Numbers: The Plague

Sermon by on June 27, 2007

Numbers 11:31-35

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Wednesday Evening

June 27, 2007

Numbers 11:31-35

“The Plague”

Dr. J. Ligon
Duncan III

If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with
me to Numbers 11 as we continue to make our way through this great book of the
Old Testament — the fourth of the five books of the Law. We’re in chapter
eleven. We’re in verses 31-35, right at the end of the chapter.

The complaining of Israel has already been mentioned
in this passage. We saw that when we were looking at verses 1-9, and it had
initially resulted in God breaking out against Israel in the form of fire, just
on the outskirts of the camp, but now God’s judgment is going to come again on
Israel because of their complaining. It’s important for us to recognize that
throughout the wilderness wanderings Moses himself will indicate that God is
testing Israel. Not tempting Israel, mind you, but testing Israel. God has
certain things that He wants His people to learn in the course of their
wilderness wanderings. Moses comes back in his final sermon, a book we call
Deuteronomy, and makes this point explicitly: that there are certain things that
God wanted His people to learn while they were in the wilderness. And this
passage is one of those places where they had an opportunity to display one or
both of two qualities that Moses will later speak about God wanting them to
display in the tests that He gave them in the wilderness. But they fail on both
counts in this passage.

One of the things that God wants the children of
Israel to learn in the wilderness (and we’ll see this in a few moments when we
turn to Deuteronomy 8:3) is humility, and that humility He wants them to
manifest in two ways. One, He wants them to manifest humility in their obedience
to Him. He wants the children of Israel to care more about His will than their
will; and, He wants the children of Israel to manifest their obedience with
their humility in dependence upon Him. He wants them to trust Him. He puts them
into certain circumstances where they have an option. They can either trust in
themselves or they can trust in Him. And the event that we’re looking at tonight
is one of those tests, and as you know, they fail that test miserably here. In
fact, because of these and like failures throughout the wilderness wanderings of
the children of Israel in the book of Numbers, only two adults of this
generation will enter into the Promised Land — Joshua and Caleb. It’s a
catastrophic failure.

But let me remind you that it is precisely this story
of complaint that the Apostle Paul is drawing our attention to in I Corinthians
10, and asking us as Christians to learn from. So tonight as we read this
short passage and as we work through its very important content, let me ask you
to be listening for, to be looking out for, three things.

First of all, I want you to note especially the
sin of the people
, and the Lord actually comes out and tells you what the
prime sin is in verse 34, and He does it in two ways. So just be on the lookout
for that — the sin of the people.

Secondly, I want us to pull back to I Corinthians
10, and I want you to see the lesson from Paul.
So first we’re going to look
at the sin of the people, then I want you to see the lesson from Paul because
Paul is going to tell us how we as Christians are supposed to learn precisely
from this incident.

And then, finally, thirdly, I want you to see the
contrast of Jesus.
The contrast of Jesus because, interestingly, Jesus in
His ministry at least twice drew our attention to these tests in the wilderness,
and on one occasion shows us how He passes the test while Israel failed it. And
on another occasion He shows us how He is the one that the Lord wants us to
depend on (which is of course one of the two grand tests of the whole
wilderness experience — to trust on the Lord). Jesus will use this to show how
He is the one that the Lord would have us depend on.

So, be looking for those three things: the sin of the
people; the lesson from Paul; and, the contrast of Jesus. Now let’s pray before
we read God’s word.

Heavenly Father, this is Your word. Teach us from
it tonight. Humble our hearts before You. Make us lovers of Your will; not just
theoretically loving Your word, but practically doing Your word. And, O God,
grant that we would trust You, especially when we find ourselves in hard places.
Open our eyes to behold wonderful things now from Your word, we ask in Jesus’
name. Amen.

