The Lord’s Day Evening
With God in the Wilderness
From Egypt to Jordan
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Amen. Please be seated.
When we started our series on the book of Numbers, all those months ago back on Wednesday, January 10, 2007, we admitted that Numbers is probably not one of your top ten favorite Bible books. In fact, some of you may not be particularly excited about studying Numbers. Some of you may not have read through it in a long time, and some of you may never have read through it at all. Thirty-six chapters, 1,288 verses, lots of laws, lots of sand, lots of desert grumbling and wandering doesn’t sound very hopeful, does it?
But as we studied Numbers over the course of the months, we have found it to be a great book. The hymn that we have just sung, Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah, is about the wilderness wanderings of the people of God in the books of Exodus and Numbers. In fact, as we’ve worked through Numbers, I’ve found Numbers really an easier and in many ways more exciting book even than Leviticus, even though in Leviticus we learned so much about the atonement and the meaning of the death of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul in fact tells us in I Corinthians 10:1-13 that the events that occurred in the books of Exodus and Numbers as Israel wandered through the wilderness occurred for our benefit. And he tells us that just what Numbers records for us is profoundly practical. These events happened for us, and God wants us to learn from them.
But tonight’s passage is a toughie! It is a wilderness travel log with a succession of almost unpronounceable numbers and names, and obscure places. What could we possibly learn from it? Well, we’ll see. Let’s look to God in prayer.
Heavenly Father, we thank You for Your word, and we ask that You would open our eyes to behold wonderful truth in it. Remind us even as we study this passage tonight that all Scripture is given by inspiration and is profitable for reproof, correction, and training in righteousness. This we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Numbers 33…and we’ll read verses 1-49:
“These are the stages of the people of Israel, when they went out of the land of Egypt by their companies under the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Moses wrote down their starting places, stage by stage, by command of the Lord, and these are their stages according to their starting places. They set out from Rameses in the first month, on the fifteenth day of the first month. On the day after the Passover, the people of Israel went out triumphantly in the sight of all the Egyptians, while the Egyptians were burying all their firstborn, whom the Lord had struck down among them. On their gods also the Lord executed judgments.
“So the people of Israel set out from Rameses and camped at Succoth. And they set out from Succoth and camped at Etham, which is on the edge of the wilderness. And they set out from Etham and turned back to Pi-hahiroth, which is east of Baal-zephon, and they camped before Migdol. And they set out from before Hahiroth and passed through the midst of the sea into the wilderness, and they went a three days’ journey in the wilderness of Etham and camped at Marah. And they set out from Marah and came to Elim; at Elim there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees, and they camped there. And they set out from Elim and camped by the Red Sea. And they set out from the Red Sea and camped in the wilderness of Sin. And they set out from the wilderness of Sin and camped at Dophkah. And they set out from Dophkah and camped at Alush. And they set out from Alush and camped at Rephidim, where there was no water for the people to drink. And they set out from Rephidim and camped in the wilderness of Sinai. And they set out from the wilderness of Sinai and camped at Kibroth-hattaavah. And they set out from Kibroth-hattaavah and camped at Hazeroth. And they set out from Hazeroth and camped at Rithmah. And they set out from Rithmah and camped at Rimmon-perez. And they set out from Rimmon-perez and camped at Libnah. And they set out from Libnah and camped at Rissah. And they set out from Rissah and camped at Kehelathah. And they set out from Kehelathah and camped at Mount Shepher. And they set out from Mount Shepher and camped at Haradah. And they set out from Haradah and camped at Makheloth. And they set out from Makheloth and camped at Tahath. And they set out from Tahath and camped at Terah. And they set out from Tereh and camped at Mithkah. And they set out from Mithkah and camped at Hashmonah. And they set out from Hashmonah and camped at Moseroth. And they set out from Moseroth and camped at Bene-jaakan. And they set out from Bene-jaakan and camped at Hor-haggidgad. And they set out from Hor-haggidgad and camped at Jotbathah. And they set out from Jotbathah and camped at Abronah. And they set out from Abronah and camped at Ezion-geber. And they set out from Ezion-geber and camped in the wilderness is Zin (that is, Kadesh). And they set out from Kadesh and camped at Mount Hor, on the edge of the land of Edom.
“And Aaron the priest went up Mount Hor at the command of the Lord and died there, in the fortieth year after the people of Israel had come out of the land of Egypt, on the first day of the fifth month. And Aaron was 123 years old when he died on Mount Hor.
“And the Canaanite, the king of Arad, who lived in the Negeb in the land of Canaan, heard of the coming of the people of Israel.
