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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Dictionary of Texts

Exodus 3

Verses 1-22

Exodus 3:2

It is the office and function of the imagination to renew life in lights and sounds and emotions that are outworn and familiar. It calls the soul back once more under the dead ribs of nature, and makes the meanest bush burn again, as it did to Moses, with the visible presence of God.

J. Russell Lowell.

References. III. 2. A. M. Mackay, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xliv. 1893, p. 20. G. F. Browne, ibid. vol. liv. 1898, p. 76. P. McAdam Muir, ibid. vol. lviii. 1900, p. 246. E. E. Cleal, ibid. vol. lxvi. 1904, p. 267; see also ibid. vol. lxviii. 1905, p. 44. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, the Books of Exodus, etc., p. 19. R. J. Campbell, Sermons Addressed to Individuals, p. 207. J. M. Neale, Sermons For Some Feast Days in the Christian Year, p. 83; see also Sermons Preached in Sackville College Chapel, vol. iv. p. 251. III. 2, 3. J. M. Neale, Sermons For Some Feast Day in the Christian Year, p. 74. A. G. Mortimer, The Church's Lessons for the Christian Year, Part II. p. 299.

Exodus 3:3

It is good to come to the place of God's presence, howsoever; God may perhaps speak to thy heart, though thou come but for novelty. Even those who have come upon curiosity have been oft taken.

Bishop Hall.

See also Keble's lines on the Fifth Sunday in Lent.

What we mean by wondering is not only that we are startled or stunned that I should call the merely passive element of wonder.... We wonder at the riddles of nature, whether animate or inanimate, with a firm conviction that there is a solution to them all, even though we ourselves may not be able to find it. Wonder, no doubt, arises from ignorance, but from a peculiar kind of ignorance, from what might be called a fertile ignorance.

Max Müller.

What must sound reason pronounce of a mind which, in the train of a million thoughts, has wandered to all things under the sun, to all the permanent objects or vanishing appearances in the creation, but never fixed its thought on the supreme reality; never approached like Moses 'to see this great sight'?

John Foster.

Burning But Not Burnt

Exodus 3:3

The story of Moses is the story, at first, of failure. Two great streams of influences moulded his life: one drawn from the Egyptian surroundings of his early days, the other from his mother's teaching. On the one side he had the speechless-eyed deities of Egypt looking for ever into his face; on the other he had his belief in the governing providence of God. He looked to find amongst his own people aspirations after better things, and responsiveness to his own spirit; he met only with coldness, and refusal to follow. Then came his exile in Midian an exile from all his early dreams and hopes, from the position he had in Egypt, from the future which flowed before him.

I. The Vision and its Results. The vision was the revelation that restored him to faith and energy. The revelation was threefold. It was a revelation ( a ) of permanence, ( b ) of purity, ( c ) of personal power.

( a ) A revelation of permanence, for the bush was not consumed; it held its own life amidst the devouring flame.

( b ) A revelation of purity, for before he could enter into the deep meaning of that vision, a Voice had bidden him 'put his shoes from off his feet, for the place on which he stood was holy'.

( c ) A revelation of personal power and love, for out of the distance, out of the background of the vision, giving it its heart and life, came the voice of Him who proclaimed Himself through all the changes and vicissitudes of the life of Israel as the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob.

II. A Vision for all Time. The revelation was not for Moses alone. Note:

( a ) There is in every common bush the light of God, and only those see it who draw off their shoes.

( b ) We forget to turn aside to see the great sights about us.

( c ) If we give our hearts leisure and earnestly seek to meet with God, God will meet with us.

The Negative Side

Exodus 3:3

I have broken up the text in this way that we may see more vividly the special point and largest meaning. Many men turn aside to see why things are; here is a man who turns aside to see why things are not. God disturbs our little law of continuity as if we knew anything about continuity! We were born yesterday, and are struggling today, and tomorrow will be forgotten, and we shape our mouths to the utterance of this great word continuity! We spoil ourselves by using long words instead of short ones.

