The Lord’s Day Evening

October 21, 2007

Numbers 21:10-35

“The Wars of the Lord”

Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

Amen. Please be seated. If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Numbers 21. The last time we were together in the book of Numbers, we were looking at Numbers 21:1-9, that deeply moving story of the Lord bringing judgment on the grumbling people of Israel in the form of poisonous snakes; and then, having cried out to the Lord for relief in repentance and in supplication, having gone to Moses and begged that he would intercede for them with the Lord, the Lord appointed Moses to set up a brazen serpent, a copper serpent, whereby all who looked on it were saved.

This passage began with a deadly challenge and a glorious victory, and continued with the all too familiar whining and grumbling and complaining that we’ve been seeing throughout this book. Really from the early chapters of Numbers all the way through to Numbers 21:1-9, we’ve seen a repeated pattern of the grumbling and complaining of Israel. But that passage as we studied it also revealed to us God’s divine judgment and display of His glorious salvation, and along the way it taught us something very important about saving faith. Israel dishonors God in Numbers 21:4,5; they meet the just judgment of God in His sending of the poisonous snakes in verse 6; the people of God respond in repentance and prayer in verse 7; and then, in verses 8-9 they receive the merciful provision of God — life for a look. Just look on the copper serpent. Look on the brazen serpent, and you will live.

It’s a beautiful picture of faith, isn’t it? The people of God are called simply to look. Unlike the other sacrifices in the Old Testament in which the hands of the representative family must be placed upon the animal so that there is, as it were, a transfer, an imputation, an accounting, a crediting of their sin to the representative animal, in this case there’s no touching; there’s only looking–looking to the provision of God for salvation.

Well, that great story leads into another great story, the final travel narrative on the way to the land of Canaan. The people of Israel are somewhere almost directly south of the Dead Sea, but many, many miles south of the Dead Sea. And in verse 10 they begin their journey from a place called Oboth, and they begin to make their way up around Edom and on the west side of the River Jordan, up into the territory which is controlled by Amorites, by the kings Sihon and Og of Bashan. This, some of it, will be territory that eventually some of the tribes of Israel would take over themselves, and the travel narrative is given not only to help us understand something of the way the children of Israel were being led to the Promised Land, but this considerable geographical detail is designed to teach us some theological lessons.

In fact, before we read the passage tonight I want to suggest that you be on the lookout for three things.

First of all, look at the geographical detail in the travel narrative and realize that even if you don’t know all of the places, that you could take probably a map found in your Bible–there’s probably a map of the exodus and the conquest of the land of Canaan in your Bible, or in a study Bible at home–and you could identify some of these places on the way to Israel being poised on the other side of the Jordan to enter into the land of Canaan. And it’s designed to show us how God is taking Israel each step of the way into the destination which he had appointed for them not only when they left Egypt, but before the foundation of the world. It’s designed to show God’s guidance to the children of Israel.

Secondly, look to the tasks that the various people of God (all unnamed except for Moses)…look for the tasks that people will perform along the way. Yes, God has appointed that the children of Israel will enter the land of Canaan and it will be their land, but they have obligations. They have responsibilities, there are things that they themselves must do. And look at this passage, how often these things are recounted.

For instance, take a look at verse 10. It’s emphasized that all the people of Israel set out, and all the people of Israel camped. They’re traveling. And then in verse 14, notice how the historians are writing down the records recounting the battles that are fought along the way. And then look at verse 17. There we find the singers writing songs and singing those songs about the victories of the Lord. Then in verse 18 we find even princes digging wells! Not just the common people, not just the workers, not just the ditch diggers, but the princes themselves digging wells for the provision of water for Israel. In verse 21, there are diplomats conveying messages to the people who live in the region; in verses 23-24, soldiers fighting battles; in verse 32, spies being sent out to do reconnaissance; in verse 34, warriors who are trusting in the Lord. Over and over in this passage you find Israel doing what you would have hoped Israel would have been doing from the very beginning: trusting and obeying; knowing that God is taking them to the Promised Land, and doing what God has called on them to do; believing God’s promises, and actively working out their salvation with fear and trembling.

