Numbers: Spies in the Land

Sermon by on August 1, 2007

Numbers 13:1-33

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Wednesday Evening

August 1, 2007

Numbers 13:1-33

“Spies in the Land”

Dr. J. Ligon
Duncan III

The spies are in the land and
they discover giants, and it is dismaying to them. John Bunyan leads us to sing
about that in that hymn, even as Moses leads us to lament the way the children
of Israel responded to this particular challenge.

This is one of those pivotal passages in the book of
Numbers. As we’ve worked through this book together, coming to chapters 11 and
12 we have begun to see the central substance of the stuff that Paul is talking
about in I Corinthians 10:1-13, when he describes the murmuring and complaining
and unbelief and idolatry that the children of Israel engaged in in the
wilderness, and he exhorts Christians not to act like they acted. Well, this is
the stuff of the Apostle Paul’s warning. In chapters 11 and 12, we saw the
complaining and murmuring and rebellion not only of the people but of Moses’ own
family against his leadership (in chapter 12), and today in chapter 13, we will
see the unbelief of the representatives of the people of Israel who have been
sent into the land to spy out the land that the Lord has promised to give to the
children of Israel.

As we come to this chapter, we recognize that
certain decisions are of pivotal, epochal significance in the life of the people
of God. Certain decision points in history play out for generations to come, and
this is one of those decision points to which Israel came and made the wrong
decision. It’s interesting how biblical writers lament what the children of
Israel do in Numbers 13, way, way into the Old Testament. I mean, Moses’ final
sermon to the people of God in Deuteronomy refers to the mistake made right
here, but so does the psalmist. Hundreds of years later as the psalmists are
writing, they’re still thinking about this terrific mistake that was made by the
people of God: They came up, they saw overwhelming circumstances, and they
forgot the promises and the sovereignty of God; and they rebelled against His
leadership, and they fell prey to unbelief…and the rest, as we say, is history.
Who knows what the entry into the land of Canaan would have been like had
Numbers 13 never happened. We’ll never know, will we, because of this failure.

We ourselves can sense the significance of decisions,
decision points in history like this. It doesn’t matter what your view of
present war in Iraq is. I respect that there can be legitimate differences on
that, but certainly we can say this: that whatever happens in Iraq, the
decisions that we make as a nation as to how to proceed will have generational
impact one way or the other, and there will be one side that is absolutely
right, and there will be one side that is tragically wrong. And if the side
which is tragically wrong prevails, then there will be consequences for years
and years, for decades and decades to come. And if the side which is right —
whichever side that is — there will be good consequences that will be entailed
for years and years and for decades and decades to come. I think one of the big
problems as we have come to this crucial decision point in our own history as a
nation is (it is very apparent to me, at least) that there was a problem with
counting the cost at the outset of our involvement and engagement in the present

I think back to previous generations that had to make
decisions that would entail much, much greater sacrifice than has been entailed
in Iraq, and I wonder what we would have done in those generations before. I was
in a conversation with some elders and members of the church just a few days
ago, and was sharing the fact that my father had fought in the Second World War
in the South Pacific with the United States Marine Corps. Tom Bowen was there
and he asked what particular engagements Dad had been involved in, and I shared
that he had been in the battle of the second invasion of Peleliu. Tom
immediately knew how serious a conflict that was, and he said, “Well, where did
he go after that?” And I said, “Well, he was slated to be on the second wave of
the invasion of the mainland of Japan, and as such he was not expected to live.
The United States military authorities,” I went on to say, “I am told from
reading history, expected 85-90% casualties in the first two or three waves of
the invasion of the mainland of Japan.” And then Tom Bowen said something that
made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. “Yes…yes.” He said that the
Defense Department had ordered for them to prepare 250,000 body bags for the
first wave of that invasion. It was one of those times of counting the cost,
wasn’t it? Ready for a terrific cost in that particular engagement…and I wonder
how our generation would have done…maybe I should put it this way: how my
generation would have done in the face of that kind of a challenge.

Well, the children of Israel were at one of those
pivotal points in history, and looking at the challenge, they flinched. That’s
where we are. Let’s pray and read God’s word.

