Wilderness Lessons: Trial of Saints or Discipline

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The trials of saints, as they come from God, are generally if not always intimately connected with the position grace gives. God in His sovereignty calls His saints to fill various places of service, some to rule and authority, some to teaching or preaching, others may only know the place of suffering and weeping; but all are for the carrying out of one great purpose (I speak of saints) the accomplishment of one will, a whole in which each saint however humble has his part. God has a niche in His temple for each, a place assigned by grace. It is there each is tested. But if grace appoints the place, it is always there to maintain saints in it. Often the trial is allowed through our want of faith to hide the grace, and then we complain and murmur. “But God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” He always provides the needed grace.
There are other trials which have their root in unfaithfulness. God permits such, but does not directly send them, and surely controls and guides to a gracious result, for His mercy endureth forever. Such trials become rods in His chastening hand; but when God sends trial to a faithful saint it is for the purpose of proving faith, which is more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, and of giving further lessons in the school of faith. The fruitful branch is purged that it may bring forth more fruit. More fruit is God's object. Hidden things may be in the heart of the faithful unknown and therefore unjudged. The trial is sent to disclose the hidden thing that it may be purged away. Not all trials are chastisements. We should gravely err if we judged every suffering saint to be under discipline through failure. Where there is faithfulness we often see what appears to be heaviest trials, but in truth it is for the display of the sustaining power of grace that others may see and learn.
Evidently such is the lesson taught us in Gen. 22. Faith was never put to a severer test whether we look at the affection of the father or the obedience of the saint. God did tempt Abraham—sent him a trial—not because of previous failure, but, as being the father of the faithful he is to stand forth prominently as an example to saints of both dispensations, that he might be a witness of that faith which rises above death: a sort of pledge of the revival of Israel from the dust of death, of the fulfillment of the promises of which Abraham was the depository; and equally a witness of the faith of the church of God now, which in a deeper sense is in its most blessed character, a resurrection faith. Death has nothing to say to faith save as being overcome. The natural man lives in the region of death. Faith enters this region and the scene is changed. Christ has overcome the power of death, and faith in Him gives us to share in His victory. I speak, not of practice where we so often allow the enemy to get an advantage over us, but of our standing as victors in Christ. We see the ravages of death around us, but as a penalty we are beyond its reach. The believer and the natural man are in two distinct spheres which are outside each other. The one bears the stamp of death, the other that of eternal life. No example in the Old Testament more shows the power of faith over death than that of Abraham. But this is true Christian faith.
We take an instance of faith under trial from the New Testament; not the victory of faith over death, but over circumstances. The thorn in the flesh was a heavy trial to Paul. It was not sent because of failure, but because of the abundance of his revelation. There was danger lest the flesh should boast, and God gives him a thorn. He prayed thrice for its removal. God tells him that His grace is sufficient, there is no need to remove it, and moreover his infirmity was but an occasion for the power of Christ to rest upon him. Then he glories in that which he had prayed God to take away. Christ was exalted and Paul was content. Here is the “more fruit,” God's object in sending the thorn: no failure and needed chastening here, but a lesson of grace to an honored servant of Christ.
Scripture gives instances of saints who in their time were as prominent as was Paul in his, but who failed. If Paul was the apostle of the Gentiles, Moses was also of Israel in his day. Each had trials specially connected with his position. Some doubted the apostleship of Paul, as Israel before had doubted Moses. In the chapter before us (Num. 11) Moses is exceedingly tried, but his failure under the trial is equally plain. Why does Scripture lay bare the failings of the highest and most honored servants? That we may learn.
