The Israelites Respond in Unbelief, 1-10

14:1  Then all the community raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. 14:2 And all the Israelites murmured against Moses and Aaron, and the whole congregation said to them, “If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only we had perished in this wilderness! 14:3 Why has the LORD brought us into this land only to be killed by the sword, that our wives and our children should become plunder? Wouldn’t it be better for us to return to Egypt?” 14:4 So they said to one another, “Let’s appoint a leader and return to Egypt.”

‘The Jews had a long record of complaining against the Lord and their leaders, and being judged for it. Their murmuring began on the night of the Exodus when they were sure Pharaoh’s army was going to kill them (Ex. 14:10–14). As Israel entered the wilderness of Shur, they complained because they didn’t have water to drink (15:22–27), and then they murmured because they missed the delicious meals that were provided in Egypt (Ex. 16). “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt!” was their favorite lament. At Rephidim, the people were ready to stone Moses because they had no water (17:1–7), and at Taberah some of the people complained and were killed by fire (Num. 11:1–3). Shortly after that, the mixed multitude incited the Jews to ask for meat to eat, and Moses became so discouraged he wanted to die (vv. 4ff).’ (Wiersbe)

Wiersbe adds: ‘In most churches, there are two or three chronic complainers who plague the spiritual leaders and sometime must be disciplined; but here was an entire nation weeping over a plight that they had caused by their own unbelief!’

‘The nature of their sin is amplified through this chapter: complaining against the Lord (27, 29, 36); rejecting the land, which amounts to a rejection of the covenant (31); and turning away from the Lord (43). They questioned the purpose of God (3) and rejected Moses (4).’ (NBC)

Here we see the ‘ruinous effect’ (Blunt) of the report of the ten scouts upon the Israelites generally.  It only takes a few false witnesses to spread false doctrine, or bitter dissent, or to promote godless behaviour, in the church.

Then all the community raised a loud cry, and the people wept – The entire community is in rebellious mood – ‘all…all…the whole congregation.’

‘In Ex 15, we see Israel singing in great victory, but here they are weeping in defeat! Had they forgotten their song? See Ex 15:14–18. Had they forgotten all that God had done for them in the past two years? They had seen His power and glory, yet now were tempting Him by their attitude of rebellion and unbelief (vv. 22–23).’ (Wiersbe, Expository Outlines)

All the Israelites murmured against Moses and Aaron – ‘This is rather reminiscent of the way in which modern public-opinion polls swing back and forth, not out of any discernible application of principle, but apparently on the basis of little more than perceived self-interest and irrational forebodings of future woes.’ (Keddie)

‘Satan has most advantage of discontented persons, as most agreeable to his disposition, being the most discontented creature under heaven. He hammers all his dark plots in their brains.’ (Sibbes)

“If only we had died in the land of Egypt”

“If only we had perished in this wilderness!” – Be careful what you wish for!  These words would come back and haunt them!

‘It is useless to ask why death in Egypt or the desert is preferable to death in Canaan. There is no reasoning with people when they are in the grip of an overwhelming fear of the future.’ (Keddie)

Truth is, the grass is not greener on the other side of the hill.

‘Their foolish wish that they should die in the desert (2) is granted (28). This reminds us of the later warning that men will have to give an account for every careless word they speak (Mt. 12:36–37).’ (NBC)

‘It is their most rebellious language so far. They wished to eradicate from their memory everything that had happened since that first Passover. It was a hideous desire, totally inconsistent for people with even the slightest notion of God’s abundant and undeserved generosity. It mattered nothing that he had pledged himself to them in dependable covenant love. They were indifferent to his ideals for society, embodied in the Ten Commandments. What tragic defiance this was, to turn their backs on a God of such incomparable grace and goodness!’ (Brown)

“Why has the LORD brought us into this land only to be killed by the sword?” – God, who has been so merciful, kind and patient with them is now accused of having a murderous attitude towards them.

They said to one another – They did not consult God, or God’s chosen leader.  They consulted one another.  They trusted their own majority vote more than they trusted the Lord.

