Gateway to the Classics: Moses and the Exodus by Rev. J. Paterson Smyth
Moses and the Exodus by  Rev. J. Paterson Smyth

Lesson XVI

How the Israelites Were Turned Back from the Promised Land

Read Numbers III. 17 to end, XIV. 1-25,
or Deuteronomy I. v. 19 to end.

§ 1. Murmuring

W E pass rapidly over the year after Sinai, and take up the journeyings again at one of the great crises in the wilderness story. Indeed, at first it must have seemed to them the end of that story. After all these weary journeys they had at last come to a time full of wonder and interest and joy and excitement. They had reached at last the goal of all their travels, the border of the Land of Promise!

Fifteen months had elapsed since they left Egypt. Do you think they were very happy months for Moses? I daresay there were some happy days in them, like those when the people gladdened his heart by offering willingly to the Lord for the Tabernacle. But I fear such days were very few. In the main these were fifteen weary months of murmuring and rebellion and provoking God, and torturing the soul of the loving old chieftain who bore them as a father would bear his child in his arms, who on that memorable day in the dark clouds of Sinai had prayed, "O Lord, forgive them, and if not—blot me out of Thy book for ever!" They nearly broke his heart with their ingratitude and ill-temper, and childishness, and utter lack of any faith in God. Every difficulty frightened them as if there were no God at their backs. Every trouble made them despair and rebel and wish themselves back again in Egypt. Nothing could teach the contemptible nature of this people and the patience of God, and the love of their leader so much as this history. Do you remember some instances? What did they cry at the Red Sea when they were frightened? "Because there were no graves in Egypt hast thou taken us away to die?" (Exodus xiv. 11). In Wilderness of Sin when hungry? "Would to God we had died in the land of Egypt when we did eat bread to the full." (Exodus xvi. 3). At Rephidim when they were thirsty? "Ye have brought us out of Egypt to kill us and our children and cattle with thirst." (Exodus xvii. 3). At Sinai? "Up, make us gods," etc. (xxxii. 1). When they tired of the manna? "We remember the fish which we did eat in Egypt freely, the cucumbers, melons, leeks, etc. Now there is nothing but this manna, our soul loatheth this light bread." So it was all through the time, and so too it was, alas! in our story to-day. They could not and would not trust God, no matter what He did for them. They would murmur and doubt and rebel at everything. But this time they tried it once too often, and consequences followed that the nation never forgot.

§ 2. The Hidden Future

Now try to think yourselves into the position. They were 400 miles from Egypt. They seemed reaching the end of their long journeys. The blue hills and pleasant valleys of Palestine lay in front—the land they had been hearing of since they were babies—the land that they had been looking towards all this weary time. Don't you think they would be glad and excited in those days? Do you remember the story of Columbus and his men after months of weariness and fright and danger, and their wild delight when they saw the coast line of the New World? It was like that—so delightful to have their troubles over and to come to rest out of the desert into that beautiful land flowing with milk and honey.

And don't you think it would be restful and delightful, especially to their old leader? Why? To feel that awful strain and responsibility nearly over; to rest and rule, and spend a peaceful old age with his people till the Lord should call him. Full of hope and courage, he points them to the land, "Behold, the Lord thy God hath set the land before thee: go up and possess it, as the Lord hath said; fear not, nor be discouraged." (Deuteronomy i. 21). How glad and hopeful he was about the future! How little he dreamed what was really before him! If he could look forward one short month and see what further sorrow this people would bring on him and on themselves; if he could see his forty terrible years of travel and anxiety, the sentence of exclusion and the lonely grave on Beth Peor, outside the Land which he must never enter!

He did not see it. For these few weeks at least he was hopeful and happy. Don't you think it is one of God's blessings to us that the future is hidden? Would you, if you could, lift the veil and look into your future for the next five years? Perhaps you would. We older people would not risk doing it at any price. Some of us have had big sorrows and disappointments that would have spoiled our lives if we had known of them beforehand. But we did not. We were allowed the bright, merry childhood and the hopes of our earlier life, and perhaps by the time the big sorrow came we had learned more of God and won more strength to bear it. It seems as if God were saying, "I have many things to say to you, but ye cannot bear them now." (John xvi. 12). Only One on earth was compelled to see His life beforehand—Who? And He gave wise kind advice about looking into the future—What? (Luke xii. 22, etc.) Fret not for the morrow.

§ 3. The Report of the Spies

So Moses rested peacefully in the camp at Kadesh, feeling his troubles well nigh over. What was the first step towards taking possession of the Land? Spies sent—how many? How many of them could you name? Yes, everybody remembers these two, nobody remembers the others, they did not deserve remembering.

As the camp lay still in the midnight these twelve chiefs stole quietly up into the hills of Palestine "into the mountains," v.  17. How long did the host wait? Forty days. Then one day the twelve report themselves at the tent of Moses, and the whole crowd swarm round to hear the news (See Numbers xiii. 27 to xiv. 11.) What did they all  report—(1) about the country? (2) about the inhabitants? All agreed so far. (1) Country very good; (2) People very formidable. How, then, did the two differ from the ten? Did they not think the inhabitants strong? But what? They thought God was stronger—that's all. The ten looked at the difficulties and thought little about God. The two looked at God and thought little about the difficulties. What does Scripture call this latter attribute? Faith. How did the people receive the report of the ten spies? What did they murmur? (xiv. 3).

