Numbers 20 and Deuteronomy 34:1-7.
I greatly desire to call earnest attention to these two chapters for a little this evening, not only because they have a very intimate bearing the one upon the other, but also because you could not find in the whole of the blessed word of God, two chapters which give you more perfect wilderness experience.
I do not know whether you have ever been struck with it, but it is very remarkable that the 20th of Numbers begins with death and ends with death, and it is more remarkable still, that in both beginning and end it is death in the same family; Miriam, the sister of Aaron, closes her eyes in death at the commencement of it; and Aaron, the priest, the brother of Miriam, lays aside his official garments and closes his eyes upon the scene, in the end of it. It is a perfect chapter of wilderness history; it is in very deed the beginning and end of the wilderness; it began with death, it ends with death. The brightest day the wilderness ever saw, is tinged by the dark clouds of death; it separates the musician from the timbrel, for Miriam was the one who led the song in the palmy days of Israel's triumph on the shores of the Red sea, and the loudest above all the notes of praise that were sung in commemoration of Jehovah's victory, was Miriam's voice, "Sing ye to the Lord, for He hath triumphed gloriously, the horse and his rider hath He thrown into the sea." She led the song on that occasion, and now her lips are sealed never to be opened again; and when you come to the end of the chapter you find a man who stood as the priest, laying aside his priestly robes and bowing to death.
It is well to remember that priesthood always supposes a people in a certain relation with God, as Israel was outwardly; priesthood always comes in as sustainment or succour for a people who are brought into relation with God, during their journey through the wilderness. I would only allude to this in passing, for I think it important, and useful, and instructive. The atonement of our Lord Jesus Christ, though the act of one who is a priest, is not in itself a priestly act, and the reason I mention that is because in the 19th of Numbers you will find it was another person who was to kill the heifer before the eyes of Eleazar the priest; the priest himself did not slay the victim, it was slain by another in his presence. The Lord Jesus Christ did not enter upon His priestly functions until He had passed through death and resurrection, and gone into the heavens. He was no priest on earth, "If He were on earth He should not be a priest;" but after He has gone into the heavens, we have Him in the exercise of His everlasting priesthood, founded too upon His death and resurrection. We find a picture of it in Aaron's rod that budded, which was God's way of silencing the murmurings of rebellious Israel, and hushing the rising murmurs of their hearts. He caused the rod to be laid up before Him in the tabernacle, and the dead rod on the morrow budded and brought forth almonds, etc. it was typical of priesthood, founded upon death and resurrection, which is the only principle upon which God could bring the people through the wilderness. Moses' rod would never do, because it was symbolical of judicial authority, and hence when God was about to turn the rivers of Egypt into blood, His direction to Moses was, to strike his rod over the river; but when we come to the 20th of Numbers, what we find is this, though the blessed God is manifesting, in His dealing with Israel, that they are a rebellious people, still He does not recognize any other rod but one. "Take the rod." What rod? Aaron's rod which budded and blossomed; that was the rod, the rod of priestly grace, the only power by which God could lead a rebellious people through the wilderness; if He used the rod of Moses, it would have been destruction after destruction.
What we have in the end of this chapter is Aaron, the man who stood between an outwardly reconciled people and God — God's priest, the man who stood also between the living and the dead, now yielding to the power of death himself. The priest must put off his priestly garments, the sweet singer of Israel must lay aside her timbrel, and must go into that great silence that nothing can break: these are the things that go to make up the wilderness; in it you ever find the dark cloud, disappointment and death. Israel murmured that they had no water, and even that but reveals the interest, and care, and love, and provision, of Jehovah, who said Himself that He had looked after their clothes and feet forty years in the wilderness: let no one turn away and say we do not act like them, because that is the tendency of all our hearts every moment. The thing that tests us is the wilderness; the circumstances of the way are the very things that bring out what is in us. If our eyes are on the living God, we can stand the pressure of wilderness circumstances; if not, we break down. We are all sooner or later tested — God knows what will test each in their wilderness experience, and He suits the testing to the condition and state of His people, but we are all tested; you will find it so in Israel, they wanted bread and they murmured; every circumstance in their history brought out what little confidence or repose of heart they really had in God, and thus the reality of their state comes out. "The people chode with Moses, and spake, saying, Would God that we had died when our brethren died before the Lord, and why have ye brought up the congregation of the Lord into this wilderness, that we and our cattle should die, and wherefore have ye made us to come out of Egypt to bring us unto this evil place? it is no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates, neither is there any water to drink." What a picture! dissatisfaction, discontent, complaint, and rebellion upon the part of Israel, death in their circumstances, and death in their families; death in their circumstances, for there was no water; and death in their families, for Miriam and Aaron had fallen on sleep; in fact, death on everything. But now observe there is a beautiful contrast here for if there be in very deed change on everything, yet there are two things in this very chapter that do not change. What are they? The Rock and the Rod. There you get no change. Aaron may die, Miriam may die, Israel may murmur, the waters may fail, there is nothing, as to earth, that the eye can rest on, but the Rock and the Rod are the same. It is a blessed thing to learn that if Miriam, the sweet singer of Israel, fades like a leaf, if Aaron the priest puts his priestly garments upon another and dies under the righteous government of God like the great Moses himself, who has to go up Mount Pisgah, gaze at the goodly land, and then fall on sleep, all liable to death, I look at the Rock, it is the same, and at the Rod, it is the same.
