Posts Tagged 'By the Numbers'

Cities of Refuge

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It’s entirely possible that the author of Hebrews had Numbers 35 in the back of his mind when he wrote this:

God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope set before us may be greatly encouraged. (Hebrews 6:18 NIV)

The cities of refuge described in Numbers 35 are typical of the hope we have in Jesus Christ. It might well be that the prophet Isaiah somehow understood this:

And a man shall be as an hiding place from the wind, and a covert from the tempest; as rivers of water in a dry place, as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land. (Isaiah 32:2 AV)

How can “a man,” specifically Jesus Christ, be like a city? Let’s take a look these cities of refuge within the context of Numbers 35.

Looking after the Levites

Instruct the people of Israel to give to the Levites as their inheritance certain cities and surrounding pasturelands. These cities are for their homes, and the surrounding lands for their cattle, flocks, and other livestock. (Numbers 35:2, 3 TLB)

The last three chapters of Numbers are important because they make it as clear as possible the extent of the land that God gave to Israel. They serve to underscore the eternal nature of God’s gift. God gave the land to Israel as an eternal possession. There’s a lot talk today about who actually owns the land present-day Israel is sitting on, but regardless of what politician says what to whom, that land belongs to Israel and nothing is going to alter that.

And then there were the Levites. You’ll recall that when Israel left Egypt, God took the firstborn of all life in Egypt except for those of the Israelites. Later on, Israel found out they owed God their firstborn. He asked for the Levites instead; they would all belong to Him. The Levites were to be dedicated to the service of God, as such they had to be treated differently. All the tribes of Israel were given their allotment of land except for the Levites. They were given cities to live in all across the Promised Land. This scattering of the Levites is fleshed out a little more in Joshua 21, but for now there is a lesson to be learned. In this action, God is literally scattering the savor of the Levites’ ministry all across the land. These people were privileged to not only walk close to God by serving Him in His sanctuary, but they also walked among the people. The Levites were a living example and reminder of God’s Covenant, Law, and testimony before the people. They also served as a constant reminder of the intimate relationship of God’s written Law and the workings of His grace. We’ll see that six of the Levite cities were designated as places of refuge for the one who accidentally killed another. That manslayer could run into one of these cities and plead to God for mercy.

God’s righteousness

In this way the land will not be polluted, for murder pollutes the land, and no atonement can be made for murder except by the execution of the murderer. You shall not defile the land where you are going to live, for I, Jehovah, will be living there. (Numbers 35:33, 34 TLB)

The joining together of God’s righteousness and His grace is illustrated in a powerful way in the cities of refuge. These two verses give us the principles behind these special cities. When a human being was slain, whether on purpose or by accident, blood was shed. This was something God took very seriously. Shed blood polluted or defiled the entire land. The only way to cleanse the land of that awful blight was by executing (shedding the blood) of the murderer. This was vitally important because of the nature of God’s special relationship with Israel. God would be dwelling in the midst of the land. The defilement of murder needed to be removed from the land; provision for legal expiation needed to be made, or it would be impossible for God to remain in the land.

In other words, capital punishment as designed by God, was not primarily meant as a deterrent or as an expression of man’s justice, but of God’s righteousness. The Israelites were to learn something about the nature of God and man in this law. Killing an animal was acceptable but murdering a human was not because a human being, not an animal, is created in the image of God. When someone murders another person, he is not only murdering that fellow human being, but he is murdering the image of God. That’s why the ultimate price has to be paid, because murder is the ultimate crime against both man and God.

God’s grace

So God’s righteousness would be satisfied with His law of capital punishment. This, by the way, goes back further than Moses, to the days of Noah. The one law God gave Noah after the Flood was this:

And murder is forbidden. Man-killing animals must die, and any man who murders shall be killed; for to kill a man is to kill one made like God. (Genesis 9:5, 6 TLB)

The New Testament reiterates the right of the state in cases like this Romans 13:

For the policeman does not frighten people who are doing right; but those doing evil will always fear him. So if you don’t want to be afraid, keep the laws and you will get along well. The policeman is sent by God to help you. But if you are doing something wrong, of course you should be afraid, for he will have you punished. He is sent by God for that very purpose. (Romans 13:3, 4 TLB)

But what about an accidental killing? God’s solutions were the so-called cities of refuge.

