Wednesday Evening

June 27, 2007

Numbers 11:31-35

“The Plague”

Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Numbers 11 as we continue to make our way through this great book of the Old Testament — the fourth of the five books of the Law. We’re in chapter eleven. We’re in verses 31-35, right at the end of the chapter.

The complaining of Israel has already been mentioned in this passage. We saw that when we were looking at verses 1-9, and it had initially resulted in God breaking out against Israel in the form of fire, just on the outskirts of the camp, but now God’s judgment is going to come again on Israel because of their complaining. It’s important for us to recognize that throughout the wilderness wanderings Moses himself will indicate that God is testing Israel. Not tempting Israel, mind you, but testing Israel. God has certain things that He wants His people to learn in the course of their wilderness wanderings. Moses comes back in his final sermon, a book we call Deuteronomy, and makes this point explicitly: that there are certain things that God wanted His people to learn while they were in the wilderness. And this passage is one of those places where they had an opportunity to display one or both of two qualities that Moses will later speak about God wanting them to display in the tests that He gave them in the wilderness. But they fail on both counts in this passage.

One of the things that God wants the children of Israel to learn in the wilderness (and we’ll see this in a few moments when we turn to Deuteronomy 8:3) is humility, and that humility He wants them to manifest in two ways. One, He wants them to manifest humility in their obedience to Him. He wants the children of Israel to care more about His will than their will; and, He wants the children of Israel to manifest their obedience with their humility in dependence upon Him. He wants them to trust Him. He puts them into certain circumstances where they have an option. They can either trust in themselves or they can trust in Him. And the event that we’re looking at tonight is one of those tests, and as you know, they fail that test miserably here. In fact, because of these and like failures throughout the wilderness wanderings of the children of Israel in the book of Numbers, only two adults of this generation will enter into the Promised Land — Joshua and Caleb. It’s a catastrophic failure.

But let me remind you that it is precisely this story of complaint that the Apostle Paul is drawing our attention to in I Corinthians 10, and asking us as Christians to learn from. So tonight as we read this short passage and as we work through its very important content, let me ask you to be listening for, to be looking out for, three things.

First of all, I want you to note especially the sin of the people, and the Lord actually comes out and tells you what the prime sin is in verse 34, and He does it in two ways. So just be on the lookout for that — the sin of the people.

Secondly, I want us to pull back to I Corinthians 10, and I want you to see the lesson from Paul. So first we’re going to look at the sin of the people, then I want you to see the lesson from Paul because Paul is going to tell us how we as Christians are supposed to learn precisely from this incident.

And then, finally, thirdly, I want you to see the contrast of Jesus. The contrast of Jesus because, interestingly, Jesus in His ministry at least twice drew our attention to these tests in the wilderness, and on one occasion shows us how He passes the test while Israel failed it. And on another occasion He shows us how He is the one that the Lord wants us to depend on (which is of course one of the two grand tests of the whole wilderness experience — to trust on the Lord). Jesus will use this to show how He is the one that the Lord would have us depend on.

So, be looking for those three things: the sin of the people; the lesson from Paul; and, the contrast of Jesus. Now let’s pray before we read God’s word.

Heavenly Father, this is Your word. Teach us from it tonight. Humble our hearts before You. Make us lovers of Your will; not just theoretically loving Your word, but practically doing Your word. And, O God, grant that we would trust You, especially when we find ourselves in hard places. Open our eyes to behold wonderful things now from Your word, we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

This is God’s word, Numbers 11:31:

“Now there went forth a wind from the Lord, and it brought quail from the sea, and let them fall beside the camp, about a day’s journey on this side and a day’s journey on the other side, all around the camp, and about two cubits deep on the surface of the ground.”

[That’s a lot of quail! That’s about six feet of quail.]

“And the people spent all day and all night and all the next day, and gathered the quail (he who gathered least gathered ten homers)…”

[about eleven bushels]

“…and they spread them out for themselves all around the camp. While the meat was still between their teeth, before it was chewed, the anger of the Lord was kindled against the people, and the Lord struck the people with a very severe plague. So the name of that place was called Kibroth-hattaavah, because there they buried the people who had been greedy. From Kibroth-hattaavah the people set out for Hazeroth, and they remained at Hazeroth.”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

It is very clear from what Moses teaches us in Deuteronomy 8:3 — and we’re about to go there, so if you have your Bibles get your fingers ready to go to Deuteronomy 8. It’s very clear from Deuteronomy 8:3 that the encounters and the trials and the experiences that the children of Israel had while they were in the wilderness were not accidental or coincidental, or inconsequential. They were precisely, deliberately appointed by God for their sanctification: not for their destruction, not for their undoing, but as occasions in which they could exercise trust and obedience in the Lord, and thus display the fruit of humility and grow in grace. And yet over and over in these various encounters in the wilderness and incidents in the wilderness, and trials in the wilderness, the children of Israel do not display trust and obedience, and thus they manifest that they have missed the big point. And that’s what sin is, after all, isn’t it? It’s missing the point for which God made us.

