Wednesday Evening

June 20, 2007

Numbers 11:16-30

“Elders and Quail”

Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Numbers, chapter eleven. Tonight we’re going to be looking at verses 16-30.

Now, to God’s word. If you have your Bibles, let me ask you to cast your eyes back earlier in the chapter (Numbers 11), because the last time we were together in Numbers, back at the first Wednesday night of June a couple of weeks ago, we were looking at Numbers 11:1-15. And it’s a passage that is a living illustration of what Paul was talking about in I Corinthians 10.

In verses 1-3 of Numbers 11 we see the complaint of the people against God; in verses 4-6 we see the influence of this rabble that’s amongst the people of God complaining — sort of sowing seeds of discontent that spread throughout the camp of Israel until all the people are complaining. In verses 7-9 we see a description of the manna that God sends. In spite of the bad attitude of the people, God in His kindness sends manna for them to eat, and it’s described in verses 7-9. And then, in verses 10-15, we get a pretty strong expression of the discouragement that Moses was feeling. In verses 11-15, Moses pours out his complaint to God in prayer.

We said Numbers 11 is a study in contrasts with the end of Numbers 10. The closing verses of Numbers 10 stress God’s sovereign providence, His care for, His protection of, His provision for the children of Israel; and you get into the opening verses of chapter 11 and it’s like Israel has forgotten all of that. They have been in bondage in slavery for over 400 years, and they are only three days into the journey and they’re all complaining and saying ‘You know, wish we could get back to the good old days in Egypt.’ And it’s a study in contrasts. Suddenly, from the end of Numbers 10, celebrating the sovereign providence of God, to Numbers 11, complaining that God has forgotten them.

So what lessons do we learn from this passage? Four things in particular, if you look at Numbers 11:1-15. First of all, in verses 1-3 we learn that whenever we complain of our circumstances, what we’re actually doing is denying that God cares for us…whenever we complain of our circumstances, what we’re actually doing is denying that God cares for us.

Number two: If you look at verses 4-6, and also verse 10, we learn that whenever we complain we tend to spread a spirit of complaint amongst the people of God. It’s not just us that our complaining affects. It affects everyone around us, and it’s often very contagious.

Thirdly, we said when we looked especially at verses 7-9 that when we complain we undervalue the rich provisions of God.

And then, fourth, in verses 10-15, we learn that whenever those in leadership complain of the load of caring for the people, they have forgotten whose people they are, and whose job it is to carry them.

Now, it’s actually those last four verses (from 11-15) that set the stage for the passage that we’re going to read tonight. We’re going to read Numbers 11:16-30. [I know it says 16-35 on your sheet, but actually all we’re going to cover tonight…when I sketched this out originally, I said, “Now, Missye Rhee, I’m going to preach all Numbers 11 in one sermon.” We’re already on the second sermon on Numbers 11, and I think it’s going to go to the third sermon on Numbers 11 next week. But that won’t surprise you, since I can’t seem to find my way out of Philippians 1:21 in less than three sermons! So, bear with me, dear friends!]

Let me outline the passage as we’re going to read it tonight, because we’re going to concentrate on the sections that deal with the elders, and then the section that deals with the elders who prophesy, in verses 16-30.

Here’s the six-point outline to the passage:

If you look at verses 16-17, you will see God’s kind answer to Moses’ complaint in prayer. In verses 11-15, Moses complains to God in prayer, and in verses 16-17, God gives him a kind answer. That’s the first part of the passage we’re going to read.

Secondly, if you look at verses 18-20, you’re going to see God’s furious answer to the people’s complaints against Him. Isn’t it interesting? Moses complains and God is kind in His answer to Moses; the people complain and God is furious. Now you’ve got to be asking yourself why does God react the way He reacts to Moses and then react in a totally different way to the people. There’s a message in this passage about that.

Thirdly, if you look at verses 21-22, you’ll see Moses himself unbelievingly question God’s power.

Fourth, in verse 23, you will see God in response to Moses affirm His unlimited power.

Fifth, in verses 24-26, you will see Moses deliver the message that God had told him to deliver, and then God Himself comes down.

