The prepared text for today’s sermon at MacAlpine Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, New York, is below. You can find the sermon audio at this link. While never directly discussed in the sermon, the title is playing on the word “good.” That is, in this passage we see Israel make a change for the better but that invites the question of whether it will last. You can find my commentary on this portion of Numbers at this link.
Let’s say that you have resolved to change. To put it negatively: You don’t want to rely on your own strength. You don’t want to be afraid of giants. You don’t want to be Satan’s slave. You don’t want to believe the past was great, the present is awful, and you have no future. You don’t want to believe all of the bad reports you hear about God and His “empty promises.” You don’t want to die in the wilderness—sooner rather than later. To put it positively: You want to be the kind of person who trusts in YHWH. You want to be someone who fearlessly and successfully fights giants and the power of the serpent. You want to pray with power. You want to rejoice that your past is behind you and to enjoy the blessings you have in the present. You want to follow Jesus to the Promised Land. But let’s say that there are still some people around you who don’t share your resolve to change. And let’s say that you have grown up with bedtime stories about how the past in Egypt was great, all of your life you’ve been encouraged to do whatever makes you happy and feel good, and your parents and all of your friend’s parents have set a bad example for you by complaining every time they experienced some inconvenience. But let’s say it isn’t just you alone who has resolved to change but most of the church, including all of the youth, have decided to be different. The church has decided to believe that our best days are ahead of us rather than behind us. The church has decided that we want to talk about all of the great things God is doing for us rather than to engage in gossip or grumbling. The church wants to pray and see our prayers answered in power. The church knows that our true enemy isn’t the people of the world who don’t believe in Jesus—our true enemy is Satan—but the church has resolved to take the battle to the serpent with faith in the Lord. The church has decided that we will no longer be afraid to tell people the good news and that we won’t be afraid of rejection. The church has resolved that we won’t give up and die but also that we won’t rely on our own strength to turn things around. The second generation of Israel in the wilderness is my inspiration for this church I’m describing. It doesn’t all go smoothly in the beginning for that generation. After all, there are still people among them who don’t share their resolve to be different and the people can still fall back into their old ways. Nevertheless, this generation will press ahead in faith and they model for us what it might look like to transition from the way things have always been to what they could be if we believe.
The way the passage concluded almost sounds easy—it was anything but easy and it isn’t as simple as us all just resolving to change the way we think and act—yet things do work out for our good when we trust in the Lord and take action with that faith.
Overall, this chapter has a victorious tone, and there is much that went completely right because this second generation in the wilderness put their trust in YHWH.
The first three verses set the tone for the chapter—a tone of change for good. The Canaanites attacked the people of Israel, even taking some captive. It was a blow that would have totally demoralized the first generation and led to grumbling. But the second generation went to YHWH and vowed that if YHWH gave them the victory, then they would devote those Canaanite cities to destruction. The text tells us that YHWH’s answer to their prayer was to heed the voice of Israel. Literally, the Hebrew says, “And YHWH listened to the voice of Israel”—and “to listen to the voice of” someone is a Hebrew idiom meaning “obey.” In other words, the people of Israel prayed in faith and YHWH obeyed them. Perhaps you’ve never thought of it that way before, but that’s what happens when we pray in faith—even moreso for us now post-Pentecost—for the Spirit of God within us calls out to God and God obeys Himself. It might make some people uncomfortable to say that YHWH obeyed Israel but that’s precisely what happened when they approached Him in faith and asked for victory. Then, of course, the people of Israel fulfilled their vow. These three verses are even a reversal of what happened when the first generation decided to try to go into the Promised Land on their own after Moses told them they would have to wander in the wilderness for a total of forty years. You may remember that they were pursued in defeat to Hormah, meaning destruction. Now the people of Israel devoted these Canaanites and their cities to destruction and named it Hormah. It was exactly the opposite of the first generation. It was a change for their good. It was a victory foreshadowing the conquest of the Promised Land. It was a sign of things to come. It was the beginning of the final judgment for the Canaanites whose sins had come to a climax. These three brief verses could serve as a model for Israel’s victory by faith for they trusted in YHWH, they acted on that faith, and He gave them the victory.
The other notable military victories in this passage are against the Amorite kings Sihon and Og. These victories would become legendary in significance for Israel. Deuteronomy even tells us that Og was the last of the Rephaim—a race of giants (Deut 3:11). First, the people tried to pass through the territory of Sihon in peace just as they had asked of their brothers the Edomites in the last passage. They pretty much asked Sihon for the same thing that the previous generation had asked of the Edomites. However, unlike the previous generation, this new generation wasn’t deterred when they saw a huge army arrayed against them. They weren’t trying to do this on their own strength, they were acting in faith. And when these Amorites attacked them, Israel fought back and won. Israel won the battle against King Sihon and took possession of the territory he had ruled. Then at the end of the chapter they did the same thing to the Amorite King Og. The scene sounds like those you see later in Joshua. Moses sent out spies, but those spies did not return to him afraid as we saw with the first generation. No, they captured some villages and dispossessed the Amorites who were there. Then they turned to King Og’s capital city of Bashan. And Og brought his entire army out to fight Israel and YHWH told Israel, “Do not fear him, for I have given him into your hand and all his people and his land.” They brought the final judgment to Og, devoting him and his people to destruction and taking over his land. This is what could have been for the first generation if they had only believed, but now things were unfolding for the good of Israel as the second generation stepped out in faith. There is no reason that it shouldn’t be the same for us.
