Presumption: I Want It NOW!

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Numbers 14:39 – 45

You have deserted the Lord, and now he will desert you. (Numbers 14:43b TLB)

Martin Farquhar Tupper, English writer and poet, who is best know for his work Proverbial Philosophy, wrote these words:

Deep is the sea, and deep is Hell, but pride mineth deeper. It is coiled as a poisonous worm about the foundation of the soul.

In this brief story, we learn an important lesson about pride, but also about the truthfulness of that old saw, “too little, too late.” Specifically, the people of Israel had tried to exercise some faith, but it was “too little, too late.” It all started with something referenced in verse 39:

What sorrow there was throughout the camp when Moses reported God’s words to the people! (Numbers 14:39 TLB)

In response to those feelings of sorrow, the people of Israel tried to do something in faith:

They were up early the next morning and started toward the Promised Land. “Here we are!” they said. “We realize that we have sinned, but now we are ready to go on into the land the Lord has promised us.” (Numbers 14:40 TLB)

So what happened? What lit the fire under these Israelites? What motivated them to “go on into the land” to take it?

Background

Moses and Israel had reached the border of the Promised Land, the land God had promised to give to His people. Instead of pressing on to take the land – it was already given to them, after all – Moses decided to send in a troupe of spies.

So the majority report of the spies was negative: “The land is full of warriors, the people are powerfully built, and we saw some of the Anakim there, descendants of the ancient race of giants. We felt like grasshoppers before them, they were so tall!” (Numbers 13:32, 33 TLB)

In spite of the fact that God had promised – promised – to give the land to Israel, the people believed the report of all but two of the spies. Two of them, Joshua and Caleb, told a different story:

But Caleb reassured the people as they stood before Moses. “Let us go up at once and possess it,” he said, “for we are well able to conquer it!” (Numbers 13:30 TLB)

Those two men had faith; faith in the Word of the Lord. Unfortunately, the people believed the negative report rather than the positive one. People are wont to do that, even today. It’s easier for us to believe bad news over good news. This reaction of the people didn’t sit well with God.

But now, since the people of Israel are so afraid of the Amalekites and the Canaanites living in the valleys, tomorrow you must turn back into the wilderness in the direction of the Red Sea. (Numbers 14:25 TLB)

You will all die here in this wilderness! Not a single one of you twenty years old and older, who has complained against me, shall enter the Promised Land. Only Caleb (son of Jephunneh) and Joshua (son of Nun) are permitted to enter it. (Numbers 14:29, 30 TLB)

Since the spies were in the land for forty days, you must wander in the wilderness for forty years—a year for each day, bearing the burden of your sins. I will teach you what it means to reject me. I, Jehovah, have spoken. Every one of you who has conspired against me shall die here in this wilderness. (Numbers 14:34, 35 TLB)

And to show that He was dead serious, God struck all the faithless spies dead. And that brings us to the response of the people:

Here we are!” they said. “We realize that we have sinned, but now we are ready to go on into the land the Lord has promised us.” (Numbers 14:40b TLB)

But it was too late. The people had their chance, but things had changed.

But Moses said, “It’s too late. Now you are disobeying the Lord’s orders to return to the wilderness.” (Numbers 14:41 TLB)

Faith or presumption

The people’s immediate response to God’s judgment was actually mourning. But what were they mourning? Certainly not their mutinous behavior! They were scared; shocked at what God had done to people they knew. And they were probably scared because their opportunity to set down roots in a “land flowing with milk and honey” has passed them by. Now they were faced with 40 years of “camping out” in the desert. Forty years without a mailing address. Forty years without a job or steady income. Forty years of manna. Forty years of sand and dirt. No wonder they mourned!

Following their brief period of mourning, they felt the sting of their punishment; the full realization of what was facing them hit them and the people decided push on with the original plan: march on and take the land. The people dug down deep; they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and with complete grit and determination, they forged ahead. They would redeem their lost opportunity to posses the Promised Land. They even “confessed” their sins, in word at least. But it was all for naught. It was “too little, too late.”

Sin begets sin. The old sins of doubt and faithless despair turned into the new sins of presumptuous self-confidence. There’s nothing wrong with healthy self-confidence. But what afflicted these people was not healthy; it was a sickness. In thinking they could forge ahead at their convenience, the people did four things wrong.

