“And the Lord said unto Moses, “How long will the people provoke me? And how long will it be ere they believe me for all the signs which I have shewed among them? I will smite them with pestilence, and disinherit them, and will make of thee a greater nation and mightier than they.” Numbers 14:11
So the Lord spake. It shows that a great sin had again been committed by the people of Israel. The Lord had shewed signs among them. In the words of the psalmist, Moses and Aaron had “shewed His signs among them, and wonders in the land of Ham. He sent darkness and made it dark. . . . He turned their waters into blood and slay their fish. Their land brought forth frogs in abundance, in the chambers of their kings. He spake, and there came divers sorts of flies, and lice in all their coasts. He gave them hail for rain, and flaming fire in their land. He smote their vines also and their fig trees; and brake the trees of their coasts. He spake and their locusts came, and caterpillars, and that without number. And did eat up all the herbs in their land, end devoured the fruit of their ground. He smote also all the firstborn in their land, the chief of all their strength. He brought them forth also with silver and gold: and there was not one feeble person among their tribes. Egypt was glad when they departed: for the fear of them fell upon them. He spread a cloud for a covering; and fire to give light in the night. The people asked, and he brought quails, and satisfied them with the bread of heaven. He opened the rock, and the waters gushed out; they ran in the dry places like a river.”
These had been the Lord’s signs. Their total signified that He remembered His holy promise, and Abraham His servant and that, as so remembering, he would give them the lands of the heathen and cause them to inherit the labor of the people of these lands. But, having finally arrived at the borders of these lands—the promised lands of their abode—they refused to believe the Lord’s signs. It was a hard speech that they uttered against Him at their hearing the report of the ten spies. They wanted to know why He had brought them to the border of Canaan that they, their wives and their children should be a prey. Through His continuing to drop His goodnesses before their feet on the way, He had lured them on and on until He finally had them on the edge of Canaan where the slaughter was to take place. The Lord had said to them by the mouth of Moses, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt. . . . and I am come down to deliver them. . . . and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land. . . .” So the Lord had spoken. But according to those wailing Israelites, God had not meant a word of it. He had delivered them by His outstretched arm and had taken them to His bosom at Mount Sinai. All along He had provided in all their necessities. But they now saw the real motive behind His doing.
Verily, the people were committing a great sin. The sense and meaning of the Hebrew word translated by provoke is: to deride, despise, contemn, reject. The people were despising the Lord, faithful and true, long- suffering and of great mercy, the righteous and the holy God. They did so not in their ignorance but deliberately, knowingly. For these virtues of God were manifest in them and were clearly seen by them, being understood by His signs. But though they knew God, they glorified Him not as God, because they were wicked. In their spite they insisted that He was an evil deity, unfaithful, untrue, deceitful and thus worthy to be despised and rejected. And despise Him they did.
It was as if their perversity astonished even the Lord Himself. “How long will they despise me?” “How long will it be ere they believe me. . . .” The Lord answered His own questions, when He said, “I will smite them with the pestilence, and disinherit them. . . .” The implication of these utterances is that they will not cease despising and disbelieving Him. There is indeed every indication that the vast majority of them were persons thoroughly profligate, men corrupt in the very heart of their disposition. Consider the following. Hearing their speech, Moses and Aaron, in their great amazement and consternation, fell on their faces before all the assembly. Joshua and Caleb rent their clothes. And they spake to all the company saying, “The land which we passed through to search is an exceeding good land. If the Lord delight in us, then he will bring us into this land, and give it us; a land which floweth with milk and honey. Only rebel ye not 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.”
