Sunday, April 15, 2007

Matt's Messages - The Retreat of Unbelief

“The Retreat of Unbelief”
Life in the Wilderness
April 15, 2007
Numbers 13:1-14:45

I’m almost sorry to take us back to Numbers after the last two weeks of glorying in the Cross of Christ and His Empty Tomb. Last week, especially, was a high holy day of celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ back from the dead. Hallelujah!

But now we must return to the Book of Numbers and read about the lowest low point in the whole book. Really, the lowest low point in the whole Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible).

Because here in Numbers chapters 13 and 14, we read about what I call, “The Retreat of Unbelief.”

Think back for a second on all the things we’ve seen in the last four months of studying the Book of Numbers.

In chapter 1, God had them number the fighting men: 603,550.

And in chapter 2, He arranged them in 4 different divisions of 12 tribes in a circle around the Tent of Meeting.

And then He had them count the Levites in chapter 3: 22,000 divided into 3 major tribes.

And then in chapter 4, He situated the Levites between the other tribes of Israel and the Tent of Meeting and gave them all the work of taking care of the Tabernacle and the holy things.

And the LORD gave them instructions about how to purify the camp (chapter 5) and how to be totally dedicated to Him (chapter 6).

And He gave the priests a special blessing to pronounce over the people (chapter 6).

And they also dedicated the altar with expensive, extensive and expressive offerings in an elaborate 12 day ceremony (chapter 7).

They set up the lampstand and they cleansed and dedicated the Levites to do their holy work (chapter 8).

And then in chapter 9, they celebrated the Passover again. Passover 2.0 and 2.1 exactly one year after the Red Sea Rescue and the Exodus from Egypt.

And then with banners unfurled in chapter 10, they marched out towards Canaan to conquer the Promised Land!

You remember all that?

Then you probably also remember the complaining of chapter 11 and the prideful, envious leadership struggle of chapter 12.

But all of that pales in comparison to what happens in chapters 13 and 14.

In chapters 13 and 14, the people decide to rebel against God and beat a hasty retreat.

All of that preparation turns out to be for nothing!

How could this be? The Bible sums it up with one word: UNBELIEF.

A lack of faith.
A deficit of trust.
A deficiency of confidence in God.


Israel’s unbelief causes them to retreat.

It is one of Israel’s saddest days that we study this morning.

And it has several lessons for us today.

It all starts with a reconnaissance mission. Chapter 13, verse 1.

“The LORD said to Moses, ‘Send some men to explore the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites. From each ancestral tribe send one of its leaders.’”

We find out in the book of Deuteronomy that the people had asked for this. But God doesn’t think it’s bad idea to send out an exploratory team.

God has promised the people this land. When did He do that?

Way back in Genesis right? Starting in Genesis 12 and then repeating over and over again in Genesis, Exodus, and so far in Numbers!

“Send some men to explore the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites.”

This land is a gift from God. All they have to do is march in there and take it.

But it always helps to have some good military intelligence before undertaking a war. And it should (emphasis on should!) encourage the people to find out just how good this land is that they are going to inherit.

So, Moses gets together an exploratory team. V.3

“So at the LORD's command Moses sent them out from the Desert of Paran. All of them were leaders of the Israelites. These are their names: from the tribe of Reuben, Shammua son of Zaccur; from the tribe of Simeon, Shaphat son of Hori; from the tribe of Judah, Caleb son of Jephunneh; from the tribe of Issachar, Igal son of Joseph; from the tribe of Ephraim, Hoshea son of Nun; from the tribe of Benjamin, Palti son of Raphu; from the tribe of Zebulun, Gaddiel son of Sodi; from the tribe of Manasseh (a tribe of Joseph), Gaddi son of Susi; from the tribe of Dan, Ammiel son of Gemalli; from the tribe of Asher, Sethur son of Michael; from the tribe of Naphtali, Nahbi son of Vophsi; from the tribe of Gad, Geuel son of Maki. These are the names of the men Moses sent to explore the land. (Moses gave Hoshea son of Nun the name Joshua.)”

How many men? [When in doubt, say Twelve!]

