In the Wilderness (Numbers)

I think it’s safe to say that there aren’t many children who enjoy going to school.  Most kids can relate to Calvin in this Calvin and Hobbes comic strip where he said, “I don’t want to go to school!  I hate school!  I’d rather do anything than go to school!”

And I understand.  I would imagine that all of you can think of times when you didn’t like school.  Or at least you didn’t like some of the classes you had to take in school.  And when we were kids, we didn’t go to school by our own choice.  We went because our parents made us go to school.

This morning I want us to consider that sometimes God sends us to school, and sometimes he has to make us go to school because it’s not something that we want to do.  And that’s especially true when God sends us into wilderness to learn a lesson.

This morning, we continue in our study through the Bible and we pick up with the book of Numbers, the story of the Israelites in the wilderness.  Let’s watch this video that will give us an overview of Numbers, then I’ll come back to talk with you about some lessons that we need to learn in the wilderness.


            Let’s go back for just a few minutes to the book of Exodus.  You recall that the Israelites were slaves in the land of Egypt, and God used Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, passing through the waters of the Red Sea.  And they were headed for the land of Canaan, the land that God had promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

            And the first thing we notice when the Israelites leave Egypt is that apparently God does not use Google Maps.  Because God does not lead the Israelites on the shortest possible route.  He takes them first to Mt. Sinai, which is about 200 miles out of the way — which is bad enough if you’re driving a car, but if you’re walking and there’s not much water or shade, then this is a detour that is really going to test your patience.

            You would think that if God were all-knowing, he would know the shortest route to Canaan.  And you would think that if God has the ability to part the waters of the Red Sea, then finding a direct and painless route to the promised land should be a snap.  God didn’t have to give his law on Mt. Sinai.  He could have given it to Moses at Kadesh, or Mt. Hor, or somewhere else along the way.

            God would never make it in the travel industry because it seems like he’s always leading his clients into the wilderness.  He even led his own Son into the wilderness for forty days.  So, it’s not that God is upset with people when he sends them there.  Obviously, there must be a good reason for him doing so.

            The truth is, God tells us that the prosperity of the promised land is so dangerous to our souls that only the memory of our time in the wilderness will keep us from being destroyed by our pride and self-sufficiency.  That’s what God said to the Israelites after he sent them on a 40-year detour into the wilderness, just before they crossed over into the promised land.

            This is a passage that I’ve read many times before, but I have to admit that I’ve always only paid attention to half of it.  But there’s a second half that’s very important.  In Deuteronomy 8, Moses said,

            “Take care lest you forget the Lord your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, 

            “then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end. 

            “Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day.” (Deuteronomy 8:11-18)

            Whenever I’ve read this passage before, I’ve always placed the emphasis on the fact that we shouldn’t take the credit for what God has blessed us with.  But the second part of this is that God tells the Israelites to remember the past 40 years, those 40 years when God led them through the wilderness, those 40 years when they had to deal with serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, those 40 years when God provided them with water and manna.

            And then, in verse 16, God says, “The reason I took you through the wilderness, the reason I put you through all that, was to humble you, and test you, and to do you good in the end.”  Which raises the question, what was the good that was done in the end?  You might think that God is talking about the eventual good life in the promised land, a time when the Israelites had full stomachs, and houses, and herds, and flocks, and silver, and gold.  But that’s not what God is talking about. God didn’t need to send them into the wilderness to give them all that stuff.  He could have just given it to them.

            The good that God wanted to do through their time in the wilderness was to make the people deeply conscious of their total dependence on God for everything.  God’s goal was to give them an experience in the wilderness that would make it impossible for a reasonable person to say, “My power, my might, or my hand has gotten me this wealth.”

            Because the real test for the Israelites was not in the wilderness.  The real test for the Israelites was in the land of Canaan, in the promised land of prosperity.  In military terms, the wilderness was their boot camp, but the land of Canaan was where the battle for their hearts was fought.  