Heavenly Father, thank You for Your word. Teach us
by it. Exalt Your power in Christ and the gospel, even as we hear Your word in
this sad, sad story. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

This is the word of God, Numbers 13, beginning in
verse 1:

“Then the Lord spoke to Moses saying, ‘Send out for yourself men so that they
may spy out the land of Canaan, which I am going to give to the sons of Israel;
you shall send a man from each of their fathers’ tribes, every one a leader
among them.’ So Moses sent them from the wilderness of Paran at the command of
the Lord, all of them men who were heads of the sons of Israel. These then were
their names: from the tribe of Reuben, Shammua the son of Zaccur; from the tribe
of Simeon, Shaphat the son of Hori; from the tribe of Judah, Caleb, the son of
Jephunneh; from the tribe of Issachar, Igal the son of Joseph; from the tribe of
Ephraim, Hoshea the son of Nun; from the tribe of Benjamin, Palti the son of
Raphu; from the tribe of Zebulun, Gaddiel the son of Sodi; from the tribe of
Joseph, from the tribe of Manasseh, Gaddi the son of Susi; from the tribe of
Dan, Ammiel the son of Gemalli; from the tribe of Asher, Sethur the son of
Michael; from the tribe of Naphtali, Nahbi the son of Vophsi; from the tribe of
Gad, Geuel the son of Machi. These are the names of the men whom Moses sent to
spy out the land; but Moses called Hoshea the son of Nun, Joshua.

“When Moses sent them to spy out the land of Canaan, he said to
them, ‘Go up there into the Negev; then go up into the hill country. And see
what the land is like, and whether the people who live in it are strong or weak,
whether they are few or many. And how is the land in which they live, is it good
or bad? And how are the cities in which they live, are they like open camps or
with fortifications? And how is the land, is it fat or lean? Are there trees in
it or not? Make an effort then to get some of the fruit of the land.’ Now the
time was the time of the first ripe grapes.

“So they went up and spied out the land from the wilderness of Zin
as far as Rehob, at Lebo-hamath. When they had gone up into the Negev, they came
to Hebron where Ahiman, Sheshai and Talmai, the descendants of Anak were. (Now
Hebron was built seven years before Zoan in Egypt.)

“Then they came to the valley of Eshcol and from there cut down a
branch with a single cluster of grapes; and they carried it on a pole between
two men, with some of the pomegranates and the figs. That place was called the
valley of Eshcol, because of the cluster which the sons of Israel cut down from

“When they returned from spying out the land, at the end of forty
days, they proceeded to come to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation of
the sons of Israel in the wilderness of Paran, at Kadesh; and they brought back
word to them and to all the congregation and showed them the fruit of the land.
Thus they told him, and said, ‘We went in to the land where you sent us; and it
certainly does flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. Nevertheless,
the people who live in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and
very large; and moreover, we saw the descendants of Anak there. Amalek is living
in the land of the Negev and the Hittites and the Jebusites and the Amorites are
living in the hill country, and the Canaanites are living by the sea and by the
side of the Jordan.’

“Then Caleb quieted the people before Moses, and said, ‘We should by
all means go up and take possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it.’ But
the men who had gone up with him said, ‘We are not able to go up against the
people, for they are too strong for us.’ So they gave out to the sons of Israel
a bad report of the land which they had spied out, saying, ‘The land through
which we have gone, in spying it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants;
and all the people whom we saw in it are men of great size. There also we saw
the Nephilim (the sons of Anak are part of the Nephilim); and we became like
grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we were in their sight.’”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired,
and inerrant word. May He add His blessing to the reading of it.

These spies were sent to do reconnaissance. Now,
those of you who are military (or ex-military) know that there is a saying that
there is no such thing as wasted reconnaissance. Reconnaissance is never a
waste. It’s a good thing to do reconnaissance, and Moses himself gives them
specific things that they are to look out for and report back on. All of that is
true, all of that is important. It was important for the children of Israel to
have a realistic assessment of what they were up against.

God never promised that the children of Israel’s
taking of the land of Canaan was going to cost them nothing and wasn’t going to
be dangerous. He just promised them this: That’s your land; I’ve given it to
you; we’re getting ready to take it. And a realistic assessment was to be taken
by these spies, but it wasn’t an assessment that was to be taken merely based
upon the empirical data that comes back from the spies having been into the
land. There was to be a theological grid which under girded their report of the
empirical data that they would return with regard to the size of the towns,
their fortifications, and the size of the people and their numbers, and all of
those sorts of things. And you see those things spelled out for you in the
passage. Let me just tell you what they are. There are four things.

The spies, even as they realistically assess the
challenge that was before Israel to go into the land of Canaan were not to
forget four things: God’s promise; God’s faithfulness; God’s generosity; and,
God’s power.
Even as they came back and gave a realistic, accurate, faithful
assessment of what they saw, the good and the bad, the scary and the
encouraging, they were not to give that assessment without remembering those
four things–and Moses beats that into your head in a variety of ways in this
passage. We only have a little bit of time in this glorious section, but let me
work through this passage with you in four parts. The first part is in verses
1-16. In that part, Moses reminds you of God’s promises. Then, in verses 17-22,
Moses (in the second part) reminds you of God’s faithfulness. We’ll see how in
just a few moments. Then, in the third part, in verses 23-27, he reminds you of
God’s generosity, which in and of itself is to drive you back to the
acknowledgement that everything comes from God. All blessings come from Him.
What do we sing in The Doxology? “Praise God from whom all blessings
flow.” And then, fourth and finally, in verses 28-33, he reminds you of God’s
power and God’s sovereignty. Let’s work through this passage together quickly

I. God’s promises.

First of all, in verses 1-16, Moses reminds you of
God’s promises.
And my friends, in every circumstance of our life, as
believers we too are to remember God’s promises and God’s faithfulness, and
God’s power. And He reminds us of God’s promise in verses 1-16.

