The time has come for the people of Israel to take the promised land by the hand of God. Numbers 13 opens with the Lord instructing Moses to send men to spy out the land of Canaan “which I am giving to the people of Israel” (13:2). Let those words settle into your minds. God said that this is the land he was going to give to the people of Israel. It is yours. Go look at it and see it for yourselves.
Investigating the Land (13:3-24)
So one of the heads of each tribe was sent to investigate the land, twelve men in all. They went in to see what the land is, whether the people are weak or strong, few or many, and if the land is good or bad (13:17-20). They are to bring back some of the fruit of the land because it was the season for ripened grapes. One of the cities the spies see is the city of Hebron. Hebron is the place where God first promised Abraham that he would inherit this land (Genesis 13:14-18). Later, Abraham acquired this land to bury Sarah and the other patriarchs were later buried here (Genesis 23; 25:9; 35:27-29; 50:13). This is the land God said Abraham’s offspring would inherit. It is time to receive the inheritance.
The Report (13:25-33)
For forty days the land is investigated and then these twelve men come to Moses, Aaron, and whole congregation of Israel (13:25-26). They show them the fruit of the land, which in verse 23 is magnificently described. They cut a branch with a single cluster of grapes and carried it on a pole between two of them along with figs and pomegranates. So the spies declare the richness of the land. “It flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit” (13:27). As you hear those words your mind should go back to Exodus where God promised that it was a very good and fruitful land (Exodus 3:8,17; 13:5; 33:3). In those promises God said that they would possess the land. Seeing what God was about to give them should have brought them great joy and readiness to conquer. But instead we need to continue reading in verse 28.
The people who live there are strong and the cities are fortified and very large. The word “fortified” indicates that the cities are inaccessible (cf. 2 Kings 18:13; Jeremiah 33:3). The cities are described as beyond their reach. Further, the descendants of Anak are there who are renown warriors. Not only this, there are many enemies in the land also (13:29). The Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites, and Canaanites all live in the land. But one of the spies then speaks up in verse 30 and his name is Caleb. He says, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.” You have to love Caleb. He just says, “Let’s do this!” The report does not matter because it is ours for the taking. But the other spies say that they cannot attack because the people in the land are stronger than us (13:31). Now listen to the exaggerations these spies us to turn people away from desiring to conquer the land in verses 32-33. They said, “The land devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. We saw Nephilim there and we are like grasshoppers to them and they saw us to be like grasshoppers.” Basically, the people there will chew us up and spit us out. It is absolutely impossible for us to win against these people.
Now I want us to consider what has just happened. How could two groups come up with such different assessments of the same facts? These twelve men saw the same things. They saw the same enemies. They saw the same fruit of the land. How can ten of these men say that this is an impossible task and two say that they can go up and take the land? The ten forgot how this began: God promised to give them this land. God did not tell them to look at the land to see if they were strong enough to take the land. They were not. Rather, they were to see the land God was giving them. But they forgot what God was giving them. So the challenge is laid before the people: will you walk by faith in the promises of God or will walk by sight? Will you decide by what you see? Will you decide by trusting in the word of the Lord? Turn to Numbers 14 and let us see what the people decide.
Reaction of the People (14:1-12)
The people respond by raising a loud cry and weeping all night (14:1). In verse 2 all the people grumble against Moses and Aaron saying, “Would that we had died in Egypt or in the wilderness!” Look at verse 3. “Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword?” They say that their wives and children will be taken as plunder and it would be better to go back to Egypt. We have a full rebellion occurring. Look at verse 4 where Israel begins to choose a new leader so that they can go back to the land of Egypt. They are ready to elect a new leader and reverse the whole course of the exodus by going back to Egypt. This is a complete rejection of the Lord. This is a complete rejection of Moses. This is a complete rejection of the salvation the Lord had promised them. This is a complete rejection of the mediator the Lord had chosen to lead them. Finally, it is a complete rejection of the inheritance promised to the people.
Understanding the severity of this rejection, Moses and Aaron fall on their faces before the whole assembly (14:5). Joshua and Caleb tear their clothes in outrage and mourning (14:6). Joshua and Caleb, two who were part of the twelve that investigated the land, declared to the people that the land is good and the Lord will give us this exceedingly good land if the Lord delights in us (14:7-8). Do not rebel against the Lord (14:9) and do not fear the people for we will consume them. Their protection is removed from them and the Lord is with us. It is a very compelling argument. God is with us and he will give us the land.
Look at what the people do in verse 10. “Then all the congregation said to stone them with stones.” They are going to kill these four men who represent God’s leadership and will. It is at this point that the Lord intervenes. The glory of the Lord appears to stop this stoning that is about to occur. Now we see the Lord’s response in verses 11-12. The questions how long he will deal with this people treating him with contempt and how long will they not believe in him, in spite of all the signs performed. This is what we see in Jesus as well as he goes about doing signs and yet the people will not believe. God declares that the he will strike the people with a plague and disinherit them. God will make a greater and stronger nation out of Moses. This is as bad as the golden calf incident and these people cannot belong to God. They will be disinherited.
