Wilderness Lessons

Exodus 2:11-25; Hebrews 11:24-26

April 20, 2022 | Ray Pritchard

“The greatest thing you will ever do is learn how to say no.”

I’m not sure who first said that, but it’s the truth. Nothing is harder than learning how to say no at the right time, in the right way, for the right reasons.

Life is made up of choices. In fact, that’s all life is–a series of choices we make that lead us in one direction or another.

“The greatest thing you will ever do is learn how to say no.”

We make our choices, and our choices turn around and make us. Often the small choices end up with big consequences.

Sometimes a spur of the moment decision radically alters the trajectory of life.

Moses is Exhibit A of that truth.

Where are we in his story? In our last message, we talked about the circumstances surrounding his birth (Exodus 2:1-10). In verse 10, the young child is named Moses by Pharaoh’s daughter. Verse 11 says, “One day, after Moses had grown up.” That means 40 years have passed between those two verses.

By the time he is forty, Moses looks and acts and speaks like an Egyptian. He lives in the lap of luxury. If they had taken a “Name the Next Pharaoh” poll, Moses would have been the #1 choice.

All that is about to change.

Hebrews 11:24 tells us what happened:

               By faith Moses, when he had grown up,
              refused to be known as the son of
              Pharaoh’s daughter.

This is the Great Refusal.

Moses had to say No to Pharaoh’s Daughter to do God’s will.

He had to say No to the world before he could say Yes to God.

Moses had to say No to the world before he could say Yes to God.

This may seem to be an act of ingratitude since it was Pharaoh’s daughter who saved him. She found him in the basket floating in the reeds along the bank of the Nile.

She paid his mother to be his nurse.

She protected him when her father, the Pharaoh, had ordered the killing of all the Hebrew baby boys.

She must have been the one who took care of him and oversaw his education. She made sure he learned the Egyptian language, culture and history. I am sure she protected him from anyone who questioned his heritage.

Pharaoh’s daughter seems like a strong, wise, and compassionate woman. Although she raised Moses, he refused to be known as her son. He did that not because of who she was but because of whose daughter she was.

Here is the irony of it all. When he got to the height of his power, he gave it all up.

Refused it. Relinquished it. Let it all go.

You can change a culture but not a character.

It was not an easy decision because he knew that no one would understand. It seemed like he was throwing away his whole future.

Moses knew what he had to do. Though he looked Egyptian on the outside, he was 100% Jewish on the inside.

This is hugely important because it teaches us you can’t corrupt a man from the outside. You can change a culture but not a character.

Moses may have looked like a pagan, but on the inside, he was a servant of the living God.

When Moses made his choice, it cost him 40 years of his life.

Exodus 2:11-25 shows us how it unfolded. Moses had three vital lessons to learn before he would be ready to deliver the Jews from Egypt.

Lesson #1: Don’t Get Ahead of God

11 One day, after Moses had grown up,
               he went out to where his own people were and
              watched them at their hard labor. 

He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew,
              one of his own people. 

12 Looking this way and that and seeing no one,
              he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. 

At first glance, this seems noble. Who could fault Moses for standing up for his own people? But it was so noble, why did he hide the body?

13 The next day he went out and saw
              two Hebrews fighting.

He asked the one in the wrong,
“Why are you hitting your fellow Hebrew?”

That’s a good question.
But he didn’t get the answer he expected.

14 “Who made you a commander and judge
              over us?” the man replied.

“Are you planning to kill me as
              you killed the Egyptian?”

Then Moses became afraid and thought,
“What I did is certainly known.”

15 When Pharaoh heard about this,
              he tried to kill Moses.

But Moses fled from Pharaoh and went to live
              in the land of Midian, and sat down by a well.

To understand what happened, we need to add one fact from Stephen’s account in Acts 7:25,

You don’t want a hothead as your leader.

Moses thought that his own people would realize
that God was using him to rescue them,
              but they did not. 

