Numbers 14 – The People Reject Canaan
A. The rebellion of Israel at Kadesh Barnea.
1. (1) Israel’s sorrow at facing the choice between faith and unbelief.
So all the congregation lifted up their voices and cried, and the people wept that night.
a. So all the congregation lifted up their voices and cried: The tribes of Israel were confronted with two reports regarding the Promised Land. Two of the twelve spies (Caleb and Joshua) said, Let us go up at once and take possession, for we are well able to overcome it (Numbers 13:30). The message of the other ten spies was, “What God promised about the land is true; nevertheless, the natives of the land are too mighty, and we cannot overcome them, despite what God has promised” (as in Numbers 13:31-33).
i. The twelve spies were sent as representatives of the twelve tribes (Numbers 13:2). In this way, they truly represented the people of Israel. The lack of faith of most of the spies represented a lack of faith among most of Israel.
ii. They wept because all of Canaan seemed like a strong, unconquerable fortress. They completely forgot that God defeated Egypt to free them from their slavery, a nation far mightier than the Canaanites.
iii. In this section the idea of all the people is often repeated:
· All the congregation (Numbers 14:1).
· All the children of Israel (Numbers 14:2).
· The whole congregation (Numbers 14:2).
· All the congregation (Numbers 14:7).
· All the congregation (Numbers 14:10).
· All the children of Israel (Numbers 14:10).
Those who refused to trust God and His promise were not a minority or even a slight majority. Unbelief spread among God’s people like an epidemic, infecting virtually all of Israel. This was crowd psychology working in an evil, destructive way.
iv. “Terror is more contagious than courage, for a mob is always more prone to base than to noble instincts.” (Maclaren)
b. And the people wept that night: The unbelief of the ten spies accurately represented the unbelieving heart of the nation. Israel wept that night when they heard that the enemies in Canaan were strong. Their tearful grief had at least four distinct aspects.
i. They mourned because God would not make it all “easy.” We often expect this of God and therefore we often resent adversity. This is to forget the example of Jesus, who faced great difficulty in life and ministry. We may forget that we, as disciples, are not above Jesus our Master.
ii. They mourned with resentment against God, putting the blame on Him. In doing this, they denied that the LORD is a loving Father who cares for His children.
iii. They mourned and gave in to the feeling of unbelief and fear. This sorrow allowed their feelings to overwhelm their thinking and actions, instead of being directed by a thinking faith in the living God. This was a sinful and unbelieving trust in the feelings of fear and sorrow.
iv. They mourned over a loss. We often mourn because something has died. They felt the promise of Canaan had died, becoming impossible. Instead, God wanted them to “die” to their unbelief and their trust in self.
c. And the people wept that night: As God invited Israel to take the land of Canaan, they rebelled against Him through their mourning. Unbelief made them think that God’s good for them (the gift of the Promised Land) was an evil thing.
i. This shows the great tragedy of unbelief. Less than two years out of Egypt, Israel here stood on the threshold of the Promised Land. Over the first ten chapters of Numbers Israel was fully prepared to live and go forward as people suited for God’s Promised Land. They had been ordered and organized; cleansed and purified; set apart and blessed; taught how to give and how to function as priests. In that period, Israel was made to remember judgment spared and deliverance brought; they were given God’s presence as a guide, and the tools needed to lead the people. Yet, unbelief prevented this otherwise prepared people from receiving God’s promises.
2. (2-3a) Israel rebels by murmuring.
