40 Years wandering - Rebellion and its consequences

Text Numbers 14 Time 24/06/12 Place Childs Hill Baptist Church

I suppose I was a child when I first heard that the Children of Israel spent 40 years in the desert. Like a lot of things one heard from the Bible I just more or less accepted it at first without giving it too much thought. Yes, forty years is a long time but when you are young you have a different grasp of time. Okay it rained for 40 days in Noah's time, Jesus was 40 days in the desert and Israel spent 40 years in the desert.
But then when I was a teenager I remember hearing that it should take only 11 days to walk from Egypt into the Promised Land. 11 days! If it only takes 11 days how on earth did they end up spending 40 years there!? Well, this chapter, Numbers 14, explains how they did end up spending a whole generation wandering around in the desert.
It all came about following the sending of the 12 spies into the Promised Land and the majority of them coming back and saying that as wonderful as the land was there was no way they could take it because the people currently there were too strong for them. This attitude showed a complete lack of faith and was the final straw in a whole series of grumbles and complaints and little rebellions.
As ever, what we are reading about here is from a time long ago and many things have changed since then. However, God does not change and so we can learn certain obvious things from what we read here.
1. Understand what a grievous sin rebellious unbelief is and how it arouses God's anger
We read at the beginning of this chapter that on the night when the spies reported back there was a panic that soon led to hysteria and turned into open rebellion.
All the people of the community raised their voices and wept aloud. All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this desert! Why is the LORD bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn't it be better for us to go back to Egypt? And they said to each other, We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.
This was probably the worst rebellion yet. In reaction Moses and Aaron fell facedown in front of the whole Israelite assembly gathered there perhaps to beg for their lives or probably to plead with the people to stop rebelling and Joshua ... and Caleb … who of course were among those who had explored the land, tore their clothes and made one more attempt to persuade the people to act in faith - The land we passed through and explored is exceedingly good. If the LORD is pleased with us, he will lead us into that land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and will give it to us. Only do not rebel against the LORD. And do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will swallow them up. Their protection is gone, but the LORD is with us. Do not be afraid of them.
However, this is an utter failure - 10a But the whole assembly talked about stoning them. Perhaps they would have. But then suddenly God himself steps in and makes what proves to be only the first proposal as to what should be done.
10b Then the glory of the LORD appeared at the tent of meeting to all the Israelites. The LORD said to Moses, How long will these people treat me with contempt? They were not just rebelling against Moses and Aaron but against God. How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs I have performed among them? It was ultimately a matter of faith. God clearly takes the sin of rebellion very seriously indeed. In Deuteronomy 18:10-12 we read Let no-one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD; because of these same detestable practices the LORD your God will drive out those nations before you. Then in 1 Samuel 15:22, 23 Samuel says To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. For rebellion is like the sin of divination. That is how bad it is.
We must see how wicked this sin is and wherever we see signs of rebellion in ourselves we ought to be very careful indeed. Rather, we should be eager to submit to God and to do all his will. We do this, of course, as children, by submitting to our parents, and, when we are older we are to submit to the powers that be in the state and show respect to our leaders in church. To fail to do that is to put ourselves in a very dangerous position indeed.
2. Recognise, however, what a difference an intercessor can make
What God says to Moses in verse 12 has two parts. First I will strike them down with a plague and destroy them, (like the Egyptians had been); second but I will make you into a nation greater and stronger than they. A lesser man may have been tempted to take God up on this and seek glory for himself. But not Moses. No, instead Moses prays for the people. His prayer is a model prayer. He prays on the basis of both his desire for God's glory and what he knows about God's character. This sort of thinking should inform our prayers too. No doubt this prayer gives us something of an insight into the intercession of Christ on behalf of his people too.
1. Praying for God's glory
Moses begins (13-16) by pointing out that if God destroys the people and begins again
the Egyptians will hear about it! By your power you brought these people up from among them he says And they will tell the inhabitants of this land about it. They have already heard that you, LORD, are with these people and that you, LORD, have been seen face to face, that your cloud stays over them, and that you go before them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. If God puts the people to death, leaving none alive, the nations who have heard this report about God will say, The LORD was not able to bring these people into the land he promised them on oath, so he slaughtered them in the desert.
Moses clearly understood that the real issue was and always is God's glory and nothing else. There is not even a hint that he sees things any other way. No doubt our prayer lives would greatly benefit from a more definite desire to see God honoured and glorified rather than thinking as much as we do about ourselves.
