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A Land Flowing with Milk and Honey
The idea suggested is, that the true disciples of the Lord Jesus are expected to show to the world some illustration of the heavenly country to which they are journeying. In a sense they have been there, and have come back. But in what sense?
I. The idea with many persons is, that the future condition of man is so completely different from this, that it is out of the question to attempt to form a conception of it. Heaven, they think, is absolutely unlike earth. Now, it is true, St. Paul tells us, 'that eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him.' But it is also true, as the Apostle goes on to say, that 'God hath revealed them unto us by His Spirit'. Some people then are in a position to understand what the heavenly kingdom is like. They have ideas, true ideas, about it foretastes, anticipations. In fact, 'Heaven' is really the expansion and development of a life begun here below. 'He that hath the Son hath life.'
II. What then has the true disciple to show as specimens of the produce of this unseen and unknown country? Briefly, the character of Christ reproduced in him, by the Power of the Holy Spirit. It is faintly, imperfectly reproduced; still it is reproduced. The more Christlike we are, the more truly shall we bear in our hands the 'fruit' of the better land.
III. It is by the presentation of these fruits of the land that souls are won. No doubt there are some persons in the world to whom Christ and everything belonging to Christ are only repulsive; and these will scrutinize the disciple with an unfriendly eye, and rejoice if they can find, or fancy they find, any inconsistency in his conduct. But there are also many others of a different temper. They are halting between two opinions. They say, not of course in words, but by their feelings and manner, 'show us the fruits of the heavenly land, of which you think so much and speak so much. You are amongst us as a citizen of the heavenly city. Enable us to gather from your conduct what are the characteristics of that noble land, of that bright and glorious companionship.'
What is the practical conclusion to be drawn from the whole subject thus discussed? Surely it is this that we, who profess to serve and follow the Lord Jesus Christ, should be careful to recognize the responsibility laid upon us to give a good report, like Caleb and Joshua, and not a bad report, like the ten other spies, of the unseen land. We shall give a bad report if our lives are not attractive, and are not consistent, or if we say, as the ten did, 'Well, it is true enough that the land is glorious and magnificent, but the difficulties to be overcome are so many, the foes that stand in the way of occupation so powerful, that it is useless to attempt to fight our way into it'. Gordon Calthrop, Harvest and Thanksgiving Services, p. 157.
The Message of the Book of Numbers
The Book of Numbers tells the story of arrested deliverance.
I. The book begins well. The object of the encampment at Sinai has been accomplished. And now Jehovah had taken up His abode among His people to lead them to the Promised Land. But this land was not to be occupied peaceably; the inhabitants of it had to be driven out. The land, which was in right theirs by the gift of God, had to become in fact theirs by actual conquest. Therefore the people, which up to this time had been the flock of Jehovah, were now to be organized as the army of Jehovah. This is the meaning of the census, the account of which occupies the opening chapters of the book, and has given the book its name in our English Bibles. By this census three lessons were taught Israel; lessons which were enforced subsequently by the legislative enactments and the historical incidents recorded in the book.
1. Israel was taught the aloneness, the majesty, and the sovereignty of Jehovah her God.
2. Israel was taught also the separateness of the Levites as the priests of the law.
3. There was also taught the separateness of the people of Jehovah: this was implied of course in the other two lessons.
II. When the census was completed the march from Sinai began. Of this march we have the account in chapters ten to fourteen. I think it is most important to distinguish between this march and the subsequent wanderings. Under the trials of their wilderness experiences the people often fell. Their wilderness life was a chequered one, but it was on the whole a life of progress. They were all the time in the line of the will of God. The cloud was guiding them, steadily moving forward, each day bringing them nearer the Promised Land, and so after a brief period they reached Kadesh-Barnea on its very borders.
III. But here a crisis occurred. God had willed that His people should have certain wilderness experiences. But by the time they reached Kadesh this had been learned, and God willed now that their wilderness experiences should cease. He said of Canaan, 'This is the land which I give,' not I will give, but I give to you. He set before them an open door, and said, 'Go up and possess the land'. But Israel refused to go up. At Kadesh-Barnea Israel deliberately refused to fall in with the purpose of God.
But with this act of opposition the character of Israel's experiences became entirely changed the wilderness ended, the temptation began; the march ended, the wandering began. Of this time of temptation we may notice lessons:
1. It was not in the purpose of God for Israel, it was not in the promise of God for Israel. It grieved Him sorely that they did not fall in with His purpose, and that He had so terribly to punish them, but their unbelief left Him no alternative.
2. The time of wandering was a time inconceivably blank and unutterably dreary.
3. Yet we must not go so far as to say that these years were utterly useless. God makes the very wrath of man to redound to His glory. This time of death and doom to the rebels of Kadesh was, in God's mercy, made a time of discipline to their children.