Then, sixth, in verses 27-30, you’ll see Moses’ response to the reports that there are elders prophesying in the camp.

Well, let’s hear God’s word. Before we do, let’s pray.

Lord, thank You for this word. Teach us from it, we pray. Open our eyes to behold wonderful things in Your Law. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

This is the word of God:

“The Lord therefore said to Moses, ‘Gather for Me seventy men from the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and their officers and bring them to the tent of meeting, and let them take their stand there with you. Then I will come down and speak with you there, and I will take of the Spirit who is upon you, and will put Him upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so that you shall not bear it all alone. And say to the people, ‘Consecrate yourselves for tomorrow, and you shall eat meat; for you have wept in the ears of the Lord, saying, ‘Oh that someone would give us meat to eat! For we were well-off in Egypt.’ Therefore the Lord will give you meat and you shall eat. You shall eat, not one day, nor two days, nor five days, nor ten days, nor twenty days, but a whole month, until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you; because you have rejected the Lord who is among you and have wept before Him, saying, ‘Why did we ever leave Egypt?’’’ But Moses said, ‘The people, among whom I am, are 600,000 on foot; yet Thou hast said, ‘I will give them meat in order that they may eat for a whole month.’ Should flocks and herds be slaughtered for them, to be sufficient for them? Or should all the fish of the sea be gathered together for them, to be sufficient for them?’ The Lord said to Moses, ‘Is the Lord’s power limited? Now you shall see whether My word will come true for you or not.’

“So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord. Also, he gathered seventy men of the elders of the people, and stationed them around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him; and He took of the Spirit who was upon him and placed Him upon the seventy elders. And it came about that when the Spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do it again.

“But two men had remained in the camp; the name of one was Eldad and the name of the other was Medad. And the Spirit rested upon them (now they were among those who had been registered, but had not gone out to the tent), and they prophesied in the camp. So a young man ran and told Moses and said, ‘Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.’ Then Joshua the son of Nun, the attendant of Moses from his youth, answered and said, ‘Moses, my lord, restrain them.’ But Moses said to him, ‘Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them!’ Then Moses returned to the camp, both he and the elders of Israel.”

Amen. This is God’s word. May He add His blessing to it.

Tonight’s passage is prefaced by a serious leadership issue, and Moses comes out looking both good and bad in the story. And there are lessons in both the good and the bad for us. Moses, as you read in verses 11-15, was deeply discouraged by the people. And let me say, it was right for Moses to be frustrated by the unbelief of the people. We know that because God was angry about the unbelief of the people; so, in Moses’ frustration with the people, he had a godly outlook. They ought to have done better than they did, and it was deeply discouraging to him. But he went too far. He was looking only at the people, and he was forgetting the sovereign God and what He is able to do. We know that because Moses makes it clear in verse 14 that he felt as if God had left everything up to him, and God never does that, does He? Moses was deeply discouraged by the people, and he was overwhelmed by his work. But again, even in the sinful aspect of Moses’ discouragement there’s something good. What does Moses do? He does not complain about God; he complains to God in prayer.

Now this is a rich passage and we really could spend a long time on it, but I want you to see four things tonight. We won’t even get through the six-point outline…just four things tonight that I want you to see. Lesson one, look at Moses’ complaint in verses 11-15, and then look at the Lord’s answer in verses 16-17.


Lesson one: When you are overwhelmed and discouraged, take your complaint to the Lord in prayer rather than complaining about the Lord to yourself and others…
Lesson number one: When you are overwhelmed and discouraged, take your complaint to the Lord in prayer rather than complaining about the Lord to yourself and others. Therein lies the difference between God’s response to Moses in verses 16-17 and His response to the people in verses 18ff. The Lord is incredibly patient and kind to Moses. Moses throws his hands up–‘Lord, have You left me to carry this people by myself? Lord, how am I going to do this all on my own?’ And you want to slap Moses around a little bit…‘Moses, you’re feeling a little proud of yourself here, you know, as if the Lord has left all of this up to you.’ But the Lord is incredibly patient with him. He says, ‘OK, Moses, I’ll get you some help. Go out and amongst the elders of Israel, bring seventy of them to Me. And I’m going to distribute the burden that you are carrying amongst those seventy elders so that you do not feel alone, and so that you are surrounded on all sides by men gifted by the Holy Spirit to help you in this work, because I don’t want you to feel alone.’ It is an incredibly kind, patient, loving, generous response.