2. Remembering God's character
Then Moses prays instead (17-19) Now may the Lord's strength be displayed, just as you have declared: and he quotes what he had learned earlier from God. On the one hand The LORD is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. On the other Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation. Moses turns this information into a direct prayer (19) In accordance with your great love, forgive the sin of these people, just as you have pardoned them from the time they left Egypt until now. Moses knows that does not leave the guilty unpunished but punishes … to the third and fourth generation but he leaves that on one side. The thing he wants God to recall is that he is slow to anger, abounding in love and one who forgives sin and rebellion.
And so because Moses prayed the Israelites were not destroyed as they deserved to be destroyed. Yes, they were punished but nowhere near as much as they deserved or as God had at first intimated.
Yes, rebellion is a great sin and it deserves God's wrath but there can be mercy. By prayer we can find forgiveness – for ourselves and for others. Christ is at God's right hand interceding, pleading his atonement that there might be forgiveness for all who are in him.
Let's learn how to pray and let's look to God for mercy.
3. Consider God's response and the reality of forgiveness
In verse 20 God replies I have forgiven them, as you asked but then adds (21ff) Nevertheless, as surely as I live (this is an oath sworn by himself) and as surely as the glory of the LORD fills the whole earth, not one of those who saw my glory and the signs I performed in Egypt and in the desert but who disobeyed me and tested me ten times - not one of them will ever see the land I promised on oath to their ancestors. No one who has treated me with contempt will ever see it. That is what these people had done. They had disobeyed God and tested him and treated him with contempt as so many do today. God also complains about their grumbling (26 - How long will this wicked community grumble against me? I have heard the complaints of these grumbling Israelites.)
There are exceptions - my servant Caleb because he has a different spirit and follows me wholeheartedly and, it becomes clear later, Joshua.
We too need a different spirit to the common attitude of rebellion so that we follow the Lord.
The command is then given that (25) Since the Amalekites and the Canaanites are living in the valleys, the people should turn back tomorrow and set out toward the desert along the route to the Red Sea.
In verses 27-35 further comment is made to show the appropriateness of the punishment. So tell them, As surely as I live, declares the LORD, (it is an oath again) I will do to you the very thing I heard you say: In this desert your bodies will fall - every one of you twenty years old or more who was counted in the census and who has grumbled against me. Not one of you will enter the land I swore with uplifted hand to make your home, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun.
As for your children that you said would be taken as plunder, I will bring them in to enjoy the land you have rejected. But as for you, your bodies will fall in this desert. Your children will be shepherds here for forty years, suffering for your unfaithfulness, until the last of your bodies lies in the desert. For forty years - one year for each of the forty days you explored the land - you will suffer for your sins and know what it is like to have me against you. I, the LORD, have spoken, and I will surely do these things to this whole wicked community, which has banded together against me. They will meet their end in this desert; here they will die.
So it is not the sort of forgiveness we might imagine. There was a heavy price still to pay. It reminds us that God is both merciful and just. It is true that say when someone is converted with a certain background they may have to pay a price still – say a drunkard who is converted yet still suffers the consequences of his alcoholism. However, the forgiveness in Christ found in the New Testament gospel really is a full an complete forgiveness indeed. Praise God!
4. Consider the aftermath here and the danger of hard hearts and false repentance
The judgement on the rebels was 40 years in the desert. The spies who had prompted this sin were struck by a plague there and then (36,37)
So the men Moses had sent to explore the land, who returned and made the whole community grumble against him by spreading a bad report about it - these men who were responsible for spreading the bad report about the land were struck down and died of a plague before the LORD.
Verse 38 says that Of the men who went to explore the land, only Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh survived.
When Moses reported this to all the Israelites, they mourned bitterly. Then (40) Early the next morning they set out for the highest point in the hill country, saying, Now we are ready to go up to the land the LORD promised. Surely we have sinned!
Moses pleaded with them not to disobey and warned them This will not succeed! Do not go up, he says (42) because the LORD is not with you. You will be defeated by your enemies, for the Amalekites and the Canaanites will face you there. Because you have turned away from the LORD, he will not be with you and you will fall by the sword.
Nevertheless, we read (44, 45) in their presumption they went up toward the highest point in the hill country, though neither Moses nor the ark of the LORD's covenant moved from the camp. Then the Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived in that hill country came down and attacked them and beat them down all the way to Hormah. And so they are guilty of another sort of rebellion equally displeasing to God.
We too can be like that. We hear a sermon rebuking our laziness or our rebellion and we say we will put it all right but we don't wait for God. We rely on ourselves. This is presumption not faith and this too is the way of madness and sin. How easy to err to the right or to the left.