And all the children of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron, and the whole congregation said to them, “If only we had died in the land of Egypt! Or if only we had died in this wilderness! Why has the LORD brought us to this land to fall by the sword, that our wives and children should become victims?”
a. All the children of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron: Their murmuring was directed first against Moses and Aaron, but since these were the LORD’s leaders, they really murmured against the LORD. Here, the goal of Moses and Aaron (to lead Israel to the Promised Land) was the LORD’s goal. Their complaint was against the LORD, even if they wanted to hide this by directing the complaint against Moses and Aaron.
i. There were probably some among Israel who claimed to truly trust God, and claimed their problem was with Moses and Aaron, not with God. Yet, since Moses and Aaron were properly directed towards God’s goal for Israel, on this point to complain against them was to complain against God.
ii. Joshua and Caleb understood this was rebellion against Yahweh: Only do not rebel against the LORD (Numbers 14:9). The LORD Himself understood this was a rebellion against Him: How long will these people reject Me? (Numbers 14:11)
b. If only we had died: The challenge of faith before the people seemed so great – and so dreadful – that they would rather have diedthan go on with what the LORD planned for them.
i. “Often in a state of rebellion against God, one loses the benefit of spiritual mooring, whereby wisdom and discernment become elusive and proper decision making is made extremely difficult. Worry and fear dominate one’s thought patterns.” (Cole)
ii. Tragically for this generation of Israelites, God would give them what their rebellious, unbelieving hearts wanted. They would die in the desert, never making it to the Promised Land.
c. Why has the LORD brought us to this land to fall by the sword: Here, they directly accused the Almighty of sin and of doing evil to them. They were angry with God, accusing Him of plotting to murder them and their wives and children.
i. This was a deep state of rebellion. God, who can do no evil, and with Whom there is no shadow of turning, was called evil and a murderer by His own people.
ii. Later, God would comment on these events in Psalm 95. God described this as the rebellion (Psalm 95:8), as when Israel tested and tried God, despite seeing His mighty works (Psalm 95:9). The writer of Hebrews used these events to solemnly warn against unbelief (Hebrews 3:7-13, Hebrews 3:16-19).
iii. According to the advice that some give, it is a healthy thing to be angry with God, to express your anger against God, so that God and you can be reconciled. While it is true that one may be angry with God, and true that one should take every such feeling to God, it is wrong to ever assume or imply that such feelings are justified. If we are angry at God, we are in sin, because God has never done anything that deserves our anger with Him. We should honestly bring such sin before God, but never for a moment feel it to be justified.
d. That our wives and children should become victims: The unbelieving among Israel justified their unbelief based on concern for their wives and children. Tragically, because of their unbelief, they would die in the wilderness and their children – a new generation of faith – would inherit the Promised Land.
i. “Only their children—whom they claimed outrageously that God desired dead—would be able to enter the land.” (Allen)
ii. “So, my brethren, let us strip our discouragements and murmurings of all their disguises, and see them in their true character, and they will appear in their own naked deformity as discrediting God. It is true the difficulty before us may appear great, but it cannot be great to the Lord, who has promised to make us more than conquerors.” (Spurgeon)
3. (3b-4) Israel rebels by longing to return to Egypt.
Would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?” So they said to one another, “Let us select a leader and return to Egypt.”
a. Would it not be better for us to return to Egypt? This was not better. In the first ten chapters of Numbers, God led Israel through a process intended to transform them from a slave-minded people to those suited for His Promised-Land. Here, they completely revert to what could be called a slave mentality. They professed to prefer their Egyptian slavery over the walk of faith God intended.
i. Israel rejected a life of faith. If God intended to lead them into a deeper trust than before, they wanted no part of it. If God gave them the Promised Land without having to receive it by faith and faith-filled actions, that was fine with Israel – but they did not want a walk of faith.
ii. We often think that the experience of the miraculous builds faith, but it rarely does. In the two years previous to Numbers 14 the people of Israel experienced countless dramatic miracles, including the daily miracles of manna and God’s presence in the pillars of fire and cloud. Yet when it came to trusting God’s promise in a critical moment, they failed.
iii. Certainly, the unbelieving in Israel would claim that they did believe God for many things. They believed His presence would be with them in the pillars of cloud and fire. They believed He would provide manna daily. They believed that He would provide water as needed. At many points they did believe, but not here, at this most critical point, at the need of the moment. We have a way of believing everything good about God except at the particular point where we are being challenged.
