The book gives practical and spiritual lessons on the subject of the inheritance. We see a people being prepared for the inheritance that lies before them and that they are about to take possession of. It is the land that God looks upon with joy. Moses knows what he is talking about when he seeks to warm their hearts toward the land. In the first chapters he gives a historical review of the way in which the people have already dealt with the land. They have despised “the pleasant land” (Psa 106:24). Then a new generation and a remnant, presented in Caleb, come and take possession of it.
For us Christians, the land of Canaan is the picture of the heavenly places. Therein we are “blessed with every spiritual blessing … in Christ” (Eph 1:3). The Lord Jesus, our true Moses, wants to focus our hearts on this. If there is real fellowship with God, it will be reflected in the interest we show in the things in which He is interested. God’s heart is full of Christ and everything He has done.
1 - 4 Place and Date of Moses’ Speech
1 These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel across the Jordan in the wilderness, in the Arabah opposite Suph, between Paran and Tophel and Laban and Hazeroth and Dizahab. 2 It is eleven days’ [journey] from Horeb by the way of Mount Seir to Kadesh-barnea. 3 In the fortieth year, on the first [day] of the eleventh month, Moses spoke to the children of Israel, according to all that the LORD had commanded him [to give] to them, 4 after he had defeated Sihon the king of the Amorites, who lived in Heshbon, and Og the king of Bashan, who lived in Ashtaroth and Edrei.
Moses addresses “all Israel”, no one excepted. The place and date at which he speaks are indicated. He gives his speech on the banks of the Jordan, the river that separates the people from the land. The environment, the wilderness, recalls the journey. They are located “in the Arabah”, which means “on the Plain”, a place where no one can hide and from where they can clearly perceive the surroundings.
The book contains the words which Moses spoke (verse 1), entirely as the LORD wants (verse 3) and that Moses unfolds or explains (verse 5). That makes the whole book a direct authoritative speaking of God. He is the source of it. We would do well to realize this while reading and thinking about this book. Moses is the mediator – and the type of the Lord Jesus Who speaks God’s Word with authority – through whom God’s words come to us. He does everything to make the Word of God clear to the people and to make them understand it correctly.
The journey could have lasted eleven days. That time is needed for the journey from Horeb, which is Mount Sinai, to Kadesh-barnea, the southern entrance in the land. Due to unbelief, however, it took them forty years, counted from the exodus from Egypt to the entry into the land (for ‘forty years’ see Num 14:29-35; 32:13; Deu 8:2-5; 29:5-6; Heb 3:7-19). The number ‘forty’ speaks of trial, testing. It speaks of a period in which one’s heart and qualities are tested. For us it is not literally forty years, nor is it a literal wilderness. The spiritual lesson is that because of our own failure and unfaithfulness it often takes us longer to take possession of blessings than if we had remained faithful.
The dating in verse 3 shows that the end of the fortieth year is in sight. This means that there are a completely different people stationed in the plains of Moab than the people who have left Egypt. That moment provides apt opportunity for review.
Heshbon is the capital of Moab, but was conquered by Sihon, a king of the Amorites. Og is also a king of the Amorites. Sihon rules over the southern part of the wilderness side of the Jordan and Og over the northern part of it. The defeat of Sihon and Og is described in Deuteronomy 2:24-3:11.
The reference to defeating these two kings contains a spiritual condition for understanding what Moses is going to say. The spiritual blessings of the heavenly land will not be made known to us if we have not properly taken possession of the earthly blessings. (See further the explanation of Numbers 21:21-35 in ‘Numbers – Explained & Applied’.)
5 - 8 Command to Enter the Land
5 Across the Jordan in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to expound this law, saying, 6 “The LORD our God spoke to us at Horeb, saying, ‘You have stayed long enough at this mountain. 7 Turn and set your journey, and go to the hill country of the Amorites, and to all their neighbors in the Arabah, in the hill country and in the lowland and in the Negev and by the seacoast, the land of the Canaanites, and Lebanon, as far as the great river, the river Euphrates. 8 See, I have placed the land before you; go in and possess the land which the LORD swore to give to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to them and their descendants after them.’
Before the conquest of the land begins, Moses undertakes to expound God’s law. He does not present the people with an artfully devised war plan. The only sure method of taking possession of and keeping the land is obedience to God’s commandments. That also applies to us. If we want to know the blessings that are our part in Christ, it is not by incorporating them into our minds. We will only get to know them if we submit our lives totally in obedience to God’s Word.
The start of the journey is at Horeb. The people have spent about a year there. Moses cites God’s command to leave Horeb and go to Canaan. He also explains the reason: they have now been there long enough to be prepared for the upcoming journey. If God declares a length of time sufficient, it is because He has achieved His goal. He then lets His own move on to the next experience with Him. In Numbers 10 we read about the command to set out: “So they moved out for the first time according to the commandment of the LORD through Moses” (Num 10:13). Now they are told where to go.
