Strength for the Journey: “Discerning God’s Direction” – Numbers 9

God’s ddirection1irection sometimes seems confusing, doesn’t it? You may have noticed that the Bible is not a small book, and it is not lacking in detail. God had much to say, and keeping all of it straight in our mind is essential, but it takes work. We need to really be intentional about learning and applying the Word, but sometimes it is confusing to us. Maybe a good way to introduce the problem is by using a humorous little story that makes the point…

Years ago, a small church suspected a candidate, despite his supposed seminary training, was not ready to be ordained to Gospel ministry. A committee of knowledgeable Christian men convened to question the candidate carefully on his knowledge of the Holy Scripture. The candidate offered some curious answers to theological questions. As a result, the committee decided the best thing to do was quiz his recall of the Scriptures. The candidate “… was asked, “What part of the Bible do you like best?” He said: “I like the New Testament best.” Then he was asked, “What Book in the New Testament is your favorite?” He answered, “I like the Book of the Parables, Sir.” [Puzzled by the response…] They asked him to relate one of the parables to the committee. And a bit uncertain, he began… “Once upon a time a man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves; and the thorns grew up and choked the man. And he went on and met the Queen of Sheba, and she gave that man, yes sir, a thousand talents of silver, and a hundred changes of raiment. “And he got in his chariot and drove furiously and, as he was driving along under a big tree, his hair got caught in a limb and left him hanging there! And he hung there many days and many nights. The ravens brought him food to eat and water to drink. And one night while he was hanging there asleep, his wife Delilah came along and cut off his hair, and he fell on stony ground. And it began to rain, and rained forty days and forty nights. And he hid himself in a cave. Later he went on and met a man who said, ‘Come in and take supper with me.’ But he said, ‘I can’t come in, for I have married a wife.’ And the man went out into the highways and hedges and compelled him to come in! He then came to Jerusalem, and saw Queen Jezebel sitting high and lifted up in a window of the wall. When she saw him she laughed, and he said, ‘Throw her down out of there,’ and they threw her down. And he said ‘Throw her down again,’ and they threw her down seventy-times-seven. And the fragments which they picked up filled twelve baskets full! NOW, whose wife will she be in the day of the Judgment?” The story didn’t say what the committee decided, [but I have hope that he will not be your next Pastor]. (Adapted from a sermon by Bobby Scobey, If the Church Became Unchristian # 4 – Behavior More Important than Belief, 6/22/2010).

The passage we are looking at today will help us straighten out some problems in following God’s direction, while giving us confidence in God’s comforting presence. God IS with us. God’s will CAN be understood. His direction CAN be followed – but it will take work to discern the path. Look at the example in Numbers chapter nine.

Key Principle: God’s continual presence in our life is an empowering prize and a securing peace. When we don’t see it, we have strayed, and must choose to return.

Just as with us, so God dwelt with His people in the desert of Sinai, as they made their journey to the Promised Land God showed up before the people of Israel to keep the people moving ahead and confident about their direction. In the passage for our lesson today, He showed up in two important ways: 1) in response to uncertain application to the Word – when two instructions of God seemed to conflict God made His direction clear; 2) in direction and obvious manifestation of His power and presence when God wanted the people to move, He obviously LED them. The passage provided a record that there are two clear ways to follow God’s direction when His followers are uncertain:

• Seek Him when His Word offers what appears to be conflicting direction.
• Watch for His manifest presence and empowering in our lives.

God isn’t playing “cat and mouse games” with believers. He WANTS us to know His direction. He isn’t looking to be cryptic, causing us to search dark caves for ancient inscriptions. He has delivered His Word through the perils of history and the scrutiny of arrogant men. He has guided us by the hand with His enduring and patient hand. Yet, following the One we cannot see with our physical eye, while we are so transfixed in the material world can be difficult. God provided the content of His Word and the tug of His hand – yet there are still problems discerning His direction. God wants us to WORK at discerning His direction, and following His manifest presence. If we cut the chapter in two parts, we see answers to two distinct problems…

Two Problems following God’s direction:

Problem One: The complex nature of God’s Word in a sin-ridden society.