Notice the very words that the Lord speaks to Moses
in the appointing of the spies. Look at verse 1. The Lord speaks to Moses. What
does He say? Look at verse 2: “Send out for yourself men so that they may spy
out the land of Canaan…” — what? — “…which I am going to give to the sons of
Israel.” Is there a question mark in that sentence? …Which I might give
to the sons of Israel…which I’m thinking about giving to the sons of
Israel…which there is a potential possibility that the sons of Israel might want
it? “…Which I am giving to the sons of Israel”! The land, He’s saying to
Moses, belongs to you because I’m going to give it to you. And the spies are
sent up into the land, and in their mind, no matter what they see, is to be
ringing the word of the Lord: “This is the land that I am giving you.” In other
words, everything that they see is to be seen through the grid of — what? —
God’s promise. And thus they are to do what? Act on God’s promise.

And we’re called to do the same thing: to act on
God’s promise. Not to act on God’s promise is not to believe God’s word. It’s
unbelief. Not to act on God’s promise is not to believe God’s word; it’s
unbelief…and we can throw our rocks at the children of Israel, at what they did
here, but we do this ourselves, friends. God’s promises are yea and amen in
Christ, and yet very often we see the obstacles and the obstacles look bigger
than God and His promises. And when we approach those obstacles and
circumstances and challenges and situations of our lives as if they are bigger
than God and His promises, we’re doing the same thing the children of Israel

And that’s one thing that happened here.
The spies, having been appointed by the word of the Lord to Moses to go into a
land which God has already promised to the children of Israel, forgot that. It
does not show up in their assessment except in the assessment of Caleb — and of
course, Joshua with him. And their counsel was devastating…absolutely
devastating. No doubt entirely sincere; no doubt entirely sincere, but
devastating in its consequences because it failed to factor in God. (Oops! You
know if you’re going to forget to factor something in, make sure it’s not God
that you forget to factor in.) And so their assessment of the children of Israel
fails to factor in the one thing that ought to have been prime in their
assessment, in their report to the people of God: act on God’s promises. And
Moses draws our attention to the promises by reminding us what God’s word to him
was even in appointing the spies in the first place.

II. God’s faithfulness.

Secondly, Moses draws our attention here to God’s
faithfulness in verses 17-22, and the point is simply this: In every
circumstance of our life, we are to acknowledge God’s faithfulness.
It’s not
just that He has promised stuff to us; it’s that He has already been active in
fulfilling those promises, and if we will just take the time to assess it and
acknowledge it, we will realize that He has been faithful to us.

And you say, “Well, I don’t see where you get that
from verses 17-22.” Well, let me just ask you this. Where do they go? They go
from the Negev up to the hill country to Hebron. What’s at Hebron? (OK, I
know…it’s the highest part of the land. You can see all around it; it’s a
strategic point.) What’s at Hebron? The graves of Abraham and Sarah, to whom
four hundred years ago God had given a promise: ‘I’m going to make you the
father of nations. I’m going to make your descendants like the sand on the
seashore, like the stars in the sky, and I’m going to give you this land.’ Now
half of that promise to Abraham has already been fulfilled. The very fact that
those twelve leaders were representatives of twelve massive tribes of over
600,000 fighting men–shouldn’t it, when they got to Hebron and they got to the
land, to the ground of Abraham and Sarah’s graves, should they not have fallen
down with a sense of the awesomeness of how God has already been faithful to His
promise? This unlikely event in which a family of seventy had gone down into
Egypt, and four hundred years later two million of them are coming out and
getting ready to possess the land…God has already been faithful to His promises!
He’s already been faithful. But they forgot it. They forgot God’s faithfulness,
because what was before them was hard.

