In verse 10 we read, “But the whole assembly talked about stoning [Moses and Aaron].” In my Bible I put two lines between this sentence and the next, because something abrupt happened at this point. There is buzzing going on around the people; they don’t know what to do. But when they decided to believe the ten spies, Moses and Aaron fall down on their faces in prayer before God. They had done this before when God was on the verge of destroying the people.
And suddenly, the Lord appears “at the Tent of Meeting to all the Israelites” and says, “How long will these people treat me with contempt? How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the miraculous signs I have performed among them? I will strike them down with a plague and destroy them, but I will make you into a nation greater and stronger than they” (vv. 10-12). Does that sound familiar? It should, because it’s exactly the scene that was played out in Exodus 32 when the people had made the golden calf. God had said to Moses, “Now I am going to blot them out, I will start again with you, you will become a new Abraham.” Here on this occasion, Moses did exactly what he did there. He said, “No, I want to intercede for them. Please spare them, spare them for their sin.”
What is it that brought out God’s anger on this occasion? This is not obvious idolatry, as we saw in Exodus 32. Yet the wrath of God is the same, the threatened judgment is identical. What is it that has bothered God and made Him so angry? He told them, “You have contempt for me.”
Refusing to believe God shows contempt for Him. If you are not a Christian, God says that hell is a real threat and that the way of salvation has been provided for you by Jesus Christ. If you don’t believe that, you are showing contempt for God. That’s the way God sees it. A person may not see it that way, but how they see it doesn’t matter. God is the one with whom you have to deal. Some day you are going to stand before Him. Is He going to say to you, “You have shown contempt for me and for my Son. I gave my Son to die in your place, and you didn’t believe it”? Or perhaps you are a Christian who is not willing to trust Him with your life. You are showing contempt for God as well. What is it that God most wants from us? He needs nothing that we have to offer. But He wants to be believed. Do you believe Him? Are you willing to believe His Word and act on it?
In verses 13 through 19 of Numbers 14, we find Moses interceding for the people. He rejects God’s offer, as he did before, and pleads with the Lord to spare the Israelites. He begins to present arguments to God which are very similar to the arguments he gave before. The first of them dealt with God’s reputation before the Gentile nations. In Exodus 32, Moses had said to God, “Why should the Egyptians say it was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains and wipe them off the face of the earth?” (v. 12). Now here he says virtually the same thing:
Then the Egyptians will hear about it!…And they will tell the inhabitants of this land about it. They have already heard that you, O LORD, are with these people, and that you, O LORD, have been seen face to face, that your cloud stays over them, and that you go before them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. If you put these people to death all at one time, the nations who have heard this report about you will say “The LORD was not able to bring these people into the land he promised them on oath; so he slaughtered them in the desert” (Num. 14:13-16).
This was no small matter. Who is the God who is able to do what He promises? That was the issue then, and that is the issue today. When Moses said that the nations will hear about it, he was making a very forceful argument. The nations did hear about it, too. When God brought them into the land, we read in the book of Joshua that the citizens of Jericho and the other major cities of the land already knew what God had done. Yet, the majority of the nations did not believe in God as a result of the report. Belief has to come from God, and unbelief is very deeply entrenched.
But some did believe. One example is Rahab of Jericho. When she was with the spies, she said, “We’ve heard about all the things that God has done for you” (see Josh. 2:9-10). She believed because of what she heard. The others who heard it didn’t believe, but they still trembled. And Jericho fell.
The second argument concerned God’s grace. You do not see this second argument in Exodus 32 as much as we do here. Perhaps Moses didn’t know as much about the grace of God at that time. After praying and interceding for the people because of the golden calf, Moses had asked the Lord to show Moses His glory. God explained that this wasn’t possible because if a human being looks upon the face of God he will die. But God did say that He would put Moses in a cave in the rock, and cover it with His hand as He passes by. When God passed by, Moses heard God say “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin” (Ex. 34:6-7). In other words, when Moses asked to see God’s face, God showed Moses a revelation that He was a merciful God. And so Moses appeals to God’s mercy here in Numbers 14. God had said that He is merciful, and He revealed Himself as gracious. Thus, Moses asks, “In accordance with your great love, forgive the sin of these people, just as you have pardoned them from the time they left Egypt until now” (v. 19).