Numbers 14:1-45

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We considered the report of the twelve scouts last time and drew attention to the fact that the rest of the Bible employs this history of Israel at Kadesh as a principle illustration of the reality of unbelief in the church. We considered therefore the question: what distinguishes genuine from spurious faith, a question all the more pressing given that it is often impossible to distinguish believers from unbelievers when they are mingled together in the church. This fact is usually of little interest to the Christian unbeliever, but it becomes a bed of nails for many Christian believers who, taking the whole matter of salvation with utmost seriousness, want to know, need to know how to decipher the hypocrite. They want to know that not to judge others but themselves, to be sure that they are not hypocrites themselves! And we said that the great difference is that real faith acts on, stands on, ventures on the presence, power, and promise of God as real things. The two scouts were willing to act on God’s promise, the ten were not. Now we continue the account of this episode with all of its far-reaching consequences and immensely important lessons we hold that particular emphasis that the bible itself gives to this history in the back of our minds.

Text Comment

In other words, the people are proposing to turn their backs on and undo Yahweh’s entire plan of redemption: deliverance from Egypt, the Promised Land, and Moses as God’s appointed leader.

Moses and Aaron realized what blasphemy was being spoken and bowed down. It is not said why they did this. Did they wish to separate themselves from the sentiment being expressed by the people; did they anticipate the Lord’s reaction in judgment and they wanted to be sure that the Lord did not number them with everyone else; or were they intending to seek forgiveness for the people, which they do later in the chapter but only after hearing what the Lord intended to do to them on account of this rebellion? It is not clear.

In the ANE, as you know, tearing one’s clothes was a sign of grief and distress.

There is irony here. The people have proposed finding a new leader to lead them back to Egypt. Joshua will be that new leader, but will lead their children into the Promised Land.

Joshua and Caleb had, in effect, accused the people of rebelling against the Lord; the people are, in effect, accusing the two men of false witness and so proposed to execute them. [Wenham, 122] But, at the critical moment the glory of the Lord appears and brings an end to the nonsense.

The Lord’s remark about Israel’s refusal to believe in defiance of the signs and wonders performed before their eyes immediately cannot help but remind us of many similar statements made by the Lord Jesus during his ministry. In any case, there is it in black and white: “they refuse to believe in me.” The issue is a lack of faith. It is always faith in the OT as it in the NT, the presence of it or the want of it, that tells the tale.

So the Lord proposed destroying Israel and starting over with Moses and his descendants. The two “I wills” in v. 12 may be translated “Let me… let me.” If so, it is even clearer that the Lord is virtually cuing Moses to intercede for the people, testing him even. [Milgrom, 109] Obviously the Lord could simply have destroyed the people as he will later destroy the ten scouts without informing Moses beforehand. But he gave Moses the opportunity to intercede.

If you remember from our studies in Ezekiel not long ago, the Lord himself used that same explanation as to why he would not destroy his undeserving people after centuries of their sinning against him: the honor of his name among the nations was at stake. [36:16-36; 39:21-29]. So Moses’ argument was not a bad argument; the Lord would use it himself on another occasion!

Remember, Moses had used similar arguments to dissuade the Lord from destroying Israel after her sin with the golden calf at Mount Sinai. He appealed on this occasion to the very words the Lord had used in revealing himself to Moses on that occasion. We might well wonder why Moses should now include the part about the Lord not leaving the guilty unpunished. In the present context Moses did not want to seem to be denying God’s just judgment, but his appeal is to his mercy and forgiveness.

One consequence of the Lord’s relenting, of course, is that the children of this generation were spared to enter the Promised Land in due course. Through Moses’ intercession lives were spared: if not finally the lives of the adults, at least the lives of the rising generation. [Duguid, 173]

The Canaanites were close enough to pose a danger and would certainly feel threatened by such a large company suddenly appearing nearby. An attack was predictable, so Israel must move away. And they are to move in such a direction so as to appear to be turning round and heading back to Egypt, just as they had proposed themselves, though not all the way to Egypt.

