Wilderness Lessons: Israel's Wanderings Ended

 •  14 min. read  •  grade level: 6
Israel's wanderings in the wilderness are drawing to a close, and Edom lies between them and the land of promise. How touching the request of Moses that Israel might pass through. But neither their sufferings, nor the intervention of God on their behalf, move Edom to grant their request. It is a fresh phase of the power of Satan against those who are led of God through the world. He opposed the purpose of God from the first when he used Pharaoh who knew not Joseph and oppressed Israel. After the Red Sea he disputed their progress by the Amalekites; and failing in these he stirred up their innate evil in the depths of the wilderness, that if possible they might be destroyed in the righteous anger of Jehovah. There was far more satanic wisdom in this than in raising up external enemies. Yet in all Satan was only furnishing occasions for the display of grace which rose above Israel's murmurings and rebellions, and gave lessons of faith for the church of God now.
Satan's opposition is seen at this stage of the progress (Num. 20:1414And Moses sent messengers from Kadesh unto the king of Edom, Thus saith thy brother Israel, Thou knowest all the travail that hath befallen us: (Numbers 20:14)), not in the enmity of aliens, nor in their own rebellion, but in the open hostility of brethren after the flesh. And here as in the gospel we find that natural relationships are no guarantee against enmity when it is a question between God and the world. “A man's foes shall be they of his own household” (Matt. 10:3636And a man's foes shall be they of his own household. (Matthew 10:36)). Moses sent to the king of Edom saying, “thy brother Israel,” and Edom's answer is a threat. Once before they came in contact in the persons of their fathers. Then as now Jacob was a suppliant, but God turned aside the hatred of Esau, and Jacob pursued his way. The hatred remained and breaks out in. Edom's refusal to let Israel pass through his land, and in later years is again seen when Babylon triumphed over Jerusalem (Psa. 137:77Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof. (Psalm 137:7)). Here Israel turned away, for Edom's land was no part of Israel's possession. Nor was it God's purpose to lead them through it; their stay in the wilderness was not yet completed.
A few more lessons had to be taught, and the work of Christ fully set forth. There was truth yet needed for our journey through the world, and Israel must wait for us. In them was to be seen typically what is now without a veil made known to us. The word too that condemned them to forty years' wandering, nor permitted Aaron and Moses to enter the land, could not be revoked; so that both the government and the grace of God were implicated in their further stay outside the land. What then have we to learn? For to us the grace has special reference. We learn that the ties of nature are but as tow touched with fire when in collision with the call of God. We are warned not to look for sympathy in matters of faith to the men of the world, even if they be our nearest relatives. We are journeying to our promised land, the heavenly Canaan, and our experience is that unconverted relatives are as great opposers if not greater than the world. As the tie of faith is in the believer stronger than any natural bond, for it is eternal; so in the unbeliever hatred against the things of God dominates every natural affection, and is active against those who are found faithful to God and their calling.
Aaron dies, nor far distant the time when Moses also must die. Solemn thought that these two honored servants of God must die in the wilderness like the generation that God said should not enter into His rest. God is righteous, and maintains government according to His righteousness. “Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear; for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:2828Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: (Hebrews 12:28)).
The priestly robes are put on Eleazar, but he is never presented like Aaron as a type of Christ's priesthood. Another was soon to take the place of both Moses and Aaron as leader of the people. But in this is further truth for the church of God (see Num. 27:1515And Moses spake unto the Lord, saying, (Numbers 27:15)).
