Despite God’s faithful provision for the Israelites in the wilderness, they were ungrateful and did not believe His promises. In Numbers and Joshua, we see God’s people repeatedly acting in disobedience and experiencing judgement. Even in His righteous discipline, however, God showed mercy. His law, Alistair Begg teaches, is a standard of living that is meant to be a blessing to the redeemed—and when we ignored this blessing, He graciously made a way of salvation through Jesus Christ.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Father, we pray that as we turn to the Bible this morning, that you will help us to do what we’re singing about—to turn our gaze to Christ, away from ourselves and from our fears and our failures, away from our own honest endeavors at righteousness, and to trust in Christ alone. And we pray that you will help us, that you will give to us alert minds and teachable spirits, that you will grant to us clarity as we seek to understand the Bible. For we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
For those of you who have been asking about this series concerning notes, the longer we go into trying to get an overview of the Bible, the less likely that is appearing to some, and I want you to have all of your fears allayed: there will be notes at the end, better than you ever imagined. So if you just hold on, then when we reach our destination, which is, I guess, the end of the book of Revelation—and if you think that this morning we’re somewhere around Numbers, “Hold on” is probably not much of an exhortation—but hopefully, we’re going to be able to speed up soon.
And for those of you who’ve come as a guest and said, “What is it that we’re involved in here?” we decided some weeks ago now, maybe a month or two ago, that we would stand back from the Bible and try and get an idea of how it all fits together—that we know, many of us, bits and pieces of the Bible, but would be hard-pressed to try and explain how it all transpires in the great purpose of God and how God’s picture of things fits together. And a couple of studies ago, we began to see how the promise of the kingdom of God is partially fulfilled—partially fulfilled—in the history of Israel. And we said that we would notice that under four headings: that we would consider it as it related to the people of God, as it related to the rule and blessing of God, as it related to the place in which the people of God were to be put, and then as it related to the one who would come to be the great king over the people of God.
And in our last two studies, we noticed the promises of God concerning his people: “I will make [of] you,” he said to Abram, “a great nation,” and again, repeating this idea in Exodus 6, “I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God.” And under that heading, we saw how God saves by substitution—the picture of the Passover, the angel of light coming and passing over the homes that were marked by the blood, as God had described—and then salvation by conquest in the great exodus of Israel from Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea. And we took a moment to recognize that in each case, the deliverance was pointing forward to a far greater deliverance that would be achieved by Jesus on the cross.
We then considered God’s rule and his blessing, because he had promised Abraham in Genesis 12:2, “I will bless you.” And in relationship to that, we noted two aspects: Number one, the place of the law of God—that God gave his law to his people once he had brought them out of Egypt. He didn’t give them his law in order to give them a mechanism for becoming members of his covenant family, but he gave to his covenant family the law in order that they might understand how to live their lives. And we saw that the law reveals our sin, that the law reveals our Savior, and the law reveals God’s standards. And that is why it is important for us to pay attention to the Ten Commandments, because there, in summary form, we have the great statement concerning how God regards our human existence.
I was just in the last couple of days in the company of prisoners, some who have been discharged and others who were speaking from their jail cells via videotape, and what was striking to me was the place of the law of God in their lives—that they recognize that they had broken God’s law, that they had offended against his commandments, that they did not need to be convinced of the fact that they were lawbreakers. But what was so troublesome to them was, they couldn’t see how they could ever possibly be put in the right with God. If they had broken his law, what were they now to do? And when someone explained to them that the Lord Jesus Christ was the end of the law and the fulfillment of the law, and that he came to save those who were lawbreakers, then their lives were tremendously and radically changed. And it was a thrill to listen to them speak.
Alec Motyer, in his very helpful book on the Old Testament Look to the Rock, makes this point very carefully. He says, “It is in this sequence of events [i.e. the whole giving of the law, etc.] in the great historical visual aid that bears its distinctive fruit in the Old Testament as in the whole Bible, the law of the holy God is not a ladder of merit whereby sinners seek to come to God to win his favor and climb into his good books.” Okay? The law of God is not a mechanism for sinners to come to God and get into his good books. “His holy law is, rather, his appointed and required pattern of life for those who by redemption have been brought to him already, who already belong to him, and are already in his good books. The law of God is the lifestyle of the redeemed.” And that’s why, when we think in terms of God’s rule and God’s blessing, it is a blessing to live under his rule. It is a blessing to keep the commandments. It is a blessing to tell the truth. It is a blessing to live in monogamy within marriage. It is a blessing to live in sexual purity. It is a blessing to honor God. Despite the fact that we are by nature so rebellious, when we are redeemed, we begin to understand this.