Evidently, God had already been stirring in Moses’ heart. When he saw his own people, he knew he had to do something to deliver them from bondage. The Lord was raising up Moses, but he was not yet ready to lead his people. He had a long way to go (forty more years, to be exact).

When we move ahead of the Lord, we say foolish things, and we make foolish mistakes. Moses had no right to kill the Egyptian, and he was wrong to hide the body. His folly guaranteed the Jews would not follow him.

Who could blame them? You don’t want a hothead as your leader.

At that moment, Moses made a life-changing decision. Even though he acted out of fear, his journey to Midian was part of God’s curriculum to prepare him for leadership many years down the road.

God knows what he is doing, even when nothing around us makes sense.

There is a principle here we all need to ponder. God knows what he is doing, even when nothing around us makes sense.

Moses appears to be an abject failure, and indeed he was. He’s on the lam, running from the law, heading off into the desert to escape Pharaoh’s justice.

If this is all we had, we would think Moses was a typical zealot—too impulsive to be trusted in a moment of crisis. As a matter of fact, that’s precisely what he was on that day. But forty years with the sheep would produce patience and clear-eyed determination that would make him the right man to face down Pharaoh.

Now everything changed for Moses. Gone are his palace privileges. No longer is he “Most Likely to Succeed.” He has traded a life of ease for hardscrabble desert living. The palace is forever behind him. He will live in tents for the rest of his life.

The Backside of the Moon

When Moses left Egypt, he never looked back. We have a hard time with this concept. We want one foot in the world and one in the church. We want a rising career and a happy life with God’s people.

That’s not always possible.

Hebrews 11:25 explains his decision this way:

“He chose to be mistreated along
              with the people of God
 rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin
              for a short time.

His heart was right, but his methods were wrong. He had not earned the right to deliver his people. That’s why the Jews turned against him.

When Pharaoh tries to kill him, Moses runs for his life. He ends up in Midian, which is like the backside of the moon. It’s more than a desert. You would have a hard time finding a more desolate place on earth: a desert wasteland where no one lived except for some nomadic tribes.

Where had he gone wrong? In life, timing is everything. Moses wasn’t ready to rescue anyone, not even himself.

In life, timing is everything.

First, he was angry, then he was afraid, then he ran away.

We can imagine his thoughts: “But I meant well. I killed the man who was beating up one of my kinsmen. The Egyptians are tyrants. If they didn’t need us to work as slaves, they would kill all of us. You deserve to be free. Don’t you understand that? God called me to deliver you.”

All true.

But God didn’t call him to kill the Egyptian and hide him.
By the way, why did he hide him? He knew it was wrong.
If this was God’s way, you don’t need to hide the evidence.

Impulse Issues

Moses had to deal with his impulse issues. At this point in his life, he lacks self-control. Solomon would talk about that 500 years later:

“Better a patient man than a warrior,
one with self-control than one who takes a city”
(Proverbs 16:32).

But of course, we don’t really believe it. Which would you rather be called? A patient man or a warrior? The world rewards the warriors while the patient men change diapers and take out the garbage. It’s not much of a contest.

Solomon further defines a patient man as one who controls his temper. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t get angry. He does.  But at the right time, in the right way, and for the right reasons.

It took Moses 40 years in the School of the Wilderness to learn self-control.
How long will it take you and me?

God used a tyrant king, bulrushes, a thoughtful sister, a caring mother, Pharaoh’s daughter, Egyptian learning, plus 40 years tending sheep in the desert to prepare Moses.Then and only then was he ready to fulfill his destiny.

I saw a picture with this sign on a big 18-wheeler:

“God is moving. Be Patient.”

“God is moving. Be Patient.”

That’s right, but oh, how hard to remember when we get impatient, or when we see injustice, or when our plans get delayed.

Our greatest enemy is the man in the mirror. A man’s first battle is with himself. Until we have conquered that man, we are not fit to lead other men.

That leads me to a simple question: Are you willing to wait for God? Until the answer is yes, you aren’t ready to fulfill God’s plan for your life.

That brings us to the second lesson Moses had to learn.