“Let’s appoint a leader and return to Egypt” – ‘The very people who had seen first hand the marvelous and miraculous demonstration of God’s omnipotence against one of the most powerful nations of the second millennium B.C. now longed to return to a world of bondage rather than believe a word of blessing.’ (Cole)

‘Stupendous madness! Whence should they have protection against the many hazards, and provision against all the wants of the wilderness? Could they expect either God’s cloud to cover and guide them, or manna from heaven to feed them? Who should conduct them over the Red Sea? or, if they went another way, who should defend them against those nations whose borders they were to pass? What entertainment could they expect from the Egyptians, whom they had deserted and brought to so much ruin?’ (Poole)

Their bitter complaint about God has a number of strands.  As Brown observes:

  1. They despised his generous provision: ‘Why is the LORD bringing us to this land …?’ It was because he loved them, and it was one of the most lavish things he could have done for them, yet they hurled the choice gift back in his face.
  2. They questioned his promised protection. Did they really imagine that he would bring them so far only to let them fall by the sword? The God who had routed the Amalekites at the beginning of their journey would surely defeat the Canaanites at its close.
  3. They doubted his unfailing love. ‘Our wives and children will be taken as plunder.’ It is unthinkable that a God who provided for the communication of the faith through families would allow vast numbers of women and children to be taken as plunder by the Canaanite hordes. He was fully able to care for their children, and later told them so (31).
  4. They disowned his unique redemption. ‘Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?’ All he had done in liberating them from their brutal oppressors was dismissed in a heartless, blasphemous sentence.
  5. They spurned his appointed leader. ‘We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.’ It was one thing to dread the future and make a torture of the present. It was quite another to reject the past as a total embarrassment to them. They were looking for someone who would take them back to a ‘pre-Moses’ lifestyle—a life without freedom, guidance, security, provision, protection, forgiveness, worship or hope.

(Numbering and emphasis added).

Brown concludes: ‘The disastrous defection anticipates and illustrates the tragedy later described by Peter when the once-committed Christian jettisons values that were once supreme. This account of Israel’s infamous rebellion is a perpetually relevant warning.’

On the danger of starting well, but then entertaining a rebellious spirit: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” (Lk 9:62)

‘This is not just a complaint. The Israelites want to undo their redemption…This is rebellion against God: unbelief in his promises, and rejection of his plan for them.’ (Pakula)

There is no place for complaining

‘When the child of God is in the will of God, there is no place for complaining, even if the circumstances are difficult. The will of God will never lead us where the grace of God can’t provide for us or the power of God protect us. If our daily prayer is, “Thy will be done,” and if we walk in obedience to God’s will, then what is there to complain about? A complaining spirit is evidence of an ungrateful heart and an unsurrendered will. By our grumbling, we’re daring to say that we know more than God does about what’s best for His people! “Do everything without complaining or arguing” (Phil. 2:14, NIV; and see 1 Cor. 10:10).’ (Wiersbe)

14:5 Then Moses and Aaron fell down with their faces to the ground before the whole assembled community of the Israelites. 14:6 And Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, two of those who had investigated the land, tore their garments. 14:7 They said to the whole community of the Israelites, “The land we passed through to investigate is an exceedingly good land. 14:8 If the LORD delights in us, then he will bring us into this land and give it to us—a land that is flowing with milk and honey. 14:9 Only do not rebel against the LORD, and do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread for us. Their protection has turned aside from them, but the LORD is with us. Do not fear them!”

Moses, Aaron, Joshua and Caleb have one more try at converting the obdurate majority.  Who today has the moral power and spiritual authority to stand against a thoughtless, rebellious majority?

Moses and Aaron fell down…before the whole assembled community – Partly, perhaps, in awe of the utter faithlessness of the people, and partly in submission to the Lord.

‘that they might be awaked to apprehend their sin and danger, when they saw Moses at his prayers, whom God never used to deny, and never failed to defend, even with the destruction of his enemies.’ (Poole)

Moses and Aaron spoke to God (see also Num. 16:4, 22, 45; 20:6; 22:31); Joshua and Caleb spoke to the people.

Joshua will, of course, eventually turn out to be Moses’ successor.

The report given by Joshua and Caleb has much in common with that of the other spies.  But there is one big difference: they know that the Lord is with his people, and will grant them his protection.

“If the Lord delights in us…” – They were hell-bent on pleasing themselves.  But ‘in reality life’s greatest satisfaction comes only by pleasing God.’  In this, we follow our Saviour himself, John 5:30; Rom 15:1–3.