Israel sends no request to the Canaanite king of Arad. He hears of their approach and goes out to oppose them. Whether it be Edom or the Canaanite, Israel meets with the same treatment. The called of God and the world have ever been contrary, and will continue so until Christ reigns in power. Arad's king fought against Israel and took some of them prisoners. This is not the first disaster suffered from the foe. The land will surely be given and all enemies subdued; but it must be in God's own time. Any departure from His way entails loss, not victory. How had they departed so as to be smitten and some taken prisoners, as in this instance? As before when first brought to the land, they put human foresight in the place of dependence upon God. Spies had been sent, perhaps occasioned by depression through Edom's unbrotherly conduct; and they would ascertain what kind of foe, or danger, awaited them. But it was not faith. The presence of spies alarms the king, and he prepares to fight. Not going in faith Israel has no vantage ground against Arad, and suffers a repulse. As is generally the result when the people of God use human means where the way of faith is distinctly marked, the means thus used being the very contrary to their hopes. Had they gone in simple faith, they had not been so disgraced. It is a sharp lesson, but they are brought to their right position. They cry unto Jehovah, “If thou wilt deliver this people into my hand.” Not much faith in the promise yet. To say “if,” after God had so repeatedly said that He would drive out the Canaanite before them, is not faith. But if no faith, or but little (for the Calebs and the Joshuas were very few), they cast aside prudence and say, “If Thou wilt deliver.” Jehovah hearkened to their voice, and the cities of Arad are utterly destroyed.
But mercies however great are lost upon those who have no faith, or just enough to cry to Jehovah when they feel their helplessness. They had cried unto Jehovah Who had answered, but it did not produce confidence. In compassing the land of Edom they are much discouraged because of the way. A wilderness path is always beset with difficulties, not necessarily with discouragements. Was not the victory over Arad sufficient ground, beside their own history, to assure them that God would not let them die in the wilderness? The flesh never trusts God, is always willing to receive benefits, but has never any return for the Giver but ingratitude. Notwithstanding the manifest interposition of God, and that in answer to their prayer which ought the more to have bound them in trustful obedience to Him, they again murmur, and now more openly against God. They had often murmured against Moses (it was really against God); now it is avowedly against God. The Holy Spirit marks it, putting God's name first. “The people spake against God and against Moses.” It is the first time their murmuring assumes this bold character. Often had they complained of lack of water, and in a spirit of rebellion. From the first they preferred the fleshpots of Egypt to the manna of God. Their soul, they said, was dried away because there was nothing at all beside this manna before their eyes (Num. 11:66But now our soul is dried away: there is nothing at all, beside this manna, before our eyes. (Numbers 11:6)). To be discontented with what the Psalmist calls angels' food (Psa. 78:2525Man did eat angels' food: he sent them meat to the full. (Psalm 78:25)) was base and ungrateful; but never before had the flesh shown itself in so true colors as when they said “our soul loatheth this light bread.” There might be discontent while admitting it was good, but to add loathing to discontentment is the extreme of the dislike of man to the things of God. This bread that God rained down from heaven is only “light bread,” and they loathed it. This is the root-sin of nature; their transgressions were but symptomatic, this is the disease itself. Faithful and awful picture of man's dislike of Christ! He is the true Bread that came down from heaven of Whom the manna that fell in the wilderness is a faint type. For the fathers did eat of that bread and are dead; but he who eateth of this bread shall never die. And the hatred of the Jew to Christ was more intense and pronounced than the loathing of the manna by Israel. They did loathe and despise, and called it “light bread.” The Jew despised, blasphemed, and crucified Him who came down from heaven. Yet it is the same nature, and only came out in blacker colors in the Jew because the Lord Jesus was not a mere type but the blessed reality. It was His presence that brought out this greater wickedness. For the clearer and brighter the Light, the deeper the surrounding darkness.
How constant the desire for Egypt's food! With every difficulty in the way, whenever their soul was discouraged, there was always coupled with it regret for leaving Egypt. This is the sure fruit of the flesh, for which no sacrifice, nor ordinance, has yet been given to meet its deep evil. Transgression, various defilements by the way, all provided for; blood for transgressions, ashes to be sprinkled with running water for the defiled. But nature, the flesh, the root-sin of all, has not yet been the object of any ordinance. It has broken out now in its worst form, an evil that admits of no remedy; it must be destroyed. Sprinkling with the ashes of the red heifer, or even blood, does not meet the evil (though well we know that all God's ways of grace from first to last are founded upon the blood of Christ). A pure thing may become defiled, and then cleansed; but death is the only thing for the flesh. Wash it as you may, it is still flesh, and must be put “off.” It cannot be improved, and may be covered to a certain extent by a decent exterior; but there it is, as vile as ever under the covering. To cover is man's remedy for the evil he knows; it is the religion of the world in its best form. God would not have His saints go through the world, as it were under false pretenses, but teaches us to count it dead, on the ground of our old man crucified with Christ; and, when we take His word simply and truthfully, He gives the needed power to live in accordance with the standing given to faith working experience in us.