Life is often more complicated than a simple “right” and “wrong” in many areas of modern choice. I am not implying that God is uncertain about His desired design, but rather that the fruits of generations of sinners have made life more complicated than simply looking at a verse and deciding what is a correct practice. The further from God one has walked, the more complex it becomes to recognize the combinations of principles from God’s Word to solve problems. Facing the complexity of the modern family alone is a study in threading the needle of truth. Add to that the breadth of the principles of God’s Word, and we find ourselves having to search carefully for answers.

When we were raising children in schools that began with prayer, and taught respect to authority, and when we had the support of a community that operated in principles much closer to Biblical truth – the culture helped us raise our children to fear God and walk much closer to a Biblical form of morality. Whether we engaged the moral lesson that “Timmy and Lassie” taught us, or soaked in a primer in honesty we got from watching “Opie” get caught in a lie in Mayberry, the culture didn’t seem to try to pull the Bible away from daily life at every turn. We live now in different times. ABC Family line up on Tuesday night is now “Pretty Little Liars” followed by “The Lying Game”…and that is the FAMILY CHANNEL. The previews alone should scare a follower of God about what passes as moral in common culture.

As sin multiplies and wrong is redefined as right in this “progressive” culture, the application of God’s Word requires greater energy and more careful search with a consistent approach to Scripture. This is not a time for laziness in our study. We dare not “dumb down” our knowledge of the Word inside the church as the world numbs itself from God’s truth on the outside. That combination will leave young believers helpless in the confusion over God’s direction. It is time to do a more careful work in the Word, and to examine our lives carefully for conformity to God’s standard, while seeking to walk with intensity and consistency in God’s path of direction.

Now here is my question: What do you do when you have an important choice to make, and more than one principle of God’s Word applies, but doesn’t seamlessly fit together?

That was the problem in Numbers 9:1-14. God had already said ALL ISRAEL was to participate without exception in the Passover feast (cp. Ex. 12), but God subsequently instructed separation from sacrifices and cultic observances in Israel by those defiled by burial of their dead (Numbers 5:2), restricting them from participation in OTHER SACRIFICES and worship for a time. The specific question was this: “Which principle of God’s spoken Word applies in THIS SPECIFIC CIRCUMSTANCE?”

The Situation was set amid listening to the Lord:

God instructed the timing of the Passover feast. He wanted things done exactly, and according to all that He had said. Numbers 9:1 Thus the LORD spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the first month of the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt, saying, 2 “Now, let the sons of Israel observe the Passover at its appointed time. 3 “On the fourteenth day of this month, at twilight, you shall observe it at its appointed time; you shall observe it according to all its statutes and according to all its ordinances.” God spoke clearly, and Moses knew exactly what God’s intent was concerning the observance. They were given in statutes (a word for “engravings” or eternal and unchanging truths).

The context was strict obedience to the revealed desire of God:

Numbers 9:4 So Moses told the sons of Israel to observe the Passover. 5 They observed the Passover in the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, in the wilderness of Sinai; according to all that the LORD had commanded Moses, so the sons of Israel did. This should remind us of an important truth: God is not haphazard in His prescriptions. He is not sloppy in His standards – and His followers must not be as well. When God calls on His people to act, He does so with very specific principles and standards in mind. When Paul wrote to first century Corinthian believers not to “yoke together with unbelievers” – he certainly excluded cross participation between the pagan temple and the local church. The values, world view, and allegiances were different – because their God was different. As God spoke through Paul’s words, God marked out the family of believers as distinct in their community. Would not marrying a person who does not see life as an opportunity to serve our Master betray this idea? Believers need to be careful to recall that God is specific because God knows what He wants. For Israel, He expressed that He wanted full participation in the festival as previously instructed… and that set up the problem.

The Problem was there was no previous precedent for a specific case of conflicting Scripture:

Outside the camp were some who were defiled because of a recent burial. They were now faced with a dilemma – two things God said seemed to conflict. Numbers 9:6 But there were some men who were unclean because of the dead person, so that they could not observe Passover on that day; so they came before Moses and Aaron on that day. Don’t quickly dismiss that Moses and Aaron received the men. The men CAME IN to the camp to meet with Moses, though they were defiled. Remember, defilement didn’t mean SINFUL, it meant INELLIGIBLE for a specified time because of a condition that was NOT specifically sinful. Not all defilement is from direct sin – though sin defiles. Sin causes death in a general way, and the handling of the dead defiles one and sets them out of participation for a time.

