Wilderness Lessons: Israel's Discipline or Preparation for the Lord

 •  18 min. read  •  grade level: 9
Israel driven away from the land in judgment was the last thing needed in the preparation of the platform whereon God would reveal wonders of grace beyond all seen before. Abundant proof is now given that nothing less than sovereign grace and mercy could ever bring them into the land. Such murmuring, such base ingratitude to Him who provided for all their need, their quasi-refusal to take the land as God's gift, their attempt to possess it as the result of their own valor, and their consequent defeat, all these are the circumstances in which they begin their wanderings. But here it is we learn the hitherto untold riches of grace as displayed in the varied presentation of Christ, the Sacrifice, the Priest and Intercessor. Also the resources of mercy which constantly interposed, and which though mingled with judgment—showing mercy to thousands and by no means clearing the guilty—ever took the form most adapted to their sin and need, proclaimed then, and now to us, how infinite the resources of grace, how marvelous the wisdom of God, how exceedingly great His long-suffering, how unchangeable His purpose. The shining forth of all these in the wilderness is magnificent.
Yet how brighter and simpler all these shine in the plain language of the New Testament where not by type and shadow but in the unmistakable words of our Lord the same grace, wisdom, and purpose of God are declared! “And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any one pluck them out of my hand. My Father who gave them me is greater than all, and no one is able to pluck them out of my Father's hand. I and my Father are one” (John 10:28-3028And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. 29My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father's hand. 30I and my Father are one. (John 10:28‑30)). And the apostle, looking at the purpose and power of God, exclaims, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?”
“For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” How slow we are to enter into this blessed position so as to realize it practically! And does not grace still brighter shine, in that, while failing to apprehend its fullness, it still continues, its fullness not abated. Is not this the glory of grace? Unappreciated yet abounding!
In Num. 15 God assures the people that He will bring them into the land of their habitation. This is significant; not merely into the land, but into the land of their habitation. This implies establishment in permanency. God is looking onward to their bright future; not as in the land on trial followed by certain failure, from which sin could and did expel them, but when the land should be their permanent habitation, when, all trial past, the still greater provocation of rejecting the Christ forgiven, clean water sprinkled upon them, a new heart given, and each one sitting under his own vine and under his own fig-tree, then, and not before will they fully realize “the land of your habitation which I give unto you.”
The ordinances of offerings which follow are for the land. There and then not only burnt-offerings, fulfilling a vow, free-will offerings, which are connected with public worship, but also in their daily life, eating the bread of the land they were to offer a heave-offering to Jehovah. The heave-offering was to be eaten by the priest's family at home, the daughters equally with the sons could eat of it (Num. 18:1111And this is thine; the heave offering of their gift, with all the wave offerings of the children of Israel: I have given them unto thee, and to thy sons and to thy daughters with thee, by a statute for ever: every one that is clean in thy house shall eat of it. (Numbers 18:11)). Here the whole congregation are to eat of it. They will be a kingdom of priests. In their public worship they were also to offer wine as a drink-offering—typical of the spiritual joys of the church now, but in its higher aspect fulfilled when the Lord drinks it new with His disciples in the kingdom of His Father—here as fulfilled in the land clearly an emblem of the joys and gladness of the renewed earth rejoicing under the reign of Christ, their own Messiah and King. For then the oil-power of the Holy Spirit—will sanctify even earthly joy and make it acceptable to God.
