44. IN THE WILDERNESS
What happened to Israel during their long banishment to the desert because of their sin at Kadesh-barnea? We are going to have look at some difficult Bible passages during the lecture and may God enlighten our minds with His love and fairness.
For nearly forty years the children of Israel are lost to view in the obscurity of the desert. We get some extra information in Deuteronomy 2:14:
“The space,” says Moses, “in which we came from Kadesh-barnea, until we were come over the brook Zered, was thirty and eight years; until all the generation of the men of war were wasted out from among the host, as the Lord sware unto them.
Verse 15 For indeed the hand of the Lord was against them, to destroy them from among the host, until they were consumed.”
During these years the people were constantly reminded that they were under the divine rebuke. In the rebellion at Kadesh they had rejected God, and God had for the time rejected them.
Since they had proved unfaithful to His covenant, they were not to receive the sign of the covenant, the rite of circumcision.
Their desire to return to the land of slavery had shown them to be unworthy of freedom, and the ordinance of the Passover, instituted to commemorate the deliverance from bondage, was not to be observed.
How very sad. The devil tries to tell people that sin is an asset. History and our lives testify to the opposite. Was God going to desert them altogether? No.
Yet the continuance of the tabernacle service testified that God had not utterly forsaken His people. And His providence still supplied their wants. Moses, in rehearsing the history of their wanderings said the following:
Deuteronomy 2:7 For the LORD your God has blessed you in all the work of your hand. He knows your trudging through this great wilderness. These forty years the LORD your God has been with you; you have lacked nothing.” ’
And the Levites’ hymn, recorded by Nehemiah, vividly pictures God’s care for Israel, even during these years of rejection and banishment:
Nehemiah 9:19,20 Because of your great compassion you did not abandon them in the wilderness. By day the pillar of cloud did not cease to guide them on their path, nor the pillar of fire by night to shine on the way they were to take. 20You gave your good Spirit to instruct them. You did not withhold your manna from their mouths, and you gave them water for their thirst.
Verse 21 For forty years you sustained them in the wilderness; they lacked nothing, their clothes did not wear out nor did their feet become swollen.
A miraculous intervention by God. Apparently they were without means of providing sufficient clothing themselves; otherwise God would not have taken unusual steps to satisfy their requirements. God provided food, drink, protection, and other things when they could not help themselves.
The wilderness wandering was not only ordained as a judgment upon the rebels and murmurers, but it was to serve as a discipline for the rising generation, preparatory to their entrance into the Promised Land.
Moses declared to them:
Deuteronomy 8:5 You should know in your heart that as a man chastens his son, so the LORD your God chastens you.
Why do we discipline our children?
The discipline of God is always educational, never merely to inflict suffering and distress (Heb. 12:5–11; Rev. 3:19). The Greek verb translated “prove” or “proved” in 2 Cor. 8:8; 1 Tim. 3:10, almost invariably implies testing done in order to place approval upon what is so tested. Thus it is with the chastening of God (Job 23:10; Jer. 9:7).
Deuteronomy 8:2 And you shall remember that the LORD your God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not.
The evidences of God’s leading are both so many and so remarkable that the humble child of God need never lose confidence or become despondent. It is by forgetting the many things God has done for us that we take our first steps away from Him into the far country of forgetfulness.
Verse 3 So He humbled you, allowed you to hunger, and fed you with manna which you did not know nor did your fathers know, that He might make you know that man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the LORD.
Where else in the Bible do we find this expression?
It was from this statement of Moses that Jesus quoted in response to Satan’s first temptation in the wilderness (Matt. 4:4; Luke 4:4).
Deuteronomy 32:10 “He found him in a desert land and in the wasteland, a howling wilderness; He encircled him, He instructed him, He kept him as the apple of His eye.
As if Israel had been an unwanted infant cast out to die, and Jehovah had so found him (see Jer. 2:2; Eze. 16:5, 6; Hosea 9:11).
God encircled Israel with protection and infinite mercies (see Ps. 32:10). Thus He always protects His people (see Ps. 34:7).
Instructed him. Taught him, as a father would his child (see Ex. 20:1, 2; 34:1, 10).
The apple of his eye. Literally, “the pupil of his eye.”
The expression thus translated is from the same root as the word for “man,” and may refer, as some think, to the image reflected in the eye. The eye is perhaps the most sensitive organ of the body, and one that a man unconsciously protects more carefully than any other. God regards His people with equal care (see Isa. 49:15).
Isaiah 63:9 In all their affliction He was afflicted, And the Angel of His Presence saved them; In His love and in His pity He redeemed them; And He bore them and carried them all the days of old.
How can one repay such a God for all His kindness and love for us?
Yet the only records of their wilderness life are instances of rebellion against the Lord. The revolt of Korah had resulted in the destruction of fourteen thousand of Israel. And there were isolated cases that showed the same spirit of contempt for the divine authority.
On one occasion the son of an Israelitish woman and of an Egyptian, one of the mixed multitude that had come up with Israel from Egypt, left his own part of the camp, and entering that of the Israelites, claimed the right to pitch his tent there.
This the divine law forbade him to do, the descendants of an Egyptian being excluded from the congregation until the third generation. A dispute arose between him and an Israelite, and the matter being referred to the judges was decided against the offender.
Enraged at this decision, he cursed the judge, and in the heat of passion blasphemed the name of God. He was immediately brought before Moses. The command had been given,
Exodus 21:1 “And he who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death.