In all, there were six cities so designated, three on each side of the Jordan River. A person guilty of manslaughter, not murder, could find a place of safety and refuge in any one of these cities. The question naturally arises: A refuge from whom?

If a relative of the dead man comes to kill him in revenge, the innocent slayer must not be released to him for the death was accidental. (Numbers 35:5 TLB)

While this sounds like a “familial bounty hunter,” this relative figures prominently in Hebrew law and history. He is goel, the Avenger of Blood. He was the representative from the victim’s family charged with making sure justice was carried out against the murderer of the family member.

This Avenger of Blood was allowed to track down the murderer and deliver him to the authorities for execution. This was providing the testimony of two or three eyewitnesses could confirm the guilt of the murderer.

However, never put a man to death on the testimony of only one witness; there must be at least two or three. The witnesses shall throw the first stones, and then all the people shall join in. In this way you will purge all evil from among you. (Deuteronomy 17:6, 7 TLB)

Obviously the Avenger of Blood was not omniscient. He could be wrong. What if the person he was tracking didn’t kill the relative on purpose? That person, then, could find safety in a city of refuge.

These cities will be places of protection from the dead man’s relatives who want to avenge his death; for the slayer must not be killed unless a fair trial establishes his guilt. (Numbers 35:12 TLB)

…then the people shall judge whether or not it was an accident, and whether or not to hand the killer over to the avenger of the dead man. If it is decided that it was accidental, then the people shall save the killer from the avenger; the killer shall be permitted to stay in the City of Refuge; and he must live there until the death of the High Priest. (Numbers 35:24, 25 TLB)

Why was the accidental murderer required to remain in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest? The legal guilt of the unintentional slaying was ultimately expiated in the death of the high priest. Remember, the high priest was both the mediator and the representative of the people, so his death represented the legal justification of the accidental murderer. The scales of justice were balanced, expiation fulfilled, and the slayer was now free to return to his own home.

It’s a picture of Jesus

God’s system of justice is perfect. But there is much more at work here. The cities of refuge are really a perfect picture of Jesus Christ. The Bible applies this picture of the city of refuge to the believer finding refuge in God on more than one occasion. Here’s one that’s familiar to you:

God is our refuge and strength, a tested help in times of trouble. (Psalm 46:1 TLB)

The points of similarity between the cities of refuge and Jesus are stunning:

Both Jesus and the cities of refuge are within easy reach of the needy person; they were of no use unless someone could get to the place of refuge. Jesus is “as close as the mention of His Name.”

Both Jesus and the cities of refuge are open to all, not just the Israelite; no one needs to fear that they would be turned away from their place of refuge in their time of need. All who call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.

Both Jesus and the cities of refuge became a place where the one in need would live; you didn’t come to a city of refuge in time of need just to look around.

Both Jesus and the cities of refuge are the only alternative for the one in need; without this specific protection, they will be destroyed. Jesus is the only hope for the one being pursued by the Avenger of Blood.

Both Jesus and the cities of refuge provide protection only within their boundaries; to go outside meant certain death.

With both Jesus and the cities of refuge, full freedom comes with the death of the High Priest.

You can see there are many points of similarity between the cities of refuge and Jesus Christ. But there is one, glaring, crucial distinction between the two: The cities of refuge only helped the innocent, but the guilty can come to Jesus and find refuge.

And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me. (John 12:32 AV)

How To Inherit God’s Promises

Canaan

Numbers 33:50 – 56

The Israelites were so close to the Promised Land, they could look across the Jordan right into it. Up to this point in Numbers 33, Moses recalls the past for the sake of his people and of the inspired record he set down. If you were to read Numbers 33:1 – 47, you would be struck with the seemingly never-ending patience of God as He preserved His people during their travels, beginning with their Exodus from Egypt. The trip from Mount Sinai to the Promised Land should have been quick and simple. Thanks to the people’s rebellious, sinful attitudes, God forced them to turn back from the Promised Land and He made the walk around the desert for almost 40 years until that sinful generation died off. Essentially, God would start fresh with a new group of people entering into the Promised Land. During the 40 years, God preserved and put up with almost constant complaining, murmuring, often thankless people until He led them right back to where they started: the border of the Promised Land.