The Rock is Christ, as the One who was bruised as an atonement for sin, because you remember, on the first occasion when Moses smote the rock, it was a type of Christ lifted up on the cross; I allude to the 17th of Exodus, "Smite the rock and there shall come water out of it that the people may drink," — because you can have nothing, no good, no blessing, neither salvation nor sustenance, that does not spring out of a smitten Christ — if there is water to come forth from the rock to satisfy the thirst of Israel, typically Christ must be smitten. When I speak of the rock, I speak of Christ as the One who was an atonement for sin. He is the One out of whom everything comes, by Him sin is removed, by His precious death the barrier is removed, and now everything fully comes out; it is not that God had it not in His heart, He had, but righteousness barred the way, and the moment sin is removed all comes out righteously; refreshment, pardon, liberty, in fact, everything. If you trace everything up to its source, you will find all in heaven or on earth, all flows from Christ crucified; He is the Rock, and in another sense the One on whom the heart builds for eternal security. But now the Rod is Christ, though in another aspect of His glory, even Christ in the exercise of His priestly grace as the One who is in the heavens because He is a priest in heaven, not on earth, and He is exercising the functions of His priesthood in heaven. "He is a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec" that is His order, the functions are Aaronic. The Rod then is typical of priesthood founded upon death and resurrection; and so these are the two things that remain amid all the vicissitudes in Israel's journey, the Rock and the Rod. What a blessed thing it is that no one will ever go to Mount Hor and see Christ strip Himself of His priestly robes and put them upon another! No eyes will ever look upon such a sight as that. Moses himself afterwards must toil up the steep incline of Mount Pisgah to die in the Mount, having first feasted his eyes upon that which death shut him out of. What a blessed thing it is that we shall never do that! Christ never commits His office to another. He holds it eternally. That is the great and blessed fact in this chapter. As we go through the wilderness, what God would lead us into is, the sufficiency of Christ. He is enough — we constantly say He is enough, but then all the way we are proved as to that. The Rock and the Rod are not enough for Israel, and they are ready to malign God who had brought them through, up to that moment. Have our hearts known the sufficiency of Christ? Is all the fulness and the blessedness in Him our competency, so that when we are tested, it may be by the passing away of some creature mercy, it may be by the withering of some gourd, it may be by being stripped like a tree, Christ is enough for us? That is the test; it is in the complete death and desolation of everything here; am I then able to say Christ is enough? He is sufficient, all fulness is in Him; it is not a question of having our needs met, or getting relief. I do not deny that He ministers relief, I know He does; but that is what Israel's heart was always upon, they were hungry or thirsty, and they wanted relief, they were in that sense always on relief. I don't deny that God gives relief, but I do say there is a higher thing than that, there is the exercise of the heart that it may know, before the relief comes, the need of continued dependence which the hunger and thirst were designed to promote. If Christ is our resource, then we can endure until relief comes and do you think the relief is less sweet when it comes if I have been proving the sufficiency of the One whose hand is stretched out to give it me? On the contrary, it enhances the gift, and in place of measuring His heart by your need, you measure it by His own heart. Christ's own heart is the only measure of itself. If it were otherwise, supposing your necessities are not very great, then the proportion of what is in His heart will be very small; and am I not to know Him beyond the mere extent of my necessities and needs? Am I not to know Him on His own side? I am speaking now of what is individual, of what is to be known in the wilderness — a resource, so that if death and decay be on everything around us, we can turn to all and say, "Thank God, there is the Rock and the Rod, and nothing can touch them."
I would glance a moment at that wherein Moses's failure consisted at this time. It was this — in giving a false representation of God to Israel — that was simply his sin, he misrepresented God to a rebellious people. Jehovah had said to him, "Take the rod," i.e. Aaron's rod, symbolical, as I have pointed out already, of priestly grace, "Take the rod, and gather thou the Assembly together, thou and Aaron thy brother, and speak ye unto the rock before their eyes." Now observe how different that is to Jehovah's word to Moses in Exodus 17:5, "And thy rod, wherewith thou smotest the river, take in thy hand and go." That was the first occasion; here he was to take "the rod," and speak to the rock. That is, God was acting in reference to Israel in the unbounded grace of His own heart; it was grace, and priestly grace too, because it is only priestly grace that can bring a murmuring people through the wilderness; whereas Moses, instead of taking the rod, takes his own rod, the rod of judgment and government — thus he misrepresented God in every way, he denied in type the one sacrifice of Christ by smiting the rock twice, and he misrepresented the voice of God in speaking to Israel as he did; he stood before the people the very contrast to that character in which God was dealing with them. It is a solemn reality for us at this present moment, in our actings, conversation, and ways down here in this world, that we give a proper representation of Christ; because that is what we are left here for. Are we really exercised as to this manifestation of Christ to men?
