Praying with eyes open

Why did Moses go up on the mountain in Exodus 17:8-16? Everyone who’s ever attended Sunday School will tell you he’s praying, but the passage doesn’t actually say it. The only thing we know is Moses’ hand positions, and the resulting impact on Joshua’s gains or losses. The account of what happened on the mountain was written later and second-hand, by someone who was a distant and distracted observer on that day.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Moses will soon establish a pattern of praying in a tent  (Ex 33:7-11), but he doesn’t head for his tent this time; instead, he climbs a mountain. Joshua can understand that instinct. After all, a military man like him would see elevation for its strategic advantage—for reconnaissance purposes, artillery placement (arrows or stones) or infantry positioning. The common thread is that any of those options requires communication of some sort, and Moses and Joshua make no signalling plans. Moses has a different strategic purpose in mind, and a different form of communication.

There’s only one reason to go up on a mountain to pray: clearly, Moses intends to have his eyes open. On the mountain, he is helpless and completely dependent to act save for a single priceless weapon: a direct connection to the Almighty. If he sees an ambush or an advantage, his only recourse is prayer.

In Moses’ day, the only way to have the full picture, to see the scope of the battle, was to gain elevation. In today’s world, there are so many other ways we can broaden our view. I believe this is one of the indispensable roles of a leader.

My studies of this passage have led me to refine my times of prayer as a leader. I start with two questions prompted by Moses as he stood on that mountain with eyes open, hands lifted up and no temptation to action.

A. What can I see that others don’t?
B. What should I see that is not visible?

I’ll cover the first one here.

Seeing what others don’t

There’s an old adage that a leader is the one climbing the tallest tree, surveying the situation and concluding, “We’re in the wrong forest.” Leaders have a mandate to see the bigger picture and assess the situation, but they also have the privilege of access to a more complete set of data than anyone else.

Strategic prayer is prayer with knowledge. It’s significant that the intercessor in Exodus 17 is the one who can observe the entire scope of the situation and direct his attention accordingly. No one else can see the big picture the way a leader can. Therefore, she should pray for the larger issues, the deeper underlying themes, rather than the obvious surface-level requests. Where she sees with spiritual eyes—because she takes the time to ask and look—she prays for what others can’t see. She can sometimes pray with confidential knowledge of world events.

Don’t shy away from connecting the pieces. Ask the Lord, “How should my prayers be directed?” And, “What can I pray about that others don’t or can’t?”

There are three advantages and responsibilities that come with the vantage point of leadership.

1. Gaps. From above, it’s easy to see the gaps and weaknesses that open up in battle lines. I can pray for reinforcements, and I can pray for healing for the sick, strength for the weak, encouragement for the fainthearted, justice for the oppressed and comfort for the afflicted (Ez 34:4,16, 1 Thess 5:14, Ps 10:17-18, 2 Cor 1:3-4).

2. Traps. I can also see ambushes and traps. I can pray for shielding, for cover, for light to overcome darkness and truth to expose lies. I can pray for other leaders, that they would not give Satan a foothold.

3. Opps. Weaknesses in the opponent’s strategies are laid bare, and I can see where my team is making breakthroughs. I can add my prayers behind initiatives pressing the advantage. I can pray for unity, love, confession, forgiveness, mutual submission and truth as proactive moves against Satan’s strategies of division, accusation and deception.

During my quarterly days of prayer, I have taken to posting sheets of paper on the wall and labeling them with these categories. As God shows me something in each of these areas, I write it down so I have a takeaway, and perhaps an action point.

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Moses on the Mountain series:

Looking over your shoulder

As we continue exploring Exodus 17:8-16, I want to turn our attention to the foot of the hill and the young leader who steps into the spotlight for the first time. Joshua is designated by Moses to lead the forces of Israel in their first battle. They go on to route a larger army that is better prepared and has every advantage.

