Wednesday Evening

August 8, 2007

Numbers 14:1-45

“Rebellion and Rebuke”

Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

…Numbers, chapter 14, we are in a section of the book in which we have repeatedly seen Israel grumble and rebel against the Lord. And if you’ll remember the passage that we quoted from the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 10, this is precisely how he cites the activity of Israel in

I Corinthians as a warning to the Corinthian Christians not to grumble. He cites the grumbling of the Israelites, and he cites incidents that occurred and are recorded in our books of Exodus and Numbers; and we are right in the middle of the grumbling in this book.

The people grumbled in Numbers 11. The brother and sister of Moses grumbled in Numbers 12. The majority of the spies grumbled in Numbers 13, and now all the people, infected by the grumbling and the whining of the majority of the spies having reported back to Israel, are going to engage in grumbling.

And in this passage you’re going to see four phases. You’re going to see that grumbling in verses 1-12 that’s rebellion against the Lord. Then, in verses 13-19, you’re going to see Moses intercede. So you’ll go from rebellion in verses 1-12 to intercession in verses 13-19; and then in verses 20-38, you’re going to see God’s judgment as God pronounces His sentence upon the rebellion. And then, stunningly, unlike the cycle that you so often see in the book of Judges (which is what? Sin and then judgment, and then prayer for mercy, and repentance and restoration — that cycle that just seems to go over and over in the book of Judges), you’re going to see here rebellion-intercession-judgment, and then more rebellion! It’s absolutely stunning! You go from rebellion to God’s announcement of what He’s going to do, to Moses’ glorious intercession on behalf of the people of God, to the carrying out of a mitigated form of judgment against Israel — a judgment that does not come to the fullness of the threat that God had first announced…in His mercy, He does not carry through on the fullness of the weight of that judgment — and what you’re expecting there is ‘Wow! These folks have had a wake-up call. We’re going to see revival!’ And what you see is more rebellion.

There are so many lessons in this passage that we can’t touch them, but let’s look at those four things and see if we can draw from God’s word for us. Now let’s pray before we read God’s word.

Heavenly Father, this is Your word. You mean it for us. You tell us in the words of the Apostle Paul that You wrote this for us, and that these things happened for us that we might not grumble and rebel and act in an idolatrous way, but that we might believe and trust, and follow the living God. Bring home Your truth to us, we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Numbers 14:

[Again, look for rebellion, intercession, judgment, and more rebellion in the four parts of this passage.]

“Then all the congregation raised a loud cry and the people wept that night. And all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron; and the whole congregation said to them, ‘Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness!…’”

[Remember that request.]

“… ‘Why is the Lord bringing us into this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey.’”

[Remember that statement.]

“… ‘Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?’ And they said to one another, ‘Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.’

“Then Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before all the assembly of the congregation of the people of Israel….”

[Blasphemy had just been uttered. What more appropriate thing than for the appointed leaders of God’s people to fall on their faces at such blasphemy?]

“…And Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephunneh, who were among those who had spied out the land, tore their clothes, and said to all the congregation of the people of Israel, ‘The land which we passed through to spy out is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord delights in us, He will bring us into this land and give it to us–a land that flows with milk and honey. Only do not rebel against the Lord; and do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread for us. Their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us. Do not fear them.’ Then all the congregation…”

[all the congregation!]

“…said to stone them with stones. But the glory of the Lord appeared at the tent of meeting to all the people of Israel.

“And the Lord said to Moses, ‘How long will this people despise Me? And how long will they not believe in Me, in spite of all the signs I have done among them? I will strike them with pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make you a nation greater and mightier than they.’

“But Moses said to the Lord, ‘Then the Egyptians will hear of it, for You brought up this people in Your might from among them, and they will tell the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that You, O Lord, are in the midst of this people, for You, O Lord, are seen face to face, and Your cloud stands over them, and You go before them in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. Now if You kill this people as one man, then the nations who have heard Your fame will say, ‘It is because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land that He swore to give to them that He has killed them in the wilderness.’ And now, please let the power of the Lord be great, as You have promised, saying, ‘The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression; and He will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation. Pleas pardon the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of Your steadfast love, just as You have forgiven this people, from Egypt until now.’