They did not say, “It is a very good land.  If only we proceed with courage and resolution, it shall be ours.  No: they did not say that it was within their own power, but rather that it was within their God’s power.  They said, “the LORD is with us. Do not fear them.”  And we too have a ‘hope does not put us to shame’ (Rom 5:5).  We do not need to fear, “for [our] Father has been pleased to give [us] the kingdom.” (Lk 12:32).  Those whom God has called, he also justifies and glorifies (Rom 8:30).  Our strength is not in ourselves, and so we need not fear loss of strength.  Our hope is in the Lord, whose strength never fails.

“Do not rebel against the Lord” – ‘Nothing can ruin sinners but their own rebellion. If God leave them, it is because they drive him from them; and they die because they will die. None are excluded the heavenly Canaan but those that exclude themselves.’ (MHC)

‘The will of God is the expression of the love of God for His people, for His plans come from His heart (Ps. 33:11). God’s will isn’t punishment, it’s nourishment (John 4:31–34); not painful chains that shackle us (Ps. 2:3), but loving cords that tie us to God’s heart so He can lead us in the right way (Hosea 11:4).’ (Wiersbe)

‘God wants us to know His will (Acts 22:14), understand His will (Eph. 5:17), delight in His will (Ps. 40:8), and obey His will from the heart (Eph. 6:6). As we yield to the Lord, trust Him, and obey Him, we “prove by experience” what the will of God is (Rom. 12:1–2).’ (Wiersbe)

14:10 However, the whole community threatened to stone them. But the glory of the LORD appeared to all the Israelites at the tent of meeting.

The whole community threatened to stone them – They were not acting as a lynch-mob.  Rather they were seeking to carry out the judicial sentence against false witnesses.

‘Those who hate to be reformed hate those that would reform them, and count them their enemies because they tell them the truth.’ (MHC)

The Punishment from God, 11-45

14:11 The LORD said to Moses, “How long will this people despise me, and how long will they not believe in me, in spite of the signs that I have done among them? 14:12 I will strike them with the pestilence, and I will disinherit them; I will make you into a nation that is greater and mightier than they!”

“How long…how long…?” – ‘How long…?’ is a question the Lord has often been provoked to ask, both in Bible times and subsequently.  Time and again, his people have forgotten his miracles and mercies and failed to put their trust in him.

“How long will they not believe in me?” – ‘Israel’s real fault was to think that God was not able to keep his word. Faith is in essence the certainty that God will fulfil what he has spoken. The unbelief of Israel in this moment is in contrast with the faith of their forefather Abraham (Gn. 15:6).’ (NBC)

‘Though words for faith and belief in God are fairly rare in the Old Testament, that man must exercise faith in God and his word is a fundamental presupposition of all the writers. To believe in God means to accept all he says and to act accordingly: to trust his promises and obey his commands. Faith makes a man to be counted righteous before God (Gen. 15:6): its absence damns him (cf. Num. 20:12). In this instance God proposes destroying Israel and starting afresh with Moses and his descendants (12).’ (Wenham)

‘Unbelief slithers into our hearts and spreads its poison. Has it stopped you talking about Jesus to colleagues in the office or praying fervently? Has it prompted you to prize financial security or to overly protect your children from any hardship and disappointment? Has it stopped you recognizing God’s daily blessings? Has unbelief in who God is, what his Word says and what his promises mean for you led you into some disobedience? Today, repent of your unbelief; ask for God’s help to take him at his word and trust him with your life. Cry out to God like the father in Mark 9:24: ‘I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!’ If it would be helpful, pray with a mature Christian about your struggles.’ (Food for the Journey)

“The signs” – Including the plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea, the miracles of feeding (Ex 7:3; 10:1).

Have we forgotten?

Duguid asks:

‘Does it make sense to believe that the Lord poured out earth-shattering plagues on Egypt, parted the Red Sea in front of his people, and then fed them miraculously with manna in the wilderness only to have them fall at the hands of the inhabitants of the Promised Land? Does God do one dramatic series of miracles in the lives of his people only to fail at the last hurdle, leaving them tantalizingly short of what he promised? That doesn’t make sense.’