In this instance this great and honored man does not rise to the height of the position God gave him. He was the leader of the people to the promised land; but instead of a joyful expectant nation hasting to Canaan he hears them weeping for the things of Egypt, and despising the manna. The circumstances are too much for him. Paul prayed about his thorn and God raised him above it. Moses seems to reproach God for laying such a burden upon him. No doubt he was exceedingly tried when he heard the people weeping, but trials which lead to murmuring do not produce the effect God would have: The repose of faith cannot be with a fretful spirit. “The anger of the Lord was kindled greatly, Moses also was displeased.” Was his displeasure righteous in character? was it because of their sin against Jehovah, or of his own disappointment in them? His very despondent language is not the expression of trust in God. Nay he forgot that Jehovah was leading the people, and went before them to find a resting place; for he says “I am not able to bear all this people alone, because it is too heavy for me. And if Thou deal thus with me, kill me, I pray Thee, out of hand if I have found favor in Thy sight and let me not see my wretchedness.” Strange words from the meek man Moses. The secret root lay in the word I, “I am not able.” No doubt he was not able; but he speaks as if God had appointed him to bear the people alone; and his words to God betray his forgetfulness of the fact that, honored as he was, he was only a servant. He had not begotten them, nor was he their nursing father, nor to find flesh for them. Forgetting that God had promised all that Israel needed in the wilderness, and this in answer to his own prayer (Ex. 33:12-1712And Moses said unto the Lord, See, thou sayest unto me, Bring up this people: and thou hast not let me know whom thou wilt send with me. Yet thou hast said, I know thee by name, and thou hast also found grace in my sight. 13Now therefore, I pray thee, if I have found grace in thy sight, show me now thy way, that I may know thee, that I may find grace in thy sight: and consider that this nation is thy people. 14And he said, My presence shall go with thee, and I will give thee rest. 15And he said unto him, If thy presence go not with me, carry us not up hence. 16For wherein shall it be known here that I and thy people have found grace in thy sight? is it not in that thou goest with us? so shall we be separated, I and thy people, from all the people that are upon the face of the earth. 17And the Lord said unto Moses, I will do this thing also that thou hast spoken: for thou hast found grace in my sight, and I know thee by name. (Exodus 33:12‑17)), he is overwhelmed with the feeling of his utter incompetency, and would take it as a favor if God killed him out of hand, so that he might not see his wretchedness. If he had remembered that it was God's prerogative to provide, he would not have so spoken, nor have been so wretched. Something of the spirit that broke out in Moses we detect now in the words “my people,” “my flock,” as used by some of the Lord's servants now in this present day, and who perhaps feel the same “wretchedness” when “their people” are disobedient. They are shepherds truly and must give account how they feed (not “their” flock but) the flock of God. They forget the Great Shepherd as Moses forgot Jehovah.
How full of grace the way of God with him. If the dignity of his position is touched by others being associated with him, is it not a very gentle rebuke for his want of faith in the resources of God? Also God meets him on his own ground; he said he was not able, and seventy others are appointed to assist him. The gentle rebuke is seen again in the word of God to him, “I will take of the Spirit that is upon thee and will put it upon them, and they shall bear the burden of the people with thee, that thou bear it not thyself alone.” The effect is that they prophesy and did not cease. Proof this that God had endowed him with sufficient wisdom, but it was obscured by the thought of self, and he did not seek power from God. “That thou bear it not thyself alone” is the way God brings before him the root of his failure. Not that he had to bear it, but that he thought so, or at least he forgot that both he and Israel were borne of God through the wilderness as with the tenderness of a nursing father.
Seventy gives no equal number for each tribe. Composed of two factors seven and ten, the first is used to denote perfection, or completeness in spiritual things, outside providential administration. No such completeness is denoted by “ten.” The perfection of earthly government is connected with the number twelve; and when the millennial age is come all that seven and twelve signify will be manifest in the perfection of spiritual power and of earthly administration. That perfection is reserved for the Son of man.
Does not this number contain the latent idea of imperfection? That is, was it not intended to convey it—as belonging to a system that had only a limited time to remain, and, when the whole nation is taken up again, to give place to the authority of Him who has the seven Spirits of God, and whose apostles, they who followed Him as the rejected Man on the earth, shall sit upon the twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel? But of this we are sure that the number “seventy” is not confined to its mere historical significance. For we do not read that the seventy elders took any part in bearing the burden of the people; they disappear, and Moses alone is the channel of communication between Jehovah and the people. Aaron was sometimes joined with him, but Moses ordinarily the more prominent. It follows that there is an intimation of something future; and that it could not be in any case a display of divine wisdom to meet an unforeseen contingency. It is however a brief glance. The present purpose was a rebuke to Moses; this given, the chosen elders disappear.