This is a different group of men than have been named so far. They a probably young leaders within each tribe. And they have been given the task of spying out the land. V.17

“When Moses sent them to explore Canaan, he said, ‘Go up through the Negev and on into the hill country. See what the land is like and whether the people who live there are strong or weak, few or many. What kind of land do they live in? Is it good or bad? What kind of towns do they live in? Are they unwalled or fortified? How is the soil? Is it fertile or poor? Are there trees on it or not? Do your best to bring back some of the fruit of the land.’ (It was the season for the first ripe grapes.)”

These are their orders. And they carry them out. V.21

“So they went up and explored the land from the Desert of Zin [in the South] as far as Rehob, toward Lebo Hamath [in the North]. They went up through the Negev and came to Hebron, where Ahiman, Sheshai and Talmai, the descendants of Anak, lived. (Hebron had been built seven years before Zoan in Egypt.) When they reached the Valley of Eshcol, they cut off a branch bearing a single cluster of grapes. Two of them [It took two of them!] carried it on a pole between them, along with some pomegranates and figs. That place was called the Valley of Eshcol because of the cluster of grapes the Israelites cut off there.”

Whoa! This is some fertile land! Picture this single cluster of grapes that it takes two men to carry home on a pole!

This land is lush and rich and fertile!

And now it’s time to give their report. V.25

“At the end of forty days they returned from exploring the land. They came back to Moses and Aaron and the whole Israelite community at Kadesh in the Desert of Paran. There they reported to them and to the whole assembly and showed them the fruit of the land. They gave Moses this account: ‘We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit.”

And they should have stopped right there! Instead, they have to say, “But.” V.28

“But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large. We even saw descendants of Anak there [big people!]. The Amalekites live in the Negev; the Hittites, Jebusites and Amorites live in the hill country; and the Canaanites live near the sea and along the Jordan.’”

What’s going on?

They’re scared, aren’t they?

And they are telling Moses and the Israelites that it’s too difficult. They shouldn’t march in and conquer.

That list of peoples in verse 29 should have been a checklist of victories that they should be expecting.

Way back in the book of Genesis chapter 15, all of these peoples (Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites, Canaanites) are mentioned as peoples whom the LORD will deliver into their hands.

They shouldn’t be afraid of them. YHWH’s got them covered.

And there is at least one of the twelve that thinks that way. Caleb. V.30

“Then Caleb silenced the people before Moses and said, ‘We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.’”

There’s faith!

“But the men who had gone up with him said, ‘We can't attack those people; they are stronger than we are.’ And they spread among the Israelites a bad report about the land they had explored. They said, ‘The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.’”

Here’s the first lesson about unbelief that I want us to take home today:


What are these guys focusing on?

They’re focusing on their problems and these big people.

What are they missing? God!

There’s a great book called, “When People Are Big and God Is Small.

That’s the problem here.

People and problems seem big, and God seems small. In fact, they’re not thinking about Him at all!

That’s what unbelief does. It inverts my perspective. So I’m not seeing things right.

They talk in verse 33 about the Nephilim (which were mighty men probably huge gigantic men).

And they said, “We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.”

What about God? How did God figure in here? How did the sons of Anak seem to God?

Where did they encounter these sons of Anak?

V.22 says “Hebron.”

Now think back. What should they have thought about when they were in Hebron?

Do they have any history in Hebron?

Do you remember a little place called the Cave of Machpelah?

Who is buried there? Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their wives.

It’s the only little plot of land that God had so far given them. But He’s about to give them the whole thing!

That’s what they should be thinking about. But their perspective is inverted.

And it leads to grumbling and complaining. Chapter 14, verse 1.

“That night all the people of the community raised their voices and wept aloud. All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, ‘If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this desert! Why is the LORD bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn't it be better for us to go back to Egypt?’ And they said to each other, ‘We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.’”

Notice how inverted their perspective is!

It’s downright irrational!

Again, they talk about going back to Egypt like it was better.

Then they say that it would have been better to have died[!] in Egypt or in the desert than to die fighting for the Promised Land.

How would that be better?

Their whole perspective is skewed.

And it leads them to rebel. V.4 again.

“And they said to each other, ‘We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.’”

Let’s retreat!

Let’s disobey the LORD’s marching orders.

Let’s get rid of Moses and go back to Pharaoh.

Let’s un-do the Exodus.


Now, before we shake our heads in disbelief at their unbelief, we probably ought to examine our own lives for the same thing.

Can you see how your perspective can get inverted?

I often see bigger problems and bigger people than I see how big my God is!

The truth is that God is big and people and problems are small.

