1 - 4 Reaction of the People to the Report
1 Then all the congregation lifted up their voices and cried, and the people wept that night. 2 All the sons of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron; and the whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! 3 Why is the LORD bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become plunder; would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?” 4 So they said to one another, “Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt.”
All the people revolt against Moses and Aaron. They cry loudly. However, it is not a crying because they repent. It is a manifestation of rebellion and rejection of God. They weep “that night”, indicating not only the darkness around them, but symbolically also the darkness of their unbelief. In their unbelief they accuse God of causing their wives and children to die by the sword. This is a wicked claim, which stems from a rebellious heart.
They speak out clearly that they want to return to Egypt. Later Nehemiah is still ashamed of this folly. This is what we hear in his prayer to God: “They refused to listen, And did not remember Your wondrous deeds which You had performed among them; So they became stubborn and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt” (Neh 9:17a). What they want here, the LORD will announce as a punishment for disobedience (Deu 28:68a). They even indicate that they would rather die in the wilderness than enter the land God has chosen for them. They want another leader and thus reject Moses, the God-given leader. Prophetically, this anticipates the rejection of the Lord Jesus and the choice of the people for the anti-Christ (Jn 5:43).
5 Reaction of Moses and Aaron
5 Then Moses and Aaron fell on their faces in the presence of all the assembly of the congregation of the sons of Israel.
With this new revelation of rebellion and unbelief, Moses and Aaron fall to the ground in dejection. They do this before the people, not so much before the LORD. In this way they show that they are, as it were, broken by the mind of the people. The attitude of Moses and Aaron expresses their humility. It seems like a plea to the people to finally continue in faith. But their attitude does not impress the people.
6 - 9 Testimony of Joshua and Caleb
6 Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephunneh, of those who had spied out the land, tore their clothes; 7 and they spoke to all the congregation of the sons of Israel, saying, “The land which we passed through to spy out is an exceedingly good land. 8 If the LORD is pleased with us, then He will bring us into this land and give it to us—a land which flows with milk and honey. 9 Only do not rebel against the LORD; and do not fear the people of the land, for they will be our prey. Their protection has been removed from them, and the LORD is with us; do not fear them.”
Caleb and Joshua also show how sad they are about the reaction of the people. They tear their clothes, which is always a sign of mourning and dejection. Then they repeat what they said the day before. Their vision of the land and what God is capable of has not changed. They speak the language of faith and point out what God is capable of. In the midst of so much unbelief, the faith of the few radiates all the brighter.
By saying “they will be our prey” Joshua and Caleb suggest that the people will feed more on the enemies than they will have to fight with them. To subject the enemy will be easy and beneficial. So they don’t have to worry about it. Their enemies are without protection because God removed it from them. Add to this the fact that the LORD is with His people. What is there still to fear?
10 The People and the LORD React
10 But all the congregation said to stone them with stones. Then the glory of the LORD appeared in the tent of meeting to all the sons of Israel.
The rebellion of the people against the LORD is the only reason they will not enter the land. No one is excluded from Canaan except those who exclude themselves from it, those who will not enter it. The language of the faith of Caleb and Joshua does not appeal. A people who do not want to believe is not convinced by the most powerful arguments.
The language of the faith of Caleb and Joshua puts the unbelief of the people in the true light. The people even talk about stoning the faithful witnesses. This has always been the reaction of the unbelieving people to the witnesses of God (Mt 23:37; Acts 7:51,59; Rev 11:7,10).
Then the glory of the LORD appears. This happens four times in this book (Num 14:10; 16:19,42; 20:6) and always in, humanly speaking, hopeless situations. In these cases, God confirms His absolute rights.
11 - 12 The Proposal of the LORD
11 The LORD said to Moses, “How long will this people spurn Me? And how long will they not believe in Me, despite all the signs which I have performed in their midst? 12 I will smite them with pestilence and dispossess them, and I will make you into a nation greater and mightier than they.”
God does not intend to consume the people. He wants His people to pray to Him. To this end He challenges Moses, as it were. He knows the heart of Moses. For Him it is not necessary to reveal what is in it, but He wants us to learn from it. He proposes Moses to make him a new people. He already proposed this in Exodus 32 in response to the events surrounding the golden calf (Exo 32:10).
13 - 19 The Plea of Moses
13 But Moses said to the LORD, “Then the Egyptians will hear of it, for by Your strength You brought up this people from their midst, 14 and they will tell [it] to the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that You, O LORD, are in the midst of this people, for You, O LORD, are seen eye to eye, while Your cloud stands over them; and You go before them in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. 15 Now if You slay this people as one man, then the nations who have heard of Your fame will say, 16 ‘Because the LORD could not bring this people into the land which He promised them by oath, therefore He slaughtered them in the wilderness.’ 17 But now, I pray, let the power of the Lord be great, just as You have declared, 18 ‘The LORD is slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, forgiving iniquity and transgression; but He will by no means clear [the guilty], visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth [generations].’ 19 Pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of Your lovingkindness, just as You also have forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now.”
Moses’ reaction to the LORD’s proposal shows that his heart is in tune with that of the LORD. He pleads for the people. Moses does not think of himself; he thinks only of God’s glory and the welfare of the people. What will the Egyptians say? And has not the LORD so often shown His goodness and forgiveness, from their redemption “from Egypt even until now”? Has He not connected promises to the people? God’s promises and deeds are the basis for his plea. Moses calls upon what the LORD has said of Himself (Exo 34:6-7).
That is also the ground for us to pray for God’s people. The longer we know God, the more reason we have to remind Him of His Being that He has shown after our conversion in His gracious and merciful dealings and involvement with us.
20 - 35 The LORD Judges
20 So the LORD said, “I have pardoned [them] according to your word; 21 but indeed, as I live, all the earth will be filled with the glory of the LORD. 22 Surely all the men who have seen My glory and My signs which I performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, yet have put Me to the test these ten times and have not listened to My voice, 23 shall by no means see the land which I swore to their fathers, nor shall any of those who spurned Me see it. 24 But My servant Caleb, because he has had a different spirit and has followed Me fully, I will bring into the land which he entered, and his descendants shall take possession of it. 25 Now the Amalekites and the Canaanites live in the valleys; turn tomorrow and set out to the wilderness by the way of the Red Sea.” 26 The LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, 27 “How long [shall I bear] with this evil congregation who are grumbling against Me? I have heard the complaints of the sons of Israel, which they are making against Me. 28 Say to them, ‘As I live,’ says the LORD, ‘just as you have spoken in My hearing, so I will surely do to you; 29 your corpses will fall in this wilderness, even all your numbered men, according to your complete number from twenty years old and upward, who have grumbled against Me. 30 Surely you shall not come into the land in which I swore to settle you, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun. 31 Your children, however, whom you said would become a prey—I will bring them in, and they will know the land which you have rejected. 32 But as for you, your corpses will fall in this wilderness. 33 Your sons shall be shepherds for forty years in the wilderness, and they will suffer [for] your unfaithfulness, until your corpses lie in the wilderness. 34 According to the number of days which you spied out the land, forty days, for every day you shall bear your guilt a year, [even] forty years, and you will know My opposition. 35 I, the LORD, have spoken, surely this I will do to all this evil congregation who are gathered together against Me. In this wilderness they shall be destroyed, and there they will die.’”
God hears the prayer and forgives. This does not mean that He leaves evil unpunished, but that He postpones judgment. He saves the people and does not consume them immediately. He will punish evil in the continuation of the wilderness journey. Never will the disobedient enter the land (Psa 95:10-11). The bodies of all the rebellious will fall in the wilderness.
The next task to set out will not be to continue on the way to the promised land, but to go back in the direction of the Red Sea. They want to go back to Egypt (verse 3)? Then they can go that way. They want to die in the wilderness (verse 2)? They will die in the wilderness. Their bodies shall not be buried in the promised land, as Joseph’s body shall (Gen 50:25; Exo 13:19; Jos 24:32), because they have despised that land.
Only Caleb and Joshua will enter the land. The LORD calls Caleb “my servant Caleb”. He is a picture of the faithful Servant, the Lord Jesus. This is also evident from the following character sketch: with him is “a different spirit” than with the unbelievers. Caleb does not let his mind be influenced by what he has seen, but by what the LORD has said. Through this “different spirit” in him it becomes visible to the outside that he “followed” the LORD “fully” (verse 24; Num 32:12; Deu 1:35-36; Jos 14:8-9,14).
In a few words, a portrait of a believer of old is given here, which we wish to take as an example. Obedience to the Lord and not let himself being influenced by the human spirit, which prevails in Christianity, are the conditions to fully follow the Lord.
Children under the age of 20 will also enter the land. They are a new generation. The old generation is full of Egypt. They are in the wilderness, but their hearts are still fully in Egypt. The children only know the wilderness, not Egypt. God takes these children for His account.
This is also a great encouragement for parents who care about their children because of the time they live in. There is more and more open revolt against God and His Word. There is hardly anything Christian any more present in the once Christian Netherlands. But God has a way for every generation to walk. That way can be found in His Word. If the children read in it and take it to heart, they will have their own experiences with an unchanging God who knows all circumstances and is above them.
God’s people must roam in the wilderness for forty years. This is reflected in the two thousand years of Christianity. The good ones suffer in it with the evil ones. Caleb and Joshua, as well as the children, have to travel through the wilderness for forty years. They have to wait for 40 years before they can enter the land. Those forty years will be used by God to teach them who they are and who He is (Deu 8:2). They will have faith experiences and learn to distinguish between what is and what is not of God.
But across the board, Caleb and Joshua will have kept theirs eyes constantly on the impressions they have gained as spies of the land. What they have already tasted and enjoyed of the fruit of the land, will have given them strength to continue. They will thus have encouraged the children to persevere.
The people have become a people of vagrants. They have been pilgrims, travelers on a journey to the promised land. Now they are vagrants, without a fixed goal wandering around in the wilderness. This is their punishment, because they have “despised the pleasant land” that God has wanted to give them, for “they did not believe in His word” (Psa 106:24). To deny what God gives is in fact to deny God Himself.
We know little about the forty years in the wilderness. Only a few events are mentioned to us in Scripture, but they are characteristic of their entire stay in the wilderness. They have been written down so that we may learn from them: “But in most of them God had no pleasure, for they fell down in the wilderness. and these things happened as examples for us, that we might not have desire in evil as they had desire in it. Do not become idolaters like some of them either, as it is written: “Nevertheless, with most of them God was not well-pleased; for they were laid low in the wilderness. Now these things happened as examples for us, so that we would not crave evil things as they also craved. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and stood up to play.” Nor let us act immorally, as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in one day. Nor let us try the Lord, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the serpents. Nor grumble, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (1Cor 10:5-11).
The children must also learn that what is in the parents’ hearts is also in their own hearts. They do come into the land, but not because they are better than their parents. If we can know and enjoy anything of the heavenly blessings it is not because we are any better than others who do not know these blessings.
36 - 38 Unbelief Judged; Faith Spared
36 As for the men whom Moses sent to spy out the land and who returned and made all the congregation grumble against him by bringing out a bad report concerning the land, 37 even those men who brought out the very bad report of the land died by a plague before the LORD. 38 But Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephunneh remained alive out of those men who went to spy out the land.
The ten spies were not allowed to die a natural death. God endures many of the Christians, but for some He brings direct judgment (Acts 5:5,10). Where God’s testimony is particularly defamed, the judgment of God comes directly, regardless of whether it concerns Israel or the church. They have sinned themselves and also made others sin. They have sinned themselves by spreading an evil rumor. Others have believed this evil rumor and therefore also sinned. The nature of sin is also very bad. They presented the service of God as a hopeless thing and made Him a liar.
Possibly the twelve spies are standing together, in the midst of the people. Then the LORD kills the ten unbelieving spies by a plague. Joshua and Caleb remain alive. That’s got to say something to the Israelites. These two men remain standing where a whole people fall.
39 - 45 The People Are Disobedient Again
39 When Moses spoke these words to all the sons of Israel, the people mourned greatly. 40 In the morning, however, they rose up early and went up to the ridge of the hill country, saying, “Here we are; we have indeed sinned, but we will go up to the place which the LORD has promised.” 41 But Moses said, “Why then are you transgressing the commandment of the LORD, when it will not succeed? 42 Do not go up, or you will be struck down before your enemies, for the LORD is not among you. 43 For the Amalekites and the Canaanites will be there in front of you, and you will fall by the sword, inasmuch as you have turned back from following the LORD. And the LORD will not be with you.” 44 But they went up heedlessly to the ridge of the hill country; neither the ark of the covenant of the LORD nor Moses left the camp. 45 Then the Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived in that hill country came down, and struck them and beat them down as far as Hormah.
In contradiction to what Moses says, they are now going as they first refused to go, in contradiction to what God said. They also act contrary to what the LORD has commanded in verse 25, where He said that the people must go back into the wilderness. Time and again they neglect God’s words, whether they are spoken in blessing or in judgment.
Nor do they listen to Moses, who warns them not to go. They won't let themselves be told by anybody. They go up willfully: without God, without the ark of the covenant and without Moses. If there had been real repentance they would have bowed under God’s judgment. But that is not the case. They only regret the consequences of their actions. Therefore they try to make up for their first sin, that of fear, by adding a second sin, that of audacious self-confidence. But God never commits His Name to disobedience.
Christians who want to appropriate the things of God in their own power become prey to the power of the enemy. That is what we see here in what the Israelites do. As the enemies are in their eyes, when they look at them without involving God, so they experience the reality of the enemy’s power because they move up without God. The people suffer a heavy defeat.