Numbers Chapter 13:26-28, 31; 14:6-9, 17-23 Antique Commentary Quotes

Expositors Bible
Numbers 13:1-33

Two narratives at least appear to be united in the thirteenth and fourteenth chapters. From Num_13:17; Num_13:22-23, we learn that the spies were despatched by way of the south, and that they went to Hebron and a little beyond, as far as the valley of Eshcol. But Num_13:21 states that they spied out the land from the wilderness of Zin, south of the Dead Sea, to the entering in of Hamath. The latter statement implies that they traversed what were afterwards called Judaea, Samaria, and Galilee, and penetrated as far as the valley of the Leontes, between the southern ranges of Libanus and Antilibanus. The one account taken by itself would make the journey of the spies northward about a hundred miles; the other, three times as long.

A further difference is this: According to one of the narratives Caleb alone encourages the people. {Num_13:30, Num_14:24} But according to the Num_13:8; Num_14:6-7, Joshua, as well as Caleb, is among the twelve, and reports favourably as to the possibility of conquering and possessing Canaan.

Without deciding on the critical points involved, we may find a way of harmonising the apparent differences. It is quite possible, for instance, that while some of the twelve were instructed to keep in the south of Canaan, others were sent to the middle district and a third company to the north. Caleb might be among those who explored the south; while Joshua, having gone to the far north, might return somewhat later and join his testimony to that which Caleb had given. There is no inconsistency between the portions ascribed to the one narrative and those referred to the other; and the account, as we have it, may give what was the gist of several co-ordinate documents. As to any variance in the reports of the spies, we can easily understand how those who looked for smiling valleys and fruitful fields would find them, while others saw.only the difficulties and dangers that would have to be faced.

The questions occur, why and at whose instance the survey was undertaken. From Deuteronomy we learn that a demand for it arose among the people. Moses says: {Deu_1:22} “Ye came near unto me every one of you, and said, Let us send men before us, that they may search the land for us, and bring us word again of the way by which we must go up, and the cities unto which we shall come.” In Numbers the expedition is undertaken at the order of Jehovah conveyed through Moses. The opposition here is only on the surface. The people might desire, but decision did not lie with them. It was quite natural when the tribes had at length approached the frontier of Canaan that they should seek information as to the state of the country. And the wish was one which could be sanctioned, which had even been anticipated. The land of Canaan was already known to the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the praise of it as a land flowing with milk and honey mingled with their traditions. In one sense there was no need to send spies, either to report on the fertility of the land or on the peoples dwelling in it. Yet Divine Providence, on which men are to rely, does not supersede their prudence and the duty that rests with them of considering the way they go. The destiny of life or of a nation is to be wrought out in faith; still we are to use all available means in order to ensure success. So personality grows through providence, and God raises men for Himself.

To the band of pioneers each tribe contributes a man, and all the twelve are headmen, whose intelligence and good faith may presumably be trusted. They know the strength of Israel; they should also be able to count upon the great source of courage and power-the unseen Friend of the nation. Remembering what Egypt is, they know also the ways of the desert; and they have seen war. If they possess enthusiasm and hope, they will not be dismayed by the sight of a few walled towns or even of some Anakim. They will say, “The Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge.” Yet there is danger that old doubts and new fears may colour their report. God appoints men to duty; but their personal character and tendencies remain. And the very best men Israel can choose for a task like this will need all their faithfulness and more than all their faith to do it well.

The spies were to climb the heights visible in the north, and look forth towards the Great Sea and away to Moriah and Carmel. They were also to make their way cautiously into the land itself and examine it. Moses anticipates that all he has said in praise of Canaan will be made good by the report, and the people will be encouraged to enter at once on the final struggle. When the desert was around them, unfruitful, seemingly interminable, the Israelites might have been disposed to fear that journeying from Egypt they were leaving the fertility of the world farther and farther behind. Some may have thought that the Divine promise had misled and deceived them, and that Canaan was a dream. Even although they had now overpassed that dreary region covered with coarse gravel, black flints, and drifting sand, “the great and terrible wilderness,” what hope was there that northward they should reach a land of olives, vineyards, and flowing streams? The report of the spies would answer this question.

The spies went forth from among tribes which had so far made a good journey under the Divine guidance. So well had the expedition sped that a few days’ march would have brought the travellers into Canaan. But Israel was not a hopeful people nor a united people. The thoughts of many turned back; all were not faithful to God nor loyal to Moses. And as the people were, so were the spies. Some may have professed to be enthusiastic who had their doubts regarding Canaan and the possibility of conquering it. Others may have even wished to find difficulties that would furnish an excuse for returning even to Egypt. Most were ready to be disenchanted at least and to find cause for alarm. In the south of Canaan a pastoral district, rocky and uninviting towards the shore of the Dead Sea, was found to be sparsely occupied by wandering companies of Amalekites, Bedawin of the time, probably with a look of poverty and hardship that gave little promise for any who should attempt to settle where they roamed. Towards Hebron the aspect of the country improved; but the ancient city, or at all events its stronghold, was in the hands of a class of bandits whose names inspired terror throughout the district-Ahiman, Sheshai, and Talmai, sons of Anak. The great stature of these men, exaggerated by common report, together with stories of their ferocity, seem to have impressed the timid Hebrews beyond measure. And round Hebron the Amorites, a hardy highland race, were found in occupation. The report agreed on was that the people were men of great stature; that the land was one which ate up its inhabitants-that is to say, yielded but a precarious existence. Just beyond Hebron vineyards and olive-groves were found; and from the valley of Eschol one fine cluster of grapes was brought, hung upon a rod to preserve the fruit from injury, an evidence of capabilities that might be developed. Still the report was an evil one on the whole.

Those who went farther north had to tell of strong peoples-the Jebusites and Amorites of the central region, the Hittites of the north, the Canaanites of the seaboard, where afterwards Sisera had his headquarters. The cities, too, were great and walled. These spies had nothing to say of the fruitful plains of Esdraelon and Jezreel, nothing to tell of the flowery meadows the “murmuring of innumerable bees,” the terraced vineyards, the herds of cattle and flocks of sheep and goats. They had seen the strong, resolute holders of the soil, the fortresses, the difficulties; and of these they brought back an account which caused abundant alarm. Joshua and Caleb alone had the confidence of faith, and were assured that Jehovah, if He delighted in His people, would give them Canaan as an inheritance.

The report of the majority of the spies was one of exaggeration and a certain untruthfulness. They must have spoken altogether without knowledge, or else allowed themselves to magnify what they saw, when they said of the children of Anak, “We were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.” Possibly the Hebrews were at this time somewhat ill-developed as a race, bearing the mark of their slavery. But we can hardly suppose that the Amorites, much less the Hittites, were of overpassing stature. Nor could many cities have been so large and strongly fortified as was represented, though Lachish, Hebron, Shalim, and a few others were formidable. On the other hand, the picture had none of the attractiveness it should have borne. These exaggerations and defects, however, are the common faults of misbelieving and therefore ignorant representation.

