Wilderness Lessons: 1. Law for Israel at Sinai

Numbers 1‑23  •  12 min. read  •  grade level: 8
Up to Sinai it was a question not of what man was, but of God. Man, that is, Israel, was as much a sinner before the law as after it was given; but, there being no law, God was free to manifest His grace without hindrance. See it first in the Passover where the guilty are sheltered from judgment. This efficacy of the sprinkled blood never left them, carried them through the Red Sea, fed them and gave water in the wilderness. Even when the people murmured, there was no word of reproach from Jehovah, and on the second occasion, after they had left Sinai and were come to Rephidim, when they were ready to stone Moses, no judgment overtakes them, on the contrary there is abundance of water. God was not imputing their sins unto them. They were yet solely under the shelter of the sprinkled blood: God looked at that, and passed over. Such were His ways up to Sinai. There, and still for the purposes of grace, God proposed law to Israel, and obedience as the ground of their possession of Canaan. But Canaan was already promised, and possession could in no wise be conditional upon their obedience. The promise was made four hundred and thirty years before law came in (Gal. 3:1717And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect. (Galatians 3:17)) and could not be disallowed. Why then was law given? To bring out evils which lay hidden in nature, and to display the resources of grace which rose above the evil and put it away. But the evil which broke out under law was necessarily judged, else law would have been dishonored. Judgment was not needed for the display of grace. Hence before Sinai we see nothing but unmingled grace in God's dealings with Israel. Afterward, whatever the yearnings of grace over them, judgment through law was a necessity.
In proposing law to Israel God would enlarge the sphere of His grace: for not only would law provoke the evil which already existed in man, but became both the occasion and the cause of transgression. It added transgression to sin. “Moreover the law entered, that the offense might abound; but where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.” Therefore we have two series of teachings in Israel's journeyings from Sinai to Canaan. The old nature is incurable, neither mercy nor judgment can change it; and also the wisdom and the riches of grace which brought in and applied the suited remedy for every phase of evil. So if sin be ineradicable, grace accomplishes a wonderful triumph, for at the close of their journey when the atoning efficacy of the sprinkled blood is fully, though typically, manifested, then the enemy is compelled to say “He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob.” At the first Jacob had to bar his door and sprinkle blood on the door-post lest the Avenger should enter; now of this same people Balaam is made to express Jehovah's delight in them; “How goodly are thy tents O Jacob, and thy tabernacles O Israel.” This delight in them is the result of the finished work of Christ, not because of their ways.
But one way of learning the riches of grace is to look at the sin which brought it out. For however aggravated the sins of Israel were in character, grace while leaving room for law, was greater than the sin.
I purpose looking briefly at a few of the leading events from Sinai to the Jordan. Every preparation was completed on the twentieth day of the second month of the second year; the cloud rises from the tabernacle, and Israel begin their journey. But now under law, they have refused to take possession of the land as the gift of grace, they presume to possess it as the reward of obedience. What is to be expected from those who began the path of obedience with such a blot as to worship the golden calf, in which not only the common people joined, but all from Aaron downwards? No wonder that every event recorded of their journey is a record of sin and rebellion against God.
The order of marching is arranged, captains are appointed. The Levites as having to do with the Tabernacle are numbered by the principal families and the special duties of each are assigned. The observance of due order in all that pertains to His worship and service is of great importance: nor less in the church than with Israel. From twenty years old the men of other tribes were numbered for war; but the Levites must be thirty before they were permitted to begin their service; they must at least be beyond the age when the rashness and impulsiveness of youth might influence them.
Though at the command of God they leave Sinai and under His protection and guidance, yet how different from the first steps of their journey when they had just passed through the Red Sea! Then they began with a song, the power of Jehovah was the theme of praise. It was He who had overthrown Pharaoh and his host, it was He who had triumphed gloriously. They were not better then than now; why not sing now? They were then simply objects of grace, they had not then uttered the rash vow. How changed their position! No song now. A man under law has no right to sing, only grace gives that privilege. Law genders bondage, never removes the fear of death. How can there be singing in the heart where the fear of death is?
At the Red Sea God was visibly for them without question of obedience. At Sinai the aspect of God towards them was changed. Law had been proposed to them and was accepted. They had engaged themselves to an obedience which they were incapable of rendering. Most true that grace was ever for them, but according to the letter of the law God must be apparently against them. And when believers now assert that they are under law as a rule of life they seem to forget that on law ground, God must be against them. The law was only a test to prove man, and now that the fullest proof of what he is has appeared, the test is removed, no longer necessary. To take it up now as a rule of life, a purpose never intended by God, is to take all its terrible responsibilities, without the sanction of God, yea contrary to His will. The law has served the purpose for which it was given, and is now laid aside. It was just before the final blow (the destruction of Jerusalem) which shattered the outward observances founded upon the law that Paul wrote to the saints who were mixed up with the old thing, “Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away.” The believer who voluntarily puts himself under law is worse than the over-confident Israelite boldly promising to do all the commandments; for it is now in presence of fullest grace, of the cross given because life could be had in no other way. Such an one under law hinders his own blessing, and settled peace is unknown to him. He can never sing in his heart ranking melody to God. The more conscientious he is in law-doing, the more will he fear the threatenings of law. And being God's law, it must be against every transgressor. Yet every believer is saved, and God is for him. God cannot be against and for at the same time. Taking law as the rule of a believer's life, puts him in a false position as to his own peace, and is impossible to one in Christ. “If righteousness come by law then Christ is dead in vain.”