Moses was willing to meet them, because it wasn’t clear what they should do. Was defilement suspended by God at Passover? How could God both REQUIRE them to do something and RESTRICT them at the same time? They assumed they WERE ELIGIBLE and returned to the camp – a logical but erroneous conclusion.

The Question was WHY they could not observe (they were still part of Israel!):

Standing in front of Moses and Aaron, the men confronted the problem: Numbers 9:7 Those men said to him, “Though we are unclean because of the dead person, why are we restrained from presenting the offering of the LORD at its appointed time among the sons of Israel?” 8 Moses therefore said to them, “Wait, and I will listen to what the LORD will command concerning you.” Look at what Moses did with the problem! When he didn’t know God’s direction, he dropped to his knees and sought God.

Don’t misunderstand or misread what happened. There were TWO THINGS Moses did:

1) He confronted each of the commands and knew them thoroughly BEFORE he came before God. What it meant to OBSERVE the feast was not at all unclear. The three leading points: eating the lamb with unleavened bread and bitter herbs, leaving nothing till the next day, and not breaking a bone (Exodus 12:8, Exodus 12:10, Exodus 12:46) are repeated in this passage.

Let me say it carefully, in hopes that the lesson will not be obscured: We don’t have to prayerfully ask God for answers to questions He has already made clear in His Word. Don’t drop to your knees and ask if you should have a sexual encounter outside of a marriage vow. Don’t seek God’s face, asking whether you should steal money from another’s dresser drawer. Don’t fall in desperation before Jesus asking Him to change His standards on pornography. Don’t beg God to give you millions without work in the next lottery. Respect for God means searching His Word before we ask Him to answer us contrary to His stated principles and His clean character. This is why it is important for a believer to KNOW the Word so that they can follow God’s direction. There aren’t as many difficult directions as we may think. Direction is always a mystery to one who has not read the map already.

2) He sought God when the two commands could not be reconciled. When two passages seemed to lead in two directions – he was without an answer. Moses THEN went to God with the problem.

Rahab faced this issue when the spies came to her. Should she tell the king the men were hidden under the flax on the roof, and came from the northeast? Should she hide the men sent from God to her, at the expense of telling the truth?

Daniel faced this problem when the king made a decree to cease all prayer to anyone but to his throne, and God had already communicated with Daniel about his consistent prayer life.

Peter and John faced this when they were told by Jerusalem temple officials to cease preaching about Jesus.

Every believer who has ever had to carefully search the Scriptures for issues of civil disobedience has faced the problem. God calls believers to respect the government, but God placed the limit of that obedience inside the specific boundaries of His Word. The Apostles said: “We must obey God rather than men” because they understood the boundary of the two principles in collision.

Mishandling the Bible can have severe consequences. When Federal troops occupied Cheraw, South Carolina, the Confederates left so much gun powder behind that the Union troops decided to dump most of it in a little creek. Some bored soldiers were looking for some entertainment so they scooped up handfuls of the powder and carried it to their cooking fires a few hundred yards away, where they exploded it amid much shouting and laughter. With each handful they grew more careless, and left numerous crisscrossing trails of powder running back to the ravine. Sergeant Theodore Upson of the 100th Indiana had just started his coffee boiling when he saw “a little flash of powder running along the ground.” A moment later he noticed that the powder flashes had multiplied and were running in all directions. Someone yelled, “Look out for the magazine!” Upson and his comrades “made some pretty quick moves” in putting as much space between themselves and the creek bed as the burning powder trails would allow. “Then there was a tremendous explosion,” Upson recorded. “The dirt and stones flew in every direction.” The ground shook for miles. The force of the blast destroyed several houses and shattered nearly every window in town. A storm of shell and shrapnel rained down for a half-mile in every direction. One officer and three enlisted men were killed as a result of the blast, and more than a dozen were wounded. Rumor had it that Sherman at first believed the explosion was an act of sabotage, and was on the verge of issuing orders to burn the rest of the town and execute the mayor in retaliation. He relented, however, when he learned that it was the carelessness of his own men that had caused the devastation. (adapted from Mark L. Bradley,The Battle of Bentonville: Last Stand in the Carolinas, pg. 67-69).

