Wilderness Lessons: Israel Under Discipline

 •  15 min. read  •  grade level: 6
In Num. 13-15 Israel is brought to the border the promised land. Up to this point they have seen of wonderful things. The Red Sea divided for them, quails miraculously brought, manna rained down from heaven, water from the smitten rock, in short nothing but mercy and goodness marked God's dealings with them. Though they murmured, God gave them all they needed. They should know that He was Jehovah their God by His goodness. After the giving of the law when judgment necessarily came in, still mercy was the prominent feature. God prepared the way as before, led them, and gave them victory. There could be no obstacle to His power, and, if led by Him, no need for the exercise of their own prudence and wisdom.
At this point (Num. 13) they seem to think it right to judge for themselves, they would be independent of God. On former occasions it was the outbreak of nature discontented with the way and longing for the things of Egypt. Here on the border of the land there is no cry for bread or for water, but human prudence interfering with the path of faith. Prudence surely has its sphere; but when the word of God is given, human prudence and wisdom is sin. Had not God said He would drive out the Canaanites? What need to search? Moses said “Be of good courage.” Good courage would not have gone to spy out the land, but would have acted at once upon the word of God. Vain the exhortation to be courageous when there is no faith in the promise; and the sequel proved there was no good courage. “Bring of the fruit of the land.” Why? Had not God said it was good; they wanted to see for themselves—was the land as good as God said? Yea, it was marvelous; two men were required to bring back a branch with one cluster of grapes. The searchers that brought back an evil report are compelled to say, “surely it floweth with milk and honey.” But there was an insurmountable obstacle to their possessing it: they of the land were strong, the cities walled and great, and the children of Anak were there!
The evil report was not that the spies lied in saying the people were strong and the cities were great (all these would but make more manifest the power of God), but because in effect it was denying God's power and His right to give the land to whomsoever He pleased. For unbelief the land belonged to giants, and they themselves were only grasshoppers: what could they do?
We may ask, if the searching of the land was not of faith, why did God say, “Send thou men that they may search the land of Canaan?” Was He about to cease from going before them, to leave them to their own resources? Nay, God remained the same, His power and faithfulness to His own word were unchanged. Why then did God tell Moses to send spies? What was the occasion for this seeming change in His manner with them? Deut. 1:2121Behold, the Lord thy God hath set the land before thee: go up and possess it, as the Lord God of thy fathers hath said unto thee; fear not, neither be discouraged. (Deuteronomy 1:21) furnishes the answer. There we find the word of Jehovah God, “Go up and possess it,” not search it. The people say they will send men to spy out the land. This is disobedience. Moses is pleased with their proposal. Was it of faith to be pleased? Why listen to the people when God had said, “go up and possess it?” It is at least weak to encourage others in a faithless path. Nevertheless God beard their words and proves the people. Now He gives the command, “Send thou men.”
This is not the only instance where God allows man to have his way, fulfilling His own purpose all the same. In Balaam's case God first commanded him not to go to Balak. Balaam betrayed his own will in still seeking God's sanction. Then God said, Go. Yet He met him in the way and would have slain him, only that the ass saw more than the man. Willfulness sometimes appears in the people of God; hindrance of blessing is the sure result. Moses, the honored servant of God, apparently forgets both the promise and the command, yielding to the faithless people. How often saints overlook the path of faith and give way to circumstances, even to the being pleased with what is not according to the word of God!
Israel did not trust in Him who gave the promise, and they fell under the fear of man. They should have remembered that giants and walled cities were but grasshoppers before the word of God: Unbelief reverses the word, and they become the grasshoppers. Faith is powerful to the pulling down of the strong holds of sin and Satan; unbelief builds them up. In righteous judgment God allows them to be what they in unbelief said they were, “We are in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.” Even so, what a bright opportunity for the confidence of faith! And how many such like opportunities saints now lose through fear of man! A victory is brought within our reach; we fail, and the opportunity is gone forever. We fail, not in the fight, but in faith to meet the foe. So with Israel, they think not of the fruitful land flowing with milk and honey, but of the walled cities; not of the grapes of Eshcol but of the sons of Anak; not of the promise of God but of the power of the enemy.
Possession of the land was from the beginning the hope set before them. Caleb and Joshua cleave to it, and seek to bring the people to a right mind. They endeavor to stem the torrent of unbelief, and count upon the presence of God. “Jehovah is with us: fear them not.” Faith, when prominent as a witness for the truth of God's word, in every case as here, meets with the murderous enmity of the world. “All the congregation bade stone them with stones.”
