Frederick W. Robertson

Sermon 87


The Orphanage of Moses

A Sermon Preached of Behalf of the Orphan Society

Preached February 16, 1851

  Frederick W. Robertson

“And when she had opened it, she saw the child: and, behold, the babe wept. And she had compassion on him, and said, This is one of the Hebrews’ children. Then said his sister to Pharaoh’s daughter, Shall I go and call to thee a nurse of the Hebrew women, that she may nurse the child for thee? And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, Go. And the maid went and called the child’s mother. And Pharaoh’s daughter said unto her, Take this child away, and nurse it for me, and I will give thee thy wages. And the woman took the child, and nursed it.” - Exodus 2:6-9


This is the account given of the discovery of a foundling orphan. Moses was an orphan, bereaved; ordinarily it means one bereaved by death. But it matters not whether it is by death or otherwise; it is truly an orphan if it be in any manner deprived of a parent’s care. Here the child Moses was not bereaved by death, but by political circumstances.

In the book from whence our text is taken, we are told that three laws were enacted against the liberties of Israel:

1. To keep down the population the political economy of those days devised, as a preventive check, the slaughter of the males.

2. To prevent their acquiring any political importance, the officers set over them were Egyptians. No Israelite was eligible to any office-not even as a taskmaster.

3. To prevent their acquiring knowledge, they were prohibited from the slightest leisure: their lives were made bitter with hard bondage, in brick and mortar.

No penal statutes were ever more complete than these. If any penal statutes could have prevented the growth of this injured nation, these must have succeeded. Numerically limited, rendered politically insignificant, and intellectually feeble, the slavery of Israel was complete.

But wherever governments enact penal laws which are against the laws of God, those governments or nations are, by the sure and inevitable process of revolution, preparing for themselves destruction. As when you compress yielding water, it burst at last.

Pharaoh’s laws were against all the laws of Nature, or, more properly speaking, against the laws of God: and Nature was slowly working against Pharaoh. He had made God his enemy.

Against these laws of Pharaoh a mother’s heart revolted. She hid her child for three months. Disobedience to this Egyptian law, we read, was faith in God-so says the Epistle to the Hebrews. “By faith Moses, when he was born, was hid three months of his parents, because they saw he was a proper child; and they were not afraid of the king’s commandment.”

At last concealment was no longer possible, and the mother placed her child in an ark among the reeds of the river Nile. And there a foundling orphan he lay, who was to be the future emancipator and lawgiver of Israel.

In order to understand these verses, I divide them into two branches:


I. The claims of the orphan.

II. The orphan’s education.


And first. By apparent accident, if there be such a thing in this world of God’s, the daughter of Pharaoh came down to the river to wash, and, among the reeds she saw the chest in which lay the child.

Now the first claim put forward on her compassion was the claim of infancy.

The chest was opened. The princess “saw the child.” That single sentence contains an argument. It was an appeal to the woman’s heart. It mattered not that she was a princess, nor that she belonged to the proudest class of the most exclusive nation in the world. Rank, caste, nationality, all melted before the great fact of womanhood. She was a woman, and before her lay an outcast child.

Now, let us observe, that feeling which arose here was spontaneous. She did not feel compassion because it was her duty so to feel, but because it was her nature. The law of Egypt forbade her to feel so for a Hebrew child.

We commit a capital error when we make feeling a matter of command. To make feelings a subject of law destroys their beauty and spontaneity.

When we say ought-that a woman ought to feel so and so-we state a fact, not a command. We say that it is her nature, and that she is unnatural if she does not. There is something wrong-her nature is perverted. But no command can make her feel thus or thus. Law, applied to feeling, only makes hypocrites.

God has provided for humanity by a plan more infallible than system, by implanting feeling in our natures. It was a heathen felt thus.

Do not fancy that Christianity created these feelings of tenderness and compassion by commanding them. Christianity declares them, commands them, and sanctions them, because they belong to man’s unadulterated nature. Christianity acknowledges them, stamps them with the divine seal; but they existed before, and were found even among the Egyptians and Assyrians. What Christianity did for all these feelings was exactly what the creation of the sun, as given in the Mosaic account, did for the light then existing. There was light before, but the creation of the sun was the gathering all the scattered rays of light into one focus. Christian institutions, asylums, hospitals, are only the reduction into form of feelings that existed before.

So it is, that all that heathenism held of good and godlike, Christianity acknowledges and adopts-centralizes. It is human-Christian-ours.