‘Isn’t our unbelief equally irrational though? We believe and proclaim that our God created the universe out of nothing; yet we find it hard to believe that the results of a particular medical test belong to him. We believe and proclaim that our God directs the courses of kings and nations and that he has transformed our own dead hearts into living, responsive flesh; yet we find it hard to believe that he can bring our stubborn friends and neighbors to faith in himself. We believe and proclaim that our God entered history as a baby in Bethlehem; yet we find it hard to believe that he is active in our own personal history, holding our hand through the events of this week and the next. We believe and proclaim that he suffered on the cross for our sins and rose again triumphant from the grave to free us from our sins; yet we find it hard to believe that this particular sin of ours could ever be forgiven or that the power of that sinful habit could ever be broken. Our unbelief is always fundamentally irrational, a sinful refusal to fear God, which results equally inevitably in a sinful fear of people and circumstances. It is as irrational for us to cling to our unbelief as it is for a drowning man to cling to a heavy stone.’

What reasons might the Lord have to indict us in the same way?  We who have been blessed with so much more than the Israelites of old, have we too forgotten his gracious words and mighty deeds?  Have we forgotten that he who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, has pledged to give us ‘all things’ with him?

“I will disinherit them” – NIV – “I will destroy them”.

‘We may not have rebelled against God as spectacularly as the Israelites, but often our hearts are just as defiant. In the Holy Spirit’s power, stop disobedience taking root. Be grateful instead of grumbling; be intentional about remembering God’s faithfulness to you. Daily acknowledge and submit to his sovereign will.’ (Food for the Journey)

“I will make you into a nation that is greater and mightier than they!” – God was going to start again, with Moses at the head of a new people! Outrageous proposal!  The Lord had already been minded to do the same thing at the time of the golden calf incident (Ex 32:12).  But we have already learned (Num 12:3) that Moses was an extraordinarily humble man.  He had no ambition for himself, but pleaded instead on behalf of his people – people who at that very moment were inclined to stone him to death!

‘This was not an absolute determination, as the event showed, but only a commination, like that of Nineveh’s destruction within forty days, with a condition implied, except there be speedy repentance, or powerful intercession.’ (Poole)

14:13 Moses said to the LORD, “When the Egyptians hear it—for you brought up this people by your power from among them—14:14 then they will tell it to the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that you, LORD, are among this people, that you, LORD, are seen face to face, that your cloud stands over them, and that you go before them by day in a pillar of cloud and in a pillar of fire by night. 14:15 If you kill this entire people at once, then the nations that have heard of your fame will say, 14:16 ‘Because the LORD was not able to bring this people into the land that he swore to them, he killed them in the wilderness.’ 14:17 So now, let the power of my Lord be great, just as you have said, 14:18 ‘The LORD is slow to anger and abounding in loyal love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children until the third and fourth generations.’ 14:19 Please forgive the iniquity of this people according to your great loyal love, just as you have forgiven this people from Egypt even until now.”

In interceding for the people, Moses offers no excuses on their behalf.  He does not say, ‘Forgive them, for theeir’was not the worst sin in the world.  No: he pleaded (a) God’s reputation (‘The nations will say…’), (b) God’s promise (‘…the land that he swore to them…’), (c) God’s character (‘The Lord is slow to anger…’), and (d) God’s previous dealings (‘…just as you have forgiven this people from Egypt even until now.’)

“If you kill this entire people…then the nations…will say” – ‘All of the peoples of the ancient Near East believed in the patronage of the gods. Each city had a patron deity (e.g., Marduk in Babylon), and many professions also had particular gods to whom they looked for special aid. Such associations, however, meant that when a city or a group of people warred with another, their gods also joined in the battle. The god/gods of the losing side were discredited and often abandoned by their worshipers. Thus Moses’ prayer to Yahweh involves the knowledge of God’s sponsorship of the Israelites and the promise of land and children. If Yahweh should destroy the Israelites in the wilderness for their disobedience, it could be construed as failure on God’s part to fulfill these promises.’ (IVPBBC)

‘The key issue of Moses’ initial appeal was that of God’s reputation among the nations, a question of how God’s dealing with his people might be misconstrued by the Egyptians and the surrounding nations. This would continue to be an age-old question of how a benevolent God can bring harsh judgment upon his people and still maintain his reputation with honor. The prophet Habakkuk would ask a similar question centuries later about how God could use an evil nation to chasten and humiliate Israel, who had been so unfaithful. The question remains a vital one today as to how a beneficent God could allow atrocious treachery and heinous violence to continue sometimes unabated in our world, upon which the atheistic and agnostic forces in our world question the very existence of such a God.’ (Cole)

Cole notes the emphatic second person pronouns: ‘You are in their midst, You appear to them and over them, and You go before them day and night. These expressions brilliantly portray the intimacy of the relationship between God and his people, through his abiding presence, his providential protection, and his power.’