When the Bible is poorly handled, people use its pages to justify enslavement of men of color. Social justice proponents use it to justify endless handouts without regard to any personal responsibility. The “love of God” gets misconstrued to tolerate whatever sinful practice has recently sparkled in the eye of the lost world. The Word explodes on people who use it as a popular quote book, or a rationalization source for sinful display. In the end, it is misquoted to justify wickedness and its context is perverted to appease religious sensibility, but it leads men away from God!

God replied with three standards:

God has a plan and He is not afraid to answer questions about it. Moses came with a legitimate issue, and God answered it. God offered three important statements:

First, He instructed them to observe a month later, but to observe exactly as the others did. Numbers 9:9 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 10 “Speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘If any one of you or of your generations becomes unclean because of a dead person, or is on a distant journey, he may, however, observe the Passover to the LORD. 11 ‘In the second month on the fourteenth day at twilight, they shall observe it; they shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. 12 ‘They shall leave none of it until morning, nor break a bone of it; according to all the statute of the Passover they shall observe it.

God didn’t force people in the midst of severe pain and loss to festivity and observance; He allowed them to choose to be a part of this a month later. At the same time, the METHODS used were not open to individual interpretation. “Do it or don’t”, the Lord said, “but if you do, it can be practiced only according to the statutes.” The normal restriction from offering did not apply if they felt they wanted to participate.

Second, He restricted any delay by others: Numbers 9:13 ‘But the man who is clean and is not on a journey, and yet neglects to observe the Passover, that person shall then be cut off from his people, for he did not present the offering of the LORD at its appointed time. That man will bear his sin.

Third, He pressed the point that there was one standard, even among strangers in their midst: Number 9:14 ‘If an alien sojourns among you and observes the Passover to the LORD, according to the statute of the Passover and according to its ordinance, so he shall do; you shall have one statute, both for the alien and for the native of the land.’”

Step back from the detail of the passage and look at what God made clear here. The keys to following God in the complexity of His Word are two: knowing the Word well enough to understand the issue, and then seeking God for His specific intention in prayer.

I don’t want to beat the point, but I want it to be very clear. The Bible contains many principles that may appear to conflict in complex life situations. It is the work of the local church to help you to build a consistent study pattern in God’s Word, so that you will have a grasp of how to apply to principles of Scripture to the complex issues we face in modern life. If you are regularly a part of a church where that is not being accomplished, I apologize for my colleagues and their misuse of sacred responsibility.

We can have fun together, but we are not a social club. We may enjoy experiences as we tie our lives together, but the primary focus of the local church is to train you to understand the Biblical world view and live it out in daily life. This includes relationships, so the body works together. This is not a counseling center, but the Bible offers the best counsel to be found on the planet. This is not a philanthropy organization, but Spirit-filled believers are generous people, and love to give toward the meeting of needs. This is not a social club, but God’s people function as a body and need to laugh together on their way to being a useful tool in God’s hand.

Let me ask you to consider something: Purpose to dig into God’s Word this year. Be a part of learning it, studying it, and applying it to life. Learn where problems are answered inside its pages. Be a part of a church that is heavily invested in the work of systematic and careful study of its contents. The world outside doesn’t know it, but it desperately needs well informed Christians who can discuss the principles of the Bible with confidence and clarity. When tragedy strikes, the airwaves fill with pundits that have no real ability to explain evil, let alone restore confidence and hope. The hope is found in the truth. The truth is found in the Word of God.