And we noted not only God’s law, but also the sacrifices that God had demanded of his people. And again, we saw that those were all pointing forward to the perfect sacrifice in the Lord Jesus himself. And the writer to the Hebrews makes that clear: “Since, therefore, we have confidence,” he says in Hebrews 10, “to enter into heaven by a new and living way which Jesus has opened up for us, this is how we go forward.”
Now, we come this morning, then, to the third aspect of this, and that is God’s place. For those of you who have forgotten, we are using the kingdom of God as the framework, as the key, to open the door to understanding the great sweep of biblical history. And we’ve said that God’s kingdom is “God’s people, in God’s place, under God’s rule and blessing”—“God’s people, in God’s place, under God’s rule and blessing.” When we look at God’s people, we see that all of those promises have been partially fulfilled in Israel. When we look at God’s rule and blessing, we find the same thing. And when we come to the issue of place, again we discover that to be so. Genesis chapter 12, again, is foundational, and verse 7: “To your offspring I will give this land”—“To your offspring I will give this land.” God’s promise to Abraham, and to all who would be included in Abraham, was directly related to this. So once the law had been given, and once the tabernacle had been established, as we saw last time, you had God’s people, under God’s rule, enjoying God’s blessing. And that blessing resulted from his presence among them. But they still didn’t have a land—they still didn’t have a land. They were a people without a land.
And that is why, when you come to the book of Numbers, you find that this sets the story forward. The next section in the history of the Bible in the book of Numbers is very clear. And if you like just to turn in your Bibles to Numbers, I am going to make reference to it so that you can actually see what’s going on. For many of us, these early books of the Bible are closed books to us; we wouldn’t know what to do with them if they jumped up and bit us. And so it is of great importance that we come to an understanding of them. And I want you to notice that the story of Numbers is the story of disobedience and delay. This partially fulfilled promise finds its expression in the disobedience and delay that is represented in the book of Numbers.
Now, God, you will remember, did not take them after they came out of Egypt directly into Canaan, but he took them for a meeting on Mount Sinai. And it was after they had gone there to Sinai, after the giving of the law, that they then set out for Canaan. And that’s why the book of Numbers begins as it does. When you come, for example, to open the book of Numbers, and it starts off with this big long list—“from Reuben, Elizur [the] son of Shedeur; from Simeon, Shelumiel [and] Zurishaddai; [and] from Judah, Nahshon [and] Amminadab,” and all diddly-do, diddly-dee—and you read this and you say to yourself, “What in the wide world is all of this?” Well, they’re getting organized. And the historians and the chroniclers are writing down and making sure who’s where and what’s what. And the book of Numbers begins to put this together. The rabble that has just come out of Egypt is beginning now, as you read these opening chapters, to look like an organized and increasingly impressive crowd. And when you get to 10:11–12, you have this summary statement that says, “Okay, boys. We’re all organized. We’re ready to go. We’re leaving,” and the history tells us that “on the twentieth day of the second month of the second year, the cloud lifted from above the tabernacle of the Testimony. [And] then the Israelites set out from the Desert of Sinai and traveled from place to place until the cloud came to rest in the Desert of Paran. [And] they set out, this first time, at the Lord’s command through Moses.”
Now, what you need to think about is the departure of the Pilgrim fathers. It’s just in the same way you take a history book and you read, “And they set out from Plymouth, and they sailed across, and this is where they arrived. And there was a group of them, and their names were X and Y, and this is where they were going, and this is what they were doing.” That’s what’s happening here in the book of Numbers. You don’t need to be alarmed by it or confused by it or unsettled by it. We all keep lists. Nations keep lists. And it is important so we know who’s who and what’s what and where they’re supposed to be.
So they’re all going to set out. They’ve been given the law, they have been given the command, they’ve been given their destination. Surely, we find ourselves saying, on a first reading, “It’s going to be straightforward; it’s going to be speedy. They’ll probably be in the land, the fulfillment of the promise will take place, surely, within just a matter of months or so.” But what do you discover? You read the book of Numbers and you find out that that they don’t get there for forty years. For forty years? I mean, you’ve seen a map. Some of you aren’t very good at directions, I know—I’ve driven behind you going places—but to get from there to there and take forty years? What’s going on? How can you take forty years? You’ve got a clear destination. You’ve got a significant mandate. You’ve got God as your ruler and your guide.