Of course, we know why he really won. My question is whether Joshua figured out the secret of his success. Could he see the three men silhouetted on the hill? Did he wonder what they were up to? Did he eventually logic out that it wasn’t whether he did anything great on his own, but whether Moses’ arms were raised? Did he have one eye on his present situation and one checking behind him to see Moses’ posture? And, in doing so, begin to work with God?

Clearly, the story doesn’t tell us. We can only guess, because so many details are left out of the story of Joshua. For a man who featured so heavily in the story of Moses, who then becomes leader of Israel for 27 years and even has a book named after him, we know surprisingly little. We don’t know if he ever married. We don’t know his back story. And we don’t know his thoughts or fears.

Knowing Joshua’s confidence level would give insight into whether he figured out his role in the successful battle that day. An overconfident leader would conclude that it was all about his great strategy—only to discover at the debrief that he had very little to do with it (v14). A leader unsure of himself would spend too much time looking over his shoulder at Moses, to see if he was doing it right and to watch Moses’ hand positions. Which one describes this young leader of 30 or 40 in his public debut?

Joshua’s back story

A leader’s confidence is so often tied to his or her back story. Great books like Dan Allender’s, Leading with a Limp, urge us to lead out of who we are, and to embrace the brokenness in us that comes from prior experiences. But what was Joshua’s back story? We simply don’t know where he was prior to Exodus 17:9.

We know he lived in Egypt. Given the role Moses offers him, there’s a good chance he had some form of military background in Egypt.

We know he participated in the first 17 1/2 chapters of Exodus. But that simply leads to more questions about how he developed his leadership aptitude.

  • Where was he among the skeptical Hebrew leaders in Egypt when Moses first showed up with a message from God (Ex 4:29-31)?
  • Where was he when the foremen complained to Moses that he had made them a stink in the sight of Pharaoh, who ended the distribution of straw in retaliation (Ex 5:21)?
  • Where was he in the exodus from Egypt, that night when Moses had to signal to an entire nation that it was time to leave?
  • Where was he in the crossing of the Red Sea, as the people nervously paced the beach, watching the dust rise from chariot wheels?
  • Where was he when the people were grumbling?
  • Where was he in the first half of this chapter, when the people were ready to stone Moses?

Leaders don’t burst on the scene fully developed, so there are two possibilities.

Perhaps Joshua was an emerging leader, beginning to catch Moses’ eye by taking on unmentioned roles—helping mobilize the people on Passover night, vigilant on the beach beside the Red Sea as the pillar of fire kept the Egyptian army at bay, a loyalist giving encouragement to Moses.

Or, Joshua was already in some kind of leadership position and had to choose to come under Moses’ authority. Note in the paragraph above that those in established positions were not always on Moses’ side. In fact, the first seven verses of Exodus 17 tell us that not everyone was part of “Team Moses.” There was an insurrection brewing. Which side was Joshua on?

In other words, if Moses wasn’t the one to first draw out Joshua as a leader, when did the young man convert from critic to loyalist?

Whatever the back story, in this moment Moses trusts Joshua implicitly. Joshua is thrown into the deep end and finds himself leading a battle. Soon Joshua will become indispensable to Moses.

With those musings as a foundation, let’s get to a few points of application.

1. Leaders are followers first. Godly leadership takes a conversion from the role of skeptic, critic and grumbler who wishes he was in charge, to a new role as a loyalist who surrenders to God’s leadership.

2. Our best strategy is to participate with God in his purposes. Did Joshua’s strategies even matter to the battle? What would have happened if Joshua had laid down his weapons? Would he still have prevailed? There’s a lesson here about why God so often only lets us see the big picture after the fact. Somehow, in some way, our efforts and strategies do matter, but so often the real results come from a spiritual strategy or prayer. We take great risks when we foray out on our own without that foundation.

3. We need to give young leaders space. There’s a risk with young or inexperienced leaders. They may be put in the driver’s seat, but they spend all their time looking back over their shoulder to see if they’re doing it right, if they have their superior’s or mentor’s approval. That’s where, if the one with the authority has another job to do, it creates space. Whatever Joshua’s back story was, Moses took a calculated gamble. Rather than lurking around as an observer, Moses goes where he can’t possibly grab the controls. He’s occupied elsewhere. Yet, he still does everything he can to make Joshua successful.