            So, let’s take a look at their time in the wilderness.  In Numbers chapter 10, the Israelites leave Mt. Sinai and they head toward the land of Canaan.  Now, even before this time, we see that God was with them.  “And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night.” (Exodus 13:21).

            God never left his people alone in their journey.  His presence was always there, a reminder to them that they hadn’t been left on their own in the wilderness.  As a pillar of cloud in the day and a fire by night, God guided his people.

            We need to be reminded that God does not leave us to fend for ourselves, struggling to find our way.  He will lead us.  He promises to be faithful.  We may not see him in a pillar of cloud or fire these days, but we have his Word, and we have the Holy Spirit to give us guidance.  God is with us, he gives wisdom, he provides direction, so we never have to be afraid of being left on our own.

            So, God leads his people and he takes them right up to the edge of the promised land, the land of Canaan.  But before they enter, the people of Israel send 12 spies into Canaan to check it out.  Those 12 men spend 40 days observing the people in the land, and then they come back to give their report.

            Two of them Joshua and Caleb, say to the people, Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.” (Numbers 13:30).  But the other 10 spies disagreed with their assessment.  Despite the fact that they had seen God do some amazing stuff over the past two and a half years, they said, We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are.” (Numbers 13:31)

            Now we’re not told what the reaction of Joshua and Caleb was, but my guess is that they looked at each other in disbelief and then glanced at Moses and then looked back at the ten spies and said something like, “So what!  So what if they are stronger than we are.  What does that have to do with whether or not we can take the land?  If God told us to take the land and if God has promised to give it to us, then it doesn’t make any difference how strong they are.”

            But the people of Israel proved that the two and a half years they had already spent with God in the wilderness wasn’t long enough to teach them to trust God, and so they rebelled against Moses and against God.

            As a result, God wanted to destroy them all, but Moses got on his knees, and he prayed that God would spare the people, and God did.  But he said, “Truly, as I live…none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers. And none of those who despised me shall see it.” (Numbers 14:21-23)

            The whole class flunked their final exam of the wilderness training and so none of them were allowed to graduate.  And all the children were sent back to school.  If two and a half years of watching God perform miracles wasn’t enough to put trust into the hearts of Israel, then God said we’ll make it forty years.  And that’s why Israel wandered in the wilderness until a whole generation of unbelievers died out.

            It’s not hard for us to see the lesson that God wants us to learn from the wilderness experience of his people Israel.  God says that even though they saw his glory and even though they saw the miracles God performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, they still managed to test his patience time after time with their grumbling and they didn’t listen to him and they didn’t trust that God was able to take care of them.

            It’s clear that what God wanted to do in the exodus and in the wilderness wandering was to humble the people and then to show his wonders for them, so that they would learn to trust in the Lord with all their heart and not lean on their own insight or power.  The curriculum in the wilderness was designed to make evident their human helplessness and God’s strength.

            But that’s just Wilderness 101, a course entitled: “Deflating the Human Ego.”  The more advanced seminar is entitled, “How God Provides for His People.”  And this course was taught in two halves, one part as they were going to Mt. Sinai, and then the second part after they left.

            The first half of the course was taught in Exodus 16 on the way between Egypt and Sinai. The Israelites were hungry and you might say that it made them hangry.  They said to Moses, “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Exodus 16:3)

            They learned the first lesson that God wanted them to learn, which is — they are helpless.  But now comes the advanced lesson.  God wants them to learn that he is able to provide for all of their needs. 

            And so, God said, “Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you…. At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall be filled with bread. Then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.  In the evening quail came up and covered the camp, and in the morning [manna] lay around the camp.” (Exodus 16:4,12-13)

            Then, in Exodus 17, the people of Israel complained because they didn’t have enough water.  They said to Moses, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” (Exodus 17:3).  So, God said to Moses, “I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.” (Exodus 17:6)

            This lesson had a very point — God can provide for his people in the wilderness.   They were hungry.  God sent manna and quail.  They were thirsty.  God sent water gushing from a rock.  Every day a miracle was performed right in front of their eyes.  They just had to pick up the manna, drink the water, accept the blessing.  On another occasion, God made the bitter waters sweet again, so they could drink.  Over and over, God provided for their needs.

