Since the Holy Spirit commissioned the Apostle to tell the Church that the written account of Israel’s history was intended to be for our example, so that we do not come into the same condemnation through unbelief; this chapter certainly demands our attention. Let us solemnly review the awful progress of sin in the camp of the Israelites, after they had listened to the evil report of the ten wicked spies. First, it broke out in unavailing cries and tears for a whole night. The next morning, they began to murmur against the Lord. Then they proceeded to boldly wish that they had died in Egypt or even in the wilderness. And still advancing in their sin, they began to bring forth blasphemous charges against God – as if He actually had no other intention in mind when He brought them forth from Egypt, except to deliver themselves, their wives, and their little ones up to death. Lastly, to crown the climax, they daringly proposed to appoint a captain over them to return to Egypt. Those who do not trust God continually bring trouble upon themselves, and those who do not walk in God’s ways seek their own ruin.
Moses and Aaron were astonished to see the people throwing away their own mercies in this manner, and they fell down upon their faces. Meanwhile, Caleb and Joshua continued to assure the people of the goodness of the Promised Land; they considered the difficulties as nothing. Although the Canaanites lived in walled cities, their defense had already departed from them; for no people can be safe when they have provoked God to leave them. On the other hand, however, although Israel was dwelling in tents, they were very well-fortified; for when we have the presence of the Lord with us, we do not need to fear the most powerful force against us.
Now the Israelites became so brazen in their sin that they were about to stone Caleb and Joshua to death. The glory of the Lord suddenly appeared in the Tabernacle, in the sight of all the people; and the Lord told Moses that He was going to strike the whole nation dead with a plague, and make Moses’ descendants greater and mightier than Israel. Upon hearing this, Moses immediately begins to make humble intercession for Israel. Herein he was a picture of Christ, who prayed for those who despitefully used Him. It is very refreshing to our souls to behold – throughout all the history of the Israelites – how the Lord Jesus, in His glorious character of our Intercessor, is foreshadowed by His servants! Nothing could be more beautiful than these pleas of Moses. The pardon of a nation’s sin is the turning away the nation’s punishment; and for this, Moses earnestly prayed. Observe that the arguments which he employed all terminated in the grand consideration of the glory and honor of the Lord’s holy name. Every promise of God in Christ Jesus is secured to His people in the pledge of His great name. Moses besought the Lord that – in His abundant mercy, and in consistency with His character – He would forgive the people.
The Lord granted the prayer of Moses, as far as not destroying all the people at once. But He could not allow disbelief of His promises to go unpunished. And so those who despised the pleasant land would be shut out of it, while the promise of God would be fulfilled to their children. The people wished to die in the wilderness, and so the Lord took them at their word. Their sin would be their ruin; and they would wander in the desert, over a total of 40 years, until they died. “So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief” (Heb. 3:19). Not one person of this complaining generation would live to see the Promised Land at all. But their little ones who were under 20 years old at this time would be brought into the land of Canaan. In this way, God mercifully refrained from completely taking away His lovingkindness. As for Caleb and Joshua, they would be graciously permitted to enter the land of promise.
The people mourned greatly when Moses told them the Lord’s words. But the rest of this chapter shows that their tears were not a gracious sorrow for having offended God; rather, they were only sad for having lost Canaan. The Lord had commanded the people to go back into the wilderness by the way of the Red Sea. But they – self-willed and presumptuous – now determined that they would go up towards Canaan. They would not go into the land when they had the opportunity; but now that they had forfeited their opportunity, they were bent on pressing forward into the land anyway. What a terrible example of folly and disobedience! They were warned by Moses, and they were unaccompanied by God (for the Ark of the Covenant and the cloudy pillar remained in the camp); but the foolish people determined to go up in their own strength to meet their enemies, and the expedition failed accordingly.
Let us take this lesson to heart. We may have already been successful over many sins and temptations; and for this, let us certainly thank God and take courage. But let this not produce in us a single feeling of self-confidence! Let us shrink from the very thought of entering into any conflict without the presence and grace of our blessed Leader. If He accompanies us, we are indeed invincible; but if not, we are weaker than one who is “crushed before the moth.” If Jesus (Whom the Ark of the Covenant represented) does not go with us to the battle, the great enemy of souls and the world full of foes (like the Amalekites and the Canaanites) will soon break up our weak powers and smite us down. Let us resolve that we will only go forward in the strength of our Savior! (Ps. 71:16)
Lord, preserve us from unbelief! Through our Redeemer’s blood and righteousness, bring us safely into the heavenly Promised Land of rest. Amen.
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