I believe Joshua figured out where his success was coming from. The clue is in the absence of detail about what Moses was saying on the mountain. While most of Moses’ prayers, speeches and arguments with God were meticulously recorded, Moses’ biographer was otherwise occupied on this day. Joshua recorded faithfully the only detail he could see: the posture of Moses’ hands. It gave him the courage to apply his leadership on the ground.


Moses on the Mountain series:

Predictable unpredictability

On a surface-level reading of Exodus 17:8-16, it seems like Moses hands the reigns to Joshua, saying, “You go fight. I’m going to grab my hiking stick and climb that mountain.” Moses feels no need to explain himself to Joshua, or to us. Why did no one protest or ask questions? I certainly have a few!

The risks of delegation

At this point in the Exodus story, Moses’ track record leading his own people is fairly brief. Since the day he reappeared from 40 years’ solitude in the wilderness, the people’s relationship with their untested leader has been running hot and cold. Their gratefulness and worship in Exodus 4:31 quickly turns to accusation by 5:21 when Pharaoh takes his anger out on the people. Moses then manages a series of crises—some of which he provoked. A few weeks after the highs of the miraculous Red Sea crossing (Ex 14), the people are ready to mutiny and stone Moses to death (Ex 17:4). And it won’t be long before the people give up on Moses when he spends six weeks on Mt. Sinai (Ex 24, 32). There’s a surprising arms-length detachment in their assessment of him in Exodus 32:1: “As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”

What kind of leader is Moses? In these first months of his leadership, some of his idiosyncrasies and patterns of his leadership style are still developing. So, at the point the Amalekites attack, Moses hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt with the people.

Viewed through that lens, the risks Moses takes in walking away from the fight are enormous. The quarrel only a few verses prior was no small dispute; Moses feared for his life. It was no-confidence territory. Insubordination. Potential mutiny. So God gave a solution that was very public and deliberate in elevating Moses before the people.

With his leadership so recently in danger, we could forgive an inclination from Moses to solidify his leadership further with one more bold demonstration that he is in charge.

Instead, he walks away.

By delegating the key responsibility, Moses also risks the people latching onto Joshua and giving him credit, just as David’s successes would be a threat to King Saul (1 Sam 18:8) and Absalom would one day steal followers from his father, David (2 Sam 15:6). But Moses shows no fear.

Moses’ choice looks naive, uncalculated. He simply isn’t driven by politics. He clearly knows God has called him to this role, but these are God’s people. This stewardship view of leadership removes any fear that he might lose his job. Yes, Joshua might get the glory and gain some followers due to his hands-on, ground-level leadership among the people. Moses isn’t driven by those motivations, and that allows him to make a courageous choice.

I find Moses to be unpredictable, and yet also entirely predictable.

What about me?

I ask myself: Is my spiritual practice, my means of leading out of my relationship with God, predictable? Have I established a track record of obedience, of hearing God, of drawing on my time with him to take courageous steps? So, when God prompts surprising plans or methods, the one predictable thing about me is my quickness and readiness to follow?

I’ve had years with my senior leadership team, and they’ve noticed my style of decision-making and leading. Would an action like Moses’ be out of character for me? Would my team trust me implicitly?

The key seems to be Moses’ focus on following God, no matter what. My first instinct often isn’t spiritual leadership. I think things through and gather data. My responses are measured, and it’s really only in the past decade that I’ve learned to lean on my intuition. I’m still early in my journey into using discernment methods. One of Ruth Haley Barton’s foundational principles for discernment is to rely on God’s goodness and “ask God for the grace to desire his will—nothing more, nothing less, nothing else” (Pursuing God’s Will Together, p188)

Moses’ authority to lead is spiritual in nature. It comes from the fact that his followers know he has spent time with God. By Exodus 33:7-11, he will eventually establish a pattern of conversing with God face to face in the tent of meeting. It’s obvious to the people exactly how much time he spends with God; when he goes in the tent, they stand at the doors of their tents and worship. Even his countenance reveals he has been with God.