And then, third and finally, look for the feel of momentum in this passage. You know in the book of Numbers up to this point you just feel like you are slogging it out through the wilderness, and it’s going on and on and on. If you’re fans of J.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, you know that there are parts of that story where you just feel like you are never ever going to get out of the marshes, or these long, long journeys that are being taken along the way. And then suddenly you’ll get into a section where there’s a tremendous amount of action going on. That’s what’s happening here. Having gone through this long, long journey, sense the feel for momentum that you encounter in this passage. And you’ll see this in two ways.

First of all, I’ve got some really good news for you. Numbers 21:1-9, the passage that you’ve already worked through, is the last scene of grumbling in the wilderness! Whew! You’ve finally got through all of that! You won’t see that mass Israel-wide grumbling that we have seen repeated over and over and over again. You’re done. And that in and of itself gives you a sense that we’re finally making some progress here.

But secondly, look at the language that’s used. Look at verse 10, 11, 12, and 13, one after another, and look at the language: “They set out and camped.” They set out and camped. They set out and camped. They set out and camped…they’re making some progress! They’re not just stuck spinning their wheels somewhere. They’re setting out and camping, and they’re setting out again, and then they’re camping. And then they’re setting out again, and they’re camping. And they’re setting out again, and they’re camping. They’re actually making progress along the way, and the various cities are marked out for you.

And then notice how the language of “and they continued” is used in verses 16, 18, 19, and 20. Finally you get some sense of movement, so look for all three of those things as we hear God’s word in Numbers 21:10-35.

Before we read God’s word, let’s pray and ask for His help and blessing.

Heavenly Father, we thank You for this Your word. We ask that You would open our eyes to behold wonderful things in Your law through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

As we read this passage tonight, let me suggest that you look for three parts: verses 10-15, where we have the sense of movement; verses 16-20, which celebrates the Lord’s provision of water for the people of God; and then, verses 21-35, which recount the Lord fighting for His people.

This is God’s word:

“The people of Israel set out and camped in Oboth. And they set out from Oboth and camped at Iye-abarim, in the wilderness that is opposite Moab, toward the sunrise. Then they set out and camped in the valley of Zered. From there they set out and camped on the other side of the Arnon, which is in the wilderness that extends from the borders of the Amorites, for the Arnon is the border of Moab, between Moab and the Amorites. Wherefore it is said in the Book of the Wars of the Lord,

‘Waheb in Suphah, and the valleys of the Arnon, and the slope of the valleys that extends to the site of Ar, and leans to the border of Moab.’

And from there they continued to Beer, that is the well of which the Lord said to Moses, ‘Gather the people together so that I may give them water.’

“Then Israel sang this song:

‘Spring up, O well! Sing to it!

The well that the princes dug,

That the nobles of the people delved

With the scepter and with their staffs.’

And from the wilderness they went on to Mattanah, and from Mattanah to Nahaliel, and from Nahaliel to Bamoth, and from Bamoth to the valley lying in the region of Moab, by the top of Pisgah that looks down on the desert.

“Then Israel sent messengers to Sihon, king of the Amorites, saying, ‘Let me pass through your land. We will not turn aside into field or vineyard; we will not drink the water of a well. We will go by the king’s highway until we have passed through your territory.’ But Sihon would not allow Israel to pass through his territory. He gathered all his people together and went out against Israel to the wilderness, and came to Jahaz and fought against Israel. And Israel defeated him with the edge of the sword, and took possession of his land from the Arnon to the Jabbok, as far as to the Ammonites; for the border of the Ammonites was strong. And Israel took all these cities and Israel settled in all the cities of the Amorites, in Heshbon, and in all its villages. For Heshbon was the city of Sihon, the king of the Amorites, who had fought against the former king of Moab and taken all of his land out of his hand, as far as the Arnon. Therefore the ballad singers say,

‘Come to Heshbon! Let it be built!

The city of Sihon be established.

For fire came out from Heshbon,

A flame from the city of Sihon;

It devoured Ar of Moab,

And swallowed the heights of the Arnon.

Woe to you, O Moab!

You are undone, O people of Chemosh!

He has made his sons fugitives,

And his daughters captives,

To an Amorite king, Sihon.

So we overthrew them,

Heshbon as far as Dibon perished,

And we laid waste as far as Nophah.

Fire spread as far as Medeba.’

Thus Israel lived in the land of the Amorites. And Moses sent to spy out Jazer, and they captured its villages and dispossessed the Amorites who were there.