Was it so during their first tenure of the land? Burnt-offerings, free-will offerings and drink-offerings were commanded, but there is no record of the offering of wine. Even at the dedication of the temple by Solomon, when gladness and fullness of blessing seemed greatest, there is no mention of wine being offered. On the contrary, Solomon's prayer and Jehovah's answer look onward prophetically to their being cast out from the land: mercy is invoked and on repentance Jehovah will restore. So that with all the glory then displayed the land was not yet “the land of their habitation.” Wine was brought with corn and oil for the priests in Hezekiah's time, but not said for offering (2 Chron. 31:4, 5, 64Moreover he commanded the people that dwelt in Jerusalem to give the portion of the priests and the Levites, that they might be encouraged in the law of the Lord. 5And as soon as the commandment came abroad, the children of Israel brought in abundance the firstfruits of corn, wine, and oil, and honey, and of all the increase of the field; and the tithe of all things brought they in abundantly. 6And concerning the children of Israel and Judah, that dwelt in the cities of Judah, they also brought in the tithe of oxen and sheep, and the tithe of holy things which were consecrated unto the Lord their God, and laid them by heaps. (2 Chronicles 31:4‑6)). The wine is reserved for the time of future blessing when the curse is removed from the earth which must be delivered from the bondage of Satan ere wine can be by Israel poured out an acceptable offering to God. Then at that time the burnt-offering—pointing to Christ, and the oil—signifying the power of the Holy Spirit—and the wine hallowed by the burnt-offering and the oil shall together be presented to make “a sweet savor unto Jehovah.”
If in the millennial kingdom of the Son of man, Israel restored and the earth blessed can with the wine of their joy present a sweet savor to God, how much sweeter will be the wine of our joy when we in risen bodies drink the new wine with Christ in the Father's kingdom! Pre-eminently this is the wine that “cheereth God and man” (Judg. 9:1313And the vine said unto them, Should I leave my wine, which cheereth God and man, and go to be promoted over the trees? (Judges 9:13)). It is Christ in matchless grace bringing us to share in His joys and glory, fruit of His redemption.
The ordinances for the congregation, and for the individual will only have their true fulfillment in the land. Doubtless the responsibility of observing them lay upon all the people from the first, but were they ever in such a state before God as is implied in these ordinances? Whether in the wilderness, or in the land, rebellion and idolatry mark their history. The bright spots here and there are but exceptions to their downward course. But when the whole twelve tribes are restored, then sin will be the exception. All will be taught of God; no need for one to teach his neighbor, saying, “Know the Lord.” This knowledge will not be confined to Israel, though they will be far in advance of any other nation in that day. And with them no sudden miraculous transition from ignorance to perfect knowledge. They will grow in the knowledge of Jehovah, as saints now are exhorted to grow in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. Israel will recognize their Messiah in the person of Jesus. They will learn that He is Jehovah the King of glory, Jehovah of hosts. Saul of Tarsus learned that Jesus was Jehovah. Israel will be the converse of this; they will learn that Jesus—whom they rejected—is Jehovah. But they will be brought to the land at least in partial ignorance. This ordinance provides for that condition. Isa. 65:2020There shall be no more thence an infant of days, nor an old man that hath not filled his days: for the child shall die an hundred years old; but the sinner being an hundred years old shall be accursed. (Isaiah 65:20) gives further light; for while God provides for mere ignorance according to His mercy, the willful sinner is immediately judged. “There shall be no more thence an infant of days nor an old man that hath not filled his days; for the child shall die a hundred years old, but the sinner being a hundred years old shall be accursed.” In that millennial day death will only overtake the presumptuous sinner. The child shall die a hundred years old, i.e. none shall die young, but the sinner dying under the immediate judgment of God, even though a hundred years old, would be but a child compared with the longevity of the righteous; “for as the days of a tree are the days of my people, and mine elect shall long enjoy the work of their hands.”
Judging from the difference in the atonement to be made by the priest, the ignorance of the congregation is a more serious thing than ignorance in the individual. Sin is ever defiling, and interrupts communion. For the congregation there must be burnt-offering—Christ always a sweet savor—the foundation upon which alone communion can be restored. This restoration to communion is indicated by the meat-offering and the drink-offering. There must also be confession of the failure, though it be caused by ignorance, and so we have the sin-offering. For the individual only the sin-offering is appointed, his own confession of sin through ignorance. The other offerings are equally needed for the restorations of one soul, as for a congregation; but they are implied in the restoration of the individual to his place in the congregation, where he takes the place of being accepted through the efficacy of the burnt-offering, and enjoys again the communion—meat-offering, &c.—which the congregation had not lost.