While looking at Israel under the trial of law what patience is seen in the dealings of God with their rebellious ways! The eternal counsel of grace underlies all. And what a picture of man appears in this eventful journey through the wilderness! On one side what perseverance of grace, on the other, what persistency of evil! But it is not Israel only, save historically, that is seen; for here are the moral lineaments of man, and the exhibition of nature in the most favored position. Here is a mirror the faithful reflector of him who looks in it—man in the best position, with every advantage, and in result no Gentile so vile as the Israelite. In later years God said by the prophet, “what could have been done to my vineyard that I have not done” (Isa. 5:44What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have not done in it? wherefore, when I looked that it should bring forth grapes, brought it forth wild grapes? (Isaiah 5:4))? It is a solemn but a needed lesson: man is morally ruined, and moral means are used to teach him. Yet not there in that journey is the total ruin learned. The cross alone brought that out fully even as it alone declares the infinite love of God.
Yet God had a “silver line” of witnesses running through the tangled web of murmuring and rebellion. The people often went back into Egypt in their hearts. They remembered and lusted after Egypt's food but forgot Egypt's slavery. How could God bear with them when they had put themselves under law? A most significant fact shows how He could and did bear with them all through the wilderness. The two tables of the law, that law which they had broken, were put within the ark, and upon its lid of gold the blood of atonement was sprinkled. This blood ever met the eye of God. Did the law demand judgment upon the transgressor? There was the blood to meet its righteous demand. The blood-sprinkled mercy-seat covered all. The two tables, the gold and the blood, were together indicative of the mixed system of law—righteousness and grace.
God would be gracious, and under the auspices of Jehovah they began, and went on their journey. The ark of the covenant leading them, the ark that while it contained the law was sprinkled with blood, in itself a pledge that Israel must be brought through the wilderness, and it went first to find out a place of rest for the people; not the rest of Canaan, but a temporary halting place while they were still on journey. The cloud of Jehovah's presence rested upon the ark, and when it rose they went forward. Their following the ark is important but blessed teaching for saints now. There was no pathway through the desert for them, there was no guide through and out of it but the cloud of Jehovah's presence. Nor is there any path for us through this world but that which Jesus has marked; He has gone before and left the print of His footsteps behind that we may not miss the way.
Not exactly the same kind of faith in their following the ark as in saints now following the Lord for they had a visible emblem; we see nothing but we believe the more. Yet in Moses there was confidence in the protection of Jehovah's presence, for when the ark set forward he as representing Israel said, “Rise up, O Jehovah, and let Thine enemies be scattered, and let them that hate Thee flee before Thee,” and when the ark rested he said, “Return, O Jehovah, unto the many thousands of Israel.” This was to lead the whole congregation to remember Him who, though hidden in the cloud, was their Guide and Protector notwithstanding their sin. But save in very few, where was the response of gratitude, where the promised obedience, for all this care and watchful guard?
Notwithstanding this wonderful presence they had only gone a three days' journey when they murmur. Jehovah's anger is kindled and. fire consumes the uttermost parts of the camp. They had murmured more than once before they reached Sinai, but there was no consuming fire then. There was no answer, but blessing, and Moses is commanded to smite the rock and the water flows. Now they complain and fire immediately breaks out on the borders of their encampment. Why such a difference from the scene at Horeb? They are feeling the consequences of being under law. All is indeed changed and God is demanding the payment of their vows, their promised obedience. But what could be expected from people who had only a few days before worshipped a calf? Three thousand fell then; fire consumes the borders of the camp now, and still they are not changed. How invincible the lusts of men! They are no sooner delivered from the fire than they weep at the recollection of the “cucumbers and the melons, the leeks, and the onions and the garlic;” and worse still they say, “Our soul is died away, there is nothing at all beside this manna before our eyes.” But the Word lets us into the secret of their weeping. There was a mixed multitude among them which fell a lusting, and then the children of Israel followed in the same sin and weeping said, “who shall give us flesh to eat?” It was not for water, nor for bread, but for “flesh;” that is, something to gratify the lusting of the heart in common with the mixed multitude. When the heart longs for Egyptian food, the manna from heaven is sure to be despised; and intimacy or even companionship with the world soon brings saints down to the world's level.
One of the first lessons given as to saints is that “evil communications corrupt good manners.” To complain of God's dealings with us is what we are prone to; but lusting after Egypt's food is the sure consequence of mingling with the world. The children of Israel followed the example of the mixed multitude (Num. 11:44And the mixt multitude that was among them fell a lusting: and the children of Israel also wept again, and said, Who shall give us flesh to eat? (Numbers 11:4)); and no Christian mixes with the world without going down to their level and partaking of their lusts.