But the Lord’s response to the people is furious. Why? Because Moses had taken his complaint to the Lord, whereas the people of God in the camp had only complained about the Lord. You know, it’s quite amazing, isn’t it, that the Lord indicates here that He is ready to be patient with all kinds of foolishness that we pour out to Him in prayer, but He is ready to deal swiftly with the foolishness that we pour out to others about Him but not to Him in prayer. The Lord is teaching His people ‘Bring your complaints to Me. I can take it. I want you to hear from Me. I want to hear from you. But I don’t want to hear about Me from you to others, or to yourselves. Bring your complaint to Me.’ And when we are overwhelmed and discouraged, take your complaint to the Lord in prayer, rather than complaining about the Lord to yourself and others. And look, Moses gets an “A” on this. Moses gets an “A” on this, and God is kind to respond helpfully to him. There’s the first thing.


Lesson two. Look at verse 14, and then look at verse 21. Lesson number two from Numbers 11:16-30 is this: God never calls us to do anything for Him that we are able to do.

I meant to say it that way: God never calls us to do anything for Him that we are able to do, but nothing is impossible with God. Now, we normally have a saying that goes like this: God never asks you to bear more than you can handle–and of course there’s a certain truth to that, because He’s holding you up. Or, God never calls you to do something He won’t equip you for. But the way I want you to think about it for a minute is this: God never calls us to do anything for Him that we are able to do, but nothing is impossible with God.

Moses first cries out, ‘Lord, am I supposed to carry all this people by myself?’ (Ah, Moses, if you’ll check your birth certificate again, your name is Moses, not God. I didn’t ask you to carry this people. That’s My job.) And then in verse 21, ‘Lord, You’re going to feed all this people meat? Where do You expect me to get that from?’ (Ah, Moses, I think you misheard Me. I didn’t ask you to provide them meat for a month. I said for you to tell them that I was going to provide them meat to eat for a month.)

But there’s an important lesson in this. God is not asking Moses in leading the children of Israel to do something that Moses is able to do, and Moses needs to understand that up front, because burnout in ministry and burnout in Christian service happens when we think that we by ourselves are able to accomplish what God calls us to do in His work. We’re not. What do we want to see through the ministry of our church and through our ministry individually? We want to see people come to faith in Christ. We want to see them grow in grace. We want to see them be able to conquer past sins that have dogged them. We want to see them transcend broken relationships that hound them. And you know what? As much as we want to see all that happen, we can’t make any of it happen. We can’t save anybody. We can tell people the gospel. We can share the word of salvation with them. But only God the Holy Spirit can change them. We may want to see someone’s broken heart bound up and comforted. We can’t do that. Only God the Holy Spirit can do that. We may want to see someone get out of the grip of a sin that has dogged him or her for years. We can’t do that. Only the Holy Spirit can do that. God never calls us to do anything for Him that we are able to do.

I was…on the Sunday afternoon, the first Sunday afternoon in June, Al and Betsy Chestnut have the leaders who are going to be serving at Twin Lakes during the summer over to their home, and they feed them lunch. And I popped in just to say hello and to thank Al and Betsy for doing that–something that they just do because they love those kids that serve the young people at Twin Lakes all summer long. And as I got there, Al was giving them a little exhortation. This is what he was saying: “Remember, the Lord doesn’t call you to do anything that you can do.” And I had to do a quick double-take! The Lord doesn’t call you to do anything that you can do. His point was that they would have to be totally dependent upon the Lord as they did their jobs during the summer, because God never calls you to do something that you are able to do on your own in His service.

Now Moses gets an “F” on this one. But notice, God is gracious to him anyway. God says to him in verse 23, ‘Moses, My power is not limited.’ It reminds you of an angel’s words to a young woman in the Gospels: “Nothing is impossible for God.” It reminds you of something that someone once said: “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” God never calls us to do anything that we are able to do by ourselves, but nothing is impossible with God. Lesson two.

