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12. Opposition In The Wilderness, Pt. 2, (Num. 13:1-14:45)

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As we journey with Moses and the Israelites through the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land, we are learning some great lessons about leadership and about our own hearts that sometimes complain against God and against his leaders.

Last time we covered Numbers 11-12, “Opposition in the wilderness, Pt. 1,” and now I would like to continue on with “Opposition in the Wilderness, Pt. 2, in Numbers 13-14. Here, the Israelites were camped at Kadesh-Barnea in the Wilderness of Paran, from where Moses sends out the 12 spies to scout out the land of Canaan and bring back a report. This turns out to be a watershed event as we shall see.

The subject of this study is: “The consequences of unbelief.” We have summarized the primary theological teaching in these two messages as follows: The right response to personal attacks is humility, while trusting God to vindicate you.

The Israelites were now at the border of the land of Canaan. God had told them many times what Canaan was like, what nations were there, how he would defeat their enemies and give them their promised inheritance. Now, just as they are about to enter and take possession of it, God instructed Moses to send spies into the land to bring back a report (13:1-3).

In Numbers 11 and 12 we noticed that:

I. Opposition from within can easily produces discouragement (Num. 11).

II. Opposition from within sometimes involves betrayal (Num. 12).

In this study of chapters 13 and 14, we will see the third theological principle…

III. Opposition From Within Sometimes Manifests Unbelief (Num. 13-14)

These chapters and this experience of the Israelites are full of instructions for us…

1. It’s good to know your enemy’s territory before you attack (13:18-25). It’s good to know whether the people are strong or weak, few or many (13:18), whether the land is good or bad (13:19), whether the cities are like camps or fortified strongholds (13:19), whether the land is fertile or barren (13:20), whether there are forests to contend with (20), and to bring back samples of the fruit of the land (13:20).

So, the 12 spies carried out their mission (13:21-25). They cut down a branch of grapes from the valley of Eschol that was so big they had to carry it between 2 men on a pole (13:23a). They collected pomegranates and figs (13:23b), and, 40 days later, they brought back their report (13:25).

2. It’s always good to receive a full, honest, and unanimous report (13:26-29). All the spies agreed that there was good news and bad news. The good news was that the land was fruitful as the luscious and plentiful samples proved. It obviously was exactly as God had described it, a land “flowing with milk and honey” (13:27) – it was fertile, bursting with good, natural food. But the bad news was that the people were strong and the cities were fortified and very large (13:28). Worst of all, the descendants of Anak were there and they were giants. It’s always good to receive a unanimous report, but...

3. It’s complicated when there are conflicting recommendations (13:30-33). The twelve spies all saw the same thing and all reported the same observations, but their recommendations as to the next step were polar opposites. Caleb and Joshua recommended attacking and possessing the land (13:30). “Let’s go up now and take possession of the land because we can certainly conquer it” (13:30). These two men were characterized by faith and courage. They saw victory, milk and honey, grapes, pomegranates and figs. What they saw was exactly what God had told them. They believed God, that what He had promised he would enable them to accomplish. They weren’t deterred at all by what they saw and found. Caleb said, “We can certainly conquer it” (13:30). So, two of the spies recommended attacking and possessing the land, but…

The other ten spies recommended retreating (13:31-33). “It’s a good land, but…” they said. “But” is usually a sign of unbelief and it certainly was here. These 10 spies were paralyzed by unbelief. Instead of believing God, they saw only danger, defeat, giants, fortified cities, and enemies (Amalekites etc.). Their recommendation was based on fear rather than faith. They said, “We can’t attack the people because they are stronger than we are!...The land that we passed through to explore is one that devours its inhabitants and all the people we saw in it are men of great size” (13:31-32). They were concerned about what they could do. They saw their own weakness but failed to see God’s power. They described it as a land devours its inhabitants. All the people they saw in it were giants (13:32), so big that “to ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers and we must have seemed the same to them” (13:33). This would not be the last time they would have to deal with giants. There would come a time when Israel would face another giant in the Valley of Elah, and once more they would cower in fear.

So, why the two different recommendations? They all saw the same land, the same people, the same fruit. They all had the same instructions from Moses, just as he had received them from God. They all had God’s promise to give them the land. They all came from the same ethnic background and culture. They all had the same experiences and history. Why the difference in attitude and outlook? The difference was that two of them believed God and the other ten did not. Joshua and Caleb believed God, but the rest didn’t trust God’s power, God’s goodness, or God’s promises.

