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Life of Moses

God on Trial

Numbers 14

Lesson audio

Note: The last section of Numbers 13, the report of the spies on the land, is a necessary predecessor to this section. We omit it only for reasons of space.

Num 14:1-45 NIV The People Rebel

That night all the people of the community raised their voices and wept aloud. (2) All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, "If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this desert! (3) Why is the LORD bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn't it be better for us to go back to Egypt?" (4) And they said to each other, "We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt." (5) Then Moses and Aaron fell facedown in front of the whole Israelite assembly gathered there. (6) Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, who were among those who had explored the land, tore their clothes (7) and said to the entire Israelite assembly, "The land we passed through and explored is exceedingly good. (8) If the LORD is pleased with us, he will lead us into that land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and will give it to us. (9) Only do not rebel against the LORD. And do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will swallow them up. Their protection is gone, but the LORD is with us. Do not be afraid of them." (10) But the whole assembly talked about stoning them. Then the glory of the LORD appeared at the Tent of Meeting to all the Israelites. (11) The LORD said to Moses, "How long will these people treat me with contempt? How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the miraculous signs I have performed among them? (12) I will strike them down with a plague and destroy them, but I will make you into a nation greater and stronger than they." (13) Moses said to the LORD, "Then the Egyptians will hear about it! By your power you brought these people up from among them. (14) And they will tell the inhabitants of this land about it. They have already heard that you, O LORD, are with these people and that you, O LORD, have been seen face to face, that your cloud stays over them, and that you go before them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. (15) If you put these people to death all at one time, the nations who have heard this report about you will say, (16) 'The LORD was not able to bring these people into the land he promised them on oath; so he slaughtered them in the desert.' (17) "Now may the Lord's strength be displayed, just as you have declared: (18) 'The LORD is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.' (19) In accordance with your great love, forgive the sin of these people, just as you have pardoned them from the time they left Egypt until now." (20) The LORD replied, "I have forgiven them, as you asked. (21) Nevertheless, as surely as I live and as surely as the glory of the LORD fills the whole earth, (22) not one of the men who saw my glory and the miraculous signs I performed in Egypt and in the desert but who disobeyed me and tested me ten times- (23) not one of them will ever see the land I promised on oath to their forefathers. No one who has treated me with contempt will ever see it. (24) But because my servant Caleb has a different spirit and follows me wholeheartedly, I will bring him into the land he went to, and his descendants will inherit it. (25) Since the Amalekites and Canaanites are living in the valleys, turn back tomorrow and set out toward the desert along the route to the Red Sea. [1] " (26) The LORD said to Moses and Aaron: (27) "How long will this wicked community grumble against me? I have heard the complaints of these grumbling Israelites. (28) So tell them, 'As surely as I live, declares the LORD, I will do to you the very things I heard you say: (29) 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. (30) 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. (31) As for your children that you said would be taken as plunder, I will bring them in to enjoy the land you have rejected. (32) But you--your bodies will fall in this desert. (33) Your children will be shepherds here for forty years, suffering for your unfaithfulness, until the last of your bodies lies in the desert. (34) For forty years--one year for each of the forty days you explored the land--you will suffer for your sins and know what it is like to have me against you.' (35) I, the LORD, have spoken, and I will surely do these things to this whole wicked community, which has banded together against me. They will meet their end in this desert; here they will die." (36) So the men Moses had sent to explore the land, who returned and made the whole community grumble against him by spreading a bad report about it- (37) these men responsible for spreading the bad report about the land were struck down and died of a plague before the LORD. (38) Of the men who went to explore the land, only Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh survived. (39) When Moses reported this to all the Israelites, they mourned bitterly. (40) Early the next morning they went up toward the high hill country. "We have sinned," they said. "We will go up to the place the LORD promised." (41) But Moses said, "Why are you disobeying the LORD's command? This will not succeed! (42) Do not go up, because the LORD is not with you. You will be defeated by your enemies, (43) for the Amalekites and Canaanites will face you there. Because you have turned away from the LORD, he will not be with you and you will fall by the sword." (44) Nevertheless, in their presumption they went up toward the high hill country, though neither Moses nor the ark of the LORD's covenant moved from the camp. (45) Then the Amalekites and Canaanites who lived in that hill country came down and attacked them and beat them down all the way to Hormah.

There is something fundamentally insane here; the people are putting God on trial for His refusal to gratify their every whim. This being an insanity with a long history, however, we shall examine it more carefully with an eye as to what might be done today.


The Case Against God

So what are their accusations?

“God is not trustworthy”

This boils down to two things:

·         The majority says that we cannot enter the land and conquer it. This takes no account of the power of God, of course. But it does reflect a mindset that says, “if we can’t do it, it cannot be done.” When John Kennedy declared the goal of putting a man on the moon within a decade, most people thought this far-fetched indeed. Nine years later, Armstrong and company showed that there is a difference between scientific fact and public opinion polls.

·         Since we “know” we can’t achieve this, it is therefore obvious that God led us out into the desert to kill us all off.

