Monthly Archives: August 2017

The Book of Numbers


The fourth book in the Bible, the book of Numbers, is the saddest…if I may use the inelegant expression, perhaps the baddest book in the whole Bible.  I made a list of the contents of the chapters and just about every one contained something unhappy.  To mention nothing else, everyone that was living at the beginning of the book was dead at the end of the book, save Caleb and Joshua.  That included a lot of people, at least 1 million of them.  Literally they were the lost generation.  A handy thing to remember is the Book of Numbers is about the 40 years in the wilderness.  And literally they got nowhere, they went round and round until finally they all died.  The Bible summarizes this sad book in two places, the first of which is I Cor. 10 and the second is Hebrews 3:7-19.

The word “Numbers” may seem inadequate to describe any book of the Bible, specifically this one.  “Genesis” says something – origin, beginning.  “Exodus” means the departure from Egypt with all its drama and Leviticus is about the law.  But Numbers seems so meaningless.  True, it starts off with a census and it ends with another enumeration, the second generation.  And there are no duplications or charter members who appear in the second census except for Caleb and Joshua. And then there are lists of names in connection with order of march in which they would bivouac around the tabernacle.  The book does have a lot of enumerations but there is a more basic reason why the book is called that and we discover that when we first talk about the nature of this lost generation.

We see that Numbers really fits when we talk about this 40 year period.  The basic character of this time and this people is really indicated by that simple word “Numbers”.  Because “Number” means three things:  First, it means limitations.  If we say of a certain man, “His days are numbered,” we mean they are few.  When I was born my days were numbered and so were the days of Methuselah, but that isn’t what we mean when we say, “The days of our country are numbered.”  We’re talking in solemn, apocalyptic tone.  They aren’t very many.  There is an awful solemnity in the writing on the wall of Belshazzar.  “Numbered.  Weighed and found wanting.”  They are being counted out, tick-tock.  It’s the countdown.  That’s the idea.  And in that sense these people could be described as numbered.  God had promised that their descendants would be innumerable like the stars or sand.  But this generation, for all their large number, they are countable, not innumerable, they are all listed in a census and their days were numbered. Forget the people now, their days were numbered.  Suppose I were to say that all the people in a given congregation would be dead in 10 years. The inexorable nature of that would frighten…10 years!  They knew that not a one would leave the wilderness.  Moses, Miriam, Aaron, the princes of each of the 12 tribes, all of them would be dead before the 40 years were over.  And there was a special solemnity in that the year was 40.  Why that seemingly arbitrary number?  One year for every day that the 12 spies were looking around in Palestine.

There is a second reason for Numbers and that is that it is impersonal.  That is what prisoners hate about jail.  That is what’s so Orwellian about social security.  I think that is unconsciously part of the shame or anger provocation when a basketball player is called for a foul.  “Foul on 21.”  I think unconsciously the player is thinking, “I’m somebody, I got a name.  Don’t call me 21!”  That number they carry with such pride.  “Don’t identify me as a number.  I’m somebody.”  Even when we die we put the person’s name on a tombstone.  We don’t put number such and such.  Though he is gone from this world we perpetuate his identity by carving into stone, “Here lies the body of so-and-so.”  But here, in Numbers, no tombstones, no acres of crosses or markers, nothing but sand.  All buried in the sand and forgotten.  A whole generation, the whole of it lost.  Like the doleful dirge in Genesis, “so-and-so lived so many years, he bore so-and-so, he lived so many more years, and then he died.”

But worse of all, number is nothing.  Mathematicians tell us that zero is something and just as much as any number for sure.  But all numbers are basically nothing, a pure abstraction.  Accountants, I’m sure, are good at their jobs, but I would never want to do what they do, sitting all day running numbers on things.  They couldn’t care less what the numbers represent, it is just a pure abstraction.  That’s all a number is.  If I say, “2+2 is 4”, we accept that as a universal truth.  But you would say, “2 what?  4 what?  Apples? People?  Dollars?”  That makes a world of difference.  This book is numbers, that’s all.  Pure abstraction.  So the fourth book of the Bible, this lost generation, is well described by that providential title.  That’s their nature… lost, nothing, impersonal.

But now, what qualifies them for that dubious distinction.  They didn’t have to be a lost generation, a cypher, a mere number.  It was contrary to the will of God, this 40 years.  It’s regrettable enough when through no fault of its own there is a given group of people who are just lost, erased.  Those of us who have lived through World War II were told to remember Lidice, a town in Czechoslovakia that for the sake of psychological warfare was just wiped off the face of the earth; fathers, mothers, children, all obliterated.  A lost generation.  A town in the United States renamed themselves to perpetuate the name of that unfortunate town that was lost.  I say that is regrettable enough – or like the Depression generation was sometimes called “the lost generation”, or the protestors of Viet Nam were sometimes called “the lost generation” – but that was all our fault.  That was not the fault of the victims, but this was something that they deserved.

First of all, because of their ingratitude.  I say this deliberately and advisedly; no people in all of history had been so endowed with divine benediction.  Movies have been made about them like “The 10 Commandments”.   No people had more miracles, like the plagues or water out of the rock, and yet all they did was gripe and complain.  In the Book of Numbers it says, “Ten times you have come to me with this complaint…”  When you read the story instinctively you think how is it possible that a people could have so much but complain so greatly?  It shows that if you want to complain there will always be something to complain about.  If you don’t want to be grateful then no amount of benediction, joy or blessings is going to make you grateful.  They single out the most insignificant annoyance.  And they exaggerated the good old days in Egypt.  It would be one thing if they said how much they missed T-bone steaks, but instead you read “Oh how we miss the onions and garlic..”  Grasping at straws, “We’re so tired of this manna.”