This is God’s word, Numbers 11:31:

“Now there went forth a wind from the Lord, and it brought quail
from the sea, and let them fall beside the camp, about a day’s journey on this
side and a day’s journey on the other side, all around the camp, and about two
cubits deep on the surface of the ground.”

[That’s a lot of quail! That’s about six feet of quail.]

“And the people spent all day and all night and all the next day, and gathered
the quail (he who gathered least gathered ten homers)…”

[about eleven bushels]

“…and they spread them out for themselves all around the camp. While the meat
was still between their teeth, before it was chewed, the anger of the Lord was
kindled against the people, and the Lord struck the people with a very severe
plague. So the name of that place was called Kibroth-hattaavah, because there
they buried the people who had been greedy. From Kibroth-hattaavah the people
set out for Hazeroth, and they remained at Hazeroth.”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired,
and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

It is very clear from what Moses teaches us in
Deuteronomy 8:3 — and we’re about to go there, so if you have your Bibles get
your fingers ready to go to Deuteronomy 8. It’s very clear from Deuteronomy 8:3
that the encounters and the trials and the experiences that the children of
Israel had while they were in the wilderness were not accidental or
coincidental, or inconsequential. They were precisely, deliberately appointed by
God for their sanctification: not for their destruction, not for their undoing,
but as occasions in which they could exercise trust and obedience in the Lord,
and thus display the fruit of humility and grow in grace. And yet over and over
in these various encounters in the wilderness and incidents in the wilderness,
and trials in the wilderness, the children of Israel do not display trust and
obedience, and thus they manifest that they have missed the big point. And
that’s what sin is, after all, isn’t it? It’s missing the point for which God
made us.

Now even if we only had Deuteronomy 8:3, we would
know thereby there are some major lessons for us in this passage, but Paul piles
on! He adds, in I Corinthians 10, that we upon whom the ends of the ages have
come are to learn from the mistakes of the children of Israel in the wilderness,
and we are not to repeat those mistakes. But in contrast to them, we are to
respond in trust and obedience, and so manifest the grace-wrought character that
God has purposed for us.

I want you to see three things tonight.

I. The sin of the people

First of all, the sin of the people
, and you see it spelled out, don’t
you, in Technicolor in verse 34. Well, what’s going on here?

Well, if you’ll remember, this isn’t the first kind
of trial that the children of Israel faced in the wilderness. If you remember
all the way back to Exodus 16, there had been a time when they were grumbling
and complaining because the Lord (they thought) was not going to provide them
food and water. But this is a little bit different, isn’t it? They’re being
provided food and water, but now they don’t like the menu! And so they are
grumbling about the lack of variety in the food, and they are ungrateful enough
to compare unfavorably the bread that God Himself is providing for them from
heaven to the gruel that they received in Pharaoh’s house.

Now you understand what’s going on here. They’re
saying that Pharaoh, our slave master, provided better for us than the God who
redeemed us out of the house of bondage, out of the land of Egypt, out of the
estate of slavery in which we were in chains for 430 years. Does that give you a
feel for the sheer ingratitude of what is going on? But Moses just gives it a
name, and the name that he gives it is greed. They were greedy. You
understand what’s going on here. Self-concern for self-gratification leads to
putting their immediate fleshly desires over God’s desires for them. It
manifests itself in greed, idolatry, and pride, and then it leads to judgment.
Moses tells us that. Turn with me — I’ve been threatening to do it now for five
minutes, so turn with me to Deuteronomy 8, and look at verse 2:

“You shall remember all the way which the Lord your God has led you in the
wilderness these forty years…”

[and what was He trying to do?]

“…that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether
you would keep His commandments or not.”

So there’s…they manifest humility how, in verse 2?
Through keeping the Lord’s commandment. Through obedience. Then verse 3:

“And He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did
not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man
does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of
the mouth of the Lord.”