The attitude of the ten is typical of so many Christians. They know the gospel, they can explain Christian doctrines, they know the good things of Christianity (the “milk and honey”), but they are overwhelmed with the dangers, problems, and the possibility of defeat - the giants of the Christian life. Their eyes are on the obstacles, not on God. Instead of seeing the blessing, they see the difficulties. As Warren Wiersbe says: “Unbelief always sees the obstacles… Faith always sees the opportunities.” Instead of trusting Christ for every need, doubting Christians see the problems and obstacles. Doubting God is like refusing to enter the land. Many Christians fail to enter into the benefits and blessings of their spiritual blessings in heavenly places (Eph. 1:3) because they doubt God.

Giants and fortified cities are real obstacles. They were real in Canaan. No sense pretending they weren’t. The question is, how do you deal with them? When there is good news and bad news, what do you do? Do you turn back in doubt and rebellion, or do you press on in faith and confidence?

4. Conflicting recommendations can cause rebellion (14:1-6). After receiving the conflicting reports, the people were confused and demoralized. They heard one report with two different recommendations and they instinctively believed the bad report, not the good one. “The whole community broke into loud cries and the people wept that night” (14:1). They wept out of despair, hopelessness, and confusion. What should they do? Behind them was the wilderness, in front of them the fortified cities and giants.

There is a time for weeping but this wasn’t it. This was the time for bold action, courage, excitement. They were on the verge of accomplishing the objective for which God had brought them out of Egypt. They were about to enter the land of promise, the land of milk and honey. Instead, they were demoralized and responded by opposing Moses.

Opposition from within sometimes manifests unbelief. Unbelief can cause you to draw back from something that should fuel your adrenaline, and, as a result, discouragement can set in. Unbelief leads to all kinds of consequences…

a) Discouragement. Discouragement is a very powerful tool of Satan. It attacks all ages and destroys thousands. It robs Christians of their joy. It makes mountains out of molehills.

b) Emotional turmoil. Discouragement plays havoc with your emotions. And your emotional responses produce all kinds of side effects like bitterness, anger, depression, rebellion. That’s what happened here.

Demoralized people tend to rebel against God and God’s leaders. “All the Israelites complained about Moses and Aaron, and the whole community told them, ‘If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land to die by the sword? Our wives and children will become plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?’ So they said to one another, ‘Let’s appoint a leader and go back to Egypt.’” (14:2-4).

The “if only” crowd exists in every church, group, or family. “If only things were different.” “If only we hadn’t...” Or, “If only we had...” A negative opinion or report always seems to sway the majority. The “if only” people only ever see the down side. They abandon trust in God as soon as a bad report is heard. In fact, they think, God has become downright mean.

We see that here. They blamed God for their situation. “It’s all very well that God helped us cross the Red Sea and drowned Pharaoh’s armies and all that, but for what? To bring us out here to be killed, not by thirst or the desert heat but by the sword? And what about our poor innocent wives and children? We thought this move out of Egypt would be good for them, give them a new future, new hope, better education, better prospects, better living conditions. But oh, no! Now they’re victims of a subtle scheme by this God of ours. Let’s get out of here! Let’s find a new leader and return to Egypt.”

It’s easy to fall into the trap of blaming God, isn’t it? We see the problems and obstacles and difficulties and we so easily begin to blame God. We would rather blame God than trust him for the future. We see only the obstacles and not the opportunities. We see only the defeat and not the victory. We see only our weakness and not God’s power. And that’s when we begin to hanker for the “good old days.”

Blame can so easily lead to outright rebellion as it did here with the Israelites. We don’t stop at assigning blame to God – we go further and renounce God’s headship and follow someone else. “Egypt” always seems better than present circumstances. Forgotten are the bull whips of the task masters. Forgotten is the cruelty of having to make more bricks without a supply of straw (Ex. 5:7). Forgotten are the living conditions, the back-breaking work, the slavery. Forgotten is their cry to God for deliverance (Ex. 3:7). Forgotten are the mothers’ cries when their baby boys were drowned in the river by the Egyptians (Ex. 1:22). All of that is forgotten and Egypt now is looking very good. Such is the deceit of unbelief and rebellion.

5. Only those who trust God act with confidence (14:7-10). Only Joshua and Caleb trusted God. Remember our thesis: The right response to personal attacks is humility, while trusting God to vindicate you. Joshua and Caleb saw the vision, the beautiful country and its delicious fruit. And they concluded: “The land we passed through and explored is an extremely good land” (14:7). And they remembered their great God, their God who is greater than any giant. “If the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us into this land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and give it to us. Only do not rebel against the Lord, and don’t be afraid of the people of the land” (14:8-9a). They gave three reasons for this confident assertion:

a) “We will devour them” (14:9a). “We will eat their lunch. They’re done like dinner.” This is the confident and courageous response of Joshua and Caleb to the negative report of the other ten spies that “the land we passed through to explore is one that devours its inhabitants” (13:32). No, say Joshua and Caleb, on the contrary, “we will devour them.”

b) “Their protection has been removed from them” (14:9b).

c) “The Lord is with us. Don’t be afraid of them.” (14:9c).