Do you ever do that? I was thinking back this
afternoon about God’s faithfulness to me over the years, and I was recalling how
often God was faithful to me in hard things; not by sparing me from hard
things, but in hard things and through hard things. Not by sparing me from hard
things, but in hard things and through hard things, He was faithful to me. If
you had some time tonight, I could give you a litany of the ways He’s been
faithful to me when I didn’t deserve for Him to be faithful to me. But I can
testify with the saints that He has never left me or forsaken me. I was thinking
as I looked across the room tonight at Dr. Robertson. I remember when I was
going through a hard thing in the 1980’s, and I came to him sort of whimpering
and feeling sorry for myself, and he quoted Jeremiah to me: “It’s good for a man
to bear the yoke in his youth.” (“Yes, sir!”)
And it was. God was faithful to me. It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t fun; I wouldn’t
sign up for it! But God was faithful. I was struck by that again this last
Lord’s Day. I got the privilege of hearing Rick Phillips, the new pastor at
Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, South Carolina, preach the word
morning and evening, and got to hear my youngest brother, Mel, teach a Sunday
School lesson on Isaiah 46 and 47. And it struck me listening to that passage
again how often God spares His people, not by causing them not to pass through
the waters, but by being with them as they pass through the waters. God is
faithful. And then I started thinking, “You know, of the most important “right
things” that I’ve done (and I’ve done a lot of wrong things, and I’ve done right
things) but the most important right things that I’ve done in my life, none of
them have been easy. None of them have been easy. They’ve been right, and God
has been with me, but they weren’t easy.

And the children of Israel, instead of looking at
this thing and saying, ‘You know, this is not going to be easy, but God is
faithful, and listening to His word is the right thing to do,’ instead of doing
this, they look at the problem. They look at the obstacle. And they forget God’s

Act on God’s promises, acknowledge God’s
faithfulness, Moses is saying to you.

III. God’s generosity.

Thirdly, verses 23-27, Moses points us to God’s
When the report comes back… God had told the children of Israel
He was going to give them a land flowing with milk and honey, and when the
report comes back, what’s the report? ‘Guess what, guys? It’s a land flowing
with milk and honey!’ (Well, duh! That’s exactly what God told you!) Where did
that milk and honey come from? It came from God. (Pause…) That stuff’s not just
there; it came from God! What do we need to stop and do right now? Sing The
! (We’ll do that at the end.)

When Moses shows us the blessings of God’s generosity
in that rich land that He was about to give to the people of Israel, He expects
us to get down on our knees and ascribe to God all the blessings, to praise Him
from whom all blessings flow. But that doesn’t happen here in the report of the
spies. It’s acknowledged like a scientific fact: pretty rich land…wonder how
that happened. And they didn’t give God the praise for His generosity, and
unbelief crept in.

IV. God’s power.

Finally, Moses points us to God’s power. The
majority of the spies report that there are big people in this land, and we are
munchkins in comparison to them. I don’t doubt that. I don’t think that God’s
purpose in sending the spies into the land was for them to come back with this
report: “Piece of cake! We can do this!” I think that the proper response would
have been, “This is too big for us…God will do it. He’s sovereign. He’s going to
display His power, because this is way too big for us. We know that His promise
and His power will prevail not because of us, but because of Him. This is an
opportunity for a display of His glory. This is not going to be about our
everlasting renown. This is not so that the people of God will ever remember the
Israeli Army, Navy, and Air Force. This thing is going to be about the display
of God’s sovereignty, because this thing is too big for us.”

I don’t know if you’re like me, but in certain
challenges in my life, when I enjoy just a little success in those challenges, I
am very tempted to think “I can do this.” And almost invariably, within a matter
of hours God in various ways lets me know that I can’t do this, because the
message of the Bible to believers is not “you can do this.” The message is
“[you] can do all things through Him who strengthens [you.]” The message is what
is impossible with men is accomplished by God. The message is Christ and the
gospel accomplish what you can never accomplish. The message is God is
sovereign, and you are not. The message is God will have the last word and
the glory, not man
. Of course the problem is that we live in a world where
even in the church man the creature is big, and God the Creator and Redeemer is

That was the problem with the majority of the spies,
wasn’t it? For them, their report went like this. They magnified the
problems, and they minimized the power of God
. They magnified the problems,
and they minimized the power of God, when what they should have done is not
minimize the problems, but embrace the impossibility of those problems in terms
of their own power, and at the same time acknowledge and magnify the power of
God to overcome all. But they didn’t. And, oh, the harm…oh, the harm that they
did in their sin.

And isn’t there a message for us in that? Unbelief
always has its consequences. Every train has its destination, and when you get
on the train of unbelief it will not get you to the destination. But the train
of embracing and accepting and acting on the promises of God will get you there.

Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, thank You for this word of
warning, but also this word of hope, because in our failure there is a gospel
hope. That hope is not about something in us, it’s not about something that we
can do, it’s not a hope about our accentuating the positive and eliminating the
negative. It’s hope about what You have done in Christ for us and for our
salvation. So may the failure of Israel drive us to the Savior of Israel and of
the world, Your Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. This we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

[Congregation sings
The Doxology.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father and
the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

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