“And they set out from Mount Hor and camped at Zalmonah. And they set out from Zalmonah and camped at Punon. And they set out from Punon and camped at Oboth. And they set out from Oboth and camped at Iye-abarim, in the territory of Moab. And they set out from Iyim and camped at Dibon-gad. And they set out from Dibon-gad and camped at Almon-diblathaim. And they set out from Almon-diblathaim and camped in the mountains of Abarim, before Nebo. And they set out from the mountains of Abarim and camped in the plans of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho; and they camped by the Jordan from Beth-jeshimoth as far as Abel-shittim in the plains of Moab.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
Back in the third century, some 1,650 or 1,675 years ago, Origen answered objections about this chapter. Some critics of Christianity were suggesting that this passage proves that the Bible is not inspired. The charge went something like this: If God really inspired the Scriptures, why would He put something so useless, so unnecessary, in the Bible as this travel log of obscure place names that most people don’t even have the slightest conception of as to where they are? And Origen responded to that critic with these words:
“We cannot say of the Holy Spirit’s writings that there is anything useless or unnecessary in them. When we do not understand them, we need to seek their meaning from the One who inspired them.”
And so we do tonight.
What in the world is Moses doing listing all of these place names? Clearly, with Israel poised to enter into the land and looking forward to their future, it’s already time, Moses thinks… Of course it’s not just Moses; God has commanded Moses to make this travel log… it’s clearly time, God thinks, for the people of God to think about His providence over them in all of their wanderings in the wilderness, to remember that He was with them every step of the way, to remember that it was the great Jehovah who was guiding them through barren lands.
But it’s also clear that the remembrances of the place names or the times of these occurrences or these events are designed to evoke in the Israelites a remembrance of a truth about God and about godliness. Have you ever had a traumatic or a joyful experience that occurred at a particular date or in a particular location, and all you had to do was hear the name of that location, or remember the date? Perhaps when you wake up and it’s that day again on the calendar, and suddenly a flood of thoughts come into your mind.
Some of you are fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s book, The Lord of the Rings. And if you’ll remember, in that book, Frodo, one of the main characters, was gravely injured on a particular day in a place called Weathertop. And throughout the rest of the book, as long as Frodo is in Middle Earth, on the anniversary of that wounding there is a special pain and he remembers the events that occurred on that particular day. Well, of course that’s a literary product of the imagination of J.R.R. Tolkien, but you can see very easily where he would have come up with that idea. In normal human concourse with one another very often there are events that are seared onto our memories, and we forever associate the date or the name with a whole host of feelings and estimations, or perhaps even things that we’ve learned. For those of us in Mississippi, we can’t hear the name “Katrina” any more without remembering certain extraordinary events that visited us in the year 2005. For others, even in the wake of the events of the last few days in Jackson, perhaps the memory of April 4 will be long in their minds as turning their world upside down, or being delivered in an extraordinary way by God’s providence.
I have a wife who remembers dates. She remembers dates about you! It is not uncommon…probably 75 days a year, she’ll say, “Ligon, do you remember that today is the anniversary of…?” and she may tell me that it’s the anniversary of the death of a child of a congregation member. Or, she may tell me that it’s the anniversary of the death of a husband or a wife of a congregation member. She just remembers dates, and she shares those things with me so that I can be more effective in attending to the people of the church in ministry on days in which we may be particularly tender.
Well, this is why Moses is recounting these place names. The generation that had passed through the wilderness would have immediately associated certain great events with the very mention of some of these names; events that were so great that they would never ever forget them. And there were profound truths about God and godliness that were associated with those place names.
When my boyhood pastor, Gordon Reed, was ministering at the Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, South Carolina, on one morning his son Robert, who was a paper boy, was out very early delivering papers. And Gordon, as was his habit, had already risen even earlier to go to the church and pray. For some reason he had forgotten something, and so he drove back home. And as he rounded the corner on the way to his house, he saw a boy and a bicycle lying in the middle of the street. He pulled his car off to the side of the road and he walked up close, and he saw that it was his own son Robert, who had been hit by a hit and run driver and left for dead while he was delivering his paper route. His son was gravely injured and drifting in and out of consciousness, and Gordon recounts that when he went over and picked him up and held him in his arms that Robert said, “Sir, you must be Jesus.” I have heard Gordon recount that story probably a dozen times and apply it in different ways. It is clear that that day and that event was emblazoned upon his memory, and that he could not possibly forget it unless you took his very life away from him. Nor could Robert remember his father’s recounting of those events, though Robert himself probably could not directly remember the events except through his father’s recounting of them to him.
That’s how this passage is working. You couldn’t have taken the memories of the events of these places away from Moses without taking his life away from him. But we are a new generation that did not go through the wilderness with Moses, and so Moses recounts these things so that we will never forget the lessons that were learned about our God and about our salvation at these places in the wilderness. And so he passes them on to us that we might love the Lord more, and trust Him more, and seek His face.