Before there is talk of actual setting out in verse 19, Moses recalls two events at Horeb. The first is what God has said about the land. He presents it in its vastness. Now the enemies still live there, but He has given it to His people. Moses joins God in swearing to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that He will give them and their descendants the land (Gen 15:18-21; 22:16-17; 26:3-5; 35:12). The ‘land’ is mentioned about 160 times in this book. Now they stand just before the fulfilment of the promise.
The land was not chosen by them, but for them. God has chosen this land for them and He has chosen them to live there. God’s heart is full of the land. If their hearts were filled with the love of God, they would be just as full of His land as He is. But their hearts are filled with other things. That is the second thing Moses talks about, which we hear mentioned between the lines when he talks about appointing judges.
9 - 18 The Appointment of Leaders
9 “I spoke to you at that time, saying, ‘I am not able to bear [the burden] of you alone. 10 The LORD your God has multiplied you, and behold, you are this day like the stars of heaven in number. 11 May the LORD, the God of your fathers, increase you a thousand-fold more than you are and bless you, just as He has promised you! 12 How can I alone bear the load and burden of you and your strife? 13 Choose wise and discerning and experienced men from your tribes, and I will appoint them as your heads.’ 14 You answered me and said, ‘The thing which you have said to do is good.’ 15 So I took the heads of your tribes, wise and experienced men, and appointed them heads over you, leaders of thousands and of hundreds, of fifties and of tens, and officers for your tribes. 16 “Then I charged your judges at that time, saying, ‘Hear [the cases] between your fellow countrymen, and judge righteously between a man and his fellow countryman, or the alien who is with him. 17 You shall not show partiality in judgment; you shall hear the small and the great alike. You shall not fear man, for the judgment is God’s. The case that is too hard for you, you shall bring to me, and I will hear it.’ 18 I commanded you at that time all the things that you should do.
At the same time that God was talking about the inheritance, Moses had to speak to them about their load and burden, which he could not bear alone, and about their quarrels. It is with him like the letter-writer Jude who “was making every effort to write you about our common salvation”, but was forced “to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 1:3).
The people had increased in number to a great crowd. As a result, the quarrels among them also increased. The church is no different (Acts 6:1). To overcome the difficulties between the members of God’s people, Moses proposed to appoint leaders. The people agreed. Thus, the burden was shared among more people. If there were any disputes, they could go to their judges.
The judges had to meet four conditions:
1. judge righteously, whether it be a brother or a stranger;
2. judge without regard to the person, not taking into account someone’s position;
3. judge without fear of human retribution, knowing that they were speaking justice on behalf of God;
4. acknowledge that there were cases too hard for them (having awareness of their own weakness and limitation) which they could bring to Moses.
Also in the church there are leaders, that is, believers who have been given responsibility (1Thes 5:12-13). As Moses appointed them in Israel, so the Lord Jesus does now. Such believers will meet the four conditions mentioned above. It is good to go to such believers with certain things and to ask their advice. There may also be things that require us to go directly to the true Moses. Lawsuits result from quarrels along the way.
19 - 21 In Kadesh-barnea
19 “Then we set out from Horeb, and went through all that great and terrible wilderness which you saw on the way to the hill country of the Amorites, just as the LORD our God had commanded us; and we came to Kadesh-barnea. 20 I said to you, ‘You have come to the hill country of the Amorites which the LORD our God is about to give us. 21 See, the LORD your God has placed the land before you; go up, take possession, as the LORD, the God of your fathers, has spoken to you. Do not fear or be dismayed.’
The great and terrible wilderness served to create a longing for the land. The refreshments of the wilderness are bitter refreshments. We must learn to “exult in our tribulations” (Rom 5:3-5). The result will be that the love of God increases and with it the love for the brothers and sisters. Then the quarrels disappear and we enter the plains of Moab where we are filled with the love God has for us.
Moses does everything to encourage the people to take possession of the land. He tells them not to fear or be dismayed. This indicates that the people were not eager to take possession of the land. This is also clear from the next section, where the people ask to send spies. Moses points out that God has spoken that they will have the land, and if God has spoken, no power can turn it back. The only thing that causes inability in taking possession of what God has promised is unbelief.
God makes everything available to us; we may take possession of it. God’s grace grants the land to us. The Word of God’s grace is enough to give us the inheritance (Acts 20:32). How then does it occur that there are those unable to take possession of it? Because in such one is an evil, unbelieving heart (Heb 3:7-12). It is all about the state of one’s heart: is it evil and unbelieving or is the love of God poured out by the Holy Spirit in it?