Notwithstanding the efforts of Caleb and afterwards of Joshua to controvert the disheartening reports spread by their companions, the people were filled with dismay; and night fell upon a weeping camp. The pictures of those Anakim and of the tall Amorites, rendered more terrible by imagination, appear to have had most to do with the panic. But it was the general impression also that Canaan offered no attractions as a home. There was murmuring against Moses and Aaron. Disaffection spread rapidly, and issued in the proposal to take another leader and return to Egypt. Why had Jehovah brought them across the desert to put them under the sword at last? The tumult increased, and the danger of a revolt became so great that Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before the assembly.

The Israelites doubting Jehovah who had spoken through Moses, that is to say, doubting the highest, most inspiring word it was possible for them to hear, turning away from the Divine reason that spoke, the heavenly purpose revealed to them, had nothing to rely upon. Confused inadequate counsels, chaotic fears, waited immediately upon their revolt. They sank at once to despondency and the most fatuous and impossible projects. The men who stood against their despair were made offenders, almost sacrificed to their fear. Joshua and Caleb, facing the tumult, called for confidence. “Fear not ye the people of the land,” they said, “for they are bread for us: their defence is removed from over them, and Jehovah is with us: fear them not.” But all the congregation bade stone them with stones; and it was only the bright glow of the pillar of fire shining out at the moment that prevented a dreadful catastrophe.

Alexander MacLaren
Numbers 13:17-33

We stand here on the edge of the Promised Land. The discussion of the true site of Kadesh need not concern us now. Wherever it was, the wanderers had the end of their desert journey within sight; one bold push forward, and their feet would tread on their inheritance. But, as is so often the case, courage oozed out at the decisive moment, and cowardice, disguised as prudence, called for ‘further information,’-that cuckoo-cry of the faint-hearted. There are three steps in this narrative: the despatch of the explorers, their expedition, and the two reports brought back.

I. We have the despatch and instructions of the explorers. A comparison with Deu_1:22 shows that the project of sending the spies originated in the people’s terror at the near prospect of the fighting which they had known to be impending ever since they left Egypt. Faith finds that nearness diminishes dangers, but sense sees them grow as they approach. The people answered Moses’ brave words summoning them to the struggle with this feeble petition for an investigation. They did not honestly say that they were alarmed, but defined the scope of the exploring party’s mission as simply to ‘bring us word again of the way by which we must go up, and the cities into which we shall come.’ Had they not the pillar blazing there above them to tell them that? The request was not fathomed in its true faithlessness by Moses, who thought it reasonable and yielded. So far Deuteronomy goes; but this narrative puts another colour on the mission, representing it as the consequence of God’s command. The most eager discoverer of discrepancies in the component parts of the Pentateuch need not press this one into his service, for both sides may be true: the one representing the human feebleness which originated the wish; the other, the divine compliance with the desire, in order to disclose the unbelief which unfitted the people for the impending struggle, and to educate them by letting them have their foolish way, and taste its bitter results. Putting the two accounts together, we get, not a contradiction, but a complete view, which teaches a large truth as to God’s dealings; namely, that He often lovingly lets us have our own way to show us by the issues that His is better, and that daring, which is obedience, is the true prudence.

The instructions given to the explorers turn on two points: the eligibility of the country for settlement, and the military strength of its inhabitants. They alternate in a very graphic way from the one of these to the other, beginning, in Num_13:18, with the land, and immediately going on to the numbers and power of the inhabitants; then harking back again, in Num_13:19, to the fertility of the land, and passing again to the capacity of the cities to resist attack; and finishing up, in Num_13:20, with the land once more, both arable and forest. The same double thought colours the parting exhortation to ‘be bold,’ and to ‘bring of the produce of the land.’ Now the people knew already both points which the spies were despatched to find out. Over and over again, in Egypt, in the march, and at Sinai, they had been told that the land was ‘flowing with milk and honey,’ and had been assured of its conquest. What more did they want? Nothing, if they had believed God. Nothing, if they had been all saints,-which they were not. Their fears were very natural. A great deal might be said in favour of their wish to have accurate information. But it is a bad sign when faith, or rather unbelief, sends out sense to be its scout, and when we think to verify God’s words by men’s confirmation. Not to believe Him unless a jury of twelve of ourselves says the same thing, is surely much the same as not believing Him at all; for it is not He, but they, whom we believe after all.

There is no need to be too hard on the people. They were a mob of slaves, whose manhood had been eaten out by four centuries of sluggish comfort, and latterly crushed by oppression. So far as we know, Abraham’s midnight surprise of the Eastern kings was the solitary bit of fighting in the national history thus far; and it is not wonderful that, with such a past, they should have shrunk from the prospect of bloodshed, and caught at any excuse for delay at least, even if not for escape. ‘We have all of us one human heart,’ and these cowards were no monsters, but average men, who did very much what average men, professing to be Christians, do every day, and for doing get praised for prudence by other average professing Christians. How many of us, when brought right up to some task involving difficulty or danger, but unmistakably laid on us by God, shelter our distrustful fears under the fair pretext of ‘knowing a little more about it first,’ and shake wise heads over rashness which takes God at His word, and thinks that it knows enough when it knows what He wills?

II. We have the exploration {Num_13:21 – Num_13:25}. The account of it is arranged on a plan common in the Old Testament narratives, the observation of which would, in many places, remove difficulties which have led to extraordinary hypotheses. Num_13:21 gives a general summary of what is then taken up, and told in more detail. It indicates the completeness of the exploration by giving its extreme southern and northern points, the desert of Zin being probably the present depression called the Arabah, and ‘Rehob as men come to Hamath’ being probably near the northern Dan, on the way to Hamath, which lay in the valley between the Lebanon and the Anti-Lebanon. The account then begins over again, and tells how the spies went up into ‘the South.’ The Revised Version has done wisely in printing this word with a capital, and thereby showing that it is not merely the name of a cardinal point, but of a district. It literally means ‘the dry,’ and is applied to the arid stretch of land between the more cultivated southern parts of Canaan and the northern portion of the desert which runs down to Sinai. It is a great chalky plateau, and might almost be called a steppe or prairie. Passing through this, the explorers next would come to Hebron, the first town of importance, beside which Abraham had lived, and where the graves of their ancestors were. But they were in no mood for remembering such old stories. Living Anaks were much more real to them than dead patriarchs. So the only thing mentioned, besides the antiquity of the city, is the presence in it of these giants. They were probably the relics of the aboriginal inhabitants, and some strain of their blood survived till late days. They seem to have expelled the Hittites, who held Mamre, or Hebron, in Abraham’s time. Their name is said to mean ‘long-necked,’ and the three names in our lesson are probably tribal, and not personal, names. The whole march northward and back again comes in between Num_13:22 – Num_13:23; for Eshcol was close to Hebron, and the spies would not encumber themselves with the bunch of grapes on their northward march. The details of the exploration are given more fully in the spies’ report, which shows that they had gone up north from Hebron, through the hills, and possibly came back by the valley of the Jordan. At any rate, they made good speed, and must have done some bold and hard marching, to cover the ground out and back in six weeks. So they returned with their pomegranates and figs, and a great bunch of the grapes for which the valley identified with Eshcol is still famous, swinging on a pole,-the easiest way of carrying it without injury.

