Numbers 14; Deuteronomy 1:44  •  20 min. read  •  grade level: 9
The root of sin lies very deep indeed. It is nothing less than the will of man. Hence the great defect in any mere moral judgment as to sin. Such a judgment proceeds on grounds, either of immutable principles of right and wrong, independently of the acknowledgment of God, or on the ground of conventional righteousness, as variable as the several states and conditions of men. Thus, the apostle concludes the detail of practical ungodliness with this sweeping principle: “There is no fear of God before their eyes (Rom. 3:1818There is no fear of God before their eyes. (Romans 3:18));” and another principle equally broad is found in the words: “They measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise.” “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” It necessarily introduces an element which no system of morals could provide for; namely, suitability of conduct under special circumstances, the right thing to be done at the right time. If we will only allow that there is a supreme will to which every will ought to bow, obedience and disobedience cannot be defined by statutory laws. One alone stands forth in the singular place of obedience – the obedient One – He “Whose ear was opened morning by morning to hear as the learned;” He of Whom it is written, “Lo, I come to do thy will, O God;” He Who Himself said, “My meat is to do the will of Him that sent me.” We alas! have to say, “We have turned every one to his own way”; our will has not been subject to the will of God. Ever since we have been quickened by His grace, and God has drawn us with cords of love as a man, so that we have come to Jesus, and received Him as made to us of God, wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, we have practically had to “prove what is that good, and perfect, and acceptable will of God,” and, in many instances, painfully to learn submission to it. We are “sanctified onto obedience” of Jesus Christ, as well as unto the sprinkling of His blood (1 Peter 1:22Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace unto you, and peace, be multiplied. (1 Peter 1:2)). As servants of Christ, we are “servants of obedience unto righteousness.” It is by the knowledge of this principle that we get so deep an insight into what sin really is in the sight of God. It is our willfulness. That is the interpretation which the exercised soul is enabled to put on many of the dealings of God with His children. Men and Christiana see the outside of one another, and judge accordingly; God judges the heart, and searches the reins. Is it right or allowable? is the question with man. Is it obedience? is the question with God.
There is nothing which so draws the line between spirituality and sentiment, and indeed prevents spirituality from degenerating into mystic refinement, as the realizing that the Holy Spirit, Who, in quickening our souls, has created in us new feelings and desires, is the Spirit of truth, and, while presenting truth objectively to the soul, sanctifies by the means of it. “God hath chosen us unto salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth.” The whole course of a Christian should be truthful. The very basis of Christianity is truth – the truth of what we are in ourselves, and of what God is as revealed to us in Christ. Our starting point is the recognition of oar real position before God – sinners, helpless, ruined, and righteously exposed to the wrath of God. When, by the quickening power of the Spirit of God, we are brought to take this truthful place, the controversy is over between us and God: He justifies us freely by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus. Starting from this on our walk as Christians, if we sin, the truthful place is confession, and then again God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. A large measure of the needed discipline of God is to bring us to this truthful place: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”
We may learn a solemn and profitable lesson front redeemed Israel; redeemed indeed only outwardly, but still answering the gracious end to us of admonition by that which happened to them.