Now even if we only had Deuteronomy 8:3, we would know thereby there are some major lessons for us in this passage, but Paul piles on! He adds, in I Corinthians 10, that we upon whom the ends of the ages have come are to learn from the mistakes of the children of Israel in the wilderness, and we are not to repeat those mistakes. But in contrast to them, we are to respond in trust and obedience, and so manifest the grace-wrought character that God has purposed for us.

I want you to see three things tonight.

I. The sin of the people
First of all, the sin of the people
, and you see it spelled out, don’t you, in Technicolor in verse 34. Well, what’s going on here?

Well, if you’ll remember, this isn’t the first kind of trial that the children of Israel faced in the wilderness. If you remember all the way back to Exodus 16, there had been a time when they were grumbling and complaining because the Lord (they thought) was not going to provide them food and water. But this is a little bit different, isn’t it? They’re being provided food and water, but now they don’t like the menu! And so they are grumbling about the lack of variety in the food, and they are ungrateful enough to compare unfavorably the bread that God Himself is providing for them from heaven to the gruel that they received in Pharaoh’s house.

Now you understand what’s going on here. They’re saying that Pharaoh, our slave master, provided better for us than the God who redeemed us out of the house of bondage, out of the land of Egypt, out of the estate of slavery in which we were in chains for 430 years. Does that give you a feel for the sheer ingratitude of what is going on? But Moses just gives it a name, and the name that he gives it is greed. They were greedy. You understand what’s going on here. Self-concern for self-gratification leads to putting their immediate fleshly desires over God’s desires for them. It manifests itself in greed, idolatry, and pride, and then it leads to judgment. Moses tells us that. Turn with me — I’ve been threatening to do it now for five minutes, so turn with me to Deuteronomy 8, and look at verse 2:

“You shall remember all the way which the Lord your God has led you in the wilderness these forty years…”

[and what was He trying to do?]

“…that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not.”

So there’s…they manifest humility how, in verse 2? Through keeping the Lord’s commandment. Through obedience. Then verse 3:

“And He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord.”

So there they were to manifest humility how? By depending on the Lord to feed them. So when the children of Israel compare unfavorably in their complaint the manna which is being given to them from the very mouth of God, from the very hand of God, when they compare that unfavorably to the gruel that they had had in the land of slavery under their slave master, Pharaoh, they’re not only being ungrateful, they are manifesting a lack of understanding of the whole message of the manna in the first place. The message of the manna was ‘What you need to live, you need from Me. You don’t get it from Pharaoh, you don’t get it by your own might or main, you get it from My hand. You don’t live by bread alone. You live on what proceeds from the mouth of God.’ And when they compare that manna in their complaint unfavorably to the food that they had in Egypt–even if the food in Egypt had greater variety, they are showing that they have missed the whole point of the manna in the wilderness, and their self-centeredness and their self-concern has led them to be more concerned about their self-gratification of their fleshly desires for variety in food, which had manifested itself in greed, idolatry, and pride, and it results in judgment.

And we’re told that God brings a plague against them and strikes them down. And the place gets a new name: Kibroth-hattaavah. There are a few Hebrew scholars in here who can tell you what that means. It means something roughly like this: the graves of the greedy. So, in verse 34 by the place name and by the word greed, God tells you the heart state and the heart sin of Israel. This is huge, my friends.

People often talk about the fact that Jonathon Edwards, who is often called the greatest theologian in the history of America (although he himself considered himself an Englishman!)…people often talk about the fact that Jonathon Edwards thought that the essence of religion was found in the desires; that is, that you manifested true religion through your desires–what you desired, what you love, what you crave, where your satisfaction and delight is found. And they very often ascribe that to Jonathon Edwards as if he were the first person in history to ever think it up. But do you see what Moses is saying here? Moses is saying that God was very concerned in the wilderness to find out about Israel’s desires, and He was very, very concerned that they would understand that when their desires pointed in one direction and God’s desires pointed in the other direction, that they needed to adjust their desires.

Jesus put this in the phrase, if you’ll remember, as He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Not My will, but Thy will be done.” And the children of Israel are saying here at Kibroth-Hattaavah, ‘Not Thy will, but my will be done.’ And thus they have manifested that their desires have not been brought into conformity with God’s desires, but they have put their desires over God’s desires. Greed, idolatry, pride…the wilderness tests, you see, were all about humility manifested in obedience and dependence, and here they showed no humility, no obedience, and no dependence. The old gospel song has it right: “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.” And they did neither, and that revealed their hearts.

Isn’t it fascinating that the Lord gives them exactly what they wanted, and it ends up being a plague that destroys them? It reminds you of that old Greek proverb, that whom the gods would destroy, they answer their prayers.