III. We have next the two reports. The explorers are received in a full assembly of the people, and begin their story with an object-lesson, producing the great grape cluster and the other spoils. But while honesty compelled the acknowledgment of the fertility of the land, cowardice slurred that over as lightly as might be, and went on to dilate on the terrors of the giants and the strength of the cities, and the crowded population that held every corner of the country. Truly, the eye sees what it brings with it. They really had gone to look for dangers, and of course they found them. Whatever Moses might lay down in his instructions, they had been sent by the people to bring back reasons for not attempting the conquest, and so they curtly and coldly admit the fertility of the soil, and fling down the fruit for inspection as undeniably grown there, but they tell their real mind with a great ‘nevertheless.’ Their report is, no doubt, quite accurate. The cities were, no doubt, some of them walled, and to eyes accustomed to the desert, very great; and there were, no doubt, Anaks at Hebron, at any rate, and the ‘spies’ had got the names of the various races and their territories correctly. As to these, we need only notice that the Hittites were an outlying branch of the great nation, which recent research has discovered, as we might say, the importance and extent of which we scarcely yet know; that the Jebusites held Jerusalem till David’s time; that the ‘Amorites,’ or ‘Highlanders,’ occupied the central block of mountainous country in conjunction with the two preceding tribes; and that the ‘Canaanites,’ or ‘Lowlanders,’ held the lowlands east and west of that hilly nucleus, namely, the deep gorge of the Jordan, and the strip of maritime plain. A very accurate report may be very one-sided. The spies were not the last people who, being sent out to bring home facts, managed to convey very decided opinions without expressing any. A grudging and short admission to begin with, the force of which is immediately broken by sombre and minute painting of difficulty and danger, is more powerful as a deterrent than any dissuasive. It sounds such an unbiassed appeal to common-sense, as if the reporter said, ‘There are the facts; we leave you to draw the conclusions.’ An ‘unvarnished account of the real state of the case,’ in which there is not a single misstatement nor exaggeration, may be utterly false by reason of wrong perspective and omission, and, however true, is sure to act as a shower-bath to courage, if it is unaccompanied with a word of cheer. To begin a perilous enterprise without fairly facing its risks and difficulties is folly. To look at them only is no less folly, and is the sure precursor of defeat. But when on the one side is God’s command, and on the other such doleful discouragements, they are more than folly, they are sin.

It is bracing to turn from the creeping prudence which leaves God out of the account, to the cheery ring of Caleb’s sturdy confidence. His was ‘a minority report,’ signed by only two of the ‘Commission.’ These two had seen all that the others had, but everything depends on the eyes which look. The others had measured themselves against the trained soldiers and giants, and were in despair. These two measured Amalekites and Anaks against God, and were jubilant. They do not dispute the facts, but they reverse the implied conclusion, because they add the governing fact of God’s help. How differently the same facts strike a man who lives by faith, and one who lives by calculation! Israel might be a row of ciphers, but with God at the head they meant something. Caleb’s confidence that ‘we are well able to overcome’ was religious trust, as is plain from God’s eulogium on him in the next chapter {Num_14:24}. The lessons from it are that faith is the parent of wise courage; that where duty, which is God’s voice, points, difficulties must not deter; that when we have God’s assurance of support, they are nothing. Caleb was wise to counsel going up to the assault ‘at once,’ for there is no better cure for fear than action. Old soldiers tell us that the trying time is when waiting to begin the fight. ‘The native hue of resolution’ gets ‘sicklied o’ er’ with the paleness that comes from hesitation. Am I sure that anything is God’s will? Then the sooner I go to work at doing it, the better for myself and for the vigour of my work.

This headstrong rashness, as they thought it, brings up the other ‘spies’ once more. Notice how the gloomy views are the only ones in their second statement. There is nothing about the fertility of the land, but, instead, we have that enigmatical expression about its ‘eating up its inhabitants.’ No very satisfactory explanation of this is forthcoming. It evidently means that in some way the land was destructive of its inhabitants, which seems to contradict their former reluctant admission of its fertility. Perhaps in their eagerness to paint it black enough, they did contradict themselves, and try to make out that it was a barren soil, not worth conquering. Fear is not very careful of consistency. Note, too, the exaggerations of terror. ‘All the people’ are sons of Anak now. The size as well as the number of the giants has grown; ‘we were in our own sight as grasshoppers.’ No doubt they were gigantic, but fear performed the miracle of adding a cubit to their stature. When the coward hears that ‘there is a lion without,’-that is, in the open country,-he immediately concludes, ‘I shall be slain in the streets,’ where it is not usual for lions to disport themselves.

Thus exaggerated and one-sided is distrust of God’s promises. Such a temper is fatal to all noble life or work, and brings about the disasters which it foresees. If these cravens had gone up to fight with men before whom they felt like grasshoppers, of course they would have been beaten; and it was much better that their fears should come out at Kadesh than when committed to the struggle. Therefore God lovingly permitted the mission of the spies, and so brought lurking unbelief to the surface, where it could be dealt with. Let us beware of the one-eyed ‘prudence’ which sees only the perils in the path of duty and enterprise for God, and is blind to the all-sufficient presence which makes us more than conquerors, when we lean all our weight on it. It is well to see the Anakim in their full formidableness, and to feel that we are ‘as grasshoppers in our own sight’ and in theirs, if the sight drives us to lift our eyes to Him who ‘sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof,’ however huge and strong, ‘are as grasshoppers.’

John Calvin
Numbers 13:25-31
25.And they returned from searching of the land. The activity and diligence of the twelve men is commended, who in so short a time examined the whole of the land from the desert of Sin to the sea, and along the whole course of the Jordan; and this, too, in the hottest part of the year, when the grapes were beginning to ripen. Thus far, then, they faithfully executed the task intrusted to them. In their report, also, there seems to be nothing unworthy of honest men. They had been commanded by Moses to consider the inhabitants of the land, whether they were strong or weak, and also whether the cities were fortified; and they relate nothing which was not true and fully ascertained by them. In a word, at first sight their relation contains nothing worthy of reprehension. Nevertheless, we may gather from the context that the ten of them, whose desire was to turn away the people, spoke in such discouraging terms of their difficulties, that they produced exactly the contrary effect to what Moses had hoped. No other accusation, however, is as yet alleged against them, than that, by maliciously and deceptively inspiring despondency, they held back the people from entering the land. Although, therefore, they had not openly lied, they were wanting in sincerity. Perhaps, too, the whole of their address is not recorded; because Moses deemed it sufficient to state their perversity of feeling, in that they added to their praises of the land an exception, which overwhelmed the people’s minds with fear. From whence also we gather a useful admonition, that crafty sophists avail nothing with God, when they endeavor to cover their deceit by tortuous prevarication’s. Wherefore, if we desire to approve our discourse to God, we must take care to lay aside all such unfair evasions, and, rejecting all disguise, to speak simply and from the heart. The ten spies, then, lay a foundation of good faith, in order that they may afterwards be more competent to deceive. The land, they say, is a good one, except that the people are strong; and what is this but that there was little hope that the Israelites would obtain the blessing promised them by God, and that the attempt must by no means be made? With the same view they thunder out the names of several nations, in order to increase the alarm; for, after having reported that they had seen the sons of Anak, they state that their contests would be too arduous with the various peoples, who would advance from all sides to resist them.