22 - 25 The Twelve Spies
22 “Then all of you approached me and said, ‘Let us send men before us, that they may search out the land for us, and bring back to us word of the way by which we should go up and the cities which we shall enter.’ 23 The thing pleased me and I took twelve of your men, one man for each tribe. 24 They turned and went up into the hill country, and came to the valley of Eshcol and spied it out. 25 Then they took [some] of the fruit of the land in their hands and brought it down to us; and they brought us back a report and said, ‘It is a good land which the LORD our God is about to give us.’
Despite all the promises of God, the people want spies to be sent out first. The core of this request is distrust of God and His Word. What will the spies be able to tell beyond what God has already said?
In Numbers it says that God commands spies to be sent out (Num 13:1-2), while here we learn that the people wanted it. Their question came from a lack of trust in God. When God sees that their will is fixed in this, He gives what they ask for. It is like the question the people later ask to have a king. In so doing they reject God. Yet God gives them a king because He wants to teach them a lesson.
Moses agreed to the request. The spies travelled through the land and returned with the evidence of the land’s wealth. The mention of “the valley of Eshcol” reminds us of the enormous bunch of grapes they have brought from the land (Num 13:23-24). They have also recognized that the land God gives is “a good (or: fair) land”, an expression that appears ten times in this book (Deu 1:25,35; 3:25; 4:21,22; 6:18; 8:7,10; 9:6; 11:17).
26 - 28 Refusal to Go up
26 “Yet you were not willing to go up, but rebelled against the command of the LORD your God; 27 and you grumbled in your tents and said, ‘Because the LORD hates us, He has brought us out of the land of Egypt to deliver us into the hand of the Amorites to destroy us. 28 Where can we go up? Our brethren have made our hearts melt, saying, “The people are bigger and taller than we; the cities are large and fortified to heaven. And besides, we saw the sons of the Anakim there.”‘
Moses reminds the people of the insurmountable problems they saw in taking possession of the land. In so doing they rejected God. So much so, they talked about God hating them (verse 27).
29 - 33 God’s Faithfulness and the People’s Unbelief
29 Then I said to you, ‘Do not be shocked, nor fear them. 30 The LORD your God who goes before you will Himself fight on your behalf, just as He did for you in Egypt before your eyes, 31 and in the wilderness where you saw how the LORD your God carried you, just as a man carries his son, in all the way which you have walked until you came to this place.’ 32 But for all this, you did not trust the LORD your God, 33 who goes before you on [your] way, to seek out a place for you to encamp, in fire by night and cloud by day, to show you the way in which you should go.
Moses speaks to a generation that has scarce to non-existent awareness of what happened forty years ago. Yet he speaks to them as if it is about themselves: they were rebellious and did not want to go up, they grumbled in their tents. He can do this because he knows the germ of unbelief is also present in this generation. They are no better than their fathers. This new generation has also shown its unbelief and rebellion at the end of the journey (Num 21:5).
The believer is a new creation in Christ, but his old nature is incorrigibly evil. If he does not keep it at the place of death (Rom 6:11), even the believer will be able to come to the worst of sins.
We can blame God for not providing sufficient resources to occupy ourselves with the blessings. But the real question is whether we truly appreciate the blessings. If we do that, we will have the resources and the time for it. Generations in previous centuries have had to work much harder and longer than we do today. Yet they knew the Scriptures through and through. How is that possible? They genuinely appreciated the blessings, while we let ourselves become wrapped up in earthly things. In Christ are “hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:3). The more we are occupied with Him, we will increasingly enjoy all that has been given to us in Him. A longing heart will learn from the truth that is in Jesus (Eph 4:21).
In verse 31 we see how God has led His people through that ‘great and terrible wilderness’. What Moses was not able to do (Num 11:14), God did: He carried them like a man carries his child. In his speech in the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch, Paul points out how God has cared for His people with the tenderness of a nurse: “For a period of about forty years He put up with them in the wilderness” (Acts 13:18; cf. Isa 66:13; Psa 103:13). This is His answer to their accusation that He hates them, an answer that should bring them to shame.
The people have sent out spies before them. Moses recalls that the LORD Himself had gone out before them every time as a spy to find a suitable place for them to camp there (verse 33). It is better for them to rely on Him than to determine their way as a result of human perceptions.
34 - 39 The Anger of the LORD
34 “Then the LORD heard the sound of your words, and He was angry and took an oath, saying, 35 ‘Not one of these men, this evil generation, shall see the good land which I swore to give your fathers, 36 except Caleb the son of Jephunneh; he shall see it, and to him and to his sons I will give the land on which he has set foot, because he has followed the LORD fully.’ 37 The LORD was angry with me also on your account, saying, ‘Not even you shall enter there. 38 Joshua the son of Nun, who stands before you, he shall enter there; encourage him, for he will cause Israel to inherit it. 39 Moreover, your little ones who you said would become a prey, and your sons, who this day have no knowledge of good or evil, shall enter there, and I will give it to them and they shall possess it.