Matthew Henry has this fascinating comment. He says that the Lord sends the quail first so that no one would have been able to say, well, the Lord just judged Israel because He couldn’t provide them the meat. He provides them meat, and then He judges them to show that this is not a matter of a lack of His power to do things. This is a matter about their hearts and whether they will trust Him for what they really need. That is so huge, because what happens when our desires are left unsatisfied is we so often do what? We question the power of God to be able to give us what we need, and that is never ever the question. The question is, are we ready to submit our will to the One who is able to do anything? So there is a huge spiritual battle for the hearts of the people of God going on here, and they’re failing miserably. So there you see the sin of the people.


II. The lesson from Paul.

Turn and take a look at I Corinthians 10… and it’s all over those first thirteen verses, but I’ll just draw your attention to two or three things that Paul says in that section.

I Corinthians 10…notice verse 6:

“These things happened as examples to us that we should not crave…”

[What does that have to do with the desires?]

“…that we should not crave evil things, as they also craved. And not be idolaters….(verse 7); “… and not act immorally, as some of them did….”

Verse 10:

“…And not grumble…”

And then of course he says (verse 12):

“Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.”

Notice where the Apostle Paul puts the emphasis. What is the lesson that we are to learn out of this? Take a hard look at your desires, the Apostle Paul is saying. And he’s saying take a hard look at Israel. Don’t think that they didn’t have spiritual advantages; they did. They were led through the wilderness by the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire. They had the Rock which was Christ following them through the wilderness. They had the word of God, they had the presence of the ark, they had the manifestation of the nearness of God to them in the tabernacle, and yet they craved their own desires.

What does Paul say in Galatians 5:16? Somebody can take a peek and tell me. What does he say? Galatians 5:16–he’s exhorting Christians to do one thing in contrast to another. Who has it?

“Walk according to the Spirit, not according to the…” [What?] “…the sinful desires [or the sinful cravings] of the flesh.”

What does that sound like? I Corinthians 10:6. What the Apostle Paul is saying is that your desires can kill you. Paul is saying, ‘Dear Christian, understand this. Your desires can kill you. Be very careful about what you desire. That’s a huge lesson, friends. That is a battle especially for those of us who are blessed with so much. It is so easy for our hearts to be pulled away, wooed away from God by the bounty that’s all around us, and Paul is saying be very careful about your desires.

III. Finally, the contrast of Jesus.

Jesus is out in the wilderness in Matthew 4:4. He had been led into the wilderness by the Spirit. Does that sound familiar? The children of Israel had been led into the wilderness by the Spirit. And Satan came to Him in the wilderness and said to Him, ‘You’re hungry, Jesus. Turn those stones into bread. Feed Yourself.’ And you remember what Jesus does in Matthew 4:4? He quotes Deuteronomy 8:3: ‘I will not do this, Satan, because man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’ Jesus obeys where Israel disobeyed. And, my friends, this is where the hour-long sermon could be inserted on Jesus’ obedience on our behalf. This is why it is so vital that Jesus actively obeys for us, because we fail at every point here. And here’s Jesus obeying where our spiritual forefathers and we so often fail. He refuses to put His cravings above the will of God.

And then, if you’ll remember again, out in the wilderness surrounded by a huge multitude–five thousand people–Matthew 14 records it. All the Gospels record it. John 6 records it. He provides them with food…fish to eat, bread to eat. And what does He say that that lesson is for us in John 6? Take a look at John 6. What was the lesson of the five thousand being fed? Verse 29, John 6:

“This is the work of God, that you might believe in Him who He has sent.”

Verse 32:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, it is not Moses who gives you the bread out of heaven, but it is My Father who gives you the true bread out of heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world.”

What is that bread? Jesus. And He tells you that point blank in verse 35:

“I am the bread of life.”

What’s Jesus saying? He’s saying just as the manna in the wilderness was designed to teach the people of God that you don’t live by bread alone, you are utterly dependent upon God for everything you have and are, so also Jesus’ giving of the food to the five thousand is to teach us that He is the One in whom our trust must be placed, for everything that we are and have depends on Him. He is the bread of heaven. He’s showing us where our trust is to be placed: in Him, and in Him alone.

Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, You continue to take our breath away with the book of Numbers. Thank You for challenging us where we need to be challenged. Help us, O God, by the grace of Your Holy Spirit, to have our eyes wide open to the state of our hearts’ desires. Help us by Your grace to have our desires, our affections, our longings, our cravings set not on the things of the sin of the flesh, but set upon You, upon Christ, upon the bread of heaven, upon the things that proceed from the mouth of God, upon the things that are going to last forever, and not the fading pleasures of the worldly. And, Lord God, thank You for Jesus, who obeys where we disobey, and who is given for our sins, so that through His obedience and satisfaction, and through Spirit-wrought trust, faith, belief, and dependence upon Him, we fellowship with You in the land of Canaan forevermore. Praise be to Him. Amen.

[Congregation: The Doxology]

Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.