Problem Two: The need to discern God’s manifest presence

I think every believer wants more than a book to follow. We don’t fall in love with the Word as an end in itself. We fall in love with what God said, because we are learning to fall in love with HIM! We want to experience His love and presence in daily life. Let me say it plainly: God directs believers in more than just principles – He does it in very specific manifestations of presence. If you are walking with God, you KNOW His touch. You experience His presence. I am not getting spooky, but I loathe the hesitancy we have for really admitting that we long to have Him hold tightly onto our hand and guide us. I want that – I admit it. I want more than principles and theory – I want to KNOW HIM, walk with Him, follow Him. The good news is that He desires the same thing. Look at the second part of Numbers 9, this time in the verse from 15 to 23…

The sign of His manifest presence came from the time of clear obedience:

Don’t overlook that God’s manifest presence – the times when He nudges you, speaks into your life through the voice of others, shouts through something you read or hear, or even inserts His direction into your mind as you walk through the day – are all predicated in the Word on obedience to His Word. Numbers 9:15 Now on the day that the tabernacle was erected the cloud covered the tabernacle, the tent of the testimony, and in the evening it was like the appearance of fire over the tabernacle, until morning. 16 So it was continuously; the cloud would cover it by day, and the appearance of fire by night.

The people DID what God said, and God showed up when the map ran out for them. They knew His general direction, and they were experiencing His character. Moses was getting and giving His Word. Yet, they needed more. They needed to know where to go next…and God didn’t let them down. His obvious presence followed their submission – and it still does.

The marker of the presence moved to get the people re-directed:

Numbers 9:17 Whenever the cloud was lifted from over the tent, afterward the sons of Israel would then set out; and in the place where the cloud settled down, there the sons of Israel would camp. 18 At the command of the LORD the sons of Israel would set out, and at the command of the LORD they would camp; as long as the cloud settled over the tabernacle, they remained camped. 19 Even when the cloud lingered over the tabernacle for many days, the sons of Israel would keep the LORD’S charge and not set out.

Notice that verse 18 clues us in to the reality that the people understood God’s movement as His command. When God stopped, they knew He wanted them to stop. When God went on, they saw it as His direction.

The key to following God’s direction was watching out for His manifest presence:

Numbers 9:20 If sometimes the cloud remained a few days over the tabernacle, according to the command of the LORD they remained camped. Then according to the command of the LORD they set out. 21 If sometimes the cloud remained from evening until morning, when the cloud was lifted in the morning, they would move out; or if it remained in the daytime and at night, whenever the cloud was lifted, they would set out. 22 Whether it was two days or a month or a year that the cloud lingered over the tabernacle, staying above it, the sons of Israel remained camped and did not set out; but when it was lifted, they did set out. 23 At the command of the LORD they camped, and at the command of the LORD they set out; they kept the LORD’S charge, according to the command of the LORD through Moses.

The keys to following God’s manifest presence are two: desire to follow Him and keep careful watch for Him. The people moved as they saw God move. They kept their eyes fixed on Him. They wanted to be in His presence and follow Him as He moved. They didn’t move and then ask the cloud to follow them – they watched the cloud and moved according to His Divine call.

Let me ask some penetrating questions: Are you experiencing God’s daily presence in your walk through life? Is He directing your paths – and you KNOW it? Are you in a position of obedience and confidence, such that God can easily step in and give direction to you?

I must finish our time in Numbers 9, but I cannot leave without exploring my heart concerning God’s direction. I need to assess my commitment to the Word, and my hunger to grow in it this year, as the Lord allows. If I don’t WANT to know what God has said, then I have already stopped listening to His directions. There is no point to His speaking into my life – I am not listening. I show in my obstinacy the rejection of God’s control, and forfeit God’s direction. If that is true, we must all remember this: You cannot get where you want to go on the wrong road. The right path to fulfillment and stability is the one I walk holding the Master’s hand.

Do you know why believers struggle to follow God together? It is as simple as the lesson of the sunflower. The tall and slender flower seems to recognize its absolute need of the sun – so the head literally follows the sun’s movements across the sky. Have you ever stood and watched a full field of sunflowers? Watching one sunflower follow the sun can be interesting, but watching hundreds of tall, yellow flowers bending in unison to follow the sun is nothing short of incredible. When you watch them, you notice they all seem harmonious and synchronized. If you look closely, watch for this one truth: their unity appears totally dependent on one thing…their relationship to the sun. So does ours. Believers that follow the Son do it in harmony with one another, and confidence that they are positioned where God intended them to be.

God’s continual presence in our life is an empowering prize and a securing peace. When we don’t see it, we have strayed, and must choose to return.