Lesson #2: Serve Where God Puts You (vv. 16-22)

So now our hero finds himself in the middle of nowhere. The “backside of the desert” is like the wrong side of the moon. He might as well have been on the moon for all the good he could do for his suffering people. Though he was a shepherd in the desert, he could no more help his people than if he was on a deserted island in the Pacific Ocean.

He can’t go back to Egypt. If he does, he’ll be arrested and put to death. What good would that do for the Hebrews? A dead man can’t deliver his people.

So now he finds himself by a well where seven daughters of a Midianite priest have come to draw water. Some shepherds thought the women shouldn’t be there, so they tried to drive them away. But Moses drove the shepherds away and drew the water for the women.

In this case, his instinct for justice served him well. Evidently, he learned something from the earlier episode because he drove the shepherds away, but he didn’t kill anyone.When the daughters tell their father what happened, he says, “Didn’t you invite him to supper?

All of life is a school, and every man is my teacher.

That’s the least we can do for him.

This sets the stage for the next forty years of Moses’ life. He’s about to become a family man.

21 Moses agreed to stay with the man,|
              and he gave his daughter
              Zipporah to Moses in marriage. 

22 She gave birth to a son whom
              he named Gershom,
                 for he said, “I have been a resident alien in a foreign land.”

So now our hero will be tending sheep for the next four decades. As far as he knows, he’ll never go back to Egypt, much less deliver his people. His impulsive mistake in killing the Egyptian has permanently detoured his life—or so he thinks.

But God!

All of life is a school, and every man is my teacher. Moses is now enrolled in the School of the Wilderness. He will receive his degree in forty years.

First, he must learn to be content tending sheep in the desert. Though forgotten in Egypt, he now has a family and a new career. He has a wife and a son and a job to do. He will become intimately acquainted with the desert. That will stand him in good stead when he leads the children of Israel through the wilderness.

But that is far in his future.

For now, his life is his wife, his son, and a big herd of sheep. He’ll have plenty of time to think about his future (and chew over his past) because he’ll spend weeks and months and years roaming from one watering spot to another.

It seems like God had forgotten him. It might seem like God was punishing him. But in reality, God was preparing him for his future.

We like to say, “Bloom where you are planted.” Good advice. But what if you don’t like the soil? What if you’ve been planted in manure?

Grow there!
Bloom there!
Blossom there!

Manure makes the best fertilizer.

All of us will spend some time in the wilderness. Here is the question we must face: Are you willing to serve in the shadows?

That leads to the final lesson Moses must learn.

Lesson Three: Trust in God’s Plan (vv. 23-25)

23 After a long time, the king of Egypt died.
              The Israelites groaned because
              of their difficult labor,
              they cried out, and their cry for help because
              of the difficult labor ascended to God. 

24 God heard their groaning,
              and God remembered
              his covenant with Abraham,
              with Isaac, and with Jacob.

 25 God saw the Israelites, and God knew.

No king lives forever.

The king who wanted to kill Moses was gone. Now an even worse tyrant sits on the throne. No wonder the people “groaned” under their slave labor. They groaned as they wept and prayed to God.

They begged God to remember the covenant he had made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. “Lord, you said you would deliver us. We’ve been in Egypt for 400 years. Lord, you promised to bring us home to our own land. Where are you, Lord? Do you not see us?”

The prayer that touches God’s heart must be rooted in God’s Word. As Luther said, we ought to take God’s promises and fling them back in his face. “Lord, you said you would do this. You made a promise. Now, Lord, do what you said you would do.” Spurgeon noted that “God loves to be believed in.” Well, of course. We all love to be believed in. Why should God be any different? The prayer that changes the world begins and builds on what God has already revealed. When you pray, stand on the promises of God.

That’s what the Hebrews did when they prayed.
They were flinging God’s promises back in his face.

Notice the phrases used in this passage:

God heard.
God saw.
God knew.

God remembered.

Though the Jews felt forgotten, behind the scenes God was working to deliver them. His plan involved a man last seen running off into the desert to get away from the law.

