Much has been written about Moses, the great leader who brought the children of Israel out of Egypt. The Sunday School version of the Exodus story is so dramatic that it is natural to see Moses in a role of power, decisiveness, strength and perseverance. The New Testament, in contrast, emphasizes Moses the lawgiver: a law that—though it came with glory—could not bring life.
But when you read the book of Numbers carefully, a more nuanced picture of Moses as a leader emerges. One aspect of that leadership is shown in the way Moses prayed, on his face, in a posture of humility. The expression “Moses fell on his face” occurs three times from Numbers 16 to Numbers 20. Over and over again Numbers shows us a beautiful picture of Moses coming between the people and consequences of their sin and crying out for mercy.
- In Numbers 11:2, the people complain and the fire of God breaks out. When Moses intercedes, the fire is quenched and the people are spared.
- In Numbers 12, Miriam is struck with leprosy after she and Aaron challenge Moses leadership. Moses intercedes (Num 12:1) for her and after a week in isolation, God heals her.
- In Numbers 14, the Israelites complain about the dangers of the promised land and refuse to go in. God threatens to disinherit them and make a new people from Moses. This is no empty threat. God had done just this with Noah. Considering the problems Moses had already endured trying to lead this stiff-necked people, no one could blame him if he agreed to this plan. But instead, he intercedes for the people, arguing with God for mercy on the basis of His reputation among the nations.
- Numbers 21: 4-8 provides a powerful picture of the future sacrifice of God’s son. The people complain again and God sends fiery serpents among them. When the people cry to Moses for help, he intercedes for them and God tells him to make a figure of the serpent and hold it up on a pole. Whoever looks at the image, even though bitten by a serpent, lives.
Among these profound pictures of Moses as an intercessor, the one that most impressed me was Numbers 16:41-50. The Israelites gather to complain against Moses and Aaron and God threatens to kill them all. Immediately Moses and Aaron fall on their faces, but this time Moses goes even further. He instructs Aaron to run into the crowd of people with his incense censor to stop the plague. Throughout the Bible, incense represents prayer (Rev 8:4). Here we see not just prayer, but prayer running directly into sin and sickness. This is a whole other level of commitment. Aaron is clearly a type of Christ who left the purity of heaven to run toward the plague of death on earth, knowing that He alone had the power to stop it.
This picture can encourage us to boldly take the censer of prayer into the place of pain and death knowing that God is the life giver and His mercy can reverse any situation.
We can choose to pray at a safe distance from a problem. God hears these prayers for sure. But there is a time to take our prayers into the very center of the problem. This might mean taking a plane to walk the streets of a distant city or refugee camp and pray or it might mean walking through your neighborhood. But it surely means that the person who prays in the power of the Holy Spirit is both fearless and willing to get close to the contagion.