Today, we read Numbers 12-14 in our Bible Reading Plan. John Piper, in a sermon “Can God Spread a Table in the Wilderness?”
They arrive at Kadesh in the Wilderness of Paran to the south of Canaan, and in Numbers 13 the 12 spies are sent in to spy out the promised land. After 40 days they return. Caleb and Joshua hand in this report: “Let us go up at once and occupy it; for we are well able to overcome it” (Numbers 13:30). But the other 10 spies oppose this decision with an amazing argument—amazing for people who had walked through the Red Sea and spent two and a half years in the desert with God. They said: “We are not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we” (Numbers 13:31). My guess is that Caleb and Joshua looked at each other in unbelief and then glanced at Moses and then looked back at the 10 spies and cried out, “So what! What does the relative strength between them and us have to do with whether we can take the land?” People who trust in God are always baffled by the practical atheism of nominal believers. If God has said, “Go up and take the land,” it is irrelevant that we look like grasshoppers compared to the inhabitants. In fact, that may be all the more reason to go, since God will get more glory that way. Grasshoppers will surely never be able to boast when God gives them the victory.
But in Numbers 14 the people prove that two and a half years in the wilderness has not been long enough to teach them to trust God alone, and they rebel against Moses and against God. InNumbers 14:11 the Lord says to Moses, “How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs which I have wrought among them? I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them.” But Moses, one of the most patient and committed leaders that has ever lived, applied himself in prayer for the people. He argued with God that God’s name would be scorned in Egypt if it appeared that he could not bring the people into Canaan (Numbers 14:15,16); and he argued on the basis of God’s self-revelation on Mount Sinai in Exodus 34:6, 7, that God is “slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and forgives iniquity and transgression” (Numbers 14:17, 18).
So God relented from total destruction and said (in Numbers 14:20-25):
I have pardoned according to your word, but truly as I live, and as the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord, none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs which I wrought in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the proof these ten times and have not hearkened to my voice, shall see the land which 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 in which he went, and his descendants shall possess it. Now since the Amalekites and Canaanites dwell in the valleys, turn tomorrow and set out for the wilderness by the way to the Red Sea.
The whole class flunked their final exam of the wilderness training and was not allowed to graduate. And all the children are sent back to school. If two and a half years of human helplessness and divine wonders doesn’t put trust into the hearts of Israel, then we will make it forty years. And so it was that Israel wandered in the wilderness (cared for by an amazingly patient God) until a generation of unbelievers died out. (This period is covered in the rest of the book of Numbers from chapter 14 to the end.)
It is not hard to see the lesson God wants to teach us from the wilderness experience of his people Israel. God says that even though they saw his glory and the signs he wrought in Egypt and in the wilderness, yet they put him to the test time after time with their grumbling and did not hearken to his voice or rest in his power (Numbers 14:22). The implication is clear: God’s purpose in the exodus and in the wilderness wandering was to humble the people (Deuteronomy 8:2), and then to show his wonders for them, so they would learn to trust in the Lord with all their heart and lean not on their own insight or power (Proverbs 3:5, 6). The curriculum in the wilderness is designed to lay bare human helplessness.