“Then the Lord said, ‘I have pardoned according to your word; but truly, as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord, none of the men who have seen My glory and My signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put Me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed My voice shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers, and none of those who despised Me shall see it. But My servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit and has followed Me fully, I will bring into the land into which he went, and his descendants shall possess it. Now since the Amalekites and the Canaanites dwell in the valleys, turn tomorrow and set out for the wilderness by the way to the Red Sea.’

“And the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, ‘How long shall this wicked congregation grumble against Me? I have heard the grumblings of the people of Israel, which they grumble against Me. Say to them ‘As I live,’ declares the Lord, ‘what you have said in My hearing, I will do to you. Your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness, and of all your number listed in the census from twenty years old and upward who have grumbled against Me, not one shall come into the land where I swore that I will make you dwell, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun. But your little ones, who you said would become a prey, I will bring in, and they shall know the land that you have rejected. But as for you, your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness, and your children shall be shepherds in the wilderness forty years, and shall suffer for your faithlessness, until the last of your dead bodies lies in the wilderness. According to the number of days in which you spied out the land, forty days, a year for each day you shall bear your iniquity. Forty years, and you shall know My displeasure. I the Lord have spoken. Surely this will I do to all this wicked congregation who are gathered together against Me. In this wilderness they shall come to a full end, and there they shall die.’

“And the men whom Moses sent to spy out the land who returned and made all the congregation grumble against him by bringing up a bad report about the land, the men who brought up a bad report of the land died by plague before the Lord. Of those men who went to spy out the land, only Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephunneh remained alive.

“When Moses told these words to all the people of Israel, the people mourned greatly. And they rose early in the morning and went up to the heights of the hill country, saying, ‘Here we are; we will go up to the place the Lord has promised; for we have sinned.’ But Moses said, ‘Why now are you transgressing the command of the Lord, when that will not succeed? Do not go up, for the Lord is not among you, lest you be struck down before your enemies. For there the Amalekites and the Canaanites are facing you, and you will fall by the sword, because you have turned back from following the Lord. The Lord will not be with you.’ But they presumed to go up to the heights of the hill country, although neither the ark of the covenant of the Lord nor Moses departed out of the camp. Then the Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived in that hill country came down, and defeated them and pursued them even to Hormah.”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He add His blessing to it.

Tonight the rebellion continues, and God’s judgment falls down. And yet there is no repentance, but more rebellion. In fact, in this passage I think we see something of the insidious infection of sin, how it works and how it spreads.

And how special and uncommon and spiritual the grace of repentance is! I think some of us think we can just repent any time we want, and here in the face of the most obvious warnings…if ever there were an opportunity for the natural man, apart from the help of the Holy Spirit, to repent, this was a good opportunity. And so I think we see something of the insidious infection of sin, but I think we also see here the power of God-centered intercession. It is one of the bright spots in a very dark chapter, isn’t it, to hear Moses intercede for the people of God. And we see the consequences of sin in God’s just judgment, and we see God mitigating the full force of His judgment.

So look with me at four things in this passage tonight: the rebellion; the intercession; the judgment; and, the continued rebellion.

I. Rebellion against God.

First, the grumbling and rebellion, in verses 1-12. Here notice what the people of God do: they reject the word of God, the goodness of God, and the power of God. When they respond to the majority report of the spies that the land is filled with giants, fear reigns and they forsake belief in the promise of God to them that He was going to give them the land, they forsake obedience to the command of God to them to enter the land (the land is yours, now take it), they forsake trust in God’s promise to protect them, they question God’s power to protect them, and they even question the goodness of God towards them. They reject His word, they reject His goodness, they reject His power.

See the response of all the people in verses 1-4 to the majority report of the spies, and it absolutely takes your breath away: ‘It would have been better if we were in Egypt and died there! It would have been better if we had died in the wilderness!’ And the rebellion escalates to the point that they decide to choose their own leader and go back to Egypt.