They were preoccupied with themselves, that was basic or their big fault.  There is one central theme to all the sorry incidents that I’ve listed here and that is self-centeredness.  It is cut across the entire population, from the highest echelons with Miriam and Aaron, and then other leaders of the tribe with Korah, Dathan and Abiram  (Numbers 16) and it filtered down to the lowest levels until finally the people were picking up stones to throw at Moses.  There was no reason for it other than their pride, which is false humility in disguise and vice versa.  Pride and humility are the two faces of self-centeredness, being preoccupied with yourself.   So these same people who were saying, “Who do you think you are, Moses,” come to the gates of Canaan and say, “Oh, we’re just nothing.”  Because they were looking to much at themselves.  In themselves they were nothing but if they had frankly faced that fact that in themselves they were nothing then like Caleb and Joshua they could have said but “with God we are everything” and they would have been, which is a lesson for us.

They lacked trust, which is another way of saying they weren’t looking to God.  They didn’t believe His implicit promises.  God not only said He was on their side but He showed it time after time.  If they had any problem He just took care of it with a miracle. He was almost a magic man in their presence.  Fire by night, cloud by day, water from the rock, shoes that never wore out.  And then when they get into any new problem, and I see myself in that, some novel problem they say, “Oh God can’t solve this one.”  Or if He can, “I’m sure He won’t.”  They did not enter, says Hebrews, because of unbelief.  That alone was enough to disqualify them.  And because they didn’t, God stopped talking.  And there is a clue to that story of Balaam and his talking donkey.  God says, “You won’t listen to me, you listen to an ass.  I’ll make the donkey talk to you.”  The people weren’t listening to God or to Moses, so God sent a false prophet who was later killed for his immorality.  He spouted forth divine revelation.  Just like the Pharisees wouldn’t praise Jesus on Palm Sunday and he said, “Out of the mouths of babes and nurslings I’ll get my praise.”  And Isaiah says when they didn’t praise God and listen to his prophets, “By men of strange tongues will I shame you.” That is what happens here.

And then they were disobedient.  That is unbelief in action.  God had laid out their lives clearly.  He told them exactly what they should do.  Moses, in his farewell address in Deuteronomy said, “You could never say back there in the wilderness that ‘We couldn’t figure it out, it was too hard for us. God was to obscure.’ It was right there, big as the nose on your face. The word is right in your mouth.  Don’t say it was too hard.  A child could have done it.”  They didn’t have to dam up the Jordan when they came there.  All they had to do was start walking.  God would take care of it, just like the Red Sea.

When you fail to do the good, that is when you are going to do the bad.  So we read in Numbers about the Moabites, the descendants of the incestuous relationship between Lot and his daughters, who approach the Israelites.  Next thing you know there is all this immorality in the camp.  If they weren’t going forward in faith, then they were going to be sitting around and getting in trouble, which is what we see in the Book of Numbers.  Satan finds things for idle hands to do.  And not just hands but minds and the rest of our bodies.

How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower!

In works of labor or of skill,
I would be busy too;
For Satan finds some mischief still
For idle hands to do.

Now the most important part is that of it’s repetition, it’s recurrence. It’s duplication today.  You know it is tragic when something happens like a train rail breaks and the train rolls, but if it happens again next week we think that they need to throw somebody in jail for not keeping up the equipment.  Someone is a fool if they make the same mistake twice and that is our problem if we don’t profit from this.  Paul says in I Cor. 10 “these things happened onto them for our example…on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come.”  We think that the Israelite trip they took was very real.  You could go there today and find where they camped and marched, that was real and now our life is kind-of like that. “No!” says the Bible.  That is done and is history.  That is all forgotten so to speak, but the real is the Christian life of which that is just a picture.   A textbook to teach you something.  God made it to come off that way, the way I just told you now, so that we wouldn’t make the same mistake.  Here it is:  Egypt is a picture of sin, of slavery and Satan, the condition of the natural man, call it total depravity of whatever you want to, and the Red Sea is our conversion or baptism into Christ.  At this point there was no need to cross the river Jordan, to wander around for 40 years.  They could have gone straight up into Canaan and God could have taken care of all their enemies, wiped them out or made them sue for peace.  They didn’t have to go in the back door so to speak over the river Jordan.  That was the second best.  They had to be baptized again, see this miracle.

Canaan is not a picture of heaven.  That’s a common misconception.  There are songs that talk about Jordan as death and then we get to Canaan.  Eden is a picture of heaven.  Paradise and Eden way back in Genesis, that is a picture of heaven.  Canaan is a picture of the here and now.  If we want to, we will enter in, into the land of happiness, blessing, fullness, abundance.  Battles, sure, it wasn’t going to be a pushover.  There was work to be done.  They weren’t going to lie around the grape arbors.  It was going to be life, but life more abundantly.  That is what they were going to enter into and that is what God wants us to enter into.  Not when we die, but right now.  God wants us to enter directly from conversion into Canaan.  Some of us spend half our lives wandering around getting nowhere, on a spiritual treadmill.  One year is no better than any other.  Are you growing in grace?  The wilderness is a picture of self-effort, trying to get somewhere by myself.  The same God that said, “I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt…”,  we all believe that, that salvation is by grace alone. He says, “I want to bring you to the promised land.  To wholeness, to life abundant.”