The Gift of a Pious Mother

In remembrance of his late mother, the 19th century Southern Presbyterian B.M. Palmer wrote, “Ah! We have but one mother on earth. Who can replace her in our thought? She who bore us in the walls of her flesh, in the strange community of a dual life; she who nourished us in feeble infancy from her own substance; she whose smile woke us to the first response of love: she whose constant sympathy assuaged the sorrows of childhood and whose guardian providence shielded from the snares of opening adulthood: she to whom was paid the homage of youthful hearts, mounting to such lower worship as may be given to a mortal...Who that looks back upon the critical passages of life, will not bless God for the gift of a pious mother- feeling that her hand has plucked them from ruin?”

Mankind is divided by many things: politics, language, culture, religion, race, wealth, geography, nationality, etc… But for a brief moment each May, in countless countries around the world, we stand united in affection for the one we call, “mom.” While the fear of God restrains Christians from worshipping the creature rather than the Creator, we do indeed give thanks to our Creator for creating her: the loveliest and gentlest of all his creatures; the one in whose silent sacrifice the Gospel of grace is on daily display.

So, to “tune our hearts to sing” praises to God for the gift of pious mothers, it is fitting to consider Moses’ only tribute to his mother, Jochebed, in Exodus 2:1-10. Though this passage highlights the facets of exemplary motherhood, it’s not just for moms. This story is of great value for men seeking to honor and inspire such godliness in their brides, for children needing to be reminded of the priceless treasure that is their mother, stepmother, adoptive, foster, or surrogate mother. It’s also for you sisters, who hope to become mothers one day, because this text teaches us that God blesses His church through the ordinary godliness of extraordinary mothers.

First, we see a mother’s devotion burning like phosphorous against the black night of Pharaoh’s infanticide. While Joseph lived, his kinsmen flourished and enjoyed Pharaoh’s favor. But after that generation, an evil king arose who saw the people of Israel as a liability not an asset. So, to mitigate that risk, he enslaved and crushed them beneath heavy burdens. But the greater the load, the more the Hebrews flourished. As they multiplied, the shadows of fear and hate fell over Egypt until Pharaoh ordered the newborn boys of Israel cast into the Nile.

Rising from the page we can hear the blaring sirens of screaming babies and the unutterable groans of heartbroken mothers. But then we catch the fresh wail of one baby in particular. And we see the flushed face of his mother, beaded with sweat earned through that hardest but most rewarding of labors. We can imagine her weary smile and we can see tears filling her eyes and falling silently upon the face of her son who was so fine that she could not, she would not obey Pharaoh’s evil edict (Exodus 2:2). So, she hid him for 3 months.

What was so fine about this child? Commentators muse that maybe his face shone with a heavenly glow. But the Bible doesn’t say that. All we know is from Acts 7:20, where Stephen said that this baby, like every covenant child, “was beautiful in the sight of God.” And from Hebrews 11:23, where the writer hailed the exemplary faith of the parents who, when “they saw that the child was beautiful… were not afraid of the king's edict.”

I recently watched a video compilation of animal mothers protecting their young. It made me wonder:  what could make a tiny house cat attack a bull mastiff? What could make a rabbit tangle with a big black snake or a badger tackle a leopard or a squirrel hurl herself at roofers or a giraffe kick away a pride of lions or a bison buck back a pack of wolves or a mama bear rear up roaring to a male twice her size? It is the same maternal instinct that emboldened a Hebrew slave to defy Pharaoh, the most dangerous man on earth. It is perhaps the strongest, most primal, force on earth: the unlearned and unearned devotion of a mother who, beholding her child for the first time, is in that moment ready to kill for it, to die for it, to live for it… no questions asked. Is there any wonder that Isaiah likens the unmerited and unfailing love of God for sinners to a mother’s love for her baby (Isaiah 49:15)?

But 3 months later, a mother’s devotion gave way to a mother’s desperation. When she could hide him no longer, she took for him a basket made of bulrushes and daubed it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child in it and placed it among the reeds by the river bank. And his sister stood at a distance to know what would be done to him” (Exodus 2:3-4).

As the child grew larger, it grew louder and the parents were backed into a terrible corner. To keep the baby, they risked detection and death; putting not just their baby but their other children at risk. But to surrender the child to authorities after 3 months would also invite Pharaoh’s fatal wrath upon the entire family. So, a desperate mother made a desperate decision: she made a basket (the Hebrew word tebah is the same one used to describe the ark that delivered Noah through the flood waters). Like Noah, she sealed her tiny ark in bitumen and pitch. And when it was ready, she set it in the waters along the river banks and then (put yourself in her place) she took her beautiful baby boy to whom she had bonded by womb and breast for the last year, placed him inside and said goodbye, entrusting him to the Lord.