Joshua and Caleb’s report and recommendation were clear, confident, and concise. As to the land itself, they said, it was “an extremely good land” (14:7). The food was plentiful and tasty, the proof of which was the grapes, the pomegranates and figs. As to the Lord, they said, he “is pleased with us” (14:8a). He will keep his promise. He “will bring us into this land… and give it to us (14:8b). So, “don’t rebel against the Lord” (14:9a). They said, in effect, “Don't bite the hand that feeds you. We have a great and good God. As to the people of the land, ‘don’t be afraid of them’ (14:9b). We may be small compared to them, but their protection is gone. They are helpless.”

Do you know how the people responded? They wanted to stone Joshua and Caleb to death (14:10)! So they rejected the promised land, they despised God, and they rebelled against God’s leaders. Rather than face a few giants, they wanted to turn back.

Giants can do that to us – cause us to cower in fear, cause us to run away, cause us to distrust God. Sometimes, it seems easier to run away from giants than to believe what God says. When God’s people rebel...

6. Ultimately, God steps in (14:11-25). “How long will this people despise me? How long will they not trust in me despite all the signs I have performed among them?” (14:11). To reject God’s leader is to reject God himself, just as Saul of Tarsus was actually persecuting God when he persecuted God’s people. Remember: The right response to personal attacks is humility, while trusting God to vindicate you. And now God steps in and says, “I will strike them with a plague and destroy them. Then I will make you into a greater and mightier nation than they are” (14:12).

Does this remind you of an earlier scene? Didn’t God say this once before in Ex. 32:10? But Moses didn’t say a word – no anger, no rebuke, no argument, no revenge. He didn't jump at the Lord’s proposal to get rid of these stiff-necked people once and for all. No, just like before…

Moses interceded for the people (14:13-19). He said to God: “If you do that the Egyptians will hear about it and they’ll tell the Canaanites. Your reputation and character are at stake here. They have heard that you are among these people, that you are seen face to face, that your cloud of protection is over them, that you lead them by the cloud by day and the fire by night. If you kill them, the nations will despise you and say that the Lord wasn’t powerful enough to finish the job. He couldn’t bring them into the land - that’s why he killed them in the wilderness. So, I pray, let the power of my Lord be great. Let your longsuffering and mercy be seen, forgiving iniquity and transgression. Certainly don't compromise your holiness and justice - you do not clear the guilty; you bring the consequences of continuing sin even on the 3rd and 4th generation. But please, pardon the sin of this people according to the greatness of your mercy, just as you have forgiven this people from Egypt even until now” (14:13-19).

What a plea! What humility! What grace! This is the plea of a faithful leader who responds to personal attacks with humility, while trusting God to vindicate him. No revenge. No rancor. No malice. No resentment. But pure grace and compassion. What a big man Moses was!

God responds to Moses intercession (14:20-25). God says: “You’re right Moses. You have passed the test of your leadership with flying colors. I have already pardoned them according to your word. But you are right – there will be consequences, just like the last time at Sinai after the golden calf incident. And so all these men who have seen my power and glory in Egypt and in the wilderness and who have tested me these 10 times, they will not enter the land except for Caleb – he’s different; he has a different spirit than the others; he has followed me fully – he will enter the promised land and his descendants shall inherit it” (14:20-24).

The consequence of unbelief and rebellion is that...

7. God’s judgement falls on the rebels (14:26-45). The discipline of God led to death (14:26-38). All those who were morally responsible (20 years old and up) were barred from entering the promised land (14:30). They would die in the wilderness (14:29, 32-33) and their sons would be consigned to wander in the wilderness for 40 years – one year for every day they spied out the land (14:34).

The only exceptions were Caleb and Joshua (14:30) and the little ones (14:31). And the 10 spies who brought the bad report (14:36-37), who persuaded the people not to enter the land, and who induced the people’s complaints, they died immediately by the plague (14:37).

The discipline of God led to death, and the unbelief of the people led to defeat (14:39-45). Chastened by the death of the 10 spies, the people were desperate to reverse their earlier decision and gain back God’s favor (14:40), so they vowed to “go to the place the Lord promised, for we were wrong” (14:40). They ignored God’s earlier warning not to enter the land because the Amalekites and Canaanites were there (14:25). They ignored Moses warning that they would fail (14:41-43) by transgressing God’s command (14:25). Nonetheless, they tried to enter the land (14:44-45) with a pseudo self-confidence and a false bravado, and they were resoundingly defeated by the Amalekites and Canaanites (14:45).

Final Remarks

The events that took place at Kadesh-Barnea are not limited to the Israelites. We all face similar decision-making, watershed moments when we have to make decisions in the face of conflicting reports. Who do you believe? What should you do?

