August 1, 2007
“Spies in the Land”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
The spies are in the land and they discover giants, and it is dismaying to them. John Bunyan leads us to sing about that in that hymn, even as Moses leads us to lament the way the children of Israel responded to this particular challenge.
This is one of those pivotal passages in the book of Numbers. As we’ve worked through this book together, coming to chapters 11 and 12 we have begun to see the central substance of the stuff that Paul is talking about in I Corinthians 10:1-13, when he describes the murmuring and complaining and unbelief and idolatry that the children of Israel engaged in in the wilderness, and he exhorts Christians not to act like they acted. Well, this is the stuff of the Apostle Paul’s warning. In chapters 11 and 12, we saw the complaining and murmuring and rebellion not only of the people but of Moses’ own family against his leadership (in chapter 12), and today in chapter 13, we will see the unbelief of the representatives of the people of Israel who have been sent into the land to spy out the land that the Lord has promised to give to the children of Israel.
As we come to this chapter, we recognize that certain decisions are of pivotal, epochal significance in the life of the people of God. Certain decision points in history play out for generations to come, and this is one of those decision points to which Israel came and made the wrong decision. It’s interesting how biblical writers lament what the children of Israel do in Numbers 13, way, way into the Old Testament. I mean, Moses’ final sermon to the people of God in Deuteronomy refers to the mistake made right here, but so does the psalmist. Hundreds of years later as the psalmists are writing, they’re still thinking about this terrific mistake that was made by the people of God: They came up, they saw overwhelming circumstances, and they forgot the promises and the sovereignty of God; and they rebelled against His leadership, and they fell prey to unbelief…and the rest, as we say, is history. Who knows what the entry into the land of Canaan would have been like had Numbers 13 never happened. We’ll never know, will we, because of this failure.
We ourselves can sense the significance of decisions, decision points in history like this. It doesn’t matter what your view of present war in Iraq is. I respect that there can be legitimate differences on that, but certainly we can say this: that whatever happens in Iraq, the decisions that we make as a nation as to how to proceed will have generational impact one way or the other, and there will be one side that is absolutely right, and there will be one side that is tragically wrong. And if the side which is tragically wrong prevails, then there will be consequences for years and years, for decades and decades to come. And if the side which is right — whichever side that is — there will be good consequences that will be entailed for years and years and for decades and decades to come. I think one of the big problems as we have come to this crucial decision point in our own history as a nation is (it is very apparent to me, at least) that there was a problem with counting the cost at the outset of our involvement and engagement in the present conflict.
I think back to previous generations that had to make decisions that would entail much, much greater sacrifice than has been entailed in Iraq, and I wonder what we would have done in those generations before. I was in a conversation with some elders and members of the church just a few days ago, and was sharing the fact that my father had fought in the Second World War in the South Pacific with the United States Marine Corps. Tom Bowen was there and he asked what particular engagements Dad had been involved in, and I shared that he had been in the battle of the second invasion of Peleliu. Tom immediately knew how serious a conflict that was, and he said, “Well, where did he go after that?” And I said, “Well, he was slated to be on the second wave of the invasion of the mainland of Japan, and as such he was not expected to live. The United States military authorities,” I went on to say, “I am told from reading history, expected 85-90% casualties in the first two or three waves of the invasion of the mainland of Japan.” And then Tom Bowen said something that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. “Yes…yes.” He said that the Defense Department had ordered for them to prepare 250,000 body bags for the first wave of that invasion. It was one of those times of counting the cost, wasn’t it? Ready for a terrific cost in that particular engagement…and I wonder how our generation would have done…maybe I should put it this way: how my generation would have done in the face of that kind of a challenge.
Well, the children of Israel were at one of those pivotal points in history, and looking at the challenge, they flinched. That’s where we are. Let’s pray and read God’s word.
Heavenly Father, thank You for Your word. Teach us by it. Exalt Your power in Christ and the gospel, even as we hear Your word in this sad, sad story. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
This is the word of God, Numbers 13, beginning in verse 1:
“Then the Lord spoke to Moses saying, ‘Send out for yourself men so that they may spy out the land of Canaan, which I am going to give to the sons of Israel; you shall send a man from each of their fathers’ tribes, every one a leader among them.’ So Moses sent them from the wilderness of Paran at the command of the Lord, all of them men who were heads of the sons of Israel. These then were their names: from the tribe of Reuben, Shammua the son of Zaccur; from the tribe of Simeon, Shaphat the son of Hori; from the tribe of Judah, Caleb, the son of Jephunneh; from the tribe of Issachar, Igal the son of Joseph; from the tribe of Ephraim, Hoshea the son of Nun; from the tribe of Benjamin, Palti the son of Raphu; from the tribe of Zebulun, Gaddiel the son of Sodi; from the tribe of Joseph, from the tribe of Manasseh, Gaddi the son of Susi; from the tribe of Dan, Ammiel the son of Gemalli; from the tribe of Asher, Sethur the son of Michael; from the tribe of Naphtali, Nahbi the son of Vophsi; from the tribe of Gad, Geuel the son of Machi. These are the names of the men whom Moses sent to spy out the land; but Moses called Hoshea the son of Nun, Joshua.
“When Moses sent them to spy out the land of Canaan, he said to them, ‘Go up there into the Negev; then go up into the hill country. And see what the land is like, and whether the people who live in it are strong or weak, whether they are few or many. And how is the land in which they live, is it good or bad? And how are the cities in which they live, are they like open camps or with fortifications? And how is the land, is it fat or lean? Are there trees in it or not? Make an effort then to get some of the fruit of the land.’ Now the time was the time of the first ripe grapes.
“So they went up and spied out the land from the wilderness of Zin as far as Rehob, at Lebo-hamath. When they had gone up into the Negev, they came to Hebron where Ahiman, Sheshai and Talmai, the descendants of Anak were. (Now Hebron was built seven years before Zoan in Egypt.)
“Then they came to the valley of Eshcol and from there cut down a branch with a single cluster of grapes; and they carried it on a pole between two men, with some of the pomegranates and the figs. That place was called the valley of Eshcol, because of the cluster which the sons of Israel cut down from there.
“When they returned from spying out the land, at the end of forty days, they proceeded to come to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation of the sons of Israel in the wilderness of Paran, at Kadesh; and they brought back word to them and to all the congregation and showed them the fruit of the land. Thus they told him, and said, ‘We went in to the land where you sent us; and it certainly does flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. Nevertheless, the people who live in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large; and moreover, we saw the descendants of Anak there. Amalek is living in the land of the Negev and the Hittites and the Jebusites and the Amorites are living in the hill country, and the Canaanites are living by the sea and by the side of the Jordan.’
“Then Caleb quieted the people before Moses, and said, ‘We should by all means go up and take possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it.’ But the men who had gone up with him said, ‘We are not able to go up against the people, for they are too strong for us.’ So they gave out to the sons of Israel a bad report of the land which they had spied out, saying, ‘The land through which we have gone, in spying it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants; and all the people whom we saw in it are men of great size. There also we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak are part of the Nephilim); and we became like grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we were in their sight.’”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He add His blessing to the reading of it.
These spies were sent to do reconnaissance. Now, those of you who are military (or ex-military) know that there is a saying that there is no such thing as wasted reconnaissance. Reconnaissance is never a waste. It’s a good thing to do reconnaissance, and Moses himself gives them specific things that they are to look out for and report back on. All of that is true, all of that is important. It was important for the children of Israel to have a realistic assessment of what they were up against.
God never promised that the children of Israel’s taking of the land of Canaan was going to cost them nothing and wasn’t going to be dangerous. He just promised them this: That’s your land; I’ve given it to you; we’re getting ready to take it. And a realistic assessment was to be taken by these spies, but it wasn’t an assessment that was to be taken merely based upon the empirical data that comes back from the spies having been into the land. There was to be a theological grid which under girded their report of the empirical data that they would return with regard to the size of the towns, their fortifications, and the size of the people and their numbers, and all of those sorts of things. And you see those things spelled out for you in the passage. Let me just tell you what they are. There are four things.
The spies, even as they realistically assess the challenge that was before Israel to go into the land of Canaan were not to forget four things: God’s promise; God’s faithfulness; God’s generosity; and, God’s power. Even as they came back and gave a realistic, accurate, faithful assessment of what they saw, the good and the bad, the scary and the encouraging, they were not to give that assessment without remembering those four things–and Moses beats that into your head in a variety of ways in this passage. We only have a little bit of time in this glorious section, but let me work through this passage with you in four parts. The first part is in verses 1-16. In that part, Moses reminds you of God’s promises. Then, in verses 17-22, Moses (in the second part) reminds you of God’s faithfulness. We’ll see how in just a few moments. Then, in the third part, in verses 23-27, he reminds you of God’s generosity, which in and of itself is to drive you back to the acknowledgement that everything comes from God. All blessings come from Him. What do we sing in The Doxology? “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.” And then, fourth and finally, in verses 28-33, he reminds you of God’s power and God’s sovereignty. Let’s work through this passage together quickly tonight.
