God’s Word for You
Numbers 14:36-45 Going against the Lord’s command
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Monday, August 30, 2021
36 The men whom Moses had sent to scout the land, who returned and made the entire community grumble against him by giving a negative report about the land— 37 those men who brought the wicked, negative report about the land—died by the plague before the LORD. 38 Of those men who had gone to scout the land, only Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh remained alive.
After Joshua and Caleb made it clear that they stood with Moses; stood with the Lord himself, the other ten spies had to be confronted and judged. They had led a rebellion against the word of the Lord, and the judgment of God on their rebellion was that every adult who followed them—the entire nation above the age of twenty except for Joshua and Caleb—would die in the desert. Most of those deaths would be natural, of old age or disease, but they started here and now with these ten men. They died of a magephah, which the EHV translates “plague.” It was a blow, a powerful, fatal stroke from God. Those ten men died on the spot, there and then, before the Lord.
Israel Defeated in Battle
39 Moses told these things to all the Israelites, and the people mourned bitterly. 40 They got up early in the morning and went up to the heights of the hill country. They said, “We are ready. We will go up to the place which the LORD spoke about. We admit we have sinned.”
On the north rim of Kadesh there must have been a good mountain slope with a view of the Negev, the southland, stretching away to the north and into the hill country of what would become Judah someday. But the people were being foolish. They admitted their sin, but they wanted to go into Canaan now. Even though they saw that the Lord was angry, they decided to violate his will again. They had shied away from attacking the Canaanites just the day before, not believing God would help them when he had promised to. Now they were all for attacking the Canaanites, not believing that God would be against them when he had promised just that. The common point? They didn’t believe God’s promises. But the Lord “is faithful to all his promises” (Psalm 145:13), even when those promises are threats. “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Matthew 4:7).
A chilling moment suddenly blew in like an unexpected storm when the Israelites had the audacity to say, “We admit we have sinned,” but did not wait for anyone to offer forgiveness. They didn’t even ask for it. This was a kind of spiritual sleep, where lukewarm believers were snoring through their lives, paying no attention to the road they were on. Paul warns: “The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber” (Romans 13:11), and Micah preaches a full application: “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). The Israelites had done none of these things. They weren’t living out their faith. Instead, they were hurrying along in smug self-righteousness. “Oh, we made a mistake, but now we’ll do what you said the first time.” They thought they could correct their actions without correcting what was wrong in their hearts. God warned them not to do this, and Moses was so shocked by such a stupid statement that he cried out:
41 Moses said, “What is this? Why are you going against the LORD’s command? This will not succeed. 42 Do not go up, because the LORD is not among you. You will be struck down before your enemies, 43 because the Amalekites and the Canaanites are there to oppose you. You will fall by the sword because you turned away from following the LORD. Therefore the LORD will not be with you.”
“The Lord will not be with you.” God is not neutral, therefore, if he is not with you, he can only be against you. And if God is against what you do, how can you succeed? Moses saw nothing but a lost battle ahead, the beginning of God’s reduction of Israel’s numbers. The nation was “about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children” (Exodus 12:37). That meant perhaps 1,200,000 adults, age twenty and over. All of these were condemned to die in the desert. Moses may have been afraid that the whole million could die in this one battle!
44 But they dared to go up to the heights of the hill country. Nevertheless, the Ark of the Covenant of the LORD and Moses did not leave the camp. 45 Then the Amalekites and the Canaanites, who lived in that hill country, came down, attacked them, and beat them down all the way to Hormah.
Some twenty miles northeast of Kadesh is the Wilderness of Zin. The Israelites made it through this region without much opposition. Based on the Lord’s own recollection of this battle, we know that the Israelites did not try to enter Canaan from the south, but from the east. Whatever army they assembled, the men made their way northeast through the territory of Moab with the Dead Sea on their left. They got somewhere near Seir, called “the hill country of Seir” by Esau (Genesis 36:8). Horites or cavemen had once lived there in the huge natural caves along the Dead Sea before Esau’s family took control (Genesis 36:20-21). God later described the battle for the next generation: “The Amorites who lived in those hills came out against you; they chased you like a swarm of bees and beat you down from Seir all the way to Hormah” (Deuteronomy 1:44).
Over the hills came the Amalekites, Amorites and Canaanites. They must have seemed as relentless to Israel as a sandstorm. In those hills, it would have been easy to get trapped and surrounded by an enemy that knew the terrain. They weren’t very far from Heshbon, the city of an Amorite king named Sihon, who had conquered the Moabites (Numbers 21:25). Although we don’t have any more details about this battle, we know that Israel was beaten back to Hormah, which is east of Beersheba. That means that the Israelites panicked and fled across the Jordan, and probably turned south along the west bank of the Dead Sea. They turned aside at some point, perhaps to avoid the seaside village En-Gedi (Ezekiel 47:10), and hurried into the desert of the Negev, and the Canaanites stopped chasing them when they got to Hormah. Israel had been routed some eighty miles; the retreat (with their enemies on their heels) would have taken two or three days, with a much smaller armed force returning, beaten and bloody, than the one that set out.
When we violate God’s commands, his anger burns against us. “These people have not obeyed me” (Jeremiah 35:16). And when the foundations God himself has laid are trampled and overrun (Psalm 11:3), will he be pleased with us? We cannot destroy God’s commands, his will, or his words, but we can avoid them, transgress them, and be guilty of violating them. This is what Israel had done. It was time to return, not just to Kadesh and the camp where Moses and the Ark were waiting for them, but to the Lord himself, to listen to his word and ask for his forgiveness.
Psalm 85 is not numbered with the so-called seven penitential Psalms, but it is an appropriate companion to all of them. There we say: “Restore us again, O God our Savior, and put away your displeasure toward us. Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger through all generations? Show us your unfailing love, and grant us your salvation” (Psalm 85:4-5,7). When we have sinned in any way, whether a massive rebellion like the Israelites at Seir or the seemingly minor infraction of a newborn baby’s original guilt (Psalm 51:5), we need a Savior from that sin. The newborn baby’s guilt is truly not a minor thing. When God punishes anyone, he shows himself to be righteous in every way because there is no one who is righteous, not even one (Romans 3:10). But when God forgives the guilty, it is purely by his grace and compassion. He does this because he loves us, and for no other reason; not because we are worthy of his love, but only because “love” describes God and what he is (1 John 4:8). How merciful he is, that he forgives sinners like us even when we disobeyed his will, trampled all over his foundations, and ignored his holy word. Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned!
Pastor Timothy Smith