As was said, It was a hard speech that the people uttered against the Lord, at their hearing of the report of the 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. The people were committing a great sin. In the Lord’s own words, they were despising and rejecting Him in His faithfulness and veracity, His longsuffering and mercy, holiness and righteousness. 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 the Lord’s signs, by the wonders He had wrought in their sight. “How long,” asked the Lord, will they despise me? How long will it be ere they believe me, for all the signs that I have shewed among them?” As was pointed out, the Lord answered His own questions when He said, “I will smite them with pestilence, and disinherit them, and will make of thee a greater nation and mightier than they.” The implication of this utterance is that they will not cease despising and disbelieving Him. And, as was said, there was indeed every indication that the vast majority of them were persons reprobated, thus thoroughly profligate. What the Lord said to Moses cannot be taken as expressive of His intention; for He had said 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 it is plain that the Lord had spoken as He did with a view to arousing Moses to pray for the nation, to beseech the Lord to pardon its iniquity. And the Lord replies, “I have pardoned according to thy word.” It was a word that we have come upon before. It was spoken originally by the Lord Himself in response to Moses’ request, directed to the Lord, “Shew me thy glory,” and in connection with the great sin of the people—a sin that had consisted in their serving the golden calf at Horeb. Then, too, the Lord had said, “Now, therefore, let me alone, that my wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them: and I will make of thee a great nation.” Then, too, Moses besought the Lord in behalf of the nation. And the Lord repented of the evil which He thought to do unto His people. Then Moses turned and went down from the Mount, breaking the tables in his descent. After the idolaters were slain Moses returned unto the Lord and again prayed for the people, even going so far as to petition the Lord to blot him out of His book, if He would not forgive their sin. But the Lord replied that whosoever hath sinned against Him, that one He would blot out of His book. It was at this time that Moses voiced the prayer that the Lord show him His glory. The Lord answered that He would do so, that He would proclaim the name of the Lord before him. On the following day the Lord descended in the cloud and stood with Moses there in the mountain and proclaimed the name of the Lord, saying, “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity, and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and fourth generation.”
This proclamation has already been explained in former articles. But whereas it again forms the ground upon which Moses bases his plea for the life of the nation, let us observe the following.
The Lord forgives iniquity but He will assuredly not clear. This statement must be made to apply to His chosen people. These He forgives, yet without clearing, that is, pronouncing them innocent with their moral debt unpaid. Being the righteous One, His forgiveness is justification; it is an act that consists in His clothing His people with the satisfaction and righteousness of Christ.
The second section of the proclamation turns solely upon the reprobated Israel. As the Lord forgives His chosen ones their iniquity (though he does not clear) and keeps mercy with them in their generations to the end of time and forever, so will He visit the sins of those that hate Him (the reprobated) upon them in their generations to destroy them.
This, then, is the word that Moses again took hold of. And it was according to this word that the Lord pardoned the iniquity of the nation. But though the Lord pardoned, He by the mouth of Moses made to the nation the following doleful announcement. As truly as He lives, all the earth shall be filled with His glory, that is, He will exhibit His virtues, in particular, His righteousness, holiness and justice, through an act of His to consist in His punishing the rebels, those men who have seen His glory—His mercy, grace and compassion, His goodness and truth—by the miracles which He did in Egypt and in the wilderness, but who, instead of hearkening to His voice, have tempted Him these ten times. Those men, He will punish. They shall not see the land which He sware to their fathers, neither shall any of them that despised Him see it. The two exceptions are Caleb and Joshua. As to Caleb, he had another spirit with him. He followed the Lord fully. Him therefore will the Lord bring into the promised land. And his seed shall possess it. As to all the others, they are ordered to turn them and to get them “into the wilderness by the way of the Red Sea”.
There now follows an intensification of the judgment, occasioned in all likelihood by the prolonged murmurings of the apostates. So the Lord once more spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, “How long shall I bear with this evil congregation, which murmur against me? I have heard the murmurings of the children of Israel, which they murmur against me”, The Lord continues in the following vein. “As the Lord liveth, as they have spoken in His ears, so will he truly do to them. Their carcasses shall fall in the wilderness,—the carcasses of all that were numbered of them, from twenty years old and upward. But their little ones which they said would be a prey, shall know the land which they despised. But as for them, their carcasses shall fall in the wilderness. And their children shall wander in the wilderness forty years and bear their whoredoms, after the number of days in which the land was searched, namely forty, each day for a year shall their children bear their iniquities. The Lord has said it, and will surely do it. And the spies, who returned and made all the congregation to murmur by their evil report, died by the plague before the Lord. But Joshua and Caleb lived. So spake the Lord. Moses told these sayings to the people. At the hearing of them, they mourned greatly.