The distinguishing grace of God had been shown to Israel in the blood of the paschal lamb in Egypt. They had seen the glorious triumph of the Lord on their behalf, in leading them through the Red sea as on dry land, and the titter destruction of their enemies in endeavoring to follow them. They had known the grace of God in sweetening the waters of Marah and in providing shade and refreshment in the wilderness. They had murmured also; but their murmurings had been answered in grace, bread being given to them from heaven, and quails sent in abundance. They tempted the Lord; but He answered them by causing water to gush out of the flinty rock. They had fought against Amalek, and prevailed through the hands of Moses upheld in intercession. The grace of God had abounded over all their sin, up to the moment of their receiving the law by the disposition of angels. Moses is called up to the Lord in the mount, to receive from the Lord ordinances for them of divine service. They forgot Moses, and set up gods for themselves to go before them. This sin is answered in the terrible judgment inflicted on their brethren by the children of Levi, and the plague of the Lord. They had seen the tabernacle reared and filled with the glory of the Lord. The cloud, the witness of the presence of Jehovah in the midst of them, now took its place as their guide through the wilderness. Their holy priesthood had been consecrated before them, and when the fire fell on the sacrifices, and the glory of the Lord appeared, they had shouted and fallen on their faces. They had also witnessed the same “consuming fire” vindicating the holiness of the Lord in the destruction of Nadab and Abihu. The stoning of the sabbath-breaker and of the blasphemer, at the commandment of the Lord, proved that He was judge Himself; and prophecy of judgment in case of disobedience, and mercy after humiliation and repentance, close the eventful year of Israel’s deliverance out of Egypt. “In the fourteenth day of the first month, Israel kept the passover at the commandment of the Lord in the wilderness of Sinai.” What a retrospect for Israel to look back through a year to the blood sprinkled on the doer-posts and lintels of their houses in Egypt — the angel of the Lord dealing destructive judgment all around, and they feasting peacefully within! May our souls know abidingly the blessed reality of this deeply interesting figure! “On the twentieth day of the second month, in the second year, the cloud was taken up from off the tabernacle of the testimony, and the children of Israel took their journeys out of the wilderness of Sinai: and the cloud rested in the wilderness of Paran.” But they leave there the record of their sin and of the judgment of God in the names Taberah and Kibroth-hattaavah, “the burning” of the fire of the Lord, and “the graves of lust.” It is from Paran that the spies are sent to search the land, and bring also of the fruit of it. Israel had known the bondage of Egypt and deliverance from it by the outstretched arm of Jehovah, and that arm was not shortened, so that it could not bring them to the land promised to their fathers.
But how graciously does Jehovah condescend to their weakness in commissioning Moses to “send men that they may search the land of Canaan, which I give unto the children of Israel.” They searched it without any molestation for forty days, and “brought back word unto them and lento all the congregation, and showed them the fruit of the land.” But the report of the strength of the people and of walled cities was more readily received than the report of the goodness of the land, although they had such a sample of its goodness before their eyes. Vain are the remonstrances of Caleb and Joshua. The ten who accompanied them in searching the land brought up a slander on the land; the congregation first murmur and despise the pleasant land, and take counsel to “make themselves a captain and to return into Egypt.” Caleb and Joshua again remonstrate; Moses intercedes; but the Lord sets Himself against their rebellion, and makes their unbelief to be the punishment of their sin. “Tomorrow, turn you and get you into the wilderness by the way of the Red sea.” Thus thwarted in the wilderness in one way, they evince it in another. The same people who yesterday, (with the presence of the Lord with them, and the fruit of the land before them) refused, at the commandment of the Lord, to go up and possess the land, become bold in disobedience, now that the Lord commands them to turn again the way of the Red sea. Their willfulness would fain surmount any difficulties. The sons of Anak had lost their terror and walled cities their strength in their eyes, and they themselves had grown from grass-hoppers to giants the moment the will of the Lord thwarted their will. Such ever is man’s boasted freedom of will — miserable freedom indeed, to have a will always opposed to “the good, perfect, and acceptable will of God.” It is freedom of a sort; but what a freedom! “When ye were servants of sin, ye were free from righteousness.” “And they rose up early in the morning, and gat them up to the top of the mountain, saying, Lo, we be here, and will go up to the land which the Lord hath promised: for we have sinned.” Only yesterday they had said, “Let us make a captain and return into Egypt,” and the Lord had answered, “To-morrow turn you, get you into the wilderness by the way of the Red sea.” But now in very willfulness they confess sin and plead the promise of the Lord; strange but faithful picture of the deceitfulness, as well as the desperate wickedness of the heart! And Moses said, “Wherefore now do ye transgress the commandment of the Lord? but it shall not prosper.” Their pleading the Lord’s promise, and confession of sin was in this instance only the prelude to presumptuous sin. The Lord is not with them, and their willful boldness ends in discomfiture. They presumed to go up unto the bill top, “and the Amalekites came down and smote them and discomfited them, even unto Honnah.”
Do we know anything like this in the secret experience of our own souls? When Christians, through the grace of God, have attained to a measure of blessing, and then cease from following on to know the Lord; when the heart secretly turns back to the world, out of which we have been rescued by Christ giving Himself for our sins; when the difficulties of the way present themselves more prominently than the rest and glory which God Himself has set before us, then we may be assured that the evil heart of unbelief is at work, and there has been departure from the living God. Declension has manifestly set in. Christ is dishonored, and the pleasant land despised. The necessary consequence is discipline from the Father, discipline even to the scourge, because of His love. The stroke is felt, and intended to be felt. It may bring disgrace on us in our own eyes, and in the eyes of others also. It is hard for us to be turned back.