Israel had said in their complaint against the Lord “If only we had died in this desert!” Four times in vv. 29-35 we read that their bodies will fall in the desert. They will not die by the sword but by the ordinary processes of aging as Yahweh keeps them in the desert until they are all dead. The point is that what they have asked for is what they will receive. Be careful what you wish for, you might get it!

The twenty years was the minimum age for service as a soldier and Israel had refused to fight. [Milgrom, 114]

They were unwilling to venture into the land, they proposed to forsake it for Egypt, so they will get their wish and never enter it. In every way their punishment was made to fit their crime.

The principle of “measure for measure” is found all through this material. Israel gets what she asked for point by point – though in a completely different form than she imagined – and now for a length of time commensurate with the time the scouts took in the Promised Land. That will be the time Israel lives outside of the good land.

In confirmation of this judgment the ten spies who had demoralized the people were immediately struck with a plague and died.

Braced by the death of the ten spies and Yahweh’s judgment as Moses reported it to them, the people – still not appreciating what they had done – presume that a simple acknowledgement of their mistake would be sufficient. [Wenham, 123] But the fact is God had commanded them to turn round (v. 25) and so their attack into the Promised Land was another direct act of disobedience.

Hormah is on the southern boundary of Canaan (Josh. 15:30). The people simply do not take seriously God, his word, or the spokesman through whom that word was delivered.

As we said last time, this is much more than a single, isolated episode in Israel’s spiritual history. It is an event that reverberates throughout the Bible (Wenham, 124), appearing in Deuteronomy, the Psalms, the prophets, and on several occasions in the New Testament. It represents a turning point in the nation’s history and, for that reason, underlies a message often repeated in the Bible. Looking back to this history the author of Hebrews writes:

“See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. … We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first. Who were they who heard and rebelled? Were they not all those Moses led out of Egypt? And with whom was he angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the desert? And to whom did God swear that they would never enter his rest if not to those who disobeyed? Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it.”

Again, as last time, we are reminded that this history, narrated in these two chapters in Numbers, is the Bible’s principal illustration of unbelief in the church. And I use that term “church” advisedly. It was Stephen, in his defense before the Sanhedrin, reported in Acts 7, who speaks of the church in the wilderness (7:38) and Stephen also highlights the unbelief of that church. Dispensationalists, you remember, had to maintain that the church did not exist in the ancient epoch; this community of which we are a part is a new body, a new institution that did not exist before the incarnation and will not exist after the rapture. But it appears that Stephen was not a dispensationalist. He used the ordinary word for church to describe the unbelieving people of God in the wilderness.

Now, we have in this material in chapter 14 a further anatomy of this phenomenon of unbelieving Christianity, what ought to be an oxymoron but alas is not. And given the importance of the issue, it is well that we seek to understand the phenomenon as well as we can. The church is supposed to be the place of salvation and safety, but it can become and has often become the reverse: a place where souls die and where the deadly virus of unbelief is even more effectively spread to others. What can we say about this?

  1. Well, first we can say that this unbelief in the church is worse than the ordinary, simple unbelief of the world because the lack of true and living faith is masked by the appearance of spiritual life. It is, therefore, deceptive in a way that naked unbelief in a world is not and so it has the power to undermine the faith of members of the church in a way that unbelief outside of the church never can.

This is what makes this unbelief so pernicious and why the Bible is warning us against it at every turn. Unbelief can do so much more damage in the church than it can do in the world because in the church it can be disguised. It can beguile. It can appear as an angel of light. Israel in the wilderness was certainly not a community of atheists; it was not even yet a community of polytheists, though that would come. We read in v. 3 that it occurred to these people in their despair over the report of the ten scouts to ask “Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword?” They were still reckoning with Yahweh; still accepting that he had brought them to the borders of the Promised Land. We might well have thought, surely we should think, “If these people had the sense to say that the Lord had brought them to this land, why would they not realize that the Lord would give them the land no matter the impressive military obstacles in their way?” By invoking the name of Yahweh they were as much as reminding themselves of the ten plagues by which the Lord had delivered them from their slavery in Egypt, the parted waters of the Yam Suph, water from the rock, the manna and the quail, the thunder and lightning at Mt. Sinai, and the pillar of fire. After all that had happened, seen and experienced how could a people invoke Yahweh’s name and yet have no confidence in the power of that name? It seems bizarre to us.

