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Bible Commentaries

The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Numbers 13

 

 

Verses 1-33

Irreligious Fears

Numbers 13 , Numbers 14:1-25

God gives no speculative commands. When he said—"Send thou men, that they may search the land of Canaan, which I give unto the children of Israel," he meant that the land of Canaan was to be given to Israel whatever difficulties or delays might occur in the process of acquisition. There is no if in the commandments of Heaven that may mean either of two courses or either of two ways. God says,—You shall have this, if you are faithful. But the if relates to the human mind and to the human disposition, and not to the solidity and certainty of the divine purpose or decree. This is true in morals. Along the line that is laid down in the Bible, which is called, happily and properly, the line of salvation, heaven is found—not the mean heaven of selfish indulgence and selfish complacency and release from mere toil and pain, but the great heaven of harmony with God, identification with the Spirit divine, complete restfulness in the movement of the infinite purpose. There will be difficulties on the road; these difficulties will assume various proportions, according to the dispositions of the men who survey them; but the Lord does not propose to give the end without, by implication, proposing also to find the grace and comfort necessary for all the process. We are not at liberty to stop at processes as if they were final points; we have nothing to do with processes but to go through them; the very call to attempt them is a pledge that they may be overcome. But these processes test the quality of men. It is by such processes that we are revealed to ourselves. If everything came easily as a mere matter of course, flowing in sequence that is never disturbed, we should lose some of the highest advantages of this present time school. We are made strong by exercise; we are made wise by failure; we are chastened by disappointment; driven back again and again six days out of the seven, we are taught to value the seventh day the more, that it gives us rest, and breathing time, and opportunity to consider the situation, so that we may begin another week"s battle with a whole Sabbath day"s power. To some the processes of life are indeed hard; let us never underrate them. Men are not cheered when the difficulties of the way are simply undervalued. No man can sympathise with another until he has learned the exact weight of the other man"s trouble and the precise pain of his distress. There is a rough and pointless comfort which proceeds upon the principle that you have only to underrate a man"s trials—to make them look as little and contemptible as possible—in order to invigorate his motive and to increase his strength. That is a profound mistake. He can sympathise best who acknowledges that the burden is heavy and the back weak, and the road is long, and the sky dull, and the wind full of ominous moaning;—granted that the sympathising voice can say all this in a tone of real appreciation, it has prepared the listener for words of cheer and inspiration—healthy, sound, intelligent courage. This is just the way of the Bible; it recognises the human lot in all its length and breadth; it addresses itself to circumstances which it describes with adequate minuteness and with copious and pathetic eloquence.

Here you find a number of men, such as live in all ages, who are crushed by material considerations. They report that the people of the country which they were sent to search were "strong," their cities were "walled and very great," and the population was made up of the Anakim—the "giants," the towering and mighty sons of Anak; they reported that some dwelt in "the south," and some "in the mountains," and some "by the sea, and by the coast of Jordan." This was a mean report, it was hardly a report at all,—so nearly may a man come to speak the truth, and yet not to be truthful, so wide is the difference between fact and truth. Many a book is true that is written under the name of fiction; many a book is untrue that lays claim only to the dry arguments of statistics and schedules. Truth is subtle; it is a thing of atmosphere, perspective, unnameable environment, spiritual influence. Not a word of what the truth says may have occurred in what is known as within the boundaries of any individual experience. The fact relates to an individuality; the truth relates to a race. A fact is an incident which occurred; a truth is a gospel which is occurring throughout all the ages of time. The men, therefore, who reported about walled cities, and tall inhabitants, and mountain refuges, and fortresses by the sea, confined themselves to simply material considerations; they overlooked the fact that the fortress might be stronger than the soldier, that the people had nothing but figure, and weight, and bulk, and were destitute of the true spirit which alone is a guarantee of sovereignty of character and conquest of arms. But this is occurring every day. Again and again we come upon terms which might have been written this very year. We are all men of the same class, with an exceptional instance here and there; we look at walls, we receive despatches about the stature of the people and the number of their fortresses, and draw very frightsome and terrible conclusions concerning material resources, forgetting in our eloquent despatches the only thing worth telling, namely: that if we were sent by Providence and are inspired by the Living God and have a true cause and are intent to fight with nobler weapons than gun and sword, the mountains themselves shall melt whilst we look upon them, and they who inhabit the fortresses shall sleep to rise no more. This is what we must do in life—in all life—educational, commercial, religious. We have nothing to do with outsides and appearances, and with resources that can be totalled in so many arithmetical figures; we have to ascertain, first, Did God send us? and secondly, if he sent us, to feel that no man can drive us back. If God did not send us, we shall go down before the savage; if God is not in the battle, it cannot and ought not to succeed, and failure is to be God"s answer to our mean and unrighteous and untimely prayer. Who is distressed by appearances? Who is afraid because the labour is very heavy? What young heart quails because the books which lie upon the road which terminates in the temple of wisdom are many in number and severe in composition? We are called to enter the sanctuary of wisdom and of righteousness; therefore we must take up the books as a very little thing and master them, and lay them down, and smile at the difficulties which once made us afraid.

But one man at least spoke up and said,—We must go; this thing is to be done:—"Caleb stilled the people before Moses, and said, Let us go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it." Was Caleb, then, a giant—larger than any of the sons of Anak? Was he a Hercules and a Samson in one? Was his arm so terrific that every stroke of it was a conquest? We are not told so; the one thing we are told about Caleb is that he was a man of "another spirit." That determines the quality of the man. Character is a question of spirit. It is an affair of inward and spiritual glow. Caleb had been upon the preliminary search; Caleb had seen the walls, and the Anakim, and the fortresses, and he came back saying,—We can do this, not because we have so many arms only or so many resources of a material kind—but because he was a man of "another spirit." In the long run, spirit wins; in the outcome of all history, spirit will be uppermost. The great battles of life are not controversies of body against body, but, as far as God is in them, they are a question of spirit against body, thought against iron, prayer against storming and blustering of boastful men. While the cloud hangs over the field, and the dust of the strife is very thick, and the tumult roars until it deafens those who listen, we cannot see the exact proportions, colours, and bearings of things; but if we read history instead of studying the events of the day which have not yet settled themselves into order and final meaning, we shall discover that spirit is mightier than body, that "knowledge is power," that "righteousness exalteth a nation," and that they who bear the white banner of a pure cause ultimately triumph because God is with them.

How little the people had grown! They hear of the walled cities, and the great towns, and the tall men—the Amalekites, and the Hittites, and the Jebusites, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and they lifted up their voices and wept—and wept all night! You have only to make noise enough in the ears of some men to make them afraid; you have simply to keep on repeating a catalogue of names, and they think you are reciting the resources of almightiness; mention one opposition, and possibly they may overcome the suggestion of danger: but have your mouth well-filled with hostile names and be able to roll off the catalogue without halt or stammer, and you pour upon the fainting heart a cataract which cannot be resisted. The people had grown but little: they were still in the school of fear; they were still in the desert of despair; they were childish, cowardly, spiritless; they had no heart for prayer; they forgot the only thing worth remembering, the pledge and covenant of God. Let us not condemn them. It is easy to condemn ancient Israelites and forgotten unbelievers. How stands the case with us? Precisely as it stood with the people of whom we are now reading. We are not an inch ahead of them. Christians are to-day just as fearful as the children of Israel were thousands of years ago: they have only to hear of certain bulks, forces, sizes, Numbers , in order to quail as if they had never heard of the Eternal God. Would to Heaven we could make an exchange as between such people and some Song of Solomon -called infidels we know! The infidels would make better Christians. There is more reality in them, more firmness, more standing right up to the line of conviction. He who prays, and then fears, brings discredit upon the altar at which he prayed; he who talks of the promises of God, and then lives in subjection to the devil, is worse than an infidel.

What wonder that God himself was filled with contempt towards the people whom he had thus far led? He would slay them; he would "smite them with the pestilence, and disinherit them"; he would root up the root of Abraham and begin a new people in the spirit and life of Moses; he would start from a new centre; he would obliterate the past: he would begin afresh to-morrow.