Well, what you need to see is that they hadn’t gone very far at all—they hadn’t really got ’round the first bend in the road—before they started to be just not as nice a group as you may want to lead if your name was Moses. 11:4: “The rabble … began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing.” You can imagine Moses putting on his pajamas and going to his bed, and his wife says to him, “What in the world’s all the screaming and hullabaloo out there in the camp, in the tents?” “Oh,” Moses said, “the people don’t like the menu. They’re not enjoying the food. They are saying all kinds of things about how wonderful Egypt was.” In fact, verse 6, they have apparently lost their appetite: “We never see anything but this manna!” At one point, they thought it was a wonderful provision of God, that God would provide them on a daily basis with food for their journey, and they were excited about it. But now, it’s just the same old manna.
Do you remember when you were excited about the Bible when you became a Christian? You bought your first copy of the Bible, you bought your first New Testament? You said, “This is fantastic. Look at this stuff in here!” And you read it, and you read it on the train, and you read it in the bus stop, and you read it with your breakfast, and you read it before you fell asleep. What happened to you along the journey, when you said, “Oh, it’s just the same old Bible. It’s just the same old Bible. I need to go get a video. I need to go have something dramatic. I need to have something better. I read better books before I became a Christian. Now all I’m stuck with is this Bible”? That’s the kind of thing they were saying.
They were fed up with the menu, and they were already fed up with the leader. If you go to chapter 12, you’ll find that Miriam and Aaron oppose Moses. There’s rebellion in the ranks. “Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses.” “Is Moses the only guy? What about us? What are we, chopped sirloin or something? Hamburgers?” And in chapter 14: “That night all the people of the community raised their voices and wept aloud”—here we go again, off to his bed he goes—“[and] all the Israelites grumbled.” “What are they saying now, Moses?” “Oh, they can’t stand me, and they can’t stand Aaron.” “Well, what are they saying?” “Well, they’re saying, ‘If only [we’d] died in Egypt! Or in this desert!’” Actually, they’re saying, “We should choose a leader”—verse 4—“and go back to Egypt.”
Now, what’s their problem? We may summarize it in two words: their problem is ingratitude and unbelief. They’re ungrateful, and they’re unbelieving. And whenever unbelief and a lack of gratitude becomes pervasive in the life of the child of God, then there will be inevitable consequences. And although two of the twelve spies that are sent out to do the preparatory reconnaissance mission to see just how the land of Canaan is looking—although two of those fellows, Joshua and Caleb, who are famous for their minority report—although they gave a minority report, the people refused to listen to them, they refused to trust God. And despite all of the evidence to the fact that God is a powerful God—goodness, they could look back and see what had happened to the Egyptians, they saw the chariot wheels being submerged under the Red Sea—but how quickly the people of God forget.
And so God responds in judgment. And in chapter 14, we read these dramatic words in verse 26:
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron: “How long will this wicked community grumble against me? [I’ve] heard the complaints of these grumbling Israelites. So tell them [this], ‘As surely as [the Lord] live[s], declares the Lord, I will do to you the very things I heard you say: In this desert your bodies will fall—every one of you twenty years old or more who was counted in the census and who has grumbled against me. Not one of you will enter the land I swore with uplifted hand to make your home…’”
“‘…except Caleb … and Joshua…. As for your children that you said would be taken as plunder, I will bring them in to enjoy the land you have rejected. But you—your bodies will fall in this desert. Your children will be shepherds here for forty years, suffering for your unfaithfulness, until the last of your bodies lies in the desert. For forty years—one year for each of the forty days you explored the land—you will suffer for your sins and know what it is like to have [spoken against me].’ I, the Lord, have spoken, and I will surely do these things to this whole wicked community, which has banded together against me. They will meet their end in this desert; [and] here they will die.”
So the men Moses had sent to explore the land, who returned and made the whole community grumble against him by spreading a bad report about it—these men responsible for spreading the bad report about the land were struck down and died of a plague before the Lord. Of the men who went to explore the land, only Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh survived.
Dramatic, isn’t it? What does it say? It says that God doesn’t tolerate sin, and he’s true to his word, and that there are implications—personal implications, and family implications, and church implications—when we stand toe-to-toe with God and complain about what he has provided and complain about who he has given to us.
