Week of October 15, 2017
The Point: Christ-centered living chooses trust in God, not in circumstances.
God’s Judgment Upon Rebellion: Numbers 13:25-33; 14:1-25.
[13:25] At the end of forty days they returned from spying out the land.  And they came to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation of the people of Israel in the wilderness of Paran, at Kadesh. They brought back word to them and to all the congregation, and showed them the fruit of the land.  And they told him, “We came to the land to which you sent us. It flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit.  However, the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large. And besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there.  The Amalekites dwell in the land of the Negeb. The Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites dwell in the hill country. And the Canaanites dwell by the sea, and along the Jordan.”  But Caleb quieted the people before Moses and said, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.”  Then the men who had gone up with him said, “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are.”  So they brought to the people of Israel a bad report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height.  And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.” [14:1] Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night.  And all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness!  Why is the LORD bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?”  And they said to one another, “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.”  Then Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before all the assembly of the congregation of the people of Israel.  And Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephunneh, who were among those who had spied out the land, tore their clothes  and said to all the congregation of the people of Israel, “The land, which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceedingly good land.  If the LORD delights in us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey.  Only do not rebel against the LORD. And do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread for us. Their protection is removed from them, and the LORD is with us; do not fear them.”  Then all the congregation said to stone them with stones. But the glory of the LORD appeared at the tent of meeting to all the people of Israel.  And the LORD said to Moses, “How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?  I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they.”  But Moses said to the LORD, “Then the Egyptians will hear of it, for you brought up this people in your might from among them,  and they will tell the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that you, O LORD, are in the midst of this people. For you, O LORD, are seen face to face, and your cloud stands over them and you go before them, in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night.  Now if you kill this people as one man, then the nations who have heard your fame will say,  ‘It is because the LORD was not able to bring this people into the land that he swore to give to them that he has killed them in the wilderness.’  And now, please let the power of the Lord be great as you have promised, saying,  ‘The LORD is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.’  Please pardon the iniquity of this people, according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have forgiven this people, from Egypt until now.”  Then the LORD said, “I have pardoned, according to your word.  But truly, as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD,  none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice,  shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers. And none of those who despised me shall see it.  But my servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit and has followed me fully, I will bring into the land into which he went, and his descendants shall possess it.  Now, since the Amalekites and the Canaanites dwell in the valleys, turn tomorrow and set out for the wilderness by the way to the Red Sea.” [ESV]
“Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory [Numbers 13,14]. The course of history is littered with “almost” victories. These are battles that could probably have been won, yet some small failure changed the direction of events. The same may be true in the lives of individuals as well. Perhaps that is where we find ourselves. We may be wrestling with a decision that still has to be made, the consequences of which will be lasting. Or maybe we have to decide whether or not to resist the pressures that the forces of evil are exerting on us. Or we may be struggling with the ongoing effects of a bad decision we made many years ago, the fruit of which is still very much in evidence in our lives. The answers to these questions are addressed in the narrative of Israel’s wanderings in Numbers 13, 14. When the end of their journey seemed to be in sight, the Israelites snatched defeat from the jaws of victory through their unbelief.
Scouting the Land. At this point in the story, Israel stood on the brink of entering the Promised Land. The Lord had faithfully brought her out of Egypt and through the wilderness, and now the land of Canaan lay in front of them. He then commanded them to send out a task force to examine the land, made up of representatives from each of the twelve tribes [13:2]. They were to report on the nature of the land and its inhabitants and to bring back a sample of its fruit [13:17-20]. The goal of their mission was not to decide whether entering the land was possible or desirable: the Lord had already reminded Israel that this was the land He was giving to them [13:1]. All they had to do was receive it as a gift. Nonetheless, any major military undertaking requires good intelligence so that the best strategy can be evaluated. God’s promise did not eliminate the need for responsible action. In many respects their trip was a success. The scouts were able to roam the whole land from the southern end, where they entered it, all the way up to the northern border at Lebo-hamath [13:21]. The main focus of their time was spent around Hebron [13:22], an area that resonated with memories of historical events that should have stimulated their faith. This was the place where the patriarchs were buried. There they should have been reminded once again of God’s promise to give this land to Abraham and his descendants and of God’s faithfulness in fulfilling His promises thus far. He had brought them out of Egypt and made them into a great nation, just as He had promised Abraham [Gen. 15:5,13-15]. Certainly the scouts saw for themselves the abundant fruitfulness of the land, in the shape of a single bunch of grapes that was so large it took two people to carry it, along with pomegranates and figs [13:23]. For forty days they traversed the land safely, scouting it out without opposition or apparent danger.
