How many people want to approach God on the basis of His justice? They say they just want God to treat them fairly, to give them a fair shake. But if you ask for justice from God, the justice of God will send you to hell. That’s no way to approach God. Instead, the Bible teaches us that you can only approach Him on the basis of His mercy, which is found in Jesus Christ. If, like the tax collector, you can say, “God be merciful to me, a sinner,” God will hear you and save you through the work of Christ.
God listened to Moses, as He had done previously, and spared the people. And yet there is a sad irony. The people had said, “If only we had died in Egypt or in this desert.” God decides to spare them; He is not going to kill them immediately with the plague that He does send to consume the ten unbelieving spies. But God says they are going to have to wander in the desert for thirty-eight years, until everyone over the age of twenty who grumbled against the Lord has died. God would wait for a new generation.
One of the sad things about unbelief and the way God deals with it is that He lets us have what we want. And so this generation perished. When we come to the time of the actual invasion of the land years later you get a new listing of the people. It’s an entirely different list that you find at the beginning of Numbers, except for Caleb and Joshua.
Now the people realized they’d made a mistake. They decided to press on, but without God’s blessing the result was a forgone conclusion. They were defeated in battle, and many, many, died (see vv. 44-45).
This story of the spies is a watershed story that is referred to in other places in the Bible. In 1 Corinthians 10:6 Paul writes, “Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did.” The best biblical interpretation and application of the story is found in Hebrews 3:12-13: “See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.”
What can we learn from this? First of all, there is the tragedy of unbelief, which is no small matter. We think in terms of other sins being great, and hardly think at all of unbelief. But unbelief is the tragedy of this story. It is tragic because it brings judgment, and it is also tragic because it spreads. There were twelve men who went in to see the land. Ten came back with a bad report. It spread to the people, which resulted in the entire nation being denied the conquest. Eventually more than a million people perished in the desert.
Belief spreads, too. Belief is blessed by God, and it spreads as one talks about the grace of God because of his or her faith in Him; and then, by the grace of God, others come to believe as well. Are you contributing to the advance and victory of faith by your belief? Or are you actually standing against it because you don’t trust God?
A second application is that there are always battles to be fought in this spiritual warfare of ours. We may not like them. We may want our lives to be lives of ease, but we are given warfare. And we are not to lay down the armor of our warfare until we get to heaven. Isaac Watts wrote a great hymn that talks about this:
Sure I must fight, if I would reign:
Increase my courage, Lord;
I’ll bear the toil, endure the pain,
Supported by Thy Word.
That’s what we are called to do, also.
A third point, which is an obvious one, is that without the Lord we can do nothing. When the people did decide to enter Canaan, they went in without the presence or the blessing of the Lord and they were defeated. Jesus said, “…apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Do you believe that? If you do, why do you do so much without consulting God or seeking to walk in His way? Why are you so timorous about doing the things that you know you ought to do?
The last point concerns the character of Moses. We don’t see him much in this story, since it focuses on Caleb, Joshua, and the unbelieving spies. But think what this tells us about Moses’ character. At the end of Numbers 10, as the people started out, Moses went out with what must have been great joy and anticipation. The cloud started forward and Moses said, “Rise up, O LORD! May your enemies be scattered; may your foes flee before you” (v. 35). And when the cloud rested he said, “Return, O LORD, to the countless thousands of Israel” (v. 36). He believed that after all the preparation and all the struggle, they really were going to the promised land and they were going to take it. He must have thought that the conquest would be quick and that he’d settle down and be able to live for years, until eventually he himself died in the land.
However, this was not to be. He too was obliged to wander with the people for thirty-eight years. Later we learn that he doesn’t even get to enter the land. And yet there is not a single word of complaint from the lips of Moses. He’s not thinking of himself, he’s thinking of the people. The people were almost destroyed, but he interceded for them, and God spared them. Moses was willing to be their leader for another four decades. What a difference it would make if you and I would think less of ourselves, and more of God and other people. That’s the way Jesus Christ our Lord has told us to think.