Numbers: Rebellion and Rebuke

Sermon by on August 8, 2007

Numbers 14:1-45

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Wednesday Evening

August 8, 2007

Numbers 14:1-45

“Rebellion and Rebuke”

Dr. J. Ligon
Duncan III

…Numbers, chapter 14, we are in a section of the book in
which we have repeatedly seen Israel grumble and rebel against the Lord. And if
you’ll remember the passage that we quoted from the Apostle Paul in I
Corinthians 10, this is precisely how he cites the activity of Israel in

I Corinthians as a warning to the Corinthian Christians not
to grumble. He cites the grumbling of the Israelites, and he cites incidents
that occurred and are recorded in our books of Exodus and Numbers; and we are
right in the middle of the grumbling in this book.

The people grumbled in Numbers 11. The brother and
sister of Moses grumbled in Numbers 12. The majority of the spies grumbled in
Numbers 13, and now all the people, infected by the grumbling and the whining of
the majority of the spies having reported back to Israel, are going to engage in

And in this passage you’re going to see four
You’re going to see that grumbling in verses 1-12 that’s rebellion
against the Lord. Then, in verses 13-19, you’re going to see Moses intercede. So
you’ll go from rebellion in verses 1-12 to intercession in verses 13-19; and
then in verses 20-38, you’re going to see God’s judgment as God pronounces His
sentence upon the rebellion. And then, stunningly, unlike the cycle that you so
often see in the book of Judges (which is what? Sin and then judgment, and then
prayer for mercy, and repentance and restoration — that cycle that just seems to
go over and over in the book of Judges), you’re going to see here
rebellion-intercession-judgment, and then more rebellion! It’s absolutely
stunning! You go from rebellion to God’s announcement of what He’s going to do,
to Moses’ glorious intercession on behalf of the people of God, to the carrying
out of a mitigated form of judgment against Israel — a judgment that does not
come to the fullness of the threat that God had first announced…in His mercy, He
does not carry through on the fullness of the weight of that judgment — and what
you’re expecting there is ‘Wow! These folks have had a wake-up call. We’re going
to see revival!’ And what you see is more rebellion.

There are so many lessons in this passage that we
can’t touch them, but let’s look at those four things and see if we can draw
from God’s word for us. Now let’s pray before we read God’s word.

Heavenly Father, this is Your word. You mean it
for us. You tell us in the words of the Apostle Paul that You wrote this for us,
and that these things happened for us that we might not grumble and rebel and
act in an idolatrous way, but that we might believe and trust, and follow the
living God. Bring home Your truth to us, we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Numbers 14:

[Again, look for rebellion,
intercession, judgment, and more rebellion in the four parts of this passage.]

“Then all the congregation raised a loud cry and the people wept that night. And
all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron; and the whole
congregation said to them, ‘Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or
would that we had died in this wilderness!…’”

[Remember that request.]

“… ‘Why is the Lord bringing us into this land to fall by the sword? Our wives
and our little ones will become a prey.’”

[Remember that statement.]

“… ‘Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?’ And they said to one
another, ‘Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.’

“Then Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before all the assembly of
the congregation of the people of Israel….”

[Blasphemy had just been
uttered. What more appropriate thing than for the appointed leaders of God’s
people to fall on their faces at such blasphemy?]

“…And Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephunneh, who were among those
who had spied out the land, tore their clothes, and said to all the congregation
of the people of Israel, ‘The land which we passed through to spy out is an
exceedingly good land. If the Lord delights in us, He will bring us into this
land and give it to us–a land that flows with milk and honey. Only do not rebel
against the Lord; and do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread for
us. Their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us. Do not fear
them.’ Then all the congregation…”

[all the congregation!]

“…said to stone them with stones. But the glory of the Lord appeared at the tent
of meeting to all the people of Israel.

“And the Lord said to Moses, ‘How long will this people despise Me?
And how long will they not believe in Me, in spite of all the signs I have done
among them? I will strike them with pestilence and disinherit them, and I will
make you a nation greater and mightier than they.’

