Scholars have speculated as to Moses’ admitted problem with his speech. Most seem to conclude that he was a stammerer, though it is by no means certain that Moses was afflicted with an impediment. It has been suggested that forty years shepherding in wilderness-like country and mingling with ordinary folk had diminished his powers of ready, quick-witted, conversation and confident communication, especially with the sophisticates of Pharaoh’s court where God had summoned him to appear on behalf of Israel in its plight. Others conjecture that he was required to speak in a language or dialect in which he had not spoken since his flight from Egypt. Moses complained that he was “heavy of mouth”, but it may have simply been a cover up or excuse for his slowness of heart to respond to the divine call. In his unbelief and fear he was anticipating perhaps an uncomfortable hesitancy before the Egyptian court. Whatever Moses’ actual condition, it is clear that he was not disposed to obey the Lord and was looking for excuses not to comply with the divine command. Speech was not the real problem, but lack of speed in God’s service.
In Moses we see displayed the weakness of the flesh to an extraordinary degree, even in those saints that are considered the most eminent. It is quickly apparent that the people of God do not labour in their own strength and courage. The most famous are equally as feeble as those who are obscure. Grace, not natural greatness, comes to the fore in the great things achieved for God. The incidence of doubt-filled dialogue, on Moses’ part, after the Burning Bush, tells us about the roles of God and man in the proclamation of truth.
When confronted with his call Moses is filled with a sense of his inadequacy. That sense overrides the awesome authority of a divine commission and the accompanying signs wrought by God to convince Moses of supernatural aid. How bold our weakness is in asserting our unbelief. Ironically, it causes us to dare God with a brazenness that is shameful, but how strong the dominion of sin happens to be in the human heart. No man is fit for the task of speaking the Lord’s word. But did Moses protest because he was afraid of having his pride wounded before Pharaoh or was it genuine humility that overwhelmed him? Did he think that he had to perform according to his own ability, conjuring up a persuasive message and delivering it impressively? Did he experience that tension of knowing that he had to rely on God but wondering if God would let him down at a critical moment?
He had the word of God and the wonders wrought by God to back him up but he argued that neither nature nor the knowledge of God made him eligible for the mission to Egypt. “O Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant.” Moses was radically unsure of God. He wanted proof in himself that God would support him before he set out, whereas God distributes his talents to his servants as they trust him in the moment of action. We are never to fall into the error of believing that God’s gifts to men operate automatically. Each occasion requires its own enduements in emphasis upon God’s sovereignty.
God’s reply to Moses is explicit and unanswerable: “Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go; I will help you speak, and will teach you what to say”. Yet Moses is still not satisfied. We marvel at his reluctance: “O Lord, please send someone else to do it”.
What follows is remarkable in God’s accommodation to Moses’ craven obduracy and as God supplies him with an ally to lean on he affords us an insight into the nature of revelation. Aaron, the brother of Moses, is already on the way to support him and speak on his behalf. Moses was permitted to persist in his prevarication so that God could establish a vital point. Though man may be the audible voice in the preaching of God’s word the main speaker is God who moves his chosen men to speech. True prophets do not originate the message they deliver and God causes them to articulate effectively whether it is with eloquence or plainness. The word comes from God and homes in on the human heart by his power. Man is not meant to take any credit. We may appreciate the efforts of men, but the church is not meant to manufacture celebrities in the way that arouses ambition, pride, rivalry, and flattery. God gives the mouth, the message, and the results. Calvin warns us that praise may not be given to men: “We must always speak of the efficacy of ministry in such a manner that the entire praise of the work may be reserved for God alone . . . . We ought not to extol the persons of men so as to obscure the glory of God”.
God’s reunion of the two brothers is warm and timely. He ensures that it is a happy event. Moses is to put “the words in Aaron’s mouth”. It is clear, however, that Moses has no part in the composition of the speeches to be delivered in Egypt before the world’s mightiest despot. Moses is God’s mouth to Aaron. He will be taught by God and he will convey that teaching to Aaron. “It will be as if he were your mouth and as if you were God to him” (4:16). But Aaron is only Moses’ mouth because God instructs Moses’ ear: “I will help both of you to speak and will teach you what to do” (4:15). In fact Moses himself is enabled by God to address the ruler of Egypt when the plagues upon the land are enunciated.
We may infer from the God-ordained partnership of Moses and Aaron, and the way in which these brothers relate and function, that the word is central to and superior in ministry. The signs shown to Moses are to point to the word so that hearers may believe (4:8-9). Sacramental observance, symbolized in the priestly ministry of Aaron, is subservient to and confirmatory of the word. The modern emphasis on wonders in some quarters is a distraction from the doctrine of the word and the primary ministerial task of teaching and preaching. Sacramentalism has had a baneful influence in the life of the church. G.A. F. Knight observes, “The Christian sacraments have at times in history sunk to the level of mere magical acts (in the eyes of simple folk) when they became divorced from the preaching of the Word” [Theology as Narration, The Handsel Press Limited, Edinburgh, 1976]. Calvin concurs in even stronger terms, “The devil has introduced the fashion of celebrating the Supper without any doctrine, and for doctrine has substituted ceremonies”. The primacy of the word was even threatened in Israel when the priests of the temple, who were also charged with its proclamation, crowded it out with greater time devoted to liturgical practices. God chose Moses (and Paul) as someone lacking natural eloquence to emphasise that he is the only effective Preacher. We are prone to make much of talents without attributing them to grace alone. This is robbery of the glory due to God alone. Moses was selected to instruct Aaron to illustrate the fact that ritual and liturgy are appointed for the service and presentation of the word and must comply with its teaching.