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God’s Word for You

Numbers 14:17-25 The command to turn back

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Thursday, August 26, 2021

17 Now please let the power of the Lord be great, just as you have said, 18 ‘The LORD is slow to anger and abounding in mercy, forgiving guilt and rebellion.

Before we talk about Moses pleading for God to forgive the people, this is a good place to notice the difference between the Hebrew words “Lord” (verse 17) and “LORD” (verse 18). When Lord is spelled with lower-case letters, it translates the word Adonai (אֲדֹנָי). Adonai means lord or master. It can be what a wife calls her husband (1 Kings 1:17), or what a daughter calls her father (Genesis 31:35), or even what some Israelites like Joshua called Moses (Numbers 11:28). But more often, it is a word used when a believer addresses or describes God (more than 400 times in the Old Testament). In certain cases, it’s the title used when someone is asking for help against those who oppose the speaker (Psalms 35:17, 38:22, 59:11). Here, Moses is not asking for God’s protection from the people, even though they were threatening to kill him. Instead, he is asking God to be merciful.

Martin Luther was the first translator to spell LORD, or “HERR” in German, in all capital letters. This translates the word Yahweh or Jehovah (יְהוָה). Actually, Jehovah is a mishmash of the consonants of YAHWEH (or JHVH) and the vowels of Adonai, since the ancient Jews did not want to use the name of the Lord for fear of misusing it. This was overdoing things, since God gave us his name to use and to proclaim (Psalm 96:2), but we can’t undo what they did. This name of God means “I Am” (Exodus 3:14) or “He Is.” God himself uses this name especially to proclaim his unfailing love; his free and faithful grace. This is the name God uses for himself when he makes covenants and promises.

He certainly does not leave the guilty unpunished, following up on the guilt of the fathers with the children unto the third and the fourth generation.’ 19 According to your great mercy, please pardon the guilt of these people, just as you have forgiven these people from Egypt until now.”

Moses’ prayer ends with a plea for grace, even though God is powerful and mighty. He “does not leave the guilty unpunished” (Exodus 34:7; Nahum 1:3), but he is slow to anger.

Of all the Christian virtues and potential good works, what good work is there after obedience to the law and preaching the gospel, that is better than prayer on behalf of a sinner? We are wonderfully eloquent when it comes to praying the Fourth Petition, “Give us today our daily bread,” and all of its variations depending on our needs and, more often, our desires. We should be equally eager to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses,” “Lead us not into temptation,” and “Deliver us from evil.” And while we say this in the Lord’s Prayer, our private prayers should be full of these requests as well. The more often a Christian prays for a thing when it is not an emergency, the more ready and able he or she will be to pray when the need is dire, the threat immediate, and the temptation overpowering. If a man is willing to ask for God’s help with his everyday fears and his daily cravings and his increasing impatience with and disobedience to the speed limit, he will be better prepared to cry for help when there is danger from an addiction, or from lust, or from rage in an unguarded moment.

God Decrees Forty Years of Wandering

20 The LORD said, “I have pardoned them just as you have said. 21 But as surely as I live, and as surely as the entire earth is filled with the glory of the LORD, 22 not one of the men who has seen my glory and my signs, which I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and who has tested me these ten times and has not listened to my voice— 23 I promise that none of them will see the land which I swore to their fathers. None of those who treated me with contempt will see it. 24 But because my servant Caleb had a different spirit and has followed me completely, I will bring him into the land to which he traveled. His descendants will possess it. 25 Since the Amalekites and the Canaanites are living in the valleys and lowlands, tomorrow you are to turn back and set out into the wilderness along the route to the Red Sea.”

The judgment of God is that none of the people who saw his miracles and his glory in Egypt and here in the wilderness, but who rejected him, would see the land of the promise. The “ten times” that the people tested God can be counted, but it might also be a way of saying “many times.” Even setting aside the sins of individuals such as Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s sons (Leviticus 10:1-2) and Miriam and Aaron (Numbers 12:1), we would not be wrong to notice these ten rebellions:

  1, When Pharaoh’s chariots were coming (Exodus 14:10-11)
  2, When they grumbled about water at Marah (Exodus 15:22-24)
  3, When they grumbled for meat at Elim (Exodus 16:1-3)
  4, When they tried to gather too much manna (Exodus 16:19-20)
  5, When they tried to get manna on the Sabbath (Exodus 16:27-30)
  6, When they wanted to stone Moses at Massah (Exodus 17:1-4)
  7, When they made the golden calf (Exodus 32:1-35)
  8, When they complained and fire broke out (Numbers 11:1-3)
  9, When the rabble grumbled for meat (Numbers 11:4-34)
  10, When they listened to ten of the twelve spies (Numbers 14:3)

God commanded the people to turn back. That’s exactly what they had said they wanted to do, to turn back to return to Egypt, so God tells them to head back into the wilderness along the road that would go to the Red Sea. Did they want to go through the water again? Did they want to go around it? Had they thought any of this through? It’s amazing what people will say when they haven’t really thought about their words.

God also commanded them to turn back because of the Canaanites and Amalekites living “in the lowlands.” They should not try to sneak into the Promised Land. There were enemies there that the spies might have missed. Without the Lord’s help, what could they hope to accomplish? If they wanted to go back to Egypt, or at least toward Egypt, well, then, there’s the road. That road led to the Red Sea. Beyond the sea was a Pharaoh who would be happy to take them all back into slavery. Their shackles were waiting.

Sometimes we get impatient with God. We ask him for a thing, and then while he is in the process of giving it, we change our minds, or we think we can snatch it for ourselves without all of the waiting around. We beg God to be patient with us, but how impatient we are with him! Solomon, always full of proverbs, said: “The end of a matter is better than its beginning, and patience is better than pride” (Ecclesiastes 7:8). Patience is one of the fruits of the Spirit that Paul likes to list (2 Corinthians 6:6; Galatians 5:22; Colossians 3:12; 2 Timothy 3:10). Peter reminds us that “our Lord’s patience means salvation” (2 Peter 3:15), and we are urged to “imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised” (Hebrews 6:12). Wait patiently for the Lord (Psalm 37:7), hoping for what he has promised but which we do not yet have (Romans 8:25). In the Psalm “Out of the Depths” (Psalm 130) there is the wonderful verse with its repeated words: “My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning” (Psalm 130:6). Isn’t that a description of the whole life of the Christian, awaiting the return of Jesus? Shouldn’t that be our patient confession of faith as we wait for any of his glorious blessings?

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith

About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.


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