So there they were to manifest humility how? By
depending on the Lord to feed them. So when the children of Israel compare
unfavorably in their complaint the manna which is being given to them from the
very mouth of God, from the very hand of God, when they compare that unfavorably
to the gruel that they had had in the land of slavery under their slave master,
Pharaoh, they’re not only being ungrateful, they are manifesting a lack of
understanding of the whole message of the manna in the first place. The message
of the manna was ‘What you need to live, you need from Me. You don’t get it from
Pharaoh, you don’t get it by your own might or main, you get it from My hand.
You don’t live by bread alone. You live on what proceeds from the mouth of God.’
And when they compare that manna in their complaint unfavorably to the food that
they had in Egypt–even if the food in Egypt had greater variety, they are
showing that they have missed the whole point of the manna in the wilderness,
and their self-centeredness and their self-concern has led them to be more
concerned about their self-gratification of their fleshly desires for variety in
food, which had manifested itself in greed, idolatry, and pride, and it results
in judgment.

And we’re told that God brings a plague against them
and strikes them down. And the place gets a new name: Kibroth-hattaavah.
There are a few Hebrew scholars in here who can tell you what that means. It
means something roughly like this: the graves of the greedy. So, in verse
34 by the place name and by the word greed, God tells you the heart state
and the heart sin of Israel. This is huge, my friends.

People often talk about the fact that Jonathon
Edwards, who is often called the greatest theologian in the history of America
(although he himself considered himself an Englishman!)…people often talk about
the fact that Jonathon Edwards thought that the essence of religion was found in
the desires; that is, that you manifested true religion through your
desires–what you desired, what you love, what you crave, where your satisfaction
and delight is found. And they very often ascribe that to Jonathon Edwards as if
he were the first person in history to ever think it up. But do you see what
Moses is saying here? Moses is saying that God was very concerned in the
wilderness to find out about Israel’s desires, and He was very, very concerned
that they would understand that when their desires pointed in one direction and
God’s desires pointed in the other direction, that they needed to adjust their

Jesus put this in the phrase, if you’ll remember, as
He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Not My will, but Thy will be done.” And
the children of Israel are saying here at Kibroth-Hattaavah, ‘Not Thy will, but
my will be done.’ And thus they have manifested that their desires have not been
brought into conformity with God’s desires, but they have put their desires over
God’s desires. Greed, idolatry, pride…the wilderness tests, you see, were all
about humility manifested in obedience and dependence, and here they showed no
humility, no obedience, and no dependence. The old gospel song has it right:
“Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and
obey.” And they did neither, and that revealed their hearts.

Isn’t it fascinating that the Lord gives them exactly
what they wanted, and it ends up being a plague that destroys them? It reminds
you of that old Greek proverb, that whom the gods would destroy, they answer
their prayers.

Matthew Henry has this fascinating comment. He says
that the Lord sends the quail first so that no one would have been able to say,
well, the Lord just judged Israel because He couldn’t provide them the meat. He
provides them meat, and then He judges them to show that this is not a matter of
a lack of His power to do things. This is a matter about their hearts and
whether they will trust Him for what they really need. That is so huge, because
what happens when our desires are left unsatisfied is we so often do what? We
question the power of God to be able to give us what we need, and that is never
ever the question. The question is, are we ready to submit our will to the One
who is able to do anything? So there is a huge spiritual battle for the hearts
of the people of God going on here, and they’re failing miserably. So there you
see the sin of the people.

II. The lesson from Paul.

Turn and take a look at I Corinthians 10… and it’s
all over those first thirteen verses, but I’ll just draw your attention to two
or three things that Paul says in that section.

I Corinthians 10…notice verse 6:

“These things happened as examples to us that
we should not crave…”

[What does that have to do with the desires?]

“…that we should not crave evil things, as they also craved. And not be
idolaters….(verse 7); “… and not act immorally, as some of them did….”

Verse 10:

“…And not grumble…”

And then of course he says (verse 12):

“Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest
he fall.”

