Summary: Moses’ great failure actually led to a greater salvation.

Lessons Learned from a Failure

Exodus 2: 11-25

Ever considered starting life as a failure? Of course not, who would? But did you realize that many successful people began as failures. The great Polish pianist, Paderewski, was told by his music teacher that his hands were much too small to master the keyboard. The great tenor, Enrico Caruso, was told by his teacher that his voice sounded like the wind whistling in the window. Henry Ford forgot to put a reverse gear in his first automobile. Robert Frost’s poetry was considered too “vigorous” for The Atlantic Monthly, and it was rejected. Albert Einstein’s Ph.D. dissertation was turned down because it was “fanciful and irrelevant.” Winston Churchill’s teacher wrote on the 16-year-old student’s report card: “A conspicuous lack of success.” Finally, Thomas Edison spent $2,000,000 on an invention that was a total flop. I am certain none of these gentlemen ever considered starting their lives as a failure, but they did, and they overcame their failure to fulfill destinies that changed the world.

If we take today’s Scripture at face value, Moses was a man who started life as a failure. We read in the early verses of Exodus 2 of Moses’ unique birth, and all we know of him after his birth is that Pharaoh’s daughter raised him. A long period of silence exists between verse 10 and verse 11. We are left only to speculate about the life of Moses in these intervening years. If we look to some extra-biblical sources, we can glean a little information, but it, too, is mostly speculation.

Of the biblical record we do have, Dr. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles, records from a sermon by the disciple, Stephen that Moses grew up as the Prince of Egypt. He was schooled under the best Egyptian teachers. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, Moses learned the best tactics of the military, and was actually a general who led Pharaoh’s armies into battle and victory. Other historians have said that Moses was actually Pharaoh’s first choice to ascend the throne of Egypt at Pharaoh’s death. His was a place of prestige and privilege surrounded by the palace and the pomp and ceremony of royalty.

But that is not where the biblical writer chooses to start. The writer skips that entire royal splendor thing as seemingly unimportant. But then, of course, we remember that tradition tells us (and I believe) that Moses was the author of Exodus. Perhaps Moses, like many other great people, believed that failure eventually proves the greater blessing. But we can only know that after we’ve gone through the failure. So there, in the midst of failure, we pick up the story of our champion Moses.

Exodus 2:11-25

Many years later, when Moses had grown up, he went out to visit his people, the Israelites, and he saw how hard they were forced to work. During his visit, he saw an Egyptian beating one of the Hebrew slaves. [12] After looking around to make sure no one was watching, Moses killed the Egyptian and buried him in the sand.

[13] The next day, as Moses was out visiting his people again, he saw two Hebrew men fighting. "What are you doing, hitting your neighbor like that?" Moses said to the one in the wrong.

[14] "Who do you think you are?" the man replied. "Who appointed you to be our prince and judge? Do you plan to kill me as you killed that Egyptian yesterday?"

Moses was badly frightened because he realized that everyone knew what he had done. [15] And sure enough, when Pharaoh heard about it, he gave orders to have Moses arrested and killed. But Moses fled from Pharaoh and escaped to the land of Midian.

When Moses arrived in Midian, he sat down beside a well. [16] Now it happened that the priest of Midian had seven daughters who came regularly to this well to draw water and fill the water troughs for their father’s flocks. [17] But other shepherds would often come and chase the girls and their flocks away. This time, however, Moses came to their aid, rescuing the girls from the shepherds. Then he helped them draw water for their flocks.

[18] When the girls returned to Reuel, their father, he asked, "How did you get the flocks watered so quickly today?"

[19] "An Egyptian rescued us from the shepherds," they told him. "And then he drew water for us and watered our flocks."

[20] "Well, where is he then?" their father asked. "Did you just leave him there? Go and invite him home for a meal!"

[21] Moses was happy to accept the invitation, and he settled down to live with them. In time, Reuel gave Moses one of his daughters, Zipporah, to be his wife. [22] Later they had a baby boy, and Moses named him Gershom, for he said, "I have been a stranger in a foreign land."

[23] Years passed, and the king of Egypt died. But the Israelites still groaned beneath their burden of slavery. They cried out for help, and their pleas for deliverance rose up to God. [24] God heard their cries and remembered his covenant promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. [25] He looked down on the Israelites and felt deep concern for their welfare.