And it is not simply that churchly unbelief is masked by adherence to certain articles of faith. There are also laws such people presume to keep among the others that they do not and will not. So they not only believe things real believers believe, they do things that real believers do. These folk who turned away at Kadesh still worshipped at the sanctuary and still observed the Sabbath. There is a kind of churchly activity that likewise masks a fundamental spirit of unbelief.

In this case they sent an army into Canaan. It was not what they were supposed to do when they did it but it was what they had been told to do previously. They knew it was what the Lord had expected them to do. They did it at the wrong time and in the wrong way, but the difference wasn’t apparent to them. They were still invading the Promised Land and that was the whole point wasn’t it? But despite many similarities, there is a great deal of difference between the activity of a spurious faith, a faith that doesn’t really get it, and true and living submission to and confidence in the Lord, his presence, power, and promise. These people presumed; they did not believe. They did their will, not Yahweh’s. And they found themselves in Canaan without the Lord and, left to their own devices, they were mauled. Nevertheless, they did certain things precisely because of their relationship with Yahweh, broken as it was.

What is more, these unbelieving Israelites even felt some things that real believers feel. When they heard the Lord’s judgment pronounced against them and when they saw the ten scouts die we read that they mourned bitterly. They even felt driven to confess their sin! They weren’t, of course, truly repentant; there was no change in their posture toward God. They were sorry for the consequences of their sin, not for the sin itself. But there is something so real, so right about the Christian faith that a great many people circle its periphery precisely because they sniff its reality and are drawn to the glory of its truth. They feel its authenticity. Why does an unbeliever go to seminary and enter the ministry? That is something that has often puzzled real Christians. We think: if you don’t really believe the Bible, why be a student of it and why devote your life to being a pastor and a preacher? But the answer, I think, lies here in vv. 39-40. There is a partial belief, a partial acceptance, a partial recognition of reality that is powerful enough even in its partiality to shape a person’s life.

Throughout the history of the church this phenomenon of churchly unbelief has appeared and reappeared. It is born in some real semblance of belief and continues in some real appearance of belief and does its deadly work in the congregation precisely because it looks so much like the real thing it is not recognized for what it actually is until it is too late.

  1. Second, we can say this about churchly unbelief: it never prospers, it may die slowly, but it always dies. It has no principle of life and so cannot sustain itself through the generations.

What is explicitly pointed out in our text is that, when in v. 20 the Lord told Moses after his intercession for the people that he had forgiven them, the Lord meant only that he had stayed the immediate punishment that he had threatened. He would not destroy the people then and there. But he had not restored them to true and living fellowship with himself. That is not what he meant by saying he had forgiven them. They remained after this pardon a wicked community as we read in vv. 27 and 35. They had no more faith after the Lord’s pardon than they did before. They would, we read in v. 34 “suffer for their sins” and know what it is like to have the Lord against them. And so it would be. Israel remained in the wilderness for forty years, actually some 38 plus years after her rebellion at Kadesh. They spun their wheels. They went nowhere in particular. And through those years the generation of Israelites responsible for the rebellion died out. The people got older and died.

It is intended to be a perfect picture of what happens in such communities of unbelieving Christians. The churches die. The Christian families die. All over Europe you see the evidence of once living congregations of Christians that have now completely disappeared. And you are seeing that more and more in our land. We know what to expect of such denominations and churches. They grow smaller and older year by year until they can no longer pay the light bill and must sell the building to the hospital next door.