“But Moses said to the Lord, ‘Then the Egyptians will hear of it,
for You brought up this people in Your might from among them, and they will tell
the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that You, O Lord, are in the midst
of this people, for You, O Lord, are seen face to face, and Your cloud stands
over them, and You go before them in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of
fire by night. Now if You kill this people as one man, then the nations who have
heard Your fame will say, ‘It is because the Lord was not able to bring this
people into the land that He swore to give to them that He has killed them in
the wilderness.’ And now, please let the power of the Lord be great, as You have
promised, saying, ‘The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,
forgiving iniquity and transgression; and He will by no means clear the guilty,
visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth
generation. Pleas pardon the iniquity of this people according to the greatness
of Your steadfast love, just as You have forgiven this people, from Egypt until

“Then the Lord said, ‘I have pardoned according to your word; but
truly, as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the
Lord, none of the men who have seen My glory and My signs that I did in Egypt
and in the wilderness, and yet have put Me to the test these ten times and have
not obeyed My voice shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers,
and none of those who despised Me shall see it. But My servant Caleb, because he
has a different spirit and has followed Me fully, I will bring into the land
into which he went, and his descendants shall possess it. Now since the
Amalekites and the Canaanites dwell in the valleys, turn tomorrow and set out
for the wilderness by the way to the Red Sea.’

“And the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, ‘How long shall this
wicked congregation grumble against Me? I have heard the grumblings of the
people of Israel, which they grumble against Me. Say to them ‘As I live,’
declares the Lord, ‘what you have said in My hearing, I will do to you. Your
dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness, and of all your number listed in the
census from twenty years old and upward who have grumbled against Me, not one
shall come into the land where I swore that I will make you dwell, except Caleb
the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun. But your little ones, who you
said would become a prey, I will bring in, and they shall know the land that you
have rejected. But as for you, your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness,
and your children shall be shepherds in the wilderness forty years, and shall
suffer for your faithlessness, until the last of your dead bodies lies in the
wilderness. According to the number of days in which you spied out the land,
forty days, a year for each day you shall bear your iniquity. Forty years, and
you shall know My displeasure. I the Lord have spoken. Surely this will I do to
all this wicked congregation who are gathered together against Me. In this
wilderness they shall come to a full end, and there they shall die.’

“And the men whom Moses sent to spy out the land who returned and
made all the congregation grumble against him by bringing up a bad report about
the land, the men who brought up a bad report of the land died by plague before
the Lord. Of those men who went to spy out the land, only Joshua the son of Nun
and Caleb the son of Jephunneh remained alive.

“When Moses told these words to all the people of Israel, the people
mourned greatly. And they rose early in the morning and went up to the heights
of the hill country, saying, ‘Here we are; we will go up to the place the Lord
has promised; for we have sinned.’ But Moses said, ‘Why now are you
transgressing the command of the Lord, when that will not succeed? Do not go up,
for the Lord is not among you, lest you be struck down before your enemies. For
there the Amalekites and the Canaanites are facing you, and you will fall by the
sword, because you have turned back from following the Lord. The Lord will not
be with you.’ But they presumed to go up to the heights of the hill country,
although neither the ark of the covenant of the Lord nor Moses departed out of
the camp. Then the Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived in that hill country
came down, and defeated them and pursued them even to Hormah.”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired,
and inerrant word. May He add His blessing to it.

Tonight the rebellion continues, and God’s judgment
falls down. And yet there is no repentance, but more rebellion. In fact, in this
passage I think we see something of the insidious infection of sin, how it works
and how it spreads.

And how special and uncommon and spiritual the grace
of repentance is! I think some of us think we can just repent any time we want,
and here in the face of the most obvious warnings…if ever there were an
opportunity for the natural man, apart from the help of the Holy Spirit, to
repent, this was a good opportunity. And so I think we see something of the
insidious infection of sin, but I think we also see here the power of
God-centered intercession. It is one of the bright spots in a very dark chapter,
isn’t it, to hear Moses intercede for the people of God. And we see the
consequences of sin in God’s just judgment, and we see God mitigating the full
force of His judgment.

So look with me at four things in this passage
tonight: the rebellion; the intercession; the judgment; and, the continued

I. Rebellion against God.

First, the grumbling and rebellion, in verses
Here notice what the people of God do: they reject the word of God,
the goodness of God, and the power of God. When they respond to the majority
report of the spies that the land is filled with giants, fear reigns and they
forsake belief in the promise of God to them that He was going to give them the
land, they forsake obedience to the command of God to them to enter the land
(the land is yours, now take it), they forsake trust in God’s promise to protect
them, they question God’s power to protect them, and they even question the
goodness of God towards them. They reject His word, they reject His goodness,
they reject His power.