And there’s so much in this passage that we literally will not have time to do it justice, but let me point you to four things that we see here.
I. The travelog reminds us of God’s power and person and nature.
The first thing is simply this: this travel log of cities and places in the wilderness reminds us of God’s person and power, and it memorializes His nature in the remembrance of an event. Just as these events, some of them triumphant and some of them tragic, teach Israel about their own sins and about God’s providence, they also teach Israel about Israel’s God. You see this in the first few verses. Look at verses 3-5:
“They set out from Rameses in the first month, on the fifteenth day of the first month, and on the day after the Passover.”
Now you have to stop there. It was on the day after the Passover that this journey began, and immediately we’re reminded of the Passover lamb. What brought Israel out of Egypt was the shed blood of that Passover lamb, or they would have died in their homes — the firstborn — along with Egypt. And it was on Passover that God proved to them what He had said to them so many months before. You remember when God sent Moses to them and he said, “God has sent me to deliver you,” and you remember how despairing Israel had been that they would ever have been delivered from Egypt; and yet on the day after Passover they are leaving the land. And so when they see, when they hear, the word Passover, immediately they think of God who keeps His promises. He said He was going to bring us out of this land, and He did — the day after Passover.
And then we read on. “…The people of Israel went out triumphantly in the sight of all the Egyptians.” Now, the people of Israel had no trained warriors, no weapons, no chariots, no warhorses; and yet, in the face of the mightiest nation in the Middle East, they go out in the plain sight of their enemies. What lesson do we learn from that? That the God of Israel’s power is invincible, even against the Egyptians.
And then we read on: “…while the Egyptians were burying all their firstborn….” We stop right there. God’s judgment on sin is fearful. He had told Egypt, ‘Let My people go, or your firstborn will die.’ And Egypt in its arrogance had said no, we will not. And so God’s judgment has come. God’s judgment on sin is fearful.
And then we read: “On their gods also the Lord executed judgments.” Now this is not to say that there were really gods of Egypt: it is to say that Egypt’s gods were false gods, and God showed that they were false gods by exercising His sovereignty in judgment on them. Think of it. For instance, friends, the Nile was thought to be divine by the Egyptians, and yet God in the plagues showed himself to be master of the Nile. Pharaoh was thought to be divine by the Egyptians, and yet God weighed him in the balances, found him lacking, destroyed his house, and freed His people despite Pharaoh’s refusal to cooperate. In other words, the very sight of those words, “on their gods also the Lord executed judgment,” the people of God remember that their God is the only true God, and so the travel log reminds us of God’s person and power and memorializes His nature in the remembrance of an event.
II. They are reminded that God delivered them from the armies of Egypt in the crossing of the Red Sea.
But there’s a second thing that we see here in this travel log as well, and I’ll draw your attention especially to verse 7:
“They set out from Etham and turned back to Pi-hahiroth, which is east of Baal-zephon, and they camped before Migdol.”
Now Moses could not have said or written the word Baal-zephon without remembering what happened at Baal-zephon. Do you remember what we’re told in the Exodus? That the children of Israel camped at Baal-zephon, across from the sea — or “against the sea.” In other words, their backs were to Egypt, and in front of them was the Red Sea at Baal-Zephon. And what happened at Baal-Zephon? The children of Israel saw the armies of Egypt coming after them. And then do you remember what happened at Baal-Zephon? God in His mighty pillar of cloud covered His people, and then with the outstretched staff of Moses parted the Red Sea, and they crossed the sea on dry land. And when God allowed the Egyptian army to follow them, they were swallowed up in the Red Sea and Israel was safe on the other side. No doubt there would have been older people who remembered the terror of seeing the armies of the Egyptians come, and when they hear the name Baal-Zephon they cannot help but remember it, and they cannot help but remember how their great God had delivered them. It’s a memory of God’s deliverance. Do you see how this travel log reminds them? But it doesn’t just remind them.
This is your story now. By the Lord Jesus Christ, you’ve been brought into this story. This is your heritage, this is your travel log, these are your people. It doesn’t just remind them, it reminds us of God’s deliverance.
Can you remember a day, an event, in which God delivered you in such a powerful way that it literally cannot be erased from your mind? I can remember such days. The Lord has given me more than a handful of events in which in marvelous ways He has undertaken for me. So also when the children of Israel, when Moses hears the word Baal-Zephon, they cannot help but remember the way that God delivered them from the armies of Egypt in the crossing of the Red Sea.