iv. When we distrust and doubt God, we should ask which attribute of His we think will fail. Do we think God has lost His power? His goodness? His honesty? His faithfulness? His love?
b. Let us select a leader and return to Egypt: This was pure rebellion. They said that they did not want God’s plan, they did not want God’s leaders, and they did not want God’s land. Here, Israel believed that they knew better than God.
i. “This time they actually propose returning to Egypt, thereby completely rejecting the whole plan of redemption.” (Wenham)
ii. Their rebellion was man-centered. They said to one another, means that the decision was made among themselves, believing their majority vote had more wisdom than God. Let us select, means that they didn’t like God’s selection, so they wanted a leader who would truly represent them – including representing their rebellion against God.
4. (5-9) The reaction of Moses, Aaron, Joshua, and Caleb to the rebellion of the people.
Then Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before all the assembly of the congregation of the children of Israel.
But 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 they spoke to all the congregation of the children of Israel, saying: “The land we passed through to spy out is an exceedingly good land. If the LORD delights in us, then He will bring us into this land and give it to us, ‘a land which flows with milk and honey.’ Only do not rebel against the LORD, nor fear the people of the land, for they are our bread; their protection has departed from them, and the LORD is with us. Do not fear them.”
a. Then Moses and Aaron fell on their faces: Moses and Aaron were older and wiser and therefore knew how bad the situation was. They simply bowed down in prayer, not saying a word to the people (perhaps sensing it would do no good). They knew that they must cry out to God for a miracle if Israel was to be spared.
i. “No wonder Moses and Aaron fell on their faces, not to plead for their lives, but to express their awe at the sacrilegious blasphemy of the people. To fall on one’s face is the Old Testament’s ultimate mark of religious worship and awe (Genesis 17:3; Leviticus 9:24). But in Numbers it usually anticipates some great act of judgment (cf. Numbers 16:4, 22, 45; Numbers 20:6).” (Wenham)
b. But Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephunneh: Joshua and Caleb, the two faithful spies, were younger and more optimistic, so they attempted to persuade the people.
i. Joshua and Caleb showed how serious the situation was when they tore their clothes, demonstrating deep grief and mourning. They acted as if someone had died – or was about to die.
ii. Joshua and Caleb reminded the people that the land…is an exceedingly good land. The LORD promised that Canaan would be good, and it was – Joshua and Caleb saw it with their own eyes. If God promised Israel could take possession of the land, they could also trust that promise.
iii. When the people of God looked at the enormous clusters of grapes (Numbers 13:23, 26-27), a few said: “These huge grapes show us what a good land God has promised us. God said the land would be good, and it is.” Most of them said, “Giant grapes mean there must be giant people in the land, people too mighty for us to overcome.”
iv. “These men saw all the others saw, and more. They had clear apprehension of the goodness of the land; they were by no means blind to the formidable nature of the difficulties that stood between them and that possession. But they saw God. They started with that vision, and saw everything else in its light.” (Morgan)
v. They are our bread: “We shall destroy them as easily as we do our bread or common food.” (Poole)
vi. Their protection has departed: “The word translated ‘protection’ is sel often rendered ‘shadow’ or ‘shade.’ In the hot and arid regions of the Middle East, the notion of a shadow or shade is a symbol of grace and mercy, a relief from the searing heat (cf. Psalm 91:1).” (Allen)
vii. Joshua and Caleb warned the people, saying only do not rebel against the LORD, nor fear the people…the LORD is with us. Their fear and unbelief were willful rebellion. Therefore, Joshua and Caleb appealed to the will of the people, asking them to decide to give up their rebellion and return to the LORD. Israel did not have to give in to their feelings of fear, of anger against the LORD, of unbelief. By God’s grace they could choose to submit to Him and trust Him.
5. (10) Two responses to the appeal of Joshua and Caleb.