Moses and Aaron lament. They show immediately in verse 5 their rejection of and repentance for this blasphemy that has been uttered by the people of God by tearing their robes and falling on the ground in an open display of their penitence. But Joshua and Caleb get up and utter one of those epic speeches. [You know in great literature there’s always a point for the protagonist to utter some epic speech in the face of catastrophe, and here it comes from Joshua and Caleb, and it’s stirring stuff.] They are utterly confident in the word, the goodness, and power of the Lord, and their confidence in the word, goodness, and power of the Lord stands in stark contrast to the unbelief of the people of God. And yet the response of the people of God to that amazing speech delivered in verses 6-9 is to pick up stones to stone them to death. You can’t get a better picture, can you, of hardness of heart…uncomprehending and unbelieving hearts. But right as they get ready to lob those stones, God’s glory comes down. They’re not going to lay a finger on Joshua and Caleb and Moses and Aaron. God’s glory comes down.

And God announces to Moses directly what He is going to do. He is going to wipe the entire nation, save that small band of righteous ones, off the face of the earth, and He’s going to start over.(Implausible, you say? Have you read Genesis 6-9 recently? He’d done it before. The flood.)

And then Moses intercedes. And in Moses’ intercession you are being given a lesson in the mediation of Christ for His people. And I want you to notice three things about this amazing prayer of Moses. Remember now, the people of God in their rebellion, in their grumbling, had rejected God’s word, His goodness, and His power. Look at Moses’ prayer for forgiveness in verses 13-19, and notice that the whole rationale for this intercession that he lifts up to God for forgiveness for these wicked and undeserving people. Notice that it’s based on — what? — God’s word, God’s power and glory, and God’s love.

This intercession is utterly striking. Look at verses 13-16. Moses’ big concern…he is facing the eradication of an entire race of people. Now, if this were what we were facing today, what would we be focused on? We would be focused on all of the human tragedy and suffering. Think of the little children that will die, Lord, if this happens. Think of the mothers expecting children who will die, Lord, if You bring this judgment to bear. Think of the young couples just married, Lord, who will die if You bring this judgment…. We would have human interest stories that even the round-the-clock news services today could not cover!

And Moses’ prayer utterly ignores all of that. He says, ‘Lord, if You do this, my big concern is You won’t get the glory that I want You to have; because the thing that is at stake here is Your glory, and that’s all that really matters. You wipe all these people out, and the Egyptians are going to say of You, Lord, ‘You know, the reason He wiped them out is because He wasn’t powerful enough to get them into that land.’ And Lord, I don’t want those Egyptians to be able to say that about You. I want them to know ….’ Do you understand the radical God-centeredness of Moses’ thinking in this moment? Do you understand how alien this is to us?

I was recently talking to a dear friend who is struggling through some really hard and really legitimate questions about the very, very difficult tragic and even evil things that happen in this fallen world, and that sometimes happen to those that are closest to our hearts. And he’s asking a lot of psalmist kind of ‘why?’ questions. Not in a wrong way, but in a biblical way — a way that’s submissive to the Lord and to His word, and which follows the pattern of the Psalms where the Lord Himself gives us permission to come and lift up our cries of ‘Lord, what in the world are You doing?’ And He says, ‘Come, ask Me. I can hear that.’

But over and over in the Bible those questions are always and only answered from a radically God-centered perspective, by reorienting and rethinking the situation that we’re facing. And you see Moses doing that here. This whole scenario with two million human tragedies waiting to happen–it’s not about that. It’s about God’s glory. Friends, if that won’t turn your world upside down in the way you look at it, I don’t know what will. That is the most astounding way of looking at the situation that you possibly can. And it’s the biblical way of looking at it, because this whole story is about God’s glory. The whole story is about God’s glory.

What is it that we say when we first begin to memorize that Catechism? “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Why? Because this whole thing is about God’s glory. And Moses just dramatically draws our attention to that in his intercession.

II. Moses’ intercession.

And notice the second thing that he does. Look at verse 17. “Please let the power of the Lord be great…” — what’s the next phrase? — “…as You have promised.” What’s Moses saying? ‘Lord, they have doubted Your word. You have promised You would be with them. You promised that You would take them into the land. You promised that You would protect them against their enemies. You promised that You would establish them there. They doubt that word, Lord! Show them Your power! Show them that Your word means what it says!’