It’s interesting that Moses would choose this episode to include in his account of the exodus of the Hebrew nation from Egypt. I think Moses saw this event as pivotal in understanding God’s call in his life, and he did, in fact, learn more from this failure than all the successes of the previous forty years. What did he learn, or better yet, what can we learn from Moses’ great failure. There are probably more, but I want to mention three things I learn from Moses’ failure.

I. Right motives can still produce wrong actions.

Moses was motivated by compassion for his people. Compassion is a laudable motive. Moses looked out and saw the anguish of the Hebrews, and his heart was moved to do something about it. No doubt Moses may have even felt that God was calling him to do something about it. We see Moses’ compassion not only in this episode with his people and the Egyptian, but also in his encounter with the lady shepherds by the well in Midian. The soft spot in Moses’ heart that was touched by his people was also touched by the seven helpless ladies at the well in Midian. But Moses’ compassion did not justify the action he took in regard to his people.

We can justify many actions in life, but that doesn’t make those actions right. Vigilante justice comes to my mind. What happens when we take the law into our own hands? The number of innocent persons whose lives have been callously thrown away over false accusations and finger pointing should be an embarrassment to a nation that has always claimed “innocent until proven guilty.”

Pastor Ray Stedman told the story of some Americans who were stationed in Korea during the Korean War. While there, they rented a home and hired a local boy to cook and clean for them. These Americans were a bunch of jokesters, and they soon began to take advantage of the young boy’s naiveté. They’d smear Vaseline on the stove handles so that when he’d turn the stove on in the morning he’d get grease all over his fingers. They’d put little water buckets over the door so that he’d get deluged when he opened the door. They’d even nail his shoes to the floor during the night. Day after endless day, the little fellow took the brunt of their practical jokes without saying anything. No blame, no self-pity, no temper tantrums.

Finally, the men felt guilty about what they were doing, so they sat down with the young Korean and said, “Look, we know these pranks aren’t funny anymore, and we’re sorry. We’re never gonna take advantage of you again.”

It seemed a bit too good to be true to the houseboy. “No more sticky on the stove?” he asked.


“No more water on door?”


“No more nail shoes to the floor?”

“Nope, never again.”

“Okay,” the boy said with a smile, “no more spit in soup.”

A wrong action, even if taken for the right reason, will still produce a wrong result. The result we seek, the result that is always the right result, is that result that leads to reconciliation and redemption.

Moses’ soft spot caused him to be angry. Don’t misunderstand me. Anger is not necessarily the wrong response. It is good to get mad at the right things. Righteous anger can be a motivator for positive change. But Moses’ anger led him to commit murder, and there was nothing redemptive in that. In fact, it was divisive, even though it was perpetrated against the Egyptian masters. When Moses went out the next day and attempted to break up a fight between two Hebrews, they accused him of wanting to lord it over them. “Are you going to do to us what you did to that Egyptian soldier?”

The problem for Moses, though, just as it is for us, is that he knew what the right thing was. He chose not to do it. Listen to verse 12, “After looking around…” One translation of the Bible says, “Moses looked this way and that way…” Moses made sure no one was looking. You think he didn’t know what he was about to do was wrong? One reason we so often take the wrong actions even when our motives are pure is because we spend too much time looking this way and that way, either to make sure no one is looking, or to make sure someone is looking and we will get the credit. Instead of looking this way and that, we need to spend our time looking up.

What motivates us to wrong actions when we know the right thing to do? Sin. For Moses, anger out of control was his sin. Were we to follow the entire life of Moses through, we would discover that this was not the last time that anger would cause Moses a problem. He just didn’t do what he knew he should do.

How much does that sound like us? I am reminded of the words of the Apostle Paul in Romans 7:15-17:

I don’t understand myself at all, for I really want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do the very thing I hate. [16] I know perfectly well that what I am doing is wrong, and my bad conscience shows that I agree that the law is good. [17] But I can’t help myself, because it is sin inside me that makes me do these evil things.

When we know the right, but do the wrong it leads to shame and guilt, and mired in shame and guilt we learn a second lesson from Moses’ failure.

II. Hiding wrong doesn’t erase wrong.

Moses hid the body of the Egyptian soldier under a few feet of sand hoping to hide the sin he had committed. It was an automatic response. “Uh, oh! I’ve made a big one. Can’t let anyone find out. Got to hide it.” The response goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden. Remember in Genesis, God came to walk in the cool of the day after Adam and Eve had sinned by eating the forbidden fruit. What did Adam and Eve do? They hid in the hydrangea bush. We’ve been hiding ever since. We hide from God, we hide from others, and we even try to hide the truth from ourselves, thinking if we believe it, we can make others believe it, too. Mark Twain says, “We’re like the moon. We all have a dark side that we don’t want anyone to see.”