But no provision had been made to meet this case. So terrible was the crime that there was felt to be a necessity for special direction from God.
The man was placed in ward until the will of the Lord could be ascertained. God Himself pronounced the sentence; by the divine direction the blasphemer was conducted outside the camp and stoned to death.
Those who had been witness to the sin placed their hands upon his head, thus solemnly testifying to the truth of the charge against him. Then they threw the first stones, and the people who stood by afterward joined in executing the sentence.
This was followed by the announcement of a law to meet similar offenses: Leviticus 24:15,16 “Then you shall speak to the children of Israel, saying: ‘Whoever curses his God shall bear his sin. 16 And whoever blasphemes the name of the LORD shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall certainly stone him, the stranger as well as him who is born in the land. When he blasphemes the name of the LORD, he shall be put to death.
There are those who will question God’s love and His justice in visiting so severe punishment for words spoken in the heat of passion. But both love and justice require it to be shown that utterances prompted by malice against God are a great sin.
The retribution visited upon the first offender would be a warning to others, that God’s name is to be held in reverence. But had this man’s sin been permitted to pass unpunished, others would have been demoralized; and as the result many lives must eventually have been sacrificed.
The mixed multitude that came up with the Israelites from Egypt were a source of continual temptation and trouble. They professed to have renounced idolatry and to worship the true God; but their early education and training had molded their habits and character, and they were more or less corrupted with idolatry and with irreverence for God.
They were oftenest the ones to stir up strife and were the first to complain, and they leavened the camp with their idolatrous practices and their murmurings against God. Soon after the return into the wilderness, an instance of Sabbath violation occurred, under circumstances that rendered it a case of peculiar guilt.
The Lord’s announcement that He would disinherit Israel had roused a spirit of rebellion. One of the people, angry at being excluded from Canaan, and determined to show his defiance of God’s law, ventured upon the open transgression of the fourth commandment by going out to gather sticks upon the Sabbath.
During the sojourn in the wilderness the kindling of fires upon the seventh day had been strictly prohibited. The prohibition was not to extend to the land of Canaan, where the severity of the climate would often render fires a necessity; but in the wilderness, fire was not needed for warmth.
The act of this man was a wilful and deliberate violation of the fourth commandment–a sin, not of thoughtlessness or ignorance, but of presumption.
He was taken in the act and brought before Moses. It had already been declared that Sabbathbreaking should be punished with death, but it had not yet been revealed how the penalty was to be inflicted.
The case was brought by Moses before the Lord, and the direction was given, “The man shall be surely put to death: all the congregation shall stone him with stones without the camp.” Numbers 15:35.
The sins of blasphemy and willful Sabbathbreaking received the same punishment, being equally an expression of contempt for the authority of God.
In our day there are many who reject the creation Sabbath as a Jewish institution and urge that if it is to be kept, the penalty of death must be inflicted for its violation; but we see that blasphemy received the same punishment as did Sabbathbreaking.
Shall we therefore conclude that the third commandment also is to be set aside as applicable only to the Jews? Yet the argument drawn from the death penalty applies to the third, the fifth, and indeed to nearly all the ten precepts, equally with the fourth.
Though God may not now punish the transgression of His law with temporal penalties, yet His word declares that the wages of sin is death; and in the final execution of the judgment it will be found that death is the portion of those who violate His sacred precepts.
During the entire forty years in the wilderness, the people were every week reminded of the sacred obligation of the Sabbath, by the miracle of the manna. Yet even this did not lead them to obedience.
Though they did not venture upon so open and bold transgression as had received such signal punishment, yet there was great laxness in the observance of the fourth commandment.
God declares through His prophet, “My Sabbaths they greatly polluted.” Ezekiel 20:13-24. And this is enumerated among the reasons for the exclusion of the first generation from the Promised Land.
Yet their children did not learn the lesson. Such was their neglect of the Sabbath during the forty years’ wandering, that though God did not prevent them from entering Canaan, He declared that they should be scattered among the heathen after the settlement in the Land of Promise.
From Kadesh the children of Israel had turned back into the wilderness; and the period of their desert sojourn being ended, they came, “even the whole congregation, into the desert of Zin in the first month: and the people abode in Kadesh.” Numbers 20:1.
Here Miriam died and was buried. From that scene of rejoicing on the shores of the Red Sea, when Israel went forth with song and dance to celebrate Jehovah’s triumph, to the wilderness grave which ended a lifelong wandering–such had been the fate of millions who with high hopes had come forth from Egypt.
Sin had dashed from their lips the cup of blessing. Would the next generation learn the lesson?
“For all this they sinned still, and believed not for His wondrous works. . . . When He slew them, then they sought Him: and they returned and inquired early after God. And they remembered that God was their Rock, and the high God their Redeemer.” Psalm 78:32-35.
Yet they did not turn to God with a sincere purpose. Though when afflicted by their enemies they sought help from Him who alone could deliver, yet “their heart was not right with Him, neither were they steadfast in His covenant. But He, being full of compassion, forgave their iniquity, and destroyed them not: yea, many a time turned He His anger away. . . . For He remembered that they were but flesh; a wind that passeth away, and cometh not again.” Verses 37-39.
You and I have a choice to either love God for His goodness or become rebellious.
May you and I choose to love God and obey His commandments? Not to impress Him, but just to tell Him we want to please Him because we love Him.