Two Reports. At the end of that time the tribal representatives brought their conclusions to Moses and the people. Like many committees, they couldn’t reach a consensus and so returned with a majority and a minority report. The facts were not at issue between the two sides. Everyone agreed, on the one hand, that the land was fertile and prosperous and, on the other, that its inhabitants were a powerful force to be reckoned with. The key difference between the majority and the minority was where to put the “but” in their report. For the ten-man majority, the defining “but” was the people who inhabited the land. Every part of the land was occupied; all four of the major geographical regions – the Negeb, the hill country, the area beside the sea, and the Jordan valley – had inhabitants who were powerful and lived in large, fortified cities [13:28,29]. There was no uninhabited portion where they might comfortably occupy the land without opposition. They saw the fortifications of the cities, which were indeed substantial. What is more, the men who lived in the land looked like giants to them, like the Nephilim of old, who were mighty and fearsome warriors [see Gen. 6:4]. Who could hope to prevail against such opposition? There was a minority report to be considered as well, however. Joshua and Caleb saw exactly the same sights as the other ten did but drew different conclusions. Caleb blurted out the summary conclusion of their assessment: Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it [13:30]. Joshua gave the expanded version of their report in chapter 14. He started out with the basic facts: the land they surveyed was not merely good but exceedingly good [14:7]. He didn’t contest the powerful nature of the inhabitants of the land; yet the defining “but” in his report was not the size of the opposition but the presence or absence of God’s favor. If the Lord was pleased with them, He would lead them into the land and give it to them [14:8]. So long as the Israelites did not rebel against the Lord, they had nothing to fear from the inhabitants of the land.
Why the Difference? How could these two groups come up with such different assessments of the same facts? The answer is not hard to find. The majority completely left God out of the equation. They described the land they toured as the land to which you (Moses) sent us [13:27], not “the land the Lord is giving us.” They saw the size and number of the inhabitants of its cities and concluded, very reasonably according to their presuppositions, that invading that land was impossible. With such adversaries and with their own limited resources, they felt they had no chance of being successful. They forgot the Lord, and so they feared their enemies. Joshua and Caleb, however, looked at precisely the same facts but from the perspective of faith, not unbelief. Joshua had faith in the saving presence of the Lord, Israel’s God. That specific faith in the Lord’s presence and favor with His people was what drove Joshua and Caleb’s interpretation of the facts in front of them. They saw the same warriors as the majority did, protected by the same city walls, and yet concluded that those pagan nations not only could be but must be defeated. The difference between the majority and the minority reports was simply that the minority included God in their calculation.
The Eye of Faith. The same is also true in our experience. If we simply consider the obstacles that face our churches or the difficulties that we face as individuals, it is easy to conclude that we are overmatched and must inevitably fall short and fail. Humanly speaking, that may be an accurate assessment of reality. We have all sometimes felt like grasshoppers surrounded by giants on all sides. Our lives are full of impossible challenges, humanly speaking. Do you or I have the power within us to bring our neighbor to faith in Christ or to persevere in a difficult relationship at home or at work or to conquer a personal besetting sin? Humanly speaking, none of us do. However, the eye of faith recognizes that in this world, reality is not accurately measured whenever we are “humanly speaking.” This is God’s world, in which His Word and His promises must ultimately prevail. No matter how great the opposition, if the Lord is pleased with us, our future is assured. If God is calling a neighbor to Himself, then even our weak and fumbling words can be the door to eternal life for him or her. If the Lord strengthens us, then not only can we endure a difficult relationship, but we can shine within it as beacons of godly, self-sacrificial love. If God is at work in our hearts, we have not only the hope but the assurance that one day we will be done even with our most pervasive besetting sins. This knowledge is the bedrock that has enabled the saints of the past to endure great persecution and to step out in radical acts of faith and obedience. Humanly speaking, Joshua and Caleb’s actions may have looked utterly foolish; but God was pleased with them, and so they endured. They feared God, and so they were freed from the fear of men.
