Where the world comes to study the Bible

2. How God Uses Failure (Exodus 2:11-25)

Related Media

Life of Moses (2)

January 28, 2018

A promising junior executive with IBM involved the company in a risky venture that resulted in a $10 million loss. When Tom Watson, IBM’s founder, called the nervous executive into his office, the young man blurted out, “I guess you want my resignation?” Watson replied, “You can’t be serious. We’ve just spent $10 million educating you!” (Christianity Today [8/9/85], p. 67)

God is in the business of using people who have failed. The Bible doesn’t paper over the failures of its heroes. Noah got drunk and exposed himself. Abraham lied twice about his wife being his sister. Isaac did the same. Jacob deceived his father and cheated his brother out of the birthright. David sinned with Bathsheba and had her husband murdered. The disciples all abandoned Jesus at His crucifixion and then doubted the resurrection. Peter denied Jesus and later waffled on the gospel out of fear of the Judaizers. Mark bailed out on the first missionary journey. And in our text, Moses murders an Egyptian, is rejected by his countrymen, flees for his life, and lives in the desert for the next forty years. This story gives us hope that God can use us even after we’ve failed.

D. L. Moody said, “Moses spent his first forty years thinking he was somebody. He spent his second forty years learning he was a nobody. He spent his third forty years discovering what God can do with a nobody.” (Henrietta Mears, What the Bible is All About [Gospel Light], p. 33, in Charles Swindoll, Moses [Thomas Nelson], p. 20.) It is from Stephen’s testimony before the Sanhedrin (Acts 7:23) that we learn that Moses was about forty when he killed the Egyptian taskmaster and that he spent forty years in the land of Midian before the encounter with the burning bush (Acts 7:30). We joke about students who cram a four-year degree program into five years. Moses stretched his education out to forty years!

Stephen also gives us some insight into what Moses was like when he went out to visit his brethren and killed the Egyptian taskmaster (Acts 7:22): “Moses was educated in all the learning of the Egyptians, and he was a man of power in words and deeds.” Although it’s not inspired Scripture, the Jewish historian, Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews [Baker], 2:9:7), says that Moses was being groomed to be the next king, since Pharaoh didn’t have a son. Josephus also reports (ibid. 2:10) that Moses led a victorious Egyptian force against the Ethiopians. Perhaps that’s why Stephen calls Moses “a man of power in words and deeds.”

Why would Moses side with the Hebrew slaves and risk his place in the Egyptian court by killing this taskmaster? This action caused Pharaoh now to see Moses as a traitor who needed to be killed. Hebrews 11:24-26 tells us why Moses did this: “By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin, considering the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt; for he was looking to the reward.” (See my sermon, “Faith’s Choice,” 10/31/04.)

So Moses’ intentions were right when he went out to help his suffering Hebrew people. He had given up position, pleasure, and prosperity to take his stand with God’s people (Philip Ryken, Exodus [Crossway], p. 62). But he went about his mission in the wrong way, resulting in a forty year detour. From a prince in the palace of Egypt, Moses became a shepherd in the barren wilderness of Midian. From being in the limelight of Pharaoh’s government, Moses went into isolation and obscurity. From being a “somebody,” he instantly became a “nobody.” The text does not tell us what he felt, but he must have battled depression and confusion. His first attempt at leadership had been a dismal failure.

Some believe that Moses was right to kill this Egyptian oppressor (see Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], on Exod. 2:12, p. 47). Calvin believed that Moses was not impelled by rash zeal, but rather acted because he knew that God had appointed him to be the deliverer of his nation (Acts 7:25). But I agree with the majority of scholars who believe that Moses’ action was not in submission to God’s will at that time. And even Calvin (p. 51) acknowledges that the forty years in the desert was God’s school to prepare Moses for his later more difficult assignment. This story teaches us that …

Our failures cannot thwart God’s gracious covenant faithfulness toward His people.

Our text breaks into three main sections:

1. God uses imperfect instruments who fail in their attempts to serve Him (Exodus 2:11-15a).

Someone has observed that one reason life is so difficult is that unlike school, you get the test first and the lesson later. The board of directors at a bank recognized that a young cashier had the abilities they were looking for in a successor to the bank president, who was about to retire. One day this young man went to the president and said, “As you know, I’m to follow you as president of this bank. I’d be grateful for any advice you might have.”