Why? Because we are much more concerned with appearances and images than we are with truth. Our entire culture is based on image. We all want to make that good first impression. Our multi-billion dollar advertising industry is driven by the simple principle that it’s all about perception. Hiding our wrong doesn’t erase it; it only postpones its discovery. Attempting to hide the wrong we’ve done leaves us, like Moses, with a corpse at our feet, a shovel in our hand, and sand between our toes. No matter how hard we try to cover up, whenever we make a decision rooted firmly in what we know is wrong, we can’t bury the consequences.

You want to know the truth? This will make you feel better. Most of us live our lives in a perpetual nosedive. We all make mistakes and come up short of the perfect standard—a standard that is often set way too high by our “perfect” seeking culture. It might do us good to hear the testimonies of a few folks who struggle every day than to only hear the words of those who always live on Cloud 9. But we don’t hear those testimonies because we can’t fathom anyone else knowing that we’ve failed. But God knows.

Here’s some good news. God is not nearly as put off by our failure as we imagine him to be. Oh, don’t get me wrong. God’s heart breaks when we fail, but he doesn’t love us any less. After failure, whenever we cry out to him in our shame and distress, the psalmist says He “inclines His ear,” to hear us. He listens. And He forgives. God says, “I’ve heard your confession. I’ve acknowledged your wrong. Now let’s move on.” Oh that we could be more like God.

How do we know that God is so full of grace? Because of the third lesson I learn from Moses’ failure.

III. God always provides a well.

When Moses’ knew his sin was discovered, he fled to Midian. Do you have any idea where Midian is? Midian is east of Egypt, across the Sinai Peninsula. And there is nothing between Egypt and Midian but desert. Hot, arid, dry desert. Moses fled to the desert. In the manner of two short days Moses went from being the apparent heir to the throne to a fugitive because of his failure. Two hundred plus miles of desert gives a person plenty of time to think. I can only think what Moses must have thought about as he crossed that dry, barren land.

We don’t think too much about traveling 200 miles these days. Hop in the car and go. Three or four hours later we’ve reached our destination. But for Moses this was perhaps a two week trip depending upon his mode of travel. On foot, it may have even been longer than that. Two plus weeks crossing the desert. Moses fell far and he fell fast. Then we see God’s grace at work. Verse 16—“…he sat down by a well.”

My mind’s eye can see Moses searching for water. Wind-burned, sun-burned, lips dry and cracking from the desert sun. Ah, the well would be so refreshing. And it was refreshing for Moses. The well in the middle of the desert became the open door God provided for Moses’ future. It was at the well that his thirst was quenched. It was at the well where he encountered seven young ladies. Those seven young ladies would take Moses to their father. Their father would become his father-in-law, and he would become a shepherd, and as that shepherd he would eventually encounter God on the mountain, and he would he God’s voice calling him to return to Egypt to deliver the nation of Israel.

Many of us may feel we are living in the desert of failure. The truth is that we often have to cross the desert of failure. It is in the crossing of the desert of failure that we have time to reflect on our failure. The desert becomes a safe place that allows us to reflect on the mistakes and failures of our past. The time in the desert becomes the beginning of God’s restoration for us. We have to go to the desert to discover the well of refreshing.

Just as it was for Moses, it is for us. God has placed a well of refreshing, and it is at that well that God opens the door to our restoration and redemption. I can only think of the words of Jesus in these moments. He was passing through Samaria and stopped for a drink of water himself. There at the well, Jesus encountered a woman of Samaria and he enjoined her in conversation. They talked about water, and Jesus talked about living water. He told her, “You will drink the water from this well and get thirsty again.” And then he said, “But the water I give them takes away thirst altogether. It becomes a perpetual spring within them, giving them eternal life” (John 4:14).

Perhaps you’re here this morning and you’ve failed at a job. You’ve failed financially or in a business venture. Perhaps you’ve failed in a relationship or in your Christian walk and witness. There’s some sin, some moral failure that has forced you into the desert of self-condemnation. The well God has placed in our desert is Jesus Christ.

When failure forces us to flee, we find forgiveness and freedom when we discover the well of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Find his refreshment; be refreshed as God begins the transformation process in your life preparing you for the journey ahead. Amen.