Keil and Delitzsch
Numbers 13:25-29
In forty days the spies returned to the camp at Kadesh (see at Num_16:6), and reported the great fertility of the land (“it floweth with milk and honey,” see at Exo_3:8), pointing, at the same time, to the fruit they had brought with them; “nevertheless,” they added (כִּי אֶפֶס, “only that”), “the people be strong that dwell in the land, and the cities are fortified, very large: and, moreover, we saw the children of Anak there.” Amalekites dwelt in the south (see at Gen_36:12); Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites in the mountains (see at Gen_10:15-16); and Canaanites by the (Mediterranean) Sea and on the side of the Jordan, i.e., in the Arabah or Ghor (see at Gen_13:7 and Gen_10:15-18).

Pulpit Commentary
For they are stronger than we. In point of numbers the enormous superiority of the Israelites over any combination likely to oppose them must have been evident to the most cowardly. But the existence of numerous walled and fortified towns was (apart from Divine aid) an almost insuperable obstacle to a people wholly ignorant of artillery or of siege operations; and the presence of giants was exceedingly terrifying in an age when battles were a series of personal encounters. (cf. 1Sa_17:11, 1Sa_17:24)

Alexander MacLaren
Numbers 14:1-10

Terror is more contagious than courage, for a mob is always more prone to base than to noble instincts. The gloomy report of the spies jumped with the humour of the people, and was at once accepted. Its effect was to throw the whole assembly into a paroxysm of panic, which was expressed in the passionate Eastern manner by wild, ungoverned shrieking and tears. What a picture of a frenzied crowd the first verse of this chapter gives! That is not the stuff of which heroes can be made. Weeping endured for a night, but to such weeping there came no morning of joy. When day dawned, the tempest of emotion settled down into sullen determination to give up the prize which hung within reach of a bold hand, ripe and ready to drop. It was one of the moments which come once at least in the lives of nations as of individuals, when a supreme resolve is called for, and when to fall beneath the stern requirement, and refuse a great attempt because of danger, is to pronounce sentence of unworthiness and exclusion on themselves. Not courage only, but belief in God, was tested in this crucial moment, which made a turning-point in the nation’s history. Our text brings before us with dramatic vividness and sharpness of contrast, three parties in this decisive hour-the faithless cowards, the faithful four, and the All-seeing presence.

I. Note the faithless cowards. The gravity of the revolt here is partly in its universality, which is emphasised in the narrative at every turn: ‘all the congregation’ {Num_14:1}, ‘all the children of Israel,’ the whole congregation’ {Num_14:2}, ‘all the assembly of the congregation’ {which implies a solemn formal convocation}, ‘all the company’ {Num_14:7}, ‘all the congregation,’ ‘all the children of Israel’ {Num_14:10}. It was no sectional discontent, but full-blown and universal rebellion. The narrative draws a distinction between the language addressed to Moses, and the whisperings to one another. Publicly, the unanimous voice suggested the return to Egypt as an alternative for discussion, and put it before Moses; to one another they muttered the proposal, which no man had yet courage to speak out, of choosing a new leader, and going back, whatever became of Moses. That could only mean murder as well as mutiny. The whispers would soon be loud enough.

In the murmurs to Moses, observe the distinct and conscious apostacy from Jehovah. They recognise that God ‘has brought’ them there, and they slander Him by the assertion that His malignant, deliberate purpose was to kill them all, and make slaves of their wives and children. That was how they read the past, and thought of Him! He had enticed them into His trap, as a hunter might some foolish animal, by dainties strewed along the path, and now they were in the toils, and their only chance of life was to break through. Often, already, had they raised that mad cry-’back to Egypt!’ but there had never been such a ring of resolve in it, nor had it come from so many throats, nor had any serious purpose to depose Moses been entertained. If we add the fact that they were now on the very frontier of Canaan, and that the decision now taken was necessarily final, we get the full significance of the incident from the mere secular historian’s point of view. But its bearing on the people’s relation to Jehovah gives a darker colouring to it. It is not merely faint-hearted shrinking from a great opportunity, but it is wilful and deliberate rejection of His rule, based upon utter distrust of His word. So Scripture treats this event as the typical example of unbelief {Psa_95:1 – Psa_95:11; Heb_3:1 – Heb_3:19 and Heb_4:1 – Heb_4:16}. So regarded, it presents, as in a mirror, some of the salient characteristics of that master sin. Bad as it is, it is not out of the range of possibility that it should be repeated, and we need the warning to ‘take heed lest any of us should fall after the same example of unbelief.’

We may learn from it the essentials of faith and its opposite. The trust which these cowards failed to exercise was reliance on Jehovah, a personal relation to a Person. In externals and contents, their trust was very unlike the New Testament faith, but in object and essence it was identical. They had to trust in Jehovah; we, in ‘God manifest in the flesh.’ Their creed was much less clear and blessed than ours, but their faith, if they had had it, would have been the same. Faith is not the belief of a creed, whether man-made or God-revealed, but the cleaving to the Person whom the creed makes known. He may be made known more or less perfectly; but the act of the soul, by which we grasp Him, does not vary with the completeness of the revelation. That act was one for ‘the world’s grey fathers’ and for us. In like manner, unbelief is the same black and fatal sin, whatever be the degree of light against which it turns. To depart from the living God is its essence, and that is always rebellion and death.

Note the short memory and churlish unthankfulness of unbelief. It has been often objected to the story of the Exodus, that such extremity of folly as is ascribed to the Israelites is inconceivable in such circumstances. How could men, with all these miracles in mind, and manna falling daily, and the pillar blazing every night, and the roll of Sinai’s thunders scarcely out of their ears, behave thus? But any one who has honestly studied his own heart, and known its capacity for neglecting the plainest indications of God’s presence, and forgetting the gifts of His love, will believe the story, and see brethren in these Israelites. Miracles were less wonderful to them, because they knew less about nature and its laws. Any miracles constantly renewed become commonplace. Habit takes the wonder out of everything. The heart that does not ‘like to retain God in its knowledge’ will find easy ways of forgetting Him, and revolting from Him, though the path be strewed with blessings, and tokens of His presence flame on every side. True, it is strange that all the wonders and mercies of the past two years had made no deeper impression on these people’s hearts; but if they had not done so, it is not unnatural that they had made so slight an impression on their wills. Their ingratitude and forgetfulness are inexplicable, as all sin is, for its very essence is that it has no sufficient reason. But neither is inconceivable, and both are repeated by us every day.

Note the credulity of unbelief. The word of Jehovah had told them that the land ‘flowed with milk and honey,’ and that they were sure to conquer it. They would not believe Him unless they had verification of His promises. And when they got their own fears reflected in the multiplying mirror of the spies’ report, they took men’s words for gospel, and gave to them a credence without examination or qualification, which they had never given to God. I think that I have heard of people who inveigh against Christians for their slavish acceptance of the absolute authority of Jesus Christ, and who pin their faith to some man’s teaching with a credulity quite as great as and much less warrantable than ours.

