Lessons from the Wilderness

Numbers 11-13

February 19, 2006 | Brian Bill

In an old Charlie Chaplin film there is a scene in which he is captured in battle and his captors attach one of his legs to a ball and chain.  He tries to escape but the ball is too heavy and the chain is too securely fastened to be pried off.  He looks around the room to make sure no one is looking and then clandestinely digs a hole and buries the ball so that it is no longer visible.  With the ball completely covered, he turns to leave, only to fall flat on his face.

This is a metaphor for the nation of Israel.  They had left Egypt but they still lived in bondage.  When they tried to walk they fell down…a lot.  They made many mistakes as they cycled through one sin after another.  Please turn to 1 Corinthians 10 where we get an inspired commentary about the experiences of the Israelites in the wilderness.  In verse 5 we read that “God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert.”  What a shame that God was not happy with their behavior.  As we learned last week, they were His treasured possession.  They certainly didn’t act like that.  God wants us to learn from their mistakes so that we don’t make the same ones.  Look at verse 6: “Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did.” 

There are a lot of lessons we can learn.  For our purposes today, I’m going to list ten of them.  I encourage you to listen carefully and take special note of those that especially apply to your life. As that one saying goes, “Those who fail to learn from the past are bound to repeat it.”

1. God is not in a hurry (Exodus 13:17).

The trip the people of Israel were to take was quite a simple one.  In order to go from Egypt to Canaan, there was a well-known trade route called “The Way of the Sea” described in Isaiah 9:1.  It was a scenic road that followed the coastline of the Mediterranean Sea.  That’s the route Mapquest would have suggested.  It should have taken them a matter of weeks to get to the Land of Promise.

But, surprisingly, we read these words in Exodus 13:17-18: “When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter.  For God said, ‘If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.’  So God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea…” God knew that His people weren’t ready to handle the hard times they would face and so He turned them southward on a road called “The Way of the Wilderness.”  His concern was that they would want to run back to Egypt at the first sign of trouble.  Remember, they were slaves, not soldiers.  In addition, as we learned last week, He wanted to reveal Himself to His people and give them moral, civil and ceremonial laws.  God’s people end up spending 11 months at the foot of Mount Sinai.  After finally breaking camp, the Israelites are eager to enter the Promise Land.  We know from Deuteronomy 1:2 that this trip from the mountain of God to the land of God should have taken a little more than a week: “It takes eleven days to go from Horeb to Kadesh Barnea by the Mount Seir road.”  This time an eleven-day trip took thirty-nine years!

God’s primary concern is not speed but our spiritual growth

Friends, God’s primary concern is not speed but our spiritual growth.  He’s more concerned with our being than our going.  We often want to know what God wants us to do and when He wants us to do it; He is much more interested in who we are becoming.  Possessing a land flowing with milk and honey was not nearly as important as having a heart flowing with love, justice, courage, and faith.  Ortberg writes: “God’s first concern was not how fast his people would be going to the Promised Land.  His deepest concern was that they would be the right kind of people when they arrived.”

Our sense of time is much different than God’s.  2 Peter 3:8 says: “But do not forget this one thing, dear friends.  With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.”  Because God has a better sense of timing, we need to trust His timetable and not get so worked up when things don’t happen as quickly as we would like.  That reminds me of the little girl who prayed, “Dear God, I hear that time is very different for you than it is for us.  Is that true?”  God replied, “Yes, my child, that is very true.”  The girl continued, “What is a thousand years like to you?”  “It’s like a second,” God replied.  The girl then asked, “Then what is a second like?”  God replied, “It’s like a thousand years.”  This got the girl thinking as the wheels in her head started spinning quickly, “God what is a million dollars to you?”  God answered, “It’s like a penny.”  To which the girl asked, “Then, what’s a penny like to you?”  God patiently replied, “It’s like a million dollars.”  The girl paused, gathering up her courage, and asked her final question, “Dear God, can I please have a penny?”  God answered, “Yes!  I’ll give you a penny, but you’ll have to wait a second!”

One reason God moves slowly is because He knows that we are not ready to receive everything all at once as Exodus 23:30 says: “Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of the land.”  He has lessons He wants us to learn and character traits that need to be refined.  It may seem that you’re moving slowly and growing little by little, but at least you’re moving and growing.  

Are you always in a hurry?  Do you get frustrated when God moves more slowly than you want Him to?  When you find yourself harried and hurried ask yourself this question: “Where am I going in such a hurry and how will I know when I get there?”  Take some time to slow down each day, for its in solitude and stillness that you will grow in your love for God.   Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still and know that I am God.”  

