April 23, 2008
Numbers — With God in the Wilderness
“Possessing the Land”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Numbers 33, as we continue to make our way through this, the fourth of the five books of Moses. When we conclude this passage tonight we will be within three chapters of the conclusion of this book, and it’s been a great journey indeed.
When we were last together in Numbers, we were in a wilderness travel log in the first part of this very chapter. Numbers 33:1-49 gives us a succession of almost unpronounceable names and obscure place references, and we ask ourselves the question, “What can we possibly learn from this list of place names?” And we’re not the first persons to ask that question! We observe that all the way back in the third century, Origen, the great Bible scholar from Alexandria in upper Egypt, which was a home to many early Christians…Origen was having to answer objections to this chapter that were being brought by skeptical contemporaries, and they brought the charge against Origen and against Christians that if you really believe that God has inspired all of Scripture, how can you possibly believe that a chapter of this has any value whatsoever; and, thus, isn’t that an argument against the inspiration of Scripture? And Origen said in response to that, “We cannot say of the Holy Spirit’s writings that there is anything useless or unnecessary in them.”
And indeed, as we looked at Numbers 33:1-49 we saw that in that travel log there are remembrances of what God has done for the people of Israel, and there are truths about God that are deeply impressed upon our hearts by the recollection of those place names. One overarching theme that you certainly pick up in Numbers 33:1-49 is the very thing that we sang right before we began to pray: All the Way My Savior Leads Me. We’re being reminded in Numbers 33:1-49 that from the very time of the departure from Egypt, all the way to Jordan’s stormy banks, the Lord has led His people.
But also, all along the way place names are mentioned which would have been deeply meaningful to the generation that had traveled with God in the wilderness, and the very mention of those place names would have brought certain truths to mind about God, about His providence, about His redemption, about His love, and about His faithfulness.
I can still remember exactly where I was when I received the phone call from my brother, Mel, saying that my father had died. I can remember the exact circumstances of it. It’s emblazoned on my heart, so that when I have the remembrance of my father’s death I can immediately pull up in my mind the picture of where I was and the events surrounding those first moments of learning that he had died. My brother John was asked by his children just a few days ago…when he was asking them to pray for my father-in-law, they said, “Dad,” [they said to John]… “Dad, how did your father die?” And he began to tell them, and as he began to tell them his eyes welled up with tears and suddenly all of those memories from sixteen years ago came through with the force of a tidal wave, and he had a hard time making it through recounting the story. The event, by the very recollection of certain facts, came sweeping back to him. It had been impressed upon his heart.
And it’s the same thing in Numbers 33. You mention these names, and those that had seen the hand of God and those that had seen the deliverance of God, and those that had seen the power of God, immediately recollect those truths about God. And then they become desirous of doing what? Of passing those on to another generation that has not experienced what they experienced. They desire to tell a next generation, “You know, I was there by the Red Sea, penned in between the sea and the approaching army of Egypt when God bared His mighty arm and He opened the Red Sea. And He took us across on dry land, and He thwarted the army of the Egyptians.” And the very mention of the names in this passage would bring those sorts of events to mind.
So, we said there were many, many reasons why this travel log would be recorded in Numbers 33.
Well, tonight we come to a passage which records God’s words of instruction to Moses about what he is to tell the children of Israel before they commence the act of dividing the land of Canaan amongst the tribes, and so let’s look to God in prayer before we read this passage together.
Heavenly Father, this is Your word. It is profitable for our reproof and correction, but also for our training and edification, that the man of God might be equipped for every good work. And so we ask, O God, if You would equip us by Your word and Spirit for the living of the Christian life, and we ask that we would live in a manner which is worthy of the gospel, and that we would be fed by the truth of Your word thereunto. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Hear the word of the living God in Numbers 33, beginning in verse 50:
“And the Lord spoke to Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho, saying, ‘Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you pass over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you and destroy all their figured stones and destroy all their metal images and demolish all their high places. And you shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given the land to you to possess it. You shall inherit the land by lot according to your clans. To a large tribe you shall give a large inheritance, and to a small tribe you shall give a small inheritance. Wherever the lot falls for anyone, that shall be his. According to the tribes of your fathers you shall inherit. But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those of them whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall trouble you in the land where you dwell. And I will do to you as I thought to do to them.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
This little passage contains teaching for us in relation to five things. It contains teaching for us first about how we are to hear the word of God. This passage tells us something very important about revelation — how revelation works, how it comes to us, and how we are to respond to it. And so it instructs us about how we are to hear the word of God.
But it also instructs us as believers, as Christians, about how we are to prepare ourselves to worship and serve God. It gives us a very direct command that pertains not only to the children of Israel’s responsibility in going into the land of Canaan, but a very direct command that pertains to how we are to live the Christian life.
Third, this passage contains instruction about how we are to live the Christian life. There is a word in this passage about God’s blessing to us and our responsibility, and the way they are connected together, which explains an important principle of our growth in grace…of our sanctification.
Fourth, this passage explains to us how God so generously and wisely cares for us. It points us to a significant provision that God makes for the children of Israel as they prepare to settle in the land, and that provision actually shows us the wisdom and the kindness of God.
And, fifth, this passage warns us about the dangers of disobedience in the Christian life, for there is a striking, sobering, frightening admonition with which this passage concludes.
So let’s give our attention to these five things: First, revelation; second, command; third, blessing and responsibility; fourth, provision; and fifth, warning.
I. How to hear the word of God.
Let’s look at the truth that this passage teaches us first about how we are to hear the word of God, about revelation. We’ll see this in verses 50-51. Don’t miss it! It could be easy to skip past what look like introductory words, but there is a very important principle enshrined for us in verses 50-51:
“And the Lord spoke to Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho…”
Isn’t it interesting that Moses has a precise recollection about where he was when the word of God came to him? He knows exactly where he was when this word of the Lord came to him, and he records it for posterity in this passage. But notice what’s happening here. The Lord’s word is coming to Moses. The Lord is speaking to Moses, and we’re told that this is what the Lord said to Moses (verse 51): “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them….”
Now, isn’t that interesting? The Lord’s word comes to Moses, and the Lord’s word to Moses is, ‘Moses, say these words to the people.’ Now, the words that Moses was going to speak to the people of Israel were the Lord’s words, and so the people of Israel were actually going to be hearing not Moses’ words, but the Lord’s words–but those words were going to be delivered through Moses. The words were the Lord’s, but they were going to be delivered through Moses to the people.
And you see, there’s a principle here. It’s a principle that you’ve seen before in Genesis and Exodus and Leviticus and Numbers, and you’ll see it again in the prophets of the Old Testament. It’s simply this: God speaks to His people through the mouth of His prophets. He speaks to His prophets what He would have His prophets speak to His people; His prophets speak His word to His people, and His people receive that word not as the prophet’s words, but as the words of the living God. This is emphasized throughout the Old Testament.
But it’s not just an Old Testament truth. Turn with me in your Bible to I Corinthians 14:37, 38. After the Apostle Paul has given detailed instruction on how the charismatic worship of the church in Corinth is to be conducted, you will remember that he anticipates that there are going to be some people that don’t like his instruction. And do you remember what he says to them? He says if anyone thinks he is a prophet…let him recognize that the words I speak are the words of the Lord. In I Corinthians 14:37, 38, he says:
“If anyone thinks he is a prophet, or spiritual, let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment. But if anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized.”
In other words, the Apostle Paul is making it clear that he is not simply sharing his opinion with the Corinthians. What he has delivered to the Corinthians in terms of how they are to conduct themselves in their gatherings of worship is not his word, it is the Lord’s word; and, therefore, if there is someone who has a prophetic spirit of discernment among them, that person ought to recognize that the words which he has written are the words of the Lord.
This is not the only time that the Apostle Paul does this. You remember he does it in
I Thessalonians 2:13. You remember what he says to the Thessalonians there:
“I thank you that you received our words for what they are: not the words of men, but the word of God.”
And then he goes on to say in II Thessalonians 3:14 that if anyone rejects that which he has written to them, he himself is to be rejected. Why? Because Paul’s words, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, are not merely Paul’s words, Paul’s ideas; they’re God’s words, and the people of God are to respond to them in faith.
The very formula that is used in Numbers 33:50, 51…the very formula that is used is designed to spark confidence in the people of God in the word which is spoken, and to establish the definitive authority of the instruction that Moses gives to God’s people.
It’s one reason that as we expound the word of God to you, we endeavor in every way to make clear that what we are speaking actually comes from God’s word, so that you can actually look in your Bibles as we expound that word and say, ‘That’s right. What the preacher just said comes from the passage which he is expounding. It’s not his own idea. It’s not a helpful piece of advice. It’s the very word of God to me, so insofar as he is faithful to what is written in the word, that is God’s word that’s being spoken into my heart.’ That’s one reason we’re committed to expounding consecutively the books of the Bible, so that you’re very, very clear that it’s not the preacher speaking to you, it’s God delivering His word to you from the book through the preacher. This is a principle that you see right here in Numbers 33:50, 51, something about revelation. God speaks to His people through the mouth of His prophet.
II. How to worship.
But there’s a second thing we see here as well, and that is this command that the Lord gives in verses 51-52:
“When you pass over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you and destroy all their figured stones and destroy all their metal images and demolish all their high places.”
This is a comprehensive and unequivocal command. God tells the children of Israel that they have an obligation to do four things. When they go into the land of Canaan they’re to drive out all the Canaanites. They’re to drive out the people. Why? Well, it’s made clear in Genesis and in Exodus that the people who dwell in the land of Canaan are an abomination to the Lord. They are idolaters, and with every breath they take and with every action that they act out, they are dishonoring God and worshiping themselves and demeaning themselves…exalting the creature over the Creator. And so the children of Israel’s entrance into the land of Canaan is a judgment upon the occupants of the land of Canaan, and they’re to drive out the people and they’re to destroy their altars. All their figured stones are to be taken down. They’re to wipe out their images, destroy all their metal images, and they’re to eradicate the high places, the various shrines where they worship. These are to be demolished.
What’s going on here? God is commanding the children of Israel to wipe out every potential rival to His rule in their hearts and to the purity of their worship and service of Him. It’s so important to understand that this continues to be a New Testament principle, although it’s applied in a very different way. Our warfare is not against the peoples and the others who are idolaters in the land as much as it is against the world and the flesh and the devil and their temptation of us to follow in their way. So, for instance in Romans 12:2, the Apostle Paul calls us not to be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Or, Paul in II Corinthians 7:1 will remind us of the call that God has issued to us not to emulate the ungodly around us but to walk in purity of life. And again he does the same thing in Ephesians 4:1 and in verses 17-19, where he calls upon us not to live like the Gentiles around us, but to live in godliness. And of course the Lord Jesus Christ made the same point in His own teaching when He reminded us that if there was anything that tempted us to infidelity towards God, that we were to deal with it severely and radically. And so He could say, “If you right hand offends you, cut it off and cast it away. If your right eye offends you, pluck it out and cast it away.” This is a demand for an uncompromising approach to sin.
The children of Israel were to deal radically with the people of the land of Canaan and their altars and images and high places because these things posed a grave spiritual threat to them. If the children of Israel had experienced temptation in the wilderness — and they did — the kinds of temptations we know (because we know the rest of the story), the kinds of temptations they’re going to experience when they get within the land of Canaan are not going to diminish, they’re going to increase; and God at the outset calls upon them to assault these things which are going to severely test them. And in particular they’re called upon to destroy the high places.
You know that in the high places of the land of Canaan, this is where Baal was worshiped. This is where the Asherah poles were. This is where gross ritual sexual immorality took place. And just as when the children of Israel had been tempted by Moab in the wilderness with this kind of sexual sin, God knew that they would be tempted by this kind of infidelity in the land, and so He tells them at the outset, ‘You must eradicate these places.’
What are our Asherah poles1 today? I think there are a lot of good answers to that question. I think that we could very legitimately talk about how the very spirit of our age detests people who claim to believe in absolute truth, and therefore we are often tempted to compromise our public commitment to belief in absolute truth because we know we’re going to be rejected by all those people around us who think that absolute truth is not only an outdated disproven idea, but that it’s a dangerous idea. And so we are tempted in our own thinking and living to compromise our own commitments and conform ourselves to the world around us.
But I wonder if there are some more direct applications of this principle in our own day and time…and I suspect there are.