The Israelites learned a lesson, and so should we. The life we Christians enjoy in Christ, our “land of rest,” depends on the same grace of God. If you are serving the Lord, you may experience supernatural provision, happiness, and peace in the here-and-now thanks only to God’s grace. The children of Israel were often discouraged because of God’s will – their wilderness wanderings. God’s will may not always be exciting or something that you particularly enjoy either, but it is God’s will none-the-less and rather than “kicking against the goad,” it’s best for you to submit to His will and enjoy all that His grace has to offer. It’s a lot less work, a lot less frustrating, and a lot more rewarding experience.

They left the mountains of Abarim and camped on the plains of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho. There on the plains of Moab they camped along the Jordan from Beth Jeshimoth to Abel Shittim. (Numbers 33:48, 49 NIV)

So here are, after four decades, Israel found itself standing on the plains of Moab, directly across from Jericho and the wonders of “the land flowing with milk and honey.” The Jordan River was the only thing between the people and the promise. The tens of thousands of Israelites were occupying an area of about five miles square; plenty of room for them to wait for the word to enter Canaan. Ronald Allen, in his commentary on Numbers, makes six keen observations of what was going on in Numbers 33. Of those six, two are worth noting here.

First, in the midst of Moses’ account of the Israelite’s travels, he abruptly pauses to mention something else:

While they were at the foot of Mount Hor, Aaron the priest was directed by the Lord to go up into the mountain, and there he died. This occurred during the fortieth year after the people of Israel had left Egypt. The date of his death was July 15, when he was 123 years old. (Numbers 33:38 – 40 TLB)

Moses was dying and he knew it. Much of this chapter may be regarded his obituary, written ahead of time by himself. In the midst of his obituary, Moses memorializes his brother Aaron. It’s a small point but a remarkable one that speaks to the character of both Moses and his brother. Moses, the reluctant hero, deliverer, and leader of a nation and his brother, Aaron, the nation’s spiritual leader, were both significant men of God and significant men in the history of Israel. They were not sinless. They were far from perfect. And, when God called them into service, Moses and Aaron had already lived half a lifetime; these were not young men. But they both rose to their callings. They both, no doubt, got more grief than they deserved, and yet both men kept on, walking the road God had put them on. Neither man would be allowed to enter Canaan, but they were men of God.

Secondly, as you read Numbers 33, there is absolutely no mention of the rebellion of the people; no mention of the 40 years of judgment and punishment. If all you knew about Israel’s history came from this chapter, you would rightly conclude that Israel marched faithfully, from one staging point to another, from Egypt to the Canaan. Why is that, do you suppose? In God’s records, the new generation had replaced the old one. As far as God was concerned, there had never been a previous rebellious and sinful generation. The people who arrived at the banks of the Jordan were regarded by God as the people who had left Egypt.

What do we take away from this? God’s will; His eternal purpose and plan for His people will always be realized, despite the loss and disappearance of an entire generation. Or, in other words, with or without your help or co-operation, God’s will is going to come to pass.

That Land of Promise, like all of God’s promises, could only be received and entered into by faith. Like the children of Israel, let’s take a few moments to look into the Promised Land.

What was it like?

From all the songs and hymns we sing, you might get the impression that Canaan Land was just like Heaven. In fact, it probably wasn’t. Canaan Land, far from being like a place, was like a Person: the Lord Jesus Christ. Think about this: Canaan was the following things.

A land of plenty

Remember how God Himself described the Promised Land:

So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey (Exodus 3:8 NIV)

Remember what the spies saw when they spied out the Land:

When they reached the Valley of Eshkol, they cut off a branch bearing a single cluster of grapes. Two of them carried it on a pole between them, along with some pomegranates and figs. (Numbers 3:23 NIV)

They gave Moses this account: “We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit.” (Numbers 3:27 NIV)

Canaan was everything God said it would be. Would it have been anything else? It was something – some place – God had given to them. God only gives good things to His people. Even during their time wandering around the desert, God was still giving them good things (whether they fully realized it or not!).

The Lord your God has blessed you in all the work of your hands. He has watched over your journey through this vast wilderness. These forty years the Lord your God has been with you, and you have not lacked anything. (Deuteronomy 2:7 NIV)

Even when you don’t deserve it, God will provide for you. What a foreshadow of what Jesus Christ does for His people.