And all the congregation said to stone them with stones. Now the glory of the LORD appeared in the tabernacle of meeting before all the children of Israel.
a. All the congregation said to stone them with stones: This was the response of the people. Rebellious, unbelieving men cannot endure the men of faith, who come with the challenge of faith. They wanted to kill Joshua and Caleb for calling them to forsake their unbelief and to trust God.
i. Those who live in rebellion and unbelief often find those who live in faith and submission to God to be aggravating and disturbing. This is especially true if those who live in faith try to correct or guide the rebellious and unbelieving.
b. The glory of the LORD appeared: This was the response of the LORD. Numbers 14:10 does not yet say what the glory of the LORD would do, but it isn’t hard to understand. The actions and feelings of the ten unbelieving spies and the great majority of Israel were not consistent with the glory of the LORD.
· It was not consistent with the glory of the LORD to be unbelieving.
· It was not consistent with the glory of the LORD to mourn because the walk of faith was difficult.
· It was not consistent with the glory of the LORD to long for death.
· It was not consistent with the glory of the LORD to accuse God of plotting murder.
· It was not consistent with the glory of the LORD to desire to go back to the slavery of Egypt.
· It was not consistent with the glory of the LORD to reject God’s leaders.
· It was not consistent with the glory of the LORD to threaten to kill those who called them to a deeper trust in God.
B. Moses’ remarkable intercession for the children of Israel.
1. (11-12) God’s charge against Israel and offer to Moses.
Then the LORD said to Moses: “How long will these people reject Me? And how long will they not believe Me, with all the signs which I have performed 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.”
a. The LORD said to Moses: Here, God did not speak to Israel as a nation. God knew they were past hearing Him. The LORD spoke to Moses directly.
i. Many a child of God in rebellion wonders why they do not hear the voice of God anymore, why God does not speak to them in the Bible as before. Yet, when we reject what God has already said, we often close our ears to what He may continue to speak to us through the Bible.
b. How long will these people reject Me? God had been only good to Israel and had demonstrated His loving strength towards them countless times. Israel’s rejection of God made no sense. It was right for God to ask, “how long?”
c. I will strike them…and disinherit them: In this, God said He would give rebellious Israel what they deserved: judgment. The judgment would be what they said they wanted in Numbers 14:2 – to die in the wilderness.
d. I will make of you a nation greater and mightier: This was an astonishing offer God made to Moses. God offered to fulfill His promises of a land, a nation, and a blessing to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob through Moses, and not through the twelve tribes of Israel as a whole.
i. This was an impressive proposal for Moses. God offered Him the status of “patriarch,” to become a father for Israel in the same way Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were. Moses certainly knew of their greatness and fame; God used Moses to compile their stories in the book of Genesis.
ii. We must regard this as a genuine proposal from God; the LORD does not speak make-believe words. If Moses were to do nothing, this plan of God would go into effect. The presently constituted people of Israel would perish, and God would make a new people of Israel descended from Moses. God even promised Moses that this new nation would be greater and mightier than the present one.
iii. About a year before this, God made a similar offer to Moses, proposing to make a “great nation” of him after God judged Israel as it was at the time (Exodus 32:9-10).
2. (13-16) Moses intercedes for Israel, appealing to God’s glory.
And Moses said to the LORD: “Then the Egyptians will hear it, for by Your might You brought these people up from among them, and they will tell it to the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that You, LORD, are among these people; that You, LORD, are seen face to face and Your cloud stands above 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 these people as one man, then the nations which have heard of Your fame will speak, saying, ‘Because the LORD was not able to bring this people to the land which He swore to give them, therefore He killed them in the wilderness.’”
a. And Moses said to the LORD: It seems that Moses did not consider God’s proposal for a moment. Instead, Moses pleaded for the nation and loved them despite their rebellion.
i. Adam Clarke wrote that the words of Moses’ prayer “are full of simplicity and energy; his arguments with God (for he did reason and argue with his Maker) are pointed, cogent, and respectful; and while they show a heart full of humanity, they evidence the deepest concern for the glory of God.”