‘The best pleas in prayer are those that are taken from God’s honour; for they agree with the first petition of the Lord’s Prayer, Hallowed be thy name. Do not disgrace the throne of thy glory.‘ (MHC)

“Let the power of my Lord be great” – ‘Nor is it strange that the pardon of sin, especially of such great sins, be spoken of as an act of power in God, because undoubtedly it is an act of omnipotent and infinite goodness; whence despairing sinners sometimes cry out that their sins are greater than God can pardon, as some translate Cain’s words, Gen. 4:13. And since power is applied to God’s wrath in punishing sin, Rom. 9:22, why may it not as well be attributed to God’s mercy in forgiving it?’ (Poole)

‘The LORD is slow to anger and abounding in loyal love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but by no means clearing the guilty’ – Quoting Ex 34:6f.

As Cole remarks, it is a mistake to suppose that the God of the Old Testament is (in contrast to the God of the New Testament) a wrathful God who delights in destruction.

“Visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children until the third and fourth generations”Cf. Ex 20:5f.  As an instance of this, Brown notes the effects of unfaithfulness in marriage on subsequent generations.  We might add the experience of God’s people in exile, when subsequent generations experienced because of the sins of their parents and grandparents.

‘The saying can hardly mean that God vindictively penalizes innocent people for their parents’ or grandparents’ wrongdoing; but, in the moral universe he has designed, sin cannot but have an adverse effect on people other than those who transgressed initially.’ (Brown)

“Please forgive the iniquity of this people according to your great loyal love, just as you have forgiven this people from Egypt even until now”

Moses does not plead that the people’s sin was slight, nor does he offer any mitigating excuses.  No: he please the Lord’s ‘great loyal love’, and his past record of forgiving his people’s transgressions.  And we too may have confidence that ‘if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.’ (1 Jn 1:9).  ‘The vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.’

‘Moses interceded on the basis of covenant (16) and the mercy of God (18–19). He had stood on this very same ground when Israel made the golden calf at Horeb (Ex. 32:11–14). True prayer is of this character: it rests on the promises of God and asks that God will accomplish his word. This is what is meant by the prayer of faith; it is made according to his will (1 Jn. 5:14).’ (NBC)

Moses intercedes for the Israelites, appealing to God to hold back his anger.  He appeals to

  1. God’s reputation, vv13-16.  ‘If you destroy your people, you will bring your own name into disrepute among the nations.’
  2. God’s character, vv17-19.  ‘Remember what you have declared your character to be’ (quoting Ex 34:6f).  His character is persistent, generous, reliable, pardoning, righteous love. (Brown)
  3. God’s covenant promise, v16.  ‘Remember your promise to Abraham’ (Cf. Ex 32:12f).  ‘You have made a solemn covenant with your people’ (Deut 9:26).
  4. God’s past actions, v19.  You have forgiven your people in the past.  You can’t abandon us now!

(See Food For The Journey, ed. McQuoid, Day 17)

14:20 Then the LORD said, “I have forgiven them as you asked. 14:21 But truly, as I live, all the earth will be filled with the glory of the LORD. 14:22 For all the people have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have tempted me now these ten times, and have not obeyed me, 14:23 they will by no means see the land that I swore to their fathers, nor will any of them who despised me see it. 14:24 Only my servant Caleb, because he had a different spirit and has followed me fully—I will bring him into the land where he had gone, and his descendants will possess it. 14:25 (Now the Amalekites and the Canaanites were living in the valleys.) Tomorrow, turn and journey into the wilderness by the way of the Red Sea.”

Not for the first (Ex 32:7-14) or the last time (1 Sam 8:4-22) God is represented as one who is open to a change of mind.

