The twelve spies had returned from their forty-day outing to the land of Canaan. When the Israelite nation heard their report about what they had seen in the land of promise, the people murmured against the Lord and expressed a desire to return to Egypt. In response to their complaining, Jehovah pronounced a punishment: they would be in the wilderness for forty years (Numbers 14:33-35).
Following that, the ten spies who had given what the Bible calls an “evil report” died in a plague. After hearing about the forty-year punishment which the nation would endure and seeing the death of the spies, Israel mourned greatly (Numbers 14:39).
At that point, they formulated a plan. The Bible says, “And they rose early in the morning and went up to the top of the mountain, saying, ‘Here we are, and we will go up to the place which the LORD has promised, for we have sinned’” (Numbers 14:40). It was a positive sign that they acknowledged their sin. But did their confession come from sincere hearts that were ready to forsake their sinful behavior and submit to God during the rest of the time He would grant them to live on earth? Their subsequent behavior would answer that question.
What did the Lord think about the Israelites’ plan to go fight against the Canaanites at that time? “And Moses said, ‘Now why do you transgress the command of the LORD? For this will not succeed. Do not go up, lest you be defeated by your enemies, for the LORD is not among you’” (Numbers 14:41,42). Those were not Moses’ personal sentiments. He later reminded his people why he had told them what he did: “And the LORD said to me, ‘Tell them, Do not go up nor fight’” (Deuteronomy 1:42).
Did you notice that the Lord said if the Israelites did go up to fight against the Canaanites, He would not be among them? Why would He not be among His people? Hear Moses’ explanation: “. . . you shall fall by the sword, because you have turned away from the LORD, the LORD will not be with you” (Numbers 14:43). When men forsake the Lord, it is certain that He will not be with and bless them.
So, the Lord said their proposed mission would be a failure (“this will not succeed,” 14:41), He said He would not be with them (14:42,43), and He directly commanded them, “Do not go up” (14:42). How much clearer could it be? Would the Israelites choose to comply with God’s instructions, or would they choose to rebel? Moses later recounted the course of action which they decided to take: “So I spoke to you: yet you would not listen, but rebelled against the command of the LORD, and presumptuously went up into the mountain” (Deuteronomy 1:43). The result was disastrous, as the Canaanites came out and drove them back (Numbers 14:45).
The Israelites’ mission failed. It was not because they lacked bravery. It was not because the Canaanites had better weapons and superior fighting skills. Israel did not succeed because the Lord was not with them, and He was not with them because they rebelled against Him. Decades later, Moses reminded the people about this incident, saying, “Then you returned and wept before the LORD, but the LORD would not listen to your voice nor give ear to you” (Deuteronomy 1:45). Humans can shed ten thousand tears and they can cry out to the Lord from sunrise to sundown, but if they are rebellious, He will not hear them, will not bless them, and will not forgive them.
When God said, “Do not go,” Israel’s conduct showed that their mentality was, “Oh, yes we will!” Hundreds of years later, King Saul disregarded a clear command of the Lord and was told, “For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, He also has rejected you . . .” (1 Samuel 15:23).
When humans try to “go it alone” by depending on their own wisdom and disregarding God’s instructions, certain catastrophe will follow. When it comes to life, including spiritual and moral matters, human beings do not have the capacity to chart the best course. As Jeremiah declared, “O LORD, I know the way of man is not in himself; it is not in man who walks to direct his own steps” (Jeremiah 10:23). Despite God’s appeal to the Israelites not to charge up to take on the Canaanites at that time, they marched ahead anyway. The bottom line: they did exactly what they wanted to do. They thought it was a good idea. People, some of whom are members of God’s family, struggle at times to accept this reality: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death” (Proverbs 16:25). What sounds good, feels good, or looks good to the minds of humans may, in fact, be destructive and sinful. Israel learned that lesson the hard way.
“I do not see the problem. God promised to give Canaan to the Israelites. All they did was go engage the Canaanites. What was wrong with that?” The timing. When the Lord says, “Do not go,” it is not the right time to go! The Israelites’ conduct makes it look like they were trying to “make up” for their sinful complaining by doing something special. No one corrects past mistakes by rebelling against God!
— Roger D. Campbell