Moses left the winning side for the losing side.

That man has been a shepherd for 40 years.

He is now 80 years old.
His time has finally come.

When the text says, “God remembered,” it’s telling us Moses isn’t the hero. God is the hero.

Leaving the Winning Side

Moses has been studying for forty years at the School of the Wilderness. It has taken 80 years to prepare Moses for the great events of his life.

At a time when others would retire, he is about to change world history.

And he doesn’t have a clue!

I want to come back to Hebrews 11:24,

“By faith Moses, when he had grown up,
              refused to be known as the son of
              Pharaoh’s daughter.”

Consider what that means:

He made his choice at the height of his powers.
He had everything to gain in Egypt, and he gave it all up.
He stood on the steps of the Egyptian throne.

He left the winning side for the losing side. It wasn’t fashionable to follow the Lord because the worshipers of God were slaves. He threw away the glory of Egypt to join God’s suffering people.

Hebrews 11:26 offers a strange explanation: “He counted the reproach of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt.” This surely made no sense to his Egyptian friends.

Do not despise the value of daily obedience

“Moses, are you nuts? Have you lost your mind? If you want to help your own people, stay in Pharaoh’s court. You can help them better here than by becoming one of them.”

So why would a man do something like this?

The Bible says simply, “He was looking ahead to his reward.” Moses did some mental reckoning. The glories of Egypt amounted to nothing compared to the glory that would come to those who trust the Lord and walk by faith.

No Turning Back

It’s always easier to stay in Egypt. There are plenty of rewards for the home team—at least in the short run.

No turning back, no turning back.

But in the long run, Egypt vanishes into the dust, and those who do the will of God abide forever.

A familiar campfire song puts the challenge in stark relief:

The world behind me, the cross before me;
The world behind me, the cross before me;
The world behind me, the cross before me;
No turning back, no turning back.

That leads to one final question: Are you willing to follow Jesus even when the road leads to a cross?

Did Moses make the right choice when he made the great refusal? Yes, but it didn’t seem that way at year 17 in the wilderness.

Did Moses make the wrong choice when he murdered the Egyptians? Yes, but in God’s providence living as a desert shepherd prepared Moses for greater work to come.

Did Moses ever think he had wasted his life? Probably.

Waiting time is never wasted time if you are waiting on the Lord.

Write over this passage two words: “But God.”
But God had bigger plans.
But God saw the bigger picture.
But God knew what he was doing.

When Moses turned 78, did he say to himself, “My life has been a failure”? Little did he know he was just getting started.

Many of us may feel the same way. But do not despise the value of daily obedience. Moses was doing God’s will when he tended sheep just as much as when he stood before Pharaoh and said, “Let my people go!”

The Road to the Promised Land

When we think of Moses, we remember his courage before Pharaoh. But the road to Pharaoh runs through the desert. If he doesn’t do forty years in the wilderness, he never stands before Pharaoh, and he never delivers God’s people.

The road to the Promised Land goes through the desert. There’s no other way to get there.

God knows who you are and where you are.
God sees the big picture when you don’t have a clue.
God knows what he’s doing when nothing in your life makes sense.

God doesn’t keep time the way we do.

Sometimes we say, “God is never early, never late. Always on time.” Okay, but 80 years seems like a long time to wait.

God doesn’t keep time the way we do.

Trust in him. Take the next step.
Let God take care of everything else.

Let’s remind ourselves of the three Lessons Moses had to learn:

#1 Don’t Get Ahead of God.
#2 Serve Where God Puts You.
#3 Trust in God’s Plan.

If you find yourself in the backside of the desert right now, do not despair. You are not there by accident but by the hand of God. Serve the Lord with gladness and do whatever your hand finds to do.

Unknown to Moses, while he was tending sheep, God heard the cry of his oppressed people and said, “The time has come.”

Get ready for the burning bush.
Moses is about to discover his calling.
At age 80, his life is about to begin.

Remember this final truth: Waiting time is never wasted time if you are waiting on the Lord.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?