III. It reminds the children of Israel, and it reminds us, of God’s miraculous provision.
There’s a third thing I want you to see here as well, and I want you to look at verses 8 and 9, and also in verse 14, because this travel log reminds the children of Israel, and it reminds us, of God’s miraculous provision. And in three particular words it reminds us of God’s miraculous provision of water. Now that is not a slight thing. For those friends in the northern parts of Alabama and the northern parts of Georgia, the provision of water is no slight thing. In the midst of an historic decade-long drought, the Governor of Georgia just in the last three or four months called the state to pray to God for rain, the drought was so serious in that land. Well, when you’re in the wilderness, water is big. Water is necessary. Water is not to be taken for granted. And so listen to these words in verse 8:
“And they set out from before Hahiroth and passed through the midst of the sea into the wilderness, and they went a three days’ journey in the wilderness of Etham and camped at Marah.”
Now of course the word Marah reminds you of them coming to this place…and there was water there, but there was a problem. The water was undrinkable. And God provided for them water to drink. And we read in verse 9:
“And they set out from Marah and came to Elim; at Elim there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees, and they camped there.”
This again reminds of the lavish provision that God made for water for His people.
And then if you skip forward to verse 14:
“And they set out from Alush and camped at Rephidim, where there was no water for the people to drink.”
But it was at Rephidim, if you’ll remember, that God gave them water from the rock. And the Apostle Paul has told you in I Corinthians 10 that that rock was Christ. And so in all of these marvelous water miracles we are reminded of God’s miraculous, God’s extraordinary provision for His people.
But of course the people of God couldn’t hear the word Rephidim without also remembering the battle against the Amalekites. Do you remember that battle?
“When the people of God saw Moses on the mountain with his arms up-stretched, they prevailed against their enemies, and when his arms grew tired, his aide came and held his arms up in prayer, and God gave them victory over their enemies.”
This travel log reminds them (reminds us) of God’s miraculous provision for us and His answers to prayer.
IV. It reminds, and us, of God’s judgment against sin and unbelief.
And fourth and finally, if you look at verses 16, 36, 38, and 39, this travel log reminds them – reminds us – of God’s judgment against sin and unbelief. In verse 16 we read:
“And they set out from the wilderness of Sinai and camped at Kibroth-hattaavah.”
Now that name reminds us of the events recorded in Numbers 11:1-34, which happened at that site. You remember what the children of Israel did at that site? They expressed their discontent in grumbling against the Lord. It reminds us of their sin and God’s judgment against them.
And then again, we read in verse 36:
“They set out from Ezion-beber and camped in the wilderness of Zin (that is, Kadesh).”
Now, in Kadesh you’ll remember the events of Numbers 13:31-14:38 occurred. There the people of God doubted the Lord’s word, opposed His servants, rejected His will, and faced His judgment.
And then if you look down at verse 39:
“They camped by the Jordan from Beth-jeshimoth as far as Abel-shittim in the plains of Moab.”
And we when we hear the words Abel-shittim in the plains of Moab what do we remember? It’s Numbers 25. After God had spared Israel from all the evil machinations and stratagems of Balak and Balaam against them to bring curses and magic upon them, the children of Israel – after being spared all of those satanic attacks – fell into sin by worshiping the gods of the Moabites and the Midianites and engaging in immoral sexual behavior with the women of the people of the land. And at Abel-shittim, God’s judgment came down on them. But it’s not just the people of God. When you read through this account, you look back at verse 38 and you read this:
“And Aaron the priest went up Mount Hor at the command of the Lord and died there, in the fortieth year after the people of Israel had come out of the land of Egypt on the first day of the fifth month.”
Aaron was that close to entering into the Promised Land, but he dies on Mount Hor. Why? Well, because back at Meribah he had dishonored the Lord in his conduct, and God brought His judgment on him. And because of his sin, he too, like the rest of the wilderness generation, did not enter into the land of Canaan.
Oh, my friends! As the people of God heard these place names, they remembered events that had been emblazoned on their hearts. And they remembered that the Lord brings judgment against sin, and the Lord miraculously provides, and the Lord delivers us from all our enemies, and the Lord is sovereign in His person and power.
What’s your travel log? Have you recounted it, the ways that the Lord has delivered you? And have you passed it on to the next generation so that they will remember the Lord’s faithfulness to you, even though those names mean nothing to them personally? Moses is assuring that the people of God never forget the things that He has taught them at such a costly price in the wilderness.
May God bless His word. Let’s pray.
Our heavenly Father, we thank You for this great passage in which You bring to our minds events that are designed to show us yourself, to show us our sin, to show us Your salvation, and to show us Your care. Surely, O God, these are four things that we need to remember and pay heed to. O Lord, we ask that You would remind us of Your own interventions in our lives, that You would mark those events and times on our hearts, that we might have a heart of wisdom and ever number our days. This we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Would you stand for God’s blessing.
Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith, through Jesus Christ our Lord, until the day break and the shadows flee away.
[Congregational hymn: Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah]