Numbers 13
Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
Numbers 13
The tribes have at length reached the border of the promised land. Leaving the wilderness of Sinai, they have traveled northwards till they have reached Kadesh-barnea, a place situated in the Arabah, the long valley reaching from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Akabah, and which may be said to be a prolongation of the Jordan valley southwards to the Red Sea. From Kadesh the people can see, rising before them towards the north-west, the steep ascent which leads into the hill country, the destined inheritance of the tribe of Judah. The march from Egypt, including the twelve months' sojourn in Horeb, has occupied only sixteen months; yet the tribes already stand on the threshold of the promised rest, and Moses is in high hopes that within a few weeks they will have taken possession of the long-expected inheritance. In this chapter we see the first appearance of the cloud which soon shrouded in darkness the fair prospect. Instead of going resolutely forward with the shining pillar of the Divine presence for their guide, the people desired to have the land "repotted upon" by chosen men of their own company. These spies brought back a report which put the congregation in fear, and they refused to enter in. Observe -

I. WHERE THIS PROPOSAL TO SEND FORWARD SPIES ORIGINATED. Thirty-eight years later, Moses laid the blame of it on the people (Deuteronomy 1:22). He adds, however, that "the saying pleased him well," and that it was agreed to without difficulty, so that the statement in the text which represents the Lord as directing the spies to be sent is quite consistent with the one in Deuteronomy. There was nothing in itself sinful in the people's proposal, and it received the Divine approval. Nevertheless, it was in the circumstances a doubtful project. It betrayed a lurking distrust of the Lord's promise and leadership. They wanted to see for themselves before committing themselves further. Prudence is without doubt a virtue. Before beginning to build our tower we are to count the cost (Luke 14:28). There are times when this needs to be earnestly preached. Men are apt to make great ventures for the world, rushing forward blindly enough. But let these same men be asked to venture much for God, they will be sufficiently cautious. They will sit down and count the cost; they will have the land diligently searched before invading it. Men do well to be prudent, provided only that they do not leave God's promise out of their calculations. Where God's command and promise are clearly given, the greatest boldness is the truest wisdom. When Paul received the command to pass over to Macedonia, and plant the Church of Christ in Europe, he did not send over Timothy and Luke to search out the land and see whether they and Silas and he were equal to the work. Had he done that, he never would have taken ship for Europe. Where God's command is clear, our wisdom is to venture upon great things for God, and to expect great things from God.

II. HOW THE PROPOSAL WAS CARRIED OUT. Twelve men were chosen, one for every tribe. These men, climbing the steep ascent from Kadesh, traveled through the thirsty south country (the Negeb) as far as to Hebron. From Hebron they went up by the brook Eshcol into the hill country, "the mountain of the Amorites," the long ridge midway between Jordan and the sea, which extends from the south country till it is lost among the roots of Lebanon. Every step in the journey opened up scenes of beauty and varied fruitfulness which must have delighted eyes accustomed only to the monotony of the Nile valley. It was a land flowing with milk and honey. The proof of its fertility they brought back with them. The cluster from Eshcol declared that the land was one worth fighting for. A trait this which has fixed itself for ever in the imagination of the Church. For are not these Eshcol grapes a figure of those foretastes of the Better Country which the Lord grants his people here in the wilderness? No doubt there was much to be said that was less promising. The country was exceedingly populous. The inhabitants belonged to many races, and everywhere there appeared tokens of highly-advanced civilization. There had been great progress since Jacob went down to Egypt. There was much, therefore, to impress the spies with a sense of extreme difficulty in the task lying before the congregation. But the spies saw something which ought to have armed them against fear. They saw Hebron and that cave hard by which contained the bones of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebekah, of Jacob and Leah; the cave where the progenitors of Israel were buried, in the sure and steadfast hope that the land would yet be the inheritance of their seed. They being dead were still speaking, and their testimony might well have put unbelief to shame.

III. THE TENOR AND EFFECT OF THE SPIES REPORT. On one point the spies were unanimous. The land was good. Beyond that there was disagreement.

1. The majority kept harping on the difficulties they had discovered - the walled cities, the giants, the multitudes of people. They added, moreover, this, That the land ate up the inhabitants - a statement which probably refers to the circumstance (a remarkable one it is) that Palestine had been the meeting-place and battle-ground of many nations, where one nation had exterminated another.

2. The minority did not call in question the facts on which their brethren harped. But they set them in another light. Read chapter Numbers 14:7-9. And this suggests THE LESSON the story of the spies is fitted to teach. When God makes the way of duty plain, we must beware how we suffer our minds to dwell on the difficulties to be encountered. To do so will be apt simply to weaken our hands. "The fearful and unbelieving" have no portion in the heavenly city, but are shut out. Faith laughs at impossibilities, for it knows that in the Lord's strength it can do all things. - B.

I. THE ORIGIN OF THE MISSION. We know from Deuteronomy 1:22 that this commandment of God followed on a resolution of the people. It was their wish that spies should go forth and tell them something of the way beforehand. And even Moses fell in with them. It would seem an easier thing to be meek than to take no thought for the morrow. Even Moses the servant of God must be taking up to-morrow's burdens before the time. How much better it would have been patiently and trustfully to wait upon the cloud and the trumpets! (Numbers 9:15-23; Numbers 10:1-10). But since the people's hearts are so, God sends the spies. The unfitness of Israel for immediate entrance into the promised land was showing itself more and more, and God sent these searchers, that in their searching both they and the people they represented might also be searched. May we not as it were detect a tone of rebuke and remonstrance in the words, "which I will give unto the children of Israel"? The Israelites by demanding this mission were trying to guard themselves on a side that really needed no defense, while leaving' themselves more and more exposed to all the perils of an unbelieving mind.

II. THE MEN WHO WERE SENT. Whether by choice of Moses or the people we are not told, but probably there was much careful consultation on the matter, according to human wisdom. Doubtless they seemed the best men for the purpose; chosen for physical endurance, quickness of eye, tact in emergencies, and good judgment of the land and people. Yet some very important requisites were evidently not considered. Out of the twelve, only two were men of faith in God and deep convictions as to the destiny of Israel. A great deal depends on the sort of men we send in any enterprise for God. Believing and devout spirits can see prospects others cannot see, because they have resources which others have not. Perhaps in the whole nation there were not twelve men to be found of the right stamp in every particular, and even if they had been found, they might have failed in commanding popular confidence. We can easily imagine that Caleb and Joshua had not a very comfortable time with their colleagues, and that it was not a very easy matter to agree upon a report. But such as they were, they went forth. The people had come to depend on twelve limited minds like their own, each with its own way of looking at things, instead of on him who had already done such great things - the unchangeable One, the ample Providence, the sure Defense.

III. THE INFORMATION REQUIRED. Moses gives them their instructions (verses 17-20), and they come from a man who is acting rather in accordance with the wishes of the people than in strict harmony with previous revelations from God. Had not God said to Moses, or ever the chains of Egypt were loosed, that he would bring his people into the land of the Canaanites, a land flowing with milk and honey, a land promised in solemn covenant to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, when as yet they were strangers in it? (Exodus 3:17; Exodus 6:3, 4). It was the people who, in their unbelief and carnal anxiety, wanted something in the way of human testimony. Let them, therefore, indicate such details of inquiry as in their opinion were necessary. They were like a suspicious buyer, who, not content with the word of the person from whom he makes his purchase, though he be a man of tried integrity, hunts round for all sorts of independent testimony, even from those who may have very doubtful capacity as witnesses. "A land flowing with milk and honey, is it? See then if it be such a good land. See if the people appreciate its fertility by their cultivation of it. Observe the climate and the people themselves, if they be a strong, stalwart race, and numerous. Do they live peacefully among themselves, or in strongholds?" There was not a sentence in these instructions but threw some doubt on the wisdom, power, and faithfulness of Jehovah. When God sends out people to do such work as delights his heart, it is in a very different spirit; as he sent out the single stripling, unaccustomed to war, against the giant; as Jesus sent out the twelve on their gospel mission, encumbered with as few material resources as possible. The land to be searched was the ]and in which their honoured progenitors had lived; but there is no word to say, "Tell us of Bethel, and of the plain of Mature, and the cave of Machpelah in Hebron." And to crown all, the result shows that they took all this trouble and waited these forty days for useless information. The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. - Y.

I. THE SEARCH. The land passed over is indicated in a somewhat indefinite way. Contrast it with the definiteness of the tribal boundaries in Joshua (chapters 13-19). These were forty days of speculative and dangerous wandering, with no guiding cloud, though doubtless God protected them even when they felt not the protection; if for nothing else, for the sake of the faithful two who would yet serve his purposes and confirm his word. Forty days too of waiting in the wilderness of Paran - days, one may imagine, of much conjecture, full of apprehension to some, while by others ninny airy castles would be built, how soon to tremble at the first breath of God's approaching anger! Forty days was not much time to see even so small a land, geographically speaking, as Canaan. We know by our own land the ludicrous mistakes of travelers passing through it, and their sometimes serious mistakes; how they exalt exceptions into rules, and the eccentricities of the individual into the character and habits of the race. Live in a ]and, and then you shall report on it with the authority of experience. We have heard the story of the traveler who visited a Carthusian monastery in Italy. He admired the situation, and said to one of the monks, "What a fine residence!" "Transeuntibus," was the sad, satiric reply. If we wish to know the fatness, the beauty, and the safety of the land in which God's people dwell, we must have something more than forty days of superficial rambling. It is not Saul, with eyesight lost, and waiting at Damascus, crushed in spirit, for Ananias, who shall tell us how Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life; but rather such a one as Paul the aged, thirty years later, sounding from the fullness of his experience, "I know whom I have believed" (2 Timothy 1:12).

II. THE REPORT. After forty days riley came back, bearing on a staff between two of them the cluster of grapes - bearing it thus, as some think, because of its weight; as others, that the fruit might keep its shapeliness and bloom. And, indeed, along' with the pomegranates and figs, which were doubtless choice samples, this fruit was God's own beautiful testimony. Human messengers might differ and deceive, but these sweet silent messengers seemed to intimate that God had been making ready the land for his own people. So much for what the spies brought in their hands. But as to the verbal report, what a meager thing it is! As to the quality of the land, they content themselves with saying, Surely it floweth with milk and honey." Yes. God had said this very thing to Moses long before: it was the highest poetry of promise to speak thus; it was meant to excite large anticipations of something fertile and beautiful; but men who had been over the land for a personal inspection might have said something more prosaic and exact. Then as to the strong people, the walled towns, and the giants, God had indicated these very things as being in the future of his people, when he caused the fighting men to be numbered not long before. The report was meager, we may well believe, because not otherwise could it have been unanimous. As long as they kept to certain bare facts, and did not proceed to advise, the spies could agree, and yet it very speedily appeared how hollow their agreement was. Caleb and Joshua had to strike out their own path, no longer wasting time in trying to sustain vain compromises. - Y.

The report has been received, such as it is, and the next question comes: What shall be done? "Caleb stilled the people before Moses." This intimates the excitement and turbulence of their feeling. The chances are that a good deal of disparagement of Canaan had come to their ears, losing nothing as it passed from one tongue to another. Notice the temporary effacement, as it were, of Moses. It is Caleb who here takes the lead. Moses is nothing save as the mouth-piece of God, and the time is not quite ripe for God to speak. But Caleb, who, here as afterwards, shows himself a courageous man, prompt and ready, has formed his opinion, and at once expresses it; to be immediately followed by opinions just as decided in the opposite direction. We need not here so much to consider who was right and who wrong; God himself brings all out presently into the clearest of light. The great matter to be noticed is that the people were now exposed to conflicting counsels.

I. THESE CONFLICTING COUNSELS WERE THE CONSEQUENCE OF BACKSLIDING FROM GOD. The people had turned away from their true Guide, and the consequence of being in a wrong path very soon appears. God is one, and in his infinite wisdom and power can make all things work together for good to them that love him, and are called according to his purpose. But men are many and diverse, and if those who are called according to his purpose fad from the obedience which shows their love, how shall they make things work together for good? To God the scheme of human affairs is as a machine, complicated and intricate indeed, but well under control, and producing large results. To men it is, more or less, a maze of motions. They understand it a little in parts, but are hopelessly divided as to the meaning and service of the whole.

II. THE PREPONDERANCE IN THESE CONFLICTING COUNSELS WAS AGAINST THE COURSE WHICH GOD HAD ALREADY LAID OUT. God had promised the land, kept it before the people, and brought them to the very verge; yet ten out of twelve men - responsible men in the tribes, men who had journeyed through the land for forty days - declared that it was beyond the strength of Israel to obtain. What a satire on vox populi vox Dei! What a humbling revelation of the motives that work most powerfully in unregenerate human nature I How easy it is to exaggerate difficulties when one's heart is not in a work; to see, not everything that is to be seen, but only what the eye wants to see, and to see in a particular way! It is a part of spiritual prudence to reckon that, whatever strength there may be in mere numbers, in brute force and material appliances, they cannot be counted on in advancing the kingdom of God. With all these resources heaped up around them, craven spirits will still cry out that there is a lion in the way.

III. IT IS EVERYTHING TO RECOLLECT THAT THERE WERE CONFLICTING COUNSELS. Cowardice, carnality, and backsliding did not altogether get their own way. Things were bad enough, but after all Caleb and Joshua counted for a great deal on the other side. We must not only count men, but weigh them. There are times when it is no credit to men, when it says but little for their piety or their humanity, that they are found among majorities. It is the glory of God's cause on earth that it never loses its hold on at least a few. There is always a Caleb to fling to the wind considerations of base expediency. - Y.

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