            God always provided.  Every morning it was there, waiting for them.  Every day God made sure he met their needs, they were satisfied, they were nourished, they were cared for.  And they never lacked, because God’s resources never run dry. 

            And just like the people of Israel had to look to God to meet their needs, so it is with us.  Like the Israelites, as helpless as we may be, we need to trust God, obey him, and be thankful.  And we should rejoice even in the wilderness, knowing that it is for our good in the end, and that all of our needs will be supplied, both now and for the rest of our lives.

            But Israel did not learn well from the first half of this seminar.  The months passed, and before long the miraculous manna was old hat (kinda like the gift of air and health and freedom and family and even salvation).  They forgot its source and they no longer felt a sense of wonder at God’s power and grace.

            And so, on the way between Sinai and Canaan, once again the people grumbled and they cried out for meat.  They said, “Oh that we had meat to eat!  We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.  But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” (Numbers 11:4-6)

            This attitude made the Teacher of the seminar very angry, and so God told Moses to say to the people, “The Lord will give you meat, and you shall eat.  You shall not eat just one day, or two days, or five days, or ten days, or twenty days, but a whole month, until it comes out at your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you, because you have rejected the Lord who is among you and have wept before him, saying, ‘Why did we come out of Egypt?’(Numbers 11:18-20)

            One of the things that we learn is that it is a terribly foolish thing to say to God, “My life would be better if I had never decided to follow you.”  And the Israelites were ready to drop out of school.  Because it wasn’t easy.  The truth is, almost nothing worthwhile is easy.  But it is absolutely essential to go through these difficult times if your destination is the promised land.

            And again, the reason God led his people into the wilderness and did wonders for them was “that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end.” (Deuteronomy 8:16)When we are in the wilderness, we are stripped of all the devices by which we give ourselves the impression of self-sufficiency.  The test, then, is whether or not we will be thankful for God’s provision in the past and trust in his ability to take care of us right now and in the future.

            And God always provides for his people.  In the book of Exodus, we read about how God’s people had endured years of bondage under the Egyptians. They were oppressed, abused, mistreated people.  They needed to be rescued, they needed a way of escape.  God paid attention, he saw their need, and in his perfect timing, he acted on their behalf. 

            God performed miracle after miracle, leading them out of slavery.  God set them free.  Free from oppression.  Free from captivity.  Free from bondage.  And then the people of Israel spent 40 years of wandering in the desert.  I’m sure they got weary.  But God stayed with them, he made sure they had what they needed.  And they learned all along the way, how much they needed to rely on God.

            We see it over and over in the Bible.  Stories that prove how God never leaves us fending for ourselves when problems arise or when they seem too big.  Miracles that remind us when we leave the battles in his hands, God can do what would be impossible for us to ever accomplish on our own.

            Even after all the things the Israelites had done, and how they’d wandered away from God, he said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” (Exodus 33:14)

            God’s presence is never dependent on how good we are, he is faithful even in our most difficult struggles. 40 years of desert wanderings must have been difficult to endure.  But God doesn’t always work on our timetable.  And he saw them through to the end.  He never abandoned his people.  

            We often face detours into the wilderness as God leads us into our own “promised land.”  Maybe that’s where you are right now.  Maybe you’re tired of your time in the desert.   You feel like the blessing is too long in coming, maybe you feel like giving up.  You feel forgotten, all alone.  Be assured this morning that God is faithful and he will use these difficult moments to strengthen our faith.  Tet the hardest struggles we face have the greatest potential to teach us patience and endurance, like nothing else can.             And sometimes when we find ourselves there, we just need that reminder from the whispers of God down deep in our soul, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”  In whatever you’re facing, be assured, God is with you and he’s providing for your needs.  Our job is to trust him.


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