2. Consider the degradation of this child’s origin. “This is one of the Hebrews’ children.” The exclusiveness of the Egyptian social system was as strong as that of the Hindoo. There was no intermixture between caste and caste-between priest and merchant. This child was, moreover, a Hebrew-a slave-an alien-reckoned a hereditary enemy, and to be crushed.

In these rigid feelings of caste distinction the princess was brought up. The voice of society said, It is but a Hebrew. The mightier voice of nature-no, of God-spake within her, and said, It is a human being-bone of your bone, and sharing the same life.

That moment the princess of Egypt escaped from the trammels of time-distinctions and temporary narrowness, and stood upon the rock of the Eternal. So long as the feeling lasted, she breathed the spirit of that kingdom in which there is “neither Jew nor Gentile, barbarian, Scythian, bond, nor free.” So long as the feeling lasted, she breathed the atmosphere of Him who “came not to be ministered unto but to minister.”

She was animated by His Spirit who came to raise the abject, to break the bond of the oppressor. She felt as He felt, when she recognized that the very degradation of the child was a claim upon her royal compassion.

3. The last reason we find for this claim was its unprotected state-it wept. Those tears told of a conscious want-the felt want of a mother’s arms. But they suggested to the Egyptian princess the remembrance of a danger of which the child was unconscious-helpless exposure to worse evils-famine; the Nile flood; the crocodile. And the want of which the exposed child was conscious was far less than the danger of which it was unconscious.

Such is the state of orphanage. Because it is unprotected, it is therefore exposed to terrible evils. There are worse evils than the Nile, the crocodile, or starvation.

Suppose the child had lived. Then, as a boy in the hands of a taskmaster or slave-driver, he would have become callous, hard, and vicious, with every feeling of tenderness dried up. Nothing can replace a parent’s tenderness. It is not for physical support merely that parents are given us, but for the formation of the heart. He wept now; but the fountain of the orphan’s tears would have been withered and dried up, and instead of the tender man which he afterwards became, he would have become a hard-hearted slave.

Let us suppose, again, the case of a girl orphaned. Then you have the danger infinitely multiplied. There would have been no one in all the land of Egypt to redress the wrongs done to a Hebrew maiden. There are men in this world to whom, putting religion out of the question even, the very fact of wanting protection is cause sufficient for them to render protection. There are men to whom defenselessness is its own all-sufficient plea: there are men in whose presence the woman and the orphan, just because they are unshielded by any care, are protected more than they could be by any laws.

But remember, I pray you, that there is another spirit in the world-the spirit of oppression, and even worse; the spirit against which Jewish prophets rose to the height of a divine eloquence when they pleaded the cause of the fatherless and the widow; that spirit which in our own day makes the daughter of the poor man less safe than the daughter of the rich; that spirit of seduction, than which there is nothing more cowardly, more selfish, more damnable. For alas! it is true that to say that a girl is unprotected, fatherless, and poor, is almost equivalent to saying that she will fall into sin.


II. We pass on now to consider the orphan’s education; and first I notice that it was a suggestion from another.

The princess felt compassion, and so far was in the state of one who has warm feelings, but does not know how to do good. Brought up in a court, born to be waited on, nursed in luxury, ignorant of life and how the poor lived, those feelings might have remained helpless feelings.

Then, in the providence of God, one stood by who offered a suggestion how she might benefit the child, “Shall I go and call a nurse?” In other words, she suggested that it would be a princely and noble thing for Pharaoh’s daughter to adopt and educate it.

And now observe the value of such a suggestion: what we want is not feeling-emotions are common, feelings superabound. In the educated classes, feeling is extremely refined, but is much occupied with imaginary and unreal troubles; and the reason why, with such warm feelings so little good is done, is that we want the suggestion how to do it.

Observe how differently the Bible treats this, from what the painter or the novelist would have done. A painter would have shown the majesty and beauty of the royal actor. A romance would have given a touching history of womanly sentiment. But the Bible, being a real book, says little of the emotion-merely mentions it-and passes on to the act to which the feeling was meant to lead.

Brethren, we often make a mistake here; we are proud of our emotions, of our refined feeling, of our quick sensibilities; but remember, I pray you, feeling by itself is worthless-it is meant to lead to action, and if it fails to do this it is a danger rather than a blessing; for excited feeling that stops short of deeds is the precursor of callousness and hardness of heart. Your sensibility is well-but what has it done?

We feel the orphan’s claims, and now comes the question, how shall we do them good?