Moses Intercedes (14:13-19)
Please be stunned by what we read next. This people should be struck down and disowned but Moses steps in on behalf of the people. Moses says that the nations will hear of this and they will say that the Lord was unable to bring these people into the land on which we promised with an oath. The nations will know you broke your word, Lord. In verses 17-18 Moses depends on the character of God. Please let your strength be displayed in the you are slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression. Moses takes hold of God’s character. Therefore, please pardon the people’s sin according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just has you have done from Egypt all the way up to this point. These people wanted to kill Moses but Moses intercedes for the people. What an amazing display of humility and love for these people that Moses continues to intercede for these rebellious people. Let us see what God’s response is to Moses’ request.
God’s Response (14:20-38)
First, God says he has pardoned the people but none of them who saw the glory of the Lord and the signs performed but disobeyed will ever see the promised land. No one who has treated God with contempt will see the land. Now I want you to think about that. God says that he has forgiven them but they are still not going to enter the promised land. How do these two ideas mesh together? Forgiveness is about remaining in relationship. God had said he that he would disinherit the people and start a new nation from Moses. Forgiveness here means that he will not disinherit the people and the promises will still come through these people. But the glory of the Lord must be displayed and their disobedience requires judgment.
However, Caleb, because he has a different spirit and follows the Lord wholeheartedly, will be brought into the land along with his descendants (14:24). Look at verse 25 where God now tells the people that tomorrow they will turn around and go back into the wilderness. Since the people complained against the Lord, the Lord will do exactly what they complained about. Their bodies will fall in the wilderness since the people said that such was better than going into the promised land (14:28-29). Not one of them will enter except Joshua and Caleb (14:30). Your little ones that you said would be given over as the plunder of the enemies will enter the land that you rejected and will enjoy it (14:31). But your children will suffer for your faithlessness for 40 years until the last of your dead bodies lie in the wilderness (14:33). The people will bear their sin for one year for every day they spied the land, which adds up to 40 years. Further, the ten who gave the bad report immediately died by a plague because the Lord.
The People’s Response (14:39-45)
Now the people respond with great mourning and get up early in the morning declaring they are ready to take the promised land (14:40). We will go up now! Moses tells the people that they are sinning again. This is faithlessness also because they are merely responding from the consequences rather than responding in faith as they should have the first time. This is a characteristic of false repentance: declaring sorrow after the consequences have been revealed. Moses further tells the people that the Lord is not with them and they will not succeed in going up. Look at verse 43: “Because you have turned back from following the Lord, the Lord will not be with you.” But the people presumed to go up even though Moses nor the Lord was with them and they were soundly defeated, just as Moses said.
Now we have noted that the book of Numbers is directly relevant to our lives because we are also in the wilderness now on our way to the promised land of eternity with the Lord. We are on the journey being led by the glory of the Lord as seen in his Son and our Savior, Jesus. There are many difficulties on this journey. There are many hardships. There are many tests. There are many obstacles. The question that was put before the people is the same question put before us. Will we walk by faith or will we will walk by sight? Will we make decisions in our lives based on what we see? Will we make our life decisions based by trusting in God’s word and in God’s promises? Will we forget what the Lord has promised for us or will we depend on ourselves for our security and hope? This is why the New Testament constantly puts this challenge before us to walk by faith and put our trust in the Lord. Do not put your hope in this world. Do not trust in what you see. Have perspective and see what our Lord is leading us to and is going to give us.
But here is the bad news: all of us have failed at this. All of us have gone astray. All of us have failed on this journey. All of us have complained. All of us have put our trust in ourselves. All of us have broken faith and turned away from the Lord. But here is the good news: God sent us a new and greater Moses, Jesus. Jesus was sent to take our sins and act as our mediator so that he would bring us to the promised land. But what was the response of the world to Jesus? The response was the same response that Moses had. The people decided to follow their own hearts and were about to kill Moses. In the first century, the people decided to follow their own hearts and did kill Jesus. Stephen preached the good news and the people decided to follow their own hearts and killed Stephen. Paul preached the good news and people decided to follow their own hearts and repeatedly attempted to kill him.
But in our rebellion Jesus goes before the throne of God and makes intercession for us. With his own blood Jesus goes before the throne of God and our rescue is not based on us but on the character of God. Listen to Ephesians 2.
1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:1–9 ESV)
Our only hope is in the rich mercy of God which he has because of the great love he has for us. God has made us alive with Christ so that the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness would be displayed. Do we not desire to walk by faith when we see the great mercy of God? Do we not desire to love the Lord and believe in him in faithfulness in our journey to the promised land? This is what God has called for us to do. Let us end with the lesson the writer of Hebrews gives us from this event.
7 Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, “Today, if you hear his voice, 8 do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness, 9 where your fathers put me to the test and saw my works for forty years. 10 Therefore I was provoked with that generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart; they have not known my ways.’ 11 As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest.’” 12 Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 13 But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 14 For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. (Hebrews 3:7–14 ESV)
Do not let sin harden your heart. Do not fail in faith. Trust in the Lord and how that faith in your walk with God, turning from sin, and serving and loving your God faithfully.