This Side of the Jordan
J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Numbers 32. In Numbers 29, our focus was on the public worship of the church in Israel as they come before the living God via the sacrificial system.
In Numbers 30, the focus was on vows and a whole range of categories of religious vows were described and certain principles and rules were laid down for those vows and certain consequences were addressed for the breaking of those vows.
Last week, in Numbers 31, we came to a frankly harrowing passage in which a terrifying picture foreshadowing God’s final judgment on the wicked was displayed and God’s command to Israel to utterly wipe out the Midianites.
And as we looked at that passage, we said that from it we learned at least four things.
First, that God hates sin. He is not indifferent to idolatry or spiritual adultery. And the Midianites had attempted to bring destruction upon the whole of the people of God through tempting them into idolatry, literally, spiritual adultery. And sin always deserves death and this heinous sin, rebelling against God’s plans and purposes for Israel, seeking the destruction of Israel, required punishment. God hates sin. We saw that in the passage.
We also were reminded that syncretism is perilous. Sin brings death, not delight and Israel’s sexual indulgence and spiritual adultery with Midian and Midian’s immoral tact against Israel resulted not in blessing for either, but divine judgment against both. And so, we see something of the peril of dallying with other gods. Syncretism, the add-mixture of the true religion with error is perilous.
We also said that, ironically, this passage reminds us that vengeance belongs to God. Yes, it’s Israel that’s carrying out the vengeance, but they’re doing it at God’s command. The raid on the Midianites is not something that the Israelites do out of their own fleshly desires to extract revenge upon the Midianites. The raid against the Midianites is done by Israel at the direct command of God.
And, of course, elsewhere in the Old Testament that kind of vengeance is reserved for God. That’s why this passage is a picture of the final judgment of God against the wicked and not an example for how the people of God are to take vengeance into their own hands and extract it at any time against their enemies.
But, the fourth thing we said as looked at that passage was that the pursuit of holiness involves a ruthless dealing with the source and occasion of sin. Surely, one thing that has happening in this raid against the Midianite, in this warfare against the Midianite in which the Israelites are told to wipe out the Midianites completely is that the source and occasion of the temptation and sin that almost destroyed Israel is itself being destroyed. God is telling them to wipe out that thing which was the source and the occasion of the temptation which almost wiped them out. And we said that Jesus says no less to us in our personal battle for holiness. He says if your right eye offends you, pluck it out and cast it into fire because it’s better that your eye would go into fire than your whole body be thrown into hell.
And if your right hand offend you, cut it off and cast it into the fire because it’ better that your right hand be cast into the fire and lost to you than your whole body be plunged into hell.
And that kind of ruthless dealing with sin that Jesus urged us to engage in our own personal quest for godliness is something that we see corporately displayed as Israel brings judgment against Midian. The source and occasion of sin is dealt with ruthlessly.
Well, tonight we come to a very different passage, a very different topic, a very different chapter, but it is no less harrowing than Numbers 31. It’s frightening in a different way, but it is frightening in its own way.
As we look at this passage tonight, especially I want you to see three things as we read through it. In verses 1-5, the particular sin which almost brings disaster is on display. In verses 6-15, that sin is diagnosed in excruciating detail by Moses. In verses 16-42, repentance is displayed on the part of the sinning tribes, and then the consequences and the results are played out.
So, as we look at this passage tonight, bear that in mind. It’s a long passage, but the story tells itself as we hear God’s word read. So, let’s look to Him in prayer before we read it.
Heavenly Father, this is your Word. We ask again as we have so often coming to this great book, a book less well known to us than it deserves to be known to us. We come again asking that You would open our eyes to behold wonderful things in your Word. You have written this word for our edification and for your glory. So, we ask that you would cause us to take heed to this word, to understand this word, and especially to see how this word directly addresses the sins and temptations of our own hearts, accurately diagnosing them, pointing this, pointing us to the Savior. We ask, O God, that we would not read this story and stand in simple judgment of the Israelites, but that we would judge our own hearts and that You by the Spirit would grant to us repentance. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Hear the word of the living God beginning in Numbers 32:1:
“Now the people of Reuben and the people of Gad had a very great number of livestock. And they saw the land of Jazer and the land of Gilead, and behold, the place was a place for livestock. So the people of Gad and the people of Reuben came and said to Moses and to Eleazar the priest and to the chiefs of the congregation, Ataroth, Dobon, Jazer, Nimrah, Heshbon, Elealeh, Sebam, Nebo, and Beon, the land that the Lord struck down before the congregation of Israel, is a land for livestock, and your servants have livestock. And they said, “If we have found favor in your sight, let this land be given to your servants for a possession. Do not take us across the Jordan.”
