“Numbers teaches us that when God is with his people, the only thing they need to fear is their own sin.” This summary by pastor C. W. Faulkner is helpful. And the more I dig into the text of Numbers, the clearer this truth becomes. Spoiler Alert: Over the next several Lord’s Day morning sermons we will see this reality front and centre.
As Israel prepared for their march to the land of promise, they were assured of God’s presence. Yahweh would dwell among his people in his “tent of meeting.” This was a wonderful blessing highlighting the grace of God shown to sinners. God determined to dwell with his people; it was his loving delight. What an enormous privilege for Israel! This nation, only recently rescued from slavery in Egypt, was at the same time ransomed from the wrath of God. While idolatrous Egyptian homes grieved the death of their firstborn, many equally idolatrous Jewish homes—sealed by the blood of the Passover lamb—were delivered from God’s wrath. We discern from Numbers 3 that some 22,000 firstborn sons were spared. And to add blessing to blessing, God was now dwelling among them (Exodus 40:34–48).
Grace upon grace.
But the presence of God was also dangerous. God is holy, and the children of Israel were not. For this reason, God established the tribe of Levi to guard the people from himself, a consuming fire (stay tuned to Numbers 3–4!).
As Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy record, God loved his people and met their needs, time and again. He protected them, provided for them, and graciously persevered with them. They did not need to fear that God would fail them. They did not need to fear his presence as indicated by a cloud by day and a fire by night. These were signs of his promised and providential presence. But as Faulkner indicates, the children of Israel did need to fear their own sin. That is, because God is holy, they needed to take care to be holy.
The sad account of Israel’s failure in Numbers 11–25 is the account of a people who were not afraid to sin against God. They were not afraid to complain against him. They were not afraid to murmur against one another. They were not afraid to rebel. And they were not afraid to engage in sexual sin and idolatry. Fundamentally, they did not fear the Lord. In our studies, we will explore some motivations behind their failures. I suspect that presumption on God’s kindness, or even a self-centred sense of entitlement, was a major factor. Brothers and sisters, we need to fear the same sinful attitudes.
In these difficult days, complaining, grumbling, criticising, and a bitter disposition are all too easy sinful outcomes. We should fear this, for in the end it is destructive. It is destructive to friendships, families, and the local church. Brothers and sisters, we must remember our grace-secured privilege to be God’s dwelling place (e.g. Ephesians 2:19–22). We must beware of the danger of presuming on this gift. We must guard against a sinful assumption of entitlement. God owes us nothing. The wage of our sins is death. But thanks be to God for his gracious gift of the Lord Jesus Christ who, by his life and sacrificial death and glorious resurrection, saves us from God’s wrath. Saved from God by God! When we meditate upon this truth, there little room for the ugliness that fills so much of the book of Numbers; the same ugliness that sometimes fills our lives. I speak from the shame of my own experience. May God grant me faith to fear the right things.
Marching with you,