Israel’s Example of Unbelief

“So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief.”

Heb. 3:19

We see that they could not enter in because of unbelief. We see this. It is plain, the holy writer implies, that they could not enter in because of unbelief. He bases this upon the preceding. We read in verse 16: “For some, when they had heard, did provoke: howbeit not all that came out of Egypt by Moses.” Literally we read: “For who, when they had heard, provoked him? Were they not all who had come out of Egypt by Moses?” This is surely verified by what we read in verse 10: “They do always err in their heart; and they have not known my ways.” And this is also substantiated by the history of these terrible events, according to which all those of twenty years and upward perished in the wilderness. Of these we read that they provoked the Lord (verse 16), had sinned (verse 17), believed not or were disobedient (verse 18). It is plain; therefore, that they did not believe, and that it was impossible for them to enter into Canaan because of their unbelief.

And this is for us a very serious warning. Notice what we read in verses 12-13. Do we appeal to the fact that we are members of the church, and that we, therefore, have no need of this admonition of Holy Writ? However, let us remember that also all those who perished in the wilderness belonged to the church, the Church of the Old Dispensation. They, too, lived in God’s house, whereof we read in this chapter; and yet they could not enter into the Rest because of their unbelief. Let us, therefore, take heed and give full consideration to this terrible example of Israel in the Old Dispensation.

What a terrible example of unbelief we have here! The history is familiar to us. How wonderful had been the Lord’s guidance of His people out of Egypt until now! How the Lord had displayed His power while Israel was in the land of bondage and when He had led them through the Red Sea! At Kadesh-Barnea, however, Israel had rejected the report of Joshua and Caleb, had accepted the majority report of the ten spies, and had refused to enter the land of Canaan because of unbelief.

What is unbelief? Unbelief must never be confused or identified merely with doubt or distrust. God, then, had promised the people of Israel the land of Canaan. The ten spies, however, had emphasized in their report the difficulty of Israel’s task to subdue the land. And now, because of the difficulties confronting them and aware of their own weakness, the people of the Lord did not believe in the sense that they doubted whether the Lord would give them the victory.

This presentation of unbelief, however, cannot be accepted. On the one hand, unbelief must never be identified with mere doubt or distrust. To be sure, even if Israel had doubted the. word of the Lord, this would have been a serious offence. However, unbelief is never mere distrust; it is always an act of the will, rooted in the heart, a willful refusal to believe in God and in His Christ, a godless refusal to enter into God’s rest in the way of repentance and faith. Moreover, and on the other hand, that Israel’s unbelief is not to be confused with doubt is obvious from two incidents in this history. First, this is certainly refuted by the example of the faith of Joshua and Caleb. And, secondly, that Israel did not refuse to enter Canaan because of fear appears from the fact that, shortly afterward, they did attempt to conquer the land but were driven back by its inhabitants. Unbelief is always the willful rejection of and rebellion against the Lord and the Voice of the Most High. The viewpoint of this text is not that of God and His promise. It is surely not true that the Lord would give them the promised land, that “if only the Lord had His way” all would have entered, but that the Lord was frustrated in His desire by the unbelief of the people. Indeed, it never was the Lord’s intention to bestow upon all Israel the land of Canaan. This is surely corroborated by Rom. 9:6-8, Gal. 3:16, 19, and Hebrews 6:17-19. The viewpoint of this text, however, is that of Israel’s not entering, Israel’s refusal to inherit the land of Canaan, Israel’s unbelief and refusal to enter into the rest of the Lord. The viewpoint of the text is, subjectively, the sin of Israel.

To understand this unbelief of Israel we must understand the land of Canaan. Canaan was certainly a land flowing with milk and honey. This is confirmed by the return of the spies with a cluster of grapes that had to be carried by two men. Indeed, God had spoken the truth when He had spoken of the richness of the land. This is the significance of that cluster of grapes. Canaan, however, was the land of the promise. And this does not merely mean that it had been promised, but also that it was characterized by the promise. Everything in that land would remind them of the promise. Everything in that land centered in the promise. It is for this reason that an entering and inheriting of the land of Canaan would be inseparably connected with a walking in the ways of the Lord. Always the people must walk with their eye upon the Christ. Always they must separate themselves from the idolatries of the nations around them, and conduct themselves as the people of the Lord. And this also applies to us as in the New Dispensation. To enter into the heavenly Canaan we must walk as heavenly citizens.

This explains Israel’s unbelief. Indeed, it had become plain to them from the report of the spies that they could receive this land only out of the hand of the Lord. But then they must also continue to walk in the ways of the Lord. Israel, however, did not believe. They hated God and His statutes. They despised the thought of entering Canaan as God’s people, to be devoted to the living God. And, therefore, they refused, willfully, to enter into the promised land.

