Regret or repentance?

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When is obedience not obedience?

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Bible passage: Numbers 14:26–45

 26 The LORD said to Moses and Aaron: 27 “How long will this wicked community grumble against me? I have heard the complaints of these grumbling Israelites. 28 So tell them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the LORD, I will do to you the very things I heard you say: 29 In this desert 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. 30 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. 31 As for your children that you said would be taken as plunder, I will bring them in to enjoy the land you have rejected. 32 But you—your bodies will fall in this desert. 33 Your children will be shepherds here for forty years, suffering for your unfaithfulness, until the last of your bodies lies in the desert. 34 For forty years—one year for each of the forty days you explored the land—you will suffer for your sins and know what it is like to have me against you.’ 35 I, the LORD, have spoken, and I will surely do these things to this whole wicked community, which has banded together against me. They will meet their end in this desert; here they will die.”

 36 So the men Moses had sent to explore the land, who returned and made the whole community grumble against him by spreading a bad report about it— 37 these men responsible for spreading the bad report about the land were struck down and died of a plague before the LORD. 38 Of the men who went to explore the land, only Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh survived.

 39 When Moses reported this to all the Israelites, they mourned bitterly. 40 Early the next morning they went up toward the high hill country. “We have sinned,” they said. “We will go up to the place the LORD promised.”

 41 But Moses said, “Why are you disobeying the LORD’s command? This will not succeed! 42 Do not go up, because the LORD is not with you. You will be defeated by your enemies, 43 for the Amalekites and Canaanites will face you there. Because you have turned away from the LORD, he will not be with you and you will fall by the sword.”

 44 Nevertheless, in their presumption they went up toward the high hill country, though neither Moses nor the ark of the LORD’s covenant moved from the camp. 45 Then the Amalekites and Canaanites who lived in that hill country came down and attacked them and beat them down all the way to Hormah.

New International Version (NIV) Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society

Audio Bible passage

The audio version of the passage is taken from the Contemporary English Version (CEV).


God is just. His punishment fits the crime (v 28):

The people wanted to die in the desert (v 2). God says they will (v 29).
They didn’t want to enter the land (v 3). God says they won’t (v 30).
They want to return to Egypt (vs 3,4). God sends them back towards the Red Sea (v 25).
They feared their wives and children would suffer (v 3). God says they will because of their fathers’ sins (v 33).

But God is also loving and merciful. He doesn’t wipe out the people. He keeps his promises. His people will enter the land. It will just take a little longer because they didn’t trust him. Instead of the Exodus taking a few months, it will take 40 years. And it will be this people’s children who go in.

Sadly, all this is lost on the Israelites. The story from verse 39 onwards is not of a people who repent, but who are regretful. They are more sorry for what they’re missing out on, rather than focused on turning their hearts back to God. So they try to invade the land in their own strength. Moses warns them that this is also disobeying God (vs 41,42). But they happily go ahead without any of the signs of God’s presence with them (v 44). And they are defeated (v 45).

Mark Ellis


‘Father, forgive me that I often want your blessings more than I want you. Help me desire you from my heart.’

Deeper Bible study

The doctrine of the wrath of God is one that troubles many people. Many Christians find it difficult to comprehend that the God whose very essence is love should enter into judgement against men and women, whether in time, as in this passage, or in eternity, as elsewhere in Scripture. How do these verses help us?

Though God has withdrawn his threat to wipe out the entire company (vs 12,20), all those who are twenty years old and over are destined to die before reaching Canaan (v 29). Only Caleb and Joshua are exempt (v 30). The forty days spent spying out the land will be matched by forty years of wandering in the desert outside it (v 34). The ten spies who led the Israelites into rejecting God die sooner, by plague before the Lord (v 37). There are to be no more second chances. The failure of the doomed attempt to take Canaan by human strength (vs 39–45) shows that God’s purpose will not be defeated. When we take the story as a whole, though, we see that God is giving the people what they wanted. His judgement is only his ‘Amen’ to their request to die in the wilderness (v 2). Their concern for their children (v 3) is answered with God’s promise that they will see the land and inherit it (v 31). When we think of God’s final judgement of the sinner – eternal separation from him – we see the same principle at work. God gives men and women not only what they deserve but what they have desired.

We too are sinners who have tried God’s patience and deserve his wrath. Praise him today that, in Christ, God has given us not what we merit but what Christ’s perfect obedience has earned. By his grace we will enter a rest and receive a reward.

Bible Background: Meet Caleb

Faithful spy

Caleb son of Jephunneh was one of the 12 spies sent by Moses to scout out the land of Canaan. The majority were dominated by fear of the giants and heavily defended fortresses in the land and said entry was impossible; only he and Joshua recommended an immediate attack.

The people would not listen to Joshua and Caleb, however. God was angry with the people, and gave a judgement that because of their unbelief the whole generation would perish in the wilderness, with the exception of Joshua and Caleb (v 30).

Courageous old man

As a man of 85 Caleb requested Joshua to assign to him the hill country of Hebron, despite the presence there of giants, the Anakim (Joshua 14:6,7,10). Moses had promised him an inheritance in the land because he followed the Lord wholeheartedly.

He succeeded in overcoming the giants, and offered his daughter Aksah to whoever would take the nearby town of Debir, a task successfully completed by Othniel (Joshua 15:16,17), his nephew, who became the first of Israel’s Judges (Judges 3:9–11).

Not an Israelite?

Caleb is described as a Kennizite (Numbers 32:12; Joshua 14:6,14), a people related to Kenaz, grandson of Esau (Genesis 36:11,15). However, according to 1 Chronicles 4:1,15, Caleb’s ancestry is traced back to Judah.

Debir (formerly called Kiriath-sepher, Judges 1:11–13) was in Judah but also situated close to the territory of the Kennizites. Perhaps the Kennizites became politically incorporated into Israel.

Andrew Clark

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No one really knows (God is near)
Rend Collective Experiment
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Our confidence is in the Lord
Noel & Tricia Richards
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  • Rachael Hampton | Tuesday, 24 April 2018

    Thank you Latashiana for reminding us that God delights to forgive. May that knowledge bring comfort to those who truely repent - rather than just being remorseful. There is so much of God’s goodness in this world, and His image is displayed even in people who reject Him. How can they know that in getting what they have chosen - a life without God - in the afterlife there will be nothing of Him at all. Lord have mercy, and turn hearts to Youself. Thank you that Your arms are open to receive all who turn towards You. Amen

  • Alan Pang | Tuesday, 24 April 2018

    A rich passage with many points to ponder over. Thanks for choosing to go through Numbers, a neglected book in the Bible.

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