And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:19 NIV)

A God-given land

Canaan was a piece of property God gave personally to His people. It was a Land of Promise for every Israelite to enjoy. All they had to do was receive it. Jesus Christ is a Person given to every human being:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned (John 3:16 – 18a NIV)

But just like the Promised Land, Jesus is a promise waiting to be claimed. Until the Israelites went in to possess the Land, it really didn’t belong to them even though God gave it to them. Until a lost soul reaches out in faith to possess the gift of God in Jesus Christ, He doesn’t belong to them, either.

How to possess the promise

Believe

If you, like the Israelites before you, want to “possess the land,” or possess the promises God has in store for you, you need to remember what a “promise” is. The promise of God must be accepted by the one God made it to. The promise He has promised man is eternal life in Christ Jesus. You must believe, not only in Him, but in what He accomplished for you. It was unbelief that kept Israel out of the Promised Land for 40 years and it is unbelief that keeps eternal life elusive to so many lost souls.

Possess

Canaan could not be claimed and owned by the Israelites until they were IN it. They had to claim it with their feet!

I will give you every place where you set your foot, as I promised Moses. (Joshua 1:3 NIV)

Don’t think this is another “name-it-and-claim-it” message, because it isn’t. Nobody can claim the promises of God until they are IN Christ. If you are in Christ, you will receive the promises of God in due time.

Confront

Sometimes, as in the case of Israel, possessing God’s promises may take a little bit of work.

“When you pass across the Jordan River into the land of Canaan, you must drive out all the people living there and destroy all their idols—their carved stones, molten images, and the open-air sanctuaries in the hills where they worship their idols. I have given the land to you; take it and live there.” (Numbers 33:51 – 53 TLB)

There may not be people in between you and your promise, but maybe you may have to deal with some sin in your life. Or maybe some doubt or faithlessness. Whatever you need to “drive out” in order to receive your promise, it will be more than worth the effort to do it. There is an enemy determined to keep you away from the promises God has given to you and you may have to deal with him, too.

A warning:  You may fail

God had given Canaan to Israel, but it wasn’t a done deal by a long shot. Failure was possible.

But if you refuse to drive out the people living there, those who remain will be as cinders in your eyes and thorns in your sides. (Numbers 33:55 TLB)

It’s hard to imagine, but living in disobedience to God’s revealed will can literally turn the blessings of God into small curses that make life hard for you. Israel had to do exactly what God told them to do, otherwise they would forever be plagued with aggravations and irritations all the years they lived in the land gave them.

How many Christians are genuine, true believers, yet live miserable lives because they are just slightly out of His will?

Disobedience is fatal

If failing to do all that God wants you to do results in you living a sub-standard Christian life, then outright, continual disobedience is deadly.

And I will destroy you as I had planned for you to destroy them. (Numbers 33:55 TLB)

The Ice Man Cometh

the-iceman-cometh-el-repartidor-de-hielo

Moses and the people of Israel were shut out of the Promised Land. Because they didn’t have faith in God’s Word and didn’t follow His will, God refused to let them enter the land He gave them. Instead, the Lord’s prescription for their rebellious attitude was a simple one:

“Since the spies were in the land for forty days, you must wander in the wilderness for forty years—a year for each day, bearing the burden of your sins. I will teach you what it means to reject me. I, Jehovah, have spoken. Every one of you who has conspired against me shall die here in this wilderness.” (Numbers 14:34 – 35 TLB)

That was a big pill for the people to swallow. But swallow it they did. The next four decades were pretty miserable for Israel, but also transitional. God was going to break them and remake them into a people that would serve Him and follow Him.

What happened during those 40 years is mostly a mystery; a historical void. This makes sense because they were years of void – years in which almost a whole generation of Israel’s history quickly died off and the new, youthful generation grew up with no history. Even though history is silent, this was a significant period in the development of Israel.

In terms of geography, the people really didn’t go anywhere. They wandered around aimlessly between Kadesh and the Red Sea, killing time. There is a record of some rest stops they made along the way (chapter 33), but essentially they walked around and around and around. Sometimes, as strange as it may seem, this is God’s will. There may be times in your life when God’s will for you is WAIT – WATCH – and be ready to move out. It’s during those down times when the Lord is helping you to grow, probably teaching you something you need to know. When it seems as though you aren’t going anywhere, yet you’re serving the Lord, living right, doing what you should, take advantage of the time to listen, and learn, and grow in your faith.

In terms of population, Israel lost upwards of 600,000 of its warriors, some to a violent death, many just died in the desert – an almost daily reminder of God’s judgment. Those under 20 when the 40 years began grew up, married and raised children. At the close of their desert judgment, a new generation of Abraham was on the scene.

