Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, July 18th, 2024
the Week of Proper 10 / Ordinary 15
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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 14

Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New TestamentsSutcliffe's Commentary

Verses 1-45

Numbers 14:9 . They are bread for us; a Hebraicism. In Hosea 4:8, we read that the priests ate up the sins of the people. As the fire licked up the water in the trenches, 1 Kings 18:38; as the priest bare the iniquity of the people, or consumed them by the fire of the altar; so the Hebrews should consume the Canaanites.

Numbers 14:21 . Truly as I live. The certainty of the promises and the threatenings is generally confirmed by an oath, and the Lord is not as man, that he should repent.

Numbers 14:34 . Forty days, each day for a year, shall ye bear your iniquities. This is a frequent mode of Hebrew figurative language. The 70 weeks of Daniel, or 490 days, are reckoned as so many years. It is the same with regard to the sabbath days to the year of jubilee. Ye shall know my breach of promise. תנואתי tenvooati, ye shall know my breach. Miles Coverdale reads, ye shall know what it is when I withdraw my hand. Montanus reads, frustrationem meam, my frustration. Pagninus reads, ultionem meam, my vengeance. Luther, or the Munster version, reads, irritationem meam, my provocation. The English, of all these readings, seems the most unsuccessful. The rebels who now drew the nation to a full revolt, had their hearts still in Egypt; and hoped, no doubt, after the destruction of Pharaoh at the Red sea, to conquer and possess the country. Thus they totally disbelieved the Lord, and the Lord made a total breach with them.


The God of Abraham having brought the Israelites out of Egypt, having given them the law, erected their mystical pavilion, and established their theocracy, nothing seemed to obstruct an immediate entrance into the promised land but the state of their hearts which proved an insuperable barrier. Afflictions were therefore better calculated to promote their salvation than prosperity. The sudden transition from indigence to affluence, from the most wretched servitude to the enjoyment of a land flowing with milk and honey, might have prompted them to greater excesses than the Amorites, and frustrated the hallowing designs of God in their emancipation. Besides, their affections were still attached to the land of their oppression; they knew it was the richest country in the world, while on the other hand they discredited the reports concerning the flourishing culture in the land of promise. Heaven permitted the country to be explored, which led to the disclosure and punishment of their unbelief. A man of each tribe was selected for the enterprise, and all the twelve were men of distinction and courage. Moses instructed them to penetrate the country by the south, and to return by the west. He required them to make the most exact observations on the population, whether the people were strong or weak; on their habits of life, whether they dwelt in tents or in fortified towns; whether the soil was productive or barren; whether the country was woody or open; he enjoined them to be of good courage, and to bring specimens of its choicest fruits.

This arduous task the spies executed with expedition and success, notwithstanding their having experienced all the variety of fortune which might have been expected on so extraordinary a mission. Hebron they examined with curiosity and care; it claimed antiquity prior to Zoan in Egypt, and Abraham’s sepulchre was adjacent. But the giants, the tall sons of Anak, were here the chiefs and commanders of the people. From Eshcol they brought bunches of grapes, immensely large, and other fruits then in season. The whole of the twelve arrived safe at the camp, after an absence of forty days.

The elders and the congregation were immediately convened. They were all eye, all ear; the most eager expectation was painted on every countenance, because the happiness of posterity was supposed to be involved in what they were about to hear. The spies presented the princes and the people with the fruits of the land, and said in effect to Moses, We have penetrated the country thou didst send us to explore: most assuredly it floweth with milk and honey, as is obvious from its fruits. The rugged parts of the mountains are adorned with trees and vineyards, the verdant hills are covered with flocks, and springs and rivulets everywhere abound. The vallies are full of cattle, and full of corn. The landscapes are romantic and transporting. The whole country is one connected chain of beauty, abundance and delight. It forms a picturesque and an advantageous contrast with the uniform plains of Egypt, and with the weary sands of its surrounding deserts.

Nevertheless, said they: and what are they going to add? Are there any exceptions with JEHOVAH, any difficulties with our God? Nevertheless, said they, we are not able to conquer it, for the people exceed us in number, and they are all trained to the arts of war. The Canaanites form two great nations, the one on the banks of the Jordan; the other in Phœnicia, on the sea coast. They are an ingenious people, having chariots of iron, and are commanded by experienced chiefs of enormous stature. The population is so great as to consume the whole of this fertile land. But admitting, however improbable, that we could defeat them in the field, our enterprise would prove abortive. They would retire to their cities and strongholds, everywhere interspersed on the mountains, and in the vales; cities walled to the clouds, and defended with projecting towers. Our tribes would be divided and exhausted with hopeless and innumerable sieges. Defeat and ruin would be the consequence; our wives and our little ones would become a prey, and every thing would be sacrificed to this ill-advised emigration from Egypt.