But it takes faith to see it that way.

What are you dealing with right now where God is calling for faith from you and you’ve been feeling like grasshopper?

You may be a grasshopper. But you are God’s grasshopper, and He is big enough.

Let me draw out one area: witnessing. Sharing the gospel with people.

I don’t know about you, but I often start to shrink to grasshopper size when it’s time to talk with someone about Jesus. I mean someone who doesn’t necessarily want to talk about Jesus. I love talking about Jesus with people who ask me.

But to step in? To push a little on the door? To cross a boundary?

The land is good on the other side. All I have to do is trust God and move forward.

How does that make you feel? Grasshopperish?

People are small. And God is big. That’s the truth. Trust Him.

Don’t be like these people who are planning a retreat!

When they said, “Let’s retreat,” Moses hit the deck. V.5

“Then Moses and Aaron fell facedown in front of the whole Israelite assembly gathered there.” They are afraid of what is going to happen next.

And Joshua and Caleb stand up. There are 2 of the 12 spies that have faith. V.6

“Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, who were among those who had explored the land, tore their clothes [mourning this lack of faith] and said to the entire Israelite assembly, ‘The land we passed through and explored is exceedingly good. If the LORD is pleased with us, he will lead us into that land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and will give it to us. Only do not rebel against the LORD. And do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will swallow them up. Their protection is gone, but the LORD is with us. Do not be afraid of them.’”

These guys can see it!

They can see God!

Their perspective is not inverted. It’s right side up.

“If the LORD is pleased with us, he will lead us into that land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and will give it to us. Only do not rebel against the LORD ...The LORD is with us. Do not be afraid of them.’”

V.10 “But the whole assembly talked about stoning them.”

This is where it sunk to.

All of those months of preparation down the drain.

They talked about stoning the people who had faith in God!

And that put them in a dangerous position.


“Then the glory of the LORD appeared at the Tent of Meeting to all the Israelites. The LORD said to Moses, ‘How long will these people treat me with contempt? How long will they refuse to believe in me [UNBELIEF!], in spite of all the miraculous signs I have performed among them? I will strike them down with a plague and destroy them, but I will make you into a nation greater and stronger than they.’”

God doesn’t get much angrier than this with His covenant people.

He points out their unbelief. “They refuse to believe in me.”

And He says that that is treating Him with contempt.

And He threatens to wipe them all out and start again with Moses.

Unbelief like this invites the wrath of God.

God requires that we trust Him.

He is infinitely trustworthy! And when we tell Him that we don’t trust Him, we diminish His glory and hold Him in contempt.

And it invites the hot wrath of God.

But Moses intercedes.

Just like he did back at the end of Exodus with the golden calf incident, Moses intercedes.

I believe that God wanted him to. The reason he said vv.11&12 to Moses was to cue up Moses’ intercession.

And Moses spoke up using the thing that God cares about most: His name. V.13

“Moses said to the LORD, ‘Then the Egyptians will hear about it! By your power you brought these people up from among them. And they will tell the inhabitants of this land about it. They have already heard that you, O LORD, are with these people and that you, O LORD, have been seen face to face, that your cloud stays over them, and that you go before them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. If you put these people to death all at one time, the nations who have heard this report about you will say, 'The LORD was not able to bring these people into the land he promised them on oath; so he slaughtered them in the desert.' Now may the Lord's strength be displayed, just as you have declared: 'The LORD is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.' In accordance with your great love, forgive the sin of these people, just as you have pardoned them from the time they left Egypt until now.’”

And this intercession is successful, to a point. V.20

“The LORD replied, ‘I have forgiven them, as you asked. Nevertheless, as surely as I live and as surely as the glory of the LORD fills the whole earth, not one of the men who saw my glory and the miraculous signs I performed in Egypt and in the desert but who disobeyed me and tested me ten times–not one of them will ever see the land I promised on oath to their forefathers. No one who has treated me with contempt will ever see it.”

There is gracious pardon but there is also terrible judgment. V.24

“But because my servant Caleb has a different spirit and follows me wholeheartedly, I will bring him into the land he went to, and his descendants will inherit it. Since the Amalekites and Canaanites are living in the valleys, turn back tomorrow and set out toward the desert along the route to the Red Sea.’”