The presumptuous sinner cannot plead ignorance; his sin is the violation of a well-known command. These two sins are the only ones here looked at for the land. The general character of the restored nation, as we have seen, is that all shall know the Lord (comp, Jer. 24:77And I will give them an heart to know me, that I am the Lord: and they shall be my people, and I will be their God: for they shall return unto me with their whole heart. (Jeremiah 24:7); Ezek. 35:1212And thou shalt know that I am the Lord, and that I have heard all thy blasphemies which thou hast spoken against the mountains of Israel, saying, They are laid desolate, they are given us to consume. (Ezekiel 35:12)). If any man notwithstanding knowledge commit sin, then immediate judgment follows. Thus it is distinguished from mere ignorance. To despise the word of Jehovah is presumptuous, it is sin apart from the nature of the thing done. An instance is given, for God teaches us both by example and precept. The children of Israel found a man that gathered sticks on the sabbath day, and he is put in ward until Jehovah declares His judgment upon him. All the congregation stone him. The same was done to another who had blasphemed the Name (of Jehovah). In the one case the act was sin because it had been forbidden. The other was sin even if there had been no command. The seemingly trivial character of the presumptuous sin recorded in Num. 15 is to show the absolute and perfect obedience to be rendered by Israel in that day, and the swift judgment is also in keeping with Isa. 65. As compared with Lev. 24 human judgment would see great disparity between the two, and while meting out the heaviest penalty to the blasphemer would look upon the gathering of sticks on the sabbath as of trifling import. But in divine things human judgment is always wrong. Each was equal to the other in guilt, despising the authority of God. If we saw nothing more than that the penalty in each case was death, this is sufficient warrant to pronounce them equally guilty, for God is righteous in judgment. But in truth their sin was essentially the same: both were presumptuous sinners; for He who said, “Thou shalt not take the name of Jehovah thy God in vain,” said also, “Remember the sabbath to keep it holy.” Neither of these sinners could plead ignorance. Each violated the divine majesty, if not a well-known command.
We learn that, while death is meted to the presumptuous sinner, ignorance does not make sin to be no sin: atonement must be made for it.
But another case is provided for, and a far more common one—forgetfulness. It is closely allied to presumptuous sin as implying previous knowledge; the difference being that the presumptuous sinner did not forget but was consciously disobedient. How prevalent is this forgetfulness now among saints who would shrink from everything like presumptuous sin! Where there are inordinate desires for earthly things, heavenly things are forgotten. Any object before the soul other than Christ is a practical denial of our separation from the world. With Israel God established an ordinance that all might remember, and He gave an outward and visible sign. “Speak unto the children of Israel and bid them that they make them fringes In the borders of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put upon the fringe of their borders a ribband of blue; and it shall be unto you for a fringe that ye may look upon it and remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them, and that ye seek not after your own heart and your own eyes after which ye use to go a whoring; that ye may remember and do all my commandments and be holy unto your God. I am the Lord your God which brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God; I am the Lord your God.” This ordinance was not deferred till they were come into the land. The former ordinances begin with “when ye be come into the land;” this is now omitted. It is an ordinance suited to their pilgrim character, journeying through the wilderness; and therefore has a very special application to Christians passing through the world. For the Israelite whether in the tent or in the field the ribband of blue would always be present. It was a perpetual monitor. How simple the thing, but how momentous the connection! Not merely a memento of the law, but leading their thoughts to God, who not only gave a law but first of all delivered them from Egyptian bondage, and brought them out of that land that He might be their God. God would be their God. Even then He was seeking worshippers: although it was a carnal worship, a mere shadow of what was then still future when the Father would seek worshippers who would worship God in spirit and in truth. Then it was to bring back by means of Israel the forgotten name of God into the world which Satan had filled with idolatry, himself the god of this world worshipped in every idol. Satan had grasped every nation upon the earth; God would have one nation for Himself, and He put forth His power and took them out of Egypt to be their God. “I am Jehovah your God.” What a spring is here for obedience, what an appeal to their gratitude! Here is the mercy that delivered, their obligation to obedience, the holiness and separation from all evil, God's authority, and His purpose to be their God, all tied together with a ribband of blue.1
