Humility, or meekness as some translations have it, are virtues highly valued by God. Often they’re confused with being pathetic and useless. Their true expression, however, requires a powerful yet gentle inner strength. We find this perfectly expressed in the life of Jesus, but often modelled well by other good examples, such as Moses here.
Moses is a towering figure in the history of God’s people. By this point in his walk he had already achieved great things. Despite many struggles, obstacles and setbacks, he had led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, through the Red Sea, and on to Mount Sinai, where he had received the Ten Commandments. He had established civil and religious order, and then set off towards the Promised Land. Yet here he is described as more humble/meek than ‘all the men who were on the surface of the earth.’ Clearly Moses story illustrates well that humility/meekness cannot equate with being pathetic and ineffectual! So what do these words mean?
There are several aspects to humility that Moses displays admirably. For a start he made personal sacrifices to serve God’s cause and His people. As the author to the Hebrews put it, Moses preferred ‘to share ill treatment with God’s people, than to enjoy the pleasures… /treasures of Egypt’(Hebrews 11:25-26). Moreover, from the outset he regarded himself with sober judgement, recognising he could achieve little in his own strength. He was transparently dependant upon God. In addition to that, he was not too proud to accept help from others God had gifted, such as from Aaron his eloquent spokesman. Consistent with these attitudes, he sought honour for God rather than himself, and sought grace for those who’d been placed alongside him to serve. In chapter 12 we have a specific example of that.
In the first two verses Miriam and Aaron put Moses down and challenge his leadership. We know from earlier that if God’s rule and honour had been at stake, Moses would have put up a vigorous defence, as he did at the golden calf incident. But here his own position is challenged and he appears to say and do nothing. Numbers simply records the aside, ‘Now the man Moses was very humble, above all the men who were on the surface of the earth.’ Moses knew that sooner or later God would vindicate His humble servant. Yet when God does commend Moses and punish Miriam, rather than gloating, he humbly prays for her restoration.
So Moses models true humility by showing how we should recognise God for who He is, serving Him sacrificially, standing up for His honour rather than our own, seeking His grace in the lives of our fellow servants rather than competing with them, and quietly yet confidently recognising that God will vindicate His humble servants.
Other great Christian examples, like Paul, display the same humility. Again, Paul could certainly not be regarded as ineffectual. He’s the author of a quarter of the New Testament, the subject of most of the book of Acts, and he pioneered the mission to the gentiles (i.e. most of the world!). Yet Paul acknowledged that God was the source of his success and that he owed everything to Jesus mercy and patience: ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief… I obtained mercy, that in me first, Jesus Christ might display all his patience’(1 Timothy 1:15-16); ‘by the grace of God I am what I am.’(1 Corinthians 15:10). Moreover, Paul emphasized that he lived to magnify his Lord and serve alongside others: ‘we don’t preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake’(2 Corinthians 4:5). And he anticipated vindication: ‘I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which will be revealed toward us.’(Romans 8:18)
But our ultimate example of perfect humility is the Lord Jesus, who said to the Father at Gethsemane, ‘not what I desire, but what you desire.’(Matthew 26:39; Mark 14:36) and before bravely obeying that will prayed, ‘Father, glorify your name!’(John 12:28). Of Himself towards others He said, ‘I am gentle and lowly in heart’(Matthew 11:29). Paul wrote of ‘the humility and gentleness of Christ’(2 Corinthians 10:1), and sang with the early Christians that Jesus took ‘the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, yes, the death of the cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him’(Philippians 2:7-9).