One of the greatest challenges facing mission churches in our day is the immense cost of land and church buildings. Now that we are planting churches more regularly in the Pacific Northwest Presbytery we have wondered: how will these mission churches ever be able to afford to buy sufficient land in Seattle or Redmond or Kirkland upon which to build a house of worship? Ah, but all is not lost. There are empty church buildings coming available here and there; perhaps one of those can be bought. And in virtually every case the church building now or soon to be for sale once housed a congregation of unbelieving Christians who were dying out in the wilderness for want of true and living faith in God.

The Lord can be against a people and they still continue as a church for years, even for a generation or two, but they get smaller and smaller and eventually there is nothing left. But given their unbelief, the lack of any true spiritual understanding and commitment, such people do not usually ask why they are dying. They never draw the connection between their own unbelief and the judgment of the Lord. Unbelief being what it is, I don’t suppose that over the coming thirty-eight years that Israel wandered in the wilderness the Israelites who had been condemned to die in the desert were ever found carefully, humbly counting down the number of survivors left from the disaster at Kadesh, remembering and taking to heart funeral after funeral the consequence of their unbelief. These people, in fact, as we will read later in this same book, would be quite prepared to commit other sins of unbelief against the Lord.

Which brings us to the third thing we can say about this phenomenon of churchly unbelief.

  1. The greatest danger of unbelief in the church is its power to harden the heart against the possibility of conviction of sin, faith, and repentance.

What is most frightening about Israel’s experience in the wilderness is that they never got it. They never wised up. They never learned their lesson. They never really repented and they never really believed. After all they suffered, after all they lost, they were at the end as spiritually dull and stupid and sermon-proof and sickness-proof as ever.

And this bizarre phenomenon has occurred through the ages. Individual churches and entire denominations invoke the divine name, offer him worship on the Lord’s Day, presume by various ways and means to further his kingdom in the world, and yet they openly disagree with much of what he has revealed in his Word – that same Bible they read in their services and in which they propose to find the parts of the faith they agree with –, they openly disobey some of his laws, and all the while they seem utterly unconcerned that in their unbelief and their disobedience they are parting company with not only the teaching of Holy Scripture but the long tradition of Christian faith in the world. How is this not the same contempt for Yahweh that Israel displayed at Kadesh? Any why can they not see that?

It is worse than that. The Bible is, of course, filled with this phenomenon of churchly unbelief. If these people had any insight at all, they could without much difficulty see themselves in Israel in the wilderness, in Israel during the days of the prophets, in Judaism during the time of the ministry of the Lord Jesus, but they don’t see themselves there and take no warning. The most obvious of lessons is completely missed. This is something that has always troubled me about the Roman Catholic Church more than almost anything else. Some of their doctrines and practices so nearly resemble those of Israel in her unbelief and of Judaism in its unbelief but not only is the connection never made, there seems to be virtually no concern to consider the possibility. Roman Catholics who later became evangelicals will tell you that in all their lives they never once heard a sermon warning them outright that the saddest way to hell is that way that passes down the aisle of a Christian church, right past a Christian pulpit, and that Holy Scripture warns us that great multitudes have taken that very way to damnation. No one ever urged them to examine themselves to see if they are in the faith, which Paul told his church members to do. There is a blasé unconcern that almost defies explanation among a people who purport to take the Bible seriously.

But this is hardly a phenomenon unique to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. Multitudes sit all their lives in Protestant churches – I would have said liberal Protestant churches, but now it appears that the same thing may be said about an increasing number of so-called evangelical Protestant churches – I say, multitudes sit all their lives in Protestant churches and are never once seriously warned to consider the possibility that Israel in the wilderness might be a picture of their own lives. That is, it might be true of them as well that while they look like believers in some outward ways, they speak and act like believers in a certain fashion, but the Lord would say of them what he said of Israel, “How long will they refuse to believe in me?”