Note the bad bargain which unbelief is ready to make. They contemplated a risky alternative to the brave dash against Canaan. There would be quite as much peril in going back as forward. The march from Egypt had not been so easy; but what would it be when there were no Moses, no Jethro, no manna, no pillar? And what sort of reception would wait them in Egypt, and what fate befall them there? In front, there were perils; but God would be with them. They would have to fight their way, but with the joyous feeling that victory was sure, and that every blow struck, and every step marched, brought them nearer triumphant peace. If they turned, every step would carry them farther from their hopes, and nearer the dreary putting on of the old yoke, which ‘neither they nor their fathers were able to bear.’ They would buy slavery at as dear a price as they would have to pay for freedom and wealth. Yet they elected the baser course, and thought themselves prudent and careful of themselves in doing so. Is the breed of such miscalculators extinct? Far greater hardships and pains are met on the road of departure from God, than any which befall His servants. To follow Him involves a conflict, but to shirk the battle does not bring immunity from strife. The alternatives are not warfare or peace, God’s service or liberty. The most prudent self-love would coincide with the most self-sacrificing heroic consecration, and no man can worse consult his own well-being than in seeking escape from the dangers and toil of enlisting in God’s army, by running back through the desert to put his neck in chains in Egypt. As Moses said: ‘Because then servedst not the Lord thy God with joyfulness, and with gladness of heart for the abundance of all things, therefore thou shalt serve thine enemies, in hunger, and in thirst, and in want of all things.’

II. The faithful four. Moses and Aaron, Caleb and Joshua, are the only Abdiels in that crowd of unbelieving dastards. Their own peril does not move them; their only thought is to dissuade from the fatal refusal to advance. The leader had no armed force with which to put down revolt, and stood wholly undefended and powerless. It was a cruel position for him to see the work of his life crumbling to pieces, and every hope for his people dashed by their craven fears. Is there anywhere a nobler piece of self-abnegation than his prostrating himself before them in the eagerness of his pleading with them for their own good? If anything could have kindled a spark of generous enthusiasm, that passionate gesture of entreaty would have done it. It is like: ‘We beseech you, in His stead, be ye reconciled to God.’ Men need to be importuned not to destroy themselves, and he will have most success in such God-like work who, as Moses, is so sure of the fatal issues, and so oblivious of all but saving men from self-inflicted ruin, that he sues as for a boon with tears in his voice, and dignity thrown to the winds.

Caleb and Joshua had a different task,-to make one more attempt to hearten the people by repeating their testimony and their confidence. Tearing their dresses, in sign of mourning, they bravely ring out once more the cheery note of assured faith. They first emphatically reiterate that the land is fertile,-or, as the words literally run, ‘good exceedingly, exceedingly.’ It is right to stimulate for God’s warfare by setting forth the blessedness of the inheritance. ‘The recompense of the reward’ is not the motive for doing His will, but it is legitimately used as encouragement, in spite of the overstrained objection that virtue for the sake of heaven is spurious virtue. If ‘for the sake of heaven,’ it is spurious; but it is not spurious because it is heartened by the hope of heaven. In Caleb’s former report there was no reason given for his confidence that ‘we are well able to overcome.’ Thus far all the discussion had been about comparative strength, as any heathen soldier would have reckoned it. But the two heroes speak out the great Name at last, which ought to scatter all fears like morning mist. The rebels had said that Jehovah had ‘brought us into this land to fall by the sword.’ The two give them back their words with a new turn: ‘He will bring us into this land, and give it us.’ That is the only antidote to fear. Calculations of comparative force are worse than useless, and their results depend on the temper of the calculator; but, if once God is brought into the account, the sum is ended. When His sword is flung into the scale, whatever is in the other goes up. So Caleb and Joshua brush aside the terrors of the Anaks and all the other bugbears. ‘They are bread for us,’ we can swallow them at a mouthful; and this was no swaggering boast, but calm, reasonable confidence, because it rested on this, ‘the Lord is with us.’ True, there was an ‘if,’ but not an ‘if’ of doubt, but a condition which they could comply with, and so make it a certainty, ‘only rebel not against the Lord, and fear not the people of the land.’ Loyalty to Him would give courage, and courage with His presence would be sure of victory. Obedience turns God’s ‘ifs’ into ‘verilys.’ There, then, we have an outline picture of the work of faith pleading with the rebellious, heartening them and itself by thoughts of the fair inheritance, grasping the assurance of God’s omnipotent help, and in the strength thereof wisely despising the strongest foes, and settling itself immovable in the posture of obedience.

III. The sudden appearance of the all-seeing Lord. The bold remonstrance worked the people into a fury, and fidelity was about to reap the reward which the crowd ever gives to those who try to save it from its own base passions. Nothing is more hateful to resolute sinners than good counsel which is undeniably true. But just as the stones were beginning to fly, the ‘glory of the Lord,’ that wondrous light which dwelt above the ark in the inmost shrine, came forth before all the awestruck crowd. The stones would be dropped fast enough, and a hush of dread would follow the howling rage of the angry crowd. Our text does not go on to the awful judgment which was proclaimed; but we may venture beyond its bounds to point out that the sentence of exclusion from the land was but the necessary consequence of the temper and character which the refusal to advance had betrayed. Such people were not fit for the fight. A new generation, braced by the keen air and scant fare of the desert, with firmer muscles and hearts than these enervated slaves had, was needed for the conquest. The sentence was mercy as well as judgment; it was better that they should live in the wilderness, and die there by natural process, after having had more education in God’s loving care, than that they should be driven unwillingly to a conflict which, in their state of mind, would have been but their butchery. None the less, it is an awful condemnation for a man to be brought by God’s providence face to face with a great possibility of service and of blessing, and then to show himself such that God has to put him aside, and look for other instruments. The Israelites were excluded from Canaan by no arbitrary decree, but by their own faithless fears, which made their victory impossible. ‘They could not enter in because of unbelief.’ In like manner our unbelief shuts us out from salvation, because we can only enter in by faith; and the ‘rest that remains’ is of such a nature that it is impossible for even His love to give it to the unbelieving. ‘Let us labour, therefore, to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief.’