They went against the revealed will of God. What had been God’s Word to them yesterday had become their disobedience today. God’s will had been for the people to go in and possess the land. But that was yesterday. Today His will had become: turn around and die in the desert. The people didn’t like that idea at all. They took matters into their own hands; they presumed they could “show up late” and that God would automatically bless their efforts. His response to them makes it clear that they – nobody, actually – can choose to serve God their own way. The big lesson we take away here is a simple but profound one: You must serve God His way. You aren’t allowed to make the rules. God makes them. Any service rendered to God by your own efforts is a fruitless exercise that He is not obligated to bless or even notice.

Christians are very good about doing what those Israelites did, by the way. In our service to God, we often tend to do what we think is best, often with disastrous results because they are done in our strength, not God’s. We blame God and get angry with Him because of our inevitable failures, yet He’s not to blame, we are! He’s shown us His way in His Word. But it’s easier to move on, doing our thing, deluding ourselves into thinking since it’s a good thing, God will bless our effort. He doesn’t work that way. We are to discern God’s will from His Word then live accordingly. Several times we read this verse in Proverbs:

There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death. (Proverbs 14:12 AV)

They thought they could predict God’s blessing. What they exclaimed is telling:

Here we are… (Numbers 14:40 TLB)

They simply presumed on the past goodness of God. They assumed that if they did the right thing now, in spite of their recent failure, that God would simply forget their rebellious and faithless attitudes. It’s a waste of time and effort in thinking we can depend on the past for the present. God’s books are current. It’s pure folly trying to do your own thing, even if it is done in God’s Name, and expect God to bless it.

The thought they could succeed without the presence of God. Verse 44 is a frightening one:

But they went ahead into the hill country, despite the fact that neither the Ark nor Moses left the camp. (Numbers 14:44 TLB)

They were embarking on a very good campaign; a campaign God wanted them to engage in – to possess the land He had given to them. The problem was, they were out of step with God. They were trying to do His will their way, according to their timetable, under their own strength. The fact that neither the Ark nor Moses accompanied them showed that they were completely out of God’s will.

As a Christian, if you are living out of God’s will or if you are attempting some noble service to God and mankind in your strength, you will be doing it alone, without the benefit of God’s presence. 2 Chronicles 15:2 should be engraved on all our hearts:

The Lord is with you when you are with him. (NIV)

They thought their words would satisfy God. Words mean things, but they must be backed up with corresponding action. The people admitted that they sinned. But their actions belied their words. They didn’t plead for forgiveness. They didn’t seek God in prayer and fasting. They tried to something – anything – to mitigate God’s judgment. They didn’t want to die in the desert. By attempting to take the land, they thought they could avoid God’s will. They presumed a simple, “I know we were wrong” would be enough for God. It wasn’t. Confession without submission to God’s will is hypocrisy.

A high price to get your own way

We’re fortunate to be living in this present age of grace. God’s judgment in the Old Testament was swift. The Israelites did their own thing, their own way and they paid high price.

Then the Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived in the hills came down and attacked them and chased them to Hormah. (Numbers 14:33 TLB)

In their self-confidence, they forged ahead and things ended badly. Not all of them died, but here is the perfect picture of those believers who think they can serve God their own way.

They experienced disappointment. And why wouldn’t they be disappointed? Man’s best efforts will always come up short compared to God’s blessings. We believers get used to living under divine protection. We get used to God’s blessings. We enjoy the warmth of His presence. So it’s no wonder when we get a little bold and brazen, thinking we can do something without God’s help, that we’ll feel disappointed and let down. We’re shocked when we realize God didn’t help us.

They experienced a stinging defeat. The Israelites got an old fashioned whooping! They had gotten used to God fighting for them. Defeat can hurt. It can be humiliating. This is what happens when believers step out from God’s presence.

Some died. Many did not, but some lost their lives. We are told in Scripture that, “Pride goeth before a fall.” It’s not only unseemly when a Christian gets puffed up with pride, it’s dangerous. A prideful believer is a threat not only to his own spiritual well-being but to those around him.

Over in the New Testament, we are told this:

These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. (1 Corinthians 10:11 NIV)

In other words, we need to take note of what happened to the Israelites in this story. We need to apply what they learned “too late” so that we won’t make the same mistake they did.

For those of us in church leadership – pastor, elder, Sunday School teacher, deacon – we need to make absolutely sure that all our efforts are done in the presence of God and in the power of the Holy Spirit and never in our own strength.

For all of us who regularly attend church; we who love to be in church, we must always watch out that our faith remains in God, not in the church and it’s ordinances or programs. “Autopilot” is the worst way to fly for a Christian!

And finally, to all the procrastinators reading this. If you feel like the Lord has a work for you to do, step out in faith and do it. Don’t wait until an opportunity passes you by. Stop using the old “I’ll pray about it” excuse as way of never doing anything.

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