How suited to the truth taught is the manner of teaching! Sin, tainted nature, nature as it is now in man, is sin. There cannot be greater condemnation of man. Murmuring against God is but the complement of loathing His bread. In judgment they are bitten by fiery serpents, and dying. Fitting symbol of the venom of the old serpent who instilled his poison into the heart and nature of Adam in the garden; which made him not a mere transgressor of a known command, but changed his whole being morally before God. Adam truly became another man. Death inevitably followed, and the whole world consequently bears its impress. “Sin entered into the world and death by sin.” The connection between sin and death has never been dissolved. If man be sin, how is death to be severed from the believer? Not the blood on the great day of atonement, nor the ashes of the heifer; for the one puts away the sins of the flesh, the other cleansed the pilgrim from defilement contracted by the way. But “the flesh” —nature—remains unchanged, and the righteousness of God demands that that flesh should die. How then is a believer saved? To meet this righteous necessity, Christ was made sin and died, and thus becomes our deliverance from its power. “Who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” The believer knows no other way of deliverance than death. It is surely by the death of Christ, but it must be morally as well as judicially accomplished. Sin and death are never dissevered. It is a wondrous way in which God maintains His word, and, instead of being mere judgment, it becomes one of our greatest blessings. But being God's way, it must therefore be the way of faith to us. “Reckon yourselves to be dead to sin.” Look at Him made sin on the cross, fully answering for flesh of sin; then in the power of that look turn to self and with Job after he had seen. God, say, Wherefore I hate and abhor myself. As truly as death is the result of sin, so also is life eternal, life beyond the reach of death, the blessed effect of looking at Christ made sin for us. God's judgment joined death to sin, His grace has joined life to the look of faith.
The manner of Israel's healing is the foreshadowing of this. Then it was simply to look at a serpent upon a pole. A look in itself had been nothing; but God now joined healing and life to it: therefore to look is everything. What a lesson of faith is here! All is referred to the power and grace of God of Him Who said, that every one that is bitten when he looketh upon it shall live. Precious testimony of the efficacy of faith, and of Christ, Who, lifted up like the brazen serpent, had said “that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
Here is a type of Christ, not simply of blood, but of death. It is a question of sin in the flesh, not of sins by flesh active. Blood purges, purges the conscience, purges us from our sins. The flesh is never purged. The old man—the flesh—is condemned. Christ was made in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin; and so sin in the flesh God condemned. This is not a process in the soul always going on; but it is made experimentally true. The old man has been crucified with Christ (Rom. 6). The body of sin is thus annulled. An immense fact for us; effected on the cross. Only neither this nor any other blessing is known without faith. Realizing by faith that the flesh was condemned and put to death by the crucifixion of Christ, and practically putting on the new man, is both the privilege and the responsibility of believers. Death to the flesh, not atonement by blood, nor mere cleansing, is the lesson here. It is Christ our Substitute, and seems to proclaim a deeper truth than that typified on the great day of atonement. On that day we saw the blood that washed away all our sins. It is propitiation. Here in the brazen serpent it is life through death. Christ in the likeness of sinful flesh, and on the cross, made sin, and then dying under the judgment of God. That is, He takes our place, made sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him That righteousness which we are made is the standing we have in Him; is it not also practically that which believers are when they judge their own flesh with the judgment of God? Condemning it root and branch? I am persuaded we shall never know the blessedness of becoming God's righteousness in Him till we pass sentence of death upon self. A nature which was not inherently sin, but might have some good element, would need blood-washing if it transgressed; but you cannot cleanse sin. Our souls are forgiven their sins; that is another thing. Fallen nature is still nature, and must be condemned. The flesh is never cleansed. Christ, our Substitute, has fully borne the judgment of flesh. He was lifted up for that purpose, that we, beholding the judgment of our nature resting upon Him, might be able to say that we died with Him. As the bitten Israelite looked upon the serpent of brass, and lived, so we look upon Christ and in a new life live to God. The question of sin is settled forever. Of course it is but a hint here: the full truth can only come out in Christ dead and risen.