b. Then the Egyptians will hear it, for by Your might You brought these people up from among them: Moses asked God to spare the present nation of Israel for His own glory and reputation. Moses knew that if God struck and disinherited the present nation and started again with Moses (Numbers 14:12), it would be a mark against His reputation before the nations – especially Egypt.
i. Perhaps then the nations could claim that the LORD was not able to bring this people to the land. The pagan nations could say that the sin and rebellion of man were greater than the power and goodness of God.
ii. “Here God offered Moses a private fortune, which he prudently refuseth, because God should be a loser by it.” (Trapp)
c. Which He swore to give them: Moses brought God’s promise before Him. He begged God to not give the pagan nations any opportunity to think God had not been true to His word.
3. (17-19) Moses intercedes for Israel, appealing to God’s power and promise.
“And now, I pray, let the power of my LORD be great, just as You have spoken, saying, ‘The LORD is longsuffering and abundant in mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression; but He by no means clears the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation.’ Pardon the iniquity of this people, I pray, according to the greatness of Your mercy, just as You have forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now.”
a. Let the power of my LORD be great: Moses glories in the power of God but asks that God would use His power by showing mercy and longsuffering to a rebellious Israel.
b. Just as You have spoken: The list of Numbers 14:18-19 is almost a quote from the words of self-revelation God spoke to Moses in the dramatic encounter Moses had with God in Exodus 34:6-8.
i. Longsuffering and abundant in mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression; but He by no means clears the guilty: Each of these is mentioned first in Exodus 34:6-8.
ii. Moses basically said: “LORD, You have revealed Yourself to me by Your word. Your word declares who You are. Now LORD, please act towards Israel according to who You have declared Yourself to be in Your word.”
c. Pardon the iniquity of this people, I pray, according to the greatness of Your mercy: Moses knew God’s power and appealed to it; Moses knew God’s promise and appealed to it, and Moses knew God’s glory and appealed to it. This was a spectacular example of intercession.
i. What made this intercession spectacular was not primarily the method Moses used (appealing to God’s glory, power, and promise) but the heart of Moses in prayer. Here, Moses was totally others-centered, not concerned for his own glory, but only for Israel. He displayed that he shared the heart of God towards His people, and that was what made the intercession of Moses spectacular.
ii. “Moses here may be taken as a dim shadow of Christ. ‘Moses was faithful in all his house,’ but Jesus is the true Mediator, whose intercession consists in presenting the constant efficacy of His sacrifice, and to whom God ever says, ‘I have pardoned according to Thy word.’” (Maclaren)
C. The fate of Israel after the rebellion at Kadesh Barnea.
1. (20) God’s promise of pardon in response to Moses’ intercession.
Then the LORD said: “I have pardoned, according to your word;
a. I have pardoned: The heart of Moses and his method of intercession were successful. These are sweet words for any sinner to hear.
b. According to your word: This means that Moses’ prayer mattered. Some people may wonder if prayer is an elaborate game, where God threatens to do a thing He would never do anyway, believers respond with prayer, pretending to believe God would do what He threatened. Then, when God hears the believer pray, He forgets His idle threat and does what He was going to do anyway. Prayer does not work that way.
i. We don’t understand the relationship between the eternal, sovereign plan of God and our prayers; but we know it is no game. God never wanted Moses to think of it as a game and wanted Moses to at least think that his prayers had directly affected the outcome: I have pardoned, according to your word! We should pray as if life and death, heaven and hell, would be decided by our prayers!
2. (21-25) The fate of the rebels and the fate of the faithful.