We are just like wayward children. How well we can understand the reply of Israel, “Lo, we be here,” to the announcement, “Turn you, and get you into the wilderness by the way of the Red sea!” They could not bear to lose, as it were, so much ground, and to traverse the wilderness afresh. They would go up from where they were, but it cannot prosper; neither was it the Lord’s way, nor was He with them; their attempt failed, and ended in discomfiture and deeper disgrace. The Lord will have us back to the cross that we may start afresh with Him. We must learn that, after all our progress, we are nothing better than sinners saved by grace. It is on this point that the controversy so frequently turns between the Lord and ourselves. We refuse to humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God. We allow that we have sinned, but desire to go on as though we had not. This is not obedience but presumption.
We do not undo wrong, by doing what appears to us to be right, but by justifying God in confession, and taking the place which He assigns to us. The same God who, by His grace, has made us everything, and given us everything in Christ, the moment we cease to value that, by looking to our own attainments, will in very faithfulness make us feel our nothingness. “God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble.” He is ever able to come in when we are humble, and work for His own name’s sake. But He has no name to meet us while, in the pride of our hearts, we insist on maintaining a position. He can, in such case, only resist us. Are we indeed “cast down?” He can reveal Himself as “God who comforteth those who are cast down.” Are we in tribulation? He is able to come in as “the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort.” Let us get down as low as may be before God, He has ever in reserve some part of His own name to reveal and meet as.
But, if “we walk contrary unto God,” so that “He walks contrary to us” — till this be acknowledged, and “the punishment of our iniquity be accepted,” How pointedly does Moses, in narrating to “the generation to come” the ways of their fathers who had perished in the wilderness, present this principle! “Then ye answered and said unto me, We have sinned against the Lord; we will go up and fight according to all that the Lord our God commanded us. And when ye had girded on every man his weapons of war, ye were ready to go up into the hill. And the Lord said unto me, Say unto them, Go not up, neither fight, for I am not among you; lest ye be smitten before your enemies. So I spake unto you, and ye would not hear, but rebelled against the commandment of the Lord, and went presumptuously up into the hill. And the Amorites which dwelt in that mountain came out against you and chased you, as bees do, and destroyed you in Seir, even unto Hormah. And ye returned and wept before the Lord; but the Lord would not hearken to your voice, nor give ear unto you (Deut. 1).”
“Ye were presumptuous, and went up.” Solemn admonition indeed! Well we may say: “Who can understand his errors? Cleanse thou me from secret faults: keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins.” Israel presumed on the promise of the Lord, and on their own confession of sins; and at the same time “rebelled against the commandment of the Lord.” Presumptuous sin appears specially the danger of God’s own accredited people. It is doing that which makes for our own credit, rather than that which is for the honor of Christ. In this there may be no moral element which the natural conscience can discern. There may even be the apparent confession of sin; and boldness of action in pleading the promise of God, humility and dignity outwardly presented, and yet God not acknowledged at all.
It is the exercised soul which cries: “Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sin.” Caleb and Joshua, faithful in the midst of unfaithfulness, not only reported well of the land, but felt their strength to be doing “the will of God.” “If the Lord delight in us, then he will bring as into this land, and give it us; a land which floweth with milk and honey: only rebel not ye against the Lord, neither fear ye the people of the land; for they are bread for us: their defense is departed from them, and the Lord is with us: fear them not; but all the congregation bade stone them with stones.” The Lord was not with those who presumptuously went up the hill; bat those who, like Caleb and Joshua, had known the presence of the Lord as their only strength and security, in going up when He commanded to go up, would equally find it to be their strength and security to turn back the way of the Red sea, when the Lord so commanded. The Lord was still with them.
And what did Caleb and Joshua learn by their turning back with the others, but fresh lessons of the abounding of the grace of God over the sin of Israel? Disappointed, of entering Canaan from Kadeshbarnea, it all turned to gain in entering by “a way they had not passed heretofore.” For when “the soles of the feet of the priests that bare the ark of the Lord, the Lord of all the earth, rested in the waters of Jordan, the waters of Jordan were cut off from the waters that came down from above: and they stood on a heap: and all the Israelites passed over on dry ground.” The Lord did not turn back His faithful servants, Caleb and Joshua, with their unfaithful brethren, to no profit. They witnessed indeed the fall in the wilderness of all their generation after less than forty years; but they had learned the blessings of Aaron’s rod which budded; they had witnessed the saving power of the wondrous ordinance of the brazen serpent; they had proved too that no enchantment could prevail against Israel. And thus richly freighted with the knowledge of the blessings of a present God even in the wilderness, an entrance was abundantly ministered unto them into Canaan, through the prevailing power of a present God manifested by the means of priestly service.