The older man said, “Son, sit down. I’ve got two words for you: Right decisions!” The young man thought for a moment and replied, “That’s helpful, sir, but how does one go about making right decisions?” “One word—experience!” “That’s also helpful, sir, but how does one go about gaining experience?” “Two words,” said the older man, “wrong decisions.” (“Our Daily Bread,” 9/77)

There is only one kind of Christian: those who have failed God. We’ve all struck out, maybe at a crucial point in the game. Moses’ failure reveals six ways we fail:

A. We fail when we impulsively act on right commitments based on emotions.

As I explained, Moses’ choice to turn from the position he enjoyed as Pharaoh’s adopted grandson and from the pleasures and prosperity he enjoyed in the Egyptian palace was a commendable, courageous choice. I suppose that someone could have criticized him, arguing that if he had stayed in the place of power and influence, he could have helped the Israelites. But Hebrews 11:24 tells us that he made that choice by faith in spite of the hardship that he knew it would cost.

But as is often the case right after a person decides to follow God, Moses had zeal without wisdom. Seeing the injustice of the Egyptian beating this poor Hebrew slave made him angry. He rightly thought, “This is wrong!” Whether he landed one fatal blow, ran the Egyptian through with his sword, or what, we don’t know. But he acted on impulse, wrongly thinking that the time had come for him to liberate God’s enslaved people. Acting on impulse, even when it is based on a right principle, such as the desire for justice, is almost always wrong.

Moses’ action reminds me of when Peter pulled out his sword in the Garden of Gethsemane and whacked off Malchus’ ear. He was trying to take off Malchus’ head, not his ear! His motive was to defend Jesus, even if he died trying (and he would have died trying to take on a Roman cohort!). But he was wrong. Or, we could compare Moses’ action to a zealous pro-life advocate who kills an abortion doctor. That doctor is murdering babies. It’s right to be angry about such injustice. But killing the doctor is not right.

Or, to give more positive examples, sometimes someone hears a powerful message about how Jesus died on the cross to forgive the sins of every person who will receive Him. The speaker uses stories that bring tears to your eyes. At his invitation, many get out of their seats and go forward as a moving song is sung. Caught up in the emotion of the moment, the person goes forward to receive Jesus. But, if that decision is based on emotions rather than on understanding the truth of the gospel, it won’t last. Like the seed sown on the rocky ground, when trials hit, the early joy of being a Christian will dry up fast (Mark 4:16-17).

The same could be said about a decision to serve as a missionary or a pastor. Those are good commitments if they’re based on a definite call of God that doesn’t go away after the emotions subside. But it takes far more than being moved by a sense of need or seeing the multitudes without Christ to sustain you in serving the Lord over a lifetime in difficult situations where you’re under attack, criticized, or not appreciated.

B. We fail when we attempt to do God’s work by human strength.

There is a huge difference between acting in our strength versus acting in the power of God. At first, like Gideon, whose 32,000 troops had to be reduced to 300 before God could use them, Moses was too strong for God. He was well-gifted and well-trained, but he had not yet learned that the battle does not depend on our skills, but on God’s Spirit. There is no indication in the text that Moses was trusting in God when he took this drastic action.

By way of contrast, on one occasion Nehemiah was before the pagan King Artaxerxes, who asked Nehemiah what he would like the king to do for him. Nehemiah reports (Neh. 2:4-5), “So I prayed to the God of heaven. I said to the king ….” It had to have been a quick, silent prayer! Nehemiah probably shot up, “Give me wisdom, Lord!” and then spoke to the king. But here there is no word about Moses praying or seeking God before he acted.

Chuck Swindoll (ibid. pp. 39-40) thinks that Scripture strongly implies that Moses had come to realize God’s call on his life by this time. He believes that God had already impressed on Moses that one day he would lead his people out of bondage. So he knew God’s will. “But,” Swindoll says (p. 40), “the problem was, he did not bother to seek God’s way and God’s timing.” So he was operating in human strength, not in the power of God’s Spirit.