“Then they turned and they went up by the way to Bashan, and Og the king of Bashan came out against them, he and all his people, to battle at Edrei. But the Lord said to Moses, ‘Do not fear him, for I have given him into your hand, and all his people and his land; and you shall do to him as you did to Sihon, king of the Amorites, who lived at Heshbon.’ So they defeated him and his sons and all his people, until he had no survivor left; and they possessed his land.”

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

This whole passage is about God’s sovereignty and our responsibility.

There is a theme which has been often explicit and sometimes implicit since the children of Israel have left the land of Egypt on the way to Canaan, and it is a theme that will only become more and more explicit as the journey to Canaan draws nearer and nearer to its final objective, and that theme is simply this: The land is yours; now take it…the land is yours; now take it. God expressly and repeatedly tells the children of Israel that He has given Canaan to them. He has given the land to them. He will give the kings and their armies and their cities, and their sons and their wealth to the children of Israel. But Israel has a responsibility to take the land which God has given to them, and so this theme becomes more and more explicit, repeated frequently: The land is yours; now take it. This whole passage bears the mark of that theme. In fact, this passage stresses that God is our guide, our provider, and our conqueror. He is the source of our provision and our success, and we have a responsibility to follow in trust and obedience as He makes promises to us.

Let’s look at three parts of this passage together. First, in verses 10-15, we see the Lord guiding His people; then in verses 16-20, we see the Lord providing for His people; and then, in verses 21-35, we see the Lord fighting for His people.

I. The Lord guides His people.

First, let’s look at verse 10-15 as the Lord guides His people. Verses 10-15 give us a travel log that take us all the way from Oboth, way south of the Dead Sea, all the way up to the border of Moab. It’s a travel log showing God guiding His people all the way to the land of Canaan. He’s promised them that He is going to give them a land of rest and plenty–rest from their wanderings, rest from their traveling, rest from their warfare’s, rest from their enemies–a land flowing with milk and honey. He is going to give them a rest. He is going to guide them to it. And these verses show the Lord guiding His people all the way to that land of rest. Of course, ultimately — and it goes well with the children’s message tonight and to the songs that we’ve already sung — ultimately it is the Lord Jesus who guides His people. It’s the Lord Jesus who says, “Come to Me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” He is the one who guides His people. This account shows the Lord as the guide of His people on the way to the land of Canaan.

II. The Lord provides for His people.

And then in verses 16-20, we see the Lord providing for His people. If He’s guiding His people in verse 10-15, He’s providing for His people in verses 16-20, and in this case it’s especially through the provision of this well. And isn’t it interesting to see this interplay? On the one hand, God Himself says to Moses in verse 16, “Gather the people and I will give them water.” So the Lord promises that He will provide water. On the other hand, the people themselves are involved in digging the well that will give them water. The people write a song about the digging of the well, and they even make note that it’s not just the common people involved in delving this well, it’s even the princes of God’s people. Don’t you love the graphic language that is used:

“The nobles of the people delved with the scepter and with their staffs”?

Can you see this picture of the leaders of God’s people with their scepters and staffs being used as digging instruments? It’s a picture, too, don’t you see, of God sovereignly promising and providing water, and yet doing it through the means of His people’s digging. God’s sovereignty; our responsibility. The Lord provides water for His people, but He does it through His people’s trusting obedience to His word.

This again reminds us of the promise that the Lord Jesus Christ made in His conversation with the woman at the well in Samaria, that He could give water which would take away thirst for all time, for a well springs up within Him that provides eternal life to His people. And so even as this passage reminds us of the Lord’s provision for His people it reminds us that ultimately the Lord Jesus Christ provides a fountain of everlasting life from which His people may drink.

III. The Lord fights for His people.

And then finally, in verses 21-35, we see the Lord fighting for His people, in two distinct passages. First, the children of Israel encounter Sihon, who, like the Edomites, will not allow the children of Israel to go through his land. And then later they encounter Og in the land of the Amorites, the king of Bashan, and he too refuses to allow the people of God to enter into his land. Here we’re told in verse 34 that the Lord tells Moses, “Do not fear him, for I have given him into your hand, and all his people and his land.” The Lord again indicates to Moses that He himself will give their enemies into their hands. He will fight for His people.