You say, “Well, it’s a long time ago, surely. Is it really as applicable as you want to suggest?” Well, I am absolutely convinced that it is, and I have solid grounds for saying so. If you turn to 1 Corinthians, in chapter 10, you will see that this is exactly what Paul does when he preaches to the Corinthians and when he gives them the story of Israel. You see again how the Bible fits together. Look at this: 1 Corinthians chapter 10. The NIV helpfully gives us a heading; it says “Warnings From Israel’s History.” And so Paul says—he’s writing to the Corinthian church—he says, “I [don’t] want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they [were] all [passing] through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses,” and so on. Verse 5: “Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert.” Any Jewish boy growing up knew this story. His parents would tell him, “We wandered—our people wandered—in the wilderness for forty years, and do you know why? Because we were ungrateful and because we were unbelieving. Now listen, Levi: don’t you be ungrateful, and don’t you be unbelieving. You do what your dad says. You honor your mother. You finish your vegetables. You listen to what your teacher is telling you. There are implications for the unbelieving, ungrateful heart.” And Paul takes this up, and he says, “Listen, Corinthians: remember your history.” “These things”—verse 6—“occurred as examples.” Why? “To keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did.” Because, you see, the propensity of us is to set our hearts on evil things. Although sin no longer reigns in our lives, it remains in our lives. And the appeal of the Evil One is to bring the world to us, and to appeal to that dimension of our lives that is gravitating always towards that which is opposed to God’s law and God’s purposes.
So he says, “[You better be careful. Don’t] be idolaters, as some of them …; as it is written: ‘The people sat down to eat and drink and [then they] got up to indulge in pagan revelry.’ We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and [by the way] in one day twenty-three thousand of them died.” What? “We should not test the Lord, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel.” Now look at verse 11: “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!”
Now, there’s a verse that many of us can trot out. We couldn’t necessarily find it in 1 Corinthians 10, but we know there’s a verse. Sometimes we say to our friends, in the ice—you know, we say it jokingly, as you get out in the winter morning in February, and he goes, “Whoops!” and you say, “Hey! Hey, if you think you stand, be careful lest you fall!” And we know that’s from the Bible somewhere. And then we go and find it, and we find it in 1 Corinthians 10:12. And then we take it and we write it down on a card, and we keep it in our top pocket: “So if you be careful if you think you stand, lest you fall.” And we put it in there. And somebody says, “Well, what’s that about? Where did that come from?” You say, “Well, I don’t know, but it’s 1 Corinthians 10:12.” But now you do know. He makes this as a point of application after he’s given us a history lesson. And where is the history lesson from? It’s from the book of Numbers. And what was going on in the book of Numbers? People were beginning to presume upon God, to grumble against God, to think that they could do what they liked, with whom they liked, any time they liked, because, after all, God had apparently taken them out of Egypt, and they were all fine. And Moses says, “I got news for you. You’re out of Egypt, but you ain’t going to the promised land. You’re gonna die in this desert. Forty years you’ll be in this desert. Your children under the age of twenty will go in. They will be shepherds in the land.”
The story is the story of disobedience and delay. And the application is obvious: If you have faith in Christ today, you’ve been set free from slavery—slavery not to the bondage of Egypt, but to sin . You’ve been liberated by a Passover sacrifice—not the lamb that was shed at the time of the Passover, but the shedding of the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. And you, too, have set out on a journey, not to Canaan, but to heaven. And in light of that, the New Testament gives to us all these wonderful promises, and at the same time all these necessary warnings, such as is there in 1 Corinthians 10, and such as comes with relative frequency in the book of Hebrews.
We need to move on, but let me just remind you of how the writer to the Hebrews does it. Turn to Hebrews chapter 3. (And hopefully you’re learning something here. If you draw in your Bible or write in your Bible, you should be making these cross-references.) He’s making the point in chapter 3 that Jesus is greater than Moses—he’s greater than the angels, he’s greater than Moses—and he gets to verse 6, and he says, “Christ is faithful as a son over God’s house. And [we’re God’s] house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast.” It’s not that by holding on we remain in his house, keeping ourselves, but it is that on account of our holding on we give evidence of the fact that we are kept. “So,” he says, “as the Holy Spirit says …” Now, this is a word from God. Where does he take it from? From the Bible! From the Old Testament. Do you want to hear what the Holy Spirit says about this? He says, “Today, if you hear his voice, [don’t] harden your hearts as [they] did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the desert.” And what is he doing? He’s referring to the exact same situation in Numbers: “I was angry with that generation. Their hearts were going astray, they haven’t known my ways. I told them, ‘You will never enter my rest.’” Now here’s the point of application, verse 12: “See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.”