In terms of this new generation’s spirituality, they were ready to honor the original Covenant. The promise of God was reaffirmed and they were ready to take the land. Moses, Aaron, Aaron’s sons, the Levites, Joshua, and Caleb were still alive and still leading the people. By now, naturally, Moses was quite old and it was inevitable that there would come a challenge to his leadership. It was odd – really odd! – that that challenge would come from a Levite who was actually a cousin to Moses and Aaron.

One day Korah (son of Izhar, grandson of Kohath, and a descendant of Levi) conspired with Dathan and Abiram (the sons of Eliab) and On (the son of Peleth), all three from the

tribe of Reuben, to incite a rebellion against Moses. Two hundred and fifty popular leaders, all members of the Assembly, were involved. (Numbers 16:1, 2 TLB)

The conspirators

From reading this early history of Israel, you might get the impression all they did was murmur and complain. You might be right. For those who like to know minute trivia, this was actually the fifth time and by the time we get to the end of chapter 16, we’ll be reading about the sixth. But this murmuring was particularly bad because it came from the priesthood, led by a prominent Levite, Korah.

Korah was a man of authority and those associated with his conspiracy to overthrow Moses were all men of prominence and wealth. The rebellion they schemed was no small affair.

“We have had enough of your presumption; you are no better than anyone else; everyone in Israel has been chosen of the Lord, and he is with all of us. What right do you have to put yourselves forward, claiming that we must obey you, and acting as though you were greater than anyone else among all these people of the Lord?” (Numbers 16:3 TLB)

The men making this complaint to Moses were all men of renown; they weren’t your average, run-of-the-mill unemployed trouble-makers. Their words carried weight. Their opinions were taken seriously, especially by Moses.

It’s one thing to be unfairly criticized by some loser who barely has the intelligence to walk. Most of us can handle that. But when your work or, worse, your character is impugned by people of note, people you respect, you sit up and take notice. Moses did.

The real sin

Korah, whose name means “Ice,” and he certainly lived down to his name, didn’t like Moses. That was obvious, but those feelings of dislike soon gave way to actions of opposition. As one writer noted, “Where love is thin, faults are thick.” Only somebody with an icy disposition could head up a coup against one of God’s meekest servants.

Their indictment against Moses wasn’t completely wrong. In fact, as they claimed, all Israel was indeed consecrated to the Lord. There was just enough truth in what they said to make Moses cringe. However, most of what they said was bogus. Moses was not taking too much upon himself. He was doing what he was called to do. In fact, at first he didn’t want any part of it; he thought he was unqualified. But God called him and God qualified him. Moses was far from perfect, but he was doing God’s will and Korah’s accusation was unfounded.

The real problem here was not with Moses or the leadership of Israel, but with Korah himself. Jealousy is a terrible thing. Any authority Moses had was derived authority; derived from God Himself. In effect, Moses was working with God’s authority and any complaint against Moses was really a complaint against God. Korah should have known this, and the fact that he didn’t tells us a lot about his spiritual orientation.

Truth is, it was Korah, not Moses, who was out of line. Korah was a Levite. His calling in life – his divine calling – was that of a Levite. He should have been content with what God had called him to do. Moses was doing his job, and Korah should have been doing his.

We learn a valuable lesson in 1 Corinthians 12 about the assigned duties of believers within the Body of Christ:

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. (1 Corinthians 12:4 – 6 NIV)

Not everybody in church can be an elder or a Sunday School teacher or a deacon. God calls and He enables individuals to do what He has called them to do. And no believer is better than another, in terms of their service. Why is that? It’s because we have been given the gifts of the Spirit in order to serve God. So in a very real sense, it’s the Holy Spirit working through us. When we complain about or criticize another believer unfairly or undeservedly, what we’re really doing is complaining against God; essentially telling God He doesn’t know what He’s doing. And that’s precisely what Korah did.

Response of a godly man

When Moses heard what they were saying he fell face downward to the ground. (Numbers 16:4 TLB)

Moses didn’t faint. He prayed to God. We know this because of what he said next, and he essentially used Korah’s words against him and he put it all back on God.