Two things should be noticed about this passage. One is over and over in the Old Testament the victories over Sihon and Og in the Trans Jordan, on the other side of the Jordan, the other side of the Jordan from the land of Israel proper, will be celebrated throughout the writings and the prophetic books, and the historical books of Israel.

Let me give you just one example. Take your Bible and turn with me to the book of Joshua. In Joshua 9, when Joshua is getting ready to lead the children of Israel into a battle in the hill country and in the lowlands of Canaan against the Hittites and the Amorites and the Canaanites and the Perrizites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, one notable exception amongst those Canaanite tribes stands out: it’s the Gibeonites. In other words, all of the other tribes in Canaan decide that they, like Sihon and like Og, are going to fight against Israel entering their land. But the Gibeonites decide that that is not a good plan, and we’re told why. Look at verse 3…, Joshua 9:3:

“When the inhabitants of Gibeon heard what Joshua had done to Jericho and to Ai…”

So they had heard of the victories of God through Joshua at Jericho and Ai, but that’s not all. We’re told again (if you’ll look down at verses 9-10) that they had heard not only of the victories over Jericho and Ai, but of God’s bringing the children out of Egypt, and what else?

“Your servants have come from a very far country because of the fame of the Lord, for we have heard the report of Him and all that He did in Egypt, and all that He did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon king of Heshbon and to Og king of Bashan who was at Ashtaroth.”

Just take your concordance tonight and look at the number of times that this victory over Sihon and Og is repeated in the Old Testament. It’s at least ten times. Over and over they come back to this victory. Why? Because it’s really their first big victory. They’d never beaten LSU and Notre Dame before! I mean, God had defeated the Egyptians; they stood and watched. This is their first great military victory against occupants of the land, and they wipe them out! These occupants say no, you’re not coming in. God says, ‘I’ve given them into your hand; go after them. The land is yours; now take it.’ They fight and they wipe them out! And over and over in the history of Israel they come back to this particular incident, and they celebrate the victory of God for them over Sihon and Og. And interestingly, the occupants of the land of Canaan notice this. They know about this, and it’s so unnerving to the Gibeonites that the Gibeonites (alone amongst their fellow Canaanites) decide there is no use in attempting to resist these people because their God has given this land into their hands. Look at what they did to Jericho. Look at what they did to Ai. Look at what they did to Sihon. Look at what they did to Og. The only hope is to make a peace treaty with them, to make a covenant with them. And that’s what the story of Joshua 9 and 10 is all about.

So there’s the first thing that I want you to notice: that over and over in the Old Testament this victory over Sihon and Og is celebrated by the people of God as a proof of God’s faithfulness to them in the midst of their wilderness travels on the way to the land of Canaan. The Lord fights for His people.

IV. Jesus fights for His people.

But here’s the last thing I want you to note, and it’s simply this: ultimately it is Jesus who fights for His people. If you open up the book of Revelation you’ll see John telling you about the wrath of the Lamb against all of His enemies. I had thought to bring with me tonight that wonderful hymn that has been set to an RUF tune that goes like this: “Who is He that comes from Edom?” I encourage you to go look that up. If you don’t have an RUF hymnal, just Google® that song and read the words about Jesus Christ fighting for His people, with His garments spattered with blood, waging war against all their enemies. You know, when you see that scene of a rod and a staff in Psalm 23, it’s a bucolic pastoral scene, isn’t it, in your mind? But that rod and that staff — those things are instruments of protection, and they are wielded by a Savior who fights for you, a Savior who fights to the death the one who strikes at His heel, and then finally tramples under His feet the enemy of your soul.

This whole passage is designed to remind the people of God that in all the difficulties and all the dire circumstances, and all the disappointments and trials on the way to the Promised Land, the Lord is our guide; the Lord is our provided; the Lord fights for us.

Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, we thank You for the Lord Jesus Christ, who is Shepherd, Guide, and Friend. And we ask that in all the trials and tribulations that we face in the wilderness of this fallen world, we would trust and obey, and we would have confidence in the One who guides us and provides for us, and fights for us; that we would not be indolent, but that we too would be active, responding in faith to Your promises, but in utter dependence on You; for our warfare is in vain unless You fight for us. Hear our prayers, O God. We ask them in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Would you stand now for God’s benediction.

Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith, through Jesus Christ our Lord, until the day break and the shadows flee away. Amen.