“I have forgiven them…they will by no means see the land” – We may receive God’s forgiveness.  But we may still have to live with the consequences of our disobedience.

‘See what countenance and encouragement God gives to our intercessions for others, that we may be public-spirited in prayer. Here is a whole nation rescued from ruin by the effectual fervent prayer of one righteous man. See how ready God is to forgive sin, and how easy to be entreated: Pardon, says Moses (v. 19); I have pardoned, says God, v. 20.’ (MHC)

“All the people have seen…they will by no means see” – Note the contrast between what they have seen, and what they will now never see.

‘God in His grace and mercy forgives sin, but in His divine government He allows that sin to have its sad effects in the lives of sinners.’ (Wiersbe)

“Ten times” – ‘Rabbis and Jewish scholars have in fact come up with ten instances in Exodus and Numbers of grumbling, murmuring and rebellion: at the Red Sea (Exodus 14), Marah (Exodus 15), the Desert of Sinai (three times in Exodus 16), Rephidim (Exodus 17), Sinai (Exodus 32), Taberah (Numbers 11:1–3), Kibroth (Numbers 11:4–34) and here at Kadesh (Numbers 13 – 14).’ (McQuoid, Elizabeth, Food for the Journey.)

“My servant Caleb” – Until this point, only Moses had been honoured with the description ‘my servant’.  ‘A true servant of God is one who believes in God and trusts his word implicitly, who speaks of God and for God words of deliverance and hope to the peoples and who carries out the will of God even in the face of a world that denies and defies him.’ (Cole)

“He had a different spirit and has followed me fully” – ‘He that doth his utmost to search the Scripture, and then brings word to the people, as it is in his heart, preaching what he hath learnt from it, without garbling his conscience, and detaining what he knows, for fear or favour, this is the man that fulfils his ministry, and shall have the eulogium of a faithful servant.’ (Gurnall)

‘How unspeakable a blessing is it, where the heart of the young, for Caleb was a young man, is influenced by the same Spirit, which directed him, to follow the Lord fully.” Not wavering between God and the world, sometimes following the one and sometimes the other, but steadily and resolutely bent to follow only God, and to do this with all their heart and mind, and soul and strength. It was difficult, no doubt, for Caleb thus to oppose himself to the opinions of ten faithless companions; and no doubt equally difficult to resist the contempt, the hatred, the open enmity of the people ; but all this he did, and by God’s help effectually, and all this, if so tried, we may do, in the same cause and by the same Almighty helper; nay more, all this we must do, if we would be partakers, through grace, of the heavenly promises.’ (Blunt)

“Journey into the wilderness by the way of the Red Sea” – ‘Geographically this probably means they were to head south-east from Kadesh toward the Gulf of Aqabah, one of the recognized north-south routes across the Sinai Peninsula. But theologically the way to the Red Sea suggests they are returning to Egypt. Typical of the irony in this story, their punishment is made to fit their crime. They wanted to die in the wilderness and return to Egypt: in a way rather different from the one they intended, God grants their request. The long-term programme of entering Canaan will be postponed to let the generation of rebels die where they wanted.’ (Wenham)

14:26 The LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron: 14:27 “How long must I bear with this evil congregation that murmurs against me? I have heard the complaints of the Israelites that they murmured against me. 14:28 Say to them, ‘As I live, says the LORD, I will surely do to you just what you have spoken in my hearing. 14:29 Your dead bodies will fall in this wilderness—all those of you who were numbered, according to your full number, from twenty years old and upward, who have murmured against me. 14:30 You will by no means enter into the land where I swore to settle you. The only exceptions are Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun. 14:31 But I will bring in your little ones, whom you said would become victims of war, and they will enjoy the land that you have despised. 14:32 But as for you, your dead bodies will fall in this wilderness, 14:33 and your children will wander in the wilderness forty years and suffer for your unfaithfulness, until your dead bodies lie finished in the wilderness. 14:34 According to the number of the days you have investigated this land, forty days—one day for a year—you will suffer for your iniquities, forty years, and you will know what it means to thwart me. 14:35 I, the LORD, have said, “I will surely do so to all this evil congregation that has gathered together against me. In this wilderness they will be finished, and there they will die!” ’ ”