'I will turn aside, and see why not.' If you saw a river flowing up a hill, perhaps you would turn aside and see why it does not, like all other rivers, flow downhill. If you saw an eagle build ing its nest in the middle of the Atlantic, perhaps even you and I might be wakened out of our vulgar narrowness and startled by the ministry of surprise. God has a great surprise ministry.

I. I will turn aside, and see why the wicked are not consumed, and I find an answer in the fact that God's mercy endureth for ever, of His love there is no end, and that men may be in reality better than they themselves suppose. Not what we see in ourselves, but what God sees in us is the real standard of judgment. We are never so near the realization of the great blessing as when we see nothing in ourselves to deserve it.

II. I will turn aside, and see and inquire why the departed ones do not speak to us and tell us about the other and upper side of things. Who shall say that the departed never speak to us? What is speaking? Which is the true ear, the ear of the body or the ear of the soul? What are these unexplained noises? What are these sudden utterances of the summer wind? Who can interpret this gospel of fragrance, this apocalypse of blossom, this mystery of resurrection? Who knows what voices sweep through the soul, and what tender fingers touch the heart-strings of the life? Who is it that whispers things to the heart? Who is it that said, Be brave, take up your work, never stand still till the Master appear? Who is it, was it, how could it be? I will turn aside, and see this great sight, and I will believe that more is spoken to us than the ear of the body can hear.

III. What a rebuke this is as a text to all our little notions about cause and effect! The Lord is always surprising people by unexpected revelations; the Lord is always perplexing the mind by tearing human calculations to rags; again and again through Pentecostal winds there roars this glorious gospel, The Lord reigneth. Personality is greater than law; consciousness is the true continuity; God is the Master, and if He pleases to turn the sun into darkness He will do it, aye, and the moon into blood, and she shall be melted as into a crimson flame.

Joseph Parker, City Temple Pulpit, vol. 1. p. 239.

References. III. 3. W. H. Hutchings, Sermon Sketches, p. 94. W. Boyd Carpenter, The Burning Bush, p. 1.

Exodus 3:4

'I think, sir,' says Dinah Morris in Adam Bede (ch. VIII.), 'when God makes His presence felt through us, we are like the burning bush: Moses never took any heed what sort of bush it was he only saw the brightness of the Lord.'

The more the microscope searches out the molecular structure of matter, the thinner does its object become, till we feel as if the veil were not being so much withdrawn as being worn away by the keen scrutiny, or rent in twain, until at last we come to the true Shekinah, and may discern through it, if our shoes are off, the words I AM, burning, but not consumed.

Dr. John Brown on Art and Science.

References. III. 4. S. Wilberforce, Sermons Preached on Various Occasions, p. 37.

Holy Ground

Exodus 3:5

The biography of great men is not confined to public events. It relates the incidents which are private, and describes the experiences which are spiritual and account for visible results. Thus it was with Moses; we must be with him in the wilderness in order that we may understand his conduct at the court of Pharaoh and at the head of the host of Israel.

I. True Sanctity Confined to No Place. To Moses the desert was a temple, and the acacia thorn a shrine. A spot before indistinguishable from any other in that waste, where the flocks found their pasture or the wild beast his lair, became henceforth holy in the memory of this servant of the Lord.

II. The Presence of the Lord Imparts True Holiness. It needs not that princes should lavish their wealth, that architects should embody the conceptions of their genius, that priests should celebrate magnificent rites, that psalms should echo and incense float through aisle and dome, in order that a place should become consecrated and sacred to the service of the Eternal. Where God meets with any soul of man, reveals the majesty of His attributes, the righteousness of His law, the tenderness of His love, there is a holy place.