In the morning the Lord will show you who are his, and who is holy, and whom he has chosen as his priest. (Numbers 16:5 TLB)

Moses did exactly the right thing, and it’s usually the last thing we think of doing when we are faced with a crisis of faith. God was the one who was insulted and slighted, not Moses. Therefore, God would have to be the one to set His critics straight, not Moses.

In reading the following verses, we can see the real root problem of Korah and the Levites who aligned themselves with him.

Does it seem a small thing to you that the God of Israel has chosen you from among all the people of Israel to be near to himself as you work in the Tabernacle of Jehovah, and to stand before the people to minister to them? Is it nothing to you that he has given this task to only you Levites? And now are you demanding the priesthood also? That is what you are really after! That is why you are revolting against Jehovah. And what has Aaron done, that you are dissatisfied with him? (Numbers 16:8 – 12 TLB)

That’s God’s gift of wisdom at work. Thanks to the Lord, Moses was able to discern what the real issue was. The sons of Levi were belittling their own calling to service and envying the service of others, namely, that of Aaron and his sons, the priests. In harboring such jealousy, they didn’t realize – or they had forgotten – that theirs was also a high calling. They were Levites, which meant four important things other Israelites, not even priests, could experience:

First, Levites were so important to the Lord and His work that they lived their lives completely separated from the general population. This wasn’t a punishment. God needed their undivided attention, so vital was their ministry.

Second, Levites were particularly close to God; far closer than any other Israelite. If anybody should be envied, it should have been Korah and the other Levites! But he, and they, had grown so used to being in God’s presence that they took Him for granted and treated Him with utter contempt.

Third, Levites to work in and around God’s Tabernacle. What a privilege, to be allowed to work where the presence of God is!

And last, the Levites got to minister to God’s people.

These were singular privileges the Levites enjoyed, which Korah and his associates disregarded because all they could see were Aaron and the priests. Their jealousy blinded them to the tremendous blessings they were experiencing.

But Moses was also had to square off against Dathan and Abiram, who criticized his national leadership. So Moses was really getting dumped on from all sides.

Day of reckoning

He had hardly finished speaking the words when the ground suddenly split open beneath them, and a great fissure swallowed them up, along with their tents and families and the friends who were standing with them, and everything they owned. So they went down alive into Sheol and the earth closed upon them, and they perished. All of the people of Israel fled at their screams, fearing that the earth would swallow them too. Then fire came from Jehovah and burned up the 250 men who were offering incense. (Numbers 16:3 – 35 TLB)

Over in the New Testament, we read this:

Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. (Romans 12:19 NIV)

Moses and Aaron could have taken matters into their own hands, but they understood a basic principle that Paul explained to the Romans. It’s better to leave room for the province of God in a bad situation than to take matters into your own hands. God is the judge of all, and He alone knows the hearts of men. Paul advised, and Moses practiced, “Leave room for God’s wrath.” We may feel like inflicting our own wrath upon one who has done us wrong, but isn’t it better for God to do His thing? Moses trusted God to take care of the situation he was in, and we should do the same. God won’t make the mistakes we would make. God’s people, without exception, will always be vindicated when they are attacked by others. God’s actions on their behalf will always prove more powerful than anything we could do for ourselves.

In Moses and Aaron’s case, God’s wrath was almost immediate. Often, that’s not the case, and in Romans there is no suggestion that God will act right away to right a wrong. But He will, and what we need is faith because our first impulse is not to do what Moses did and what Paul advised. Our first impulse is to act, and act fast, because if not, our opponent will “get away with it.” But Paul said: NO! To take matters into our own hands is to assume the place of God in meting out justice or retaliation, and that is a sin. Moses understood this, and we ought to. We never have all the facts; our understanding is almost always faulty and most of us can never be completely objective. If we are honest with ourselves, we don’t want justice, we want to get even.

Christians should never try to “get even” when they’ve been wronged. Instead, we need to trust that God will administer the right kind of justice upon the unjust person. God came through for Moses, and Korah and his pals got what they deserved.

Presumption: I Want It NOW!

BeFunky_WillyWonka_veruca.jpg

Numbers 14:39 – 45

You have deserted the Lord, and now he will desert you. (Numbers 14:43b TLB)

Martin Farquhar Tupper, English writer and poet, who is best know for his work Proverbial Philosophy, wrote these words:

Deep is the sea, and deep is Hell, but pride mineth deeper. It is coiled as a poisonous worm about the foundation of the soul.