Back to the sands. No Promised Land for you yet. More, v.26:

“The LORD said to Moses and Aaron: ‘How long will this wicked community grumble against me? I have heard the complaints of these grumbling Israelites. So tell them, 'As surely as I live, declares the LORD, I will do to you the very things I heard you say: In this desert your bodies will fall–every one of you twenty years old or more who was counted in the census and who has grumbled against me. Not one of you will enter the land I swore with uplifted hand to make your home, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun. As for your children that you said would be taken as plunder, I will bring them in to enjoy the land you have rejected. But you–your bodies will fall in this desert. Your children will be shepherds here for forty years, suffering for your unfaithfulness, until the last of your bodies lies in the desert. For forty years–one year for each of the forty days you explored the land–you will suffer for your sins and know what it is like to have me against you. I, the LORD, have spoken, and I will surely do these things to this whole wicked community, which has banded together against me. They will meet their end in this desert; here they will die.’”

Do you see why this is the lowest low point in the whole Pentateuch?

Do you remember when I had all of the men stand who were 20 years old and able to fight? 603,550 fighting Israelites.

They all were going to die. In the next 40 years, they were all going to die.

If you are a boy 19 years or younger, please stand.

This is all that would be left. These and the ones to be born in the next 20 years.

[You may be seated.]

A whole generation would be lost. All of those preparations for nothing.

All because of unbelief.

Unbelief invites the wrath of God: with disobedience comes danger.

God’s judgment is 40 years of wandering in the wilderness.

One year for each day that the faithless explorers walked through the land.

And they all died immediately. V.36

“So the men Moses had sent to explore the land, who returned and made the whole community grumble against him by spreading a bad report about it–these men responsible for spreading the bad report about the land were struck down and died of a plague before the LORD. Of the men who went to explore the land, only Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh survived.”

And the people still didn’t get it. V.39

“When Moses reported this to all the Israelites, they mourned bitterly. Early the next morning they went up toward the high hill country. ‘We have sinned,’ they said. ‘We will go up to the place the LORD promised.’ [No, no, no, no! Too late!] But Moses said, ‘Why are you disobeying the LORD's command? This will not succeed! Do not go up, because the LORD is not with you. You will be defeated by your enemies, for the Amalekites and Canaanites will face you there. Because you have turned away from the LORD, he will not be with you and you will fall by the sword.’ Nevertheless, in their presumption [and I would add: half-hearted repentance] they went up toward the high hill country, though neither Moses nor the ark of the LORD's covenant moved from the camp. Then the Amalekites and Canaanites who lived in that hill country came down and attacked them and beat them down all the way to Hormah.”

Defeat. “The LORD is not with you.”

I think those are the scariest words that I could ever hear: “The LORD will be against you.”

They were alone.

When they went into battle, they were alone.

Now you want to do battle with the Canaanites?

You thought you were a grasshopper before?

God is not with you.

Unbelief Inverts My Perspective.
And Unbelief Invites the Wrath of God.

The rest of the Bible refers back to this Retreat of Unbelief again and again and again.

The biggest is in Hebrews chapters 3 and 4.

I recommend that you read it this week as you think back over this sermon.

The writer to the Hebrews tells his modern day audience, “Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the desert, where your fathers tested and tried me and for forty years saw what I did. That is why I was angry with that generation, and I said, 'Their hearts are always going astray, and they have not known my ways.' So I declared on oath in my anger, 'They shall never enter my rest.'" See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness.”

And that’s what God is saying to us today.

“See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness.”

Don’t turn away. Don’t harden your heart to God.

Trust God. See Him as big. And see Him as your Savior through Jesus.


We have all been unbelievers.

And we have all stood under the wrath of God.

But Jesus has made intercession for us.

Like Moses! But even better.

Moses could only plead God’s name to Him.

Jesus is God’s name!

And He succeeded where Israel failed.

Do you remember His temptation in the wilderness?

How many days was Jesus in the wilderness tempted by Satan?

40 days and 40 nights. Do you think that was just a coincidence?

40 days in the wilderness.

Israel failed their test in the wilderness.

But Jesus passed His. He perfectly believed God!

And on the Cross, He gave us His passing grade.

If left to our own devices, we’d all be lost in our unbelief.

But Jesus passed the test, and He gives us His righteousness through His sacrificial death on the Cross.

The Retreat of Unbelief was undone by the Lord of the Cross who did not shrink back from complete obedience and faith.

Trust in Jesus.