Our Proactive and Protective God

16 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 17 “These are the names of the men who shall divide the land to you for inheritance: Eleazar the priest and Joshua the son of Nun. 18 You shall take one chief from every tribe to divide the land for inheritance. 19 These are the names of the men: Of the tribe of Judah, Caleb the son of Jephunneh. 20 Of the tribe of the people of Simeon, Shemuel the son of Ammihud. 21 Of the tribe of Benjamin, Elidad the son of Chislon. 22 Of the tribe of the people of Dan a chief, Bukki the son of Jogli. 23 Of the people of Joseph: of the tribe of the people of Manasseh a chief, Hanniel the son of Ephod. 24 And of the tribe of the people of Ephraim a chief, Kemuel the son of Shiphtan. 25 Of the tribe of the people of Zebulun a chief, Elizaphan the son of Parnach. 26 Of the tribe of the people of Issachar a chief, Paltiel the son of Azzan. 27 And of the tribe of the people of Asher a chief, Ahihud the son of Shelomi. 28 Of the tribe of the people of Naphtali a chief, Pedahel the son of Ammihud.” 29 These are the men whom the Lord commanded to divide the inheritance for the people of Israel in the land of Canaan. 

1 The Lord spoke to Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho, saying, “Command the people of Israel to give to the Levites some of the inheritance of their possession as cities for them to dwell in. And you shall give to the Levites pasturelands around the cities. The cities shall be theirs to dwell in, and their pasturelands shall be for their cattle and for their livestock and for all their beasts. The pasturelands of the cities, which you shall give to the Levites, shall reach from the wall of the city outward a thousand cubits all around. And you shall measure, outside the city, on the east side two thousand cubits, and on the south side two thousand cubits, and on the west side two thousand cubits, and on the north side two thousand cubits, the city being in the middle. This shall belong to them as pastureland for their cities.

“The cities that you give to the Levites shall be the six cities of refuge, where you shall permit the manslayer to flee, and in addition to them you shall give forty-two cities. All the cities that you give to the Levites shall be forty-eight, with their pasturelands. And as for the cities that you shall give from the possession of the people of Israel, from the larger tribes you shall take many, and from the smaller tribes you shall take few; each, in proportion to the inheritance that it inherits, shall give of its cities to the Levites.” Numbers 34:16-35:8 ESV

God provided Moses with the name of one man from each of the ten tribes of Israel. These men, hand-picked by God, would assist Eleazar, the high priest, and Joshua in the distribution of the land. The tribes of Gad and Reuben were not included because they had chosen to settle outside the boundaries of Canaan. These men were well-respected leaders among their respective tribes and would help to guarantee that the land was fairly apportioned and that each tribe, regardless of its size, was treated equitably and fairly. There was to be no favoritism or any form of nepotism. The larger tribes, whose numbers would be based on the recent census taken by Moses, would be allotted more extensive land allotments. But that did not mean they would get the best land. God was giving these ten men the weighty responsibility of dividing up the Israelites’ inheritance in a way that would satisfy all the parties involved, and that would not be an easy task.

The next thing on God’s agenda was to arrange for the needs of the tribe of Levi. He had already informed Moses that the Levites would inherit no land in Canaan. He had set apart the tribe of Levi as His special possession and had dedicated them to the care and maintenance of the tabernacle. As a result, God promised to be their inheritance.

“Remember that the Levitical priests—that is, the whole of the tribe of Levi—will receive no allotment of land among the other tribes in Israel. Instead, the priests and Levites will eat from the special gifts given to the Lord, for that is their share. They will have no land of their own among the Israelites. The Lord himself is their special possession, just as he promised them.” – Deuteronomy 18:1-2 NLT

But while the Levites would be allotted no land in Canaan, they would be awarded the deeds to 48 cities located within the territories of each of the other 11 tribes (Joshua 21). Even the tribes of Gad, Reuben, and the half-tribe of Manasseh were required to provide the Levites with towns and pastureland for their flocks. God had made accommodations for the Levites.

These Levitical cities were to be strategically located throughout the nation of Israel so that every Israelite was no more than ten miles from one of them. This helped to ensure that the people of God were never far away from a member of the Levitical priesthood, whose job was to provide instruction in the ways of God. The Levitical priests served as judges (Deuteronomy 17:8-13) and teachers of God’s law (Deuteronomy 33:10). So, it was essential that every Israelite had ready access to a Levitical town and a priest of God.

Of the 48 towns awarded to the Levites, six were to be designated as cities of refuge. These were specially sanctioned zones within the boundaries of Israel where anyone guilty of committing a non-premediated murder could seek asylum. God had already declared His ruling concerning murder (Exodus 20:13), but He had Moses present a special provision for cases involving accidental homicide.

“If someone kills another person unintentionally, without previous hostility, the slayer may flee to any of these cities to live in safety. – Deuteronomy 19:4 NLT

He even had Moses provide a potential scenario in which a city of refuge would become necessary.

“For example, suppose someone goes into the forest with a neighbor to cut wood. And suppose one of them swings an ax to chop down a tree, and the ax head flies off the handle, killing the other person. In such cases, the slayer may flee to one of the cities of refuge to live in safety.” – Deuteronomy 19:5 NLT

God knew that life would happen and that deadly accidents would be a part of the Israelites’ existence in the land. Men would be killed and justice would need to be pursued. But what He didn’t want was some form of vigilante justice running rampant through the nation. Yet God knew that the relatives of a murder victim would tend to seek revenge against the guilty party and ask questions later. The cities of refuge were intended to protect the innocent while justice was being served.

Since Israel had no professional police force, these kinds of accidents could easily turn into bloodbaths where the relatives of the victim sought to avenge their loved one’s death. So, these cities, occupied by the Levites, would provide a place where the guilty party could find solace and seek a fair judgment concerning his guilt or innocence. In His plans for the land of promise, God was leaving nothing to chance. He was creating a well-designed system for dealing with the inevitable problem of sin among His chosen people. He was going to distribute the Levitical priesthood among them to provide spiritual enlightenment and He was going to create safe havens for those who unwittingly committed even the gravest of sins. God was providing for and protecting His people.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Potential Trouble in Paradise

1 These are the stages of the people of Israel, when they went out of the land of Egypt by their companies under the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Moses wrote down their starting places, stage by stage, by command of the Lord, and these are their stages according to their starting places. They set out from Rameses in the first month, on the fifteenth day of the first month. On the day after the Passover, the people of Israel went out triumphantly in the sight of all the Egyptians, while the Egyptians were burying all their firstborn, whom the Lord had struck down among them. On their gods also the Lord executed judgments.

So the people of Israel set out from Rameses and camped at Succoth. And they set out from Succoth and camped at Etham, which is on the edge of the wilderness. And they set out from Etham and turned back to Pi-hahiroth, which is east of Baal-zephon, and they camped before Migdol. And they set out from before Hahiroth and passed through the midst of the sea into the wilderness, and they went a three days’ journey in the wilderness of Etham and camped at Marah. And they set out from Marah and came to Elim; at Elim there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees, and they camped there. 10 And they set out from Elim and camped by the Red Sea. 11 And they set out from the Red Sea and camped in the wilderness of Sin. 12 And they set out from the wilderness of Sin and camped at Dophkah. 13 And they set out from Dophkah and camped at Alush. 14 And they set out from Alush and camped at Rephidim, where there was no water for the people to drink. 15 And they set out from Rephidim and camped in the wilderness of Sinai. 16 And they set out from the wilderness of Sinai and camped at Kibroth-hattaavah. 17 And they set out from Kibroth-hattaavah and camped at Hazeroth. 18 And they set out from Hazeroth and camped at Rithmah. 19 And they set out from Rithmah and camped at Rimmon-perez. 20 And they set out from Rimmon-perez and camped at Libnah. 21 And they set out from Libnah and camped at Rissah. 22 And they set out from Rissah and camped at Kehelathah. 23 And they set out from Kehelathah and camped at Mount Shepher. 24 And they set out from Mount Shepher and camped at Haradah. 25 And they set out from Haradah and camped at Makheloth. 26 And they set out from Makheloth and camped at Tahath. 27 And they set out from Tahath and camped at Terah. 28 And they set out from Terah and camped at Mithkah. 29 And they set out from Mithkah and camped at Hashmonah. 30 And they set out from Hashmonah and camped at Moseroth. 31 And they set out from Moseroth and camped at Bene-jaakan. 32 And they set out from Bene-jaakan and camped at Hor-haggidgad. 33 And they set out from Hor-haggidgad and camped at Jotbathah. 34 And they set out from Jotbathah and camped at Abronah. 35 And they set out from Abronah and camped at Ezion-geber. 36 And they set out from Ezion-geber and camped in the wilderness of Zin (that is, Kadesh). 37 And they set out from Kadesh and camped at Mount Hor, on the edge of the land of Edom.

38 And Aaron the priest went up Mount Hor at the command of the Lord and died there, in the fortieth year after the people of Israel had come out of the land of Egypt, on the first day of the fifth month. 39 And Aaron was 123 years old when he died on Mount Hor.

40 And the Canaanite, the king of Arad, who lived in the Negeb in the land of Canaan, heard of the coming of the people of Israel.

41 And they set out from Mount Hor and camped at Zalmonah. 42 And they set out from Zalmonah and camped at Punon. 43 And they set out from Punon and camped at Oboth. 44 And they set out from Oboth and camped at Iye-abarim, in the territory of Moab. 45 And they set out from Iyim and camped at Dibon-gad. 46 And they set out from Dibon-gad and camped at Almon-diblathaim. 47 And they set out from Almon-diblathaim and camped in the mountains of Abarim, before Nebo. 48 And they set out from the mountains of Abarim and camped in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho; 49 they camped by the Jordan from Beth-jeshimoth as far as Abel-shittim in the plains of Moab.