What a striking scene! The angry, terrified, disappointed crowd listening first to the ten faithless princes who forgot that God was with them, and timidly calculated the chances of conquering—and then refusing to hear the other two as they rose to speak amid howls and curses, beseeching the people to be men, to trust God, to go forward fearlessly in His strength. Then Moses tries to quiet them. It is not told in Numbers, but it is pathetic to hear the old man himself, long years afterwards, telling it. "I said to you, Dread not, nor be afraid, for the Lord your God shall fight for you, according to all that He did in Egypt before your eyes." (Deuteronomy i. 29, 30). Would they listen to him? v.  4, to depose him from his leadership, to make a new chief. Ay, they did more than propose, they did appoint the new leader instead of him. How do we know? (see Nehemiah ix. 17). I think Moses must have felt that sorely. This was the people for whom his whole life had been given up since that far-back day in Egypt when "it came into his heart to visit his brethren the children of Israel, for whom he prayed, "If Thou will not forgive them, blot me out of Thy book." This is the return for it.

Again Caleb and Joshua join him in the pleading, vv.  6-9. Was it any use? They got so-angry that they actually wanted to—what? (v.  10) stone them! What saved them? Ah! suddenly a bright light flashing through the cloudy pillar startled them all. God was looking! God was listening all the time! Ah! they were quiet enough now. That awful vision had effectually frightened them.

§ 4. The Punishment and Its Lesson

What is God's complaint of them? v.  11. Their obstinate, hopeless unbelief, "They will not believe for all the signs I have showed among them." What could be done with such a people? Did Moses plead for them? Tell of the exquisite plea he used, vv.  17, 18. Where had he learned that? Ah! you remember, that day when God showed him His glory (Exodus xxxiii. 19). "I beseech Thee, according as Thou hast spoken, saying the Lord is long suffering and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression, etc. Pardon, I beseech Thee, the iniquity of this people as Thou hast done from Egypt until now."

Were they forgiven? Partly. But a very severe sentence was pronounced. What? (vv.  29, 30, 33). Did they deserve it? Remember their prayer (v.  2), "Would to God we had died in the wilderness." It was terribly answered. Yes, said God, you shall die in the wilderness: "To-morrow turn you, and get you back into the wilderness by the way of the Red Sea." If hasty, passionate wishes were often answered as literally, people would be more careful in wishing.

Why could they not enter into the Land after two years instead of forty years? Because not fit. See what Apostle said 1000 years after (Hebrews iii. 19). They could not enter in because of unbelief. If they had got into Palestine in that condition of mind, with no faith, no discipline, no deep care for the religious life, they would have fallen in a few years to the level of the Canaanites, and God's great purpose for the world would have been spoiled.

So you see they had to wait forty years for what they might have had in one year. Does it not seem a stupid waste of happiness?

I think there is a lesson for young people here. There is a beautiful, restful life that Christ promises here on earth. "Come unto Me, and I will give you rest." All who live for Christ are happier and more restful than others. Often people worry and struggle for many years of a worldly, godless life, and at last, in the end, weary and heavy laden, come to Christ for rest. But what a pity they did not come earlier.  The Rest was waiting, but they were not ready. They might have come in childhood as many others did. They did not believe in the happiness of religion, or they thought it was too hard to be religious. And so they lost much of life's rest and happiness. Is it not a little bit like the Israelites who could have entered the Land after about a year, but "entered not in because of unbelief"?

§ 5. Moses' Disappointment and Its Lesson

But was not Moses disappointed too, though he did not deserve it? Yes. God has often to disappoint us for other reasons than punishment. It must have been a terrible disappointment. All the strain and responsibility and worry and torment of that people put back on him for forty years. Are we told how he bore it? No. But we can guess. Surely there was no rebellious feeling, however hard it was. The brave, loyal heart bowed to God's will and went out again to the dreary desert. I think, after all his close communion with God, he must have felt sure that God's will was the best thing for him and for them all—that God had more work for him before he entered into his final rest. That was comfort enough for Moses. Hard, bitter things come to many in this life, but it is one thing to have to bear them as punishment for our wrong-doing, as in the Jews' case here, and quite another when they come in the path of duty and are taken up bravely for the love of God, as in Moses' case.


Ch. xiii. 1. The Lord spake,  etc., does not contradict Deuteronomy i. 22, which says that the suggestion came from the people and pleased Moses. Moses would surely seek God's guidance. Quite possibly the suggestion to send spies arose from their own unbelief, and that it was only permitted,  not enjoined, by God.

V.  6. Caleb is repeatedly called "the Kenezite" (chap. xxxii. 12;  Joshua xiv. 6, 14). Some think, therefore, that he was a Canaanite (Genesis xv. 19) received into the nation of Israel. It is interesting to think of Joshua and Caleb long years afterwards talking over this incident of the spies when they were both old men, one of them the commander-in-chief of Israel, the other seemingly still a simple soldier of fortune (Joshua xiv. 6, etc.).

V.  16, Oshea, Jehoshua.  The original name means help or salvation. The new name adds on as a prefix the contraction of Jehovah's name, i.e. "Jehovah is the help."  If Moses gave him his new name now, it would be quite natural, in relating the history afterwards, to use this new name as in Exodus.

V.  20. Time of "first grapes," i.e. about our month of August.

V.  22, Before Zoan in Egypt.  How natural to think of their old city in Egypt. It is thought that Hebron and the original foundation of Tanis were both Hittite. See Lesson I.

Vv.  22, 28. Children of Anak, i.e. of the Anakim, the giants.

Questions for Lesson XVI

Who were Caleb and Joshua?

Had the Israelites to wait forty years before reaching Palestine?

How soon did they reach the border? Why not go in?

Tell of the spies and their report.

How did the people behave?

Tell of other cases where they behaved thus.

What was their punishment now?

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