The book of Numbers in the Bible covers the time that Israel headed to the promised land to the time just before they finally got there after a 40-year detour. As Warren Wiersbe said in his introduction to Be Counted (Numbers): Living a Life That Counts for God:
The book of Numbers opens with a count of all the fighting men in the camp. They were counted, but they couldn’t be counted on, because all but two of them died during Israel’s march through the wilderness. Then the new generation was counted, and they were people whom the Lord could “count on.” They trusted His Word, entered the Promised Land, and claimed it for their inheritance (pages 13-14, Kindle).
The book begins with getting ready to march to Canaan. Soldiers are numbered, the tribes are arranged in their places around the tabernacle, duties and procedures are assigned, the tabernacle is dedicated, and Passover is kept.
But the people complain about the manna God sent them. Aaron and Miriam, Moses’s own siblings, challenge his leadership. When the people send out spies to look over the land, the spies come back telling how many and how large the enemies are. Instead of trusting that God would give them the land as He promised, the people rebelled.
They looked at the people of the land and saw giants; they looked at the Canaanite cities and saw high walls and locked gates; and they looked at themselves and saw grasshoppers. If only they had looked by faith to God, they would have seen the One who was able to conquer every enemy and who sees the nations of the world as grasshoppers (Isa. 40: 22). “We are not able” is the cry of unbelief (Num. 13: 31 NKJV), but, “Our God is able” is the affirmation of faith (Dan. 3: 17; see Phil. 4: 13) (p. 74).
God pronounced that all those who refused to enter the land would die in the wilderness over the next forty years. Their children would inherit the land in their place along with Joshua and Caleb, the only two spies who urged to people to go forth and trust God.
And then: more rebellion, this time from Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. They challenged Moses and Aaron’s leadership, and God dealt with the rebels severely.
Then as the people complain once again about the need for water, Moses responds angrily. He calls them rebels. Instead of speaking to the rock as God instructed, Moses struck the rock twice. “It was a sad demonstration of hostility by the meekest man on the earth (Numbers 12:3), showing that we can fail in our strengths as well as our weaknesses” (p. 105). God told Moses, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them” (Numbers 20:12). I’ve always felt bad for Moses, but one man in our church commented that he did eventually get to see the promised Savior in the promised land when he appeared with Elijah during Jesus’s transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8).
After a battle, more complaining, an encounter with Balaam and his talking donkey, falling into sin with the false gods of Moab, judgment, revenge against Midian, and another census, the people finally come to their second opportunity to go into the promised land. Eleazar has been appointed to take Aaron’s place and Joshua Moses’s place. Boundaries for the tribes are set. Interspersed in the narrative are some of God’s instructions for promised-land dwelling. These were encouraging reminders that they would eventually get there, that they were still God’s people, and that He would keep His promises. In fact, His faithfulness to His promise is probably the only reason the people did make it. The end of Numbers leaves Israel poised on the brink of Canaan, awaiting Moses’s last instructions to the tribes in Deuteronomy. “Though he wasn’t allowed to go in himself, Moses invested the closing weeks of his life in preparing the new generation to enter Canaan and claim the land God promised to give them” (p. 153).
What are some things we can learn from Numbers? According to Wiersbe:
We don’t have to fail as did that first generation; we can be “more than conquerors through Him that loved us” (Rom. 8: 37) (p. 14).
The more comfortable we become, the less we welcome change, and yet there’s no growth without challenge and there’s no challenge without change. Comfort usually leads to complacency, and complacency is the enemy of character and spiritual growth. In each new experience of life, one of two things happens: Either we trust God and He brings out the best in us, or we disobey God and Satan brings out the worst in us (p. 58).
So sinful is the human heart that it’s prone to forget God’s blessings, ignore God’s promises, and find fault with God’s providence. “Oh that men would praise the LORD for his goodness, and for his wonderful works to the children of men!” (Ps. 107: 8, 15, 21, 31) (p. 61).
Over these many years of ministry, I’ve learned that it isn’t enemies outside the local church who do the damage, but counterfeiters who get inside the church fellowship (Acts 20: 28–30; 3 John 9–11). These intruders might march with the church crowd and act like they are God’s people, but they don’t have an appetite for spiritual things, and eventually their true allegiance is revealed (1 John 2: 18–19) (p. 62).
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 (Hos. 11: 4) (p. 77).
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 (p. 78).
Be careful what you say to God when you complain, because He may take you up on it! After all, God’s greatest judgment is to let people have their own way (p. 79).
There is no substitute for faith in God’s promises and obedience to His commandments. Faith is simply obeying God in spite of how we feel, what we see, or what we think might happen. When God’s people trust and obey, the Lord delights in doing wonders for them, because they glorify His name (p. 81).
We have to be careful about judging Israel’s penchant for complaining and failure to trust God. Instead, we need to recognize those tendencies in ourselves and seek His grace to trust, obey, and follow.
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