The People Rebel (14:1–45)
1–5 Having forgotten all that the Lord had done for them and what He had promised still to do for them, all the people (except Moses, Joshua and Caleb) wept in fear and disappointment (verse 1). Then they began to grumble, saying, “If only we had died. . . in this desert” (verse 2)—a foolish wish that the Lord later granted! (verse 32). The Israelites, in effect, chose their own punishment. This reminds us of Jesus’ warning that we will be held accountable for every careless word we speak (Matthew 12:36).
This time, the Israelites’ grumbling led to open rebellion: “We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt” (verse 4). Moses and Aaron knew that the terrible wrath of the Lord was about to fall upon Israel; they fell facedown in anticipation of His judgment.
6–9 Joshua and Caleb tore their clothes (a sign of mourning) and then attempted to persuade the people to take possession of the land the Lord had promised to give them. They reminded the people of the goodness of the land and the mighty power of God, by which they would be able to overcome their enemies. Who could stand against the Israelites if the Lord was with them? And He would be with them—provided they did not rebel against Him or against His chosen leaders.
10–12 But the people would not listen; instead, they talked about stoning their leaders, just as the New Testament Jews tried to stone Jesus when He spoke the truth to them (John 8:59; 10:31). And so the glory of the LORD appeared before them (verse 10), perhaps as cloud, perhaps as fire—we are not told. And the Lord asked, “How long . . . How long?” (verse 11). His patience is great, but it does not last forever.
The Lord knew the Israelites’ basic sin: “How long will they refuse to believe in me?” Their fear, their grumbling, their rejection of their leaders, their rejection of the promised land—indeed, their rejection of God’s covenant—all resulted from their unbelief. To refuse to believe in God is to treat Him with contempt (verse 11); it is to make God out to be a liar (1 John 5:10). And so God determined to destroy them with a plague and then start all over again with Moses. God had said a similar thing once before, when the Israelites had made a golden calf to worship (Exodus 32:9–10).
13–16 Then, just as Moses had interceded on Israel’s behalf following the golden calf incident (see Exodus 32:11–14), so now he interceded with God on the border of the promised land. Moses didn’t think for a moment about becoming the founder of a new nation; what he thought about was God’s reputation among the nations. The nations had heard about God’s marvelous deliverance and protection of Israel, and about how He had been seen face to face (verse 14)—that is, directly, without an intermediary (Numbers 12:8). If God destroyed His people now, the nations would say that He had been unable to fulfill His promise to give them the land.
God’s reputation—His honor, His glory—was tremendously important in the ancient world, and it remains so today. There was—and is—no other God like Yahweh, the Lord. People worship idols and ancestors, sun and moon, Buddha and Brahma, and innumerable other deities fashioned according to their own desires and imaginations; but none compares to the one, true, living God (see Deuteronomy 4:32–40). Moses did not want God brought down in people’s minds to the level of these other “gods.”
17–19 Then Moses asked God to forgive His people. He based his prayer on the character and goodness of God, repeating back to God words that God had spoken earlier about Himself (Exodus 20:6; 34:6–7). Moses’ prayer here is a model for all true prayer: our prayers must be based on the character of God and on His promises. Then we will know that we are praying according to His will, and that our prayer will be heard (1 John 5:14).
20–25 Moses’ prayer was indeed heard. God forgave His people in the sense that He did not immediately destroy them. We are not told whether they expressed true REPENTANCE for their sin; later on, they at least acknowledged they had sinned (verse 40). But forgiveness does not imply that there will be no consequences for one’s sin (see 2 Samuel 12:13–14). In this case, God decided that not one of the disobedient Israelites would ever see the promised land.44
God then made a special promise to Caleb, saying that he would get to enter the land (verse 24); and this promise was fulfilled forty years later. After the new generation of Israelites had taken possession of the land, Caleb was given Hebron as his inheritance (see Joshua 14:6–15; 15:13).
Then God commanded the Israelites to turn back into the desert (verse 25). The Amalekites and Canaanites were the southernmost tribes in Canaan; they would have been the first to be overcome by the Israelites as they marched north. But now the Israelites had lost their chance; God was turning them back.
26–35 These verses are an amplification of what God had said in verses 20–25. Though the Israelites were spared immediate death, they were still condemned to die a natural death there in the desert; they would not inherit the promised land. But their children would (verse 31). Though the present generation of Israelites over twenty years of age had broken their part of the covenant, God would remain faithful to His part: He would give the promised land to the next generation of Israelites.
But the next generation would have to wait forty years—one year for each day the faithless spies had spent exploring the land—until all of the older generation had did not go before them (verse 44). They died off. Thus the children would be affected by the punishment of their parents (Exodus 20:5): they would have to endure a forty-year delay in the desert. But at the end of that time the promised land would be theirs. Unbelief can indeed delay the fulfillment of God’s purposes, but ultimately those purposes will be fulfilled.
36–38 The only Israelites that were not spared immediate punishment were the ten faithless spies; the Lord struck them down with a plague. Their sin was the greatest, for they had led the entire nation astray.
39–45 Then, as usually happens when people realize they’ve made a mistake, the Israelites regretted what they had done. They even recognized that they had sinned (verse 40); and they certainly recognized what they had lost—the land. So they rashly decided to try and take possession of it—in spite of God’s command that they retreat back into the desert (verse 25). They were simply compounding their sin: God had told them to go and they wouldn’t; now He told them not to go and they went!
One of the consequences of sin is punishment; another is lost opportunity. Those Israelites had lost their chance to enter the land. They were like Isaac’s son Esau, who sold his birthright and then couldn’t get it back again (Genesis 25:29–34; Hebrews 12:16–17). For the Israelites, it was too late. The Lord did not go with them; the ark were driven back into the desert by the Amalekites and Canaanites,45 and many fell by the sword (verses 43,45).
What lessons do we modern Christians need to learn from these ancient Israelites? The first is that every spiritual defeat we experience is rooted in unbelief. Second, our unbelief is always expressed in some form of disobedience to God’s word or resistance to His Holy Spirit. Third, by unbelief and disobedience, we forfeit the very blessings that God is so ready to give us. The Israelites were on the very border of the promised land, a land “flowing with milk and honey,” and yet because of their unbelief and disobedience they could not enter it.
For us also the Lord has promised a “spiritual land”; He has prepared for us a banquet table filled with spiritual blessings, and He has invited us to come and eat. What fears are holding us back, what “giants,” what “fortified cities”? Whatever they are, God is greater than them all. Therefore, let us not hold back; let us respond to God’s invitation and come to His table and eat. Let us enter the promised land.
The best commentary on this chapter is found in Hebrews Chapters 3–4. Today, if you hear his voice,do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion (Hebrews 3:7–8). See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God (Hebrews 3:12).