The book of Numbers is not a book upon which I often sit and meditate. Beginning with a lengthy census and ending with a barrage of city names, the book chronicles the Israelites’ 40-year journey in the desert before finally entering the land God had promised them since Genesis. The book also includes chapters outlining the duties of the Levitical priesthood and a chapter recounting the exact offerings brought by each of Israel’s leaders. While the details make portions of the book a difficult read, the entire work is a genuinely tragic account of Israel’s spiritual amnesia producing death, destruction, and heartbreak among a people God desired to bless. While it may be easy to look back at the Israelites’ astounding forgetfulness with self-righteous indignation, their story carries a remarkable and heartbreaking similarity to every believer’s life.
In Genesis 12, God sets Abraham apart and blesses him immensely. By Genesis 21, God blesses the childless, old man with the son that was promised years earlier. By the beginning of Exodus, the Israelites have grown into a nation of millions. God rescues His people from slavery, enacting an extraordinary display of His power upon the Egyptians, smiting them with plagues. God follows that incredible exhibition of power by parting the Red Sea, allowing the Israelites to walk across on dry land, and drowns Pharaoh’s armies when they attempt to follow. God leads them with a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. God provides food from heaven on a daily basis, draws flowing water from a rock, and supernaturally gives enough meat at one time to feed the nation. If there could have remained any shred of doubt left within the Israelites of God’s glory and power, they then witness His presence at Mt. Sinai in a transcendent display of thunder and lightning. By the time the nation leaves Sinai in Numbers 10, one would assume the nation would passionately follow the God who saved them and provided for their every need.
But that is not what occurs. It is as if they forget everything they had seen. Immediately upon leaving Sinai, the Israelites begin to complain. After months of eating heavenly food provided by God, the Israelites decide they wanted something else on the menu. They complain to Moses, recounting the “glory days” of slavery, wishing to return to the conditions from which God set them free. God continues to provide, finally bringing the Israelites to the land that He promised them—a wonderful land that was ready for them to inhabit. 12 spies are sent into the land. 10 return with cowardice, fabricating a report to convince the nation that the holy God, who put on a dazzling display of His infinite power and authority over all created things when rescuing His people from a mighty empire, was somehow incapable of fulfilling His promise to give them the land. The nation believes the lie and chooses to rebel against God rather than take what God promised them.
That is just the beginning of the forgetfulness recorded in Numbers. Chapter after chapter highlights Israel’s continual disobedience. As a result, the generation that witnesses God’s power on full display dies in the wilderness outside of the fruitful land God promised them. Death and destruction resulted for the people God sought to give life and abundance. As foreign as their tale may sound to a modern reader, their tragic story is the same story as every believer who returns to sin after salvation.
Romans 6 teaches that every believer has died to sin and has thus been freed from sin. We were all once slaves to sin and death, but the God against whom we rebelled came down and died for us, to rescue us, because of the great love with which He loved us. We did not deserve it; in fact, we deserved to die. But God chose to redeem us from our sin and the death and destruction it brought, and He made us alive in Christ. Sin never builds. It never benefits. It never satisfies. It never uplifts or edifies. Sin always destroys. It breaks. It results in inevitable decay and death. Every believer should shout with triumphant exaltation because God has wrangled us from the ghastly grip of sin, rescuing us from foolish slavery to that which only destroys!
But we still go back. Time and again, we return to that which only produces pain and devastation. Like the Israelites, wishing to return to slavery to eat what Pharaoh allotted while consuming food miraculously provided from heaven’s table, we look back with idiotic desire for the things our sinful flesh tells us are beneficial while receiving eternal peace, joy, and satisfaction from the One who knows and meets our every need. We forget the goodness of God and pursue the ravages of sin. We trade a beautiful land flowing with milk and honey for a desert. We trade abundance for scarcity. We trade edification for destruction. We trade life for death.
It’s not meant to be this way. As believers, recipients of God’s eternal and boundless grace, you and I can find eternal rest in Christ. We have been redeemed! We have already been set free! The chains that once held us down no longer contain us. Hebrews 12 commands us to throw off the chains of sin that easily entangle us and to fix our eyes on Jesus. We have the freedom to do so. Christ, in His death and resurrection, has provided us the opportunity to do so. If you have placed your faith in Jesus, you have tasted and experienced the goodness of the grace of God. You have seen His glory. You have encountered His power. Do not be like the Israelites, who forgot all they had seen and experienced. Taste and see that the Lord is good, and trust in His goodness forever.