But Moses (and you know trouble is coming the minute you hear those words), but Moses said to the people of Gad and to the people of Reuben, “Shall your brothers go to the war while you sit here? Why will you discourage the heart of the people of Israel from going over into the land that the Lord has given them? Your fathers did this when I sent them from Kadesh-barnea to see the land. For when they went up to the Valley of Eshcol and saw the land, they discouraged the heart of the people of Israel from going into the land that the Lord had given them. And the Lord’s anger was kindled on that day, and he swore, saying, ‘Surely none of the men who came up out of Egypt, from twenty years old upward, shall see the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, because they have not wholly followed me, none except Caleb the son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite and Joshua the son of Nun, for they have wholly followed the Lord. And the Lord’s anger was kindled against Israel, and he made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until all the generation that had done evil in the sight of the Lord was gone. And behold, you have risen in your fathers’ place, a brood of sinful men, to increase still more the fierce anger of the Lord against Israel! For if you turn away from following him, he will again abandon them in the wilderness, and you will destroy all the people.”
Then they came near to him and said, “We will build sheepfolds here for our livestock, and cities for our little ones, but we will take up arms, ready to go before the people of Israel, until we have brought them to their place. And our little ones shall live in the fortified cities because of the inhabitants of the land. We will not return to our homes until each of the people of Israel has gained an inheritance. For we will not inherit with them on the other side of the Jordan and beyond, because our inheritance has come to us on this side of the Jordan to the east.” So Moses said to them, “If you will do this, if you will take up arms to go before the Lord for the war, and every armed man of you will pass over the Jordan before the Lord, until he had driven out his enemies from before him and the land is subdued before the Lord; then after that you shall return and be free of obligation to the Lord and to Israel, and this land shall be your possession before the Lord. But if you will not do so, behold, you have sinned against the Lord, and be sure your sin will find you out. Build cities for your little ones and folds for your sheep, and do what you have promised.” And the people of Gad and the people of Reuben said to Moses, “Your servants will do as my lord commands. Our little ones, our wives, our livestock, and all our cattle, shall remain there in the cities of Gilead, but your servants will pass over, every man who is armed for war, before the Lord to battle, as my lord orders.”
So Moses gave command concerning them to Eleazar the priest and to Joshua the son of Nun and to the heads of the fathers’ houses of the tribes of the people of Israel. And Moses said to them, “If the people of Gad and the people of Reuben, every man who is armed to battle before the Lord, will pass with you over the Jordan and the land shall be subdued before you, then you shall give them the land of Gilead for a possession. However, if thy will not pass over with you armed, they shall have possessions among you in the land of Canaan.” And the people of Gad and the people of Reuben answered, “What the Lord has said; what the Lord has said to your servants, we will do. We will pass over armed before the Lord into the land of Canaan, and the possession of our inheritance shall remain with us beyond the Jordan.”
And Moses gave to them to the people of Gad and to the people of Reuben and to the half-tribe of Manasseh the son of Joseph, the kingdom of Sihon king of the Amorites and the kingdom of Og king of Bashan, the land and its cities with their territories, the cities of the land throughout the country. And the people of Gad built Dibon, Ataroth, Aroer, Arroth-shophan, Jazer, Jogbehah, Beth-nimrah, and Beth-haran, fortified cities, and folds for sheep. And the people of Reuben built Hesbon, Elealeh, Kiriathaim, Nebo, and Baal-meon (their names were changed), and Sibman. And they gave other names to the cities that they built. And the sons of Machir the son of Manasseh went to Gilead and captured it, and dispossessed the Amorites who were in it. And Moses gave Gilead to Machir the son of Manasseh, and he settled in it. And Jair the son of Manasseh went and captured their villages, and called the Havvoth-jair. And Nobah went and captured Kenath and its villages, and called Nobah, after his own name.
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
There are three things that I want you to see tonight as we look at this great passage. There’s so much that we could do unpacking it, especially the middle section from 6-15, but three things in particular I want you to see tonight.
First, sin asserted. Second, sin confronted. And third, disaster averted. Sin asserted, sin confronted, and disaster averted.
I. Sin asserted.
What we see in verses 1-5, as innocuous as it may first appear, is in fact, a potential disaster. It is a sin. In fact, it is selfishness being asserted by the Reubenites and the Gadites and that half-tribe of Manasseh. They’re thinking only of themselves. They come to a land. It is clearly a land perfect for livestock. They think to themselves, “This land will be much better than any land on the other side of the Jordan for our livestock. This is great! Moses, we’d like to stop right here. This is a land for livestock. We do livestock. We’d like to stay right here.”
Now, it becomes clear from what Moses said in verses 6-15, that this is not merely an innocent assessment of good land for the purpose of keeping and rearing livestock and carrying out the vocations at which they are most accomplished. It’s not simply an act of them analyzing the situation, desiring a good situation, and without any other consequences, wanting to settle in that land.