Now, of course, this is all evidence for the Bible’s doctrine that true and living faith in Jesus Christ is entirely unnatural. It is, in fact, the gift of God and requires the working of God in the heart, the mind, and the will. Human beings will not believe, not matter how much evidence is placed before them – miracles included – unless, as Jesus said, the Father in heaven draws them to him. There is no spiritual life, no true faith in Christ that is not the immediate effect of God’s grace and power. All of that is true without doubt. But from the human point of view what this means is what we see here. Unbelief among church-goers may well mimic faith to a certain degree; it may speak and act like it in certain ways, but the special characteristic of churchly unbelief is that it will very rarely become true faith and certainly not by the power of evidence alone. It is this fact that explains the world in which you and I live as surely as it explains Israel in the wilderness and the ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ. The unbelieving heart – especially in the church – becomes and remains impervious to the obvious, inflexible in its ignorance, determined in its unwillingness to question its own motives. Only the Spirit of God can overcome such hardness of heart and here is the point: he usually does not do so. The ordinary rule in the kingdom of God is: whatsoever a man sows, that he shall also reap. And here at Kadesh the Lord said, “I have heard their grumbling ten times.” Nothing has changed and nothing will!

Now, I say again what I said at the outset: the reason this episode looms so large in the spiritual exhortation of the Bible is that what happened at Kadesh has happened over and over again in the history of the church and happens today. The people of the church express their disbelief in God in one way or another and he turns away from them, leaves them to themselves to wither and die. Again and again we are warned not to allow the same thing to happen to us. Remember, both Paul and the author of the Letter to the Hebrews unmistakably and emphatically remind us that what this generation of Israelites failed to enter was not only Canaan, but heaven of which Canaan was the sign and seal. More, much more, is at stake here than the course of our lives in this world.

So what are we to do with this? How are we to take this warning to heart? Well, to be sure, we are all our lives to be very careful that we never, ever find ourselves refusing to believe what Holy Scripture tells us is true or refusing to obey what God commands us to do in his Holy Word. We are to watch ourselves lest any spirit of rebellion or refusal take root in our hearts. What did the Lord say? He said, as we read in v. 23, that those Israelites who refused to take seriously his promise to give them the land of Canaan and to act on that promise had “treated him with contempt.” We are to take those shuddering words to heart and be very careful never to find ourselves among those who treat the Lord with contempt.

But, there is a more positive way to apply the lesson. The great Presbyterian preacher of several generations back, Clarence Macartney, once reminisced about a conversation he had had with the Presbyterian layman, nationally famous orator, three-time Democratic presidential candidate, and later secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson, William Jennings Bryan. They were traveling in a car through Chicago and happened to pass the coliseum where Bryan had delivered the famous “Cross of Gold” speech that had thrust him into the limelight of national politics. Macartney later recalled:

“I said to him, ‘Mr. Bryan, I suppose many times before you had made just as able a speech as that, and it was never heard of?’ ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I suppose that was true. But that Convention was my opportunity and I made the most of it.’ Then he was silent….After a moment, he broke the silence with these words: ‘And that’s about all we do in this world – lose or use our opportunity.’” [Cited in Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy, 124]

Well that is true and supremely so in the life of faith. You have opportunities every day to believe in the Lord and to act on that faith and there is nothing so certain to preserve and to strengthen your faith than simply to use those opportunities. Israel never used her opportunities to believe and to act on her belief. The best way to ensure that you never suffer her fate, the best way for us to ensure that as a congregation we never suffer Israel’s fate at Kadesh to have the Lord turn his back and for us to wither and die as a result is simply day after day to use our opportunities to believe. Not a part or piece of your life is not addressed by some promise or another that the Lord has made to you. Believe him and act on that belief. Use one opportunity after another and I assure you that after making a great deal of your life in the wilderness of this world – much more than most people make of their lives, even most Christians alas – I guarantee you after making so much of your life here you will someday set your feet squarely in the Promised Land. And that, after all, is what finally matters!