The People Rebel (14:1–45)
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).