I. God’s promises.
First of all, in verses 1-16, Moses reminds you of God’s promises. And my friends, in every circumstance of our life, as believers we too are to remember God’s promises and God’s faithfulness, and God’s power. And He reminds us of God’s promise in verses 1-16.
Notice the very words that the Lord speaks to Moses in the appointing of the spies. Look at verse 1. The Lord speaks to Moses. What does He say? Look at verse 2: “Send out for yourself men so that they may spy out the land of Canaan…” — what? — “…which I am going to give to the sons of Israel.” Is there a question mark in that sentence? …Which I might give to the sons of Israel…which I’m thinking about giving to the sons of Israel…which there is a potential possibility that the sons of Israel might want it? “…Which I am giving to the sons of Israel”! The land, He’s saying to Moses, belongs to you because I’m going to give it to you. And the spies are sent up into the land, and in their mind, no matter what they see, is to be ringing the word of the Lord: “This is the land that I am giving you.” In other words, everything that they see is to be seen through the grid of — what? — God’s promise. And thus they are to do what? Act on God’s promise.
And we’re called to do the same thing: to act on God’s promise. Not to act on God’s promise is not to believe God’s word. It’s unbelief. Not to act on God’s promise is not to believe God’s word; it’s unbelief…and we can throw our rocks at the children of Israel, at what they did here, but we do this ourselves, friends. God’s promises are yea and amen in Christ, and yet very often we see the obstacles and the obstacles look bigger than God and His promises. And when we approach those obstacles and circumstances and challenges and situations of our lives as if they are bigger than God and His promises, we’re doing the same thing the children of Israel did.
And that’s one thing that happened here. The spies, having been appointed by the word of the Lord to Moses to go into a land which God has already promised to the children of Israel, forgot that. It does not show up in their assessment except in the assessment of Caleb — and of course, Joshua with him. And their counsel was devastating…absolutely devastating. No doubt entirely sincere; no doubt entirely sincere, but devastating in its consequences because it failed to factor in God. (Oops! You know if you’re going to forget to factor something in, make sure it’s not God that you forget to factor in.) And so their assessment of the children of Israel fails to factor in the one thing that ought to have been prime in their assessment, in their report to the people of God: act on God’s promises. And Moses draws our attention to the promises by reminding us what God’s word to him was even in appointing the spies in the first place.
II. God’s faithfulness.
Secondly, Moses draws our attention here to God’s faithfulness in verses 17-22, and the point is simply this: In every circumstance of our life, we are to acknowledge God’s faithfulness. It’s not just that He has promised stuff to us; it’s that He has already been active in fulfilling those promises, and if we will just take the time to assess it and acknowledge it, we will realize that He has been faithful to us.
And you say, “Well, I don’t see where you get that from verses 17-22.” Well, let me just ask you this. Where do they go? They go from the Negev up to the hill country to Hebron. What’s at Hebron? (OK, I know…it’s the highest part of the land. You can see all around it; it’s a strategic point.) What’s at Hebron? The graves of Abraham and Sarah, to whom four hundred years ago God had given a promise: ‘I’m going to make you the father of nations. I’m going to make your descendants like the sand on the seashore, like the stars in the sky, and I’m going to give you this land.’ Now half of that promise to Abraham has already been fulfilled. The very fact that those twelve leaders were representatives of twelve massive tribes of over 600,000 fighting men–shouldn’t it, when they got to Hebron and they got to the land, to the ground of Abraham and Sarah’s graves, should they not have fallen down with a sense of the awesomeness of how God has already been faithful to His promise? This unlikely event in which a family of seventy had gone down into Egypt, and four hundred years later two million of them are coming out and getting ready to possess the land…God has already been faithful to His promises! He’s already been faithful. But they forgot it. They forgot God’s faithfulness, because what was before them was hard.