Let us observe that Moses was nursed by a Hebrew matron. She was one of his own grade. It would have been a capital error to have given him to an Egyptian nurse. Probably, the princess left to herself would have done so. But then he would have been weaned from his own race. In heart, sympathies, feelings, he would have been an Egyptian. Nay, he would have been more exclusive; for the hardest are almost always those who have been raised above their former position. The slave’s hardest taskmaster is a negro. The one who is most exclusive in his sympathies is usually the raised merchant, or the one recently ennobled.

This great thing is to emancipate the degraded through their own class. Only through their own class can they be effectually delivered; the mere patronage of the great and rich injures character.

So it was with Judaism; so it was with Christianity. The Redeemer was made of a woman-“born under the law to redeem them that were under the law.” He who came to preach the Gospel to the poor, was born of a poor woman.

But it was not only a Hebrew nurse to whom Moses was given, it was a mother-his own mother-who nursed him; and from her he heard the story of his people’s history. From her he learned to feel his country’s wrongs to be his own. In the splendor of Pharaoh’s court he never could forget that his mother was a slave, and that his father was working in brick and mortar, under cruel taskmasters.

From the princess he gained the wisdom of Egypt-he was taught legislative science. From hardship he learned endurance and patience. Instruction ends in the school-room, but education ends only with life. A child is given to the universe to educate.

Now let us see the results of this training on his intellectual and moral nature.

1. Intellectually. We will only notice the spirit of inquiry and habit of observation. To ask “Why?” is the best Christian lesson for a child. Not the “why” which is the language of disobedience, but that “why” which demands for all phenomena a cause. It was this which led Moses on Mount Horeb to say, “I will turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” So it was that Moses found out God.

2. In the moral part of his character we note his hatred of injustice and cruelty; ever was he found ranged against oppression in whatever form it might appear. He stood ever on the side of right against might, whether it was to avenge the wrong done by the Egyptian to one of his Hebrew brethren, or to rescue the daughter of the priest of Midian from the oppressing shepherds. He became, too, a peacemaker. Thus we get a glimpse of the moral and intellectual nature of the man who afterwards led Israel out of Egyptian bondage, and who, but for the education he had received, might have become as degraded as any of the nation he freed from slavery.

At the present day, that child who might have become so degraded, stands second but to One in dignity and influence in the annals of the human race. Take, for one example, the Jewish sabbath. Thousands upon thousands of that nation, fond of gain and mammon as they proverbially are said to be, yet gave up their gains yesterday, and voluntarily surrendered that one day in addition to this day which, by the law of the land, they are obliged to keep holy. And all this in obedience to the enactments of that orphan child, who three thousand years ago commanded the sabbath-day to be kept holy. In those days the Pharaohs of Egypt raised their memorials in the enduring stone of the pyramids, which still remain almost untouched by time. A princess of Egypt raised her memorial in a human spirit, and just so far as spirit is more enduring than stone, just so far is the work of that princess more enduring than the work of the Pharaohs; for when the day comes when those pyramids shall have crumbled into nothingness and ruin, then shall the spirit of the laws of Moses still remain interwoven with the most hallowed of human institutions. So long as the spirit of Moses influences this world, so long shall her work endure, the work of that royal-hearted lady who adopted this Hebrew orphan child.

It now only remains for me to say a word on the claims of that institution for which I am to plead to-day-the Female Orphan Asylum in this town. It was established in 1823, and for years its funds flourished; lately they have fallen off considerably, and that not in consequence of fault in the institution itself, but simply for this cause, that of those who took it up warmly once, many have been removed by death, and many have altered their place of residence, and also because many fresh calls and institutions have come forward, and thus have excluded this one. The consequence has been a sad falling off of funds. Last year the expenditure exceeded the receipts by one hundred pounds.

Within the walls of that institution, now almost dilapidated and falling into decay, there are twenty-four female orphan children, received from the age of six to sixteen; not educated above their station, but educated simply to enable them “to do their duty in that state of life to which it has pleased God to call them.”

And now I earnestly desire to appeal to you for this object by the thoughts that have to-day been brought before you. Because they are children, I make an appeal to every mother’s and woman’s heart; because they are females, young and unprotected, I make an appeal to the heart of every man who knows and feels the evils of society; because they belong to the lowest class, I make an appeal to all who have ever felt the infinite preciousness of the fact that the Saviour of this world was born a poor man’s child.

My beloved Christian brethren, let us not be content with feeling; give, I pray you, as God has prospered you.