“But truly, as I live, all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD; because all these men who have seen My glory and the signs which I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and have put Me to the test now these ten times, and have not heeded My voice, they certainly shall not see the land of which I swore to their fathers, nor shall any of those who rejected Me see it. But My servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit in him and has followed Me fully, I will bring into the land where he went, and his descendants shall inherit it. Now the Amalekites and the Canaanites dwell in the valley; tomorrow turn and move out into the wilderness by the Way of the Red Sea.”
a. But truly, as I live, all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD: God’s response to Israel would be full of, and be reflective of, His glory. He would show mercy and pardon, but in a way consistent with His glory.
i. “The people who have behaved so intolerably will not be put to death, but neither can things go back to the way they were on the day before the rebellion. The words of God in Numbers 14:21 are forceful and direct; as surely as he lives, as surely as his glory fills the earth, there is a sentence to be paid.” (Allen)
ii. Put Me to the test now these ten times: “God spoke of the Israelites testing him ‘these ten times,’ an expression that denotes consistent action over a long period of time. Though the Babylonian Talmud delineated ten specific occasions of Israelite sedition, the number probably was used figuratively and in contrast to the ten plagues that God brought against the Egyptians.” (Cole)
b. They certainly shall not see the land of which I swore to their fathers, nor shall any of those who rejected Me see it: Therefore, those who put God to the test and rebelled against His promise, would not see the Promised Land. An exception was made for the few faithful like Caleb and Joshua.
c. My servant Caleb…he has a different spirit in him…[he] has followed Me fully…I will bring into the land: God praised Caleb, who (together with Joshua) stood on the side of faith while almost all of Israel did not believe in God’s promise or goodness.
i. Caleb was God’s servant, an honored title. When all of Israel went in one direction, Caleb had a different spirit in him and remained faithful to the LORD.
ii. Has followed Me fully: According to Clarke and others, the literal sense of this Hebrew phrase is he filled after Me. Caleb was complete, full, in his following of the LORD, leaving nothing out.
iii. Caleb received a great and appropriate reward. “Caleb would be granted a tract of land within the tribal allocation for the Judahites, in the region of Hebron, the town mentioned explicitly in the text as the abode of the giant Anakites and the area near where the enormous cluster of grapes was procured.” (Cole)
d. Tomorrow turn and move out into the wilderness: God had brought them to the threshold of the Promised Land, but they rebelled against Him and did not enter – so God will send them back to the wilderness.
i. Israel has demonstrated they were still slave-minded; they did not think like people suited for God’s Promised Land. It will take more wilderness training until the new generation became a people ready to live in the Promised Land.
ii. “Far greater hardships and pains are met on the road of departure from God, than any which befall His servants. To follow Him involves a conflict, but to shirk the battle does not bring immunity from strife.” (Maclaren)
3. (26-35) The death sentence upon the rebels.
And the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, “How long shall I bear with this evil congregation who complain against Me? I have heard the complaints which the children of Israel make against Me. Say to them, ‘As I live,’ says the LORD, ‘just as you have spoken in My hearing, so I will do to you: The carcasses of you who have complained against Me shall fall in this wilderness, all of you who were numbered, according to your entire number, from twenty years old and above. Except for Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun, you shall by no means enter the land which I swore I would make you dwell in. But your little ones, whom you said would be victims, I will bring in, and they shall know the land which you have despised. But as for you, your carcasses shall fall in this wilderness. And your sons shall be shepherds in the wilderness forty years, and bear the brunt of your infidelity, until your carcasses are consumed in the wilderness. According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, for each day you shall bear your guilt one year, namely forty years, and you shall know My rejection. I the LORD have spoken this; I will surely do so to all this evil congregation who are gathered together against Me. In this wilderness they shall be consumed, and there they shall die.’”
a. All of you who were numbered…from twenty years old and above: God gave the message to the nation – this generation must die in the wilderness and would never see the Promised Land. It was as if God said to them, “You didn’t want it when it was offered to you, so now you will never have it.”
i. They said, If only we had died in this wilderness! (Numbers 14:2). God will now give them that desire. If they preferred death to a walk of faith, God would make that their destiny.
ii. Carcasses: “The term used here for their dissipated bodies…often is used to describe human corpses that would be scattered on the ground after a great battle.” (Cole)
b. Except for Caleb…and Joshua: These men of faith were the glorious exceptions. They would enter the land of promise because they had the hearts and minds of new men.