Do you ever do that? I was thinking back this afternoon about God’s faithfulness to me over the years, and I was recalling how often God was faithful to me in hard things; not by sparing me from hard things, but in hard things and through hard things. Not by sparing me from hard things, but in hard things and through hard things, He was faithful to me. If you had some time tonight, I could give you a litany of the ways He’s been faithful to me when I didn’t deserve for Him to be faithful to me. But I can testify with the saints that He has never left me or forsaken me. I was thinking as I looked across the room tonight at Dr. Robertson. I remember when I was going through a hard thing in the 1980’s, and I came to him sort of whimpering and feeling sorry for myself, and he quoted Jeremiah to me: “It’s good for a man to bear the yoke in his youth.” (“Yes, sir!”) And it was. God was faithful to me. It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t fun; I wouldn’t sign up for it! But God was faithful. I was struck by that again this last Lord’s Day. I got the privilege of hearing Rick Phillips, the new pastor at Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, South Carolina, preach the word morning and evening, and got to hear my youngest brother, Mel, teach a Sunday School lesson on Isaiah 46 and 47. And it struck me listening to that passage again how often God spares His people, not by causing them not to pass through the waters, but by being with them as they pass through the waters. God is faithful. And then I started thinking, “You know, of the most important “right things” that I’ve done (and I’ve done a lot of wrong things, and I’ve done right things) but the most important right things that I’ve done in my life, none of them have been easy. None of them have been easy. They’ve been right, and God has been with me, but they weren’t easy.
And the children of Israel, instead of looking at this thing and saying, ‘You know, this is not going to be easy, but God is faithful, and listening to His word is the right thing to do,’ instead of doing this, they look at the problem. They look at the obstacle. And they forget God’s faithfulness.
Act on God’s promises, acknowledge God’s faithfulness, Moses is saying to you.
III. God’s generosity.
Thirdly, verses 23-27, Moses points us to God’s generosity. When the report comes back… God had told the children of Israel He was going to give them a land flowing with milk and honey, and when the report comes back, what’s the report? ‘Guess what, guys? It’s a land flowing with milk and honey!’ (Well, duh! That’s exactly what God told you!) Where did that milk and honey come from? It came from God. (Pause…) That stuff’s not just there; it came from God! What do we need to stop and do right now? Sing The Doxology! (We’ll do that at the end.)
When Moses shows us the blessings of God’s generosity in that rich land that He was about to give to the people of Israel, He expects us to get down on our knees and ascribe to God all the blessings, to praise Him from whom all blessings flow. But that doesn’t happen here in the report of the spies. It’s acknowledged like a scientific fact: pretty rich land…wonder how that happened. And they didn’t give God the praise for His generosity, and unbelief crept in.
IV. God’s power.
Finally, Moses points us to God’s power. The majority of the spies report that there are big people in this land, and we are munchkins in comparison to them. I don’t doubt that. I don’t think that God’s purpose in sending the spies into the land was for them to come back with this report: “Piece of cake! We can do this!” I think that the proper response would have been, “This is too big for us…God will do it. He’s sovereign. He’s going to display His power, because this is way too big for us. We know that His promise and His power will prevail not because of us, but because of Him. This is an opportunity for a display of His glory. This is not going to be about our everlasting renown. This is not so that the people of God will ever remember the Israeli Army, Navy, and Air Force. This thing is going to be about the display of God’s sovereignty, because this thing is too big for us.”
I don’t know if you’re like me, but in certain challenges in my life, when I enjoy just a little success in those challenges, I am very tempted to think “I can do this.” And almost invariably, within a matter of hours God in various ways lets me know that I can’t do this, because the message of the Bible to believers is not “you can do this.” The message is “[you] can do all things through Him who strengthens [you.]” The message is what is impossible with men is accomplished by God. The message is Christ and the gospel accomplish what you can never accomplish. The message is God is sovereign, and you are not. The message is God will have the last word and the glory, not man. Of course the problem is that we live in a world where even in the church man the creature is big, and God the Creator and Redeemer is small.
That was the problem with the majority of the spies, wasn’t it? For them, their report went like this. They magnified the problems, and they minimized the power of God. They magnified the problems, and they minimized the power of God, when what they should have done is not minimize the problems, but embrace the impossibility of those problems in terms of their own power, and at the same time acknowledge and magnify the power of God to overcome all. But they didn’t. And, oh, the harm…oh, the harm that they did in their sin.
And isn’t there a message for us in that? Unbelief always has its consequences. Every train has its destination, and when you get on the train of unbelief it will not get you to the destination. But the train of embracing and accepting and acting on the promises of God will get you there.
Heavenly Father, thank You for this word of warning, but also this word of hope, because in our failure there is a gospel hope. That hope is not about something in us, it’s not about something that we can do, it’s not a hope about our accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative. It’s hope about what You have done in Christ for us and for our salvation. So may the failure of Israel drive us to the Savior of Israel and of the world, Your Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. This we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.
[Congregation sings The Doxology.]
Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.