‘Although God judged his people (34), he still acted in compassion. It is not just the blameless children and youths who were in his care; the rebels were still his people and he was determined to provide for them. In his righteous judgment, he could not let them off; in his unique love, he would not let them go.’ (Brown)

‘As I live, says the LORD, I will surely do to you just what you have spoken in my hearing’

The punishment fits the crime

  • They wanted to die in the desert (‘If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this desert!’; verse 2) God says they will die in the desert (‘In this desert your bodies will fall – every one of you twenty years old or more who was counted in the census and who has grumbled against me’ verse 29).
  • They didn’t want to enter the land (verse 3): God says they won’t enter the land (‘Not one of you will enter the land I swore with uplifted hand to make your home, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun’ verse 30).
  • They wanted to turn back to Egypt (‘Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?’ verse 3): God says that they will head back to Egypt (‘… turn back tomorrow and set out toward the desert along the route to the Red Sea’ verse 25).
  • They feared that their wives and children would suffer (‘Our wives and children will be taken as plunder’ verse 3): God says their children will suffer, but because of their parents’ sin (‘Your children will be shepherds here for forty years, suffering for your unfaithfulness …’ verse 33).

(Pakula, reformatted)

“But I will bring in your little ones” – ‘The Lord was determined that the next generation would not be deprived of their birthright because of their parents. Their parents’ sins would descend upon the children to the extent that they would have to suffer as “shepherds” in the desert “for forty years”. These would be, for them, years that the locusts would eat (Joel 2:25)—”a discipline,” remarks James Philip, “which they must endure … for the apostasy and faithlessness of their fathers”.’ (Keddie)

14:36 The men whom Moses sent to investigate the land, who returned and made the whole community murmur against him by producing an evil report about the land, 14:37 those men who produced the evil report about the land, died by the plague before the LORD. 14:38 But Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, who were among the men who went to investigate the land, lived. 14:39 When Moses told these things to all the Israelites, the people mourned greatly.

‘People in leadership bear a special responsibility; much is expected of them and much will be required. The ten spies were influential tribal leaders (Num 13:3), and had betrayed the trust that the Lord and his people had placed in them. They were not even allowed to go into the future wilderness scene. Had they been sent off with the others, their corrupting influence might have caused further damage, infecting the thinking of innocent young people destined to be the first Israelites to enter the land of promise.’ (Brown)

‘It cannot be emphasized too much that God honors faith and judges unbelief. Faith leads to obedience and glorifies God; unbelief leads to rebellion and death. We have the Word of God filled with His promises and assurances. There is no reason why any of us should wander in unbelief when we can be walking in victory and enjoying the spiritual riches we have in Christ.’ (Wiersbe, Expository Outlines)

14:40 And early in the morning they went up to the crest of the hill country, saying, “Here we are, and we will go up to the place that the LORD commanded, for we have sinned.” 14:41 But Moses said, “Why are you now transgressing the commandment of the LORD? It will not succeed! 14:42 Do not go up, for the LORD is not among you, and you will be defeated before your enemies. 14:43 For the Amalekites and the Canaanites are there before you, and you will fall by the sword. Because you have turned away from the LORD, the LORD will not be with you.”

‘The Israelites may have “mourned greatly” (Num. 14:39) and said, “We have sinned” (v. 40), but this “mourning” was regret and not true repentance. The Jews regretted the consequences of their sins but not the sins themselves. Israel had rebelled against God and robbed Him of glory, yet they exhibited no brokenness of spirit or sorrow for sin. Unlike Moses and Aaron, they didn’t fall on their faces and seek the Lord’s help. Instead, they went from rebellion to presumption and tried to fight the enemy on their own.’ (Wiersbe)

‘The reason of so many fruitless complaints among Christians, concerning the power of their corruptions, is, that they endeavour without exercising faith on the promise, and such indeed go at their own peril, like those bold men, Num 14:40, who presumptuously went up the hill to fight the Canaanites, though Moses told them the Lord was not among them; thus slighting the command of Moses, their leader, as if they needed not his help to the victory; a clear resemblance of those who go in their own strength to resist their corruptions, and so fall before them; or else they pretend to believe, their faith doth not set them on a vigorous endeavour. They use faith as an eye, but not as a hand; they look for victory to drop from heaven upon their heads, but do not fight to obtain it. This is a mere fanciful faith. He that believes God for the event, believes him for the means also.’ (Gurnall)