The Irrationality of Unbelief. Unfortunately, the response of the people of Israel was not faith in the Lord but grumbling and rebellion. Instead of being motivated to obey, they sought to stone Joshua and Caleb for their words of faith [14:10]. They believed the assessment of the majority report and grumbled against Moses and Aaron [14:2,3]. They were even ready to elect a new leader and go back to Egypt, reversing the whole course of the exodus. This entailed a complete rejection of the Lord and of Moses, a rejection of the salvation the Lord had promised them and the mediator He had chosen to lead them. Notice, though, how fundamentally irrational their unbelief was. The majority report was logically flawed. Contradicting the good report about the nature of the land that the scouts gave Moses at first, the majority spread a bad report among the people, saying that the land devoured those living in it [13:32]. Yet in the very next breath they went on to describe its inhabitants as giants! Think about that for a moment. How could a barren land produce such fearsomely well-nourished inhabitants? It doesn’t add up. Nor does the complaint of the people make any more sense. How could it be better for them to have died in Egypt or in the wilderness than to face death at the hands of the Anakim? Is certain death sooner preferable to possible death later? Does it make sense to believe that the Lord poured out earth-shattering plagues on Egypt, parted the Red Sea in front of His people, and then fed them miraculously with manna in the wilderness only to have them fall at the hands of the inhabitants of the Promised Land? Does God do one dramatic series of miracles in the lives of His people only to fail at the last hurdle, leaving them tantalizingly short of what He promised? That doesn’t make sense. Isn’t our unbelief equally irrational though? We believe and proclaim that our God created the universe out of nothing; yet we find it hard to believe that the results of a particular medical test belong to Him. We believe and proclaim that our God directs the courses of kings and nations and that He has transformed our own dead hearts into living, responsive flesh; yet we find it hard to believe that He can bring our stubborn friends and neighbors to faith in Himself. We believe and proclaim that our God entered history as a baby in Bethlehem; yet we find it hard to believe that He is active in our own personal history, holding our hand through the events of this week and the next. We believe and proclaim that He suffered on the cross for our sins and rose again triumphant from the grave to free us from our sins; yet we find it hard to believe that this particular sin of ours could ever be forgiven or that the power of that sinful habit could ever be broken. Our unbelief is always fundamentally irrational, a sinful refusal to fear God, which results equally inevitably in a sinful fear of people and circumstances. It is as irrational for us to cling to our unbelief as it is for a drowning man to cling to a heavy stone.
God’s Verdict on Israel. The decisive verdict in this story in the book of Numbers, though, was not Israel’s verdict on their God but His verdict on them. Ultimately their fate rested not on what they thought of Him so much as it did on what He thought of them. Just as there are two verdicts by the scouts on the land, so there were two verdicts by God on His people – an initial verdict of judgment and a final verdict of salvation. The initial verdict of God was the threat of death upon the whole people and a new beginning for Israel though Moses. God declared in His wrath: How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them? I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they [14:11,12]. This was not the first time that God had made such a threat. He said the same thing to Moses in Exodus 32:9,10 after the incident with the golden calf. Had the Lord really intended to carry though such a judgment on His people, He could easily have carried it through immediately. Given their persistent infidelity, Israel would hardly have had grounds for complaint. Yet in both places it is striking that God spoke the threat to Moses instead of executing it at once. It is almost as if God was cuing Moses to intercede on behalf of His people so that they might be spared. In each case that is exactly what Moses did, and the threat was then (partially) lifted. Through the intercession of Moses, lives were spared – if not the lives of the adult generation, at least those of their children, and their children’s children who were as yet unborn.