Isn’t it amazing that later when the Lord comes back to express that mitigated judgment that is going to come upon them, He says, ‘You know what? You said that you’d die in the wilderness and that your children would die in the wilderness. Well, let Me tell you what. Because you said your children would die in the wilderness, they’re going to go in the land. You’re going to die in the wilderness, because I’m going to display My power that I intend to fulfill My word.’

And then Moses quotes from the word of God in verses 18-19. From what? What does he quote from? He quotes from the Ten Commandments:

“The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression; but He will by no means clear the guilty.”

In other words, Moses appeals not to cheap grace, not to a God who is so loving that He would never ever judge anybody, but to a God who is characterized by holy love, justice and mercy, steadfast love, perfect uprightness. And he says, Lord, because that’s how You are, because that’s who You are, spare this people.

And in verse 20, the Lord says something absolutely extraordinary. There’s a sermon series here in this phrase: “I have pardoned according to your word.” The Lord has said to Moses the mediator, ‘I’m going to wipe them out, and I’m going to make you a nation.’ And the mediator lifts up this prayer on their behalf, appealing not to their deserving, but to who God is, what He has promised, to His love and to His power, and to His glory and to His word, and then God says, ‘According to your word, I will forgive.’ And it’s a picture of the work of Christ, isn’t it? Except Christ’s work is even greater, because in that work, whereas God pronounces that He will bring His judgment on all of His people, Christ does not simply intercede for all of His people, He says ‘Let their judgment be upon Me, and the blessing that I deserve be upon them.’ And the Father forgives, because of His word and obedience. And so it’s a primer here that we’re seeing, to learn of the intercession of Christ.

III. God’s judgment on rebellion.

But we also see, don’t we, the consequences; that there’s a sparing of the fullness of judgment, but there are consequences here — grave consequences — and God pronounces judgment on the unbelieving spies and the Israelites in verse 20-38.

Two quick things. Notice in verses 20-25, God says this: ‘For all of you who saw My glory and yet doubted My word and My glory, you won’t see the land. You saw My glory, but You doubted My word and My power. You won’t see the land. You saw Me, you doubted Me, you won’t see the land.’ And then notice again in verses 26-38, everyone who said, ‘Oh, no! It would have been better that we had died in the wilderness!’ God said, ‘I heard that, and you will. You saw; you did not believe; you shall not see. I heard what you said, and you will not see. But not your children, in order to demonstrate to you and to them My power, which you doubted.’

IV. Continued rebellion.

And, my friends, at that point you’re waiting for the revival to happen! You’re waiting for people to start coming forward! Good grief, if you don’t get it at that point, when are you ever going to get it? You are waiting for them to start “coming forward”! They mourn. And the next morning they get up and they look around–‘OK, let’s go into the land! We’re ready now!’ (What part of verse 25 did you miss?) And Moses warns them again. OK, so they missed verse 25. Moses tells it to them again in verses 42 and 43, and then again Moses explicitly records for you the fact that they ignored what he said.

It’s not that they didn’t hear him. They heard him, and they did it anyway. Can you think of a better picture of the way that sin works its way into your heart, and you are so maligned to the appeals of your dearest friends — ‘No, no, no! Don’t do it! Don’t do it! I love you…don’t do it!’ — and they do it. And their enemies defeat them.

God’s mercy is seen even in this dark chapter, and His response to the intercession of Moses. But the consequences of Israel’s sin will be with them for at least forty years and, really, will echo down all the days of their existence as God’s chosen people.

Let’s pray.

Our Lord an dour God, what a sober reminder to us of how we ourselves are so often prone to wander, while You in Your love are calling by the roadside, “Child, don’t go there.” O Lord, we thank You that we have an intercessor that’s greater than Moses; a great High Priest, who is not only a faithful servant in Your house, but Your only begotten Son. By His obedience and blood, forgive us of our sins and free us from the dominion of them, for Your glory and our good. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

[Congregation sings The Doxology]

Grace to you.