The only way the world can see Christ is in His people, who are in the world, for He is gone away; there is no Christ on this earth, but His people are left here in order that others may both learn and see Christ in them. Are we sufficiently near Him and in communion with His mind to weigh the importance of this? Are we walking in the quietness of His own presence so that we can catch and thus be moulded by His mind, and so naturally and easily express Him? Is it that which now is forming us? Think of Moses, he speaks unadvisedly with his lips; and if we speak unadvisedly with our lips we give, in our way, as far as we can give, a false representation of Christ, and if we are in circumstances where Christ would not be, we so far misrepresent Him. How careful it ought to make us! But a person may say, how can I give a true representation of Christ? You must know His mind in order to represent Him. The man who represents another's interests knows what those interests are, and is acquainted with everything about them. Herein is our chief deficiency there is so little nearness to, and intimacy with Christ, hence we so little represent Him faithfully in this world. The Lord give us to be near to Christ every moment — it is as you are near to Him that His moral features are in measure reproduced in you. He is the producing power, and, as you are near Him, He produces certain qualities in you, and that is likeness to Christ in our ways. Now here Moses is not the true delineator of God in that sense and hence he lost Canaan. Two things run all through the word of God, viz., Grace and Government, and they never interfere the one with the other — both are here; hence it is Moses died. Aaron likewise goes up Mount Hor, and dies, as we have already seen. This is government. Government and grace are going on still; this is government, viz., "Whatsoever a man soweth that shall he also reap." That is as true of a Christian as of a man of the world. It was government that shut Moses out of Canaan, but grace gave him a sight of the goodly land ere he died. Before Moses fell asleep, Jehovah led him up to the top of Pisgah, and traced out with His own hand, as it were, all the land of promise. What a sight that must have been; think of the blessed God leading His poor servant up the mountain top, and pointing out to the eyes, so soon to close in death, that goodly land. Is that not grace? Was the blessed God in any sense bound to do so? By no means. Yet I am emboldened to say that it gave Jehovah far more pleasure to give his servant that sight than it did even Moses to gaze on it. But Aaron too had failed, and hence it is precisely the same here with him, because he was associated with Moses. No doubt, he was the lesser of the two, yet he must die. The grace of God is exhibited in the one who was the leader. No doubt, if we look at it dispensationally, Moses could not bring the people in, the "law" could not bring the people into the land, it made nothing perfect; we do not get that until we come to Joshua; that is another thing, but what I now treat of is grace and government exhibited in God's ways with Moses and Aaron. Both die in the government of God.
One thing in order to show the contrast that is here; Moses standing on Mount Pisgah, and looking on the land into which he was not to enter with Israel, is not the sort of view the Christian now gets of the glories of Christ and the heavenly land; through grace, we have title to look at heaven and glory, not as at a distance from us, but as in them. If the Spirit of God dwells in us He invites us to Christ in glory; not like Moses, who saw a better thing than he possessed; it must have been in some sense a tantalizing thing to him, and that is why people are in a sense tormented by looking at the glory. When you speak of a place where everything is in perfection, you must be tantalized by it if you do not know that it is yours, if you have no sense of possession of it; but if you are a Christian, all is yours. A Christian is a person in whom the Holy Ghost dwells, and hence one with Christ in the place where Christ is. Why should people, then, be tantalized? Why should the blessedness of union with Christ in heaven make any soul think it is not possible to know it? The blessed Lord Himself looking on to the day of the presence of the Holy Ghost on the earth says, "In that day ye shall know that I am in my Father, and ye in Me, and I in you." (John 14:20). No doubt it is all wonderful, yet, if Christians, we are one with Christ, and it is not looking at the thing as from a distance, but looking at that into which we have been brought and be assured the difference is great as to whether we are looking at the things of Christ as Moses looked at Canaan from Mount Pisgah, or as being brought into the very centre of it because if the Holy Ghost dwells in us, He unites us to Christ where He is, and I therefore say we are brought into it. Then besides all this, we have here what is peculiar to the wilderness — "the Rock" and "the Rod" — the Rock on which we may build for eternal security, even as the scripture expresses it — "A man shall be as a hiding place from the wind, and a covert from the tempest; as rivers of water in a dry place, as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land." (Isa. 32:2). That all belongs to the wilderness, because there will not be any heat or want of water in heaven. Thus then this weary desert is the very place to elicit the hidden virtues of the mystic Rock and Rod, the Rod that blossomed and budded (type of the resurrection of Christ), to carry a poor feeble one along, our murmurings all quieted and silenced, and taken away, and we led so blessedly along, until we shall have changed the dry and parching sand of the deserts for the blessedness of Christ's own presence.
The Lord give us to know the reality of this Rock and Rod, when Miriam the prophetess and Aaron the priest die — because this is real wilderness life; Israel murmur, Miriam and Aaron die, the waters fail, but the Rock and the Rod remain the same, and that which is wanting in everything else, viz., sameness, is the glory of this. The absence of this stamps everything here in the wilderness as faulty and deficient, but when we come to Christ, what do we find? "Jesus Christ the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever."
The Lord by His Spirit give our hearts to prove Him the same day by day, for His own name's sake!