Our story, as individual believers and as a church together, can have an overall victorious tone where much goes completely right as we step out in faith. A large part of this is simply realizing that we need to change how we define success and failure or victory and defeat. But we can only have the eyes to see it by faith. Believing in the gospel turns the world’s definitions of failure and victory upside down. The death of Jesus Christ on a cross is a huge victory. He experienced the same final judgment that Israel brought to the Canaanites and Amorites in our passage. He died in our place the death we deserve. Jesus accomplished that victory and it is applied to us by faith. Success is not being able to manipulate God to give us what we want to waste it on our passions. Victory is not being able to collect all the spoils of the world so that we can camp in our wilderness more comfortably. It is fitting that the people of Israel didn’t collect any of the spoils of war in our passage. No, when we pray in faith, then we will receive and be victorious. And there is no greater victory we can receive by faith than our salvation from sin and death. Success is not being able to fill the pews with people so that we can gossip about and grumble with more people. No, when faith opens our eyes to see the great things God is doing for us in the present and loosens our tongues to praise God, then other people may want to join us. After all, the alternative—gossip and grumbling—are really unattractive. That’s not what any of us wants. But when we trust in God and act on that faith, we can be very attractive indeed. Now when we step out in faith and share the gospel, we believe that God always gives us the victory. Sometimes that victory will be someone receiving the good news that Jesus died the death that we deserve for our sins, that Jesus defeated sin and death by rising from the dead, and that when the sins of humanity reach their climax Jesus is coming again. When we go in faith and share this good news, some will receive it and some won’t. But either way when we step out in faith, YHWH gives us the victory. Sometimes that victory is that the unbeliever hardens their heart further unto their own destruction just as the Canaanites and the Amorite kings didn’t repent and put their faith in YHWH but instead assembled to fight Israel. Sometimes the victory we receive is our own death as we witness to someone persecuting us. Indeed, faith allows us to see that our story is one overwhelmingly characterized by victory in the wilderness. It isn’t an accident that the church grows wherever God’s people are persecuted. Thus when we trust YHWH that He is working things together for our good, our best days can be ahead of us in the Promised Land instead of behind us. But I cannot move past this point without noting that Israel is now singing in our passage. Faith always leads to singing. It is impossible to sing while grumbling. (But, to borrow from Duguid’s commentary, while the new generation were singers, they were still sinners. Thus not everything went so smoothly in this chapter.)
When we trust in the Lord and step out in faith, our best days are ahead of us but there may be some big bumps along the way.
The second generation hit one of those bumps right after the first victory. Perhaps they stumbled because they felt like they were headed in the wrong direction. After all, the text tells us that they set out by the road to the Red Sea. Thus Egypt would have been in front of them and not behind them. Now they were going in the right direction. It wasn’t time for the final judgment of Edom and the people of Edom weren’t going to let them pass through their country. So the people of Israel set out in the direction of the Red Sea in order to go around the land of Edom. But the text tells us that they became impatient and then they grumbled against God and against Moses. They didn’t have any new complaints—it was the same old gripes about being brought into the wilderness to die, about the lack of food and water and being bored of manna (“we loathe this worthless food”). The more things change, the more they stay the same. And God’s response wasn’t much different either—this time He sent fiery serpents whose bites were deadly. Serpents were appropriate seeing as how they were wishing they were back in Egypt and how Egyptian power is often associated with serpents like their serpent headdresses. But this time, the people came to Moses and confessed their sin and asked him to pray that the serpents be taken away. In other words, this time the people repented. And YHWH did more than just take away the serpents, He had Moses make a bronze one and set it on a pole so that everyone who is bitten could look at that serpent and live. What we know of Egyptian practices suggests that by setting the serpent on a pole, Moses was showing YHWH’s defeat of the serpent—both Egypt and the one in the Garden of Eden. This defeat of the serpent was applied by faith. This wasn’t magic. The person who was bit had to believe YHWH and look at the sign trusting in Him.
We too will hit some bumps along the way but we can continue to live by faith. Jesus told Nicodemus, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). Looking at the serpent was a sign calling for faith that the people of Israel could look at and be saved from death. Likewise, the death of Jesus on the cross saves us from sin and death and defeats the serpent. We look to Jesus to be delivered from sin and death. But we don’t just look to Him once to be delivered from sin and death and then continue on our way in our own strength. No, we keep looking to the cross. Sometimes we fall back into our old ways and start grumbling and it spreads like a plague through the church. Sometimes we each stumble in our own particular ways on the road to the Promised Land. Sometimes we feel discouraged like when we all have to march back towards Egypt to get there. Yet, our best days are still ahead of us because we trust in the Lord. There is no giant big enough and no serpent powerful enough to keep us from moving forward by faith. Thanks be to God.