The account of the Israelites wandering about in the desert for 40 years is a well known story recorded in the Bible. It has become a common analogy that many people like to use to describe being in a state of hopelessness or a season of spiritual dryness.
So much so that it’s becoming cliché, actually.
And I have never given this much thought or even questioned the accuracy of the analogy. I mean, desert = no water = dry. Duh?
But studying the book of Numbers the past three months has allowed me to read this episode in its context, thus seeing this story in new light. And receiving a huge reminder for myself too.
To understand their 40 years of wandering, we need to go back to the time before their wandering.
In Numbers 13, which was about two years since they left Egypt, the Israelites finally arrived at the border of Canaan–the land that God had promised to give them. Here’s the interesting bit, they took two years to travel from Egypt to the Promised Land, so why did they end up in the desert for 40 years?
The answer is in Numbers 14. The people had refused to enter the Promised Land. And guess what, they had even wanted to return to Egypt! Why? Because they had been afraid of what lay ahead.
All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to each other, “We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.” –Numbers 14:2-4
Canaan at that point in time was inhabited by large groups of people whom the Israelites feared were larger and stronger than them. The Israelites thought that by entering the land, they were going to be killed by those who were already living in it.
They were already at the border. All they had to do was move forward in faith and the land would be theirs to claim. Yes, it would involve fighting and maybe some bloodshed but as God had promised, their victory is guaranteed. He wants to give them the land. But they simply refused to enter it.
Now, this makes the Israelites sound a little irrational doesn’t it? We can say to them, Don’t be silly, why would God lead you all the way to the border and then let you die in battle? It is His will for you to take the land, sure win one!
Of course, it makes sense to us now since we have the benefit of hindsight. In many ways, we’re often like the Israelites with our many concerns, fears and worries.
Even when we have experienced so many of His miracles and much of His providence in our lives, sometimes we still think that God has left us to fight and struggle on our own.
And sometimes, we simply refuse to take hold of His promises.
Many people reach the border, but because of the difficulties that they foresee, they decide to remain where they are. Instead of entering the Promised Land, they are camping at the border, outside of the Promised Land.
This is undesirable, in fact this is disobedience.
God was angry when the Israelites were adamant on not going into the land that He had prepared for them. He would have destroyed them if not for Moses’ intervening plea. Eventually, instead of striking them all dead at once, he sent them out into the desert so that their descendants may eventually return to claim the land they had rejected.
So tell them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Lord, I will do to you the very thing I heard you say: In this wilderness your bodies will fall—every one of you twenty years old or more who was counted in the census and who has grumbled against me. Not one of you will enter the land I swore with uplifted hand to make your home, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun. As for your children that you said would be taken as plunder, I will bring them in to enjoy the land you have rejected. But as for you, your bodies will fall in this wilderness. Your children will be shepherds here for forty years, suffering for your unfaithfulness, until the last of your bodies lies in the wilderness. –Numbers 14:28-33 (emphasis mine)
There are two main lessons from this episode:
- Difficulties present the choice for us to trust God or turn back in unbelief.
- Not believing in God’s promises is rebellion and this incurs His wrath.
And of the many questions that the teaching leader challenged us with, this was the most poignant: Are you camping outside and refusing to enter the Promised Land?
That hit me hard. At this point of my authoring journey (more on this in another post), I sometimes find myself wishing to return to full-time employment. I would look through job listings, fantasize about being in an exciting new job, and wonder if I should apply for a position.
I realised that I’m actually at the border now and it’s very important that I take hold of God’s promise. There are difficulties ahead, no one said writing a book is easy (maybe my publisher did) and it seems easier to turn back. Put the book off till another time. Get a job and save money for a HDB flat. Why write a book? But God has brought me here, He is with me, He’s on my side.
The Israelites could have settled into the Promised Land after a mere two years of travelling. God had planned for them to rest and enjoy the land. He had not intended for them to spend the next 38 years still in the desert. But because of their disobedience, they ended up doing just that.
I don’t want this book to take another 38 years, not even another 5 years. Definitely not. So if God says this is the time, I’m gonna believe that this is the time. I will leave the desert and trust Him to bring me into the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey.