Numbers 14 - Patterns of Unbelief

April 7, 2013 Speaker: Series: Hebrews

Topic: Sunday Worship Passage: Numbers 14:1–14:38

[Text: Numbers 14] “Patterns of Unbelief”


My friend, “Scott,” was a good husband – not perfect but good. Scott gave his wife time and attention. He told her of his love and proved it through quality time and gifts and date nights; through physical affection and emotional intimacy. He worked from time to time in his little basement workshop, hand-crafting a bed for the two of them to enjoy in the coming years of their marriage, a little token of the deep love he had for her. Scott was faithful; he was consistent; he apologized sincerely when he messed up and actively worked to become a better husband to his wife. On a regular basis, Scott washed dishes without being asked. One day he told his wife, “I love you” and she said, “I don’t believe you.” She moved out, leaving Scott for another man, and never came back even though he faithfully pursued her. “I love you,” he said in word and deed. “I don’t believe you,” she said in word and deed.

This is the next-to-last sermon in our preparation for Hebrews series and we’ve come to one of the themes in Hebrews that is near the heart of why the letter was written; the dangerous matter of unbelief.

Unbelief is subtle and complex. And unbelief is the simplest thing in the world. Literally, it means ‘a want (or lack) of faith and trust.’ If faith “is in essence the certainty that God will fulfill what he has spoken,” (as one writer put it [1]) then unbelief is the exact opposite; it is calling into question the trustworthiness of God as well as the truthfulness of His Word and promises. So, really, unbelief is belief sent in the wrong direction – away from the faithful God and toward something, anything else.

Now, the Scriptures talk about disobedience, too. But biblically, the root of disobedience to God – what is often called “sin” – the root and the cause of disobedience is unbelief. When my heart wants what others have, it’s because I’m not believing the promise of God that He is enough for me. When I’m selfish with my time and my money and in my motives, I’m not believing God’s command “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” is really and truly binding on me. I’m not believing my Creator actually has authority over me and I fall again into the sin of my first father, Adam, who believed the serpent instead of His God.

Please don’t misunderstand; sinful actions are taken seriously by the Lord – Jesus died to atone for them – but unbelief is a far deeper issue because even if I change my disobedient behavior, the problem of unbelief is deeply rooted in my heart. And my heart is something that I cannot change. One commentator pointed out that unbelief is so serious a thing Jesus said, “(u)nbelief towards himself was the prime sin of which…the Spirit would convict the world (John 16:9). [2]

The book of Hebrews focuses on the unbelief to which we are all prone and calls us to hear the Lord, to see his powerful work in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and to believe in him not just once, but in an ongoing, continuous way. We are called to endure in our belief in Christ. And in order to underscore the danger of continuing in unbelief, the writer to the Hebrews goes back to one story in particular from the Story of Redemption. He looks back to Numbers 14 where Israel stood at the edge of the Promised Land…and refused to go in because they didn’t believe God. They had heard the promises of their God about their future there. They had seen him prove his faithfulness and commitment to them over and over. But they stood there on the edge of the Land saying to their Redeemer, their Husband by covenant, “I don’t believe you.”

So, we’re going back to Numbers 14, to see the danger of unbelief. But as we see the danger, may we rejoice in the Savior who willingly gives the gift of faith to unbelievers like us, a Savior who himself died in the wilderness for our unbelief, who says to his Bride, “I love you,” in word and deed.

Numbers 14 is Israel’s response to the report of the spies who were sent into the Promised Land. 12 men were sent into the Land to see if it was good or bad, to spy out the cities and the peoples of that place. After 40 days they came back and reported to the people, “We came to the land to which you sent us. It flows with mild and honey, and this is its fruit.” Then they showed them a single cluster of grapes that took two men to carry. But then 10 of the spies said, “But there’s a problem. The people there are strong. The cities are fortified and huge. We felt like grasshoppers compared to the giant people there and they thought we were grasshoppers. That land – we aren’t able to go up against it.” Only two spies believed they could. Then, the people of Israel responded…

[Read Numbers 14:1-38]

This is the hinge-point of the book of Numbers. They’ve been preparing to enter the Promised Land over the year since they left Sinai. There had been grumblings against Yahweh along the way, but here they were (!) poised to finally enter the Land Yahweh had promised so long ago to Abraham. It was here that their unbelief turned into full-scale rebellion against Yahweh.

This is important to note: the action of rebellion (the sinful act itself) flowed out of unbelieving hearts. That is always how it works. We are not sinners because we sin. We sin because we are sinners. We have unbelieving hearts.

In this story, we see responses of unbelief and belief from the people of God. The unbelief showed itself in three ways. First, they listened to their fears instead of the Word of God. Second, they tested Yahweh, seeking proof of His faithfulness. Third, they preferred an alternative to God over God Himself.

So, first, unbelief made them listen to their fears instead of their God. Yahweh had already led them out of Egypt, out of slavery. He’d already defeated the chariots of Egypt at the Red Sea, sending the most technologically advanced military force to the bottom in a single moment. He’d demonstrated His power over every sphere of life as He led Israel toward the Land He’d promised over and over to give them. Even so, in v. 3, we hear from their lips the belief that God was only leading them there to fall by the sword of the strong peoples in the Land, as if their Creator can’t finish what He starts. Not only that, we hear a belief that Yahweh won’t be able to protect their wives and little ones from becoming “prey” (literally, “plunder;” “human spoils of war”).

Have you ever feared something so much that it made you doubt the promises of God toward you in Christ? The loss of a job, a friend? That secret sin that no one knows but lies exposed to the eyes of God?

Second, they “test” Yahweh, by grumbling against Him and refusing to go into the Land. You’ll notice in v. 2 that the grumbling is directed against Moses and Aaron, but in v. 27 Yahweh says the grumbling was really against him. This grumbling was because they saw Yahweh “not as deliverer and gracious king, but as a bringer of death and suffering,” which is why they would rather go back to slavery in Egypt.[3] Actually, this is the tenth time (v. 22) the congregation has “tested” the LORD and the tenth time they have found themselves to be lacking. While it is proper for God to test man, man should never test God because testing Him implies His faithfulness is questionable and therefore needs to be proved. By testing the LORD, Israel ignores all the powerful signs done in Egypt (and up to that very day). In spite of every way God has displayed His faithfulness – rescuing them from centuries of slavery, feeding them manna from heaven, giving Himself to them – Israel doesn’t believe that God is good.

Third, the unbelief of the people is seen because they are not merely complaining that they are tired and hungry (as they did before). Now they are complaining…that Yahweh is their God. Their preference is meat (v.4) and safety (v.3) rather than being the people of God and serving him as a kingdom of priests (Ex. 19:6). The kingdom of priests has rejected its King and its calling. Simply put, the people’s unbelief shows itself in the desire to reject Yahweh as their king and (in v. 4) to appoint a new leader to return them to their pre-redemption state in Egypt. He’s shown them His love and faithfulness in word and deed and they said to His face, “I don’t believe you.”

But there were a few who believed Yahweh; four men out of a million or so people had faith in their God.

And what did their belief look like? It looked like Moses and Aaron falling on their faces in front of such rebellion. It looked like Joshua and Caleb, the two faithful spies, tearing their clothes in grief over the people’s unbelief. It looked like Joshua and Caleb urging their brothers to believe the promises of God to bring them into the Land. They said, “…do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread for us. Their protection is removed from them, and Yahweh is with us; do not fear them.” (v. 9) What you hear is Joshua and Caleb going back in the Story, hearing and believing all the times Yahweh said He would drive out the peoples Israel now feared (Gen. 15:16; cf. Ex. 34:24; Lev. 18:25; 20:23)[4]. Whereas the unbelieving spies had said (in 13:32) that the land would devour them, Joshua and Caleb have faith that God has made the people of Canaan bread for Israel to eat. They could walk in and take it just as easily as they collected the manna God gave them every day.

For Moses and Aaron, Joshua and Caleb, Yahweh had already promised them the Land and proven Himself faithful and powerful to bring His promises into reality. No testing was needed. They believed in their God. But still, Israel continued in unbelief, deciding to kill the four men who challenged their unbelief. When they made their final decision, proving their unbelief with rebellion, Yahweh showed up.

The irony is, they were testing the LORD for Him to prove His faithfulness, but if it weren’t for His faithfulness their Story would have ended right here.

In v. 11, Yahweh said to Moses, “How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them? I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they.” One commentator realizes the significance of this pronouncement of divine justice; God is ready to hammer the people of Israel into nothingness over this unbelief. But it is more than just willingness to destroy. He says, “Such destruction would set the timetable for fulfillment of Yahweh’s promises back to the time of Abraham…This threat shows the seriousness with which God takes rebellion on the part of his people.” [5]

What Yahweh declared then would have been justice, pure and right. God had made promises of faithfulness to Israel similar to our marriage vows today and Israel had agreed to be faithful to the LORD. But in this act, flowing from unbelieving hearts, Israel has broken their wedding vow and announced their intention to be an unfaithful wife, returning to its old lover, Egypt. A full divorce would have been justified.

But Moses, the mediator of this covenant relationship, stood before Yahweh and pleaded not only for justice, but for steadfast love in keeping with the character of God. Moses had come to know and trust God, so he pleaded for the glory of the LORD to be known in all the earth and he pleaded for pardon for sinners.

