Lessons for the Wilderness: 7. By-Paths and Straight Paths

 •  7 min. read  •  grade level: 7
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The entire journey in the Wilderness is comprised in twelve chapters which are found in the middle of the book of Numbers (10-21). The previous chapters give us a prefatory unfolding of certain things, connected with the arrangement of the camps of Israel, around God Himself, in their midst, in His Sanctuary. The remainder of the book giving other instructions, some of which look onwards to their dwelling in the land.
The first step onwards, gave a character to their whole path. We see in it the effort of flesh to find a path for itself in the Wilderness apart from that marked out of God. Flesh cannot walk in His paths; but seeks a bye-path — an easier way, which seems right, and seems to lead in flesh’s vision, to the same end. It proves but a snare, which must be retraced to the very spot where it turned aside, there to re-enter God’s true path, which alone is sure to reach the goal.
Let us examine this carefully. If we remark the order in which the Camp set out on its onward progress, it was unlike that prescribed in the earlier chapters of the Book of Numbers, where the Sanctuary was in their midst. Here the Ark went in advance of the whole, followed by the tribes of “Ephraim,” “Manasseh,” and “Benjamin.” (Num. 10:21-2421And the Kohathites set forward, bearing the sanctuary: and the other did set up the tabernacle against they came. 22And the standard of the camp of the children of Ephraim set forward according to their armies: and over his host was Elishama the son of Ammihud. 23And over the host of the tribe of the children of Manasseh was Gamaliel the son of Pedahzur. 24And over the host of the tribe of the children of Benjamin was Abidan the son of Gideoni. (Numbers 10:21‑24)). But immediately the conduct of the people is described: chapter after chapter of failure is presented to us. They turned aside quickly out of the way; yet God forsook them not.
Since then nearly three thousand five hundred years have passed away, and the failure of that moment has never yet been recovered. Still — that is morally the very spot to which God will eventually lead back their erring hearts before they are restored in the end. Great and marvelous are Thy ways, O Lord!
When we turn to the eightieth Psalm — one of those heart breathings of His people in the last days which are hastening on; there we see — in those pleadings of His Spirit in their exercised souls — that He has that moment of Numbers still before Him. He ever remembers that scene, for He knows all and never forgets. We read “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, thou that leadest Joseph like a flock: thou that dwellest between the cherubims, shine forth. Before Ephraim, and Benjamin and Manasseh, stir up thy strength, and come and save us. Turn us again, O God, and cause thy face to shine: and we shall be saved... Return, we beseech thee, O God of hosts: look down from heaven, and behold, and visit this vine and vineyard which thy right hand hath planted... Let thy hand be upon the man of thy right hand, upon the Son of man, whom thou madest strong for thyself. So will not we go back from this: quicken us, and we will call upon thy name.”
The awakened soul of Israel returns in spirit to that first step of departure from the Lord. Their hope is alone in Him, and “the Son of man” — the man of God’s right hand becomes their resource and confidence, in the day when the Lord of Sabaoth turns their hearts to Himself, and causes His face again to shine upon them, and they are saved!
O what lessons for the redeemed soul! What warnings are here for us! What faithfulness to Himself and to us, do we find in all God’s ways! How small a beginning it was, which led to such mighty results, such mighty unfoldings of God! Let the way be long or short, the bye-path must be re-traced: the soul must be brought back in spirit: the first buddings of evil must be laid bare to their roots, that the soul may judge with God’s vision and wisdom, its path and ways to their spring. Such is the nature of the “Beema (or Judgment seat) of Christ” (2 Cor. 5:1010For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad. (2 Corinthians 5:10)) when this is not done in this life here. But O, how blessed, that the deepest recesses of our hearts, will all be then laid bare; our motives and springs will then be known; and these very things that were so humbling to us while here, will be found, as under the hand of God, to have been made to work together for good for them who love God, who are the called according to His purpose. O God, there is none like Thee; and there is no people like thine, O Lord!
When the Camp set forward on its journey, the Ark of God went before, leaving its ordinary place in their midst. God departs from the ordered way, in sovereign grace; and instead of being surrounded to be cared for and guarded by the People, He goes before to care for them. “When he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow, for they know his voice.”
“And they departed from the mount of the Lord, three days journey; and the Ark of the covenant of the Lord went before them in the three days journey, to search out a resting place for them” (Num. 10:3333And they departed from the mount of the Lord three days' journey: and the ark of the covenant of the Lord went before them in the three days' journey, to search out a resting place for them. (Numbers 10:33)). And this is His care for us in our wilderness path. He gathers us around Him, going before us by the way, in the varied expressions of His love for us. At times to “Remember Him” in the sign of His death; at times for the ministry of His word; at others to wait on Him in prayer. These are the oases in the wilderness — the green spots of refreshment where He would dispense His care, and give us to realize His Father’s love.
How often are our eyes turned upon some human prop at such moments as these. How little do our hearts look up to Him and to His stores of goodness; we would rest upon other broken reeds rather than on Him. It is not that we should refuse, by this, the instruments and channels of His grace. How often does the heart in seeking to keep from human props, run into the other extreme, and ignore the very channels by which He would refresh our souls. But such is man, ever seeking a way of his own devising, rather than the blessed Lord’s ordered way. We see here how even His servant Moses is at fault, just when His love was being so brightly expressed in the Ark advancing before the hosts of Israel. It was then that Moses leaned upon an arm of flesh, a natural help, in seeking to have a child of the desert — his “father-in-law,” to be for them “instead of eyes.” But God must now be all for them.
The Priests went forward bearing the Ark of God; wrapped in its coverings. First the Vail, then the Badger Skins, and then the heavenly blue. They went the three days journey — the Ark going before: the feet of the priests left their momentary mark in the sand of the desert, and Israel followed where these footfalls fell; thus were they strangers and pilgrims in the earth. Many had traversed these paths before; many have done so since that day; many a child of the desert had trodden the same solitudes; but they were not strangers and pilgrims there. What constituted the others such, and only this, was the presence of the Ark of the Lord — the Christ of God. We are only strangers and pilgrims where we are His, and He is our guide, and we follow Him. We may fail and stumble by the way, but this is what singles His own out from the common herd of men, and gives them that character of strangers here, and pilgrims journeying to a better land!