These words were as thunderbolts of despair, hurled on a mean and unsanctified multitude. All the evil passions were excited in quick succession; anger, sorrow, vengeance, and despair. All was clamour and lamentation, riot and noise. A sullen murmur ran through the whole assembly, of revolt against Moses and against God.

In this moment of confusion Caleb stepped forward, and demanded the right of audience, being one of those who had explored the country. Full of faith, and inspired with eloquence more than human, he overpowered the tumult, and enforced attention. Men of Israel, we seem to hear him say, you have erred in discrediting the report which God hath given of the land. We are now agreed that it flows with milk and honey. My ten colleagues have also erred, and greatly erred, in losing sight of God. Having hitherto experienced his faithfulness to us and to our fathers, we ought not to distrust him for the future. Has any promise made to Abraham and his seed ever yet failed? Were we not delivered from Egypt at the expiration of the four hundred years, according to the promise made to our fathers? Genesis 15:13. We were delivered. Did our emancipation require a cloud of miracles? Your eyes have seen the wonders of the Lord. Pharaoh who despised them, and hardened his heart, has been overthrown: and will you despise them in like manner? Has the Lord given us bread from heaven, and water from the rock? Is he still with us in the pillary cloud of his presence; and shall we murmur, doubt, and rebel? And why talk of the number and strength of the nations, whose iniquities are full? These nations have neither courage nor energy to oppose us. My colleagues tell you but half the truth. The soul of the people fainteth with fear at our name; for they have heard that God is with us, and that he speaketh to us face to face. What, captains and leaders of Israel, shall you fear? What, elders and rulers, shall you forget the works of the Lord? If he delight in us, he will give us the land. Rebel not therefore against the Lord. Let us go up at once, and take possession, for we are every way adequate to the conquest.

This speech failed of effect solely because the people to whom it was addressed, were not worthy to hear an eloquence so divine. Its object was faith in God, the people were carnal, and attached to this world. The discontent and revolt were that night communicated to the whole camp. The people murmured and wept aloud. Their passions were inflamed to the highest pitch of anger, depravity, and despair. They reassembled in the morning, when Caleb, ably supported by Joshua, made another effort to compose and enlighten their minds; but all in vain. They were overpowered with clamour, and narrowly escaped being stoned. Amid the confusion, the glory of the Lord appeared, imposing terror and silence by its lustre.

“How long,” said the Lord to Moses, “will this people provoke me? How long will it be ere they believe me, after all the signs I have showed among them? I will smite them with the pestilence, and disinherit them; and will make of thee a greater nation than they.” Moses, alarmed for the salvation of his country, most fervently interseded with God. He filled his mouth with arguments, and discovered a pastoral piety, which did honour to his heart, even when heaven tempted him not to pray. Yet he could not prevail. Moses himself could not prevail for more than a mitigation of the punishment. “I have pardoned them,” it was replied. “But truly as I live, all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord. Say unto them, your carcasses shall fall in the wilderness, and all that were numbered, from twenty years old and upwards; doubtless ye shall not come into the land which I sware to give you for a possession, save Caleb and Joshua. But your little ones, who you said should become a prey, them will I bring into the land which ye have despised. After the number of the days in which ye searched the land, even forty days, each day for a year, shall ye bear your iniquities; and ye shall know my breach, or protraction of promise.” So they could not enter in because of unbelief.

How awful, how instructive is this eventful crisis! A whole generation of the Israelites forfeited their inheritance by the want of faith. They were condemned to wander in the wilderness forty years. The fathers died for their iniquities, that the children might be instructed in righteousness. The ten spies, who had led the people to revolt, became the first victims of divine vengeance. They instantly died of the plague. But Caleb and Joshua lived to declare the wonders of the Lord to a new generation. This history is instructive in a figurative view. We, as well as the ancient Israelites, have been redeemed. We too, are in the wilderness: and we are seeking a better country, a heavenly habitation which the Lord has promised to give. We have not yet entered into it; but there remaineth a rest for the people of God.