John Calvin
Numbers 14:6
6.And Joshua, the son of Nun, and Caleb. The magnanimity of Joshua is here specified, whereas, before, only Caleb had been praised. But Moses says that they both rent their clothes in token of their excessive sorrow, and even of their abhorrence. For, as is well known, this, amongst the Orientals, was a solemn ceremony in extreme grief, or when they would express their abomination of some crime. Hypocrites have improperly imitated this custom, either when they made a pretence of sorrow, or desired to deceive the simple. But it is plain that Caleb and Joshua were moved to rend their garments by solemn feelings, nay, by the fervor of their indignation; whilst, at the same time, they seek to reclaim the people from their madness. And, first, they commend the fertility of the land; and then base their hope of obtaining it on the favor or good pleasure of God. Some take the conditional particle אם, im, for the causal particle, and translate it, “For because God loves us, therefore He will bring us in;” but this I do not approve of, and it is manifestly foreign to the true meaning; for, since the Israelites had in a manner rejected so great a benefit, they were surely unworthy through unbelief of being still pursued by His favor. The condition is, therefore, introduced as if doubtingly, not in order to diminish their hopes, as though it were a mark of uncertainty, but simply that the people should be convinced of their impiety, and repent; as if they had said, If only we afford room for the continuance of God’s favor towards us, be ye of good courage. And this they state more clearly soon afterwards, in reproving the stubbornness of the people, where they say, “Only (or but) rebel not ye;” in which words they admonish them that they shut up all the ways whereby God might still pursue the course of His work; and that there is no other obstacle to these wretched people except their own unbelief, which does not permit them to obey God. In this way, then, they assert that God’s power is sufficient to perform what He had promised; and then exhort the people to conciliate His favor, from whence they had fallen through their own fault. The particle אך, ac, is used emphatically, as though Joshua and Caleb had said that there was no fear of danger, except because the people’s minds were set on bringing evil upon themselves. Finally, in their reliance upon God’s aid, they exult like conquerors; “They will be bread for us,” they say, i.e., we shall devour them without any trouble. And the reason is subjoined, because, if God stands by the Israelites, their enemies will be destitute of all defense. Justly, then, and for the best of reasons they conclude, that although our enemies would otherwise be formidable, they are not to be feared, if only God, apart from whom there is no strength, be favorable unto us.

Keil and Delitzsch
Numbers 14:5-10
At this murmuring, which was growing into open rebellion, Moses and Aaron fell upon their faces before the whole of the assembled congregation, namely, to pour out their distress before the Lord, and move Him to interpose; that is to say, after they had made an unsuccessful attempt, as we may supply from Deu_1:29-31, to cheer up the people, by pointing them to the help they had thus far received from God. “In such distress, nothing remained but to pour out their desires before God; offering their prayer in public, however, and in the sight of all the people, in the hope of turning their minds” (Calvin). Joshua and Caleb, who had gone with the others to explore the land, also rent their clothes, as a sign of their deep distress at the rebellious attitude of the people (see at Lev_10:6), and tried to convince them of the goodness and glory of the land they had travelled through, and to incite them to trust in the Lord. “If Jehovah take pleasure in us,”; they said, “He will bring us into this land. Only rebel not ye against Jehovah, neither fear ye that people of the land; for they are our food;” i.e., we can and shall swallow them up, or easily destroy them (cf. Num_22:4; Num_24:8; Deu_7:16; Psa_14:4). “Their shadow is departed from them, and Jehovah is with us: fear them not!” “Their shadow” is the shelter and protection of God (cf. Ps 91; Psa_121:5). The shadow, which defends from the burning heat of the sun, was a very natural figure in the sultry East, to describe defence from injury, a refuge from danger and destruction (Isa_30:2). The protection of God had departed from the Canaanites, because God had determined to destroy them when the measure of their iniquity was full (Gen_15:16; cf. Exo_34:24; Lev_18:25; Lev_20:23). But the excited people resolved to stone them, when Jehovah interposed with His judgment, and His glory appeared in the tabernacle to all the Israelites; that is to say, the majesty of God flashed out before the eyes of the people in a light which suddenly burst forth from the tabernacle (see at Exo_16:10).

Pulpit Commentary
Num 14:6-10
And Joshua. In a last hopeless effort to bring the people to a better mind, or at least to deliver their own souls, there was no reason why Joshua should hold back any more. Rent their clothes. Another token of grief and hinter practiced from patriarchal times. (cf. Gen_37:29, 34 Job_1:20)

Vers. 6-10. Speaking out: a last appeal.
Moses is silent from necessity, his power with men in abeyance, and he waiting humbly upon God. Joshua and Caleb, who were not only men of a different spirit, but also very imperfectly acquainted with Moses” peculiar burden, spoke out. As it was well for Moses and Aaron to be silent, it was also well for Caleb and Joshua to speak out. Moses and Aaron were for the time separated, forsaken, and as it were condemned; but Caleb and Joshua are still in the multitude Caleb indeed partly declared, and only waiting further opportunity to speak his mind fully on the subject. Now Joshua and he take their stand without any hesitation or chance of being mistaken. They had something to say which Moses could not say, for they had been through the land. Thus, when God”s servant is compelled to be silent, friends arise to say what is right and just. Consider

I THE MANNER OF THE SPEAKERS. “They rent their clothes.” This was the symbol of hearts rent with grief and astonishment because of impending disaster. To the Israelites their only hope appeared in retracing their steps. To Caleb and Joshua this was the summary and utter extinction of a great opportunity. The multitude looked on Canaan as worse than the grave, a scene of vain struggles and harassing privations. Caleb and Joshua looked on the multitude as threatening the unutterable folly of drawing back from certain and inestimable blessings when they lay within their reach. Therefore they accompanied their speech with an action that indicated the distress and laceration of their hearts. Truth may do such things naturally in the very vehemence and consistency of its onset. We do not read that the spies who brought up a slander on the land rent their clothes while they were telling their story. Hypocrisy must always be careful in its histrionics not to overdo the thing.

II THE MATTER OF THEIR SPEECH. They give the testimony of experience. They had passed through the land to search it. Although they were only two against ten who told a different story, yet, strong in the consciousness of sincerity and competency, they declared what they had seen with their eyes, looked upon, and handled. Though their testimony would not have been enough for some purposes, yet it was quite enough to throw as a check in the way of revolted Israel. They emphatically assert the goodness of the land. It was a land to be desired, corresponding to all the promises made and the hopes cherished, worth all the struggling and self-denial that might be needed in order to attain it. They show a devout recognition of Jehovah. This alone might make their word, though only two, outweigh the exaggerations of the other ten. The recognition shows itself in two ways.

1. They avow the necessity of his favour. “If the Lord delight in us;” that means, surely, “If we believe in the Lord.” That which delights the Lord is to see men walking by faith, and not by sight, stepping forward into the darkness upon his clear command. Caleb and Joshua felt sure, from what they had seen of the fatness and beauty of Canaan, that God wished to delight in his people, if only they would allow it.

2. They avow the necessity of submission to God. Unbelief is not only separation, it is rebellion. This was the real danger of Israel rebellion against God”s appointments and restrictions. By their present conduct they were strengthening the nations of Canaan with more than all their walled cities, giants, and strong men could give them. They show that the Canaanites are really very weak. There is nothing more fallacious than outside show and casual inspection. The spies had brought some fruit, and doubtless tasted much more; but how could they report adequately on defenses which they could not examine in any accurate way? They did not know how all these people were undermined and enervated by their wickedness. The very wealth of the hind became a curse and corrupting influence to the idolaters who dwelt in it. Wicked nations in the midst of all their boasting and revelry are preparing their own destruction.


