No doubt you have observed the very striking phrase used in the book of Numbers concerning Moses. We do not find our attention particularly drawn to his skill as a leader and a commander of the people, or to his wisdom as an administrator of the law, great and honoured of God as he was in these qualities. But it is the extraordinary meekness of his spirit that is esteemed worthy of special mention. "Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth" (Num. 12:3).
The circumstances calling forth this expression concerning Israel's lawgiver are such as add to its significance. They show that in a moment of very great provocation Moses maintained an unruffled serenity and sinned not with his lips. His brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam, moved with envy, murmured against him, saying, "Hath the Lord indeed spoken only by Moses? Hath he not also spoken by us?" This was surely enough, speaking after the manner of men, to rouse his spirit. For nearly forty years he had been with the people leading them on through the desert to the promised land. And now the members of his own family unite to accuse him of taking too much upon himself! As a rule we are capable of enduring less from relatives than from strangers. Persons pour out the vials of their wrath upon their own households with but little compunction. Moses however refrained his lips. Then it is we have the remarkable testimony to his meekness which has been quoted above. And Jehovah interposed on behalf of His silent servant, reproving both the malcontents, and smiting Miriam with leprosy.
Very shortly after this incident we read of a scene in which the conduct of Moses appears in strange and painful contrast with that just alluded to. The children of Israel came to the desert of Zin, and found themselves without water. This was not a new experience for the people. And during their long passage through the wilderness they had numerous opportunities of proving Jehovah's power and goodness in providing for them.
But the people chode with Moses and murmured against him, and through him against Jehovah. Then Jehovah in His wonderful patience bade Moses take Aaron's rod that had budded, which was laid up before the Lord (Num. 17:10; Num. 20:8, 9), and to speak to the rock that water might flow to supply the needs of the congregation.
Moses obeyed, inasmuch as he took the priestly rod from the sanctuary. But as he stood before the rock he was so angry that he rebelled against the commandment of Jehovah (Num. 27:14). Instead of speaking to it, the furious man lifted up his hand and smote the rock with his own rod, not once only but twice. The force of his passions, held in check for many a long day, now compressed itself in a dozen words or so which must have stung like so many scorpions, "Hear now, ye rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock?"
Could this be Moses, that very meek man, yielding to an explosion of temper in this fashion after a long life of exemplary humbleness of mind for nearly six score years, so soon after the brilliant moral triumph referred to above? It was indeed Moses; for absolute perfection was only to be found in One Who had not then come.
And his failure is placed on record that we may take heed lest we fall. It was but for a moment that he left the "door of his lips" unguarded (Psalm 141:3), and the burning words of passion flew forth, for ever beyond recall. For a moment he was off his guard; for a moment he failed to watch; and his unruly, rebellious tongue spoke those unsanctified sentences that cost him his inheritance in the promised land. From the heights of Pisgah, the eye of Moses beheld that land flowing with milk and honey, but Jehovah forbade him to enter therein (Deut. 34:4).
It may seem to some of you a very severe sentence for a small offence. But it was not a small offence; the greater the saint the worse the sin. However, the point I wish especially to bring before you is the exceeding great importance of unceasing watchfulness as illustrated in the example of Moses. Read carefully what James says about the tongue (James 3). The hasty word spoken in anger may cause untold mischief. Is it not when you are unthinking that you find this happens? Something does not please you. You have received a real or fancied injury. And before you are aware, your indignation is fired, and the savage word is spoken, which is speedily followed by unavailing regrets.
Oh, learn, I beseech you to choke your wrath. Weep over your folly and sin in the presence of God. Be resolute in your endeavours to control the workings of your passions within. Firmly refuse to open your lips to utter your words while they are red hot. Let them cool, lest like Moses you speak unadvisedly with your lips (Ps. 106:33).
Above all things, let the "meekness and gentleness of Christ" be before you as your example. He was "meek and lowly in heart," and we are to learn of Him.