"And Moses said unto the Lord, Then the Egyptians shall hear it, (for thou broughtest up this people in thy might from among them;) And they will tell it to the inhabitants of this land: for they have heard that thou Lord art among this people, that thou Lord art seen face to face, and that thy cloud standeth over them, and that thou goest before them, by day time in a pillar of a cloud, and in a pillar of fire by night. Now if thou shalt kill all this people as one Prayer of Manasseh , then the nations which have heard the fame of thee will speak, saying, Because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land which he sware unto them, therefore he hath slain them in the wilderness" ( Numbers 14:13-16).

What book but the Bible has the courage to represent a man standing in this attitude before his God and addressing his Sovereign in such persuasive terms? This incident brings before us the vast subject of the collateral considerations which are always operating in human life. Things are not straight and simple, lying in rows of direct lines to be numbered off, checked off and done with. Lines bisect and intersect and thicken into great knots and tangle, and who can unravel or disentangle the great heap? Things bear relations which can only be detected by the imagination, which cannot be compassed by arithmetical Numbers , but which force upon men a new science of calculation, and create a species of moral algebra, by which, through the medium and help of symbols, that is done which was impossible to common arithmetic. Moses was a great leader; he thought of Egypt: what will the enemy say? The enemy will put a false construction upon this. As if he had said,—This will be turned against Heaven; the Egyptians do not care what becomes of the people, if they can laugh at the Providence which they superstitiously trusted; the verdict passed by the heathen will be:—God was not able to do what he promised, so he had recourse to the vulgar artifice of murder. The Lord in this way developed Moses. In reality, Moses was not anticipating the divine purpose, but God was training the man by saying what Hebrews , the Lord, would do, and by the very exaggeration of his strength called up Moses to his noblest consciousness. We do this amongst ourselves. By using a species of language adapted to touch the innermost nerve and feeling of our hearers, we call those hearers to their best selves. If the Lord had spoken a hesitant language, or had fallen into what we may call a tone of despair, Moses himself might have been seduced into a kindred dejection; but the Lord said, I will smite, I will disinherit, I will make an end; and Moses became priest, intercessor, mighty pleader,—the very purpose which God had in view—to keep the head right, the leading man in tune with his purposes. So Moses said, "Pardon"; the Lord said, "Smite"; and Moses said, "Pardon "—that is the true smiting. The Lord meant it; the Lord taught Moses that prayer which Moses seemed to invent himself. The Lord trains us, sometimes, by shocking our sensibilities; and by the very denunciation of his judgments he drives us to tenderer prayer.

How stands our own case in relation to this? We deserve divine contempt: we are frail and spiritless and mean; we shun danger; we are afraid of the damp night; we want to be let alone; if it is possible to die without fighting, let us die in the wilderness; if we can escape danger, we prefer to turn over upon our couch and to slumber away into death and oblivion. Where is the aggressive spirit amongst Christians? Men have gone out to search the land, and they have brought back this report: that the land is a land of darkness: the land is a land of shame: there are thousands upon thousands of people dying of starvation, perishing for lack of knowledge, contemning the sanctuary, shut up in avenues and alleys and back places into which the daintiest civilisation dare not go: rough men given to drunkenness, bestiality and cruelty: women who are concealing their beauty under distress and poverty and manifold shame: children who have never heard the divine name or been invited to the divine table. Christians are few in number; the devil"s army is an infinite host, dwelling in great cities walled and very strong, and the devil"s men are of heroic proportion; their language is strong and definite; their habits have in them no touch of fear; they are valiant in their master"s cause: they care not whether they swear, whether they drink, whether they do the foul and forbidden deed of unrighteousness and untruthfulness. The Church says,—Let us sing an evening hymn and go home by the quiet way, and sigh ourselves into any heaven that may be ready to take us; do not be sensational; do not attempt anything novel or unusual; let us be quit of all things; and if we can get home by sneaking along the eaves of the houses and in the shady part of the road so that nobody may see us, do let us sing the evening hymn and go to rest. Is there no Caleb? Is there no Joshua? Is there no man of "another spirit" to say, Let us go up at once, when we are well able to overcome it? In whose strength? In God"s. By whose armour? God"s. The battle is not yours, but God"s. The one thing we have dropped out of our calculations is—Almightiness.