Now, why would he give an exhortation to make sure that you don’t have a sinful, unbelieving heart if it isn’t possible for you to have a sinful, unbelieving heart? That would be a complete irrelevancy. That’s a waste of space. That’s a waste of ink. No, he says, “Make sure you don’t have a sinful, unbelieving heart,” because by very nature our hearts are sinful and unbelieving. We do want to sin. We do not wish to believe. We do want to go our own way. And he gives the warning from the same place: “Encourage each other.” If you don’t “encourage one another,” then you may be “hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” The Bible will become for you … when the Bible is preached, instead of it coming into your heart and into your mind, like seeds sown in the ready earth of this very wet Maytime—instead of it being like that, instead of our hearts being like that, what will happen as the Word of God is taught is that our hearts become like a corrugated tin roof. And the more the Bible is taught, the more it is simply like the sound of rain hitting that which it does not permeate. And so he says, “You better be careful, lest, as you listen to the Bible, as you go to Parkside Church, as you show up there with continuity, that your heart doesn’t become impervious to the truth of God’s Word—that you start bandying it around, and telling other people about it, and quoting bits and pieces from it, while all the time you are sinful and you’re unbelieving. Because,” he says, “remember”—verse 14—“we have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly [to] the end the confidence we had at [the] first.” And if we don’t, then we haven’t. So shape up! That’s what he’s saying. Get a life! Read the story! Recognize that God continues to work as he works. The delay, and the disobedience, and the disasters and the difficulties were all tied to the fact of ingratitude and unbelief.
In that wonderful harvest hymn,
We plow the fields, and scatter
The good seed on the land,
[For] it is fed and watered
By God’s almighty hand.
the third verse of it reads,
We thank [you] then, O Father,
For all things bright and good,
The seed-time and the harvest,
Our life, our health, our food.
[No gifts have we to offer]
For all [your] love imparts,
[But that which you] desirest,
Our humble, thankful hearts.
Now, my dear friends, this is no picnic, is it? Last evening when I got home, I called to the home of the Kohlers to speak to Bruce. That was Saturday night. Friday morning, Cherie, making her usual trip from Medina to Oberlin, where she’s an air traffic controller, sets out under the cover of darkness, never to return to her husband and her two beautiful daughters—came around a bend, hit eight or nine inches of water, water-planed, and straight into a tree, and in a moment taken into eternity. And as I spoke with him on the phone, he said, “I know that God is good, but I still don’t know why this had to happen.” And that’s perfectly reasonable. And we spoke about how in the journey of life few of us will go through unscathed. And when the waves come and beat on the house, if it is founded on the sand, it will fall flat. If it is founded on the rock, it will stand firm. Remember Jesus’ words: “[He] who hears [my words] and puts them into practice is like a … man who built his house on the rock.” It wasn’t an absence of the Word of God that these people were suffering from in the wilderness journeys; it was an absence of gratitude and an absence of faith.
Well, let’s try Deuteronomy. We’ve got a few minutes for Deuteronomy. Let’s do Deuteronomy in three minutes, shall we? What’s the story of Deuteronomy? Well, blessings and cursings, that’s it—blessings and cursings. Now they’re on the brink of entry, the plains of Moab by the river Jordan. Moses is addressing the people for the last time. He says, essentially, “I want you to make sure that the next generation that’s going into this promised land doesn’t make a hash of it the way the rest of us have done.” And he reminds them of what God has said and done in the past, and he exhorts them on the basis of God, in his great intervention and in his covenant-keeping faithfulness: “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God,” he reminds them:
The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession. [If you wonder at that, here’s the only thing I can say:] The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery…. Know therefore that the Lord your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands.
And what the book of Deuteronomy essentially does is set before the people of God these two striking alternatives. And the stakes are high. Summary statement: 12–13 of chapter 10. These little summary statements you can find all through, they’re very helpful. Chapter 10, verses 12–13: “And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that [I’m] giving you today,” notice, “for your own good?”—“for your own good.” You see, it is always the Evil One’s part to come and tell us that the reason God has given us his law and the reason God has established these principles is because he wants to sour our lives , he wants to make them lousy, he wants to deprive us of fun, he wants to make your teenage journey hopeless, he wants to make your single life just full of heartache and pain. And it is the absolute lie of all lies. He gives all of this for our good.