2. Choose gratitude over grumbling (Exodus 15:24).

It’s amazing how many times God’s people grumble, murmur and complain when they are in the wilderness.  It’s also astonishing how quickly their complaining starts.  They have just passed through the Red Sea on dry ground and are excited to finally be free and so they express their praise in Exodus 15:1: “I will sing to the LORD, for he is highly exalted.”

But then their praising turns into a time of protesting.  In verse 22 we read that Moses led them into the “Desert of Shur.”  “Shur” means a “wall.”  And that’s exactly how they felt.  They had run into a wall of despair instead of a window of blessing.  After wandering in the wilderness for three days, and having no water to drink, the people turn on Moses at a place called Marah, which means “bitterness.”   I want you to notice that their gratitude turns to griping when the memory of God’s faithfulness is somehow forgotten, and it only took them three days to land in the ditch of despair.  Bitterness can blind us to the promises of God.  For these complainers, whatever God did, it was never enough for them.

After receiving water, we read in Numbers 14:2 that the “whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron.” We get a sense of what God thinks about grumbling in Numbers 14:27: “How long will this wicked community grumble against me?  I have heard the complaints of these grumbling Israelites.” In Numbers 17:5 God says that He will rid Himself of “this constant grumbling.”  They grumbled as a group but they also provoked the Lord in private according to Deuteronomy 1:27: “You grumbled in your tents and said, ‘The LORD hates us; so he brought us out of Egypt to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us.’”  You might not be a group griper but it may be that you complain when you’re at home.  It was Mark Twain who said, “Don’t complain and talk about all your problems; 80% of people don’t care and the other 20% think you deserve them.”

Are we that much different than the Israelites?  1 Corinthians 10 teaches that there are few sins as ugly as complaining.  In verse 7, it is listed alongside idolatry, immorality and testing God.  Listen to verses 9-11: “We should not test the Lord, as some of them did-and were killed by snakes.  And do not grumble, as some of them did-and were killed by the destroying angel.  These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us.”  Verse 12 reminds us that if we think we’re not in the camp of the complainers, we should be careful, because it’s just a short step down the slippery slope of complaining.  Then, in verse 13, which is a verse that many of us have memorized, we learn that God will give us a way of escape from a sour spirit: “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.”  This verse is in the context of avoiding a complaining spirit.  God will give you a way out of grumbling if you’ll look for it.

Friend, be careful about complaining because grumbling is equated with disobedience in Psalm 106:25: “They grumbled in their tents and did not obey the Lord.”   Israel’s stumbling led to grumbling, which resulted in God’s judgment.  Ultimately, all grumbling, whether directed at people or problems, is really a protest against God.  As Romans 9:20 asks, “But who are you, O man, to talk back to God?”  In Numbers 16, Korah and his cantankerous cohorts complain about their leaders, but Moses knows that they are really going after God in verse 11: “It is against the Lord that you and all your followers have banded together.  Who is Aaron that you should grumble against him?” As a result of their mumbling and grumbling, 14,700 people paid for their protest with their lives.  James 5:9: “Don’t grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged.  The Judge is standing at the door!”  

The best antidote to grumbling is gratitude.  Instead of focusing on the faults of others, accentuate the positive.  Instead of murmuring against God for what you don’t have, start thanking Him for what you do have.  And, if you realize that a complaining spirit has taken up residence in your life, you may want to ask someone to hold you accountable for the words that come out of your mouth.  

3. God provides one day at a time (Exodus 16:4).

God’s people have grumbled and griped and amazingly have even started longing for the “glory days” in Egypt, whatever that means.  We read in Exodus 16:4 that God takes care of their needs even though they don’t deserve it: “I will rain down bread from heaven for you.  The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day.  In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions.”  In addition to this, God provided quail in the evening, and didn’t need our Vice President’s help.  The purpose behind this amazing provision is found in verse 12: “Then you will know that I am the Lord your God.”

The name “manna” became kind of an inside joke for the Israelites.  In the Hebrew language, manna simply means “what is it?”  Or for those who were cool, it was called, “what it is.” They didn’t know what to call it because they had never seen it before.  Verse 14 describes what it was like: “When the dew was gone, thin flakes like frost on the ground appeared on the desert floor.”  Ortberg calls this the first breakfast cereal, Frosted Flakes.  When they began eating the manna, they thought it was Grrrrrreat!  Unfortunately, it didn’t take them long to say Grrrrross as they start murmuring about the manna, which they would end up eating for forty years.