And so, Yahweh mixed mercy and justice together, as He always does for the sake of His glory and His covenant promises. In v.20, He pardons the sin of the people but promises that none of those who had seen His power and glory and yet tested Him in unbelief would enter into the Land of rest. Out of all the adults, those aged 20 and over, only Caleb and Joshua, the faithful spies, would see the Land.

As for the rest, Yahweh says in v. 34 that they would know his “displeasure.” Literally, they would know His “opposition” and He would give their unbelieving hearts the very thing they said they preferred over their God. They said in v. 2, “Would that we had died in this wilderness.” So Yahweh says in v. 28, “As I live, declares the LORD, what you have said in my hearing I will do to you: your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness… (you) who have grumbled against me….” And those ten spies who had made the rest of the people grumble by their bad report – they died by plague before the LORD.

But the mercy of God and His faithfulness to His covenant promises didn’t fail. Although they would suffer forty years of wandering for their parent’s unbelief and rebellion, the children of the Exodus, who the parents said would be prey to the people of Canaan, would be led by Yahweh Himself into the Land to and it would be their home.

Some have seen this as a story proving the harshness of the “Old Testament God.” But what becomes clear in this passage is that God is not the harsh and offending party. Israel is. To truly understand the text the reader should place themselves in two sets of shoes: in God’s shoes, as a wronged “husband,” His judgment is true and right; in Israel’s shoes, as an unfaithful wife – an unbelieving people – any mercy received would be undeserved and glorious.

And it is through that understanding of the seriousness of unbelief that we need to see the person of Jesus; knowing that in him grace has been shown to us before we believed; knowing that the ability to believe is itself a marvelous gift from God.

Praise God that in Jesus He has made a way for us to be saved apart from our faithfulness to him. I praise Him because I don’t have any faithfulness of which to boast. But you and I can boast in the faithfulness of our high priest who heard the command of God to go, not into a land of peace and rest, but to a place of suffering and death – to the cross. And Jesus was faithful to go even into death saying, “Not my will, Father, but your will be done.” Jesus believed and obeyed where Israel and all humanity rebelled.

The Gospel tells us that even when we were dead in the wilderness of unbelief and rebellion, God “being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved - …so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:4-8)

The reality is we all struggle with unbelief, Christians and non-Christians alike. It’s hard to believe God when confronted with fear and uncertainty and whatever “giants” are in front of us. But to continue in unbelief when God has spoken so clearly in Jesus and proven His faithfulness to redeem this broken world by sending His only Son to die in the place of sinners is a fearful thing. To continue in unbelief in the face of the resurrection of Jesus, the greatest sign ever given to men of God’s power and commitment to restore all things to the way they were meant to be – to continue in unbelief is to reject the Lord as King.

What we are called to do when unbelief rises in our hearts is to go back to what we’ve heard from the Word of God, to repent and believe that Yahweh is who He says He is and that He has entered into our Story to redeem us through Jesus His Son. We never get past that. We repent and we believe – that is the way of the Christian life – believing that in Jesus, we sinners have forgiveness by his blood. In Jesus we have a sympathetic high priest who understands our weak and wandering hearts. And he follows us like a good shepherd – like a faithful husband – and will gently lead us back to himself. He promised he would and he who promised is faithful.

[Pray – Almighty God, Maker of heaven and earth, Father, we pray to you thanking you for Christ who covers over even our unbelief by his blood. We praise you, Father, for sending your Spirit to give us new hearts that hear and want to repent, hearts that are able to believe in Jesus. Father, for those who are struggling to believe, strengthen them as they see your faithfulness. For those who are asking honest questions about You, answer them by showing them the surpassing beauty of Christ who died and now lives for His people. We praise you as we believe, Father. Help our unbelief.]

[Transition to the Lord’s Supper]

The call of the Christian is a call to endure in the faith we had in the beginning – to claim ourselves to be sinners and rest in Jesus alone as our Savior, seeking to reject unbelief and rebellion and walk as a child of God. And to help us endure, Jesus himself has given us this meal to nourish and strengthen us. You have heard of his love, now see once again the proof of it as your husband, O Bride of Christ, tells you in word and deed, “I love you. You are mine.” You need only take and eat and drink of him who died, receiving it by faith saying, “I believe you.”




[1] New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, ed. D. A. Carson, R. T. France, J. A. Motyer and G. J. Wenham, 4th ed. (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), Nu 14:11–25.

[2] D. O. Swann, "Unbelief" In , in New Bible Dictionary, ed. D. R. W. Wood, I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard et al., 3rd ed. (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 1218.

[3] K.-D. Schunck, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, ed. G. Johannes Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren, XV vols, vol VII, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), 512.

[4] Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996), Nu 14:5–9.

[5] Timothy R. Ashley, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Numbers (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s, 1993), 255.

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