'Nevertheless...' Why the children of Israel doubted God's promise!
Clayton D Steep
What large grapes! People in the crowd jostled each other to get a better look at the immense cluster of fruit. They had not seen the like in all the years of slavery in Egypt. But now these Israelites were freed from bondage and poised at the border of the promised land. The 12 spies who, 40 days earlier, had been sent to search out the land had just come back with their report. It had taken two of them to carry the mammoth bunch of grapes now being gazed at by scores of incredulous eyes. Also on display were luscious pomegranates and plump figs brought back from the unfamiliar territory. Indeed, the spies reported to Moses and to all Israel, the land was fertile and productive. "And they told him, and said, We came unto the land whither thou sentest us, and surely it floweth with milk and honey; and this is the fruit of it" (Num. 13:27). Yes, it was a good land, a land of plenty. All they had to do was go in and inherit it. What was the problem? The problem was the next word they used: "Nevertheless..." The spies agreed that the land was everything God promised it would be. "Nevertheless," some of the spies quickly added, reflecting fear and lack of faith, "the people be strong that dwell in the land, and the cities are walled, and very great" (verse 28). They pointed out how various tribes of people — awesome people — were already living there. "We be not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we," they moaned. "And they brought up an evil report of the land which they had searched unto the children of Israel, saying, "The land, through which we have gone to search it, is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof; and all the people that we saw in it are men of a great stature. And there we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, which come of the giants: and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight" (verses 31-33). The spies finished their dismal, discouraging report, and "all the congregation lifted up their voice, and cried; and the people wept that night. And all the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron" (Num. 14:1-2).
Lack of faith
Poor Israelites! God had brought them, with signs and wonders, out of bondage in Egypt. He delivered them with spectacular miracles, pouring plagues upon their captors, wreaking havoc upon an exalted and powerful nation, parting the Red Sea, then closing it again upon Pharaoh's armies. He led Israel with a pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day, bringing them to their own land. And now God, the Israelites concluded, would not be able to keep His promise to give them the land that lay before them. Upon what was this conclusion based? On faith in God's power? No, on what the spies saw with their eyes — the physical evidence: "all the people that we saw in it are men of a great stature. And there we saw the giants ... and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers," they complained. Do you understand what their mistake was? We are to walk by faith, not by sight (II Cor. 5:7). They had it backwards. They walked by sight, rather than faith. They did not have God's Spirit and the faith it imparts. Faith is "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (Heb. 11:1). What the spies should have said, is: "The people be strong that dwell in the land, and the cities are walled, and very great ... All the people that we saw in it are men of great stature. And there we saw the giants... and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers. Nevertheless, it is an exceedingly good land and God is able to give it to us as He has promised." Joshua and Caleb, two of the 12 spies, did reject the physical evidence and believed in God's power instead. They confidently declared: "If the Lord delight in us, then he will bring us into this land, and give it us; a land, which floweth with milk and honey. Only rebel not ye against the Lord, neither fear ye the people of the land ... the Lord is with us" (Num. 14:6-9). But because Joshua and Caleb dared express their faith to a doubting mob of faithless Israelites, they were nearly stoned to death (verse 10).
Simon Peter's reaction
Israel balked at God's word. A different reaction to God's instructions, however, came from Simon (later named Peter), as recorded in the book of Luke. Once, when Jesus was on Simon's boat, Jesus directed that the nets be let down for a catch of fish. Simon, however, knew the physical facts: There were no fish to be caught at that time and location. He and other fishermen had just spent hours in a fruitless attempt to catch something. "And Simon answering said unto him, Master, we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing: nevertheless at thy word I will let down the net. And when they had this done, they inclosed a great multitude of fishes: and their net brake" (Luke 5:5-6). Simon stated the physical facts. He acknowledged them. But then he added, "nevertheless at thy word I will let down the net." This was the right reaction. It is the opposite of how the Israelites and their spies reacted. Had they been on the boat with Jesus, they would probably have said: "Master, we hear what you are saying. We know that you have done miracles in the past. Nevertheless, we know there are no fish here, so it is useless to lower the net." And they would have sat down and wept. What would your reaction have been to Jesus' instruction?
Be spiritually minded
One of the greatest hindrances to faith is the fact that the world around us is so real. We, made from the dust of the ground, are naturally in tune with the physical. We detect material reality with our physical senses. We feel the pain when we are sick. We hear the harassment from neighbors, relatives, persecutors, petty officials. When we lose a job, we see the cold reality of a termination notice and the accumulation of bills. Family problems are real. So are the temptations of the flesh — the tastes and smells and feelings of those things that are wrong. Whatever the situation is — as in the case of Peter walking on the water (Matt. 14:22-33), for instance — we can look around and see, hear, taste, smell and feel the physical, material realities. Knowledge of them comes to us through the channels of our five physical senses. But there is one other channel — the spiritual channel. It is through this channel that faith comes. Faith is a gift freely given by God through His Spirit. Christians with God's Spirit "look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal" (II Cor. 4:18). If our minds are mostly on the world and on physical things, exercising the spiritual element of faith is extremely difficult. We begin to sink in the waters of doubt as Peter did. On the other hand, if we fill our minds with spiritual things, if we are studying God's Word, if we allow God's Spirit to work in us, if we are praying as we ought, faith will be available when we need it. "For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but ... to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace" (Rom. 8:5-6, Revised Standard Version). Getting the mind off of the physical and onto the spiritual is one of the greatest keys to receiving more faith. "So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Rom. 10:17). Accounts in God's written Word of how God delivered those who trusted in Him ought to become very familiar to us. We should review them often so that we get used to thinking of God as the living God who acts on behalf of His people and who is faithful to what He has promised. The whole of Hebrews 11 is about individuals who successfully kept their minds on the spiritual level — the promises of God — that which they could not sense physically. They had their minds on the world to come (verses 10, 16). They believed in blessings yet to be granted (verse 20). They "endured, as seeing him who is invisible" (verse 27). They all said, in effect: "I acknowledge what the physical circumstances are. I acknowledge the hardship. I acknowledge the trial, the pain, the danger. Nevertheless, I believe God and His promises." Can each of us say the same?