In this brief story, we learn an important lesson about pride, but also about the truthfulness of that old saw, “too little, too late.” Specifically, the people of Israel had tried to exercise some faith, but it was “too little, too late.” It all started with something referenced in verse 39:

What sorrow there was throughout the camp when Moses reported God’s words to the people! (Numbers 14:39 TLB)

In response to those feelings of sorrow, the people of Israel tried to do something in faith:

They were up early the next morning and started toward the Promised Land. “Here we are!” they said. “We realize that we have sinned, but now we are ready to go on into the land the Lord has promised us.” (Numbers 14:40 TLB)

So what happened? What lit the fire under these Israelites? What motivated them to “go on into the land” to take it?

Background

Moses and Israel had reached the border of the Promised Land, the land God had promised to give to His people. Instead of pressing on to take the land – it was already given to them, after all – Moses decided to send in a troupe of spies.

So the majority report of the spies was negative: “The land is full of warriors, the people are powerfully built, and we saw some of the Anakim there, descendants of the ancient race of giants. We felt like grasshoppers before them, they were so tall!” (Numbers 13:32, 33 TLB)

In spite of the fact that God had promised – promised – to give the land to Israel, the people believed the report of all but two of the spies. Two of them, Joshua and Caleb, told a different story:

But Caleb reassured the people as they stood before Moses. “Let us go up at once and possess it,” he said, “for we are well able to conquer it!” (Numbers 13:30 TLB)

Those two men had faith; faith in the Word of the Lord. Unfortunately, the people believed the negative report rather than the positive one. People are wont to do that, even today. It’s easier for us to believe bad news over good news. This reaction of the people didn’t sit well with God.

But now, since the people of Israel are so afraid of the Amalekites and the Canaanites living in the valleys, tomorrow you must turn back into the wilderness in the direction of the Red Sea. (Numbers 14:25 TLB)

You will all die here in this wilderness! Not a single one of you twenty years old and older, who has complained against me, shall enter the Promised Land. Only Caleb (son of Jephunneh) and Joshua (son of Nun) are permitted to enter it. (Numbers 14:29, 30 TLB)

Since the spies were in the land for forty days, you must wander in the wilderness for forty years—a year for each day, bearing the burden of your sins. I will teach you what it means to reject me. I, Jehovah, have spoken. Every one of you who has conspired against me shall die here in this wilderness. (Numbers 14:34, 35 TLB)

And to show that He was dead serious, God struck all the faithless spies dead. And that brings us to the response of the people:

Here we are!” they said. “We realize that we have sinned, but now we are ready to go on into the land the Lord has promised us.” (Numbers 14:40b TLB)

But it was too late. The people had their chance, but things had changed.

But Moses said, “It’s too late. Now you are disobeying the Lord’s orders to return to the wilderness.” (Numbers 14:41 TLB)

Faith or presumption

The people’s immediate response to God’s judgment was actually mourning. But what were they mourning? Certainly not their mutinous behavior! They were scared; shocked at what God had done to people they knew. And they were probably scared because their opportunity to set down roots in a “land flowing with milk and honey” has passed them by. Now they were faced with 40 years of “camping out” in the desert. Forty years without a mailing address. Forty years without a job or steady income. Forty years of manna. Forty years of sand and dirt. No wonder they mourned!

Following their brief period of mourning, they felt the sting of their punishment; the full realization of what was facing them hit them and the people decided push on with the original plan: march on and take the land. The people dug down deep; they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and with complete grit and determination, they forged ahead. They would redeem their lost opportunity to posses the Promised Land. They even “confessed” their sins, in word at least. But it was all for naught. It was “too little, too late.”

Sin begets sin. The old sins of doubt and faithless despair turned into the new sins of presumptuous self-confidence. There’s nothing wrong with healthy self-confidence. But what afflicted these people was not healthy; it was a sickness. In thinking they could forge ahead at their convenience, the people did four things wrong.

They went against the revealed will of God. What had been God’s Word to them yesterday had become their disobedience today. God’s will had been for the people to go in and possess the land. But that was yesterday. Today His will had become: turn around and die in the desert. The people didn’t like that idea at all. They took matters into their own hands; they presumed they could “show up late” and that God would automatically bless their efforts. His response to them makes it clear that they – nobody, actually – can choose to serve God their own way. The big lesson we take away here is a simple but profound one: You must serve God His way. You aren’t allowed to make the rules. God makes them. Any service rendered to God by your own efforts is a fruitless exercise that He is not obligated to bless or even notice.