Verse 30

"Handfuls of Purpose"

For All Gleaners

"And Caleb stilled the people before Moses, and said, Let us go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it."Numbers 13:30

"The Lord said to Moses, Send thou men that they may search the land of Canaan which I give unto the children of Israel."—Men were accordingly sent, being told to "see the land, what it is; and the people that dwell therein, whether they be strong or weak, few or many; and what the land is that they dwell in, whether it be good or bad; and what cities they be that they dwell in, whether in tents or in strongholds."—In a word, they were to make a full survey of the land and its inhabitants, and to report to Moses.—"So they went up, and searched the land from the wilderness of Zin unto Rehob, as men come to Hamath."—After forty days" search they returned, bringing with them a branch with one cluster of grapes, and also a specimen of the pomegranates and the figs.—On the whole, their report was very gloomy.—They had, of course, some good things to say about the productiveness of the land, but they gave a very alarming account of the people: "All the people that we saw in it are men of great stature—we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight."—Caleb was a man of another spirit: he stilled the people before Moses, and said, "Let us go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it."

This incident sets forth vividly some of the difficulties which lie in the way of the higher kingdom, the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ; and it is in this view that we shall regard the graphic narrative.

I. The kingdom of heaven challenges the inquiry of all men.—It addresses an appeal to human reason, and to human trust.—Though itself a Revelation , and therefore not to be handled as a common thing, nor to be tested by common instruments, yet Christianity invites the most careful inquest.—It does not seek to rest upon the human intellect as a burden, but to shine upon it as a light; it does not fasten itself upon the human heart as an excrescence, but blesses and enriches it with a new and mightier life.—If Christianity may be represented under the image of a land, such as ancient Canaan, then it is fair to say of it, that it offers right of way over its hills and through its valleys, that its fruits and flowers are placed at the disposal of all travellers, and that he who complains that the land is shut against him speaks not only ungratefully but most falsely.

There are not wanting men who say that Christianity forbids inquiry.

The kingdom of heaven is the highest revelation of the mind of God to the mind of man.—The mind must be at its highest possible point of energy in order to lay hold of the doctrines which constitute that revelation.—To get the mind to this point requires the excitement of the heart; for mind is never fully alive whilst the moral powers are dormant.—When the heart is moved in its deepest passions, and the mind is set in its highest key, the man is prepared to enter upon the great studies to which he is invited by the Gospel.

It is certainly true, and ought to be taken account of in this connection, that some people have peculiar notions of what is meant by inquiry.—In the first instance, they dismiss everything like reverence; in the next place, they make themselves the standard and measure of all truth; and in the third place, they seek to materialise and debase everything that is spiritual and heavenly.—This is not inquiry, it is insolent self-sufficiency; it is not the spirit of a student seeking light; it is the spirit of a braggart who thinks the sun inferior to his spark.—The tone of mind must be in harmony with the subject considered; in every department of intellectual life it is required that a student be self-controlled, patient, docile; that his temper be subdued, and that his conclusions be reached through long and earnest watching of processes.—This is required in all sciences, why not in the science of sciences—the knowledge and worship of the true God?

2. Different reports will, of course, be brought by the inquirers.—It was so in the case of the spies: it will be so in all inquiry.—The result of the survey will be according to the peculiarities of the surveyors.—As streams are impregnated by the soils over which they flow, so subjects are affected by the individualism of the minds through which they pass.—Thus Christianity may be said to be different things to different minds.—To the speculative man it is a great attempt to solve deep problems in theology; to the controversialist it is a challenge to debate profound subjects on new ground; to the poet it is a dream, a wondrous vision many-coloured as the rainbow, a revelation many-voiced as the tunes of the wind or the harmonies of the sea.—Each inquirer will have his own way of reporting the result of his inquiry.—Christian testimony is not of one unchanging sort.—One Christian will report his experiences in highly intellectual phraseology, as if God had entered his heart through the shining chambers of his mind; another will show that he has reached peace through many a stormy conflict with doubt; another will speak the language of music as though he had been taught it in intercourse with the angels; another will stammer by reason of sobs and tears.—Yet the subject is the same, the result is the same—this is the diversity that is unity—

 


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Bibliography Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Numbers 13:4". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/jpb/numbers-13.html. 1885-95.

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