If Moses erred in being pleased with the proposal to send spies, it did not touch the root of his faith, or lessen his concern for the honor of Jehovah; it was a momentary forgetfulness. And God gives him the occasion to prove that his care for Jehovah's word is greater than any desire for his own glory. “How long will this people provoke me? and how long will it be ere they believe me for all the signs which I have showed among them? I will smite them with the pestilence and disinherit them and will make of thee a greater nation and mightier than they.”
Moses' first thought is, What will the Egyptians say? what the inhabitants of this land? It is Jehovah's word and honor that fills his heart; and to keep Jehovah's name from being dishonored by the people of Israel, he prays that Israel be forgiven. That was God's way with them “from Egypt even until now.”
In presence of such deep sin and the threatening of God to disinherit them, how instructive to have given to us the true ground of appeal for mercy and forgiveness. Not our need, great as it may be, not even repentance heartfelt and true, but the glory of God, the honor of His name, the written pledge of His faithfulness to those who are under The Blood. For this He puts away the sins and failures of His own people. When we pray, after making known our requests and praying for a Father's forgiveness, do we fully enter into the meaning of “for the sake” or “in the name of Jesus Christ?” Is it merely in our minds a concluding formula? Yet God our Father hears it in its full and blessed import, and answers our prayers according to Him. Otherwise no answer could righteously be given. So in the pleading of Moses who, utterly forgetful of self, of the glory of being the father of a greater nation, urges the honor of Jehovah's Name as a reason why the people should be forgiven; for the nations would say that Jehovah was not able to bring the people into the land. God hears the prayer and passes over the people's sin. Wonderful combination here! God maintains the honor of His Name, and shows mercy to Israel, vindicating His righteousness in judgment. This is the glory which shall fill the earth. Israel is now driven from it, and the ungodly shall never enter it. But mercy is in store for the remnant—the little ones; they shall possess it and become a nation. God is here, and will then show Himself a Righteous Governor. The men who brought up an evil report of it should never see the land; they died by the plague before Jehovah (14:37). The earth is not yet filled with His glory, but the Psalmist in view of it says, “Praise waiteth for Thee, O God.”
But here we see again the consequence of having put themselves under law. They must turn again to the wilderness, and their carcasses should fall in it. They despised their hope, and it is taken away. Not one above twenty should enter the land, save Caleb and Joshua. The little ones, for whom they pretended to care, God would bring in. In forty years that generation should be wasted in the wilderness, and thus should they know God's breach of promise. They had charged God with bringing them unto the land to die by the sword (ver. 3), and their fearful words come home to them in retributive judgment. “Ye shall know my breach of promise.”
How incapable is man of submitting to God! When brought to the land he would not enter by faith, but would ascertain by the light of human wisdom the possibility of possession; not by faith but by sight. The land was promised; but faith, not works, responds to promise. The same rebelliousness of nature appears when commanded to turn again to the wilderness; for then they essayed to take possession. So said Stephen in a later day, “Ye stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost; as your fathers did, so do ye.” True faith produces obedience, fleshly confidence is ever opposed to God's ways. The result of their presumption is most disastrous. So confident were they in their own powers that they went without the ark, and contrary to God's command. Yet they pleaded the promise (ver. 40). Too late, man is always ready to plead the word as a sanction for his disobedience; that is, having determined his course, he seeks to make it appear to be the will of God. Are we exposed to the danger of undertaking anything without God, or questioning His known will? Let us take heed; for in presence of the world's opposition to Christ, we—unaccompanied by the ark—shall find ourselves to be only grasshoppers and the enemy to be a giant.
Their sin serves to bring out in brightest prominence the faithfulness of God to His word of promise. Israel's sin cannot nullify the purposes of grace. Righteous judgment may cause delay, but the promise unconditionally given must be performed. The forty years in the wilderness was a necessary and righteous judgment. But up to the end, mercy will ever rejoice over judgment, and the promise is reaffirmed. “When ye be come into the land.” Oh! how blessedly does this same unchangeableness of purpose shine for us, how much fuller, yea, with an eternal meaning! “I give unto them eternal life and they shall never perish.” With failure and unbelief marking our path, though we have better promises, more God-dishonoring than them, how much brighter shines the grace of our Lord! “Nothing shall take you out of my hand.” Here is not only the assurance of final triumph—more than conquerors through Him—but the power for daily victory over self and the world.