There is ground in the narrative for the view that the vast majority of this crowd of murmurers were persons reprobated and thus not forgiven. There is first of all to be considered the notice that they now have tempted the Lord ten times. The number ten signifies completion, so that the statement is to be received as conveying the thought that these murmurers had now filled their measure of iniquity and were thus ripe for destruction. Secondly, they mourned greatly, when Moses told them the Lord’s sayings. But they wept not because of their sins but on account of their now finding themselves under the necessity of living out their lives in the wilderness. They do say, “We have sinned”. But instead of humbling themselves under God’s hand by their getting themselves into the wilderness in obedience to His command, they get themselves up into the mountain, saying, Lo, here we be. We will go up into the place which the Lord has promised.” Moses warns them that the Lord would not be with them and that consequently they would be smitten before their enemy. But regardless of this warning, they went up. If the Lord refused to go with them, they would go alone. And so they did. For the ark of the covenant of the Lord departed not out of the camp. But this did not deter them. The venture would succeed without the Lord. So did they in their unholy chagrin endeavor to render the saying of God to the effect that the carcasses of all of them should fall in the desert impossible of fulfillment. Here again they brought themselves to the fore as persons of a reprobated mind. Thirdly, there is the statement, occurring in the narrative, “And ye shall know my hostility” (erroneously translated, “And ye shall know my breach of promise”). Chapt. 14:34c.
This notice must be taken to mean that during the forty years the Lord would continuously be against them, would pursue them by His curse until the carcasses of them all be wasted in the wilderness. It is not unlikely that during this period the cloud departed from the tabernacle in token of their being abandoned by the Lord and that the services ceased, so that the wilderness became to this doomed generation the nearest approach to the place of outer darkness.
The apostates that fall in the desert formed a seed of evil-doers that perpetuates itself. And through the centuries of the nations existence this seed will continue to fill its measure of iniquity through its spiritual whoredoms. The Lord will continue to send to them prophets. These they will kill and crucify and persecute from city to city that upon them may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth and that finally their house may be left unto them desolate. It was in this seed that the saying of the Lord through the ages was and is being fulfilled—the saying, “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.”
In the crowd of murmurers must also have been found persons who, despite the fact that they truly loved God, had to a greater or smaller degree involved themselves in the sin of those apostates. That they did so, will not surprise us if it be considered that in God’s people, that is, in their flesh, dwelleth no good thing, so that, when they stand not in their faith, sin in them, taking occasion by trying situations or by the command of God, works in them also murmurings and rebellions. These murmuring believers, who formed the true Israel, the Lord forgave, according to His proclamation. “The Lord, the Lord God merciful and gracious, forgiving iniquity. . . . and that by no means will clear.” The proof that there was found among the apostates such murmuring believers is this very proclamation. Why should the Lord have inspired Moses to beseech Him to forgive transgression in His people, to be sure (not in the reprobated), if also they, the majority of them, had in that crisis not also transgressed? The Lord forgave them. Yet they, too, had to live out their lives in the wilderness and thus bear their iniquity in that it is the way of God to chastise those whom He loves.
There were some—their number must have been exceedingly small—who had not rebelled. The representatives of this group were Caleb, Joshua, Moses, and Aaron. As to Caleb, it was to his special credit, that he had reported with such favor concerning the most terrible portion of the land, the region of Anek and Hebron. It was this very region therefore that became his inheritance. The fulfillment of the promise to him is recorded in Joshua 14. In this chapter he appears as addressing Joshua in the following vein. Forty years old was he when Moses sent him to spy out the land. And he brought him word again as it was in his heart. But his brethren that went with him made the heart of the people melt; but he wholly followed the Lord his God. So on that day Moses sware to him that the land whereon his feet had trodden should be his inheritance and his children’s forever. And now the Lord had kept him alive as He had said for these forty and five years. And lo he was that day fourscore and five years old; and yet he was as strong as the day that Moses sent him. As his strength was then, even so was it now, for war, both to go out and to come in. Let Joshua therefore give him the mountain, whereof the Lord spake in that day. The Anakins, Joshua knew, were there and the cities were great and fenced; but if the Lord would be with him, and of this he had no doubt, he would be able to drive them out. So Joshua blessed him and gave him and his posterity Hebron for a permanent inheritance. So did Hebron, through its permanent association with the name of Caleb, become to the Israelitish nation a memorial of his obedience and by contrast of the disobedience and apostasy of the seed of evildoers and of the doom by which this seed was overtaken. How the memory of this doom was perpetuated through the centuries of the nation’s existence is evident from the reference to it in the epistle to the Hebrews, “But with whom was he grieved forty years? Was it not with them that had sinned, whose carcasses fell in the wilderness? And to whom sware he that they should not enter his rest, but to them that believed not?” “Let us labor, therefore,” so the writer admonishes, “to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after that same example of unbelief.”
There are five chapters in the book of Numbers—the chapters 15 to 19 inclusive—that refer to this interval of forty years, but in what part of this period the events recorded in these chapters took place we cannot say. Besides sundry religious laws, these chapters record the following events: The death by stoning of a man who was found gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. His sin was the doing of servile work in deliberate defiance of the command of God. The rebellion of Korah, Dathan and Abiram was an attempt to bring the priesthood down to the level of the common Israelites, by a perversion of the truth that all the people were “an holy nation and a royal priesthood.”