i. Not even Moses and Aaron were excepted. They would also not enter the Promised Land, each for their own reasons. But we remember that Moses was not guiltless in this whole tragedy, having agreed to the request of the people to send out spies instead of simply boldly taking the land by faith.
c. But your little ones: When excusing their unbelief, Israel had claimed concern for their children (Numbers 14:3), accusing God of bringing them to the wilderness to kill their wives and children. In an ironic twist, God said it would be their little ones who would inherit the land, while unbelieving adults perished in the wilderness.
i. Bear the brunt of your infidelity: The sense of infidelity is that of harlotry, and in this context, spiritual adultery – unfaithfulness to God by the allegiance to idols. We aren’t told of any obvious idols that Israel was given over to in Numbers 14. Surely, they battled against some of the idols we do today – idols of comfort, safety, and the refusal to risk anything upon God’s promise.
d. The land which you have despised: If the generation of unbelief did not trust God to give them the good land of Canaan, it was as if they despised it. The Promised Land was a land to take in faith, and the unbelieving and rebellious despised God’s good promise and the land.
e. Forty days…forty years: The spies, representing all Israel, failed in the test of 40 days. Now the nation would be tested for 40 years – and they would come from that time purified, ready to inherit the Promised Land, but only after the generation of unbelief and rebellion perished in the wilderness.
i. This failure to take God’s promise by faith was a turning point in Israel’s history, and is recalled in Numbers 32, Deuteronomy 1, Nehemiah 9, Psalm 95, Psalm 106, Amos 2, Amos 5, 1 Corinthians 10, and Hebrews 3-4.
ii. There is a spiritual analogy to make with life in Jesus under the new covenant. The old man, the man still slave-minded to sin, can never enter God’s promises. The old man must die and the believer must reckon this as done in Jesus Christ (Romans 6:6).
iii. This turning point in Israel’s history is an essential lesson for every believer as described in Psalm 95:7-11: Today, if you will hear His voice: Do not harden your hearts, as in the rebellion, as in the day of trial in the wilderness, when your fathers tested Me; they tried Me, though they saw My work. For forty years I was grieved with that generation, and said, “It is a people who go astray in their hearts, and they do not know My ways.” So I swore in My wrath, “They shall not enter My rest.”
iv. Psalm 106:24-27 adds this: Then they despised the pleasant land; they did not believe His word, but complained in their tents, and did not heed the voice of the LORD. Therefore He raised up His hand in an oath against them, to overthrow them in the wilderness, to overthrow their descendants among the nations, and to scatter them in the lands.
v. Centuries later, the leaders of Israel recognized this sinful episode in a prayer: But they and our fathers acted proudly, hardened their necks, and did not heed Your commandments. They refused to obey, and they were not mindful of Your wonders that You did among them. But they hardened their necks, and in their rebellion they appointed a leader to return to their bondage. (Nehemiah 9:16-17)
vi. Hebrews 3:7-4:16 makes it clear that God has a place of rest and promise for every believer to enter into, and it can only be entered by faith. The man of unbelief, self-reliance, and self-focus can never enter God’s rest and abundance.
4. (36-38) An immediate death sentence upon the ten unfaithful spies.
Now the men whom Moses sent to spy out the land, who returned and made all the congregation complain against him by bringing a bad report of the land, those very men who brought the evil report about the land, died by the plague before the LORD. But Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephunneh remained alive, of the men who went to spy out the land.
a. Now the men whom Moses sent to spy out the land…died by the plague before the LORD: If the death of the unbelieving generation would take some 38 years (the number of years left to make the total time of the exodus forty years), the death of the ten unfaithful spies happened immediately.
i. Those very men who brought the evil report: Adam Clarke used the judgment upon the unfaithful spies who gave the evil report as an occasion to warn unfaithful preachers who prevent people from entering into God’s eternal promises: “Let preachers of God’s word take heed how they straiten the way of salvation, or render, by unjust description, that way perplexed and difficult which God has made plain and easy.”
b. Died by the plague before the LORD: This was a strong and fearful judgment against these ten unbelieving spies. Their sin was greater than their own fear and unbelief; they influenced all of Israel to follow them in their sinful unbelief.