“Turn you, and get you into the wilderness by the Red sea.” Does it seem hard to us to do so? If there has been failure and declension, only let us come back in simplicity of faith to our starting point, the cross of Christ, and then we too shall learn, as Caleb and Joshua, afresh and more deeply how the Lord hath triumphed gloriously. Humbled, if needs be, in the eyes of others, bowing submissively under their taunts, receiving all as a part of the discipline we need, and, oh! how light compared with our folly. God shows Himself as an upbraiding God. “He giveth grace to the humble.” All the progress we have made in the knowledge of divine things, in which we have complacently rested, is not to be compared with the deeper lesson of the grace of God, yet to be learned in the cross and from the cross. It may seem to us to be only the shame of retracing our steps; but it is in reality to go on with God, learning fresh manifestations of His grace in Christ Jesus; it is to find a reality in the very truths which we had only superficially handled before; for real Christian progress is characterized by our estimate of great essential truths — truths connected with, and flowing from, the person of Christ. “That I may know Him.”
Is it a weariness to learn more experimentally the value of the ever-blossoming, fruit bearing priestly ministry of our Jesus — a ministry so immediately flowing from His person? Starting indeed from the cross, and keeping near the cross, it is blessed to learn its value, as Israel knew the brazen serpent, the last resource of the grace of God in the wilderness; for as surely as Jesus Himself is the Alpha and Omega, so also is the cross to us the first and the last great doctrine of God. It is well too to learn when all can find fault, and the finger of scorn is held up at the failure of God’s people, and they cry insultingly: “There, there, so would we have it,” that the charge shall not lie against us, for it is God that justifieth. “He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath he seen perverseness in Israel.” These and other lessons are to be learned in thus turning again by the way of the Red Sea — by humbling, instead of justifying, ourselves — by really confessing sin, instead of resolutely maintaining a position — by knowing “rather the comfort of the Lord’s presence, in being, as it were, turned back in apparent disgrace, than presenting a strong front, and going on without God. All effort to maintain a position to which even the grace of God has led, but the maintenance of which (instead of the maintenance of Christ’s honor) has become the object, must end in discomfiture. It is presumptuous sin. And if Christians will refuse to turn back at the bidding of God, and to humble themselves under His mighty hand, in order to drink more deeply into the riches of His grace, God will resist them; and what will the end be?
There is one lesson to be learned under every failure and disappointment; namely, death and resurrection. The Lord Jesus Himself might say as to Israel, “I have labored in vain, and spent my strength for naught, and in vain;” but let His own death and resurrection come in, “He shall see of the travail of his soul and be satisfied.” His servant Paul had to say, at the close of his ministry: “This thou knowest, that all they which be in Asia are turned away from me;” but, however he might feel disappointment even keenly, yet his labor in the Lord was not in vain, and still the sure foundation of the Lord standeth. And in our days, those who have labored for the Lord, and been disappointed in the result, have they learned nothing? Has not disappointment taught them death and resurrection? Has it not tended to bring back the soul in solemn review, and to see the need of death to be written on much of their service, which had not Christ simply for its object? Cannot they justify God for their disappointment? But their labor is not in vain in the Lord. Disappointment at Kadesh-barnea led to a triumphant entrance through Jordan.
Oh! that we all knew better how to get into the place of blessing: it must be a very low place indeed. Many a goodly pretension will there have to be given up; no position of credit in the eyes of others must be sought to be maintained. We must justify God in all His righteous judgment. Then controversy is over, and we shall prove Israel’s God to be our God, “Who remembered us in our low estate: for his mercy endureth forever.” And although death and disappointment have been written on our fondest expectations, it is only to teach us not “to trust in ourselves, but in God that raiseth the dead, who delivered us from so great a death, and doth deliver, in whom we trust that he will yet deliver.” The very sense of deep need will only open more clearly the fullness of Jesus, and we shall have learned, by our inexhaustible experience, to keep more close to the Spring-head of living waters, by finding the cisterns we had hewn out for ourselves broken and incapable of holding any water.
The Bible Treasury 16:145-148, 161-162.