50 And the Lord spoke to Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho, saying, 51 “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you pass over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, 52 then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you and destroy all their figured stones and destroy all their metal images and demolish all their high places. 53 And you shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given the land to you to possess it. 54 You shall inherit the land by lot according to your clans. To a large tribe you shall give a large inheritance, and to a small tribe you shall give a small inheritance. Wherever the lot falls for anyone, that shall be his. According to the tribes of your fathers you shall inherit. 55 But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those of them whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall trouble you in the land where you dwell. 56 And I will do to you as I thought to do to them.” Numbers 33:1-56 ESV

The people of Israel are almost home. After more than 40 years in the wilderness, they stand on the eastern bank of Jordan River waiting for God’s command to cross over and begin their conquest and occupation of the land of promise. The day they had long been waiting for had finally arrived. There had been a lengthy delay, but now it was time to enjoy what God had promised so long ago.

But as with most things associated with God, the blessing was tied to a requirement. He had one last instruction to give them before they took possession of the land, and it was a fairly significant one. They must drive out all the people who were living there. On top of that, they had to destroy all the idols and pagan shrines erected to the gods of the land. They were to smash every vestige of idol worship they found. In other words, God expected them to clean house before they set up house.

Sounds simple enough doesn’t it? But if you’re the least bit familiar with the story of the Israelites, they didn’t exactly follow God’s instructions to the letter. They took a few liberties. It’s almost as if the enemy (Satan) was standing there just as he had been in the garden of Eden, asking the question, “Surely, God has not said…”

I can just hear Satan whispering in their ears, “You don’t have to get rid of ALL the idols, just most of them.” Or maybe he worded his temptation this way: “You might want to leave one of the pagan shrines intact, just in case Yahweh doesn’t come through for you.”

And as far as ridding the land of all its occupants, Satan probably did his best to convince the people of God just how politically incorrect and insensitive this might appear to the rest of the people in the region. They probably thought to themselves, “We don’t want to get off on the wrong foot with our new neighbors, do we?”

And God seemed to know that the people would have second thoughts about His command, so He warned them what would happen if they failed to obey.

“But if you fail to drive out the people who live in the land, those who remain will be like splinters in your eyes and thorns in your sides. They will harass you in the land where you live. And I will do to you what I had planned to do to them.” – Numbers 33:55-56 NLT

“Disobey me,” God says, “and you will live to regret it.” This was not a suggestion, but a command. God expected them to follow His requirements without delay or deviation. He had a good reason for what He was asking them to do, and He knew exactly what would happen if they chose to disobey Him. If the Israelites failed to remove the land’s occupants, their enemies would become a constant threat and a thorn in their side. They would never learn to live amicably together. So, cleansing was critical for spiritual survival.

In his commentary on the book of Numbers, Dr. Thomas Constable writes, “The repetition of ‘all’ (Numbers 33:52) stresses the importance of completely clearing the land of its inhabitants and their religious paraphernalia. God wanted to clean up the land spiritually and to make it a ‘holy land.’ The land was a gift from God to His first-born son, Israel (Numbers 33:53). God warned the Israelites what would happen to them if they were not completely obedient (Numbers 333:55-56). The Canaanites would be a constant source of irritation to them, and God would deal with His people as He planned to deal with the Canaanites.”

God wanted to purify the land spiritually and make it holy. That reminds me of what God wants to do with my life. He wants to clean it up spiritually and set it apart for His use. He is about removing anything in my life that might defile or defeat me. He wants to clean house.

But I tend to hang on to certain remnants of my past. I want to give the enemy some footholds in my life where he can live at peace. I want to keep some of the idols that were there before God came to occupy the land. I find the idols comforting. They bring me a little bit of peace and assurance. But God wants to purge my life of any vestiges of the past. He wants to make all things new. To receive all the blessings the Promised Land had to offer, the people had to obey God fully. The same thing is true for us today. To enjoy all the blessings our new life in Christ offers, we must obey God fully. God makes this clear in His Word.

…throw off your old evil nature and your former way of life, which is rotten through and through, full of lust and deception. – Ephesians 4:22 NLT

Don’t lie to one another. You’re done with that old life. It’s like a filthy set of ill-fitting clothes you’ve stripped off and put in the fire. – Colossians 3:9 MSG

The night is almost gone; the day of salvation will soon be here. So don’t live in darkness. Get rid of your evil deeds. Shed them like dirty clothes. Clothe yourselves with the armor of right living, as those who live in the light. We should be decent and true in everything we do, so that everyone can approve of our behavior. Don’t participate in wild parties and getting drunk, or in adultery and immoral living, or in fighting and jealousy. But let the Lord Jesus Christ take control of you, and don’t think of ways to indulge your evil desires. – Romans 13:12-14 NLT

God was looking for change in the lives of the Israelites. He wanted to purge and purify them, and that process began with a thorough cleansing of the land. His desire was to rid the landscape of their lives of any and all vestiges of the past.

Like the Israelites, we must take our set-apart status seriously.  We must remove all the idols and false gods that might draw us away from full reliance upon Him. If we do, we will be blessed. If we don’t, we will always find ourselves doing battle with past enemies and tempted to worship the false gods of our former life. Cleansing is always the key to blessing.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Our Faithful God

27 And Balak said to Balaam, “Come now, I will take you to another place. Perhaps it will please God that you may curse them for me from there.” 28 So Balak took Balaam to the top of Peor, which overlooks the desert. 29 And Balaam said to Balak, “Build for me here seven altars and prepare for me here seven bulls and seven rams.” 30 And Balak did as Balaam had said, and offered a bull and a ram on each altar.

1 When Balaam saw that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel, he did not go, as at other times, to look for omens, but set his face toward the wilderness. And Balaam lifted up his eyes and saw Israel camping tribe by tribe. And the Spirit of God came upon him, and he took up his discourse and said,

“The oracle of Balaam the son of Beor,
    the oracle of the man whose eye is opened,
the oracle of him who hears the words of God,
    who sees the vision of the Almighty,
    falling down with his eyes uncovered:
How lovely are your tents, O Jacob,
    your encampments, O Israel!
Like palm groves that stretch afar,
    like gardens beside a river,
like aloes that the Lord has planted,
    like cedar trees beside the waters.
Water shall flow from his buckets,
    and his seed shall be in many waters;
his king shall be higher than Agag,
    and his kingdom shall be exalted.
God brings him out of Egypt
    and is for him like the horns of the wild ox;
he shall eat up the nations, his adversaries,
    and shall break their bones in pieces
    and pierce them through with his arrows.
He crouched, he lay down like a lion
    and like a lioness; who will rouse him up?
Blessed are those who bless you,
    and cursed are those who curse you.”

10 And Balak’s anger was kindled against Balaam, and he struck his hands together. And Balak said to Balaam, “I called you to curse my enemies, and behold, you have blessed them these three times. 11 Therefore now flee to your own place. I said, ‘I will certainly honor you,’ but the Lord has held you back from honor.” 12 And Balaam said to Balak, “Did I not tell your messengers whom you sent to me, 13 ‘If Balak should give me his house full of silver and gold, I would not be able to go beyond the word of the Lord, to do either good or bad of my own will. What the Lord speaks, that will I speak’? 14 And now, behold, I am going to my people. Come, I will let you know what this people will do to your people in the latter days.” Numbers 23:27-24:14 ESV

The third time is the charm, or so Balak hoped. In his relentless effort to have Balaam curse the Israelites, Balak suggested that they try their luck at a third location. He still harbored hopes that they might be able to convince Jehovah to change His mind and curse His own people. In a sense, he was attempting to treat God as he had Balaam; by trying to buy Him off. Balak seemed to believe that deities were no different than humans and were susceptible to bribes and influence peddling. He had already authorized the construction of 14 altars and the sacrifice of 56 bulls and seven rams in an attempt to sway the mind of God. And his obsession with defeating the Israelites drove him to up the ante one more time.

But on this occasion, Balaam refused to seek the will of Jehovah because he already knew what the answer would be. The seer had already determined that nothing would convince the God of Israel to do anything but bless His people. Balak’s sacrifices were an exercise in futility and a waste of time.

Rather than follow Balak to Mount Peor, Balaam headed to the wilderness, where it appears he was given a vision by God. As he lay prostrate on the ground, the Holy Spirit opened his eyes to see the Israelites “camping tribe by tribe” (Numbers 24:2 ESV). In the previous accounts, Balaam had stood on higher ground and seen a portion of the Israelite camp with his own eyes. But this time, he was given a vision that allowed him to see each and every one of the 12 tribes of Israel, and this Spirit-induced dream was accompanied by yet another message from God.

“This is the message of Balaam son of Beor,
    the message of the man whose eyes see clearly,
the message of one who hears the words of God,
    who sees a vision from the Almighty,
    who bows down with eyes wide open…” – Numbers 24:3-4 NLT

Balaam was left without any doubts regarding the countless number of Israelites camped in the plains of Moab. He was given a panoramic vision of the entire nation of Israel and was overwhelmed by what he saw.

“How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob;
    how lovely are your homes, O Israel!
They spread before me like palm groves,
    like gardens by the riverside.
They are like tall trees planted by the Lord,
    like cedars beside the waters…” – Numbers 24:5-6 NLT

In his trance-like state, Balaam envisioned Israel as tall trees planted by the hand of God. They grew tall and strong beside the waters, and they were cared for by their divine gardener.

“He will pour the water out of his buckets,
and their descendants will be like abundant water;
their king will be greater than Agag,
and their kingdom will be exalted.” – Numbers 24:7 NET

As God had promised to Abraham centuries earlier, He was going to bless His people and transform them into a mighty nation.

“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse…” – Genesis 12:2-3 ESV

God had delivered them from their captivity in Egypt and had been leading them through the wilderness for the last four decades. But soon, they would no longer be wanderers in the wilderness but citizens of a mighty kingdom ruled over by a powerful king. The promised blessings of Jehovah would be fully realized and there was nothing anyone could do to prevent this predetermined outcome.

“God brought them out of Egypt.
They have, as it were, the strength of a young bull;
they will devour hostile people,
and will break their bones,
and will pierce them through with arrows. – Numbers 24:8 NET

Once again, Balak was receiving far-from-pleasant news from his hired gun. Rather than pronouncing a curse on Israel, Balaam was singing the praises of their God and warning against any attempts to do them harm. None of this was what Balak wanted to hear. And to make matters worse, Balaam describes God as a hungry apex predator, waiting to attack and destroy any who would dare stand against His will. And, quoting from Jehovah’s covenant promise to Abraham, Balaam provides Balak with one final warning against trying to curse the Israelites.

“Blessed are those who bless you,
    and cursed are those who curse you.” – Numbers 24:9 ESV

Israel was favored by God and there was nothing Balaam or anyone else could do to alter that fact. Their future was in the hands of Jehovah. He had great plans for them and He would see to it that the covenant promises He made to Abraham were fully fulfilled.

But Balak refused to accept Balaam’s assessment and angrily fired his disappointing diviner. He reneged on his promise of reward and sent Balaam home empty-handed.

“I called you to curse my enemies! Instead, you have blessed them three times. Now get out of here! Go back home! I promised to reward you richly, but the Lord has kept you from your reward.” – Numbers 24:10-11 NLT

But before he departed, Balaam had one more thing to say to his former employer. He reminded Balak that from the very beginning he had been open and above board about his inability to curse the Israelites. He had warned Balak that regardless of how much reward he was offered, he “would be powerless to do anything against the will of the Lord” (Numbers 24:13 NLT). While Balaam confessed that he could be easily bought off, Jehovah was not susceptible to bribes. The God of Israel had made promises to His people and He would faithfully fulfill them, despite anyone’s attempts to deter or dissuade Him.

As Balaam prepared to return home, he gave Balak one final series of messages that would leave the over-confident king in a state of despair and disillusionment. Not only would God never curse His own people, but He would use them to pour out curses on the nations of Canaan. This wandering band of former slaves would become a force to be reckoned with, as Jehovah carried out His promise to transform them into a mighty nation and gift them the land of Canaan as their home. God would keep every covenant commitment He had made to Abraham, including the promise of many descendants and the gift of a homeland.

“Look as far as you can see in every direction—north and south, east and west. I am giving all this land, as far as you can see, to you and your descendants as a permanent possession. And I will give you so many descendants that, like the dust of the earth, they cannot be counted! Go and walk through the land in every direction, for I am giving it to you.” – Genesis 13:14-17 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Man Rages and God Laughs

13 And Balak said to him, “Please come with me to another place, from which you may see them. You shall see only a fraction of them and shall not see them all. Then curse them for me from there.” 14 And he took him to the field of Zophim, to the top of Pisgah, and built seven altars and offered a bull and a ram on each altar. 15 Balaam said to Balak, “Stand here beside your burnt offering, while I meet the Lord over there.” 16 And the Lord met Balaam and put a word in his mouth and said, “Return to Balak, and thus shall you speak.” 17 And he came to him, and behold, he was standing beside his burnt offering, and the princes of Moab with him. And Balak said to him, “What has the Lord spoken?” 18 And Balaam took up his discourse and said,

“Rise, Balak, and hear;
    give ear to me, O son of Zippor:
19 God is not man, that he should lie,
    or a son of man, that he should change his mind.
Has he said, and will he not do it?
    Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?
20 Behold, I received a command to bless:
    he has blessed, and I cannot revoke it.
21 He has not beheld misfortune in Jacob,
    nor has he seen trouble in Israel.
The Lord their God is with them,
    and the shout of a king is among them.
22 God brings them out of Egypt
    and is for them like the horns of the wild ox.
23 For there is no enchantment against Jacob,
    no divination against Israel;
now it shall be said of Jacob and Israel,
    ‘What has God wrought!’
24 Behold, a people! As a lioness it rises up
    and as a lion it lifts itself;
it does not lie down until it has devoured the prey
    and drunk the blood of the slain.”

25 And Balak said to Balaam, “Do not curse them at all, and do not bless them at all.” 26 But Balaam answered Balak, “Did I not tell you, ‘All that the Lord says, that I must do’?” Numbers 23:13-26 ESV

Balak was doggedly determined in his efforts to have the Israelites cursed. And he seems to have believed that Balaam’s reluctance to do so was based on fear of their overwhelming numbers. After all, from his earlier vantage point, Balaam had stressed the size of the Israelite camp.

“I see them from the cliff tops;
    I watch them from the hills.
I see a people who live by themselves,
    set apart from other nations.
Who can count Jacob’s descendants, as numerous as dust?
    Who can count even a fourth of Israel’s people?” – Numbers 23:9-10 NLT

So, Balak suggested a change of venue where Balaam’s view of the Israelite encampment might be somewhat restricted. Perhaps if the seer saw fewer Israelites he would be less wary of issuing a curse on them.

“Please come with me to another place, from which you may see them. You shall see only a fraction of them and shall not see them all. Then curse them for me from there.” – Numbers 23:13 NLT

Balak’s desperation was at an all-time high, and he was willing to do anything to ensure that his hired diviner carried out his assignment. He even built seven more altars and sacrificed an additional seven bulls in the hopes that this location might create the right environment for Balaam to conjure up a devastating curse on the enemy camp. But, once again, Balaam informed the king that he would have to consult Jehovah, the God of the Israelites.

“Stand here by your burnt offerings while I go over there to meet the Lord.” – Numbers 23: 15 NLT

By this point, Balaam knew that he would be a fool to do anything that angered Israel’s God. It wasn’t the size of Israel’s camp that scared Balaam; it was the power of their God. Yet, there seems to be a part of Balaam that hoped he could convince Jehovah to change His mind. Why else would he agree to offer additional sacrifices and call on Jehovah yet again? He must have harbored hopes that this time would be different.

“Balaam is constantly shifting, prevaricating, equivocating, changing—he is himself the prime example of the distinction between God and man.” – Ronald B. Allen, “Numbers.” In Genesis—Numbers. Vol. 2 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary

But, unlike Balaam, God would prove to be unchanging in His covenant commitment to Israel. He was not fickle or easily swayed to change His mind. So, when Balaam heard from God a second time, the message he received was aimed directly at Balak and it contained a stern lesson concerning God’s faithfulness and His commitment to bless His chosen people. There was nothing Balaam or Balak could do to alter His plans for the nation of Israel.

First, God had Balaam teach Balaam the doctrine of divine immutability.

“Rise up, Balak, and listen!
    Hear me, son of Zippor.
God is not a man, so he does not lie.
    He is not human, so he does not change his mind.
Has he ever spoken and failed to act?
    Has he ever promised and not carried it through? – Numbers 23:18-19 NLT

Jehovah was not anything like the false gods that Balak worshiped. He wasn’t a human on steroids, a mere man with supernatural powers and a flawed character. Israel’s God was otherworldly and without equal. He could not be bought off, coerced, or expected to do anything that would violate His divine will.

And Balaam delivered the less-than-encouraging news that there was nothing he could do to thwart God’s plans for Israel.

“God has blessed, and I cannot reverse it!
No misfortune is in his plan for Jacob;
    no trouble is in store for Israel.
For the Lord their God is with them;
    he has been proclaimed their king.” – Numbers 23:20-21 NLT

This not-so-subtle point was aimed directly at Balak. God was letting this inconsequential king know he was no match for the one true King. Balak was outclassed and out of his league. His paltry army and insignificant kingdom were up against the God of the universe and the odds were totally against him. And Balaam was forced to admit that his parlor tricks would be of no use against the all-powerful God of Israel.

“God brought them out of Egypt;
    for them he is as strong as a wild ox.
No curse can touch Jacob;
    no magic has any power against Israel.” – Numbers 23:22-23 NLT

Whether Balaam realized it or not, he was echoing the failures of the Egyptian magicians who had tried to replicate the supernatural miracles of Moses.

So Moses and Aaron did just as the Lord had commanded them. When Aaron raised his hand and struck the ground with his staff, gnats infested the entire land, covering the Egyptians and their animals. All the dust in the land of Egypt turned into gnats. Pharaoh’s magicians tried to do the same thing with their secret arts, but this time they failed. – Exodus 8:17-18 NLT

Magicians and magistrates are powerless against Jehovah. Human kings and kingdoms have no hope of victory against the King of kings. And the psalmist pointed out the futility of attempting to wage war against the Almighty.

Why do the nations rage
    and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
    and the rulers take counsel together,
    against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart
    and cast away their cords from us.”

He who sits in the heavens laughs;
    the Lord holds them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
    and terrify them in his fury, saying,
“As for me, I have set my King
    on Zion, my holy hill.” – Psalm 2:1-6 ESV

The King on Zion had one last bit of bad news for the king of Moab. And this final part of the message must have left Balak on the verge of depression.

“For now it will be said of Jacob,
    ‘What wonders God has done for Israel!’
These people rise up like a lioness,
    like a majestic lion rousing itself.
They refuse to rest
    until they have feasted on prey,
    drinking the blood of the slaughtered!” – Numbers 23:23-24 NLT

Desperate to find a silver lining on this dark cloud of depressing news, Balak pleaded with Balaam, “if you won’t curse them, at least don’t bless them!” (Numbers 23:25 NLT). He was grasping for any semblance of hope among all the doom and gloom of Balaam’s latest message. But, once again, the hapless sage was forced to confess his powerlessness to do anything that would conflict with God’s will.

“Didn’t I tell you that I can do only what the Lord tells me?” – Numbers 23:26 NLT

But it will become evident that Balak was just as unchanging and immutable as Jehovah. Unwilling to take no for an answer, the stubborn potentate would try one last time to convince Balaam to curse the Israelites. It was his only hope. But his stubbornness would prove to be no match for God’s covenant faithfulness.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

God Meted Out Meat and Judgment

31 Then a wind from the Lord sprang up, and it brought quail from the sea and let them fall beside the camp, about a day’s journey on this side and a day’s journey on the other side, around the camp, and about two cubits above the ground. 32 And the people rose all that day and all night and all the next day, and gathered the quail. Those who gathered least gathered ten homers. And they spread them out for themselves all around the camp. 33 While the meat was yet between their teeth, before it was consumed, the anger of the Lord was kindled against the people, and the Lord struck down the people with a very great plague. 34 Therefore the name of that place was called Kibroth-hattaavah, because there they buried the people who had the craving. 35 From Kibroth-hattaavah the people journeyed to Hazeroth, and they remained at Hazeroth. Numbers 11:31-35 ESV

The Israelites got what they wanted and, unexpectedly, exactly what they deserved. They had grown sick of the manna that God miraculously provided for them and began to express their craving for the more varied diet they had enjoyed back in Egypt.

“Oh that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” – Numbers 11:4-6 ESV

This craving or deep longing (אָוָה ‘āvâ) for Egyptian cuisine had begun among “the rabble that was among them” (Numbers 11:4 ESV). This appears to be a reference to the non-Jews who had joined the Israelites in their exodus from Egypt. In the book of Exodus, Moses recorded that a “rabble of non-Israelites went with them” (Exodus 12:38 ESV). This mixed multitude likely consisted of Egyptians as well as individuals who haled from other ethnic backgrounds. After having endured the ten plagues that the God of the Israelites had brought against Egypt and then witnessed the devastating deaths of all the firstborn, these people had chosen to align themselves with Moses and his powerful deity.

Many of these people were probably slaves just like the Israelites or were from the lower classes of the Egyptians. They had seen the exodus as an opportunity to escape their impoverished conditions and improve their prospects for the future. But after a year of traveling through the wilderness alongside the Israelites, they had begun to question their decision and long for their former lives back in Egypt. It seems unlikely that their prior circumstances had been quite so enjoyable as they recalled. While the Nile would have provided them easy access to fish and the fertile soil of the Nile Valley produced an abundant supply of fruits and vegetables, the lower-class status of this “rabble” would have made most of delicacies unaffordable and inaccessible.

Yet, they couldn’t stop thinking about the “good life” of Egypt. Their cravings and desires got the best of them and their growing dissatisfaction with God’s provision slowly infected the rest of the community. Before long, the people of Israel were all expressing their desire to return to Egypt.

“Who will give us meat to eat? For it was better for us in Egypt.” – Numbers 11:18 ESV

At the core of their complaint was a distrust of God. They were declaring their doubt in His ability to provide for their needs. In their minds, God was incapable of providing the fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic they had enjoyed in Egypt. In a sense, they were suggesting that Egypt and by extension, Pharaoh, had done a better job of meeting their needs. They were demanding that God accomodate Himself to their wants and desires. He needed to get with the program and give them what they wanted: Meat with all the fixin’s.

And God agreed to give them exactly what they asked for. He informed Moses to tell the people, “the Lord will give you meat, and you shall eat. You shall not eat just one day, or two days, or five days, or ten days, or twenty days, but a whole month, until it comes out at your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you, because you have rejected the Lord who is among you” (Numbers 11:18-20 ESV).

They had allowed their physical desires to get the best of them and, driven by their cravings for temporal delights, they had rejected the providential plan of God. The apostle Paul provides an apt description for this kind of materialistic-minded outlook.

Their god is their appetite, they brag about shameful things, and they think only about this life here on earth. – Philippians 3:19 NLT

They had lost sight of the prize. Rather than patiently waiting on God’s promise of a land flowing with milk and honey, they fixated on the apparent deprivations of the moment and refused to place their hope in the future blessings to come.

And the last five verses of chapter 11 describe how God gave them what they desired as well as what they deserved. A wind (רוּחַ rûaḥ) blew from the southeast that carried with it an abundance of quail. These migratory birds were miraculously blown off course and divinely directed to this very spot. And when they came to rest, the text states that they were as far as the eye could see, stretching as far as one day’s journey on either side of the camp.

So the people went out and caught quail all that day and throughout the night and all the next day, too. No one gathered less than fifty bushels! They spread the quail all around the camp to dry. – Numbers 11:32 NLT

It was like shooting fish in a barrel. Everyone was able to gather as much quail as they could possible crave or desire. There were no limits imposed by God. So, driven by their greed, the people spent all day and night hoarding as much quail as they could possibly catch. And Moses records that they let their appetites get the best of them.

But while they were gorging themselves on the meat—while it was still in their mouths—the anger of the Lord blazed against the people, and he struck them with a severe plague. – Numbers 11:33 NLT

The people showed no sign of awe or respect for God. They displayed no gratitude for His gracious provision. Instead, they gorged themselves on the quail. Perhaps, in their greed, they even ate the meat raw, and in doing so, violated God’s prohibition against consuming blood (Leviticus 7:26). But whatever the case, their blatant display of ingratitude and unbridled, animal-like cravings brought down the judgment of God.

It was like a feeding frenzy. The rapacious actions of the people revealed the lustful hearts of the people. They ate as if they were starving. But God had been providing for their physical needs all along the way. There had always been enough manna to meet their dietary requirements. But their gorging down of the quail had less to do with hunger than gluttony. And that fact is revealed by the name given to the place where God poured out His anger on His rebellious and rapacious people.

So that place was called Kibroth-hattaavah (which means “graves of gluttony”) because there they buried the people who had craved meat from Egypt. – Numbers 11:34 NLT

While not everyone died that day, the entire nation of Israel was guilty of forsaking God and worshiping their appetites. It’s likely that some gathered the quail and set it aside for future consumption. Rather than greedily gorging themselves, they gratefully collected what they needed, recognizing it as just another gift from God.

God knew the needs of His people. He was fully aware that food was a non-negotiable necessity for their survival. And He had provided more than enough to sustain them all along the way. But their demand for something better proved to be an affront to God’s sovereignty and providence. They were questioning His integrity and goodness. They were expressing doubt in His providential care. And they were displaying their inordinate desire for the things of this earth. Unwilling to wait for the inheritance God had in store for them, they demanded immediate gratification of their physical appetites. And God obliged them. But He also repaid them for their blatant display of ingratitude and disturbing demonstration of uncontrolled gluttony. He meted out meat and justice at the same time. He gave them what they desired and exactly what they deserved. They had enjoyed the momentary pleasure of gorging themselves on quail but, as a result, they also encountered the more permanent experience of God’s holy and righteous judgment.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Moving Day

11 In the second year, in the second month, on the twentieth day of the month, the cloud lifted from over the tabernacle of the testimony, 12 and the people of Israel set out by stages from the wilderness of Sinai. And the cloud settled down in the wilderness of Paran. 13 They set out for the first time at the command of the Lord by Moses. 14 The standard of the camp of the people of Judah set out first by their companies, and over their company was Nahshon the son of Amminadab. 15 And over the company of the tribe of the people of Issachar was Nethanel the son of Zuar. 16 And over the company of the tribe of the people of Zebulun was Eliab the son of Helon.

17 And when the tabernacle was taken down, the sons of Gershon and the sons of Merari, who carried the tabernacle, set out. 18 And the standard of the camp of Reuben set out by their companies, and over their company was Elizur the son of Shedeur. 19 And over the company of the tribe of the people of Simeon was Shelumiel the son of Zurishaddai. 20 And over the company of the tribe of the people of Gad was Eliasaph the son of Deuel.

21 Then the Kohathites set out, carrying the holy things, and the tabernacle was set up before their arrival. 22 And the standard of the camp of the people of Ephraim set out by their companies, and over their company was Elishama the son of Ammihud. 23 And over the company of the tribe of the people of Manasseh was Gamaliel the son of Pedahzur. 24 And over the company of the tribe of the people of Benjamin was Abidan the son of Gideoni.

25 Then the standard of the camp of the people of Dan, acting as the rear guard of all the camps, set out by their companies, and over their company was Ahiezer the son of Ammishaddai. 26 And over the company of the tribe of the people of Asher was Pagiel the son of Ochran. 27 And over the company of the tribe of the people of Naphtali was Ahira the son of Enan. 28 This was the order of march of the people of Israel by their companies, when they set out.

29 And Moses said to Hobab the son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses’ father-in-law, “We are setting out for the place of which the Lord said, ‘I will give it to you.’ Come with us, and we will do good to you, for the Lord has promised good to Israel.” 30 But he said to him, “I will not go. I will depart to my own land and to my kindred.” 31 And he said, “Please do not leave us, for you know where we should camp in the wilderness, and you will serve as eyes for us. 32 And if you do go with us, whatever good the Lord will do to us, the same will we do to you.”

33 So they set out from the mount of the Lord three days’ journey. And the ark of the covenant of the Lord went before them three days’ journey, to seek out a resting place for them. 34 And the cloud of the Lord was over them by day, whenever they set out from the camp.

35 And whenever the ark set out, Moses said, “Arise, O Lord, and let your enemies be scattered, and let those who hate you flee before you.” 36 And when it rested, he said, “Return, O Lord, to the ten thousand thousands of Israel.” Numbers 10:11-36 ESV

The orders had been given. Detailed instructions had been carefully communicated to the people of Israel. They knew exactly what they would need to do when God decided it was time for them to leave Mount Sinai and, now, that time had come. Their encampment at the base of Sinai had been their home for almost a year, but God had never intended it to be their final destination. According to Exodus 19:1, they had arrived there two months after leaving Egypt.

Exactly two months after the Israelites left Egypt, they arrived in the wilderness of Sinai. After breaking camp at Rephidim, they came to the wilderness of Sinai and set up camp there at the base of Mount Sinai. – Exodus 19:1-2 NLT

Now, just ten days short of the one-year anniversary of their arrival in Sinai, they were instructed to pack up and leave.

In the second year after Israel’s departure from Egypt—on the twentieth day of the second month—the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle of the Covenant. So the Israelites set out from the wilderness of Sinai and traveled on from place to place until the cloud stopped in the wilderness of Paran. – Numbers 10:11-12 NLT

In Numbers 10, Moses indicates that the day came when the cloud of God’s presence ascended from above the tabernacle and made its way into the wilderness. And, as God had instructed them to do when the cloud moved, they began to break camp and move out in an orderly, prearranged manner.

the people of Israel set out by stages from the wilderness of Sinai. – Numbers 10:12 ESV

Due to the large number of Israelites involved in this mass migration, God had provided them with strict instructions regarding their movements. It was not to be a free-for-all, with everyone moving at once and according to their own agenda. With 12 tribes involved, consisting of what has been estimated as more than two million people, this was a major undertaking that required precision and careful planning. Tents must be taken down. Herds and flocks must be rounded up. The tabernacle must be dismantled and prepared for transport to the next destination. And, according to Numbers 10, the people went about their duties obediently. Everyone did their part and carefully followed the instructions of the Lord.

When the cloud made its way into the wilderness, the people knew it was time to move. At the sound of the two silver trumpets (Numbers 10:1), they had gathered together and seen the sight of the cloud making its way into the wilderness. God had made the decision to relocate their camp and move them close to their final destination: The land of Canaan.

Under normal circumstances, the trip to Kadesh-Barnea should have taken 11-days (Deuteronomy 1:2), but with the numbers involved and the need for an orderly and well-regimented evacuation process, it took them three days to arrive at the wilderness of Paran. The cloud had come to rest in that region, signifying that it was there that they were to set up camp.

“The Desert of Paran is a large plateau in the northeastern Sinai, south of what later would be called the Negev of Judah, and west of the Arabah. This forms the southernmost portion of the Promised Land, the presumed staging area for the assault on the land itself. The principal lines of assault on the land of Canaan are from the southwest, following the Way of the Sea from Egypt, and from the northwest, following the Way of the Sea from Phoenicia. Israel’s staging for attack in the Desert of Paran was a brilliant strategy. In this way they would avoid the fortified routes to the west, presumably under the control of Egypt. This unusual line of attack from the south would stun the inhabitants of the land. They would come like a sirocco blast from the desert, and the land would be theirs, under the hand of God.” – Ronald B. Allen, “Numbers.” In Genesis—Numbers. Vol. 2 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary

Verses 13-28 provide the details concerning the departure of Israel from Sinai. The tribe of Judah led the way, with each of the other tribes moving out according to a prearranged plan. Some of the tribes would have started the process long before the tabernacle was completely dismantled and ready for transport. And the lengthy procession would have stretched out for miles as the Israelites made their way into the wilderness, following the cloud of the Lord.

They marched for three days after leaving the mountain of the Lord, with the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant moving ahead of them to show them where to stop and rest. As they moved on each day, the cloud of the Lord hovered over them. – Numbers 10:33-34 NLT

God was guiding them, just as He had promised to do. He was leading them further away from Egypt and ever closer to their new home in Canaan. The land He had promised to Abraham as an inheritance would soon be theirs. But they would have to continue to follow His leading and trust Him for their provisions along the way. The journey would not be easy, but Moses knew that, as long as they followed God’s will, they would be blessed. He even tried to convince his brother-in-law to join them.

“We are on our way to the place the Lord promised us, for he said, ‘I will give it to you.’ Come with us and we will treat you well, for the Lord has promised wonderful blessings for Israel!” – Numbers 10:29 NLT

It’s interesting to note that Moses asked his brother-in-law to serve as a scout or guide for the people of Israel.

“You know the places in the wilderness where we should camp. Come, be our guide. If you do, we’ll share with you all the blessings the Lord gives us.” – Numbers 10:31-32 NLT

Perhaps Moses knew that Hobab was familiar with the wilderness terrain and could help them choose the best places to camp. But this seems to contradict the idea that the cloud of God was to serve as their guide. It is unclear whether Moses’ request was out of step with the will of God. But he evidently convinced Hobab to join them. Judges 1:16 indicates that the descendants of Moses’ father-in-law were still traveling with the Israelites long after they made it into the land of Canaan.

When the tribe of Judah left Jericho—the city of palms—the Kenites, who were descendants of Moses’ father-in-law, traveled with them into the wilderness of Judah. They settled among the people there, near the town of Arad in the Negev. – Judges 1:16 NLT

Hobab and his family may have ended up traveling with the Israelites, but his services were not required. God was going to lead His people and He did so through the cloud that rested over the Ark of the Covenant.

They marched for three days after leaving the mountain of the Lord, with the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant moving ahead of them to show them where to stop and rest. As they moved on each day, the cloud of the Lord hovered over them. – Numbers 10:33-34 NLT

The priests carried the Ark of the Covenant at the head of the process and the cloud of the Lord hovered over the mercy seat on top of the Ark. All along the length of the process, the people could see the cloud rising up into the sky and know that they were headed in the right direction. And when the Ark came to rest, the people knew it was time to stop for the night.

Each time the Ark and the cloud set out, Moses would utter a prayer or blessing.

“Arise, O Lord, and let your enemies be scattered! Let them flee before you!” – Numbers 10:35 NLT

And when the cloud ceased to move and the priests set down the Ark of the Covenant, Moses would pronounce another blessing.

“Return, O Lord, to the countless thousands of Israel!” – Numbers 10:36 NLT

Moses knew that the people of Israel were completely dependent upon God. Without Him, this entire journey would be a disaster and any hope they had of conquering the land of Canaan would be hopeless. Little did he know what awaited them in the wilderness. In his mind, they were on their way to the land of promise and preparing to occupy the inheritance promised to them by God. But this chapter, marked by its description of the peoples’ orderly procession from Sinai, is setting up an unexpected disaster awaiting them in the days ahead.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Learning to Trust the Ways of God

All this I observed while applying my heart to all that is done under the sun, when man had power over man to his hurt.

10 Then I saw the wicked buried. They used to go in and out of the holy place and were praised in the city where they had done such things. This also is vanity. 11 Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil. 12 Though a sinner does evil a hundred times and prolongs his life, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they fear before him. 13 But it will not be well with the wicked, neither will he prolong his days like a shadow, because he does not fear before God.

14 There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity. 15 And I commend joy, for man has nothing better under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun.

16 When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how neither day nor night do one’s eyes see sleep, 17 then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out. Ecclesiastes 8:9-17 ESV

In this life, things don’t always turn out the way we think they should. The righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. Good people experience a lot of bad things. And, far too often, bad people seem to come out on top. Solomon is wise enough to know that, in the end, everybody dies. But some wicked people can spend their whole lives fooling others into thinking they were actually good and godly people who lived religious lives. So, when they die, they receive the unmerited praise and honor of men.

I have seen wicked people buried with honor. Yet they were the very ones who frequented the Temple and are now praised in the same city where they committed their crimes! This, too, is meaningless. – Ecclesiastes 8:10 NLT

They lived a lie, and in death, they receive unwarranted admiration. As far as Solomon is concerned, this is just another proof of the vanity and futility of life. At the time of death, good people get forgotten, while the wicked get a parade in their honor.

When Solomon mentions the wicked, he is not just speaking of the godless and immoral. He is referring to those who hurt others, abusing and taking advantage of them. They are the oppressors he mentioned in chapter four.

Again, I observed all the oppression that takes place under the sun. I saw the tears of the oppressed, with no one to comfort them. The oppressors have great power, and their victims are helpless. – Ecclesiastes 4:1 NLT

These people don’t commit their wicked deeds in a vacuum. Their behavior inevitably impacts the lives of those around them. There are always victims involved because wickedness is an equal-opportunity destroyer. And sadly, it is usually the innocent who end up suffering because of the lifestyle choices of the wicked. For Solomon, the actions of the wicked against the innocent are just another example of life’s meaninglessness.

I have thought deeply about all that goes on here under the sun, where people have the power to hurt each other. – Ecclesiastes 8:9 NLT

Prostitution and human sex trafficking destroy the lives of countless individuals every year. The drug cartels line their pockets with cash paid out by those seeking yet another high in a hopeless attempt to escape the lows of life. Abusive husbands have abused wives. Rapists have victims. Con artists have their marks. Bullies have the helpless. Liars have the naive and gullible. The powerful have the defenseless. The list goes on and on. And when the wicked see that they can get away with whatever it is they do, they feel emboldened to do more. Solomon put it this way: “When a crime is not punished quickly, people feel it is safe to do wrong” (Ecclesiastes 8:11 NLT). 

But Solomon introduces a vital point of clarification. Even though the wicked may appear to escape any retribution or justice, he knows that eventually, there will be payback. He has confidence that God’s justice will one day be meted out on all those who have made wickedness their lifestyle.

it will not be well with the wicked, neither will he prolong his days like a shadow, because he does not fear before God. – Ecclesiastes 8:13 ESV

From our perspective, it may appear as if the wicked just keep on sinning, committing evil after evil, with no apparent consequences. It can even seem as if they live charmed lives, marked by longevity and free from accountability. But Solomon knows that it is those who fear God who will prosper in the long run. They may not experience it in this life, but our righteous God will one day ensure that all is made right. In the meantime, we have to live with the incongruous reality that things don’t always add up in this life. It is full of contradictions and apparent paradoxes. This is why Solomon observes:

good people are often treated as though they were wicked, and wicked people are often treated as though they were good. – Ecclesiastes 8:14 NLT

It can feel so meaningless and futile. And trying to make sense of it all is about as productive as chasing the wind. You get nowhere. You expend a lot of energy but have nothing to show for it in the end. So, Solomon simply concludes. “I recommend having fun, because there is nothing better for people in this world than to eat, drink, and enjoy life. That way they will experience some happiness along with all the hard work God gives them under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 8:15 NLT).

Is this advice from Solomon wise? Does it even make sense? It may sound appealing but just because it’s in the Bible doesn’t necessarily mean it’s godly counsel. This isn’t the first time that Solomon has reached this conclusion and passed it on to his readers. He offered up the same basic conclusion back in chapter five.

Even so, I have noticed one thing, at least, that is good. It is good for people to eat, drink, and enjoy their work under the sun during the short life God has given them, and to accept their lot in life. – Ecclesiastes 5:18 NLT

He said virtually the same thing in chapter two, verse 24. He repeated it in chapter three, verses 12-13, and then again, here in chapter five. Eat, drink and enjoy your work. Eat, drink and be joyful. What’s Solomon saying and how should we take his advice?

He is not advising a life of hedonism and self-centered pleasure. He is not advocating unbridled self-satisfaction. But he is suggesting that there are joys associated with hard work and diligent effort in this life. We get to reap the rewards of our work. We can enjoy the warmth and safety of the home our labor helped to we helped to provide. We can take advantage of the many material blessings that God allows us to enjoy as a result of our work. Unlike a slave, who receives no personal benefit from his labors, but must watch the rewards be consumed by his master, we can enjoy the fruit of our effort. We can find joy in a job well done and the benefits it offers. And Solomon would have us remember that “To enjoy your work and accept your lot in life—this is indeed a gift from God” (Ecclesiastes 8:20 NLT).

We may not have much, but what we do have, we should appreciate and view as a gift from God. The ability to find joy in our labor is something God supplies, and it comes from having a healthy reverence for God. If you despise your job and resent the time you spend having to work for a living, you are essentially expressing to God your ungratefulness for His provision. Your job is not good enough. The benefits it provides are not sufficient enough. So, rather than joy, you express resentment and disappointment. You begin to look at the apparent prosperity of the wicked and question the goodness of God. This can lead to an unhealthy preoccupation with the past that produces a ledger of God’s failures to provide for you. This can lead to a lack of fear of God. And this can result in a failure to show Him reverence, honor, glory, or gratitude.

A big part of learning to fear God is learning to trust Him. It is coming to grips with who He is and who we are in comparison. He is God. He is sovereign, all-knowing, and all-powerful. He is not wise; He is wisdom itself. He knows what is best. He always does what is right. Moses expressed it this way:

I will proclaim the name of the Lord;
    how glorious is our God!
He is the Rock; his deeds are perfect.
    Everything he does is just and fair.
He is a faithful God who does no wrong;
    how just and upright he is! – Deuteronomy 32:3-4 NLT

Yes, there are many things in this life that appear unfair and unjust. There are paradoxes and incongruities galore. Our circumstances may scream to us that God is nowhere to be found, but the Scriptures tell us something radically different. He is always there. The wicked may appear to get away with murder, both literally and figuratively, but God is still in control. He has a plan. He will do what is just and fair. He can do no wrong. And if we could learn to view life through the lens of God’s transcendent power, glory, goodness, and love, we would be better able to enjoy our lives on this planet – in spite of the seeming contradictions and incongruities that surround us.

Solomon realized that “no one can discover everything God is doing under the sun. Not even the wisest people discover everything, no matter what they claim” (Ecclesiastes 8:17 NLT). God’s ways are not our ways. His sovereign plans are sometimes a mystery to us, but they are always righteous and good. Attempting to judge the faithfulness of God based on the incongruous circumstances of life is a dangerous game to play. The apostle Paul warned against presumptuous behavior.

Who are you, a mere human being, to argue with God? Should the thing that was created say to the one who created it, “Why have you made me like this?” – Romans 9:20 NLT

And Paul borrowed his analogy from the prophet Isaiah.

How foolish can you be?
    He is the Potter, and he is certainly greater than you, the clay!
Should the created thing say of the one who made it,
    “He didn’t make me”?
Does a jar ever say,
    “The potter who made me is stupid”? – Isaiah 29:16 NLT

Both men believed it was ludicrous for a mere man to question the goodness of God just because life had not turned out as expected. For Isaiah, it was ridiculous for the creature to question the Creator. The one who was made had no right to call into question the integrity and righteousness of his Maker.

…can the ax boast greater power than the person who uses it? Is the saw greater than the person who saws? Can a rod strike unless a hand moves it? Can a wooden cane walk by itself? – Isaiah 10:15 NLT

In the end, Solomon recognized his inability to understand the ways of God. No amount of wisdom would ever explain the vagaries of life and the mysteries of God’s ways. And it was the apostle Paul who succinctly summed up the lesson that Solomon was learning.

Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways!

For who can know the Lord’s thoughts?
    Who knows enough to give him advice?
And who has given him so much
    that he needs to pay it back?

For everything comes from him and exists by his power and is intended for his glory. All glory to him forever! Amen. – Romans 11:33-36 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Without God, Even the Wise Become Fools

1 Who is like the wise?
    And who knows the interpretation of a thing?
A man’s wisdom makes his face shine,
    and the hardness of his face is changed.

I say: Keep the king’s command, because of God’s oath to him. Be not hasty to go from his presence. Do not take your stand in an evil cause, for he does whatever he pleases. For the word of the king is supreme, and who may say to him, “What are you doing?” Whoever keeps a command will know no evil thing, and the wise heart will know the proper time and the just way. For there is a time and a way for everything, although man’s trouble lies heavy on him. For he does not know what is to be, for who can tell him how it will be? No man has power to retain the spirit, or power over the day of death. There is no discharge from war, nor will wickedness deliver those who are given to it. Ecclesiastes 8:1-8 ESV

It shouldn’t be surprising that Solomon has a lot to say about the topic of wisdom. After all, he was known as the wisest man who ever lived. In the early days of his reign, when given an opportunity by God to ask of Him whatever he wished, Solomon had asked for an “understanding heart” so he could govern the people of Israel well. And God responded, “Because you have asked for wisdom in governing my people with justice and have not asked for a long life or wealth or the death of your enemies—I will give you what you asked for! I will give you a wise and understanding heart such as no one else has had or ever will have!” (1 Kings 3:11-12 NLT).

And God followed through on His commitment, blessing Solomon with unsurpassed wisdom. When the queen of the nation of Sheba (modern-day Ethiopia) made a royal visit to Jerusalem, she was impressed by Solomon’s wisdom and wealth

When she met with Solomon, she talked with him about everything she had on her mind. Solomon had answers for all her questions; nothing was too hard for the king to explain to her. When the queen of Sheba realized how very wise Solomon was, and when she saw the palace he had built, she was overwhelmed. – 1 Kings 10:2-5 NLT

But like everything else in his life, wisdom became an obsession for Solomon. Seemingly unsatisfied with what he had been given by God, he constantly attempted to increase his wisdom through self-effort. He wrote and collected wise proverbial sayings and put them in a book. In this book, known as The Proverbs of Solomon, he personifies wisdom as a woman calling out from the streets, attempting to get the attention of those who pass her by.

Wisdom shouts in the streets.
    She cries out in the public square.
She calls to the crowds along the main street,
    to those gathered in front of the city gate:
“How long, you simpletons,
    will you insist on being simpleminded?
How long will you mockers relish your mocking?
    How long will you fools hate knowledge?
Come and listen to my counsel.
I’ll share my heart with you
    and make you wise. – Proverbs 1:20-23 NLT

But despite wisdom’s generous offer of wisdom for all, her calls remained ignored by the simpletons, mockers, and fools. They rejected her advice and shunned her correction. Nobody wanted what she had to offer. And as a result, they were left in their ignorance and complacency. The time would come when wisdom was needed, but they would find it unavailable.

For Solomon, wisdom was a commodity worth pursuing. He even explained his purpose for writing his book of proverbs by stating:

Their purpose is to teach people wisdom and discipline,
    to help them understand the insights of the wise.
Their purpose is to teach people to live disciplined and successful lives,
    to help them do what is right, just, and fair.
These proverbs will give insight to the simple,
    knowledge and discernment to the young. – Proverbs 1:2-4 NLT

Wisdom became one of many obsessions for Solomon. He pursued it with a vengeance, and never seemed to think he had enough of it. It seems that he often forgot his own advice, failing to remember that “Fear of the Lord is the foundation of true knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7 NLT). The pursuit of wisdom without a healthy fear and worship of God is a futile effort. But too often, we make wisdom the focus of our attention, not God.

Yet, Solomon knew the benefits of wisdom. He had experienced them firsthand, and this is why he could sing the praises of a life of wisdom.

How wonderful to be wise, to analyze and interpret things. Wisdom lights up a person’s face, softening its harshness. – Ecclesiastes 8:1 NLT

In the verses that follow, Solomon provides his readers a number of examples of what wisdom looks like in real life. But notice that they all have to do with their allegiance to the king. In other words, their faithful service to him.