1. The exasperation, of the people reaches its highest pitch. “All the congregation bade stone them with stones, This was the punishment which God had appointed for serious transgressions. (Lev_20:2, 27 24:14 Num_15:35 Deu_13:10, &c.); And now the people adopt it, numbering Caleb and Joshua with transgressors against their sovereign will. If we speak the truth, all of it, and at the time when it should be spoken, we must be ready for the consequences. The two faithful witnesses would certainly have been stoned, as Zechariah long after, (2Ch_24:21) but

2. God himself interfered. “The glory of the Lord appeared,” &c. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, the rebels were reduced to impotence. One can imagine the uplifted stone dropped, as if it had turned to a blazing coal. Israel may still be sullen and rebellious in ;heart, but its hand is in the power of God. He can rescue his servants from the power of their enemies, if that be most expedient. Caleb and Joshua still had much work to do. Or, as happened to Stephen, he can turn the unchecked fury of men into the agent, of, a quick, and glorious dismission from the toils and perils of earthly service. In God s house the more manifest the faithfulness of the servant, the more manifest also the faithfulness of the Master. Y.

Pulpit Commentary
Num 14:9
They are bread for us. “They are our food,” i.e., we shall easily devour them. (cf. Num_24:8 Psa_14:4) Perhaps it has the further significance that their enemies would be an absolute advantage to them, because they would (however unwillingly) supply them with the necessaries of life. So apparently the Septuagint: mh fobhyhte tobrwma umin estin . Their defense is departed from them. Literally, “their shadow,” that which shielded them for a while from the fierce blast of Divine wrath. This “shadow” was not positively the Divine protection, (as in Psa_91:1, and elsewhere) but negatively that Providence which left them a space wherein to walk in their own ways. (cf. to katecon of 2Th_2:6)

John Calvin
Numbers 14:17
17.And now, I beseech thee, let the power of my Lord be great. He derives another ground of confidence from the vision, in which God had more clearly manifested His nature, from whence it appears how much he had profited by it, and what earnest and anxious attention he had paid to it. Hence, however, we derive a general piece of instruction, that there is nothing more efficacious in our prayers than to set His own word before God, and then to found our supplications upon His promises, as if He dictated to us out of His own mouth what we were to ask. Since, then, God had manifested Himself to Moses in that memorable declaration, which we have already considered, he was able to derive from thence a sure directory for prayer; for nothing can be more sure than His own word, on which if our prayers are based, there is no reason to fear that they will be ineffectual, or that their results should disappoint us, since He who has spoken will prove Himself to be true. And, in fact, this is the reason why He speaks, viz., to afford us the grounds for addressing Him, for else we must needs be dumb.

Pulpit Commentary
Num 14:17
And now, I beseech thee, let the power of my Lord be great. Here the argument of Moses rises to a higher level; he ventures to put God in mind of what he had himself declared to Moses in the fullest revelation which he had ever made of his own unchangeable character, viz., that of all Divine prerogatives, the most Divine was that of forgiving sins and showing mercy. According as thou hast spoken. See on Exo_34:6, Exo_34:7. The words are not quoted exactly as there given, but are substantially the same.

Albert Barnes
Numbers 14:13-17
The syntax of these verses is singularly broken. As did Paul when deeply moved, so Moses presses his arguments one on the other without pausing to ascertain the grammatical finish of his expressions. He speaks here as if in momentary apprehension of an outbreak of God’s wrath, unless he could perhaps arrest it by crowding in every topic of deprecation and intercession that he could mention on the instant.

John Calvin
Numbers 14:19
19.Pardon, I beseech thee, the iniquity of this people. In order to encourage his hope of pardon, he first sets before himself the greatness of God’s mercy, and then the past instances by which it had been proved that God was inclined to forgiveness. And, indeed, the mercy of God continually invites us to seek reconciliation whenever we have sinned; and, though iniquities heaped upon iniquities, and the very enormity of our sins, might justly make us afraid, still the abundance of His grace, of which mention is here made, must needs occur to us, so as to swallow up all dread of His wrath. David, also, betaking himself to this refuge, affords us an example how all alarm is to be overcome. (Psa_51:1) But, since the bare and abstract recognition of God’s goodness is often insufficient for us, Moses applies another stay in the shape of experience: Pardon, (he says,) as thou hast so often done before. For, since the goodness of God is unwearied and inexhaustible, the oftener we have experienced it, the more ought we to be encouraged to implore it; not that we may sink into the licentious indulgence of sin, but lest despair should overwhelm us, when we are lying under the condemnation of God, and our own conscience smites and torments us. In a word, let us regard this as a most effective mode of importunity, when we beseech God by the benefits which we have already experienced, that He will never cease to be gracious.

John Calvin
Numbers 14:20
20.And the Lord said, I have pardoned, according to thy word. God signifies that tie pardons for His servant Moses’ sake, and makes, as it were, a present to him of those whom He had already devoted to destruction. Hence we gather how much the entreaties of the pious avail with God: as He is said, in Psa_145:19, to “fulfil the desire of them that fear him.” He would, indeed, have done of His own accord what He granted to Moses; but, in order that we may be more earnest in prayer, the use and advantage of prayers is commended, when God declares that He will not only comply with our requests, but even obey them.

But how is it consistent for Him to declare that He had spared those, upon whom He had determined to inflict the most extreme punishment, and whom He deprived of their promised inheritance? I reply that the pardon in question was not granted to the individuals, but to their race and name. For the opinion of some is unnatural, who think that they were released from the penalty of eternal death, and thence that God was propitiated towards them, because He was contented with their temporal punishment. I do not doubt, then, but that Moses was so far heard, as that the seed of Abraham should not be destroyed, and the covenant of God should not fail For He so dispensed the pardon as to preserve their posterity uninjured, whilst He inflicted on the unbelievers themselves the reward of their rebellion. Thus the conditions of the pardon were of no advantage to the impious rebels, though they opened a way for the faithful fulfillment of His promise.

Keil and Delitzsch
Numbers 14:20-23
In answer to this importunate prayer, the Lord promised forgiveness, namely, the preservation of the nation, but not the remission of the well-merited punishment. At the rebellion at Sinai, He had postponed the punishment “till the day of His visitation” (Exo_32:34). And that day had now arrived, as the people had carried their continued rebellion against the Lord to the furthest extreme, even to an open declaration of their intention to depose Moses, and return to Egypt under another leader, and thus had filled up the measure of their sins. “Nevertheless,” added the Lord (Num_14:21, Num_14:22), “as truly as I live, and the glory of Jehovah will fill the whole earth, all the men who have seen My glory and My miracles…shall not see the land which I sware unto their fathers.” The clause, “all the earth,” etc., forms an apposition to “as I live.” Jehovah proves Himself to be living, by the fact that His glory fills the whole earth. But this was to take place, not, as Knobel, who mistakes the true connection of the different clauses, erroneously supposes, by the destruction of the whole of that generation, which would be talked of by all the world, but rather by the fact that, notwithstanding the sin and opposition of these men, He would still carry out His work of salvation to a glorious victory. The כִּי in Num_14:22 introduces the substance of the oath, as in Isa_49:18; 1Sa_14:39; 1Sa_20:3; and according to the ordinary form of an oath, אִם in Num_14:23 signifies “not.” – “They have tempted Me now ten times.” Ten is used as the number of completeness and full measure; and this answered to the actual fact, if we follow the Rabbins, and add to the murmuring (1) at the Red Sea, Exo_14:11-12; (2) at Marah, Exo_15:23; (3) in the wilderness of Sin, Exo_16:2; (4) at Rephidim, Exo_17:1; (5) at Horeb, Ex 32; (6) at Tabeerah, Num_11:1; (7) at the graves of lust, Num_11:4.; and (8) here again at Kadesh, the twofold rebellion of certain individuals against the commandments of God at the giving of the manna (Exo_16:20 and Exo_16:27). The despisers of God should none of them see the promised land.