Secondly observe, the Israelites could not enter the land until they were tried and made ready; and the case is exactly parallel with regard to our entrance into heaven. We must be washed and made white in the blood of Christ, and completely subjugated to his easy yoke. A superficial change is by no means an adequate qualification for his presence. We have to dwell with God, and we must be holy, for he is holy. We have to dwell with patriarchs and prophets, with apostles and martyrs, with confessors and the best of saints, and we must have a conformity to them in virtue. We must be sanctified wholly, and pray that our whole body, soul, and spirit, may be preserved blameless unto the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Thirdly, believers should expect a present salvation by faith in Christ Jesus. “Let us go up at once and possess it.” To heaven we cannot go, till a watchful providence calls us hence. The Lord will come in due time; but he may come to-day; and hence we should always be ready. A great work is to be wrought, and we have no assurance of life; but this is our consolation, that the Lord is now ready and willing to accomplish it. His great oblation for sin has already been presented on Calvary; the fountain is opened to wash the defiled; and all grace is ready to sanctify the soul. His house, his arms, his heart, are open and ready to receive the prodigal: he stands in every form of grace, and cries with the most inviting countenance, “Come unto me.” Brethren, we want nothing but a heart to receive the grace of God. We have no wish to slight a progressive work in the mortification of sin. The purification of the soul is often like bleaching, a slow and difficult process; and the daily efforts of good men to repress anger, to abase pride, and guard against vain thoughts, are highly pleasing to God. But experience has taught us, and experience here is a great test, that a man may proceed in this way many years, and be only where he began; his corruptions only cropped, spring up again on the appearance of temptation. It seems a far more excellent way to look simply at the great promises of sanctification in the New Covenant, promises exemplified in the New Testament, and to ask of God a present salvation from all indwelling corruption. Without having recourse to this method, and claiming the accomplishment of the promise, we may go on to the latest period of life in a sort of bondage, as many go on from year to year, without the knowledge of salvation by the remission of sin.

Fourthly observe, that wicked men are discouraged from becoming religious, by the mere appearance of the difficulties which it presents. “Heaven,” say they, “is a happy place; it is a land flowing with milk and honey. A religious life is certainly amiable, provided people practise what they profess; but at the same time, to be strictly religious is impossible for men in our situation. We have to live in the world; its habits and opinions bear us away like a torrent. We cannot be altogether singular; and it would be extremely uncharitable to think every one lost who is not perfect in virtue.” We would always wish to hear the wicked speak; it opens the hidden things of the heart, and enables the preacher to reply, What, is this, the language of modern sinners? What, but the identical language of the unbelieving spies? The people of the land were still deemed too numerous; public opinion and favourite vices are still the giants which cannot be conquered; they must therefore revolt against God, and continue in Egyptian bondage. How much soever these men’s characters may be distinguished by knowledge, benevolence, or partial virtues, they have an evil heart of unbelief departing from the Lord; a heart which is earthly, sensual and devilish. They hate the light, because it discovers their shame; and they bring an evil report on the good way, because their own way is crooked and perverse. They would have a religion accommodated to their passions. They wish for a gospel which soothes their conscience, which reserves purification for the grave, and promises heaven to men who have no qualifications for its enjoyment. Such a gospel, sinners, you shall never hear, for God can never change. Religion has no difficulties but what have been more than surmounted, and it requires no sacrifices so great as those which most of you have already made for the world. Your negligence has therefore no excuse, your fears have no apology, your crimes have no cover. When the glory of the Lord shall again appear, you shall be overwhelmed with the shame and confusion of this unbelieving crowd.

Fifthly, a few faithful men we see are adequate to refute and confound a whole multitude of unbelievers. “Caleb stilled the people.” He overpowered them by sound argument and divine confidence, though unable to change their hearts. What is it that our libertines and infidels would say? What are their quaint caveats against the doctrines and the duties of religion? Is adoration to be withheld from the High and Holy One, who inhabiteth eternity? Are hymns and thanksgiving to the Author of all our mercies a superfluous service? Are prayers and contrition unbecoming a sinful worm, when prostrate before his God? Is there any thing too humiliating, any thing improper in the duties of self-denial and mortification? Are they too gloomy and rigorous for social life? But we ask, what difficulties does religion present which are formidable to any class of men, excepting those who are irresolute and sordidly attached to sin? Divine aid is more than adequate to all temptations. With this Moses resumed a youthful heart from all the pleasures of the Egyptian court, and esteemed the reproach of Christ greater riches than all the treasures of the Lybian shore. With these aids Daniel and his three colleagues served the Lord in the highest splendour of the Babylonian court. Unable to fly, they bravely fought. They quenched the violence of fire, and stopped the mouths of lions. Their persecutors were so vanquished by their faith, as to become their patrons. The little flock of Christ was likewise surrounded with the Jews and Heathens, as with wolves and tigers; yet they flourished and subdued the Roman world to the banner of the cross. What do we say, sinners, many of your own age, and some of your particular friends have subdued all the sins which you think insurmountable. Yea, and we will repeat it, that you have often done more for the world than you are now required to do for God. Hide your mouth then in the dust, and no longer reproach the Lord, nor bring an evil report on religion by affirming that its precepts are impracticable. Go up at once and possess it, for God will afford you strength equal to the duty.

