June 6, 2007
Dr. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Numbers, chapter 11, and let me just remind you of one thing from last week together. You can take a look at Numbers 10:33-36, and just remember that at the end of Numbers 10, Moses is reminding you of how God visibly demonstrated and manifested His care for, His providence over, His protection of the children of Israel, and He did this in at least two ways.
One, He did this through the ark going before the children of Israel. It was reminding them that their God was blazing the trail for them in the wilderness. He wasn’t saying, ‘You guys launch forth, I’ll be back here, I’m backing you up, with you all the way.’ No, He’s out front leading the way, blazing the trail. If they run into trouble, who’s running into trouble first? He is.
Secondly, through the covering cloud He is manifesting that He’s like a hen brooding over her chicks, caring for the people of God, covering them, providing them protection in the wilderness. And so Moses, in showing you that scene where the ark is going before and the cloud is covering the people, is reminding you of the providence of God over the children of Israel. It is a powerful picture of God’s provision and protection of His people.
Now that’s so important to remember when we get into the passage that we’re going to be reading tonight. We’re going to be looking at the first fifteen verses of Numbers 11, and before we read that passage, let me just outline the passage for you.
These fifteen verses break pretty evenly into four parts. The first part you’re going to see in verses 1-3, so either as you look at your Bibles or you look at the sheet that is provided, you will notice that in verses 1-3 you will have recorded the complaint of the people. Verses 1-3 show you the complaint that was noised abroad by the people of God in the wilderness. Then in verses 4-6, secondly, Moses pauses to show you the influence of the rabble. There were people in the midst of the camp of Israel whom Moses describes here as rabble, and their influence was not healthy amongst the people of God. Moses pauses to tell you about this in verses 4-6. Then in verses 7-9, you get a description of the manna, and even as they’re griping about ‘Oh, it’s manna again for supper,’ Moses pauses to tell you, ‘By the way, I want to just tell you again what this manna was like and how it appeared, and what it tasted like.’ And then finally, in verses 10-15 Moses shows you his own discouragement. He shows you the discouragement of a leader.
So you see the complaint of the people, verses 1-3; the influences of the rabble, verses 4-6; the description of the manna, verses 7-9; and the discouragement of the leader in verses 10-15. Now with that outline in mind, perhaps that will help you as we work through this passage together. But more than that, we need God’s help, so let’s pray.
Heavenly Father, this is Your word first and foremost, and it is Your word about Yourself, about Your will, Your works, and Your ways. So open our eyes to behold You and what You would teach us from Your word. We ask as well that You would enable us to examine our hearts and to be submissive to what the word of God teaches us here, even when it steps on our own toes. This we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Hear God’s holy word from Numbers, chapter eleven:
“Now the people became like those who complain of adversity in the hearing of the Lord; and when the Lord heard it, His anger was kindled, and the fire of the Lord burned among them and consumed some of the outskirts of the camp. The people therefore cried out to Moses, and Moses prayed to the Lord, and the fire died out. So the name of that place was called Taberah, because the fire of the Lord burned among them.
“And the rabble who were among them had greedy desires; and also the sons of Israel wept again and said, ‘Who will give us meat to eat? We remember the fish which we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic, but now our appetite is gone. There is nothing at all to look at except this manna.’ Now the manna was like coriander seed, and its appearance like that of bdellium. The people would go about and gather it and grind it between two millstones or beat it in the mortar, and boil it in the pot and make cakes with it; and its taste was as the taste of cakes baked with oil. And when the dew fell on the camp at night, the manna would fall with it.
“Now Moses heard the people weeping throughout their families, each man at the doorway of his tent; and the anger of the Lord was kindled greatly, and Moses was displeased. So Moses said to the Lord, ‘Why hast Thou been so hard on Thy servant? And why have I not found favor in Thy sight, that Thou hast laid the burden of all this people on me? Was it I who conceived all this people? Was it I who brought them forth, that Thou shouldest say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries a nursing infant, to the land which Thou didst swear to their fathers’? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they weep before me, saying, ‘Give us meat that we may eat!’ I alone am not able to carry all this people, because it is too burdensome for me. So if Thou art going to deal thus with me, please kill me at once, if I have found favor in Thy sight, and do not let me see my wretchedness.’”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
It’s a striking contrast, isn’t it? At the final verses in chapter 10, Moses is celebrating the providence of God: “He goes before us, He provides and protects us, He cares for us, He loves us….” And then suddenly, having closed chapter 10 with a stress on God’s sovereign providence, in the very opening verses of chapter 11, Israel seems to forget it all. And over and over, liberal commentators say things like this: “How could that be? If God was really doing the things that Moses said He was doing in Numbers 10:33-36, how could you have verses juxtaposed right next door to them in Numbers 11:1-3? How could this be?”
And you and I know the answer to that question, because we do this all the time. Our God provides for us everything we need, but when we find ourselves in a little trouble, how quickly we forget it. We are just like they were. By the way, it’s this kind of a passage that the Apostle Paul is speaking about in I Corinthians 10:1-13, when he warns Christians not to grumble like they did. And the Apostle Paul has to warn us because we’re sinners like they were. We, too, can experience the marvelous overflowing blessing of God on our lives, and then run into a trial and very quickly forget what our Lord has done for us. So there are lessons for us to learn tonight.
Now, by way of introduction, before we get to those lessons, let me just walk through some key points in the passage.
There are seven things in particular that I want to draw very quickly to your attention. The first again is simply this: the juxtaposition between God’s sovereign providence and Israel’s complaint. God’s sovereign providence, and Israel’s complaint…that reminds us that we need to rehearse God’s providence in our lives back to Him, or we are prone to forget it, especially in hard times. The fact that the children of Israel could have forgotten this while the ark itself was there, while the cloud itself was there, and while the manna from heaven was all around them lets us know that if we don’t remember God’s providence back to Him in thanksgiving, in prayer, it will be very easy for us to forget, and very easy for us to complain. So that’s the first thing I want you to see as we introduce the passage: this juxtaposition between this beautiful picture of God’s care for His people, and His people seeming to be totally clueless about that care–side by side. And what has caused it? Their reaction to their circumstances. And that leads us to the second thing that I want you to see as we ramp into this passage.
The second thing I want you to see is what Israel is complaining about. Notice that they complain fundamentally about two things. They complain about what they had, and about what they didn’t have. They complain about what they have. Hardships, trials…they don’t like what God has given them…hardship, trials, discomfort, a boring diet. So they complain about what they had, these hardships and adversity. And they complain about what they don’t have — a wide variety of appetizing food. To put it another way, they were griping about what had come their way, and about what had not come their way. They didn’t like the adversity that they were facing, and they didn’t like the lack of dietary variety. To put it another way, they were complaining about what they’d been given, and they were complaining about what they’d not been given. They were complaining about what had been dealt to them, and they were complaining about what had been denied to them.
Recognize any of that? The trial comes your way–“Why me? Why is this happening to me?” Or, somebody else has what you want, and you say, “Why not me, Lord? Why them? I want that.” It’s what the children of Israel are doing here, looking at their circumstances and they’re complaining about what they have and what they don’t have. They’re not satisfied on either count. They don’t like what they got; they don’t like what they didn’t get.
Thirdly, did you notice, friends…how long have they been on this journey? Three days! They have been in captivity for 400 years! And they are three days into this journey and it is all falling apart! Boy, does that tell us something! How impatient we are with God’s timetable…how impatient we are with God’s timetable. He said, “I’m going to take you to the Promised Land”…and if it’s going to take more than three days, and if there’s going to be some trouble along the way, well, by golly, they’re going to gripe about it! We’re very impatient with God’s timetable.
Fourthly–we’re just ramping up into the passage–notice the effect of the rabble on the people of God. Look at verses 4-6, and then cast your eyes on verse 10. Moses pauses to tell you what the rabble were feeling and thinking and spreading amongst the people of God; and then, in verse 10, he tells you what the result of what they were saying and thinking and feeling had been amongst the people.
The rabble among them had greedy desires (verse 4), and he tells you a little bit about what they were saying. And then look at verse 10: “Now Moses heard the people weeping throughout…the rabble.” Nope. Not what it says. “Moses heard the people weeping throughout their families…amongst the rabble.” No. “Each man at the doorway of his tent.” What’s the point? Everybody’s griping now! The rabble started it, now everybody’s griping. I love the way Brown puts this. Here’s how he describes verses 4-6, and verse 10:
“Example is important, sin is contagious, memory is selective, diet is preoccupying.”
OK? Example is important — small group of rabble, probably non-Israelites who had come out with the Israelites and are in the camp of Israel, and their example ends up having an influence — a negative influence — on the whole camp. A few complainers, and suddenly everybody’s complaining. And that’s the second point. Example is important. Sin is contagious.
Then, memory is selective. Suddenly they are talking about these seven-course meals that they had when they were slaves in Egypt! I think somebody’s memory is selective. I think we’ve forgotten where we’ve been for the last 400 years. Notice especially this language that is used: “We remember the fish we used to eat free in Egypt…” You were slaves! You didn’t eat anything free…free at the cost of your own sweat and blood…free at the cost of your liberty and lives…free at the cost of the future of your children! There’s nothing free in Egypt. But memory is selective.
And then, diet is preoccupying. ‘That manna is the same old, same old. Manna, manna, manna, manna! No meat. No onions. No leeks, garlic. We want something different. Our appetite’s even gone.’ They’d made gods of their stomachs, hadn’t they?
Fifth, as we ramp into this passage, the people weep, we’re told by Moses (verse 10). They’re weeping with self-pity. Moses, on the other hand, as he looks at this, is grieved. He is deeply discouraged by what he sees amongst the people of God. But what is God’s reaction to all this? He’s angry. And He’s not angry because He’s impatient, and He is not angry because He is unsympathetic, because the fact of the matter is none of us here would want to be where they were. But what He is angry at is sin, because it’s not where they are that’s the problem; it’s how they have reacted to where they are that’s the problem. And God’s angry about that.
Sixth, you need to understand that this story heads a series of stories in which every single group within Israel rebels against God’s provision and plan. Nobody comes out of this thing looking good, not even Moses and Aaron. Remember, my friends, that all of the adults of this generation except for two, Joshua and Caleb, are going to die in the wilderness, and they’re going to die in the wilderness in part because they did not trust God’s provision. They did not trust God’s providence. And so Moses is going to successively show you everybody failing in their trust of God.
By the way, if you have a doctrine of salvation by faithfulness, Numbers ain’t your book!
Seventh and finally, as we ramp into this passage (and then I’ll preach my sermon in the next nine minutes), notice how Moses says…. You remember at the end of chapter 10, he tells Hobab the Midianite, ‘The Lord’s going to do good to us, and when He does good to us, we’re going to do good to you;’ and then what’s the very first thing that comes out of the people’s mouths? What are they complaining about? They’re complaining about ‘this evil that has fallen upon us.’ So we have this contrast: the expectation of good, and this complaint of evil.
Then, where are they headed? They’re headed to the Promised Land. They’re going forward to Canaan, but what do they do in this passage? They yearn to go back to Egypt. That’s exactly what they do. Notice how the children of Israel get it exactly opposite here? In the midst of their trial, they get it upside down. They call God’s good purposes evil, and they call God’s Promised Land the exact opposite direction from which they want to go. They want to go back, not forward.
Now, with that let me just point out four things in this passage.
First, you look at verses 1-4 and you see the complaint of the children of Israel about their circumstances, and you learn this:
I. One, whenever we complain of our circumstances, we are denying God’s providence over us.
Whenever we give way to a spirit of complaint about our circumstances, we deny God’s providence over us. For the children of Israel to grumble about their adversity in this circumstance was effectively to say ‘We don’t think God is a good, reliable, provider.’ Their complaint about their circumstance reflected their belief about God. Remember, your actions always show you your theology. All of us can talk a great game in our theology. We can read and be up there with the best of them. We can talk about Calvin’s doctrine of providence, Hodge and Rutherford’s brilliant insights into the sovereign over-ruling providence of God, but when we hit our trials we will show what we really believe about God’s providence. And when push came to shove, Israel did not believe in God’s providence and they showed it by the way they complained.
By the way, isn’t it interesting in this passage it is not said that they complained to the Lord? It is interesting that in the Psalms on a number of occasions the psalmist does complain to the Lord, and when the psalmist does that the Lord generally is very, very patient, because even the complaint is in the context of worship and loving trust of God, turning to God because He is the only one who can do anything about it anyway, and so the complaint is lifted up to the Lord. In fact, we even have a category of Psalms that we call complaint Psalms. But the point is, in the Psalms they are going to the only one who can do anything about it, but what are these people doing? They’re not complaining to the Lord, they’re complaining about the Lord to one another. It’s interesting that in the Pentateuch worshiping God is often called crying out to God. In this passage it’s never said that they do that. It says that they cry out to Moses.
Now that may be…let me not pick on them for a minute…that may be because Moses is uniquely the mediator, and it is in a true sense his job to intercede for them. But that may well indicate that instead of going to God themselves with their concern, their complaint, their fears, instead they complained about Him. And you understand this. You know, if your child comes to you with a deep heart concern, even about something that you have done… ‘Mom, I don’t think you have been fair with me.’ As hurtful as that may be, the parent can work through that issue with the child, but if that child is going amongst his or her friends and saying, ‘My mother isn’t fair to me,’ well, your reaction is entirely different with that! And so it is with God. He wants His people to come to Him and pour out our griefs and our cares to Him, not to complain about Him to one another. Because you know what? They can’t do anything about Him. Only He can do anything about Him, or about your circumstances. So whenever we complain about our circumstances, we’re denying God’s providence over them.
II. Secondly (verses 4-6, and then again verse 10), when we complain we tend to spread a spirit of complaint amongst the people of God.
When we complain we tend to spread a spirit of complaint amongst the people of God. Our complaining spirit is never merely a personal issue. It can have a devastating effect on the people of God.
You know, have you ever been with someone who is bearing up under hard things, and as much as you wish that your friend were not having to bear up under those hard things, you go home at night when you’ve been with him or her, and you thank God that you have just had the privilege of being around that kind of a person. And it’s contagious and infectious, and it makes you just say, “Lord, I want to be a person like that. I want to be a person who, in the midst of trial and hardship, trusts You and keeps putting one foot in front of the other, and refuses to give way to unbelief and to bitterness. That’s the kind of person I want to be.” And just as being with that kind of a person inspires you to aspire and desire to be more Christ-like, to be more trusting, to care more about Christ and God and the gospel, so also being around those who are bitter in their complaining against God is like a spiritual infection.
It’s a reminder again, my friends, that we’re in this thing together, and that nothing in our private world is inconsequential for the health and well-being of our whole congregation. Is that huge? Nothing in our private world is inconsequential for the health and well-being of this whole congregation. Every battle you fight, every temptation you fend off, every trust you render to the Lord in the midst of your own personal circumstances has a dividend one way or another for this whole congregation. We live for one another as we live for God. We need one another; and, therefore, when we give way to a spirit of complaint rather than to live out a spirit of trust, there are consequences for the whole congregation.
III. Thirdly, whenever we complain (verses 7-9) we undervalue the rich provisions of God.
Can you imagine the children of these adults in Canaan sitting around in their homes, in their villages at the great festivals, saying to one another, “Do you remember the days when the God of our salvation fed us bread from His own hand so that we wouldn’t starve in the wilderness?” But here they are in the wilderness with the heavenly Father feeding them from His own hand, and what are they doing? They’re wishing that there was something else. They’re wishing that He would give them something else. They’re undervaluing this enormous provision which in ages in the future the people of God would look back in wonder at how God provided for two million people or more in the wilderness. How in the world could that be done! He did it from His own hand, and yet here they are undervaluing the provision of God. How quick we are to do that in our dissatisfaction with what we have and what we don’t have.
IV. And finally, very quickly, then comes Moses. And Moses does not put himself in a good light here.
You’re entirely sympathetic with him, and God again deals gently with him, especially because – where does Moses take this complaint? As unreasonable as it is, as overblown and histrionic and self-congratulatory as it is, at least, bless his heart, he takes his complaint to God.
Now, it takes some chutzpah to complain this way to God! But he doesn’t put himself in a good light, and what we learn about this is this: Whenever those in leadership complain of the load of caring for the people of God, we have forgotten whose people they are, and whose real job it is to carry them.
And all the language…
‘Lord! You expect me to carry these people into the Promised Land?’
‘Ah… Moses, I don’t ever remember asking you to do that. Last time I checked, I had you write down in Exodus 19 that I had carried My people on eagles’ wings. Remember that, Moses? Remember writing that down? Don’t ever remember that passage about how you were going to carry them into the Promised Land. In fact, Moses, you’re not going to carry them into the Promised Land.’
But whenever the leaders of the people of God look out and say, ‘Oh, I just can’t carry the load of caring for all these people,’ the leaders have forgotten whose people they are, and whose job it is to carry them. Because in the end, you’re God’s people and He’s going to carry you, and it’s just our privilege to be along for the ride, to be His instrument.
And so in this passage what we see is a total failure to trust that God is in charge, and that He cares about us, and that He will protect us, and that He will provide for us.
And you know, you can’t help when you see Moses react to this…I mean, they’ve been on the journey now for three days, out from Sinai for three days, and Moses is already having a hissy-fit in the wilderness…You cannot help but think about our Lord Jesus Christ, who carried His people, who loved His people. And you know, you think of the Garden of Gethsemane, and He asked His disciples ‘Would you watch for an hour in prayer with Me?’ and they can’t even do that. He’s pouring His heart out, He is sweating blood, and He comes back and they’re asleep. And you remember His response to them? Does He go into the histrionics of 10-15 here in Numbers 11? No. What does He say? “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak”…and so tender with His people, even though He is carrying their load. And so even in these passages what we see is we see a contrast between this finite, human, imperfect mediator, and our infinite, human and divine, perfect Mediator.