The being brought to the land was their special testing, and more momentous than their former trial at Sinai. There it was the corruption of the flesh. They feasted in honor of their idol and then rose up to play. They imitate the idolatrous revelry of the Egyptians even in this less guilty and more honest than Aaron. The people boldly said, “These be thy gods, O Israel, that brought thee up out of the land of Egypt,” but Aaron sought to join Jehovah's name to their idol. When he saw it, he built an altar before it and proclaimed, “Tomorrow is a feast unto Jehovah.”
Here at the border of the land, there is nothing riotous, or outwardly unseemly; no idol, no feasting and playing. On the contrary the respectable world which condemns the obscenities of idolatry, approves the wisdom which guided Israel then. Was it not praiseworthy prudence before entering a hostile country to ascertain the probabilities of victory, and the enemy's power of resistance? The sin here is independency of God. They would test the fruitfulness of the land and the strength of the inhabitants. Little did they think that God was testing them, not merely by law—that had been done—but after He had proclaimed Himself “merciful and gracious, long-suffering and abundant in goodness and truth.” Heb. 3 refers to this very time; it is the day of temptation, “When your fathers tempted me “; and the Holy Spirit employs another word—provocation—to show the exceeding iniquity of their sin. They saw His works forty years and were continually provoking Him. But Heb. 3 has special reference to this time. “So I sware in my wrath they shall not enter into my rest” (cf. Num. 14:2323Surely they shall not see the land which I sware unto their fathers, neither shall any of them that provoked me see it: (Numbers 14:23); Heb. 3: 8-11). This despising of the land was the provocation.
But there is more here than the longsuffering of God, or the making bare man's heart, which refuses God's blessings as such, and seeks to obtain them by its own judgment and strength. Man does not submit to be simply a receiver. The fact is, it was not God's purpose to bring them into the land then. The lessons of the wilderness were but beginning, many more were to come. In this, and the following, God had before Him the varied results and efficacy of the work of Christ in its application to the need of saints now passing through this wilderness world. And man had to be in a condition where grace in all its fullness could be displayed, and that to the glory of God, when on man's part everything was forfeited. Israel, driven from the land after having seen it and tasted its fruit, were worse than ever before. They were twice lost, twice ruined; and the first at Sinai not nearly so complete as now. They were not sent to forty years' wandering only for worshipping the calf. God then proclaimed His Name, though even then as One who would by no means clear the guilty. As a prophetic declaration having in view the spared remnant and the guilty unrepentant nation, we apprehend, in measure, its meaning; but as the principle of salvation where all are guilty and lost, impossible of application. For it is the guilty that are cleared, and the lost are saved. Here at the border of the land, where ruin is absolute, there is no word of not clearing the guilty, but “when ye be come into the land.” Thus does mercy triumph over judgment, and grace over law.
What then of those who say that though saved by grace we are under law as a rule of life? Nay, to accept law in any sense is to deny the Spirit's power and guidance; for accepting the law implies my power to keep it—grace, that nothing keeps me but the power of God. We read the lesson of what our power is in Israel acknowledging the goodness of the land but despairing Leviticus possess it. They lost, for the time, the land. And Christians who put themselves under law as a rule of life lose the enjoyment of peace and blessing which are known only through grace.
It was so with Israel at that moment. Law was then not set aside, yet here is an instance, among many, where the grace which was afterward to be revealed, rises above the provocation, and shines with prophetic light. There are further lessons of how God can meet special sins, where man's nature is more fully displayed. We always find in each page of the people's journeying that the persistency of sin is met by grace still more persistent. Christ also as the Object of faith was to be set forth in more striking and wondrous types, in grace and wisdom assuming that form and aspect suited to meet each phase of sin as it broke out. And the phases of sin we see in the wilderness could not have been in the land. We are in the wilderness and liable to the same sins. The lessons there taught are more for us than for them. Had grace then led them in, we should have lost some of the richest manifestations of Christ as Priest and Intercessor. Not only was the wilderness the necessary scene for the peculiar evil of man, and for the grace to meet it, but our time also. And the forty years of judgment for them became forty years of teaching for us. Again, had they been detained in the wilderness but not through their own sin, grace would not have appeared so sovereign, nor man so hopelessly evil. Truly in all the Lord Jesus was the One before the mind of God, and all is made subservient to His glory. What immense favor to know Him in all this fullness of grace! But the wilderness, not the land, was the right place for its display.