Moses makes it clear in verses 6-15 that something else is at play, and the something else that is at play is selfishness. And it is fascinating to me that what gets them in so much trouble and what causes Moses anger to burn is not a sin of commission, but a sin of omission. And when we come to verses 6-15, I try and make this point over and over.
It is not that they want to settle in a land that is conducive for the care and rearing of their livestock, which is their vocation that is the sin.
The sin is thinking about themselves before and instead of their brothers; thinking about their well-being without thinking about the well-being of the rest of the tribes; thinking about getting settled with their families and with their vocation, and in their own land without thinking of the consequences of their action for everybody else who doesn’t have a land and doesn’t have a home and doesn’t have a place to put their family and hasn’t reached the goal that God has been carrying them towards for 40 years and before that for 430 years. They are selfish. They are committing a sin of omission and they are not thinking about others as they ought.
All of us have watched unfold before us this week, a sordid sin of commission by a public official in another state. It doesn’t bear repeating here, but you know what I’m talking about. And very often, we think to ourselves that you really have to do something to get into that much trouble. But have you ever thought that actually all you have to do to get into that much trouble is not do something. And that is exactly what happened to the Reubenites and Gadites. It wasn’t what they did that got them into trouble― it’s what they didn’t do that got them into trouble. They were thinking about themselves and consequently, they failed to do and think like they ought to do and think. That is, they began to think about themselves first to the exclusion to their duties and responsibilities towards their brothers and sisters. And the reaction of God and the reaction of Moses to their sin of omission is furious.
So we have a potential disaster described in verses 1-5 where the Gadites and the Reubenites find themselves on this side of the Jordan. They haven’t gone to the other side of Jordan, which is the ultimate goal. They want to stay there because it’s a land perfect for the rearing and the caring of livestock and they begin to think about themselves instead of thinking about others and it is potentially disastrous for them and for all of Israel. It’s a selfish sin of omission. Self is asserted in verses 1-5.
II. Sin is confronted.
But then, in verses 6-15 sin is confronted, but their selfishness is identified in a bold, prophetic, specific message from Moses. Just like Nathan came to David and put his finger, metaphorically, right into his friend and King David’s chest and said, “You are the man!” Moses does the same thing to the Gadites and to the Reubenites.
And I want to stop right here and think. Think about this, friends. God has already told Moses that the last thing that He is ever going to do is what?―wipe out the Midianites. Remember? “Moses, you got one more thing to do for me. Wipe out the Midianites.” Well, friends, that just got done in the last chapter.
And, lo and behold, Moses finds himself (it’s like “Groundhog Day”; he keeps waking up and the same bad nightmare is happening over and over) he finds himself right back in the same condition that he was in with the children of Israel at Kadesh-barnea. You know what I would have been tempted to do in that circumstance? I would have been tempted to be very, very cynical about the whole thing and say, “You know what? I don’t care anymore. I’m done. You people never change. I’m done. I’m done. The Midianites are done. I punched my clock. I am out of here! Handle it on your own.” Because the children of Israel were acting the same way that they’ve always acted.
And I want to say that I’m rebuked by Moses’ response because Moses is not cynical and he is not indifferent and the very fury of his anger is a testimony to the fact that, ‘A’, he’s not a hireling; he’s not in this for his own well-being. He genuinely is concerned about the glory of God and the well-being of God’s people.
But it’s also a testimony. It’s also a testimony to his deep, deep concern to see the children of God grow in grace and be different from the way they’ve acted before. And Moses never gets cynical about that. It would have been so easy to say, “You’re no different from the people before you. Who cares about you anymore? I’m gone.”
But the very fury of Moses response is a testimony to his deep love for the people of God. And so he gets in their face. And I want you to see six things that he says to them in verses 6-15.
First of all, notice how he draws their attention to their own selfishness in verse 6. “Shall your brothers go to the war while you sit here?” Now, we might think of another way that he might have said that, but you get the emphasis that he’s bringing home here. “You mean that you are going to think about settling in your comfortable homes with your family and livestock in your land which will be your possession while the rest of Israel goes to war. What are you thinking?” So he points to them their failure to see and to challenge their own selfishness. They are looking at this world from the prospective of me, me, me, me, me.
Second, he challenges them on their failure to think of the encouragement, the responsibility that they have of the encouragement of their brethren. Now listen to what he says in verse 7: “Why will you discourage the heart of the people of Israel from going over into the land that the Lord has given them?”
In other words, Moses is saying, “Do you have any idea what this will do collectively to all the people of God? They have been through so much. They are right on the banks of the Jordan and you’re going to say, ‘You know what? We’re just going to check out right here. We’re just going to camp out right here. We’re going to take this land. The rest of you are on your own.” They have thought not one second about the consequences of their action for the rest of the people of God. It will be deeply discouraging to them and so he challenges them on their failure to think first of the encouragement of their brethren.