Christians are very good about doing what those Israelites did, by the way. In our service to God, we often tend to do what we think is best, often with disastrous results because they are done in our strength, not God’s. We blame God and get angry with Him because of our inevitable failures, yet He’s not to blame, we are! He’s shown us His way in His Word. But it’s easier to move on, doing our thing, deluding ourselves into thinking since it’s a good thing, God will bless our effort. He doesn’t work that way. We are to discern God’s will from His Word then live accordingly. Several times we read this verse in Proverbs:

There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death. (Proverbs 14:12 AV)

They thought they could predict God’s blessing. What they exclaimed is telling:

Here we are… (Numbers 14:40 TLB)

They simply presumed on the past goodness of God. They assumed that if they did the right thing now, in spite of their recent failure, that God would simply forget their rebellious and faithless attitudes. It’s a waste of time and effort in thinking we can depend on the past for the present. God’s books are current. It’s pure folly trying to do your own thing, even if it is done in God’s Name, and expect God to bless it.

The thought they could succeed without the presence of God. Verse 44 is a frightening one:

But they went ahead into the hill country, despite the fact that neither the Ark nor Moses left the camp. (Numbers 14:44 TLB)

They were embarking on a very good campaign; a campaign God wanted them to engage in – to possess the land He had given to them. The problem was, they were out of step with God. They were trying to do His will their way, according to their timetable, under their own strength. The fact that neither the Ark nor Moses accompanied them showed that they were completely out of God’s will.

As a Christian, if you are living out of God’s will or if you are attempting some noble service to God and mankind in your strength, you will be doing it alone, without the benefit of God’s presence. 2 Chronicles 15:2 should be engraved on all our hearts:

The Lord is with you when you are with him. (NIV)

They thought their words would satisfy God. Words mean things, but they must be backed up with corresponding action. The people admitted that they sinned. But their actions belied their words. They didn’t plead for forgiveness. They didn’t seek God in prayer and fasting. They tried to something – anything – to mitigate God’s judgment. They didn’t want to die in the desert. By attempting to take the land, they thought they could avoid God’s will. They presumed a simple, “I know we were wrong” would be enough for God. It wasn’t. Confession without submission to God’s will is hypocrisy.

A high price to get your own way

We’re fortunate to be living in this present age of grace. God’s judgment in the Old Testament was swift. The Israelites did their own thing, their own way and they paid high price.

Then the Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived in the hills came down and attacked them and chased them to Hormah. (Numbers 14:33 TLB)

In their self-confidence, they forged ahead and things ended badly. Not all of them died, but here is the perfect picture of those believers who think they can serve God their own way.

They experienced disappointment. And why wouldn’t they be disappointed? Man’s best efforts will always come up short compared to God’s blessings. We believers get used to living under divine protection. We get used to God’s blessings. We enjoy the warmth of His presence. So it’s no wonder when we get a little bold and brazen, thinking we can do something without God’s help, that we’ll feel disappointed and let down. We’re shocked when we realize God didn’t help us.

They experienced a stinging defeat. The Israelites got an old fashioned whooping! They had gotten used to God fighting for them. Defeat can hurt. It can be humiliating. This is what happens when believers step out from God’s presence.

Some died. Many did not, but some lost their lives. We are told in Scripture that, “Pride goeth before a fall.” It’s not only unseemly when a Christian gets puffed up with pride, it’s dangerous. A prideful believer is a threat not only to his own spiritual well-being but to those around him.

Over in the New Testament, we are told this:

These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. (1 Corinthians 10:11 NIV)

In other words, we need to take note of what happened to the Israelites in this story. We need to apply what they learned “too late” so that we won’t make the same mistake they did.

For those of us in church leadership – pastor, elder, Sunday School teacher, deacon – we need to make absolutely sure that all our efforts are done in the presence of God and in the power of the Holy Spirit and never in our own strength.

For all of us who regularly attend church; we who love to be in church, we must always watch out that our faith remains in God, not in the church and it’s ordinances or programs. “Autopilot” is the worst way to fly for a Christian!

And finally, to all the procrastinators reading this. If you feel like the Lord has a work for you to do, step out in faith and do it. Don’t wait until an opportunity passes you by. Stop using the old “I’ll pray about it” excuse as way of never doing anything.


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