“Their defense is departed from them.” So spake the believing Joshua. What he meant is that the terror of God was fallen upon the inhabitants of Canaan and that their hearts were melted, so that there remained no more courage in them. How is it to be explained that Joshua was so confident of this? To Pharaoh the Lord had said, “And in very deed for this cause have I raised thee up, for to shew in thee my power; and that my name may be declared throughout all the earth.” This prediction of God went into immediate fulfillment. The report of His doings in Egypt was carried far and wide. “We have heard”, said Rahab the harlot, to the spies whom she was concealing in her house, “We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you, when ye came out of Egypt; and what he did unto the kings of the Amorites, that were on the other side of the Jordan, Sihon and Og, whom ye utterly destroyed.” “And as soon as we heard,” Rahab went on to say, “our hearts did melt. . . . because of you: for the Lord your God he is God in heaven above and in earth beneath.” This had by implication also been the testimony of Pharaoh. But there was a difference. In bringing this confession over his lips, Pharaoh was moved by carnal fear; Rahab by a true faith. But the point is that what Rahab’s testimony shows is that the Lord had laid His plagues the wonders He had wrought, not only on the heart of Pharaoh but on the hearts of the inhabitants of all the neighboring lands as well, so that already then His name was being declared throughout the earth. And as to the Canaanites, having heard, their hearts did melt. This, that their hearts did melt, Joshua and all the other spies in all likelihood had also perceived from what they had heard the Canaanites say, while exploring their land. They had thus made the discovery that the morale of the Canaanites had been broken down. The despair of these people was to believing Joshua the sign that the Lord was with Israel and that Israel therefore should not fear the adversary. And he also tells the rebels this sign, “Neither fear ye the people of the land for they are bread for us. . . . their defense is departed from them. . . .” Hearing themselves thus admonished, they became furious and in their fury “bade stone them with stones”. They could not endure being told that the Lord would bring them into the promised land, if He delight in them and that, if He would not bring them up, it would be solely on account of their rebellion.
The Lord’s saying to Moses that He would smite them with pestilence and disinherit them and would make of Moses a greater nation and mightier than they, cannot be taken as expressive of the Lord’s intention. For what the Lord said is that He would destroy not the nation in so far as it was reprobated but the entire people with the exception of one man—the man Moses—that thus he would make a sudden end of reprobate and elect alike. So Moses understood this language. For he said to the Lord, “Now if thou shaft kill this people as one man. . . .” This is equivalent to saying, “If thou shalt kill them all indiscriminately.” It is plain that the Lord spake as He did with a view to arousing Moses to pray for the nation, to plead with God in behalf of His people. And so he does. If the Lord smite them—smite them all—then the Egyptians shall hear it, and, such is the implication, shall be glad; for the Lord brought up this people (of Israel) in His might from among the Egyptians. In their great glee, the Egyptians will tell it to the inhabitants of the land of Canaan. For the latter have heard that the Lord is among the people of Israel, that He is seen by them face to face, and that His cloud standeth over them, and that He goes before them, by day time in a pillar of cloud, and in a pillar of fire by night, that thus (such is here the implication) this people was the object of the Lord’s endearment and that He originally meant to do them well by bringing them unto a good land. It follows therefore that if the Lord will now kill this people as one man, the nations that have heard the fame of the Lord will conclude in their malice that He was not able to bring them into the land which He sware to them and that therefore all there remained for Him to do is to slay them in the wilderness. Let the power of the Lord therefore be great, according as He has spoken, saying, The Lord is longsuffering and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression and by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation. So Moses beseeches the Lord to pardon the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of His mercy, and as He has forgiven this people; from Egypt even until now.
And the Lord said, I have pardoned according to thy word.”
This is truly a remarkable prayer. It tells us that what prompted Moses to intercede for the people was his concern not first of all about the well-being of the people but about the reputation of God among the nations. The Lord’s destroying His people will surely result in the nations slandering Him. They will say without fail that the Lord was not able. The thought is too painful for him; for he loves God. He therefore pleads with God to pardon the iniquity of this people. And he pleads on the grounds of the Lord’s glories, of His power, longsuffering and great mercy. Such a prayer the Lord must hear. The nation is thus spared and enters Canaan.