But as that basket floated away, we can see a little girl running along the bank! It was Miriam his older sister. The same Miriam who, 80 years later, would follow her baby brother through the wondrously parted waters of the Red Sea, first followed him until he reached Pharaoh’s palace. Can you see Miriam hiding in the reeds as Pharaoh’s daughter came to bathe? Can you see the princess pointing to the basket; a servant fetching it and opening it? Can you see the compassion in her eyes when she heard the baby cry? Adoptive and foster moms know it so well: you don’t have to bear the baby to love the baby with all your heart in an instant.

There is something deeply comforting for parents in these lines that we need to hold onto. There is a truth here that will still your beating heart as you watch your baby ride off on a bike or in the backseat of a friend’s car; when you walk them into their freshman dorm room or down the aisle on their wedding day; when God-forbid, they drift away from the church and go to the far country: God is in control of your baby’s life. As God kept Moses’ basket dry, as he closed the mouths of crocodiles and hippos, as he held together every molecule of water upon which that little boat bobbed, as he brought it to the perfect place at the perfect time, as he opened the princess’ ears to hear the child’s cries and filled her heart with love for him, so he sovereignly directs and protects the life of your baby. Like Jochebed we can entrust our children to the Lord.  

But there’s someone else in the story that you might not have seen at first. It’s you and me: helpless and hopeless children of wrath, the natural born enemies of the King and doomed to die. Though he would have been just to look at us in contempt, God who is rich in mercy looks on us with compassion, forgives our sins us by the blood of His Son, and adopts us as His own into his royal family, and lavishes us with the royal honors none but Zion’s children know. Ezekiel likened the sinner’s salvation to the rescue of an abandoned newborn:

“And as for your birth, on the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor wrapped in swaddling cloths. No eye pitied you, to do any of these things to you out of compassion for you, but you were cast out on the open field, for you were abhorred, on the day that you were born. “And when I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood, I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’ I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’… When I passed by you again and saw you, behold, you were at the age for love, and I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness; I made my vow to you and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Lord GOD, and you became mine” (Ezekiel 16:4-6, 8).

Exodus 2 is not just the story of how Moses was saved; it’s a picture of how you were saved, Christian.

Finally, this passage shows us something of a mothers’ duty. Of all the stories in Scripture, this has one of the best endings. It’s easy to imagine Miriam, sharp as a tack, smart as a whip, popping up from the reeds, asking, “Shall I go and call you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” (Exodus 2:7). And who does Miriam fetch but the baby’s own mother and hers, whom the princess instructed, “Take this child away and nurse him for me, and I will give you your wages.” So, the woman took the child and nursed him” (Exodus 2:9). That is thrilling grace! That is sweet providence! Not only does Jochebed receive her child back from the dead, she is promised a royal reward for fulfilling her hearts deepest longing: being his mother.

In the same way, parents, our children don’t ultimately belong to us. That’s why we have them baptized with the holy seal, not of Pharaoh’s daughter but of God’s Son, who commands us by those baptismal waters, “Nurse the child for me and I shall give thee thy wages.” That’s why we shower our children in prayer and bathe their hearts and minds in the word of God. That’s why we lovingly discipline them and train them for godliness. That’s why we teach them the language and doctrines of our holy religion and raise them to know, love, and fear the Lord. That’s why we bring them into Christ’s church, because they belong to Him and He belongs to them by covenant. Moses’ mother didn’t know it, but the Lord used her ordinary godliness to bless the church and change the world forever. Who knows, sisters and mothers, how the Lord will use your ordinary godliness? Who knows how he will answer your prayers on behalf of your babies. Who knows how Jesus will embrace and bless the children you bring to him in faith? Who knows how God will raise up your child to glorify him and bless others?

I know a man who, by God’s grace, was saved at an early age as the first fruits of salvation in his family. He desired that his brother and sister would find refuge in the arms of Christ as he had. But despite his earnest efforts over many years, his siblings’ hearts remained unmoved. But when that family entered its darkest hour and this man’s siblings saw the way in which their mother fixed her eyes on Christ and held fast to him through the storm, did their heart walls come down and they surrendered their souls to their mother’s Savior. Soon after, this young man’s brother and sister stood before their churches and publicly professed their faith in Jesus Christ. In the end, God didn’t utilize the passionate pleas or rigorous debating of a brash brother, but the ordinary godliness of a mother to save the souls of her children.

So, you mothers, grandmothers, surrogate mothers, and future mothers, don’t ever underestimate what God can do and is doing through your ordinary obedience to save souls, change the world, bless the church, and glorify his name. And may we thank the Lord all year round, for the gift of a pious mother.

“Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: ‘Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.’ Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised” (Proverbs 31:28–30).

Jim McCarthy is the Senior Pastor of Trinity PCA in Statesboro, GA.