God provided just what they needed but He also made it clear that they weren’t to stockpile it; only gathering enough for the day, except on the day before the Sabbath when they were told to pick up twice as much.  Verses 17-18 state that the “Israelites did as they were told; some gathered much, some little…each one gathered as much as he needed.”  Some of the people disobeyed the clear instructions and tried to hoard the manna.  This was not a good idea because it made Moses mad and the leftover manna became “full of maggots and began to smell.”

God was trying to teach His people to trust Him one day at a time.  Reflecting on the 40-year journey, Moses summed up God’s daily care and concern in Deuteronomy 2:7: “…And you have not lacked anything.”  And in Deuteronomy 8:3, he tells us why God did this: “He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.”  God wanted them to look up for their provision.  God wanted them to know that He could be trusted to care for all their needs.  He alone is enough.  With this experience in their generational memory banks, think with me about what the Israelites must have thought when Jesus made this statement in John 6:41: “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”

This is the manna principle: one day at a time.  If you worry about tomorrow, you will worry for the rest of your life.  Jesus said it this way in Matthew 6:34: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.  Each day has enough trouble of its own.”   When we pray as Jesus taught us to pray, “Give us each day our daily bread,” we are saying that we trust God as the source to supply all the physical needs of our lives, and we affirm that He will take care of everything we need.  Notice that this trust in God for these needs is for each day.   Like manna that comes once a day, God provides one day at a time.

4. God’s presence leads us one step at a time (Exodus 17:7).

God didn’t just deliver His people from Egypt and then leave them to themselves.  He got them out and then He guided them every step of the way.  Amazingly, showing their obstinance once again, the people of Israel asked a question that most of us have asked at one time or another in Exodus 17:7: “Is the LORD among us or not?”  Even after the ten plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, the deliverance from  Pharaoh, the destruction of the Egyptian army, and the provision of water, manna, and quail, they still want to know if God is with them or not.  God has done so much for us as well, and yet we often wonder where He is.

As we pointed out last week, it was the people’s impatience that led them into idolatry.  Exodus 32:1 says that it was because Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain that the people decide they want a visible god that will “go before” them.  Don’t you wonder why the people did this?  Did they somehow miss the cloud and the fire that was always with them?  God was guiding them every step of the way but the truth of the matter is that they didn’t want Him to. God prepared places for them to rest and He showed them the exact way to get there.  Listen to Deuteronomy 1:32-33: “In spite of this, you did not trust in the LORD your God, who went ahead of you on your journey, in fire by night and in a cloud by day, to search out places for you to camp and to show you the way you should go.”  I love Isaiah 58:11: “The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame.”

5. Sin requires blood sacrifices (Leviticus).

As you read through the first five books of the Old Testament, it becomes clear that God requires the blood of a substitute to atone for the sins of the people.  There are almost 150 references to blood in the first five books.  This is especially evident in the Book of Leviticus, where we see the necessity of sacrifice spelled out with precision.  I was fascinated by reading an article in Leadership Magazine some time ago (1/1/02) about Pastor Rob Bell from Grand Rapids, Michigan, who preached verse-by-verse for an entire year from the Book of Leviticus when he started a new church.  He said it was wonderful because the people got it when it came time to explain the blood of Christ, which he did at the end of every message.  Listen to how he summarizes his “Life in Leviticus” series: “Leviticus cannot be tamed.  Its imagery is too wild.  We ventured into its lair and let it devour us, trusting that God would deliver us with a truer picture of His Son.”

During these wanderings, God is preparing His people for the day when Jesus would shed His blood for wandering people.  This is the message of Hebrews 9:22: “In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.”

6. Don’t cut corners spiritually (Leviticus 10:1-4).

In Leviticus 10:1-4, we read about Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu.  They “took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, contrary to his command.  So fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD.  Moses then said to Aaron, ‘This is what the LORD spoke of when he said: Among those who approach me I will show myself holy; in the sight of all the people I will be honored.’  Aaron remained silent.”  This is just one example of how God’s holiness is to always be before the people.  In this incident, the two sons of Aaron, maybe learning from their dad’s own dalliance with idolatry, cut some corners spiritually.  Approaching God way too casually, and contrary to His command, they were consumed by fire.  Some commentators believe that verse 9 indicates that they may have been intoxicated when they came into God’s presence.