There are always those who see the negative side of things and who recommend not moving forward. Often it seems that the nay-sayers form the majority and speak the loudest. It was that way among the Israelites. In this case, ten against two – ten negative reports and recommendations against two positive. And the rest of the Israelites fell under the influence of the ten negative, ignoring the two positive.

Perhaps you have noticed this phenomenon in your church or among your Christian friends. The majority so often seems to prefer to turn back to Egypt, ignoring God’s instructions and assurances, rather than go forward into Canaan, trusting God’s promises and obeying his commands. So many people seem to find their comfort and confidence in the crowd – for them, there is safety in numbers. But our comfort and confidence are in God, regardless of the number who join with us. Our safety and security are in Him. The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are protected (Prov. 18:10; cf. Prov. 3:26; Isa. 41:10).

Walking with God is the path of blessing and security, but it can be a lonely one and certainly a challenge to our faith. God calls us to trust him when we are unable to see the end result of the decision we make today, and that can be disconcerting. But that is the life of faith. Remember, “we walk by faith, not by sight” ( 2 Cor. 5:7). Just as salvation is an individual decision, not collective, so also is the life of faith. If you follow the crowd in the matter of the salvation of your soul, you will be lost. You have to decide individually to follow Christ, regardless of what your friends or family might think or do. Jesus said, 34 If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of me and the gospel will save it (Mk. 8:34-35).

Caleb and Joshua stood alone against the crowd at Kadesh-Barnea. They were like the apostle Paul who said to Timothy, “At my first defense, no one stood by me, but everyone deserted me” (2 Tim. 4:16). They were strong for God, only two men (together with Moses and Aaron) out of thousands. Isn’t that often how it is? Just a few faithful men. That’s all God’s needs to carry out his purposes, a few good men, men who can stand tall and strong in faith even in the face of murderous threats and rebellious opposition, men who embody the thesis of this message that the right response to personal attacks is humility, while trusting God to vindicate you. And God resoundingly vindicated them on this occasion.

The consequence, of course, for the majority who sided with the ten spies, rebelled against God and rejected His gracious and bountiful provision in Canaan, was devastating. In response to Moses’ intercession on behalf of the people (14:13-19) the Lord said to Moses, 21 As I live and as the whole earth is filled with the Lord’s glory, 22 none of the men who have seen my glory and the signs I performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, and have tested me these ten times and did not obey me, 23 will ever see the land I swore to give their ancestors. None of those who have despised me will see it…29 Your corpses will fall in this wilderness—all of you who were registered in the census, the entire number of you twenty years old or more—because you have complained about me. 30 I swear that none of you will enter the land I promised to settle you in, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun” (Num. 14:21-23).

God held the adult men (20 years old and up) responsible for the rebellion. His judgement on these rebels at Kadesh-Barnea was to make them wander in the wilderness for 38 more years (40 years in total from the time they left Egypt), during which they would die and never enter the Promised Land. And the ten spies who influenced the rest against Caleb and Joshua “were stuck down by the Lord” (14:36-37). They died on the spot!

There are severe consequences for rebelling against the commandments and promises of God. God had blessed the Israelites beyond comprehension. He had demonstrated his sovereign power in the 10 plagues, the exodus out of Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea, the provision of food and water, protection from the sun, the provision of heat at night, and guidance by the cloud by day. They had every reason to trust God to take them safely to Canaan, give them victory over the Canaanites, and grant them possession of the land. But they rejected God, disobeyed his commandments, and hankered for Egypt, its customs, food, and culture.

How much better is it to trust the Lord! Yes, it might be hard. Yes, it might mean standing alone against the crowd. But in return, you enter into the blessing of God’s promises, ultimately culminating in the enjoyment of his presence forever.

How much better is it to be one who bears the criticism and mockery and opposition of the crowd in order to be true to God. Remember, the right response to personal attacks is humility, while trusting God to vindicate you. The vindication of God is our great reward when we hear him say, Well done, good and faithful servant! You were faithful over a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Share your master’s joy” (Matt. 25:21). How much better to be one whom God vindicates. Not someone who is always fighting for your rights, defending yourself, but someone who is content to let God fight for you, to let God defend you.

If you were in this situation, would you respond in faith like Caleb, Joshua, and Moses, trusting God for the outcome of whatever your circumstances might be? Or, do you see yourself sometimes like the ten spies, who only see the obstacles and not God’s opportunities, who couldn’t see the vision, couldn’t see God’s promises, didn’t believe God?

How would you characterize yourself? A man or woman of faith, who is willing to stand against the tide of public opinion even when the prospects humanly speaking look dim. Or, a man or woman of unbelief, who turns tail when the going gets tough, who rebels against God when the way ahead is hard and the outcome unclear.

May we be men and women of faith today, who respond to personal attacks and opposition with humility, while trusting God to vindicate us.

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