Swindoll (p. 43) also points out that when you’re well-gifted and well-trained, you’re vulnerable. You’re confident of your ability to get the job done. After all, you had a course on it in seminary and you know the original Greek! Look out! I’m glad that I only got B’s in preaching classes in seminary and I never won any awards. I began as a pastor with a strong sense of inadequacy. I told the Lord that I’d try it for three years and see where I was at. By His grace, God has sustained me for 41 inadequate years now. I am more aware of my inadequacy now than when I started!

C. We fail when we are more concerned about what others think than about what God thinks.

We read (Exod. 2:12), “So he looked this way and that, and when he saw there was no one around, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.” As many have pointed out, Moses looked this way and that, but he never looked up! He was more concerned about being caught by men than about pleasing the Lord. F. B. Meyer (Moses [Christian Literature Crusade], p. 30) observed, “Whenever men look this way and that to see what other men are doing or saying, you may be quite sure that they do not know certainly their Master’s plan; they are … acting from the prompting of their own self-will, though perhaps under the cover of religious zeal.”

C. H. Mackintosh (Genesis to Deuteronomy [Loizeaux Brothers], p 145) comments on Moses’ “looking this way and that”:

There is no need of this when a man is acting with and for God, and in the full intelligence of His mind …. If God’s time had really come, and if Moses was conscious of being divinely commissioned to execute judgment upon the Egyptian, and if he felt assured of the divine presence with him, he would not have “looked this way and that.”

To walk obediently before the Lord, you’ve got to care more about what He thinks than what other people may think. If Paul had been concerned about what others think, he never would have confronted Peter with his hypocrisy in withdrawing from the Gentile Christians in Antioch to please the Judaizers (Gal. 2:11-14). Sometimes people have told me that I was brave to speak out about some issue from the pulpit. Not really—I’m afraid not to speak the truth because I know that very soon I’ll be standing before the Lord to give an account. I don’t want to hear Him ask, “Why didn’t you tell people the truth of My Word?”

D. We fail when we impetuously attempt to do God’s work at the wrong time.

Whether God had already called Moses to deliver His people (Swindoll, pp. 39-40) or whether that call came later at the burning bush (Ryken, p. 66), all agree that Moses had no direct word from God at this time to take this drastic step of killing the Egyptian. He was running ahead of God.

Others in Scripture failed in a similar way. Abraham and Sarah were getting worried about their advancing age without having the son that God had promised, so he had relations with Hagar and produced Ishmael. The world is still experiencing the bad consequences of that impetuous mistake! King Saul got nervous that his people would desert him when Samuel didn’t come on schedule to offer the sacrifice. So he “forced himself” and offered it himself (1 Sam. 13:12). But he acted foolishly and as a result, God took the kingdom away from him and gave it to David.

On at least two occasions after David was anointed to be the next king, he had the opportunity to kill King Saul and claim the kingdom he had been promised. But he wisely waited to let the Lord remove Saul in His timing (1 Sam. 24:1-15; 26:5-25). As a rule, if you haven’t waited on the Lord in prayer and sensed that it is His time to take some major action, keep waiting on Him.

E. We fail when we try to cover up our sin and hide it from God and others.

Moses buried the Egyptian’s body in the sand, but apparently there had been witnesses to what Moses had done. News like that spreads quickly. Although Moses had tried to cover up what he had done, he panicked as he realized (Exod. 2:14), “Surely the matter has become known.” Very soon, Pharaoh heard about it and Moses had to flee for his life.

Apparently Moses learned his lesson. Years later, he warned the tribes of Gad and Reuben, who wanted to settle across the Jordan, but promised to help the other tribes conquer Canaan, that if they did not keep their promise (Num. 32:23), “… be sure your sin will find you out.” We can’t hide anything from God!

Sometimes we try to hide our sin from ourselves by denying that it really was wrong. But God uses His Word to expose our sins. Hebrews 4:12-13 tells us,

For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do.

Ever since Adam and Eve tried to hide their sin from God, our tendency is to do the same. But God knows everything. He wants us to confess our sins and turn from them. As Proverbs 28:13 tells us, “He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will find compassion.”

F. We fail when we assume that others’ hearts are receptive when they are not.

Moses wrongly assumed that the Israelites would welcome his leadership (Acts 7:25). So the next day when he saw two Hebrews fighting he sought to intervene. “But the one who was injuring his neighbor pushed him away, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and judge over us?’” (Acts 7:27). In their minds, Moses position in Pharaoh’s court didn’t qualify him to lead or judge them.