Because God is holy, He demands that people honor Him.  As Aaron the father watched all this, he just remained silent.  I’m not certain whether this means that he was quiet when he should have warned his boys or that he was simply speechless when he saw what God did.  Either way you get the picture of a dad who was not involved enough with the spiritual training of his children.

7. Move forward in faith, not backwards in fear (Numbers 13:1-33). 

We won’t take the time to study Numbers 13 in great detail but I urge you to do it on your own because what happens here explains why Israel had to wander in the wilderness for 40 years.  There are also great lessons here about the importance of faith and obedience.  The Israelites are very near the land of promise and so 12 spies are sent out and are gone for 40 days.  When they return they report what they saw in verse 27: “We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey!  Here is its fruit.”  In fact, there is so much fruit that the grapes have to be brought back carried on a pole by two men.  

Before we look at what happens next, remember that this was all these men were asked to do in verses 17-20.  They were to do a survey and report their findings.  Period.  But look at what they say in verses 28 and 33: But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large.  We even saw descendants of Anak there… We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.”  They felt like little insects that were about to squashed on Anak’s windshield.  Ortberg points out that they never really recovered from their slave mentality.  They wouldn’t move forward because of their ball and chain.

Whenever you hear yourself saying in response to one of God’s promises, “But…” you are probably being controlled by fear not faith.  Whenever your problems seem bigger than God Himself, you are following fear not faith.  Ten of the spies bring back a bad report and the people get really discouraged.  Instead of moving forward in faith they become filleted by fear.  Caleb and Joshua try to dissuade the discouragers to no avail.  

As a result, the 10 spies are killed immediately (Numbers 14:37) and the entire community, which has been camped near the border of Canaan, has to spend 40 years in the wilderness, one year for every day the spies were gone, as punishment.  The entire generation of fearful gripers and faithless complainers will die in the desert, with the exception of Caleb and Joshua who operate in faith when they declare in Numbers 13:30: “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.” They were simply taking God at His word for in verse 2 God said He was giving the land to the Israelites.

Some of you have a grasshopper complex.  You think you are insignificant and you’ve allowed your insecurities to influence your faith.  Friends, the issue isn’t whether or not you are competent or strong enough.  The question is really this: Will I take God at His word and will I trust Him with my problems?  The problem with our fears is not fear itself, but what they reveal about our concept of God, for at the deepest level, some of us believe that that if we cling completely to God, He will let us down.  That’s why some of you struggle to really honor God with your giving, or in your relationships, or in your serving.

8. Unbridled anger has awful consequences (Numbers 20:1-13). 

If we fast forward to about the end of the 39th year, Moses has an experience with anger that has some awful consequences.  It was Benjamin Franklin who once said, “Anger is never without a reason but seldom with a good one.”  As we come to Numbers 20, the old generation has died off and now the new generation is about ready to enter the land of promise.  But like their parents before them, they too complain and grumble.  Where do you think they learned how to do that?  Parents, never forget that your children will pick up our bad attitudes more quickly than they’ll pick up their dirty socks.  The people are really tough on Moses, even wishing they were dead rather than be under his leadership.  They quarrel with Moses, which in Hebrew is a legal term for lawsuit.  They want to file charges against him because they don’t think he’s doing a good job.   Once again, the issue is lack of water.  They’re angry at Moses but their real frustration is with God.  By the way, it’s a good practice to check the source of your anger because many of us lash out at others when we’re really angry with the Almighty.

We read next that Moses and Aaron fall facedown before God, thinking that maybe God is going to wipe out these worthless wimps.  Instead, God responds with grace, telling Moses to take the staff and then speak to a rock and before their eyes water would pour out.  In verse 9 we’re told that Moses took the staff as directed but in verse 10 we get a clue that Moses is pretty miffed: “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?”  Remember that God told Moses to speak to the rock but in verse 11 we read that instead he whacked the rock twice.  I think he was taking out all his anger and frustration on this bunch of complainers.  Notice too that Moses wanted justice while God was offering the people grace.  Romans 2:4 states that “God’s kindness leads to repentance.”

Sometimes we get mad at others and even presuppose to be speaking for God when really we’re allowing our anger to control us.  It’s always dangerous to play the Holy Spirit.  Do you recall that it was about 40 years earlier that Moses was told to strike the rock and now he is told to speak to it?  The issue here is one of obedience.  God is sovereign.  Sometimes He directs us one way, at other times, we’re to do something else.  We get in trouble when we presume that we can speak or act for Him, especially when we are in direct defiance of what He has commanded.  

