Numbers 14 is a continuation of Numbers 13. In Numbers 13, spies went up to explore the Promised Land on behalf of the people of Israel. After 40 days they returned and reported that the land was good; just as the Lord had said, it flowed with milk and honey. However, they said, the people in the land are powerful and their cities are well defended. One of the spies — Caleb — insisted that they should still go up and take possession of the land. ‘We can certainly do it’, he said.
However, the others were not as confident and they said to the people that they weren’t able to attack the Canaanites because they were too strong. And they even changed what they said about the land: the land is no good, they said; it devours those who inhabit it. And so, instead of believing the word of the Lord who promised to give them the land, they doubted his promises. In fact, they made the Lord out to be a liar, because they told the people that what God had said about the land being good was not true. So, God was a liar who can’t be trusted.
And so, we come to chapter 14 where the people grumbled and complained and talked about returning to Egypt instead of going on to take the Promised Land with the help of the Lord.
Verses 1 to 4
We read in verse 1 how the people raised their voices and wept aloud after hearing what the spies said; and they grumbled against Moses and Aaron. Notice how Moses makes clear that everyone complained: so, he wrote that ‘all the people of the community’ raised their voices; ‘all the Israelites’ grumbled; ‘the whole assembly’ said to Moses and Aaron. Not just a few of them, but all of them grumbled and complained.
And they said:
If only we had died in Egypt. Or in this desert!
They were so discouraged by what the spies said, and they were so certain that they would die a violent death in Canaan, that they now believed they would have been better off if they had died in Egypt or in the wilderness. Instead of believing the word of the Lord who had promised to give them the land, they believed the spies.
And then, when they asked why had the Lord brought them there only to fall by the sword, they were implying that the Lord’s motive in leading them there was evil. In other words, he was not a good God, but an evil God, because his intention all along was to kill them and to let the wives and children be taken as plunder. And so, not only did they doubt the word of the Lord, but they doubted his goodness.
And then they said that it would be better for them to return to Egypt. Instead of going on to be killed in the land of Canaan they said they should go back to their life of slavery in Egypt. And so, they began to say to one another that they ought to choose another leader to replace Moses and who would lead them back to Egypt.
Verses 5 to 9
When Moses and Aaron heard what the people were saying, they fell down in front of the people, perhaps out of fear and awe because they knew that the Lord was listening and was about to act. But the Lord gave the people one more chance to repent of their wicked rebellion, because here are Joshua and Caleb who stand before the people to preach to them a message of faith and hope. It’s as if they’re saying to the people that they must not listen to the voice of the other spies, who are saying the land is bad, because the land is good. In fact, it’s better than good, it’s exceedingly good. Furthermore, if the Lord is pleased with them, he will lead them into the land and will give it to them, just as he said he would. So, don’t rebel against the Lord; and don’t be afraid of the Canaanites, because the Lord will be with us and the Canaanites will have no one to protect them. So, trust in the Lord; believe his promises, and he will lead you to victory over your enemies in the land.
Verses 10 to 38
And so, they preached a message of faith and hope. But instead of believing what Joshua and Caleb said, the Israelites talked instead about stoning Joshua and Caleb. But just then, the glory-cloud of the Lord appeared before them; and the Lord spoke to Moses and said:
How long will these people treat me with contempt? How long will they refuse to believe in me?
He then referred to all the miraculous signs he performed on their behalf. So, hadn’t he sent the plagues against the Egyptians? Hadn’t he opened up a way for them through the Red Sea? Hadn’t he fed them in the wilderness with manna? When they asked for meat, didn’t he give it to them? When their enemies attacked them in the wilderness, hadn’t he saved them? But despite being a good shepherd to them — leading them, providing for them, protecting them — they still doubted his goodness and mercy towards them. And so, since they treated him with such contempt, he was ready to destroy them with a plague and start again with Moses. Just as he had brought forth a nation from Abraham, so he could bring forth a nation from Moses.
But Moses — as he had done back in Exodus 32 after the golden calf incident — began to intercede with the Lord on behalf of the Israelites. And he used two lines of argument with the Lord. His first line of argument — which we find in verses 13 to 16 — concerned the Lord’s reputation among the nations. You see, if the Lord destroyed the Israelites, then the nations would say that the reason the Lord destroyed them was because he wasn’t able to bring them into the Promised Land. And so, his reputation among the nations for being great and glorious and powerful would be ruined. And his second line of argument — which we find in verses 17 to 19 — concerned God’s character. Since you’re slow to anger and since you’re abounding in steadfast love, and since you’re a God who forgives, then forgive the sin of the people just as you have forgiven them previously.