This past week I had the joy to be in Louisville with some dear friends for a pastors’ conference, and at one of the lunches we were talking about some of the temptations that young men, even young men who were called to the gospel ministry, were facing in our culture. And Al Mohler began to share about a sermon that he had preached a few months ago in which he had called upon those who were preparing for the gospel ministry to be absolutely committed to sexual purity, to be completely faithful to their wives, to be brutal in their attacking of their own temptations in the area of sexual impurity. And Al told us that within hours of preaching that sermon he had an anxious call from the Dean of Students of Boice College, where there were so many young men studying Bible as their undergraduate course, preparing to go into seminary, and from thence into the ministry or to the mission field. And the dean of students said, “I have a group of young men that need to talk to you.” And Al said, “Well, I mean, right now?” And he said, “Yes, right now will do.” And he said, “You mean right right now?” And he said, “Yes, right now. I need you over in the hall right now.” And so Al packed up what he was doing and he headed over to the hall. And there was a group of fourteen young men in one particular hall who had been there at the chapel message that morning, and the Dean said to Al when he came in, “Twelve of the fourteen men here have told me that they are leaving Boice College today.” And Al said, “Why?”
“Because of the sermon you preached.”
“What? Were they offended by the…?”
“No, they weren’t offended by the sermon you preached; they were convicted by the sermon you preached. All of these men have struggled or are struggling with sexual sin. They have either been promiscuous in their past or they are struggling with pornography now. And, hence, they felt that they were disqualified for the pastoral ministry thereby.”
Well, as you might imagine, this required a lot of pastoral follow-up from the president and from the dean, and from Al, and from others. But Al shared the story simply to remind us of how epidemic sexual sin is in our culture.
John Piper then remarked that he could remember only two encounters with pornography in his teen years. He could remember exactly where he was when he saw the pornography, and the image was still emblazoned on his mind. He then went on to remark, as did others in the room, that young men in our day and time don’t remember two encounters with pornography, but they literally have thousands in their mind because what you used to have to go looking for now comes looking for you, and it can find you in the privacy of your own home where nobody else knows what you’re doing.
My friends, this simply reminds us as we look at this passage of the importance of dealing severely with sin if we are going to worship God as we ought. Just as these things could distract the children of Israel from fidelity to God, so also these things can sidetrack us from the pursuit of the living God. And so in this passage Moses reminds us of this unequivocal command to drive out the people and the altars and the images and the high places; and the Christian understands this command in the same way to be a call to deal ruthlessly with our own sin.
Well, we’re already out of time as we look through the passage, and there are three other things that I wanted to draw to your attention. But let me just draw one more thing to your attention. In this passage, in verses 55-56, a severe warning is given:
“If you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those of them whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall trouble you in the land where you dwell.”
And of course because you know the rest of the story you know that the children of Israel do not drive them out of the land, and you know the consequences of that. Israel indeed experienced the inhabitants of the land as a thorn in the side for the rest of the time.
And finally, verse 56 came through. Do you see what He says in verse 56?
“I will do to you as I thought to do to them.”
In other words, the children of Israel were to do what? They were to drive the Canaanites out of the land, and if they didn’t drive the Canaanites out of the land, what was God going to do? God was going to drive the children of Israel out of the land. ‘If you do not exile them,’ God is saying in verse 56, ‘I will exile you. If you will not drive them from the camp, then I will drive you out of the camp. What was to be done to them, I will do to you.’ This comes home to bitter roost as the children are carried off into Babylon. God did exactly what He had warned, because the children of Israel did not do what God had commanded.
It’s a sad story, isn’t it? God does to them what He called on them to do to their enemies. God punishes them with the punishment that was due to their enemies, because of their failure to obey God’s commands regarding holiness.
But you know, in the end this is precisely what happens to the Suffering Servant that God sends to save them. God sends Him outside the camp to suffer what we ought to have suffered; what was to be done to us, He does to Him, that we might be the righteousness of God in Him. He bears the consequences for our disobedience that we might receive the blessings of His obedience.
It’s a great passage, dear friends. May God bless it to your heart. Let’s pray.
Heavenly Father, we thank You for this Your word. We thank You for how You speak to us from the dust of the desert, in the wilderness of Numbers. You speak to us truth about life and about Christ. We pray that You would make us mindful that this is Your book — all of it; and that You intend to speak out of all of it into our hearts for Your glory and our good. Enable us to receive it, being illumined by the Holy Spirit. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Would you stand for God’s blessing.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.