Intercession. The intersection of God’s eternal sovereign will and our prayers of intercession is, on some levels, a profound mystery. The best theological minds through the ages have had difficulty in expressing fully how a sovereign, eternal God can listen and respond to the prayers of temporal human beings while still carrying out all of His holy will exactly as He designed it from all eternity. Yet the reality and effectiveness of intercession on behalf of others is a constant Biblical theme, albeit one we are far more likely to confess with our mouths than act on consistently. The Bible tells us that the non-Christian world around us stands under God’s judgment of death. They have earned the verdict of eternal separation from God as the wages of their “God-free” lifestyle. Yet it also states that by means of our intercession, we may see some of those prisoners freed from condemnation. By the power of prayer, sinners are brought from death to eternal life. If we really heeded the cues that follow from that Scriptural truth, how much more time would we spend on our knees daily, interceding for our friends and neighbors? Moses’ prayer of intercession was based on two equally fundamental Scriptural truths: the requirements of God’s glory and God’s merciful nature. He pleaded for his fellow-Israelites first on the basis of the requirements of God’s glory [14:13-16]. If the Lord were to blot out the Israelites at this point, the Gentile nations around them would misunderstand His reasons. They had heard that the Lord’s name was linked with this people, that He had brought them out of Egypt, and that He had gone through the wilderness with them. If God were to kill them now, the nations might think it was because He was unable to bring His people into the land, and they would be confirmed in their unbelief. The Lord’s glory might be tarnished. Second, Moses pleaded for the people on the basis of God’s mercy [14:17-19]. He quoted the Lord’s own description of Himself from Exodus 34:6,7: the Lord is slow to anger, abounding in love, and forgiving sin and rebellion, yet not leaving the guilty unpunished. He does not falsify the Scriptural record by only quoting the first half of God’s self-description. On the contrary, Moses acknowledges that the Lord is a God of both justice and of mercy; yet he asks that in accordance with His great hesed, the Lord’s covenantal faithfulness to His people, He would be reconciled with them in spite of their continuing record of sin. Both of these motivations should feature prominently in our own prayers of intercession. Why do we ask God to respond to our prayers? It is “for your name’s sake,” so that He might receive the glory He deserves. Why do we ask Him to change our neighbor’s heart toward Him? It is so that the Lord might be glorified by another soul captivated by His beauty. Why do we ask Him to strengthen our churches and add new people to them? It is so that we might more adequately and fully declare His praises in those places. Why do we ask for victory over our sins? It is so that our hearts might be more free to glorify Him and delight in His presence. Praying for the sake of God’s glory will dramatically reshape what we pray for and the way we pray for ourselves and those around us. What is more, if we ask, motivated by God’s glory, we will also be comforted when He does not answer our prayers in the way we had hoped. If God is more glorified in my continuing weakness, suffering, or even failure, then my prayer has nonetheless been answered when I remain weak or suffering. If God is more glorified by enabling me to rejoice in Him in spite of a door being closed in front of me or a deep longing in my heart going unfulfilled, then my prayer for His glory has been answered. If God is more glorified by my failure than He would be by my success, then my prayer has been answered even when my best endeavors to serve Him have been shipwrecked. If God is my servant or partner, then my failure means that God has let me down. However, if God is my Master who does all things for my good as well as for His glory, then I can know that He has a glorious purpose in even the most inglorious circumstances of my life. It would be perverse indeed for me to pray for something and then complain because God gave it to me wrapped in a different form from the one I had anticipated.” [Duguid, pp. 167-177].
Questions for Discussion:
- Every believer is continually faced with a decision: Will I allow circumstances or trust in God to determine my mindset and behavior? In our passage, the Israelites chose to allow circumstances to determine their behavior and they suffered the consequences of not trusting in God. Think about those times when you, too, allowed circumstances to govern your behavior. Pray that God will enable you to trust in Him rather than in the circumstances of life you are facing.
- How is unbelief in God always irrational? What does unbelief proclaim concerning God’s character? What does belief affirm [see 14:8,9,18,19]?
- Duguid focuses on the placement of “but” in the majority and minority reports. Where did the majority place their “but”? Where did Joshua and Caleb? What essential difference did it make in the attitude and behavior of the people? Where do you place “but” in your life?
- What do we learn concerning the power of prayer through Moses’ intercession for the people? What two equally fundamental Scriptural truths did Moses base his prayer of intercession? What does it mean to pray for God’s glory?
The Message of Numbers, Raymond Brown, Inter Varsity.
Numbers, R. Dennis Cole, NAC, Broadman & Holman Publishers.
Numbers, Iain Duguid, Crossway.