He starts out with a not-so-subtle admonition to “Keep the king’s command.” This is the king telling his own people that if they’re wise, they’ll obey him. Sounds more like a threat than a recommendation for wise living. While there is a degree of truth and wisdom in what Solomon says, it can’t help but come across as a bit self-serving.

If someone is an official servant of the king and has taken an oath to faithfully serve him, it makes perfect sense for them to follow through with their commitment. It would be unwise for them to shirk their duty or to join in a plot to overthrow the king. But Solomon’s words are not specifically directed at members of the royal household or administrative staff. It would be foolish for anyone, whether they were a civil servant or civilian, to question the decisions of the king, because his word is final, and he has the power to enforce whatever he has commanded.

If you obey the king, you won’t have to worry about being punished. The wise person knows when to speak up and when to shut up. He understands that there’s a time and a place for everything, even when facing trouble. And it’s our inability to control our words during times of difficulty that can get us in hot water, especially if it involves the king.  Without the benefit of wisdom, a person can say things they end up regretting. They run the risk of expressing thoughts that haven’t been thought through fully. And hasty words spoken in the presence of the king can expose foolishness and risk deadly consequences. This thought is reminiscent of something Solomon wrote earlier.

Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few. – Ecclesiastes 5:2 ESV

The apostle Paul shared a similar word of counsel in his letter to the church in Colossae.

Live wisely among those who are not believers, and make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be gracious and attractive so that you will have the right response for everyone. – Colossians 4:5-6 NLT

From Solomon’s royal perspective, it made sense not to question the wishes of a king. Of course, since he was the king, it’s easy to see why he felt this way. In his role as king, he had probably heard more than one citizen of his kingdom say, “What are you doing?” And he most likely found the tone of that question offensive and its timing unwise. No one likes to have his wisdom and authority questioned, especially the king. And Solomon appears to have viewed his authority as supreme, almost all-knowing in nature.

He states that the one who questions the king “does not know what is to be, for who can tell him how it will be?” (Ecclesiastes 8:7 ESV). This individual has no control over anything, including their day of death. Nobody can hold on to their spirit when the time comes for it to depart. Nobody can get out of their obligation to serve when conscripted for battle. They simply have to go. They must do their duty. And the one who chooses a life of evil will find himself hopelessly stuck, experiencing the inevitable consequences of his decision.

There is a certain sense of fate in Solomon’s words. You can’t know the future, so you have no control over it, and this brings us back to Solomon’s earlier admonition: Keep the king’s command.

But how are we to take what Solomon says and apply it to our daily lives? It is essential to read the book of Ecclesiastes with an understanding of the state of affairs in Solomon’s life at the time of its writing. He was an old man, having served as king of Israel for a long period of time. But he had not finished well. His kingdom was marred by idolatry. He had repeatedly disobeyed God, marrying more than 700 different women and amassing a harem of 300 concubines. And he had eventually adopted their false gods, an act of blatant unfaithfulness to Yahweh. And his unfaithfulness would ultimately force God to rip the kingdom from his hands and divide it in two.

Solomon was still a wise man when he wrote the book of Ecclesiastes, but it is safe to say that he no longer feared God as he once had. His wisdom had been marred by sin. His perspective had been skewed by his pessimistic take on life.

There is a lot of truth in the words that Solomon writes, but we must carefully search for and remove the hidden gems from the muck and mire of Solomon’s sin-distorted viewpoint. Wisdom is a good thing. Remaining faithful in your service to the king is solid and sound advice. But the one thing that is missing is a recommendation to fear the Lord.

To his credit, Solomon weaves that message into the verses that follow. But it seems that Solomon struggled with maintaining the vital connection between wisdom and the fear of God. At times, wisdom became a stand-alone for him. He operated by the misguided philosophy: More is better. There were occasions when he seemed to sincerely believe that wisdom was all you needed. But wisdom without a fear of God is useless. It too will prove futile and meaningless. It is our fear and reverence for God that gives wisdom its power. Knowing right from wrong, good from evil, and righteousness from wickedness begins with knowing and revering God. Being able to make good decisions stems from a solid understanding of who God is and what He expects of us. When we live to please God, we make wise decisions. When we live to please ourselves, we end up living like fools and, as Solomon so graphically put it, eating our own flesh. In our effort to make it all about ourselves, we end up destroying ourselves.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

A Dangerous Loss of Perspective

1 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

What gain has the worker from his toil? 10 I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 12 I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; 13 also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.

14 I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. 15 That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away. Ecclesiastes 3:1-15 ESV

In just eight short verses, there are 29 instances of the word “time.” You might conclude that Solomon is trying to make a point about the topic. The Hebrew word he chose to use is ’eth and of the 300 times it appears in the King James Bible, it is most often translated as “time.” And it seems that Solomon is using this particular word to drive home the contrast between life as we know it on this temporal plane, and the timeless dimension of eternity.

Solomon’s dilemma, like every other human being who has ever lived, is that he is restricted in his ability to discern anything beyond what he can see. He makes the very astute observation that God “has put eternity into man’s heart.” In other words, we have an innate awareness that there is something beyond this life, but we can’t perceive it. It lies beyond our limited vision.

As Solomon puts it, man “cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” The New Living Translation puts it this way: “people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end” (Ecclesiastes 3:11 NLT). We are temporal creatures, living our temporary lives on this earth, hamstrung by the limitations of our human senses and incapable of seeing what lies beyond the day we take our last breath.

It is important to remember that Solomon wrote this book sometime near the end of his life after he had veered from the course established for him by God. He had surrounded himself with wealth, women, possessions, and pleasures of all kinds. He had set up idols to false gods all over the kingdom and had become distracted from his faithfulness to the one true God. His ability to see things from a godly perspective had been harmed and hindered by his love affair with material things, worldly pleasures, and his man-made replacements for God.

Solomon’s worldview had become heavily influenced by the secular rather than the sacred. So, 29 times in these verses, he speaks of life in terms of time. And he does so by providing 14 stark contrasts that reveal his rather limited perspective. From Solomon’s vantage point, a life lived on this earthly plane and viewed from a human perspective is nothing more than a series of polar extremes.

The hope and joy of birth are contrasted with the sadness and seeming finality of death. Planting produces an eventual harvest, but then the relentless cycle only repeats itself, season after season. Killing is an inevitable reality in life, and starkly at odds with the need for healing. One takes away life while the other attempts to prolong it.

There are times when tearing down follows a season of building up. Why? Because nothing in this life is meant to last forever. Everything has a life cycle and an expiration date. Even the extravagant palace that Solomon built for himself was eventually destroyed and replaced by another.

Even weeping and laughter, as disparate and dissimilar as they may be, share a strange coexistence, equally impacting the lives of men for good or bad. There are times when frivolity is the appropriate reaction, but there are other times when tears are the proper response. They are aspects of human existence that, without a God-focused perspective, create a dissonance in the heart of man that can’t be understood or explained. Without an eternal perspective, we can’t comprehend or appreciate the necessity for times of sorrow. We long for full-time happiness and see sorrow as a setback to our personal agenda. And Solomon uses these two extremes as just another example of the cyclical, repetitive, and meaningless nature of human existence “under the sun” when God’s eternal viewpoint is left out of the equation.

Solomon acknowledges that God “has made everything beautiful in its time.” There are those moments in life when we can enjoy the birth of a baby, the joy of laughter and dancing, the blessings of the harvest, the experience of loving and being loved, and the presence of peace in our lives and in the world. But that doesn’t keep him from asking the question: “What gain has the worker from his toil?” In other words, what benefit does a man enjoy from all the effort and energy he puts into his life?

Whether he likes it or not, there will come a time when he has to replace the harvest he reaped. His wheat will run out. His wine vats will run dry. And he will be forced to sow yet again. He may one day be forced to watch the death of the child whose birth he witnessed and rejoiced over. He will experience the pain that comes when love turns to hate and gain turns to loss.

And Solomon summarizes all these things as “the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with” (Ecclesiastes 3:10 ESV). So, based on his secular-based viewpoint, Solomon concludes that the best outcome human beings can hope for is “to be joyful and to do good as long as they live” (Ecclesiastes 3:12 ESV). In light of the inevitability and futility of life, the most logical response is that of resignation. Since you can’t do anything about it, just give in and do your best to enjoy it.

So I concluded there is nothing better than to be happy and enjoy ourselves as long as we can. And people should eat and drink and enjoy the fruits of their labor – Ecclesiastes 3:12-13 NLT

And while this approach may seem a tad pessimistic, Solomon explains how he reached this conclusion.  

…this is God’s gift to man. – Ecclesiastes 3:13 NLT

What Solomon really seems to be saying is that if anyone can experience any semblance of joy and pleasure in the midst of all the meaninglessness of life, they should consider it a gift from God, and enjoy it while they can.

Solomon displays a strong belief in the sovereignty of God. He readily acknowledges that God is in control of all things, but his admission is tinged with a hint of sarcasm and resentment. Look closely at how he describes God’s preeminence and power.

…whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. – Ecclesiastes 3:14 ESV

While this speaks of God’s sovereignty and providential control over all things, Solomon’s tone is far from positive. He doesn’t exude a spirit of peace and solace at the thought of God’s omnipotence and omniscience but instead, he displays a hopeless resignation. He further qualifies his view by saying, That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away” (Ecclesiastes 3:15 ESV).

Here is yet another reference to the repetitive and futile essence of life lived under the sun. No sense of eternity. No expression of hope in what is to come. It is almost as if Solomon is painting God as some kind of cosmic puppet master in the sky who toys with man, determining his destiny, and relegating him to a hopeless existence featuring equal parts toil, trouble, joy, and pleasure.