Pulpit Commentary
Num 14:20-23
I have pardoned. Whatever necessary exceptions and qualifications might remain to be afterwards declared, the great fact that he forgave the nation, and that the nation should not die, is announced without delay and without reservation. (cf. 2Sa_12:13) According to thy word. Such power had God been pleased to give unto man, that at the intercession of the mediator a whole nation is delivered from imminent death and destruction.

Vers. 20-23. The ultimate decision.

I THE EXTENT OF THE BOON WHICH GOD GRANTED, “I have pardoned according to thy word.” God gave all that Moses asked, and all that in the light of his former words (verses 11, 12), he could give. But what did it come to? Nominally: it might be called a pardon; in reality it came to no more than a reprieve. It did not put Israel where it was before. It was a boon, so far as it is a boon to a man condemned to die when he is told that his sentence is commuted to penal servitude for life. To him trembling under the shadow of the scaffold it may seem an inestimable mercy. So here Israel may have counted it the same to have been delivered from the pestilence. So a man will esteem recovery from a critical illness or the near chance of sudden death. Yet what has such a boon come to? Death and the demands of eternity are only put off a little into the future. We have not escaped them; we are pressed on towards them; every day of life narrows the distance, and at any moment the distance may be swept altogether away.

II GOD SECURES THAT HE SHALL BE GLORIFIED IN THE BESTOWING OF THE BOON. “All the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord.” As much as to assure Moses that he need not be in the least apprehensive. The nations of Canaan should have no cause for exultation, nothing to enable them to glorify their gods against Jehovah. They should have one pretext the less, if only one. There would be no chance to sneer at the swift destruction of Israel, as if it had come from one of the passionate and revengeful deities of Paganism. Still, if there was one pretext the less, there was only one. The removal of one pretext only opens up to the prejudiced and carnal mind the vision of another. The world will always have something to say against God, whithersoever the ways of his providence or his grace may tend. And so it is good for us to take the assurance he gave to Moses. All the earth, in a wider sense than Moses understood, shall be filled with the glory of God; for not only the kingdom and the power are his, but also and emphatically the glory. There will come a day when the most ingenious and admired criticism of men on the ways of God will be shriveled into everlasting oblivion before the full blaze of that glory.

III HE SECURES IN PARTICULAR THAT HE SHALL BE GLORIFIED IN ISRAEL. What Israel might think of him now it was spared was a matter of more immediate importance than what the nations might think. There was to be no opportunity for them to say, “This is a God who threatens, and yet when the pinch comes, the terrible blow is withdrawn.” The people were to behold both his goodness and his severity. He magnifies their sin before the eyes of Moses, and there was the more need to do so when he was sparing the transgressors. The mere lapse of time neither diminishes the impression made by sin on God himself, nor the destructive power of it on the transgressor. Repented and forsaken sins are blotted out, but a recurrence of them, and that in a more flagrant way, brings them back, and illustrates what an inveterate and ingrained thing sin has become. When Whately was principal of St. Alban”s Hall, he would sometimes say after some escapade of an undergraduate, “I pardon this as a first offence, and I do not wish to remember it. I will not unless you force me to do so. But recollect that if you commit a second, I must remember the first.” So God had to call up everything from the beginning, of his wonders in Egypt: on the one hand, all his glory and miracles, and impressive commands and promises; on the other hand, their persistent indifference, disobedience, and unbelief. Let them therefore understand, that even though they be spared, they cannot see Canaan. This is all the Lord says at present, but it is enough to secure that he shall be glorified in Israel

IV The great practical lesson to us is, that WE SHOULD BE VERY OBSERVANT OF THE SIGNS OF GOD”S PRESENCE WITH US, AND PROMPTLY OBEDIENT TO THE GOD WHO IS REVEALED IN THEM. Of how many it may truly be said, that they travel through life unobservant of God”s wonderful works to them, and tempting him many times l What a terrible thought, that as the fate of this generation was fixed, though some of them lived well-nigh forty years after, so the fate of many may be fixed even before they die probation ended, though earthly existence may continue; dead even while they live I While still in vigorous health of body, and active in all worldly concerns, the last faint trace of spiritual sensibility may have passed away. Doing perhaps what they reckon to be good, and what is good in a certain way, they nevertheless miss the great end of life, because faith in the Son and in the Father who sent him has never been allowed to enter their minds. Y. (Rom_11:20-22)

John Calvin
Numbers 14:21
21.But as truly as I live, all the earth. It is, indeed, plain that God here swears by His life and glory: the meaning is only ambiguous in this respect, that some translate it in the past tense, that the earth had been filled with His glory, which had already been displayed in so many miracles. And this seems to accord well with what follows, “Those, who have seen my glory — shall not see the land;” still the future tense suits the context better, viz., that God should call to witness His glory, which He will hereafter assert. Moses feared lest the destruction of the people should be turned into a reproach and contumely against God; God now declares with an oath that He would so vindicate His glory, as that those, who were guilty of so great a crime, should not escape punishment. He proclaims that those should not see the land, who had shut their eyes against the miracles, of which they had been spectators and eye-witnesses, and in their blindness had endeavored to set them at naught. For, inasmuch as they had not been taught to fear God by so many signs, they were worse than unworthy of beholding the land, the possession of which ought to have been assured to them by those very signs, if God’s truth had not been utterly rejected by their ingratitude.

God complains that He had been “tempted” by them “ten times;” because they had not ceased constantly to provoke Him by their frowardness; for it is no fixed or definite number, which is intended, but God would merely indicate that they had done so without measure or end. We have elsewhere shown what it is to tempt God, viz., to subject His power to the narrow rule of our own senses, and to prescribe to Him the mode in which He is to act, according to our own desires: so as to defer to Him no further than our carnal reason dictates. The source and cause of this tempting of God is subjoined, i.e., when men refuse to listen to His voice; since nothing but obedience, which is the mistress of humility, can restrain our insolence.

Albert Barnes
Numbers 14:21-23
Render: But as truly as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord; Num_14:22 all those men, etc.; Num_14:23 shall not see, etc.

These ten times – Ten is the number which imports completeness. Compare Gen_31:7. The sense is that the measure of their provocation was now full: the day of grace was at last over. However, some enumerate 10 different occasions on which the people had tempted God since the exodus.

Ps. 90, which is entitled “a Prayer of Moses,” has been most appropriately regarded as a kind of dirge upon those sentenced thus awfully by God to waste away in the wilderness.


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