4. The time came to an end. The people were restored to obedience, and were once more willing to do what God told them. The forty years passed and they were brought back to Kadesh. When the new start was made it was found that obedience was the secret of victory. The nation was not perfect, far from it; still it murmured, and still it had to be punished. But it had learned to believe in God and to obey God, and so it went forward to victory. G. H. C. Macgregor, Messages of the Old Testament, p. 45.
A favourite missionary text of Hugh Price Hughes. In one sermon, preached for the extinction of a debt, he said: 'Caleb and Joshua were confident that the tribes of Israel were well able to capture Palestine for three reasons God had promised Canaan to them again and again; He had already begun to accomplish their marvellous destiny by delivering them from Egypt and conducting them to the borders of the Promised Land, and although their enemies appeared to be strong, they were in reality hopelessly weak. God had with equal clearness promised the whole world to Christ.'
References. XIII. 30. J. K. Popham, Sermons, p. 93. XIII. 30, 31. H. Gorton Edge, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lxxiv. 1908, p. 183.
On the Edge of the Land Afraid to Go Up
I. God has given us, His people, a great deliverance, and received each of us into it at our baptism. We have had our Red Sea. He has taught His covenant and law. We have had our Sinai; the Creed, the Lord's Prayer, and the Ten Commandments, telling us what to believe, how to worship, how to obey. He calls us to enter on our privileges, full members of His Kingdom and Church, in the good land which He blesses; fed with its milk and honey, in His Sacrament, and in all the grace and inward peace which He gives to His people. It will be a fighting life, as Israel's would have been at first, if they had gone up into Canaan: the world, the flesh, and the devil, are most real enemies; but it may be a conquering life. Only for that there is but one secret faith in God's help. But now comes the temptation. A voice speaks it may be in your heart, it may be from some companion and says: 'It is too big a thing for such as me. It is too hard. There is something which I shall never conquer. There are the enemies, all the many temptations, all the things against me, in the ways of the world, in companions; and if I could beat the rest, there are the giants; some strong passion that burns in me; some lust, some pride or temper. Or there are the cities walled up, those habits that have fortified themselves in my life and my heart, and that hands cannot break down.'
II. What shall we say? That the enemies are not strong and not many? Surely not. The spies were right. The people of the land were strong; the giants were formidable; the cities were walled and very great. So it is now. The lusts of the flesh are very strong; the snares of the world are very deceiving and difficult. Only something is left out of account. There are things stronger than walls and bulwarks. Those things are the righteous laws and holy will of God. Those cities which seemed so strong were really doomed. The sentence had gone out against them; the iniquity of the Amorite was full. 'Their defence,' said faithful Caleb, 'is departed from them.' Evil is always really weak. It threatens us, it blusters against us, it makes itself out ever so much bigger than it is; but go right up to it straight and you will find how weak it is, how it gives way, how its tempting or formidable shows are turned to paint and sham. Go right up to it straight, trusting not in your own strength, but in the Name of God. 'The Lord is with us, fear them not.' The unseen power is on your side.
III. Remember that the Israelites were so far right, at least, in this: that if they did not attack they must go back to Egypt, and Egypt is the house of bondage. If you do not fight in God's name against your temptations, and so enter on the free, conquering life of Christ's good soldier, you will assuredly find yourself in that old iron slavery under the evil which you might have slain. If you want to have a free life, fight for it now.
Or is there, perhaps, something between the two? Yes, there may be. Because we would not wholly live for God; because we would not give our first young strength to cut down certain faults of indulgence, or of temper, when with God's help we might have done it, He may condemn us to live and pine forty years in the wilderness outside the land not indeed destroyed and cast away, because God's own mercy in Christ has pleaded for us, as Moses did that day for Israel, but still not admitted to the freedom, and the wealth, and the nearness to God, of those whom He has brought into their own land. Bishop Talbot, Sermons Preached in the Leeds Parish Church, 1889-95, p. 136.
References. XIII. 31. T. G. Selby, The God of the Patriarchs, p. 237. XIII. 32. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. iv. No. 197. XIV. 1-10. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, p. 340. XIV. 6, 7. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. iv. No. 197. XIV. 9. D. J. Hiley, Christian World Pulpit, vol. 1. 1896, p. 388. XIV. 11. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxv. No. 1498. 'Plain Sermons' by contributors to the Tracts for the Times, vol. v. p. 217. XIV. 13-19. W. Binnie, Sermons, p. 106. XIV. 19. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, p. 349.
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Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on Numbers 13". Expositor's Dictionary of Text. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 15 / Ordinary 20