See the response of all the people in verses 1-4 to
the majority report of the spies, and it absolutely takes your breath away: ‘It
would have been better if we were in Egypt and died there! It would have been
better if we had died in the wilderness!’ And the rebellion escalates to the
point that they decide to choose their own leader and go back to Egypt.

Moses and Aaron lament. They show immediately in
verse 5 their rejection of and repentance for this blasphemy that has been
uttered by the people of God by tearing their robes and falling on the ground in
an open display of their penitence. But Joshua and Caleb get up and utter one of
those epic speeches. [You know in great literature there’s always a point for
the protagonist to utter some epic speech in the face of catastrophe, and here
it comes from Joshua and Caleb, and it’s stirring stuff.] They are utterly
confident in the word, the goodness, and power of the Lord, and their confidence
in the word, goodness, and power of the Lord stands in stark contrast to the
unbelief of the people of God. And yet the response of the people of God to that
amazing speech delivered in verses 6-9 is to pick up stones to stone them to
death. You can’t get a better picture, can you, of hardness of
heart…uncomprehending and unbelieving hearts. But right as they get ready to lob
those stones, God’s glory comes down. They’re not going to lay a finger on
Joshua and Caleb and Moses and Aaron. God’s glory comes down.

And God announces to Moses directly what He is going
to do. He is going to wipe the entire nation, save that small band of righteous
ones, off the face of the earth, and He’s going to start over.(Implausible, you
say? Have you read Genesis 6-9 recently? He’d done it before. The flood.)

And then Moses intercedes. And in Moses’
intercession you are being given a lesson in the mediation of Christ for His
people. And I want you to notice three things about this amazing prayer of
Remember now, the people of God in their rebellion, in their
grumbling, had rejected God’s word, His goodness, and His power. Look at Moses’
prayer for forgiveness in verses 13-19, and notice that the whole rationale for
this intercession that he lifts up to God for forgiveness for these wicked and
undeserving people. Notice that it’s based on — what? — God’s word, God’s power
and glory, and God’s love.

This intercession is utterly striking. Look at verses
13-16. Moses’ big concern…he is facing the eradication of an entire race of
people. Now, if this were what we were facing today, what would we be focused
on? We would be focused on all of the human tragedy and suffering. Think of the
little children that will die, Lord, if this happens. Think of the mothers
expecting children who will die, Lord, if You bring this judgment to bear. Think
of the young couples just married, Lord, who will die if You bring this
judgment…. We would have human interest stories that even the round-the-clock
news services today could not cover!

And Moses’ prayer utterly ignores all of that. He
says, ‘Lord, if You do this, my big concern is You won’t get the glory that I
want You to have; because the thing that is at stake here is Your glory, and
that’s all that really matters. You wipe all these people out, and the Egyptians
are going to say of You, Lord, ‘You know, the reason He wiped them out is
because He wasn’t powerful enough to get them into that land.’ And Lord, I don’t
want those Egyptians to be able to say that about You. I want them to know ….’
Do you understand the radical God-centeredness of Moses’ thinking in this
moment? Do you understand how alien this is to us?

I was recently talking to a dear friend who is
struggling through some really hard and really legitimate questions about the
very, very difficult tragic and even evil things that happen in this fallen
world, and that sometimes happen to those that are closest to our hearts. And
he’s asking a lot of psalmist kind of ‘why?’ questions. Not in a wrong way, but
in a biblical way — a way that’s submissive to the Lord and to His word, and
which follows the pattern of the Psalms where the Lord Himself gives us
permission to come and lift up our cries of ‘Lord, what in the world are You
doing?’ And He says, ‘Come, ask Me. I can hear that.’

But over and over in the Bible those questions are
always and only answered from a radically God-centered perspective, by
reorienting and rethinking the situation that we’re facing. And you see Moses
doing that here. This whole scenario with two million human tragedies waiting to
happen–it’s not about that. It’s about God’s glory. Friends, if that won’t turn
your world upside down in the way you look at it, I don’t know what will. That
is the most astounding way of looking at the situation that you possibly can.
And it’s the biblical way of looking at it, because this whole story is about
God’s glory. The whole story is about God’s glory.

What is it that we say when we first begin to
memorize that Catechism? “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him
forever.” Why? Because this whole thing is about God’s glory. And Moses just
dramatically draws our attention to that in his intercession.