The reaction of the LORD is in line with the rebellion of the people. Do they refuse to enter the land? The LORD swears in His wrath that no one of that generation will come there. Of the two exceptions, Joshua and Caleb, only Caleb is mentioned here. Joshua occupies a special place. He will succeed Moses as the leader of the people. In Caleb we have an ‘ordinary’ Israelite, someone to whom we can mirror ourselves.
His heart is full of the love of God. His name means ‘wholeheartedly’. He has not spoken of a God Who hates. He was convinced of the love and goodness of God to bring His people into the land of promise. In Joshua 14 he refers to his account of the land (Jos 14:7). Even then he is still full of the land. He knew the pleasure of the LORD and deeply appreciated the inheritance of God. He has taken it in possession, while the others have perished in the wilderness.
God’s love was active in his life. He had to go with the people through the wilderness, but in his heart that love worked, by which he persisted in following the LORD with an eye on the goal. Do we belong to the generation of Caleb? That is the case when our heart is directed toward Christ. Just as the heart of Caleb was directed toward the blessing of the land, for us the blessing of the land is Christ Jesus. If our hearts are full of the goodness and love of God through the Holy Spirit, our desire will also be to follow the Lord fully.
The Holy Spirit is also called ‘pledge’ (Eph 1:14). That He is the pledge means that we do not yet possess the inheritance. A pledge is a kind of guarantee provided with a down-payment as an inviolable indication of future receipt of what we do not yet have. The fact that the Holy Spirit is called ‘pledge’ only has to do with the certainty that the rest will follow. As He has been given to us we can already enjoy the inheritance, although we cannot as yet actually take possession of it.
The anger of the LORD also came upon Moses for their sake. This is reminiscent of the Lord Jesus Who underwent the anger of God for the sake of His people. Moses does not speak here about his own failure, but about the cause of the anger. It was with the people. This did not happen when the people first reached the border, but only forty years later. Moses is not concerned with chronology, but he connects God’s anger over himself with God’s anger over the people in order to underline the holiness of God’s judgment.
Moses points to Joshua as the new leader. Joshua was in his service. Here we see the picture of the Lord Jesus Who sent the Holy Spirit, that He may lead us into all the truth (Jn 16:13). The Holy Spirit does not lead the old man, but the new man, just as Joshua does not bring the old generation, but the new generation into the land.
The new generation is referred to here as “your little ones …, and your sons, who this day have no knowledge of good or evil”. It is those who will never reach the land by their own power, who depend on the help of others and who are ignorant. They are not informed about the land, but they want to be taught about it and about the conditions for getting there and living in it.
So it is with the things that God makes known: He does so to little children, not to those who rely on their minds (Mt 11:25-27). The mind of a child is necessary to enjoy the blessings for us in the heavenly places of Christ.
40 - 43 The Presumption of the People
40 But as for you, turn around and set out for the wilderness by the way to the Red Sea.’ 41 “Then you said to me, ‘We have sinned against the LORD; we will indeed go up and fight, just as the LORD our God commanded us.’ And every man of you girded on his weapons of war, and regarded it as easy to go up into the hill country. 42 And the LORD said to me, ‘Say to them, “Do not go up nor fight, for I am not among you; otherwise you will be defeated before your enemies.”‘ 43 So I spoke to you, but you would not listen. Instead you rebelled against the command of the LORD, and acted presumptuously and went up into the hill country.
The old generation is commanded to turn around and set out for the wilderness, in the direction of the Red Sea. For man there is only one possibility to participate in God’s blessings: to go to the place that speaks of salvation from the power of satan, that is the cross. There the old man is judged (Rom 6:6).
In stubborn rebellion, the old generation again went against what God had said. The flesh “does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able [to do so]” (Rom 8:7). If the confession “we have sinned” sounds from their mouths, it is only by rote with no real meaning. Thus it is found elsewhere in the Bible, for example with Pharaoh, Saul, and Judas (Exo 9:27; 10:16; 1Sam 15:24; Mt 27:3-4). When they call to the LORD in this frame of mind, He does not listen (Jam 4:3).
44 - 46 The People Crushingly Defeated
44 The Amorites who lived in that hill country came out against you and chased you as bees do, and crushed you from Seir to Hormah. 45 Then you returned and wept before the LORD; but the LORD did not listen to your voice nor give ear to you. 46 So you remained in Kadesh many days, the days that you spent [there].
The inheritance is despised by the people; the confession is not sincere – the inheritance is taken away from them. They also despised God’s government, for they acted against His command not to go up. God then gave them up into the hand of the enemies. These are pictures of satanic powers (Eph 6:12). They have been crushed by them. As a result, they had to spend thirty-eight years in the wilderness.