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In Deut. 1:34-39, Moses relates how God sentenced Israel to a total of 40 years in the wilderness, 38½ years of which remained after leaving Kadesh-barnea. As a result, Israel was to leave and return south to the Red Sea. Verse 40 says,
40 But as for you, turn around and set out for the wilderness by the way to the Red Sea.
The Red Sea in this case is the north end of the Gulf of Aqaba. They were supposed to head south and return to Horeb in the land of Midian.
However, the people then repented of their unbelief and suddenly seemed to have sufficient faith and courage to enter the Promised Land.
41 Then you answered and said to me, “We have sinned against the Lord; we will indeed go up and fight, just as the Lord our God commanded us.” And every man of you girded on his weapons of war, and regarded it as easy to go up into the hill country.
So instead of accepting God’s verdict, they decided to try to enter Canaan after God’s verdict and without God’s blessing and presence.
The original story was told in Num. 14:40-45. Moses was re-telling the story 38 years later when he said,
42 And the Lord said to me, “Say to them, 'Do not go up, nor fight, for I am not among you; lest you be defeated before your enemies'.”
When God told them to take the land, they rebelled. When God told them NOT to take the land, they rebelled again. At first they had no faith. The next day they mustered up pseudo-faith.
Paul says that faith comes by hearing (Rom. 10:17). Obedience is the proof of faith. God must command in order for someone to hear and obey. Israel's problem was that they had no ears to hear the voice of God. They could only be persuaded by men. Their sudden “faith” to fight the Canaanites was not genuine at all, for it was rooted in disobedience, or lawlessness.
Unfortunately, the Israelites did not realize this. From their perspective, they were operating by faith, because they were ready to obey yesterday's word. But that word had grown wormy, even as yesterday's manna.
This is a universal and timeless lesson for us today. First, stay up-to-date and be ready to alter course when God says to do so. Second, once the verdict of God has been decreed, it is too late to unring the bell. One must accept His righteous sentence and walk it out with humility and patience.
The obvious parallel is seen in the Church under Pentecost, which was required to accept its own 40-Jubilee sentence without attempting to receive the inheritance immediately. There are many examples of Christian impatience. God's verdicts usually involve Time. Many Christians do not believe God when He issues a verdict involving Time. They think they can escape it because of their righteousness and by the force of their own will. But even Caleb and Joshua, the overcomers, were unable to escape this sentence, for they had to remain in the wilderness with the rest of the Israelites until their sentence was completed.
43 So I spoke to you, but you would not listen. Instead you rebelled against the command [verdict] of the Lord, and acted presumptuously and went up into the hill country. 44 And the Amorites who lived in that hill country came out against you, and chased you as bees do, and crushed you from Seir to Hormah.
This is the result of Israel's pseudo-faith. I call it persuasion to distinguish it from faith. Persuasion and faith look alike to the carnal mind, and this is why above all we need the spiritual gift of discernment.
Moses says that Israel's persuasion was an act of rebellion. The Israelites did not believe him until they lost the battle. Unfortunately, we usually do not discern the difference between faith and persuasion until the results come in.
God takes His verdicts seriously, but there are always some who think that these do not apply to them. Those people need to understand this story and observe how Caleb and Joshua submitted to the judgment of God, even though they personally were guilty of nothing.
In long-term prophecy, God established a law in which a debtor had to labor six days and then rest the seventh. A day is as a thousand years on one level (Ps. 90:4), so man has been sentenced collectively to labor 6,000 years before entering his Sabbath rest.
In the days of Jeremiah, God sentenced Judah to labor for the Babylonians 70 years (Jer. 25:11), and Daniel extended this to include four great empires.
Years later, Judah attempted to revolt against Rome and establish the Kingdom in the same manner that the Israelites attempted to take Canaan too soon in the days of Moses. Judah failed, and their pseudo-faith caused great suffering and death, which in turn made them bitter against God. Josephus tells us that in the siege of Jerusalem alone, 115,880 dead bodies were counted, besides the multitude of survivors that were reduced to slavery (Wars of the Jews, V, xiii, 8).
All men contemplate their mortality and have an innate desire to live to see the full inheritance. No doubt the Israelites under Moses felt the same way. But unless we live beyond the time of the sentence that was decreed long ago, we will not see that day. Yet as individuals who have faith in Christ's death and resurrection, we need not fear death, because we have the promise of resurrection.
When men perceive their faith to be real when it is not, then they become angry and bitter against God, thinking that God has done them an injustice.
45 Then you returned and wept before the Lord; but the Lord did not listen to your voice, nor give ear to you. 46 So you remained in Kadesh many days, the days that you spent there.
Why would the Lord not listen to their cries? We read in Heb. 11:6 that “without faith it is impossible to please Him.” The Israelites as a nation still lacked sufficient faith, for they still did not have ears to hear and eyes to see (Deut. 29:4). Even though they had been beaten in battle and were mourning over the deaths of many men, they were still motivated by outward circumstances. They were not repentant, but only bitter and angry at their losses.
True repentance is not simply an emotion or regret, nor even the resolve to cease from doing that which has brought about the judgment of God, but is the ability to hear and obey God's voice.
We should point out that the Israelites were not totally devoid of faith. Yet there are various levels of faith which are required for different things. In Matt. 17:20 Jesus talked about faith the size of a mustard seed. In Matt. 8:26 Jesus chided His disciples of their “little faith.” They were not devoid of faith, but their faith was too small to prevent them from being afraid in the midst of the storm. In Luke 7:9 we see a man who had “great faith.”
Hence, the question arises about the level of faith that the Israelites possessed while they were in the wilderness. Did they have no faith, little faith, or great faith?
The entire church in the wilderness had sufficient faith to keep Passover and to leave Egypt. Because Passover signifies justification by faith in the blood of the lamb, they had a Passover level of faith. It was sufficient to bring them out of Egypt, and for this reason they were called “the church in the wilderness.” Yes, they were the Church—true believers.
When they arrived at Mount Horeb to receive the law, however, they refused to hear the law and told Moses to approach God on their behalf. Because this day was celebrated thereafter as the feast of weeks, or Pentecost, we can say that the Israelites as a whole did not move up into a Pentecostal level of faith. The fulfillment of this feast, therefore, was postponed until the New Testament disciples overcame this problem 1480 years later.
If Israel had no Pentecostal faith, then certainly they could not have sufficient faith to enter the Promised Land at Tabernacles. Thus, when Heb. 3:19 says that they were unable to enter the land because of their unbelief, or lack of faith, we understand that they lacked faith on the level of Pentecost and Tabernacles.
In the New Testament, the disciples received Pentecost, but still lacked Tabernacles faith. But we are at the appointed time, having received the revelation of Tabernacles, whereby our faith may be sufficient to become an overcomer who can receive the inheritance.