“We will go up to the place that the Lord commanded” – ‘How fickle is human nature! One day the nation was mourning because of their plight, and the next day they were recklessly trying to accomplish God’s work apart from God’s will and God’s blessing.’ (Wiersbe, Expository Outlines)

Their bravado was like that of Peter, when he said, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death!” (Lk 22:33)

‘They now desire the land which they had despised, and put a confidence in the promise which they had distrusted. Thus when God judges he will overcome, and, first or last, will convince sinners of the evil of all their ungodly deeds, and hard speeches, and force them to recall their own words. But, though God was glorified by this recantation of theirs, they were not benefited by it, because it came too late. The decree had gone forth, the consumption was determined; they did not seek the Lord while he might be found, and now he would not be found. O, if men would but be as earnest for heaven while their day of grace lasts as they will be when it is over, would be as solicitous to provide themselves with oil while the bridegroom tarries as they will be when the bridegroom comes, how well were it for them!’ (MHC)

“Because you have turned away from the LORD, the LORD will not be with you” – It was not the Lord who had forsaken them, but they who had forsaken the Lord.

14:44 But they dared to go up to the crest of the hill, although neither the ark of the covenant of the LORD nor Moses departed from the camp. 14:45 So the Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived in that hill country swooped down and attacked them as far as Hormah.

‘If one dismisses the entry of Israel into territory controlled by the kings of Arad, the Amorites and Bashan as neutral or friendly in nature, the only hostile warfare instigated by Israel in the Pentateuch is its attack against the Canaanites in Numbers 14:39–45, which results in a sound defeat. The initiation of this attack is rooted in the promise of God to deliver the country of the Canaanites to Israel (Num 13:2). Only when the people recoil in disbelief upon hearing the report of their spies is the offer postponed for forty years (Num 14:33). The defeat is thus seen not as a result of offensive warfare but as a result of disobedience against the orders of God.’ (A.C. Emery, DOT:P, art. ‘Warfare’)

‘That affair can never end well that begins with sin. The way to obtain peace with our friends, and success against our enemies, is to make God our friend, and keep ourselves in his love.’ (MHC)

Often recalled

Looking back over the events recorded in chapters 13 and 14, Wenham comments: ‘This story is more than a vivid narrative. Its message reverberates down through Scripture. It is recalled in Numbers 32, Deuteronomy 1:20–40 (cf. 8:2), the Psalms (Psa 95:10; 106:24ff.), the prophets (Amos 2:10; 5:25) and in the New Testament (1 Cor. 10; Heb. 3:7–4:13). Hebrews 3:12, 14 sums it up: “Take care, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God … For we share in Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end.”‘ (To Wenham’s lists of references Neh 9:16f may be added)

Warnings for us …’ (1 Cor. 10:11)

‘The great lesson is made plain for us by the New Testament. ‘Now,’ says Paul, ‘these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did’ (1 Cor. 10:6). What did they do? Paul says they were idolaters (v. 7; Exod. 32:6), immoral (v. 8; Num. 25:1–9), they tested the Lord (v. 9; Num. 21:6), and grumbled at the Lord (v. 10; Num. 14:2). Learn from all this, says the apostle, and serve your Lord with gladness. He suggests that there are three lessons to be received for our blessing.’ (Keddie)

Warnings and encouragements

‘At one level, the years in the desert are a huge waste of time, the result of sin and rebellion, yet God turns it into a learning experience, an act of parental discipline, and an opportunity for grace and obedience.’

‘It’s interesting that in 1 Corinthians 10:11, Paul says that these things are written as warnings for us. But in Romans 15:4, he says that these things are written to teach us, ‘so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope’. Where is the encouragement in this passage? It is that God turns the wilderness into a time of fresh opportunity to love, trust and obey him.’

(Food for the Journey)

Strength for the soul

‘It might seem that there is nothing but discouragement in all this talk of examples and warnings. No, says Paul, there is abundant grace for fainting saints. ‘No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it’ (1 Cor. 10:13). God is faithful! Therefore, we can and will live for him, in his strength and by his grace.’ (Keddie)