God summarized Moses’ problem in verse 12: “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.”  Because of this act of deliberate disobedience and his refusal to honor God as holy, Moses’ outburst disqualifies him from entering the land of promise. A case can be made that anger was really his “fatal flaw.”  We can trace his flare-ups all the way back to his early years in Egypt when he murdered an Egyptian.  Then, about forty years later, after announcing the tenth plague, we read in Exodus 11:8: “He went out from Pharaoh in hot anger.”

If you struggle with anger, don’t excuse it by saying something like this: “Oh, I just have a bad temper.”  Confess your anger as sin.  Repent from your rage.  And get some help.  James 1:20: “For man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.” And Proverbs 29:11: “A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control.” 

9. Use memorials to help you remember (Numbers 15:37 ). 

Psalm 103:2 says, “Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.”  God knows that people are prone to forget and so he made sure they would remember.  Later, when they finally crossed the Jordan, God had them set up a pile of stones so that future generations would see this visible sign and then remember what God had done.  The miracle of the manna was to never be forgotten because a sample was put in the Ark of the Covenant as a reminder of God’s gracious provision (Exodus 16:33-34).  In Numbers 15:37-40 God gives these directions: “Throughout the generations to come you are to make tassels on the corners of your garments, with a blue cord on each tassel.  You will have these tassels to look at and so you will remember all the commands of the Lord, that you may obey them and not prostitute yourselves by going after the lusts of your own hearts and eyes.  Then you will remember to obey all my commands…”

In a similar way, we need reminders so that we don’t forget the faithfulness of God.  One way that we remember is by reading the Bible on a daily basis.  We don’t just read to get something new but to be reminded of what we already know to be true.  We see this in 2 Peter 1:12: “So I will always remind of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth you now have.  I think it is right to refresh your memory…”  Some of us are struggling today precisely because we are not reading the Word.  Friend, if you’re not immersed in Scripture, you will forget all of His benefits.  Related to this, you might want to record your insights and prayers in a journal.  This is a great way to make sure you don’t forget what God is teaching you each day.  Another way to be regularly reminded is by committing to corporate worship each week and by joining a small group or Bible Study.  

We also remember through the observance of communion which serves as a reminder because we are to do it in “remembrance of Him.”  Yet another way to fight forgetfulness is if you’re a born again believer, make sure that you get baptized.  This is a visual demonstration of what has taken place inwardly and will forever be in your memory so that God can bring it back to you when you need the reminder that you have publicly identified yourself with Christ.  Our next baptism service is this coming Sunday afternoon.  Please contact the church office to be included.

10. God is gracious and wants to bless us (Numbers 6:22-27). 

I want to end this morning on a note of grace because God is a gracious God.  Perhaps you’ve been piled by the things that have been shared today but I want you to leave with a lesson on love.  In the midst of all their meanderings, God wants His people to know that they are blessed.  In what has been called “The Lord’s Prayer of the Old Testament,” God tells Moses to make sure that Aaron and his sons know how to give a blessing to people.  Then we read this benediction in Numbers 6:24-26: “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace.” 

One pastor writes that this is not just a concluding prayer but a statement of divine approval.  Notice that first of all, God promises His protection.  The word “keep” was often used of a soldier protecting his post.  This is the promise of God’s watchful care over us.  Secondly, God promises His pleasure.  The picture here is of God beaming when He thinks of us.  As Zephaniah 3:17 reminds us, “He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.”  Thirdly, God promises to give us peace.  Using the metaphor of His face again, we see that when God turns toward us it’s not with wrath, but with a smile or a huge grin.  Friend, do you know that God is paying attention to you and that He is filled with affection for you?  

Perhaps you’ve been wandering through your own wilderness.  It’s time to come home to a great yet gracious God.  I’m going to ask you to stand as we get ready to sing about God’s grace.  As the team comes up front, let me quickly summarize the lessons we learned today.  Would you pick one or two and ask God to help you put them into practice this week?

  1. Trust God’s timing.
  2. Choose gratitude over grumbling.
  3. Allow God to provide one day at a time.
  4. Allow God’s presence to lead you one step at a time.
  5. Your sin requires a blood sacrifice.
  6. Don’t cut corners spiritually.
  7. Move forward in faith, not backwards in fear.
  8. Unbridled anger causes awful consequences.
  9. Use memorials to help you remember.
  10. God is gracious and wants to bless you.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?