5. (39-40) Israel’s insincere and superficial repentance.
Then Moses told these words to all the children of Israel, and the people mourned greatly. And they rose early in the morning and went up to the top of the mountain, saying, “Here we are, and we will go up to the place which the LORD has promised, for we have sinned!”
a. The people mourned greatly: When Israel heard God’s response to their unbelief and the judgment on the ten unbelieving spies, they knew that they had made a bad, fear-filled, faith-denying choice. They mourned, knowing they would suffer 38 years of death in the wilderness because of that choice.
b. They rose early…went up to the top of the mountain…“Here we are, and we will go up…we have sinned!” Israel hoped they could undo the consequences of the terrible choice made because of fear and unbelief. Here, they did many good things.
· They were energetic (they rose up early and went up to the top of the mountain).
· They presented themselves to Moses and to God (Here we are).
· They claimed a commitment to go forward in faith (we will go up to the place which the LORD has promised).
· They offered a confession of sin (for we have sinned).
i. Yet, God did not accept these many good things and take back His solemn judgment that this generation would wander and die in the wilderness. This was an imitation of true repentance.
6. (41-43) Moses warns Israel that their superficial repentance will not grant them God’s favor.
And Moses said, “Now why do you transgress the command of the LORD? For this will not succeed. Do not go up, lest you be defeated by your enemies, for the LORD is not among you. For the Amalekites and the Canaanites are there before you, and you shall fall by the sword; because you have turned away from the LORD, the LORD will not be with you.”
a. Why do you transgress the command of the LORD? Moses saw there was something wrong with these superficial and insincere words and actions. They expressed regret for the consequences of their sinful fear and unbelief, not true repentance for the actual sins.
i. One can sense that Israel’s repentance was not a response to the conviction of the Holy Spirit. This was on their initiative, a way of attempting God’s will their way instead of God’s way.
b. This will not succeed: Moses spoke for God, warning Israel that they could not escape the consequences of their sin on the previous day. If they attempted to go into Canaan before God led them in by faith, the LORD would not be with them and they would fail. Sometimes we have a narrow window of opportunity for faith, and when the opportunity passes, it is gone.
i. “Sometimes the consequences of sin and rebellion are irreversible, and one must endure the experience of God’s judgment before a new course of action brings blessing.” (Cole)
7. (44-45) The unsuccessful attempt to conquer Canaan.
But they presumed to go up to the mountaintop; nevertheless, neither the ark of the covenant of the LORD nor Moses departed from the camp. Then the Amalekites and the Canaanites who dwelt in that mountain came down and attacked them, and drove them back as far as Hormah.
a. They presumed to go up the mountaintop: Israel hoped to conquer Canaan without God’s presence and help (neither the ark of the covenant of the LORD nor Moses departed from the camp).
i. “This short episode underlines the message of the whole spy story. Israel still does not take God seriously, or listen to Moses his appointed representative. They will not enter Canaan until they learn their lesson, and that may take a long time.” (Wenham)
b. The Canaanites who dwelt in that mountain came down and attacked them, and drove them back as far as Hormah: Their attempt to conquer Canaan in their own wisdom and strength quickly failed. They made a futile attempt in the flesh to accomplish what they had refused to accomplish by faith, and it ended in defeat.
i. Ironically, when God was with Israel, they did not think it was enough to conquer Canaan. When God was not with Israel, they thought they could conquer Canaan.
ii. “Nature, poor, fallen human nature, is ever running into extremes. This miserable people, a short time ago, thought that though they had Omnipotence with them they could not conquer and possess the land! Now they imagine that though God himself go not with them, yet they shall be sufficient to drive out the inhabitants, and take possession of their country!” (Clarke)