Did any Israelite wear this ribband? It is never again alluded to. This ordinance given without any reference to the land shows that God is looking onward to His church, which alone is called to that place of entire separation from the world taught by this symbol. It was after Christ was rejected that He said, “they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.” The ribband to Israel was a call to personal godliness, while being used as God's instrument of vengeance upon the world's iniquity. It is different for the church now, which is not called to execute God's judgment upon the world, but which is called as a corporate body to be separate not only from its evil, but from its interest and well-being so called. The world is already condemned; it is folly to seek the temporal well-being of a criminal condemned to be hanged. Our ribband of blue calls to a separation as complete and absolute as this. The world was not crucified to Israel, nor they to the world. Both are true for us. The ordinance as given to Israel made them responsible, but as a nation they failed as in the sign so in its import. The color connected it with the blue covering of the ark, that which specially connected it with heaven. At least it has that significance for us. We have not a material blue ribband on our garment, but the heavenly color before our hearts. To them the blue ribband was a means of remembrance; what are the means for us? We have not merely a means, but the power of remembrance, even the Holy Spirit, the Comforter. “But the Comforter which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, He shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you” (John 14:2626But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you. (John 14:26)). His words, all that He said, tell us of our deliverance from the world, of our standing before God, of His great salvation, of His coming again, of our responsibility to bear fruit, of our place in the coming glory, heirs of God and joint-heirs with Himself: these and more the Spirit keeps before our hearts; and we look back on the cross and see there the foundation of all, present grace and future glory. We bow in worship before God. The Father sought us for this self-same purpose, that He might be our God. It is the Spirit Himself recalling heaven who is our ribband of blue.
Such is our proneness to forget, that even if there were no world soliciting our affections, if we never came in contact with worldly men and things we should still need the power of remembering what we are delivered from, our heavenly destination, and what we should be meanwhile. The ribband was only a means; the Spirit is both means and power.
Note, that presumptuous sin is not here in connection with the congregation. If the “congregation” be a symbol of the church, the body of true believers, we see the reason, for presumptuous sin entailing death would be the cutting off of the church. The “body” can never be cut off. The church of God will be, must be, maintained as such according to the counsels of grace. Faith even now knows that as to our position we are in the heavenlies in Christ. The epistle to the Ephesians declares it; there the church is brought “into the land” —no cutting off there.
Still the church is actually here in the wilderness and liable to sins of ignorance. The being brought to the land does not mean that the church while here is perfect in knowledge. We have not yet attained to fullness of stature; but the whole body grows, according as it is said, “grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” So even the babes have an unction from the Holy One and thus are endowed with a capacity to know all things. Many things may be done through ignorance by the church here below. Failure is not thereby excused, but grace provides for it.
Applying “congregation” to local assembly, not only may it be guilty of ignorance, but of presumption, and then comes under the same discipline as an individual. Strange and evil doctrines, looseness of life and conduct, surround us: a liberality dishonoring to the Lord, as disguising itself under the mask of Christian brotherhood, is one of the greatest snares of the present day, its popularity making it still more dangerous. Not only individuals but assemblies may be drawn aside. Anything that touches in the least the glory of the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, answering to Lev. 24, or willful and allowed disobedience in any one of their number to godly practice, answering to Num. 15, makes any such assembly cease to be an assembly of God. Such assemblies must be dissolved. It is past being cleansed by the cutting out of a leprous stone. The whole is tainted. The “death” in the Old Testament is excision, or disowning according to N. T. Presumptuous sin must be dealt with according to the principles of the word.
A local assembly may in ignorance be connected more or less close with another which has failed to judge the evil it knows. But ignorance does not condone sin. If through ignorance an individual becomes a partaker of other men's sins, there remains for him the sin-offering; or if an assembly, grace has still provided though in a more impressive way, beginning with the burnt-offering—confessing Christ in His unassailable purity and holiness, and as such a sacrifice for sins; i.e. the utter and public repudiation of all intercommunion with any assembly which has not so cleared itself.
At no time in the history of the church of God has there been more need than at the present for saints taking heed to these things. Let us beware of presumptuous sin. Nor can we plead ignorance, for the word of God is full and complete. Nor ought we to forget; for the Comforter is here to bring all things of Christ to our remembrance.