You can’t help save people who aren’t interested in salvation but who only want to justify their own sin. And you can’t help a Christian in sin who is not ready to repent. You can and should pray and then try to help. But if you do as Moses seems to have done here, to rush in and intervene assuming that the sinning person wants your help, you’re likely to fail.

2. God shapes and prepares imperfect instruments before He uses them (Exodus 2:15b-22).

Moses fled to the land of Midian, which was either on the far side of the Sinai Peninsula or perhaps across the Red Sea on the western side of Arabia. It is a barren wasteland. The contrast must have been jarring! From having every convenience and luxury in Pharaoh’s palace, with servants waiting on his every desire, Moses was now on his own out in the boondocks. From being surrounded by all of the important, educated, influential people in Egypt, now his only company was a nomadic shepherd family. After earning his Ph.D. in Egypt’s most prestigious university, now his job was to watch a flock of sheep that didn’t even belong to him.

After he helped defend Reuel’s seven daughters against the aggressive shepherds, he settled down to live there, eventually marrying Reuel’s daughter, Zipporah. During the forty years, he had two sons there: Gershom (Exod. 2:22, meaning, “a stranger there”); and, Eliezer (Exod. 18:3-4, “my God is help”). Moses’ forty years in the wilderness was better schooling than his education in all the learning of the Egyptians. He had a lot of time alone to spend with God. Between his family and his shepherding duties, God used those years to develop a servant’s heart in Moses. It prepared him for the next forty years to lead God’s people in the same desert. Failure opens our hearts to our need to learn from God how to overcome the next time. God uses failure to teach us our weaknesses so that in the future we trust in His strength.

3. God’s gracious covenant faithfulness prepares His servants for His people and His people for His servants (Exodus 2:23-25).

Exodus 2:23-25 takes us back to Egypt. The Pharaoh who sought to kill Moses had died. But Israel was still suffering in bondage. Now, it is recorded for the first time that they cried out for help and their cry rose up to God. This is the first mention of God in Exodus 2. It shows that the forty additional years of suffering while Moses was hiding in the desert not only served to prepare Moses for God’s people; it also prepared God’s people for Moses.

Verses 24 & 25 mention God’s name and His action four times: God heard their groaning; God remembered His covenant; God saw the sons of Israel; and, God took notice of [lit. “knew”] them. Of course, these are human ways of speaking about God. He always hears, remembers, sees, and knows His people, as well as all things. But it’s a way of reminding God’s suffering people that He is not oblivious to their troubles. He is concerned and He is about to act on their behalf. (God repeats the same words to Moses at the burning bush, Exod. 3:7-9.) The important phrase is, “God remembered His covenant with Abraham.” That was the main point of chapter 1. God’s gracious faithfulness to His covenant promises is the basis for hope for His people when they are oppressed.

In our case, He doesn’t remember our sins and lawless deeds. He deals with us on the basis of the new covenant in Christ’s blood (Heb. 8:8-13). That doesn’t mean that we’re free to sin. Rather, we can know that our failures cannot thwart His covenant faithfulness.


Although Moses failed at first in his mission of delivering God’s people, Jesus, the prophet who was far greater than Moses (Deut. 18:15, 18), never failed. Like Moses, He was misunderstood and rejected by those He came to save. They challenged His right to rule over them (Luke 19:14). But Jesus always did the things that were pleasing to the Father (John 8:29). He came to offer Himself as the ransom for those who deserve God’s judgment, which is all of us. The question is, “Have you welcomed the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, into your life?” If so, even though you may fail Him, He will restore you and use you in His purpose because He is faithful to His covenant promises.

Application Questions

  1. Sometimes those who fail are encouraged to “forgive themselves.” Why is this unbiblical advice? What should they do?
  2. How can we accept God’s grace in our failures without turning it into license to sin again (Jude 4)?
  3. How can our spiritual failures strengthen us and be used to strengthen others? Consider Luke 22:31-32 in your answer.
  4. When does a person who has failed need exhortation versus encouragement? What guidelines apply?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2018, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Christian Life