II. Moses’ intercession.

And notice the second thing that he does. Look at
verse 17.
“Please let the power of the Lord be great…” — what’s the next
phrase? — “…as You have promised.” What’s Moses saying?
‘Lord, they have
doubted Your word. You have promised You would be with them. You promised that
You would take them into the land. You promised that You would protect them
against their enemies. You promised that You would establish them there. They
doubt that word, Lord! Show them Your power! Show them that Your word means what
it says!’

Isn’t it amazing that later when the Lord comes back
to express that mitigated judgment that is going to come upon them, He says,
‘You know what? You said that you’d die in the wilderness and that your children
would die in the wilderness. Well, let Me tell you what. Because you said your
children would die in the wilderness, they’re going to go in the land. You’re
going to die in the wilderness, because I’m going to display My power that I
intend to fulfill My word.’

And then Moses quotes from the word of God in
verses 18-19.
From what? What does he quote from? He quotes from the Ten

“The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity
and transgression; but He will by no means clear the guilty.”

In other words, Moses appeals not to cheap grace, not to a
God who is so loving that He would never ever judge anybody, but to a God who is
characterized by holy love, justice and mercy, steadfast love, perfect
uprightness. And he says, Lord, because that’s how You are, because that’s who
You are, spare this people.

And in verse 20, the Lord says something
absolutely extraordinary. There’s a sermon series here in this phrase: “I have
pardoned according to your word.”
The Lord has said to Moses the mediator,
‘I’m going to wipe them out, and I’m going to make you a nation.’ And the
mediator lifts up this prayer on their behalf, appealing not to their deserving,
but to who God is, what He has promised, to His love and to His power, and to
His glory and to His word, and then God says, ‘According to your word, I will
forgive.’ And it’s a picture of the work of Christ, isn’t it? Except Christ’s
work is even greater, because in that work, whereas God pronounces that He will
bring His judgment on all of His people, Christ does not simply intercede for
all of His people, He says ‘Let their judgment be upon Me, and the blessing that
I deserve be upon them.’ And the Father forgives, because of His word and
obedience. And so it’s a primer here that we’re seeing, to learn of the
intercession of Christ.

III. God’s judgment on

But we also see, don’t we, the consequences; that
there’s a sparing of the fullness of judgment, but there are consequences here —
grave consequences — and God pronounces judgment on the unbelieving spies and
the Israelites in verse 20-38.

Two quick things. Notice in verses 20-25, God says
this: ‘For all of you who saw My glory and yet doubted My word and My glory,
you won’t see the land
. You saw My glory, but You doubted My word and My
power. You won’t see the land. You saw Me, you doubted Me, you won’t see the
land.’ And then notice again in verses 26-38, everyone who said, ‘Oh, no! It
would have been better that we had died in the wilderness!’ God said, ‘I heard
that, and you will. You saw; you did not believe; you shall not see. I heard
what you said, and you will not see. But not your children, in order to
demonstrate to you and to them My power, which you doubted.’

IV. Continued rebellion.

And, my friends, at that point you’re waiting for the
revival to happen! You’re waiting for people to start coming forward! Good
grief, if you don’t get it at that point, when are you ever going to get it? You
are waiting for them to start “coming forward”! They mourn. And the next morning
they get up and they look around–‘OK, let’s go into the land! We’re ready now!’
(What part of verse 25 did you miss?) And Moses warns them again. OK, so they
missed verse 25. Moses tells it to them again in verses 42 and 43, and then
again Moses explicitly records for you the fact that they ignored what he said.

It’s not that they didn’t hear him. They heard him,
and they did it anyway. Can you think of a better picture of the way that sin
works its way into your heart, and you are so maligned to the appeals of your
dearest friends — ‘No, no, no! Don’t do it! Don’t do it! I love you…don’t do
it!’ — and they do it. And their enemies defeat them.

God’s mercy is seen even in this dark chapter, and
His response to the intercession of Moses. But the consequences of Israel’s sin
will be with them for at least forty years and, really, will echo down all the
days of their existence as God’s chosen people.

Let’s pray.

Our Lord an dour God, what a sober reminder to us
of how we ourselves are so often prone to wander, while You in Your love are
calling by the roadside, “Child, don’t go there.” O Lord, we thank You that we
have an intercessor that’s greater than Moses; a great High Priest, who is not
only a faithful servant in Your house, but Your only begotten Son. By His
obedience and blood, forgive us of our sins and free us from the dominion of
them, for Your glory and our good. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

[Congregation sings
The Doxology

Grace to you.

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