How obvious is it with your followers the amount of time you’ve spent with God?

When you have been with God and then propose a wacky idea like marching silently around a city for seven days or throwing nets on the other side of a boat or walking away from battle to climb a mountain, followers’ doubts are quelled. That predictable unpredictability is the signature of a leader worth following.


Moses on the Mountain series:

Don’t delegate this!

I have been on a journey around spiritual leadership in the past seven years. That kind of leadership doesn’t come naturally to me. In terms of my style of leadership, I’m more of a king than a prophet or priest. When it comes to spiritual leadership, there is no better model than Moses. Ever since a board member first handed me a copy of Ruth Haley Barton’s book, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, I have been intrigued at the depth of Moses’ relationship with God as the basis for his leadership. However, I’m not sure spiritual leadership came naturally to him either—it was an acquired discipline, skill and way of life. Over the next few weeks, I want to mine some gold from one event in particular.

In Exodus 17:8-16, Israel faces its first battle since God miraculously helped them escape Egypt and single handedly wiped out Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea. Now, as Amalek attacks, Moses turns to someone never before mentioned in the Bible and tells him to choose men, go out and fight while he goes up on a mountain. The passage never definitively unpacks what happens at the top of that mountain.

Have you ever read a passage where numerous things don’t quite add up? You sense it needs deeper study to understand the complexity. Over the past year, I’ve been continually drawn back to Exodus 17. At one point, I read it every day for a month, writing down my discoveries. It’s not transparent, and there are layers to be peeled back. Some of the questions that triggered my study were:

  • If Moses has a “tent of meeting,” where he regularly talks to God face-to-face, why does he go up on the mountain to pray?
  • When we have so many great prayers of Moses recorded, why do we know nothing of Moses’ day on that hill other than his hand positions?
  • When he comes down at the end of the battle, why does he have a message about Amalek so completely out of touch with Joshua’s experience that day?

My study of this passage has shaped my understanding of spiritual leadership and how my role needs to shift. Let’s jump in.

Don’t delegate this!

To be effective, every leader has to ask the question, “What is it that only I can do?”, then delegate everything else. That’s the lesson Moses will get drilled into him by his father-in-law in the next chapter. The ancient historian Josephus says Moses was a general in Pharaoh’s army. Sure, he’s long retired from his own fighting days, but when Amalek attacks, he chooses to delegate on-the-ground leadership while keeping spiritual leadership responsibilities. Why?

There are some hints about the insights that lead Moses to this conclusion.

The first thing I noted is that this story begins with the word, “then.” It begs the question, “what came before this?” Moses has just produced water from a rock, but in a context where the people are angry enough to stone him. It’s a critical-enough moment in Israel’s history that the place will forever be identified with the events of that day. However, rather than naming it after the miracle, Moses names it after the danger: “Testing and Quarrelling.” There are several fundamental questions raised in that event:

  • Is God among us or not?
  • Does Moses speak for God?

Moses clearly identifies the circumstances as a spiritual attack – an indirect attack on unity, using accusation and division.

Before they have even left that site, a direct attack comes. It’s a test of a very different nature, and Moses recognizes that it needs a different response.

We also have the benefit of hearing Moses’ commentary on that moment, recorded years later. In Deuteronomy 25:17-19, he would remind Israel that, “When you were weary and worn out, [the Amalekites] met you on your journey and attacked all who were lagging behind.” Such predatory behaviour, picking off the weak and isolated, resembles Peter’s warning to believers: “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8). 

The second half of the chapter is a continuation of the same two foundational tests: whether God is among them, and whether Moses speaks for God. Moses could dive into the task at hand, boldly leading the people in battle from the front. Instead he holds onto components that address the deeper spiritual nature of this challenge. That is the part he can’t delegate.


Moses on the Mountain series: