May 30, 2007
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan
If you have Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Numbers 10. If you don’t, there should be a copy somewhere around your table of the text of Numbers 10:11-36.
We’re continuing to study through the book of Numbers together, and tonight we’re in Numbers 10, verses 11-36. Let me just remind you: the children of Israel have been at Mount Sinai since Exodus 19. Since Exodus 19, the children of Israel have been at Sinai, so all the way through the fortieth chapter of Exodus, all the way through Leviticus, all through the first nine chapters of Numbers, and here they are. And tonight they’re getting ready to move out. [Head ‘em up, move ‘em out!] And as they begin to move out, Moses draws attention to two or three things that are significant in Israel’s wilderness pilgrimage that are also significant for the Christian life.
First of all, Moses draws attention to the fact that Israel is careful to obey precisely God’s directions on what they are to do as they travel. If you remember earlier, if you remember back a few weeks, earlier in the book of Numbers, Moses went into excruciating detail about how they were to camp, how they were to march, what order they were to go in; and in the first part of the passage we’re going to read tonight — really, from verses 11 all the way down to verse 28 — what Moses is going to do is very artlessly, very straightforwardly, very bluntly, recount the fact that the children of Israel are doing exactly what God had told them to do through him earlier in the book. And, in so doing he’s drawing attention to the fact that they’re following God’s directions. That’s big. That’s really big, as they begin to go into the wilderness.
Secondly, in this passage God, through Moses, recruits a Midianite to sort of serve as their ‘Tonto to Lone Ranger’. He’s going to tell them the best spots in the wilderness to camp. He’s going to show them the potholes. He’s going to be their guide. He’s a Midianite, for crying out loud! And yet Moses seems to think it’s very important that he help the children of Israel in the wilderness. Even though they’re trusting God, even though they’re obeying God, it doesn’t mean that they don’t need to use means at hand to go on this pilgrimage. There’s something for us to learn in that, too.
Thirdly, in this passage we see the object of Israel’s faith visibly depicted in the ark of the covenant and the cloud. In other words, Israel’s faith, Israel’s trust, is to be on whom? The Lord. And the Lord’s presence with Israel is depicted how? In the ark and in the cloud leading them. And so we see visibly depicted the object of Israel’s trust. That’s big, too. It’s those three things…we could look at a lot of things in this passage, but it’s those three things that I want to focus on with you tonight: Israel’s obedience; Israel’s assistance; and, Israel’s trust.
Now let’s pray before we read God’s word.
Lord, this is Your word. We ask that You would open our eyes to behold wonderful things in it; that we would not only see in this a beautiful and true Old Testament story of Your dealings with and providence over and care of the Jewish people, but that we would see in this truths which are still vitally important and are directly applicable to our living of the Christian life. Because after all, You’ve already told us that this book is written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. So by Your Spirit grant that we would read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the truth of Your word as we read it and hear it. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
This is God’s word:
“Now it came about in the second year, in the second month, on the twentieth of the month, that the cloud was lifted from over the tabernacle of the testimony; and the sons of Israel set out on their journeys from the wilderness of Sinai. Then the cloud settled down in the wilderness of Paran. So they moved out for the first time according to the commandment of the Lord through Moses. And the standard of the camp of the sons of Judah, according to their armies, set out first, with Nahshon the son of Amminadab, over its army, and Nethanel the son of Zuar, over the tribal army of the sons of Issachar; and Eliab the son of Helon over the tribal army of the sons of Zebulun.
“Then the tabernacle was taken down; and the sons of Gershon and the sons of Merari, who were carrying the tabernacle, set out. Next the standard of the camp of Reuben, according to their armies, set out with Elizur the son of Sheduer, over its army, and Shelumiel the sons of Zurishaddai over the tribal army of the sons of Simeon, and Eliasaph the son of Deuel was over the tribal army of the sons of Gad.
“Then the Kohathites set out, carrying the holy objects; and the tabernacle was set up before their arrival. Next the standard of the camp of the sons of Ephraim, according to their armies, was set out, with Elishama the sons of Ammihud over its army, and Gamaliel the son of Pedahzur over the tribal army of the sons of Manasseh; and Abidan the son of Gideoni over the tribal army of the sons of Benjamin.
“Then the standard of the camp of the sons of Dan, according to their armies, which formed the rear guard for all the camps, set out, with Ahiezer the son of Ammishaddai over its army, and Pagiel the son of Ochran over the tribal army of the sons of Asher; and Ahira the son of Enan over the tribal army of the sons of Naphtali. This was the order of march of the sons of Israel by their armies as they set out.
“Then Moses said to Hobab the son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses’ father-in-law, ‘We are setting out to the place of which the Lord said, ‘I will give it to you’; come with us and we will do you good, for the Lord has promised good concerning Israel.’ But he said to him, ‘I will not come, but rather will go to my own land and relatives.’ Then he…[this is Moses now]…said, ‘Please do not leave us, inasmuch as you know where we should camp in the wilderness, and you will be as eyes for us. So it will be, if you go with us, it will come about that whatever good the Lord does for us, we will do for you.’
“Thus they set out from the mount of the Lord three days’ journey, with the ark of the covenant of the Lord journeying in front of them for the three days, to seek out a resting place for them. And the cloud of the Lord was over them by day, when they set out from the camp.
“Then it came about when the ark set out that Moses said,
‘Rise up, O Lord!
And let Thine enemies be scattered,
And let those who hate Thee flee before Thee.’
And when it came to rest, he said,
‘Return Thou, O Lord
To the myriad thousands of Israel.’”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
I want you to see three things tonight. You’re going to walk with God in pilgrimage — how do you walk? In obedience, following God’s directions; with assistance (divinely supplied, sometimes humanly provided); and in trust…trust on the Lord alone. And so I want you to see obedience, assistance, and trust in this passage.
I. The important of obedience.
First, the example of the importance of obedience. You see this in verses 11-28. Here Moses goes out of his way to recount Israel’s careful obedience of God’s directions about how they were to line up, how they were to go out, how they were to march, what they were to follow, who was going to carry what, who was going to lead the tribes–all the things that had been recounted earlier in the book regarding that, Moses quickly summarizes for you in a straightforward way so that you can tell that Israel is obeying God’s direction. And he explicitly tells you, if you look at verse 13, as they moved out for the first time, how did they do it? “According to the commandment of the Lord.”
Why is he recounting this? So that you will know that the children of Israel — and they didn’t always do this! — so that you will know that the children of Israel in this instance obeyed the Lord. They did what the Lord had commanded, and Moses clearly wants to draw that to our attention. Why? Because if you’re going to walk with the Lord in pilgrimage, if you’re going to journey with the Lord, how do you do it? In obedience to His word; in obedience to His directions. You follow the word of God. And Moses is drawing that to our attention as he tells the story of the children of Israel embarking from Mount Sinai. Walking with the Lord means following His directions.
And this is so important for us to realize. When we go back to the Garden (in Genesis 3) and the serpent is tempting Eve and Adam, one of the things that the serpent wants them to believe is that if they want to experience joy and satisfaction, they need to disobey. If they want to be like God, the serpent assures them, they need to disobey. And one of the things that the New Testament shows us in contrast to that as it depicts to us Jesus, who in our place serves as Savior and Mediator, and fulfills the Law where we did not…one of the things that the New Testament wants to draw to our attention about Him is what? That as He fellowshipped with God, He did so in perfect obedience; that the One who is closest to God, the One who experiences the fullness of God’s blessing, is the One who walks in obedience to God’s word. What does Jesus say over and over? “It is My meat to do the will of Him who sent Me.” So, you have the serpent in the Garden in Genesis 3 saying if you’re going to be like God, if you want to experience the richness and blessing of life, then here’s what you do: you disobey. Then you have Jesus giving us all the fruits of communion with God and the blessings that flow therefrom by doing what? By obeying on our behalf.
Now that sets up an important principle in the Christian life that if we’re going to walk with God in the Christian life, we walk by rule; we walk by obedience. It’s not constraining and horrible and terrible. It’s not repressive and oppressive. It’s freeing and blessing to walk with God according to His word.
One of the commentators was quoting a psychologist who was writing in 1970’s and encouraging those who were going through mid-life crises to throw off all social constraints and seek their own personal happiness. This psychologist named Gale Scihele was saying to her clients, ‘Look, when you reach the middle age, the middle of life, and you’re unhappy in your relationships — your marriage, etc, etc — stop worrying about external valuations and standards. Stop worrying about the moral norms of the society about them. Throw those off and seek for an expression of your authentic self.’
Well, it’s interesting that God’s word says that the way of happiness and delight is in the exact opposite direction. It’s not in throwing off the constraint of God’s word, it’s walking in joyful embrace of God’s word that joy and satisfaction comes. This is an important lesson here that’s pointed out in Numbers 10: the way of pilgrimage is the way of obedience. As God commands, so Israel does–at least, here. And it’s to remind them of the importance of careful obedience, and to remind us of the importance of careful obedience to God’s direction that Moses records it. Walking with the Lord means following His directions. Christian freedom is found not in casting off God’s word, not in disobeying His standards, but embracing God’s word, embracing His standard and walking in the joy thereof.
II. God supplies our needs.
Secondly, if you look at verses 29-32, you’ll see something very important for us to learn about assistance. Here we see God providentially supply someone to Israel who is not an Israelite to help the children of Israel, and you see Moses the mediator actually doing some pretty hard negotiation to get this guy to come along! So what we have a picture of in verses 29-32 is Israel’s obedience being supplemented by the human assistance of this Gentile, this Midianite. And in so doing, we see how God uses means in our lives.
You know, somebody could have been super-spiritual and said, ‘Look, we don’t need this Midianite to help us in the wilderness, we just need to obey the Lord.’ Well, that’s true. We do need to obey the Lord, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t need to use the means that are there at your disposal. Moses was fully committed to obeying the Lord, but Moses also believed that this Midianite would play a strategically important role in helping the children of Israel, and so he goes out of his way to recruit him.
Now one of the things that this reminds us is that walking with the Lord doesn’t mean not using common sense. Walking with the Lord doesn’t mean not doing due diligence. What did the Colonial patriot troops say as one of their mottoes? “Trust God, and keep your powder dry.” Well, this is a little bit of a picture of that particular theme. Yes, you trust in the Lord, Yes, you obey the Lord. But you also use the means that God provides, and in this case this was a man who knew the good places to camp in the wilderness. He was a person who could serve as the eyes of Israel, leading them through this dangerous terrain. And so Moses, you’ll see in verse 31, says,
“Please do not leave us, inasmuch as you know where we should camp, and you will be as eyes for us.”
And so walking with the Lord doesn’t mean not using human means. When you’re diagnosed with cancer–‘Well, I’m just going to trust in the Lord. I’m not going to go see Jimmy Moore.’ Well, the Lord sent Jimmy Moore to school for a lot of years so he could help you if you had certain kinds of cancer! [And to “amen”, indeed!] And that’s important for us to understand, because there are sincere Christians from time to time who seem to think that trusting the Lord means that they don’t take advantage of the other things that the Lord has provided for them that may well be the Lord’s way of making them better. This is a very important common sense principle: God uses means in the Christian life, and we don’t oppose God’s working with the means that He supplies; we value them both, as Moses did.
III. God’s people must learn to trust God.
Thirdly, look at verses 33-36. We learn something about trust. Obedience we’ve seen in verses 11-28; assistance, in verses 29-32; and now, trust.
Here we have the description of the ark of the covenant journeying in front of the children of Israel, and the cloud of the Lord leading them by day when they set out from the camp. In other words, Israel’s trust in the Lord is visibly depicted by the sight of the ark of the covenant and the cloud. The ark and the cloud are symbols of God’s presence with His people, and God’s presence with His people is designed to assure them, and their trust is to be placed in Him. And their being able to visibly see these signs of His presence (the ark and the cloud) is designed to stoke their trust, their faith, their confidence in God. All along their trust is not to be in the Midianite guide or in their own obedience, but it’s to be focused upon God. And so the ark and the cloud serve as visible manifestations of the object of Israel’s faith…the place where Israel’s faith is to be focused, which is God. They are a visible depiction of the object of Israel’s faith…the fact that Israel needs to trust in God. And so, drawing our attention to this, Moses is reminding us that walking with the Lord always means trusting God. The battle ultimately belongs to Him, and therefore if we are going to embark upon a dangerous journey, a pilgrimage in the wilderness, we must trust in God.
And that’s a lesson that is just as important today as it was at the children of Israel embarking in the wilderness, all those thousands of years ago. God’s people must trust in God. What a simple, simple, lesson — but how hard is that to do?
You know when conflict comes and trials come, and difficulties come, we are naturally self-protective, and we have all sorts of reflex instincts and mechanisms that tempt us to look all sorts of places to protect ourselves, to find security, other than trusting in God. There’s a sense in which putting our trust in God is the least natural thing in the world. When trouble comes, our thinking is usually, ‘You know, if somebody’s going to do this, ultimately it’s going to be me. It’s all up to me. I’m going to have to be the one that I rely on in this circumstance.’ And God knows that the children of Israel are tempted to do that, too.
And so what He does is He puts the ark and He puts the cloud out there to remind them: ‘Don’t look anywhere else but Me. That’s where your ultimate hope has to be. Don’t ignore means; use the means, Israel. That Midianite is going to be a help to you. He’s going to tell you where to camp and where not to camp. He’s going to guide you through better places rather than more difficult places. But ultimately your trust isn’t in him; your trust is in Me. And, Israel, obey what I say. What I say is good for you. It will benefit you if you’ll do it the way I tell you to do it; but don’t trust in your obedience, trust in Me. Obey Me, use means, but trust in Me.’
Oh! What a huge lesson for the Christian life! Now, all of Numbers 10 is for us. It’s not just for the Israelites, it’s for us. And we need to remember that walking with the Lord in the pilgrimage on the way to the Celestial City is done in obedience, at His directions. You want to be in the center of the Lord’s will, obey His word. Listen to the Bible. Follow the Book. Do it God’s way.
And on your way, don’t despise the things that the Lord brings into your way to help you. It may be Christian friends, a faithful church, partners in ministry, doctors, lawyers, others. Who knows what the Lord will bring into your way to help you on your way–but ultimately, your trust isn’t in your obedience, and it’s not even in the means that God provides, humanly or otherwise. It’s in God Himself.
Heavenly Father, teach us to trust in You when the rug gets pulled out from under us. Instead of scrambling to try and find a way to support ourselves, instead of putting all our hopes in our own machinations or ideas, or in our will power, in our wisdom, in our smarts, in our connections, help us to trust in You. Because just like the Israelites, we’re walking in a wilderness. This is not our home. We’re journeying to the Promised Land, the new heavens and the new earth, and it’s a dangerous journey. And we need Your cloud and fiery pillar to lead us all that journey through. So grant that we would trust in You. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Stand as we sing The Doxology.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.