III. A Divinely Consecrated Service. True holiness is not so much in the place as in the heart. A man's mission in the world is determined by the counsels and commands received by him in solitude and silence. The holy ground of communion from which God's servants start imparts its holiness to the long path of their pilgrimage, to the varied scenes of their ministry. Moses could never forget the day of Divine fellowship and revelation from which dated his conscious devotion, his holy service to Israel and to God. In how many great men's lives do we trace this same connexion between holy communion and holy ministry! Work acceptable to God and beneficial to men would not have been achieved had not the power to perform it sprung from the holy point of contact where the Creator and the created meet.

IV. We may Make a Holy Place. There is no spot which may not become the point of contact between the human spirit and the Divine. In the lonely desert or the crowded city, in the peaceful home or the consecrated church, the Divine presence may be realized and the Divine blessing may be obtained. Earth may be filled with holy places and life with holy service.

Exodus 3:5

We must not only have our hearts bubbling over with thanksgiving and joy in our Father's presence; we must also take off our shoes from our feet, because we are on holy ground. There is a danger in the emotions being too much aroused unless the prayer be truly one of real adoration.

Father Dolling in The Pilot (4 May, 1901).

All concentrates; let us not rave; let us sit at home with the cause. Let us strive and astonish the intruding rabble of men and books and institutions, by a simple declaration of the Divine fact. Bid the invaders take the shoes from off their feet, for God is here within. Let our simplicity judge them, and our docility to our own law demonstrate the poverty of nature and fortune beside our native riches.

Emerson on Self-Reliance.

The Call to Reverence

Exodus 3:5

God demanded all the outward forms of a rigid reverence as the first step in that fellowship with Himself to which He was about to summon Moses and the nation Moses was destined to lead and to mould.

I. The fact that the name Jehovah is revealed in immediate connexion with this incident seems to warrant us in reading some reference in this symbol to God's essential and unsustained existence. Self-origination, unwasting spontaneity, self-sufficing, absolute, and eternal life, that can only be known by contrast to the finite life of the creature these are the meanings of the striking object-lesson.

And the vision perhaps indirectly intimates that God's mysterious love, like His life, was selfderived, inexhaustible, above all outward conditions. The flame of its unearthly beauty was maintained by an infinite spontaneity of its own. It did not depend for its strength or fervour upon the things it clasped in the embrace of its fidelity and tenderness.

The vision, with its solemn lessons, had probably a most vital bearing upon the future character and history of Moses. It was no unimportant step in training him to that spiritual aptitude for seeing the things of God which made him the foremost of the prophets. Do not think of reverence as one of the second-rate sentiments of the soul, to which no great promises are made. This sense of awe was the threshold to those apocalyptic experiences which brought such privilege and enrichment to his after life.

II. When the New Testament is compared with the Old, it may seem to some minds that the grace of reverence has passed more or less into the background. But if we look beneath the surface a little we shall find that the New Testament is just as emphatic in its presentation of this obligation as the Reverence is the comely sheltering sheath within which all the vital New Testament virtues are nurtured. Only the lower orders of plants produce their seeds upon the surface of the leaf without the protection of floral envelopes and seed vessels. The religious faith is of the rudest and most elementary type, and will bear only ignoble fruit, where faith is without this protecting sheath of reverence for its delicate growths.

Faith without reverence is a pyramid resting upon its apex.

There can be no Obedience that is entirely sincere in its qualities without reverence.

There can be no Resignation to the Divine will apart from habitual tempers of reverence and godly fear.

Irreverence implies partial ignorance of God, and where there is partial ignorance of God the possession of eternal life cannot be rich, free, firmly assured.

T. G. Selby, The Lesson of a Dilemma, p. 123.

References. III. 5. W. J. Butler, Sermons for Working Men, the Oxford Sermon Library, vol. ii. p. 190. R. D. B. Rawnsley, Plain Preaching to Poor People, 3rd edition, p. 1. J. Fraser, Parochial and other Sermons, p. 248. C. J. Vaughan, Lessons of Life and Godliness, Sermon viii. III. 5, 6. W. R. Shepherd, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lxxiii. 1908, p. 267. III. 6. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xlv. No. 2633. G. S. Barrett, Outlines of Sermons on the Old Testament, p. 25. G. B. Pusey, Selections, p. 207. III. 6, 7, 9-14. J. Clifford, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lix. 1901, p. 352. III. 7, 8. R. W. Hiley, A Year's Sermons, vol. i. p. 165. III. 7, 8, 10, 12. C. Brown, The Birth of a Nation, p. 107.

