- Were the people in the desert not God’s people, then?
- Or if they were God’s people, then what “rest” did they forfeit through unbelief?
- What kind of unbelief are we talking about, since the people heard God’s voice yet still held unbelief?
- Is this only about the physical Promised Land, or did the writer of Hebrews see this story in a spiritual sense as well?
- If it is spiritual, then did the writer mean the peace of God in this life, only? Or God’s eternal peace?
- Is this a salvation issue, a sanctification issue, or a mental and emotional health issue?
Here is the rest of our excursus into the story of Exodus in order to answer these questions well.
Lessons From Exodus
God Vouchsafes to the People Value and Victory
During that first year together, following God’s shekinah through the wilderness toward the land God had promised, there were many times when the people were genuinely afraid, genuinely unsettled, not knowing if God was good, or was yet another arbitrary and capricious god like those in the Egyptian pantheon.
Even after the Lord had patiently and compassionately proved God’s goodness, love, and power, the people still regularly complained and grumbled. They were in the arduous process of being changed from the character of a broken, enslaved, maltreated, and discarded people, to a loved and treasured people well-cared for by the One True and Almighty Living God.
During this time, their hearts also did open in love and gratitude toward God, for God had forgiven them their Golden Calf and now asked for their generosity in building the tabernacle. It was perhaps their best moment with the Lord, when the tabernacle was inaugurated and God descended in great glory to dwell among them from the Holy of Holies.
Then the moment they had all been breathlessly waiting for came! They were at the entrance to the Promised Land. It had been a year full of adventures, tremendous growth in relationship with God, a steep mountain of learning with new law, new rituals and festivals, a year of being fed pure bread from heaven and drinking pure water miraculously provided, a year of sandals never wearing out, of stupendous military victories won by the power of God.
It had been nothing short of surreal, supernatural worship and glory, and they a far richer people now, with their herds and flocks, their treasure transformed into tabernacle and ark of the covenant, their bodies fit and ready.
Violation of God’s Trust
And then the people committed treason, a breach of trust in God, a betrayal of their covenant relationship with God.
Spies had entered the land to bring back a report of its great bounty, the richness of the fertile Levant, the beauty of the Shephelah. But the spies had also brought back terrifying reports of the land’s inhabitants.
“We came to the land to which you sent us; it flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. Yet the people who live in the land are strong, and the towns are fortified and very large . . .
So they brought to the Israelites an unfavorable report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land that we have gone through as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are of great size. There we saw the Nephilim (the Anakites come from the Nephilim); and to ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.”The spies’ report to the people, Numbers 13:27-28, 32-33 (NRSV)
Numbers records how the people raised a loud cry and wept that night. They thought to raise up a new leader, someone who could take them back to Egypt where—they thought—they at least knew how to cope. Joshua and Caleb, the only two spies with any faith, urged and pled with the people to believe in God and march boldly into the new land God had promised them. But the whole congregation threatened to stone them.
Moses went to his knees in prayer, interceding for the people, and God agreed to forgive them. But, there would be a penalty.
Then the Lord said, “I do forgive, just as you have asked;
nevertheless—as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord—none of the people —who have seen my glory
—and the signs that I did in Egypt
—and in the wilderness,
—and yet have tested me these ten times
—and have not obeyed my voice,
shall see the land that I swore to give to their ancestors; none of those who despised me shall see it.
But my servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit and has followed me wholeheartedly, I will bring into the land into which he went, and his descendants shall possess it.
Now, since the Amalekites and the Canaanites live in the valleys, turn tomorrow and set out for the wilderness by the way to the Red Sea.”God to the people, Numbers 14:20-25 (NRSV)
It was a bitter, bitter word from God to the people. Never before had God so decisively cut off from them God’s blessing. Oh, there had been close calls. There had been a time when God threatened to cut them off entirely, their lives from the earth, or God’s direct presence from them. But those times had been smoothed over through intercessory prayer and abject repentance.
Not this time.
The people mourned. They tried to storm the land the very next day, in a show of repentance, but were soundly defeated, for God had not sanctioned it.
God struck the ten faithless spies with a plague, and they all died. Then God said to the people,
“As I live,” says the Lord, “I will do to you the very things I heard you say:
—your dead bodies shall fall in this very wilderness;
—and of all your number, included in the census, from twenty years old and upward, who have complained against me, not one of you shall come into the land in which I swore to settle you, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun.
—But your little ones, who you said would become booty, I will bring in, and they shall know the land that you have despised.
—But as for you, your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness.
And your children shall be shepherds in the wilderness for forty years, and shall suffer for your faithlessness, until the last of your dead bodies lies in the wilderness.
According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, for every day a year, you shall bear your iniquity, forty years, and you shall know my displeasure.”God to the people, Numbers 14:28-34 (NRSV)
Salvation Versus Victorious Life
Once saved, always saved. The people remained delivered from their bondage and suffering. But God would bring them back to their beginnings, and for the rest of their lives they would have only the hope of the Promised Land for their children, because they themselves would not trust God.
God still blessed them with manna. God still miraculously preserved their sandals and clothes, which never wore out in all those forty years. God still guided and protected them in the shekinah glory of God’s pillar of fire and smoke. God still granted military victories, God still disciplined the people and grew them in faith. And God still dwelt among them, God’s cloud resting over the Mercy Seat in the Holy of Holies.
They were still God’s people, and God’s second promise would still be kept . . . but not in their own lifetime.
Not Eternal Rest, But Rather Spiritual Heritage In This Life
The Promised Land was a real place, yet as rich and good as it was, there would still be work, there would be war, living and dying, hard times and times of plenty.
So, for the writer of Hebrews, this was not a metaphor for eternal rest, it was a metaphor for a believer’s current spiritual inheritance. Just as their ancestors had quailed at the thought of battling the giant inhabitants of Canaan, and imagined they could cope better in Egypt, so the readers of Hebrews were in danger of quailing in the face of increased persecution, thinking they could cope better as crypto-Christians reverting back to their old religion.
Do not go there, the writer exhorted. To do so invites God’s severe discipline.