So, for the sake of your reputation among the nations, and since you’re a forgiving God, don’t destroy these people; but pardon them. And in verse 20 the Lord revealed to Moses that he would indeed forgive them: instead of destroying them completely in the wilderness, he will let them live. However, not one of them — who saw his glory and the miraculous signs he performed and who disobeyed him and tested him again and again and again — not one of them will ever see the Promised Land. Though he will not destroy them immediately, nevertheless they will die in the wilderness instead of entering the Promised Land. Only Caleb — and later we discover that Joshua too will be treated as an exception — will be allowed to enter the Promised Land. And so, the Lord commanded them in verse 25, that tomorrow they must turn back and set out again towards the desert.
In verses 26 to 35, the Lord expands a little more on the judgment he announced in the previous verses. All those 20 years old and older — who were counted in the census back in chapter 1 and who grumbled against him — will die in the desert. Only Caleb and Joshua will be allowed to enter the land of Canaan. Furthermore, the Lord will let the Israelite children enter and enjoy the land which their parents have rejected. However, their children will not enter the land immediately, but they will have to endure 40 years in the wilderness on account of the sinfulness of their parents who did not trust the Lord.
As for the wicked spies who spread the bad report about the land, they were struck down by a plague and died immediately.
Verses 39 to 45
You’d think the people would have humbled themselves before the Lord. However, though they mourned bitterly whenever they heard this, still their hearts were hard, because instead of obeying the Lord when he told them to turn back, they disregarded what he had said and they went up to take the land. Moses did not go up with them; the ark of the covenant which symbolised God’s presence did not go up with them. And so, when the Amalekites and Canaanites came up against them, they were beaten badly, because the Lord was not with them to help them.
The NIV gives this chapter the title: ‘The People Rebel’. And they did, twice. When they heard the report of the spies, they grumbled and complained about the Lord and Moses and talked about returning to Egypt. And when the Lord commanded them to turn back, they disregarded what he said and tried to enter the land in disobedience to his clear command.
And so, that generation of Israelites became renowned throughout the Bible for their sin and rebellion and for having sinful, unbelieving hearts. In Nehemiah 9 they’re described as being arrogant and stiff-necked; and it’s said they refused to listen. In Psalm 78 we’re told they grieved the Lord and put the Lord to the test. In Psalm 95 it talks about how their hearts went astray. In Psalm 106 it says they despised the pleasant land and did not believe God’s promise. In Isaiah 63 it says they rebelled and grieved the Holy Spirit so that the Lord turned and became their enemy. And in Hebrews 3 it tells us how they heard and rebelled.
That generation became known for their hard, unbelieving hearts. And so, Paul warns us in in 1 Corinthians 10 not to become like them so that we set our hearts on what is evil. And the writer to the Hebrews warns us not to do as they did, because they heard the gospel — the promise of entering God’s rest — but did not hear it with faith. The gospel message, the word of promise, was of no value to them, because they did not believe. So, we must be careful that we believe the gospel whenever we hear it so that we don’t rebel like them.
That’s the first application of this passage to us and to people in every generation. We must take care that we respond to the gospel with faith, because even though they had seen the miraculous signs of the Lord, and even though they had benefitted again and again and again from the Lord’s goodness, nevertheless when they heard the gospel message — the promise of entering the Promised Land of rest — they did not believe. And because they did not believe, they were barred from the Promised Land. And since the land of Canaan points forward to our eternal rest in the presence of God, then we need to understand that only those who believe will enter the promised rest.
However, the second application of this passage to us concerns Moses’s mediation. Moses pleaded with the Lord to forgive the people. And the Lord did forgive them in the sense that he did not destroy them as he said he would. Nevertheless, they still suffered the wrath of God, because they all fell in the desert, far from the Promised Land. And even their children — who were allowed to enter and to enjoy the Promised Land — had to endure 40 years in the wilderness on account of the sinfulness of their parents.
The result of Moses’s mediation was limited: the Lord was merciful to them in that he did not destroy them immediately; but still they died outside the Promised Land. God’s covenant with his people through Moses only allowed for a partial forgiveness. But now, with the death of Christ, there is — for those who believe — full forgiveness. Under the terms of God’s new covenant — which he announced through the prophet Jeremiah and which was put into effect by the shedding of Christ’s blood on the cross — God promises his people that he will remember our sins no more. In other words, he removes our sins from us as far as the east is from the west; and he will not count them against us any more. Since Christ bore the punishment we deserve when he suffered and died on the cross, God will never ever demand any further payment from us for our sins. And to all who believe in his Son, God promises everlasting rest in his presence for ever.
Though we don’t deserve to enter God’s rest — because we too are sinners just like the Israelites — nevertheless through faith in Christ — who died for sinners, and who is far, far greater than Moses — we receive the assurance of sins forgiven and the hope of everlasting life. And Christ our Saviour has promised that he will lose none of all the Father has given to him to save, but he will indeed raise us up on the last day and bring us into the eternal rest.