Exodus 3:8

If it please heaven, we shall all yet make our Exodus from Houndsditch, and bid the sordid continents, of once rich apparel now grown poisonous Ole'-Clo', a mild farewell! Exodus into wider horizons, into God's daylight once more; where eternal skies, measuring more than three ells, shall again overarch us; and men, immeasurably richer for having dwelt among the Hebrews, shall pursue their human pilgrimage, St. Ignatius and much other saintship, and superstitious terror and lumber, lying safe behind us, like the nightmares of a sleep that is past.

Carlyle, Latter-day Pamphlets, No. viii.

References. III. 9, 10. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xlv. No. 2631.

Exodus 3:10

'Among our aristocracy,' writes Carlyle in his essay on 'Corn-law Rhymes,' 'there are men, we trust there are many men, who feel that they also are workmen, born to toil, ever in their great Taskmaster's eye, faithfully with heart and head, for those who with heart and hand do, under the same great Taskmaster, toil for them; who have even this noblest and hardest work set before them; to deliver out of that Egyptian bondage to Wretchedness and Ignorance and Sin, the hardhanded millions.'

There are many persons, doubtless, who feel the wants and miseries of their fellow-men tenderly if not deeply; but this feeling is not of the kind to induce them to exert themselves out of their own small circle. They have little faith in their individual exertions doing aught towards a remedy for any of the great disorders of the world.

Sir Arthur Helps.

In strictness, the vital refinements are the moral and intellectual steps. The appearance of the Hebrew Moses, of the Indian Buddh in Greece, of the Seven Wise Masters, of the acute and upright Socrates, and of the Stoic Zeno, in Judea, the advent of Jesus, and in modern Christendom, of the realists Huss, Savonarola, and Luther, are causal facts which carry forward races to new convictions and elevate the rule of life.

Emerson on Civilization.

'Come now therefore.'

Great men, like great periods, are explosive materials in which an immense force is accumulated; it is always pre-requisite for such men, historically and physiologically, that for a long period there has been a collecting, a heaping up, an economizing, and a hoarding with respect to them, that for a long time no explosion has taken place.

Nietzsche in The Twilight of the Idols.

References. III. 10. E. L. Hull, Sermons Preached at King's Lynn (3rd Series), p. 81. III. 10, 11. C. M. Short, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xl. 1891, p. 21. III. 10, 20. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture Exodus, etc., p. 26.

Exodus 3:11

'For one thing,' says Carlyle in his fourth lecture on Heroes, 'I will remark that this part of Prophet to his Nation was not of his seeking; Knox had lived forty years quietly obscure, before he became conspicuous.... He was with the small body of Reformers who were standing siege in St. Andrews Castle when one day in this chapel, the preacher, after finishing his exhortation to those fighters in the forlorn hope, said suddenly, that there ought to be other speakers, that all men who had a priest's heart and gift in them ought now to speak; which gifts and heart one of their own number, John Knox the name of him, had.... Poor Knox could say no word; burst into a flood of tears, and ran out. It is worth remembering, that scene. He was in grievous trouble for some days. He felt what a small faculty was his for this great work. He felt what a baptism he was called to be baptized withal.'

At the opening of his Ministry at Collace, Dr. A. A. Bonar notes in his diary: 'I have been thinking of the case of Moses. He trembled and resisted before being sent, but from the moment that he was chosen we never hear of alarm or fear arising.'

Reference. III. 11-13. G. Hanson, Christian World Pulpit, vol. liii. 1898, p. 101.