Third, he challenges on failing to learn from the mistakes of yesterday. Listen to what he says: “Your fathers did this. This is exactly what happened in Kadesh-barnea. We sent spies into the land, they came back out and they said, ‘Whew! There’s no way we’re going to be able to take the people that are in there. Why don’t we just find another land to settle?”
Have you learned nothing from what happened in the days of your fathers? Do you remember what happened when they did that?―a generation of people died in the wilderness because they did that. And that has not entered into your pretty little heads.
Fourth, he challenges them on a failure to follow the example of the best of God’s people, even while the children of Israel generally, commonly responded with the same response of the majority of the spies. There was the case of Caleb and Joshua. But they didn’t follow Caleb and Joshua’s example. They didn’t think about Caleb and Joshua’s attitude. They’re thinking like the rest of the children of Israel so they’re failing to follow on the example of the best of God’s people.
And then, he challenges them on a failure to discern God’s estimate of what they have done. And look at the very strong words that he uses in verse 14. “Behold you have risen in your father’s place.” And what does he call them?―a brood of sinful men. “That’s what God thinks of you.”
Some of you may have read the poetry of Robert Burns, at least in translation. It’s a little hard if you try and read it in the old Scots language. But some of you may know his famous poem, “To a Louse”. You remember the poem? He’s watching a single louse crawl around on the back of a ladies hat in the middle of a worship service and she is a perfectly coiffed and impeccably dressed and obviously prideful woman sitting on the pew in her church, but there is a louse crawling around on the back of her hat. And Robert Burns is sitting there in church just watching that thing. And it’s a hilarious poem. Do you remember how the poem ends? In English, it’s roughly something like this,
“O, that some power could give us
to see ourselves as others see us.”
And you know immediately what he’s saying, “You know, that woman is sitting there so proud, but she’s got a louse crawling around on her and she doesn’t see what others see.” And here’s Moses saying to the children of God, “You don’t see how this looks in God’s eyes.”
And finally, he says to them that they have failed to pursue the Lord’s will. Look at verse 15. “If you turn away from following Him, He will again abandon them in the wilderness and you will destroy all the people. If you do not commit yourselves, single-mindedly to the establishment of the people of God in the land which He has given to them and which He has been pressing them towards for 40 years in the journey since the exodus, then you are going to bring about a whole new destruction of the people of God in the wilderness. And so what he does is he confronts their sin.
III. Disaster averted.
And then, in verses 16-42, a happy thing happens. These Reubenites and Gadites get it. They understand. They don’t come back, “Moses, you just don’t understand. Moses, you’re judging our hearts. Moses, you’re being harsh on us.” They go, “O, well, OK. We understand exactly what you’re saying, Moses. That would be, that would be unconscionable for us to do that. So, here’s the proposal. This is going to be a better land for us. It’s obvious that we can’t get our possession when the rest of Israel’s not in possession of the land. Look, we’ll be the vanguard of the army going into the Promised Land and we will stay there until the last Israelite is in his home and then we’ll come back and settle in our land.” They get it.
Don’t think that that is anything less than the divine intervention of grace. Because, my friends, repentance, the repentance evidenced in verses 16 and following, repentance is not something that happens apart from the grace of God.
Do you remember how the New Testament describes Esau? It says that he did not get the blessing that he sought. Why? Because he found no place for repentance even though he sought that blessing with tears streaming down his face. Why did he not get the blessing?― because there was no repentance in his heart.
My friends, repentance is no common thing. It is a gift of God’s grace and just as Luke will tell you of that dear woman, that seller of purple who had come under the ministry of the Apostle Paul; just as Lydia had experienced the regenerating work of God in her heart so that Luke can say of her what?―the Lord opened her heart to believe. So the Lord must open our hearts to repent. And in God’s mercy He does this. He does this for the Gadites and for the Reubenites and they get it. They hear, they hear what Moses says to them and they repent. They don’t just say, “We’re sorry.” But what happens?―a change of course occurs.
I wonder if, in your life, there are sins of omission that have resulted in disaster. I wonder if you see that and I wonder if the Lord has granted repentance to you. I pray that He does.
Heavenly Father, we see our own hearts in the hearts of the Israelites. We, like them, are selfish and we live in a generation that makes a moral virtue out of selfishness. Show us ourselves as we are, O God. Search us out by your word and spirit. But then, we pray, we beg, Lord don’t leave us to ourselves. Give us the gift of repentance. Soften our hearts to respond because only Jesus can change a heart. So Lord Jesus, we ask that you would take hold of us and turn us and change us and grant us repentance and faith. For we ask it in your name. Amen.
Would you stand for God blessing?
“Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.”
( The congregation sings The Doxology.)