At that time I pleaded with the Lord: O Sovereign Lord… let me go over and see the good land beyond the Jordan – that fine hill country and Lebanon. But because of you the Lord was angry with me and would not listen to me. “That is enough,” the Lord said. “Do not speak to me anymore about this matter. Go up to the top of Pisgah and look west and north and south and east. Look at the land with your own eyes, since you are not going to cross this Jordan. Deuteronomy 3:23-27
Have you ever comforted yourself with the idea that God hears every prayer? That he will listen to your every word, because he never sleeps, never tires of hearing what his children bring to him? That if we lack wisdom, we should ask him, because he gives generously?
I thought all those things too. And then I read Deuteronomy 3:26, when God told Moses That is enough. And I had to really wrestle with the fact that, recorded in the fully inspired, completely accurate Word of God, our holy God tells Moses to be quiet. He tells Moses to stop speaking. Chillingly, he sounds like me when I just don’t want to be bothered.
What do I do with this interaction of God and Moses?
Here’s the backstory: in Numbers 20, Israel camps in a place that has no water, and thus they grumble against God and “gathered in opposition to Moses and Aaron.” Therefore, the two leaders did what they usually do: they went to the Tent of Meeting. God instructed Moses how to provide water for the people. Except this time, Moses disobeys God’s direction; he chooses his own way. Graciously, God still provides water for Israel, but later, God tells Moses and Aaron “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.” (Num. 20:12) In another place, God says Moses has “broken faith with [him]” and “not regarded him as holy” (Deut. 32:51).
Wow. And now, years after that time period, here Israel waits. She’s about to enter the land God has given. And Moses, after Aaron’s death and before Joshua’s succession, is asking to go into Canaan. He’s asking God to relent. He’s pleading with God to change his mind.
This passage shows us a lot about God, a lot about Moses, and when we look carefully it can show us a lot about ourselves and the way we approach God.
Because Moses loves God and trusts his promises, Moses knows Canaan will be God’s good plan for Israel. And Moses wants to be part of it. Is it a good thing for Moses to ask God to cross over? Of course. God never despises hearing the longing of his people’s hearts. But we need to understand that disobedience has consequences. Sometimes that means God says no, and closes the door – just like he does here with Moses. When his children are disobedient, God tells us in Isaiah that “your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear” (Isa. 59:2).
The Bible doesn’t always show us all the details, like Moses’s motivations for disobeying God. But we can trust God’s perfect wisdom and full knowledge, because he knows Moses’s motivations – both for the sin he committed and for this request he’s making. Here, maybe Moses is asking more for himself to be satisfied rather than trusting in God’s righteous judgment. Maybe he’s casting blame on Israel for sin he committed. When I pray, the same can easily apply to me. When I ask for something, am I seeking to make my life easier or better? Am I begging God to not let me experience the consequences of my sin? What am I most concerned about – God’s glory or my satisfaction?
Foolishly, many times a log in our eyes makes it hard to discern the true motives behind our prayers. But thankfully, God is never unsure about our hearts – and He is perfectly able to speak and judge justly (Ps. 51:4). This is both conviction and comfort that an all-seeing God knows our messy hearts but also loves us enough to engage with us in our prayers.
Here’s the thing: because of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, all our prayers are heard. There may be a circumstance where God needs to speak to us the way he does to Moses, but he will never do so to shut off our prayers. God does tell us to ask him for wisdom, and he’ll give generously. He will respond to each request we make of him, even if it’s not in the way we ask.
Finally, listening to God after we’ve prayed can lead to peace even when we don’t get what we want. Near the end of Deuteronomy, look at how Moses describes Israel’s future dwelling place:
“The Lord is the one who goes ahead of you; He will be with you. He will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.” (Deut. 31:8)
Maybe it’s easy to read a bit of longing in Moses’s statement that the Lord goes before Israel and not Moses himself, but nonetheless there’s a different tenor here, at the end of Deuteronomy, than in chapter 3. Moses seems to have come to a place of contentment that he will only see the land from a distance, rather than go into it. It’s a fitting end for a great leader of Israel, that in the end he doesn’t ultimately desire this temporal land: he longs for the heavenly one, the one that will soon be his home (Heb. 11:16), with this God he’s followed through the wilderness. And this is the last thing I’ve had to grapple with about prayer: when I seek God’s power and might, may I consistently be driven to long more for my heavenly home rather than this one. Might I ask that his name be made greater, not my life made easier. May his perfect will come to fruition. And may all my requests be made from that perspective.