Exodus 3:12

He was not a name, then; not a tradition, not a dream of the past. He lived now as He lived then; He who had been with men in past ages, was actually with him at that hour.

F. D. Maurice.

Compare Knox's urgent letter from Dieppe to his irresolute Scotch friends, in 1557: 'The invisible and invincible power of God sustaineth and preserveth according to His promise, all such as with simplicity do obey Him. No less cause have ye to enter in your former enterprise than Moses had to go to the presence of Pharaoh; for your subjects, yea, your brethren are oppressed; their bodies and souls holden in bondage; and God speaketh to your conscience that ye ought to hazard your own lives, be it against kings or emperors, for their deliverance.'

References. III. 12. H. J. Wilmot-Buxton, Sunday Lessons for Daily Life, p. 276. III. 13. R. J. Campbell, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lxiv. 1903, p. 177. J. Parker, Wednesday Evenings at Cavendish Chapel, p. 105. III. 13 14. J. Wordsworth, The One Religion, Bampton Lectures, 1881, p. 33.

Exodus 3:14

'Virtue is the adherence in action to the nature of things,' says Emerson in his essay on Spiritual Laws, 'and the nature of things makes it prevalent. It consists in a perpetual substitution of being for seeming, and with sublime propriety God is described as saying I AM.'

'I have been struck lately,' wrote Erskine of Linlathen to Maurice, 'by the communication which God made to Moses at the Burning Bush. "I AM" the personal presence and address of God. No new truth concerning the character of God is given; but Moses had met God Himself, and was then strengthened to meet Pharaoh. There is one immense interval between "He" and "I" between hearing about God and hearing God. What an interval!' God hath not made a creature that can comprehend Him; it is a privilege of His own nature: 'I am that I am' was His own definition to Moses; and it was a short one to confound mortality, that durst question God, or ask Him what He was. Indeed, He only is; all others have and shall be.

Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici, pt. i. sec. 2.

References. III. 14, 15. J. Leckie, Sermons Preached at Ibrox, p. 35. Cox, "The Tetragrammaton," Expositor (2nd Series), i. p. 12. Sherlock, Christian World Pulpit, xx. p. 44. Harris, Christian World Pulpit, xvi. p. 272. Kingsley, Gospel of the Pentateuch, Sermon ix. Parker, People's Bible, ii. p. 32. Roberts, Homiletic Magazine, viii. p. 211. Stanley, Jewish Church, i. p. 94. T. Arnold, Sermons on Interpretation, p. 209.

Exodus 3:15

'Neither Moses, nor the Prophets, nor Christ Himself, nor even Mohammed,' says Max Müller in the second volume of his Gifford Lectures, 'had to introduce a new God. Their God was always called the God of Abraham, even when freed from all that was local and narrow in the faith of that patriarch.'

References. III. 15. C. A. Berry, Vision and Duty, p. 1.

Exodus 3:19-20

What appears to one side a singular proof of the special interposition of Providence, is used on the other side, and necessarily with equal force, to show that Christianity itself is no special interposition of Providence at all, but the natural result of the historical events by which it was ushered into the world. The Duke of Weimar spoke more safely when he said of the tyranny of the first Napoleon in Germany, 'It is unjust, and therefore it cannot last'. He would have spoken more safely still if he had said, 'Last or not last, it is unjust, and being unjust, it carries its own sentence in its heart, and will prove the weakest in the sum of things'. Goldwin Smith, Lectures on the Study of History, pp. 68-69.

When I first heard that Buonaparte had declared that the interests of small states must always succumb to great ones, I said, 'Thank God! he has sealed his fate: from this moment his fall is certain'.


References. IV. 1. T. G. Selby, The God of the Patriarchs, p. 163. IV. 1-10. G. Hanson, Christian World Pulpit, vol. liii. 1897, p. 101.

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on Exodus 3". Expositor's Dictionary of Text. 1910.