“You cannot conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone, the appalling…strangeness of the mercy of God.” Graham Greene wrote these words about the fictional characters of his novel Brighton Rock, words meant to underscore God’s unfathomable grace toward even those who’d turned his back on Him. As a novelist, Greene tended to see something redemptive about the pure love of impure people. As Christ-followers, we both affirm and challenge this idea: that God does indeed extend an “appalling” mercy toward the broken, though never on the purity of our love, but the purity of his own.
We should therefore view Moses’ mistake not merely as an example of human error, but also of divine grace, of an “appalling” mercy that reminds us of the incredible compassion of God.
We should recall that Moses’ crime went deeper than merely striking a rock he was commanded to speak to. No; his condemnation was for his failure to uphold the Lord as holy (Numbers 20:12).
But if we read our Old Testament carefully, we should note that Moses is hardly the first to commit such a transgression. Remember Nadab and Abihu? These were the sons of Aaron, men who earned their place in history as the men who offered “strange fire” before the Lord:
Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. 2 And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.3 Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord has said: ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’” And Aaron held his peace. (Leviticus 10:1-3)
Don’t miss the reason this penalty falls on them. God says that he “will be sanctified,” that is, his name will be made holy. Aaron’s sons disregarded the Lord’s command and did what seemed right in their own eyes. They failed to uphold the holiness of God. Moses disregarded the Lord’s command and did what seemed right in his own eyes. He failed to uphold the holiness of God.
I wonder if this ever crossed Aaron’s mind when he saw what Moses was doing. Was he remembering his sons? Did he feel the tears on his cheeks all over again?
But Moses would not share the same fate. Though barred from entering the Promised Land, Moses would be permitted to see its borders:
Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho. Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho. And the Lord showed him all the land, Gilead as far as Dan, 2 all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the western sea, 3 the Negeb, and the Plain, that is, the Valley of Jericho the city of palm trees, as far as Zoar.
And the Lord said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, ‘I will give it to your offspring.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there.”
So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord, 6 and he buried him in the valley in the land of Moab opposite Beth-peor; but no one knows the place of his burial to this day. Moses was 120 years old when he died. His eye was undimmed, and his vigor unabated. 8 And the people of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days. Then the days of weeping and mourning for Moses were ended. (Deuteronomy 34:1-8)
Make no mistake: the reason the author describes Moses’ ongoing vitality was to remove any suggestion that Moses died of natural causes. His remains were never recovered, most immediately to ensure that even in death Moses never entered the land, but perhaps also to prevent anyone from building a shrine to the memory of a mere man.
Moses’ life was supernaturally taken to fulfill God’s earlier promise. But Moses also died with the vision of God’s promise laid before him in hill and in valley. Obviously, Moses did not write down the details of his own death. Though Moses is the author of the Pentateuch—those first five books of the Bible—a later editor felt it necessary for future readers to know of Moses’ fate, a fate both tragic and merciful, of grace and justice mingled sweet.
Through the progress of God’s revealed story, we know that Moses lost his earthly rewards but not his eternal destiny. Moses appears alongside Elijah in front of Jesus and his closest followers. Some even believe Moses will be one of the two witnesses described in Revelation 11. And regardless of where Moses’ dust now resides, it will one day be gathered together that he might join Israel in the Promised Land when God restores his creation.
These things, too, are further examples of God’s “appalling” mercy. Appalling because it defies our simply expectation of cause and effect. And appalling that we, too, might be the recipients of God’s great grace. That God should die that I might live is an appalling form of mercy, that the righteous should die for sinners like us should never cease to take us aback with its shocking strangeness. To be given, like Moses, even the smallest glimpse of God’s eternal promise—well, this too is appallingly strange. Every other major religion relies on the steadfast rules of cause and effect. The gospel is greater and stranger than that.
Every one of us has made mistakes. Every one of us has failed to uphold God as holy. Yet as long as our trust is in the forgiveness offered through the cross, then we, too, might experience God’s appalling mercy, a mercy that lifts us out of the darkness of our shame, and lifts our eyes to a greater horizon ahead.