid his hands on him (Num 27:18). But there is some sense of infilling of the Spirit during the laying on of hands. It is also clear that this practice is a visible act of transferring and investing authority from one to another, so that the congregation may know that they are to obey the newly-ordained minister (Num 27:20). In the New Testament, we read that the laying on of hands is also an act of commissioning and sending of Christ’s servants (Acts 6:1-6; 13:3; 1 Tim 4:14; 2 Tim 1:6). Thus, Scripture shows that there was laying on of hands by God’s authorized servants on those who were called and sent to proclaim God’s Word, and that there was spiritual gifting that accompanied this rite.

Lastly, in commissioning Joshua, God had a word of encouragement for him, “Be strong and courageous, for you shall bring the people of Israel into the land that I swore to give them. I will be with you” (Deut 31:23).


Dear people of God, as you look all around you in this world of troubles and disappointments, God also has a word of hope for you, as he had for Israel, “Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you” (Deut 31:6).

For Pasig Covenant Reformed Church, the future is not that dim, but you may be worrying: What’s going to happen to us when our pastor is gone for two months? Who will lead us in worship and preach God’s Word? Who will lead our Bible study? Who will give us counsel when things are not going well?

You may be at the top of your own Mount Nebo, surveying the landscape of what could have and might have been, feeling discouraged and disappointed that you may not reach your goal. But as God promised Joshua and all Israel, he also promises to you, “Do not fear, do not be discouraged, for I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

Do not fear, because I will not leave you like sheep without a shepherd. Pastors and elders from other churches will preach the Word to you. For a short time, you will be led by men who are able, who are full of the Spirit and of wisdom. Listen to God’s Word faithfully preached by them. Obey their counsel and teaching. For God has promised, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” AMEN.


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