Farther observe, this history gives a very alarming caution to the whole christian world, and it is frequently improved in the sacred writings. St. Paul excites the Hebrews to fear, lest there should be in any of them an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God; and lest they should come short of the rest which he hath promised. St. Jude, in like manner reminds the faithful, that God having saved the people from the land of Egypt, afterwards destroyed them that believed not. Some of them were consumed with fire, some were destroyed by an earthquake, some were bitten with serpents, and others were cut off with the plague. Hence it is inferred, that we should neither tempt nor provoke the Lord. And if the holy apostles used those cautions, and in an age comparatively pure, what would they have said of the present age?

But did the Israelites perish through impiety? Was a whole nation cut off, and deprived of inheritance for the want of faith? Were even good men confounded for their defects in the temporal punishment of the wicked? Were but two faithful men, Caleb and Joshua, exempt? And is God less rigorous now than in the early periods of society? Can we presume that he would punish a whole offending nation in a dark age, and spare the more atrocious sinners of enlightened times? Is there any variation in his rules of rectitude, or is he become so familiar with the sight of crimes as to be indifferent about the punishment? No, no: we infer the future from the past. “Our God will come with vengeance, with a recompense he will come and save: he will not keep silence, a fire shall devour before him, and it shall be very tempestuous round about.” His sign shall appear in the heavens. He shall come with his mighty angels, taking vengeance on them that know not God; and particularly on those rebels who have seen his works, who have been acquainted with the evidences of religion, and have disbelieved his word. He will make bare his arm for the battle, his holy arm of strength; and declare that those men shall not see the land which he has promised to the saints.

Sinners, take the alarm. Christians, whose hearts are still attached to Egypt, tremble. The magnitude of the danger is equal to the magnitude of your sin. Be wise to-day, while wisdom may avail. A few more revolts, a few more slighted sermons, and you are undone. A few more foul offences, and the scale will turn; a few more days of procrastination, and the period of repentance will be past. Therefore we cry in the voice of David, who wished to warn posterity by the wickedness of their fathers; “To-day,” as when God spoke from Sinai, “If ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts, as in the day of temptation, as in the day of provocation in the wilderness, when your fathers tempted me, proved me, and saw my works: unto whom I sware in my wrath, that they should not enter into my rest.”

Fathers, wicked fathers, heads of houses, this voice is to you. God was obliged to cut off the parents to save the children. Impunity might have emboldened them in vice. But the new generation, knowing their crimes and attesting their punishment, learned to fear the Lord. Drunkards, swearers, carnal and irreligious men, can you yet ask for instruction? Can you after this, require proof? Those unhappy Israelites are to you, both instruction and proof. How often have you been conducted home, the most pitiable objects of intoxication. How often have your children heard you blaspheme the name of God. How often have they heard you despise his word, and curse his people. You have already corrupted your tender offspring: you have initiated them into all your crimes, and laid the foundation, by impiety and vice, for their eternal ruin. Perhaps mercy cannot now save you; perhaps your children also cannot be saved, unless you are made a fearful example of divine vengeance; unless you are cast into a bed of severe affliction, and unless your conscience is alarmed with the terrors of the Lord. Unless like criminals to whom we hope repentance is granted before punishment, you confess, in presence of your family, all your profaneness and vice; and warn them, in the most impressive language, to avoid your crimes, and to seek the Lord.

Ah, sinners, our sermons have been quite too mild. We have erred by excess of candour. You are become learned in the arts of evasion. Your understanding is but partially vanquished by truth, and your heart is powerfully swayed by vice. Hence our word is without effect; hence so many barren sermons; hence so many whole congregations apparently convinced, and no conversions follow. But oh if there be yet a spark of grace unquenched, if there be yet in those hearts a susceptibility of repentance; yield, yield to the force of truth, and soften before the Lord. Rebel no longer against him, and pray that the evil may never come. Yes, and pray now, for the anger of the Lord is already kindled against you. Join those Moseses in supplication; they have long been praying for you; pray now for yourselves that he may not only mitigate, but entirely revoke your sentence, and permit you to enter “the rest which remaineth for the people of God.” May the Lord grant it, for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Bibliographical Information
Sutcliffe, Joseph. "Commentary on Numbers 14". Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New Testaments. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jsc/numbers-14.html. 1835.
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