Do we see this mindset today? I think so, but in a different style. Today, it’s not so much “God can’t” as “God won’t.” We have somehow developed the opinion that God will not do what He says He will do. Therefore (and I speak of the church in this) it’s up to us to do it, and do it our way. This goes along nicely with the idea that we don’t really need God, but He is nice to have around. He is therefore unlikely to deal with whatever apostasy we come up with.

“The leader He appointed should be replaced”

Well, “replaced” is not quite the word. Stoned to death is what they had in mind. What they wanted was Moses the Mighty Magician at their beck and call; what they had was a devoted servant of the Most High who performed miracles only at the command of God. “A sound magician is a mighty god” (Faust).[1] That’s what they wanted.

Today? I have not heard of any preacher being stoned to death, but I’ve never met one who hasn’t had an occasional roasting (with some people that’s lunch after church), and virtually all of them suffer from “a constant drizzle of carping criticism.”[2]

After repentance, my way

One of the drawbacks to moral repentance is that there is a temptation to feel pious and holy afterwards. We have the feeling that, having repented, everything will be just like it was before. If this is pointed out, the fallacy is obvious (I hope), but it’s seldom pointed out. The Israelites have the presumption to assume that God will now allow them to choose to obey His prior instructions. This doesn’t work, nor should it. Sin has consequences. Repentance restores you to God, but it doesn’t really do much for the person you just shot.

Today? We like pick and choose religion. Have you ever encountered someone whose religion is a selection from the buffet? It’s irritating that they will speak as a Christian would on some matters. How do you think God views such thinkers?

God’s reply

It is customary to allow the defendant a few words. The fact that these words are the obvious reply should not detract from their being the right reply.

Have you seen what I have done?

The surprise here (at least to me) is that these people have seen miracle after miracle, and they don’t believe. They not only don’t believe, they don’t have a clue as to which way to bet. But (no surprise) this attitude is still with us today.

·         Have you seen what God has done in the universe? Its majesty and grandeur are evidence of His power and order. Before you say, “God can’t…”, weigh your words. If what you really meant was “I can’t” then you are speaking blasphemy.

·         Have you seen what He has done in the church? Does the sacrifice at Calvary seem only “an interesting event?” Contemplate the greatness of His sacrifice as well as the greatness of His creation.

·         Then, if these are not sufficient, remember the great things He has done in your own life.

Look at it this way: what is it that you deserve from God the Righteous? The wages of sin is death, and death and eternal damnation are what you (and I) rightly deserve. But we are offered the grace of God. If that is not sufficient, I cannot imagine what might be.

Forgiveness – with penalty

Remember again that “I forgive” on God’s part does not imply that there are no consequences to our sin. Indeed, it must be so, for God is not only righteousness but love – and He who loves us would surely discipline those who are called His children. If God did not correct us, even after repentance, it would mean that He did not love us.

Moreover, it is apparent that God’s justice should be seen. If your sins are done in public (and it’s hard not to) then God’s justice upon you should be seen in public too.

So what should you do after forgiveness? Make amends. Do whatever you can do to alleviate the impact of your sin. Don’t develop a convenient case of amnesia.


Sometimes we find ourselves in a different position. It’s not our sin we are concerned about, but another Christian’s sin. Besides the steps of church discipline, which should not be neglected, what should the Christian do? The answer is intercession – go before Almighty God and petition him to forgive the sinner. To do this, we must know how.

Intercede by the character, glory and strength of God

Successful intercession begins by an appeal to the Lord God based on his:

·         Character. Are you asking for another’s forgiveness? Remind the Lord of His great love.

·         Glory. Does what you are asking from bring glory to God? (If it doesn’t, then you might want to look more carefully at your request).

·         Strength. Acknowledge that the best reason for appealing to Him is that you know you can’t do it alone.

You might think, “God knows all that. Why do I have to repeat it?”

·         He want you to acknowledge them. It’s not just a formula, it’s a statement of who’s who.

·         He wants you to acknowledge them as the basis for your petition. Not my works but His glory – that is the reason I appeal to Him.

Appeal for pardon, not excuse

Often enough the sinner has any number of excuses for his sin. But intercession makes its appeal upon the character, strength and glory of the Lord – not excuses. Indeed, to ask God to excuse someone because of his circumstances is the opposite of asking for forgiveness. Excuses explain why someone is not at fault (or less at fault than might otherwise be.) If his conduct can be excused, it needs no forgiveness. Mitigating circumstance may affect the penalty – but not the guilt.

The privilege of the mighty

The Scripture teaches us that we are made strong in Christ. It is by His sacrifice that we are admitted to the presence of the Almighty, there to present our petitions. The Holy Spirit translates for us, Christ Himself intervenes for us. We are, before Almighty God, the strong. It is the privilege of the strong that they intercede on behalf of the weak. Like who?

·         We are commanded to pray for those in authority over us. Indeed, Paul commended prayer for the emperor. The emperor in question was Nero, so this is rather inclusive of authority.

·         We are commanded to pray for our enemies. It is not given to us to judge those outside the church.[3] It is given to us to intercede for them before the Almighty.

Only the bold would dare go before the throne of grace on behalf of his enemies. But boldness comes from strength, and strength comes from God. Be bold, therefore, in intercession.

[1] Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, not Goethe

[2] A Churchillian phrase

[3] 1st Corinthians 5:12

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