Moses forgot the power of God, and looking at himself saw only weakness. It is something to know we are weak, but why not look to God? Was this the first time that he had looked to other than God? All are prone to look to self or to man. If in a work God gives us to do, self in the form of diffidence often appears, and as often when not sent, self is very bold. Before God sent him to deliver Israel, Moses is bold and slays an Egyptian, thinking that Israel would know that they were to be delivered by his hand (Acts 7:2525For he supposed his brethren would have understood how that God by his hand would deliver them: but they understood not. (Acts 7:25)). The consequence was, Moses had to flee. Forty years after, God appears in the burning bush. The boldness of nature is gone and in its place is the diffidence of nature. Diffidence has a very amiable appearance sometimes, but it is sin when it prevents obedience. Here was want of faith in the power of God, the same thing we see in Num. 11. But a similar want of trust in God led him to yield to Jethro's advice (Ex. 18:1818Thou wilt surely wear away, both thou, and this people that is with thee: for this thing is too heavy for thee; thou art not able to perform it thyself alone. (Exodus 18:18) &c). Not by Jehovah's command but by Jethro's counsel he made subordinate judges. Swayed by his father-in-law he left the place of confidence in God, and deputed his own work to others. A still graver feature of this form of self appears in Num. 10:3131And he said, Leave us not, I pray thee; forasmuch as thou knowest how we are to encamp in the wilderness, and thou mayest be to us instead of eyes. (Numbers 10:31). He had put others in his own place, now he puts man in God's place; he invites Hobab to remain, “for thou mayest be to us instead of eyes.” What need of Hobab's eyes, if Jehovah is there? This is preferring human wisdom to God's leadings. This is not of faith. When a time of difficulty comes instead of quiet trust in God, as when he said “stand still and see the salvation of God” he breaks out in complaint against God. “And if Thou deal Thus with me.” How unbelief grows even in a believer when the root is unjudged. At the first a false humility, then deputing to others the work God had given him, next seeking guidance from man, at length despondent and in “wretchedness” asking to be taken out of it altogether.
Jethro told him it was too much for him, and he believes it, and tells God he is not able. It is in effect saying God had put the wrong man to lead Israel. Is not this very near charging God with folly? See what comes of listening to man in the things of God, Jethro would relieve Moses of part of his burden, and no doubt he meant kindly, but he was interfering with God's order. Moses yielded then, and now breaks down entirely, and this great and honored servant of God, having lost confidence, is as other men; he would like to find a refuge in death from his “wretchedness.” So also did Elijah many years after, a servant nearly as prominent in the land as was Moses in the wilderness. But each was tried through the wickedness of the people, and their trust in God was tried in accordance with the relation each bore to Israel. No other could have had their trial which was peculiar to their position. And God used their special circumstances as a trial of faith. In their failure there is a common feature, they both wish for death (1 Kings 19:44But he himself went a day's journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree: and he requested for himself that he might die; and said, It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers. (1 Kings 19:4)). For both forgot the power of God. And “I” is prominent in each. I am not able, said Moses; and, I only am left, said Elijah. To each the power of God is displayed; to Moses in the miraculous supply of quails; to Elijah, in the tempest, the earthquake, and the fire. He who knew the heavy strain that was put upon them, was very gentle to them.
Many a saint tried with much sorrow longs to be away. It is a blessed thing to long to be with Christ. It is far better to depart and be with Christ. But that is the question; is it to be with Christ or away from the world? If only the latter it is different from the prayer of the Lord on our behalf, “I pray not that Thou shouldst take them out of the world but that Thou shouldst keep them from the evil.” To long to be out of the world merely because we are weary is not submission to His will. It was weariness that made Moses wretched and say, “kill me, I pray Thee, out of hand,” and that made Elijah say, “It is enough, take my life, I am not better than my fathers.” That is, notwithstanding his mission as a prophet, he was in no better condition than those who went before him.
This losing sight of the power of God comes out still more when Moses is commanded to say to the people that they shall have flesh for a whole month. He is astonished, and dares even to challenge the power of God, “The people are six hundred thousand footmen, and Thou hast said that they may eat a whole month. Shall the flocks and the herds be slain for them to suffice them? or shall the fish of the sea be gathered together for them to suffice them?” Such doubt, in one who had seen the Red Sea divided, and the people pass through dry-shod, who had seen water gush from the dry rock, and bread rained upon them from heaven, would be incredible did we not know that the integrity of faith can only be maintained when all other dependence than that on God is cast aside. The challenging God's power here is just the result of following Jethro's counsel, and is a very natural sequence to inviting Hobab to be eyes for them through. the wilderness. Some one has said that faith is omnipotent, and in the sense that all things are possible to faith, it is true; on the other hand, let but the slightest taint of flesh touch it, and the man of faith becomes as Samson when his Nazarite locks were cut off. Nothing so strong as faith, nothing so weak as a man who has lost faith. It was a far more solemn thing to doubt the power of God than his previous reproaches, to which he had given way through his “wretchedness.” And a more direct rebuke comes from God. “Is Jehovah's hand waxed short?” What a reminder is here of previous wonders and mighty signs and deliverances, and how it must have overwhelmed the soul of Moses as the past history of the people flashed upon him. But it is accompanied with grace. The self, the despondency, and the unbelief, all disappear in presence of that mighty word of grace, “Thou shalt see now whether My word shall come to pass unto thee or not.” And the grace is in this, that God makes the miracle to have a special bearing upon him. “Thou shalt see,” but he waits not to see before he believes. The word brings him back to his true place before God. The word came for his sake, and it accomplishes that for which it was given. We hear no more desponding words, and doubts of God's ability to supply flesh for the people: he immediately goes to them and tells them the words of Jehovah with all the authority of restored faith.
How sweet it was to him, when confidence is again restored, to dwell upon the condescension of God in making His word come to pass, as lie says, “Unto thee.” Were the people unthought of? Was it not to provide for them? Yea, verily, but to bring Moses to judge his doubts, and to bring him before the people as the faithful servant was of greater moment even than feeding the thousands of Israel. And so God says, “Thou shalt see whether my word shall come to pass unto thee or not.” He had gone down very far in the depths of unbelief, but God had gone down after him and brought him up out of the mire of doubt and set him again upon faith as a rock. But he has learned a new lesson, as well as re-learned the old one of faith. And the new lesson is brokenness of spirit: he is humble and would have all the Lord's people prophets like himself. Not now “I” a leader, but one of the led. If the thought had not been in his heart that he himself was Israel's nursing father, and had to bear them in his bosom, he would not have uttered such unseemly language to God when he found he was unable. God was the nursing Father, and Moses judges himself and bows; God makes it manifest to him that He has resources outside the flocks and the herds, yea, other than the fish of the sea, and that He alone is able to bear the burden of this people. It is made manifest unto Moses— “unto thee.” That Moses had truly bowed to the rebuke of God's grace, is plain from his words to Joshua who, jealous for the honor of his master, would have Eldad and Medad. silenced. God had taken of his spirit and had put it upon them, but it evokes no feeling of jealousy in the breast of Moses. “Enviest thou for my sake? would God that all Jehovah's people were prophets, and that Jehovah would put His Spirit upon them.” That great “I” just before so prominent is gone, and remembering the word of God that He would take of the Spirit that was upon himself and put it upon the seventy, he desires the Spirit of Jehovah to rest upon all the people. Not a few to be nearly equal to himself, but all Israel to be prophets endowed with the Spirit of Jehovah. Where would then be the leadership and prominency of Moses? He would only be as one of them. This is the spirit of his prayer, this makes manifest that the lesson of grace was not in vain to him. True faith and self-abasement always go hand in hand.
What holy teaching for the church of God! A page from the history of the secret life of Moses which God alone had read. No ear but His heard the desponding cry of His servant. Israel knew nothing of it. The process was a secret between God and Moses, and gone through in His presence. Moses learned there something that the law could not teach, the grace of God in spite of his failure. The power of faith in the end overcoming his fear and distress, is beyond those who take their stand on law-doing. Therefore all is hidden from the people who could not have entered into it. But it is written for the admonition of the saints of this dispensation that we may watch against the first risings of unbelief, which if unjudged works like leaven, unseen it may be, till some trial brings it out bare before us. What a mercy then to find that we can take all to God. What grace that even if filled with murmurs, God listens and answers our hearts' need, not dealing with its according to our foolish words. Moses went into the presence of God murmuring, grieving, and doubting, but he comes out believing, and his burden removed, and carries the message of Jehovah direct to the people. This failure of Moses in patience and trust is one of God's lessons of faith as we journey through the wilderness. As our Lord said, “Watch and pray,” there is no one however exalted in service can cease to watch and to pray without suffering loss.