The alternatives are clear, the stakes are high, and you’ll see that if you just look at 28:1: “If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands [that] I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations…. All these blessings will come upon you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God.” And then he goes on to give the story, all the story of blessing. Then verse 15: “However, if you do not obey the Lord your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come upon you and overtake you.” And then the warning, you see. Because they prepare to enter the promised land with a big question mark over their heads: How are they going to live? How are they going to live? Are they going to keep the covenant, or are they going to disobey and be expelled from the land? That’s the question, if you were reading this for the first time. You say, “Okay, I understand now.” Look at what he’s saying. 28:63–64: “Just as it pleased the Lord to make you prosper and increase in number, so it will please him to ruin and destroy you.”
Are you reading this, people? This is God. You see, God will go to any lengths in order to accomplish his purposes, in order to bring final fulfillment to that which is partially fulfilled in the story of the place in the people of Israel. This is not the end of the journey; this is not the end of the story. We’re coming to that:
Then the Lord will scatter you among all nations, from one end of the earth to the other. There you will worship other gods—gods of wood and stone, which neither you nor your fathers have known. Among those nations you will find no repose, no resting place for the sole of your foot. There the Lord will give you an anxious mind, eyes weary with longing, and a despairing heart. You will live in constant suspense, filled with dread … night and day, never sure of your life. In the morning you will say, ‘If [it was only nighttime]!’ and in the evening [you will say], ‘If [it was only the] morning!’— because of the terror that will fill your hearts and the sights that your eyes will see. [And] the Lord will send you back in ships…
Oh, it’s unbelievable! And the people must have heard this and said, “Oh, no. Never! Never happen to us!” Fast forward to this evening’s study. Psalm : “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, and said, ‘How can we sing the Lord’s song in such a strange land?’” “How did I ever get here?” That’s what they’re saying. “How did we ever get here?”
I preached to the pastors last week from the story of Uzziah: forty years to build a reputation, and he ruins it in forty minutes. And I said to the men what I say to my own heart: We are so vulnerable. We are so tempted. We are so tested. And at the moment that we have any apparent influence and strength, we are at the very apex of disaster. We are so in need of God’s grace. Because I look at my colleagues who in the last twenty years here in America have not simply tripped, but they have tumbled down into destitution. And it is a long time since I have ever said, “Oh, well, that will never happen to me.” Because I read what happened to those who were devoted, who were committed, who were listening, who were going for the promised land.
You see, all the promises of God’s Word are there to pick us up when we are so diffident and unsure, but all the warnings of God’s Word are there to corral us and to sting us when we are on the very verge of disaster. And there’s not a congregation to whom I preach in which there will not be those who, known only to God and themselves, have in the last forty-eight hours considered prospects which they know would take them in every realistic sense back to Egypt. And the appeal is so wonderful: “I had far more fun before I became a Christian. I never had to explain things like this. I used to be able to sleep with whoever I wanted to sleep with. This thing is horrible.” Well, that’s why you’ve got these Old Testament books: so that we might learn. Paul says in Romans 15, “Everything that was written in the past was written … so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures [you] might have hope” —“so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures [you] might have hope.”
This is a great story. We’re done. I mean, we have to stop. But, I mean, are they gonna do it? I mean, what’s gonna happen? How will they get on? You get to Joshua. I gotta just give you Joshua, or we’ll never get through this jolly thing. You know, look at Joshua. What’s the story of Joshua? It’s the conquest. Moses dies, Joshua steps up. The defeat of the former inhabitants of the land, but they don’t do it properly. They make a dog’s breakfast of it. The battle of Jericho says, “You’re powerless, but God is strong.” He gives the commands to deal with all of the surrounding neighbors, the Canaanites: “Drive them out,” he says, “kill them.” This isn’t ethnic cleansing. This isn’t racial prejudice. It’s on account of the wickedness of the nations that the Lord is going to drive them out. God is perfectly righteous, he’s provoked by their sin. The Canaanites were guilty of idolatry and immorality. They practiced child sacrifices. So he says to his people, “You’d better not tolerate those characters. Get them out of here! Because if you tolerate them, you may begin to marry them, you may begin to cohort with them, you may get involved with them.”