Lesson three. Verses 24 -26, and you could maybe especially zero in on the second half of verse 25 and verse 26. Verses 24-26.

Lesson three: The Lord equips His pastors for ministry by His Spirit, and He certifies them for service to His people.

When the seventy elders are gathered, God comes down, anoints them with His Holy Spirit, and they prophesy. Now what that is is that’s a picture of God gifting them for the service that He has called them to, and their prophesying is a testimony to the people of God that God has equipped them for the service that He has called them to. The Lord equips His pastors for ministry by His Holy Spirit, and certifies them for service to His people. Is it any surprise, then, that on the Day of Pentecost the Spirit descends from the outstretched hands of the Lord Jesus Christ at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, pouring Him out on His people, and descends and lights upon His disciples in tongues of fire, and they prophesy? It’s a picture of God gifting His church for the ministry that He has called her to, and certifying to the people of God that He has so gifted them.

Oh, there’s so much more to say about that, but we must rush on.

One more thing. Verses 27-30, Lesson four. A young man catches Eldad and Medad prophesying in the camp…two of these seventy elders who had been chosen. And he thinks they’re up to no good…I mean, they’re clearly trying to sort of one-up Moses, to usurp the unique loyalty that the people of God are to exercise towards him as the mediator, and they go hoofing it back to the tent to let them know that these two guys are out there prophesying. And then Joshua hears about it. And Joshua has been Moses’ assistant from childhood, and he’s jealous for Moses’ reputation, jealous for Moses’ authority, and he says, ‘Moses, you’ve got to stop these guys from doing what they’re doing!’ And Moses’ attitude is absolutely glorious. Moses is back to “A” level again. He says ‘Stop them from prophesying? You’ve got to be kidding! Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets!’

Lesson four: Wise servants of the Lord are not jealous of the gifts of the Spirit to fellow elders and pastors for ministry…

Wise servants of the Lord are not jealous of the gifts of the Spirit to fellow elders and pastors for ministry. You know, Moses really gets an “A” for humility here. He is not jealous in the least of these other men that are doing what they are doing because they have been gifted by God’s Holy Spirit.

Immediately, two things came to mind. One is a story of Robert Murray M’Cheyne. Some of you have used Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s Bible reading calendar for many years, that gives you a plan to read through the Bible in one year…through the New Testament and Psalms twice, and through the Old Testament once every year. He was one of the godliest ministers in Scotland, and a revival happened in his church. But guess when it happened? It happened while he was away. His church, his denomination, had sent him out on a mission trip to Hungary and Rumania to do ministry amongst the Jews, and while he was away revival broke out at St. Peter’s/Dundee. People were getting saved. People were committing themselves for service and ministry and missions. And do you think Robert Murray M’Cheyne was jealous about that – that he wasn’t the one preaching when revival broke out? No. He was just glad that the Lord’s people had been revived. People were coming to faith in Christ and people were growing in grace before going out to serve. Just like Moses.

The same thing happened to the Puritan minister, Thomas Craddock. While he was away, the little parish that he served in Wales experienced revival. Eight hundred people came to Christ in a matter of weeks. He was away! And he writes back to his people, and he says, “We should all rejoice that the Lord has manifested His Spirit and is moving amongst His people. It does not matter that I was not there; it only matters that the Lord would be glorified.” Moses illustrates precisely this attitude. Wise servants of the Lord are not jealous of the gifts of the Spirit to fellow elders and pastors. No, they rejoice at God’s gifting.

Oh, there’s more to say about this great passage, but time is gone. Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, thank You for Your word. Thank You for Your encouragement to us, for Your provision for Your people despite our stubbornness and ingratitude and complaining. And grant that we would have an attitude of trust in You; one that when we are overwhelmed and discouraged leads us to take our concerns and complaints to You in prayer, rather than grumbling to ourselves and to others. Help us to remember, God, that You never call us to anything in this life that we can do without You, because apart from You, we can do nothing. But we can do all things through Him who strengthens us, and in this way You get all the glory. And Lord, by Your grace, we wouldn’t have it any other way. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

[Congregation: The Doxology]

Grace and peace to you.