But Solomon had a warped perspective. He had lost his ability to see life through the lens of God’s love and faithfulness. His abandonment of the eternal God had left him with nothing but a temporal view of life. He had become blinded to the sovereign will of God that is always accompanied by the loving mercy of God. His sense of purposelessness was the direct byproduct of his lack of faithfulness. God was not the one who had changed. God was not the one who had moved. Solomon’s loss of hope was due to this loss of his trust in God.

The Lord God had become a distant deity to Solomon, but it was not because He had abandoned His servant. No, Solomon had been the one who walked away from the relationship. He had failed to remember and take seriously the promise that God had made to him years earlier.

“…if you will walk before me, as David your father walked, with integrity of heart and uprightness, doing according to all that I have commanded you, and keeping my statutes and my rules, then I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever, as I promised David your father, saying, ‘You shall not lack a man on the throne of Israel.’” – 1 Kings 9:4-5 ESV

Somewhere along the way, Solomon had lost sight of eternity and had become fixated on the here-and-now. It had become all about him – his kingdom, his pleasure, his reputation, his own life “under the sun.” But God is eternal and His focus is always on the future. He had great things in store for Solomon but His real emphasis was on the One who would come and sit on the throne of David and rule in righteousness “forever.”

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Unwavering Faith In An Unfailing God

14 After he had buried his father, Joseph returned to Egypt with his brothers and all who had gone up with him to bury his father.

15 When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.” 16 So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this command before he died: 17 ‘Say to Joseph, “Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.”’ And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. 18 His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, “Behold, we are your servants.” 19 But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? 20 As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. 21 So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.

22 So Joseph remained in Egypt, he and his father’s house. Joseph lived 110 years. 23 And Joseph saw Ephraim’s children of the third generation. The children also of Machir the son of Manasseh were counted as Joseph’s own. 24 And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die, but God will visit you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” 25 Then Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, “God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here.” 26 So Joseph died, being 110 years old. They embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt. – Genesis 50:14-26 ESV

Joseph and his brothers returned to Egypt after having buried their father Jacob in Canaan. It must have been difficult to leave behind the land of promise yet again. But for the time being, Egypt had become their home away from home. So, having interred their father’s body in the cave of the field at Machpelah, they made the long journey back to Egypt.

It appears that, along the way, Joseph’s brothers became apprehensive about what might happen upon their return. With their father and protector dead, perhaps Joseph would take advantage of the situation and enact his revenge for their former treatment of him. Their fear of Joseph had never really subsided, despite the many ways he had shown them love and honor. It had been Joseph who had personally subsidized their food allotment all throughout the years of the famine. He had helped arrange their resettlement in Goshen. And yet, deep down inside, his brothers still did not trust him.

Upon their return to Egypt, the brothers held a discussion on the matter and reached a consensus.

“Now Joseph will show his anger and pay us back for all the wrong we did to him,” they said. – Genesis 50:15 NLT

So, they crafted a message and had it delivered to Joseph.

“Before your father died, he instructed us to say to you: ‘Please forgive your brothers for the great wrong they did to you—for their sin in treating you so cruelly.’ So we, the servants of the God of your father, beg you to forgive our sin.” – Genesis 50:16-17 NLT

His brothers had never really believed that Joseph had forgiven them. And they had always feared that he would one day use his power to repay them for the crime they had committed against him. They wrongly assumed that their father’s death would provide the perfect opportunity for Joseph to seek vengeance.

At the heart of their distrust was disbelief. It wasn’t that they failed to trust Joseph, it was that they lacked trust in the promises and provision of God. Years earlier, when Joseph had revealed his identity to his brothers, he had clearly told them that their actions against him had been part of God’s sovereign plan to preserve their people.

“I am Joseph, your brother, whom you sold into slavery in Egypt. But don’t be upset, and don’t be angry with yourselves for selling me to this place. It was God who sent me here ahead of you to preserve your lives. This famine that has ravaged the land for two years will last five more years, and there will be neither plowing nor harvesting. God has sent me ahead of you to keep you and your families alive and to preserve many survivors. So it was God who sent me here, not you! And he is the one who made me an adviser to Pharaoh—the manager of his entire palace and the governor of all Egypt.” – Genesis 45:4-8 NLT

And yet, they couldn’t bring themselves to believe that their God had been orchestrating every facet of their relationship with Joseph. By this time, they must have realized that Joseph’s dreams, which had infuriated them, had come true. They had lived to experience Joseph’s prediction that they would one day bow down to him. And despite all the ways in which God had miraculously preserved them, they couldn’t seem to believe that He would continue to do so. They saw Joseph’s power as a problem, not a God-ordained proof of divine protection.

Joseph was grieved by their message. What more could he do to prove his love for them? He longed to be restored to a right relationship with all of his brothers and he harbored no ill will toward any of them. So as he read their message, he wept bitterly. But, once again, Joseph took action, calling his brothers into his presence. He refused to allow this divisive wedge to remain between him and his brothers.

The brothers arrived at Joseph’s palace ready to throw themselves at his mercy. In fact, as soon as they entered they threw themselves at his feet, declaring, “Look, we are your slaves!” (Genesis 50:18 NLT). Preferring to face a lifetime of slavery rather than death, they begged Joseph for mercy. But what they got was another powerful reminder of the sovereignty of God.

“Don’t be afraid of me. Am I God, that I can punish you? You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people. No, don’t be afraid. I will continue to take care of you and your children.” – Genesis 50:19-21 NLT

Joseph knew what they had done. Not only that, he knew he would have been fully in his rights to seek revenge against them. He not only had the motive, but he had the power to pull it off. But that is not what Joseph wanted because it was not what God had intended. Their crime against him, while untenable and contemptible, had been part of God’s providential plan for protecting and preserving the offspring of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Joseph fully believed in the sovereignty of God and he wanted his brothers to put aside their fears and replace them with faith in the God of their father.

For 25 chapters, Moses has chronicled the life of Jacob and his family. And now, as his history of Jacob’s lineage comes to a close, Moses reminds his readers that Yahweh can and should be trusted at all times – regardless of how dire and desperate the situation may appear. And this was a message they needed to hear. The original readers of Moses’ book had been the Israelites whom he had led out of Egypt to the edge of the promised land. Moses died before the people had ever entered the land, so this historical narrative would have been intended to provide them with impetus and encouragement as they prepared to enter the land without him. Even as Moses faced death and knew he would never enter the land of Canaan, he composed a song for his people to sing. And, in that song, he mentioned the days that Jacob had spent in Egypt.

 “For the people of Israel belong to the Lord;
    Jacob is his special possession.
He found them in a desert land,
    in an empty, howling wasteland.
He surrounded them and watched over them;
    he guarded them as he would guard his own eyes.
Like an eagle that rouses her chicks
    and hovers over her young,
so he spread his wings to take them up
    and carried them safely on his pinions.
The Lord alone guided them;
    they followed no foreign gods.
He let them ride over the highlands
    and feast on the crops of the fields.
He nourished them with honey from the rock
    and olive oil from the stony ground.
He fed them yogurt from the herd
    and milk from the flock,
    together with the fat of lambs.
He gave them choice rams from Bashan, and goats,
    together with the choicest wheat.
You drank the finest wine,
    made from the juice of grapes.” – Deuteronomy 32:9-14 NLT

God had cared for the descendants of Jacob for more than 400 years. He had protected them and provided for all their needs. He had multiplied them in number and miraculously transformed the 12 sons of Jacob into a vast army of more than 600,000 men by the time they left Egypt.

The story of Jacob, Joseph, and his brothers is intended to be a reminder of the sovereign power of the Almighty God. His plan is never thwarted. His will is never overcome. What Joseph’s brothers had done to him had been meant for ill, but God had intended it for good.

Joseph assuaged the fears and guilt of his brothers, assuring them that he had no intentions of bringing them harm. And he lived alongside them in peace until he reached the age of 110. Joseph lived long enough to become a great-great-grandfather, witnessing three generations worth of descendants through his son, Ephraim. But with death closing in, Joseph took one last opportunity to encourage his brothers to maintain their faith in Yahweh.

“Soon I will die,” Joseph told his brothers, “but God will surely come to help you and lead you out of this land of Egypt. He will bring you back to the land he solemnly promised to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” – Genesis 50:24 NLT

Joseph never stopped believing in the promises of God. He had taken his father’s body back to Canaan because he knew that was their true home. Egypt had been nothing but a divinely ordained detour. The day would come when God would restore His people to the land He had promised to them. And Joseph believed his brothers or their descendants would live to see that day. His faith was so strong that he demanded his brothers swear an oath to take his mummified body with them when they returned to Canaan. He, like his father Jacob, had always harbored an intense desire to go home.

It’s interesting to note that the book of Genesis began with a couple who displayed their lack of faith in God by questioning His Word and disobeying His command. Rather than trusting God, they tried to become like him. But the book ends with a man of faith who never stopped believing in the promises of God. In fact, Joseph is mentioned in the great “Hall of Faith” found in the 11th chapter of Hebrews.

It was by faith that Joseph, when he was about to die, said confidently that the people of Israel would leave Egypt. He even commanded them to take his bones with them when they left. – Hebrews 11:22 NLT

Joseph died in Egypt, but his heart had always been in Canaan. And one day, his faith in God was proven worthy, because his body was returned to the land of promise, just as he had hoped.

Thus the Israelites left Egypt like an army ready for battle.

Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for Joseph had made the sons of Israel swear to do this. He said, “God will certainly come to help you. When he does, you must take my bones with you from this place.”

The Israelites left Succoth and camped at Etham on the edge of the wilderness. The Lord went ahead of them. He guided them during the day with a pillar of cloud, and he provided light at night with a pillar of fire. – Exodus 13:18-21 NLT

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