And the Israelites fail to obey the command. They don’t fully destroy the Canaanites, and as a result, the Canaanites remain a corrupting influence for many, many years. And as the book of Joshua comes to a close, it’s apparently on a high note. 21:43 and following, summary statement: “So the Lord gave Israel all the land [he’d] sworn to give their forefathers, and they took possession of it and [they] settled there. [And] the Lord gave them rest on every side, just … [he’d] sworn to their forefathers. Not one of [the] enemies withstood them; the Lord handed all their enemies over to them. Not one of … the Lord’s good promises to the house of Israel failed; every one was fulfilled.”
Here we have God’s people, in God’s place, enjoying God’s blessing. But the book ends on a cautionary note. Joshua gives his farewell speech. It’s remarkably similar to Moses’. Verse 11 of 23: “So be very careful to love the Lord your God.”
Be very careful to love the Lord your God. But if you turn away and ally [yourself] with the survivors of these nations that remain among you and if you intermarry with them and associate with them, then you may be sure that the Lord your God will no longer drive … these nations [out] before you. Instead, they will become snares and traps for you, whips on your [back] and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from this good land, which the Lord your God has given you.
Whoa, what a statement!
So really, the question remains: Will the people obey God? And if you’re reading it for the first time, you say, “I wonder how long they’ll manage to stay in the land?” Well, I’ll tell you later on. But it’s not as long as you think.
Do you love God? Be careful to obey him.
God our Father, we thank you for the Bible, and we pray that you will help us in this great mad scramble through it to make sense of it, that it won’t confuse, but rather bring clarity. We thank you that you are a covenant-keeping God, that you make promises and they continue through a thousand generations of those who love you.
We thank you for reminding us this morning, here perched on the threshold of the twenty-first century, that in Christ we’re part of something that’s really vast, something way beyond ourselves. When we think about the people of God, we’re not thinking about a denomination, we’re not thinking about an ethnic Israel; we’re ultimately thinking about how, after you told the people you would scatter them throughout the nations, that eventually, in Revelation , you put together a people from every tribe and nation and language and tongue, and they bow down before Christ and they adore him, and here is unity, and here is salvation.
We pray for one another that we won’t be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We pray that we might encourage one another: a phone call, a card, “I missed you,” “I didn’t see you,” “How are you doing?” “What’s happening?” Many times, Lord, just that simple gesture may prove in your providence to be the difference between disaster and success. Help us not to be so crazy to think that a few shepherds can look after all the sheep. Help the sheep to care for one another, to nudge each other in the right direction, away from danger and into the pasture where they may safely graze. And when we’re tempted to play fast and loose with sin, whip our backs and sting our eyes, O God, we pray, lest having preached to others we ourselves would become castaways.
And may the grace of the Lord Jesus, and the love of God our Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit rest upon and remain with each one today and always. Amen.
 Genesis 12:2 (NIV 1984).
 Exodus 6:7 (NIV 1984).
 Alec Motyer, Look to the Rock: An Old Testament Background to Our Understanding of Christ (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2004), 41.
 Motyer, 41.
 Hebrews 10:19–20 (paraphrased).
 Numbers 1:5–7 (NIV 1984).
 Numbers 10:11–13 (NIV 1984).
 Numbers 12:1 (NIV 1984).
 Numbers 14:1–2 (NIV 1984).
 Numbers 14:2 (NIV 1984).
 Numbers 14:26–38 (NIV 1984).
 1 Corinthians 10:1–2 (NIV 1985).
 1 Corinthians 10:7–8 (NIV 1984).
 1 Corinthians 10:9–10 (NIV 1984).
 1 Corinthians 10:11–12 (NIV 1984).
 Hebrews 3:7 (NIV 1984).
 Hebrews 3:7–8 (NIV 1984).
 Hebrews 3:10–11 (paraphrased).
 Hebrews 3:13 (paraphrased).
 Matthias Claudius, “We Plough the Fields, and Scatter” (1782).
 Matthew 7:24 (NIV 1984).
 Deuteronomy 7:6–9 (NIV 1984).
 Deuteronomy 28:1–2 (NIV 1984).
 Deuteronomy 28:64–68 (NIV 1984).
 Psalm 137:1, 4 (paraphrased).
 Romans 15:4 (NIV 1984).
 Joshua 21:43–45 (NIV 1984).
 Joshua 23:11–13 (NIV 1984).
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.