Notice where the Apostle Paul puts the emphasis. What
is the lesson that we are to learn out of this? Take a hard look at your
desires, the Apostle Paul is saying. And he’s saying take a hard look at Israel.
Don’t think that they didn’t have spiritual advantages; they did. They were led
through the wilderness by the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire. They had the
Rock which was Christ following them through the wilderness. They had the word
of God, they had the presence of the ark, they had the manifestation of the
nearness of God to them in the tabernacle, and yet they craved their own

What does Paul say in Galatians 5:16? Somebody can
take a peek and tell me. What does he say? Galatians 5:16–he’s exhorting
Christians to do one thing in contrast to another. Who has it?

“Walk according to the Spirit, not according to the…” [What?] “…the sinful
desires [or the sinful cravings] of the flesh.”

What does that sound like? I Corinthians 10:6. What
the Apostle Paul is saying is that your desires can kill you. Paul is saying,
‘Dear Christian, understand this. Your desires can kill you. Be very careful
about what you desire. That’s a huge lesson, friends. That is a battle
especially for those of us who are blessed with so much. It is so easy for our
hearts to be pulled away, wooed away from God by the bounty that’s all around
us, and Paul is saying be very careful about your desires.

III. Finally, the contrast of

Jesus is out in the wilderness in Matthew 4:4. He had
been led into the wilderness by the Spirit. Does that sound familiar? The
children of Israel had been led into the wilderness by the Spirit. And Satan
came to Him in the wilderness and said to Him, ‘You’re hungry, Jesus. Turn those
stones into bread. Feed Yourself.’ And you remember what Jesus does in Matthew
4:4? He quotes Deuteronomy 8:3: ‘I will not do this, Satan, because man shall
not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’
Jesus obeys where Israel disobeyed. And, my friends, this is where the hour-long
sermon could be inserted on Jesus’ obedience on our behalf. This is why it is so
vital that Jesus actively obeys for us, because we fail at every point here. And
here’s Jesus obeying where our spiritual forefathers and we so often fail. He
refuses to put His cravings above the will of God.

And then, if you’ll remember again, out in the
wilderness surrounded by a huge multitude–five thousand people–Matthew 14
records it. All the Gospels record it. John 6 records it. He provides them with
food…fish to eat, bread to eat. And what does He say that that lesson is for us
in John 6? Take a look at John 6. What was the lesson of the five thousand being
fed? Verse 29, John 6:

“This is the work of God, that you might
believe in Him who He has sent.”

Verse 32:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, it is not Moses who gives you the bread out of
heaven, but it is My Father who gives you the true bread out of heaven. For the
bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the

What is that bread? Jesus. And He tells you that point
blank in verse 35:

“I am the bread of life.”

What’s Jesus saying? He’s saying just as the manna in
the wilderness was designed to teach the people of God that you don’t live by
bread alone, you are utterly dependent upon God for everything you have and are,
so also Jesus’ giving of the food to the five thousand is to teach us that He is
the One in whom our trust must be placed, for everything that we are and have
depends on Him. He is the bread of heaven. He’s showing us where our trust is to
be placed: in Him, and in Him alone.

Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, You continue to take our breath
away with the book of Numbers. Thank You for challenging us where we need to be
challenged. Help us, O God, by the grace of Your Holy Spirit, to have our eyes
wide open to the state of our hearts’ desires. Help us by Your grace to have our
desires, our affections, our longings, our cravings set not on the things of the
sin of the flesh, but set upon You, upon Christ, upon the bread of heaven, upon
the things that proceed from the mouth of God, upon the things that are going to
last forever, and not the fading pleasures of the worldly. And, Lord God, thank
You for Jesus, who obeys where we disobey, and who is given for our sins, so
that through His obedience and satisfaction, and through Spirit-wrought trust,
faith, belief, and dependence upon Him, we fellowship with You in the land of
Canaan forevermore. Praise be to Him. Amen.

[Congregation: The Doxology]

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

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