How must we explain this terrible unbelief? Israel lived in the house of God. We may apply this, fast of all, to Israel in the old dispensation. We read of this house of God and of the Voice of the Son of God which is heard in this house in this chapter, verses 2-7. In this house of God the Voice of God is heard, the Voice of the Son of God as it speaks of His eternal covenant and all things connected with that covenant. And this Voice must and shall be heard and answered! Also Israel lived in this house of God. It is true that this house of God in the old dispensation was a house of shadows and types. But there is essentially no difference between this house of God as in the old and new dispensations. In this house Israel heard the Voice of the Son of God. It is true that this voice came to Israel from God through Moses. But Israel knew that it was not Moses but God Who had dried up the Red Sea and had led: them until now. God had spoken to His people through all these signs and wonders. And Israel always heard that Voice of God. Through all these things God had spoken to them of His covenant and salvation, of eternal life and peace, but also of their calling to walk as a redeemed people and in the ways of the Lord.

And we, as in the new dispensation, hear the same Voice of God. Indeed, we live in the new dispensation, the day of the fulfillment. This Voice we hear through His Word and testimony. From infancy on we have been in contact, as in God’s house, with His testimony, through His word and sacrament, in the home, the church, and the school. And it is always the same language: we are hopelessly lost in sin, redeemed and saved by the blood and Spirit of Christ, and therefore called to walk in all the precepts of the Lord.

Now we also understand the possibility of Israel’s terrible unbelief. Indeed, all men are sinners, all sin is disobedience, and all disobedience provokes the Lord. But it is especially in God’s house, in the sphere of God’s covenant, that this sin attains to its most abominable manifestation. We know the history. Israel had become accustomed to this Voice of God! Israel had become sick of the most wonderful mercies of the Lord! They had become “used to” the wonderful delicacies of God’s covenant. Now, at Kadesh-Barnea, they were “fed up” with Gad, refused to enter in. And this also applies to us as in the new dispensation. Indeed, also the heathen are sinners. But in the house of God, in the Church, in the sphere of His covenant, where we come daily into contact with God’s eternal covenant, with the divine command of repentance and faith which is general, Andy the particular promise of God’s rest for the weary and heavy laden, we trample these wonderful truths of God’s covenant under foot, refuse to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ because such faith requires that we walk in all the ways of the Lord. This is the sin of the sinner; for it he is held accountable.

How serious is the warning that comes to us from this history! 0, this history does not imply that it is ever possible for any of God’s elect to perish. This is impossible.

Nevertheless, we do well to take heed—see verse 12. In the fast place, there is in the midst of the church always much flesh, much chaff, much carnality. There are, on the one hand, all those who are called Israel but are not Israel. But, on the other hand, also as far as the children of God are concerned, there is much sin and carnality in the life of every child of God. We have within us but a small principle of the new obedience.

Unbelief always makes it impossible to enter into the land of Canaan. Please notice that we read in the text that they could not enter in because of unbelief. They perished in the wilderness, eternally. They did not simply die, pass away; they perished, the curse of the Lord pursued them, struck them down in the wilderness. They could not enter because of unbelief. They did not perish because of the terrible wilderness, because of the mighty heathen nations, because they were few and weak. One child of God could have put a thousand to flight. They did not enter in, could not enter in, because of unbelief.

This is also applicable today. That we do not enter into God’s rest is not because of the powers of sin and death all around us, is not because that world is too mighty and strong—God has overcome and destroyed that world in Christ Jesus. But the flesh is unbelieving, and unbelief can never enter into the rest of God. This is surely true of the reprobate sinner. But this also applies to the children of God. When we are assailed by unbelief, fail to walk out of faith, then it is impossible for us to walk with our eye fixed upon the city that has foundations.

Let us, therefore, take heed! Are we entering into the eternal Rest? Are we enroute to Sion? Is this faith wholly foreign to us? Remember: unbelief can never enter into the Rest. And the command of God remains: repent! Or, are we as children of God enroute to the city that has foundations? Consciously? Are we struggling to Sion’s top? Or, do we lack that joy and assurance of entering into eternal glory? Let us examine ourselves. Take heed, lest there be in us an evil heart of unbelief? Unbelief never enters, cannot enter; we enter in only through faith! God has fought the battle for us; Christ suffered and died; in Him we have the victory.

Unbelief always fails!

Faith never fails!

Believe in Him, the Author and Finisher of the faith, the Captain of our salvation!