Strength for the Journey: “Painful Lessons” – Numbers 21

woman frustrated“Why can’t I get this stupid car to start!” she cried, as she watched the minute hand moving, step by step, to the killing of her new job. She knew that if she was late again, it was over. Tears ran down her cheeks as she cried out to God, angry that He didn’t seem to listen to her. “Why won’t you help me?” she said bitterly. “Just when I get my hopes up, they are smashed again – by things I can’t help!” …This wasn’t the beginning of her story – that was long before. She grew up in a good home, and learned right from wrong. She left one day in a rebellious rage – convinced that she could make it without the rules in her life. Her choices alienated her friends and hurt her family – but she was determined to live on her own by her own rules… She would make life accept her directions. The problem quickly became apparent… life wouldn’t cooperate. People didn’t give her a fair chance. Some took advantage. Cash tapped, the car couldn’t be fully maintained. Now she was living with the results of a broken car – and that was killing her chances at getting the cash necessary to have the car fixed properly. She felt sick, but couldn’t afford a doctor or the medicines to get better. She had dreams, but was watching them slip away. All the while, she kept any sense of a walk with God and His Word at a distance – somehow thinking that He would be too busy to notice her choices, or that she would be strong enough to pull off life without His help. Thoughts of Him only came in these angry and disappointed moments… Discontented with her life, the road back to Him was as clear as ever – but she seemed more willing to believe the lie that she could make it on her own, than the truth. She needed to come back to His arms, and surrender her stubbornness. Here is the truth:

Key Principle: Much of our pain is because we don’t want to do what God has made plain to us that we should. Even more pain is caused by our refusal to recognize God’s redirection back to Him.

I am going to challenge in this lesson an assumption. Many assume that people are NOT SURE that what they are doing in their self-made lives is wrong. The Bible poses a number of stories that seem to identify the problem – not as much one of ignorance – as one of defiance. To be sure, some are ignorant of His will. Still others, however, have been carefully taught truth. They simply refuse to believe that life is as the Bible describes it, and life’s purposes are as the Scripture defines. They believe they have found another way to a meaningful life… and they continue in that belief even when it is apparent to those watching that it is not working. The live in a self-made delusion created by their will overpowering the truth around them.

Our text in this lesson illustrates the problem of listening to God, as well as blaming Him for our choices. There are a series of short stories lumped together here. The first story is very short – just three verses. The story helps frame a very basic truth. Let’s identify that truth, then take a few moments to set that teaching into the wall of the bigger truths in the background of the Word of God….The text opens with…

Story One – A Provided Victory: God heard the cry of those who were willing to do His will – and gave them provision.

The Problem: An enemy threatened:

Numbers 21:1 When the Canaanite, the king of Arad, who lived in the Negev, heard that Israel was coming by the way of Atharim, then he fought against Israel and took some of them captive.

The people had been refused by Edom to pass through their territory along the journey (it is not clear in the timeline if this already happened, but it appears as though it did). That isn’t so unreasonable. Not everyone wanted a large army and a massive encampment of people to pass by their cities – and the Edomites were clear on that point. Now Israel journeyed north and east through the basin called the Negev. The open plain exposed them to the local population that also mistrusted their intentions. Arad saw a threat and attacked – getting some hostages to question about the plan. If they knew the whole truth and told the whole truth – that God had promised the land to them after they WIPED OUT the people of the land – this would have done nothing to make Israel’s trip through the land more peaceful.

The Prescription: A prayer was offered:

21:2 So Israel made a vow to the LORD and said, “If You will indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities.”

Facing the loss of their brothers in the hostage situation, and recognizing that they would certainly be forced to fight or take flight back to the uninviting wilderness of Zin, the people came to a standstill. They could not go forward, and they did not want to go back. At that moment, someone came up with the startling idea to LOOK UP! When the people turned to God, they did it in harmony with a request that was EXACTLY what God told them to do originally. They were now prepared to take a “baby step” of obedience.

Don’t forget this truth: God is invested in helping His people when they are invested in obeying His commands. When we are angled to DO what God said we should – God is motivated to help us get it done. In our study through the Gospel of John, we saw this repeatedly in Jesus’ statements made on the night of His betrayal:

• John 14:13-14 ESV: Whatever you ask in My name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in My name, I will do it.

• John 15:7 ESV: If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.

• John 15:16 ESV: You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, He may give it to you.

• John 16:24 ESV: Until now you have asked nothing in My name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.

• John 16:23-24 ESV: In that day you will ask nothing of Me. Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, He will give it to you. Until now you have asked nothing in My name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.

Did Jesus have a stuttering problem? I mean, why did He repeat this line so many times in one night as it is recalled by the Evangelist in the record? The answer may be simpler than you think.

The men needed the most basic lesson that could be offered to them: “God is willing to work through you, if you are willing to let Him do it.” As a Pastor and a Christian leader, I am completely convinced that many people don’t see that truth. They don’t understand that God is ready, willing and eager to work in and through them. Repetition is needed when stubborn disbelief must be battled.

The converse is also true. God has little vested interest in making a success of the thief’s prayer life. People sometimes make the mistake of thinking that God wants us to have everything WE want to have – but that is not the case. God is not interested in feeding our desires to fulfill our own dreams without Him. That is both bad for us, and unhelpful to accomplishing His purposes. Selfish prayers are simply verbalizations of a selfish heart – and that isn’t what God is trying to build in us. Here, God helped them do what God had already told them to do.

The Product: The Lord heard and delivered:

21:3 The LORD heard the voice of Israel and delivered up the Canaanites; then they utterly destroyed them and their cities. Thus the name of the place was called Hormah.

This is one of the most elemental lessons that even the youngest follower of God experiences. It is NOT the sum total of growth – it is a mere first step. That first step is this: “When I walk according to God’s revealed will – He may offer success as an encouragement to help me move forward in the journey.” There are other factors we learn as we grow – like the work of the adversary to discourage us even when we do right, or the work of growing in trust of God’s Sovereignty when good actions bring results that look bad in the short term… those truths are also taught in the Word. Yet, in the life of the weakened and discouraged believer – sometimes God drops back to the most elemental lesson: I DO care that you tried to do right, and I will offer you encouragement through the results. This short three verses are a reflection of that truth.

The “Provided Victory” above was a sample lesson in God’s encouragement. It is an important truth to help encourage us, but it is not the WHOLE truth concerning how I should view God, merely an important piece of the puzzle. Because I have become aware that some will pose their circumstances against this truth and be quick to dismiss it if their circumstances don’t work exactly that way, I want to stop for a moment and put that truth into the wall of larger balancing truths for God. To do that, I invite you to look at a few verses in Ephesians chapter two.

Paul pointed out to the Ephesians 2:1 And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, 2 in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. 3 Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.” (Eph. 2:1-3).

Pick out three words that are voices of betrayers in the passage… world, prince and flesh.

Now consider this: When we say the words: “Walk with God!” we have a specific meaning in mind. To walk with the Master is to obey Him, to carefully heed His Word on the issues of our life. It isn’t just some sentimental feeling that Jesus is with us – it is a deliberate invitation to God to journey with us through life- side by side. It means we are seeking to understand the voices of our three opponents that pull our heart from God’s direction – the fallen and misguided world, the inner longings of the selfish flesh, and the deceptions of God’s arch enemy.

First, there is the fallen world around us. Many are the voices that will offer counsel on the sacredness of being personally happy – even if that includes abandoning the hard work of building a good marriage and family, and the steadfast commitment to our own promises. A rising tide of voices will tell you that your sexual identity is in no way linked to your physiology – but a matter of how you feel about yourself and others around you – in spite of the fact that God formed your body to fit a plan He has for you. A worldly choir can always be found to sing the praises of selfish thinking – how to love myself, pamper myself and place my own needs above others around me. These are the voices of a fallen world that has lost the heart of Jesus.

How can I say that? Because at the core of Jesus’ heart was the honor of His Heavenly Father above His own desires. Deeply intertwined in that was also His deep hunger to rescue the unlovable – those of us who mutinied against His Father. In other words, Jesus loved His Father’s honor and His Father’s creation MORE than His own comfort and His own exaltation. Any fair reading of Philippians 2 must conclude that Paul called on the believers at Philippi to “have the same set of values as Jesus Himself did when He left the comforts of Heaven and chose a low place”. The “other-person-centered” life of Jesus was a pattern to stand squarely against the self-orientation of our age. This is called the Christian life – following the pattern of Jesus in direct opposition to the thinking of the world around us. This is an essential part of what we mean when we say “walk with God”. The destination of such a journey is HIS HONOR, not our comfort. Following Jesus means doing what is best for THE OTHERS AROUND US and not what would make us more comfortable.

Next, we said there is also the constant nagging of the fallen flesh within. The world’s appeal is on the outside – but the flesh hungers from within. It rationalizes selfishness and its appetites are ever drawn to wanton disregard for God’s boundaries. We want what God says we must walk away from. For some it is improper controls at the buffet line. For others it is improper use of our bodies in sensuality. For still others it is the stubborn resistance to let God control the decisions of our lives. Following Jesus means ceding control of choices within to the Spirit of God, based on careful study of God’s revealed Word, and humble submission to the principles found within it.

Finally, there is the deception efforts of the Devil. God’s enemy hates Him, and hates those who follow Him. He is a roaring lion (trying to make us afraid by the sounds he makes) and at the same time he represents a true danger. He seeks to destroy the believer. He cannot MAKE you sin – but he can dangle enticement at key moments of weakness. He cannot DESTROY your spirit and its living connection to God – but he may have permission to harm your body. As Warren Wiersbe pointed out when he studied the four times Satan showed up in the Hebrew Scriptures:

• In the case of Eve he wanted her to grow IGNORANT of God’s will (he asked her “Has God really said…?”).
• In the case of Job he wanted him to grow IMPATIENT with God’s will (he struck his body and family).
• In the case of David he wanted him to grow INDEPENDENT of God’s will (he called on him to count the people in a census to illustrate his might).
• In the case of Zechariah he wanted him to bring INDICTMENT of God’s will (he saw a vision of the High Priest Joshua with dirt all over him – showing God chose a defective man).

The point is this: you may do GOOD (and walk carefully according to God’s Word) and things may work out. When that happens – REJOICE and thank God for the encouragement. At the same time, recognize that you may do GOOD and carefully follow God’s Word and things don’t seem to go well. If that happens, it may be that your flesh is blinded by an inner hunger – and you aren’t seeing it properly. It may be that you have listened to the voices of the world around you and you cannot hear the truth about the results of your sacrifice. It may be that God has allowed His enemy to test you. Life isn’t as simple as “I paid my bills on time, and now good things should happen to me.” Yes, there will be benefits to doing right – but there may be other factors that cause your roof to leak or your car to break even if you paid all your bills on time and helped little old ladies across the street.

The bottom line is that mature believers don’t DO RIGHT just to GET GOOD RESULTS. That would be all about US.

A mature believer does right (follows God’s Word) because it honors God. That is today’s blessing, and its own reward. If things work out – all the better. If they do not – we can seek God about the trials of life and He has promised to clue us in as to what He is doing. James made that clear. While we seek Him on these things, we should take joy that He is happy we did right because our heart was aimed at making Him smile.

The lesson of Numbers 21:1-3 is that God may offer encouragement when we do right – and in any case it is what we are CALLED to do. Moving on, there is another lesson God taught the people.

Story Two – A Planned Defeat: God heard the people when they were unwilling to be content in in their own choices – and He gave them more trouble.

The problem: Discontent (This wasn’t external – but inside the camp):

21:4 Then they set out from Mount Hor by the way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the people became impatient because of the journey.

The geographic statement reveals that the people went on the south road toward the Red Sea in an attempt to flank any army that would meet then in Edom. They swung south and then east to bypass the protected areas by going far into the desert plateau. The strategy was a sound military one – and it showed both ingenuity and forethought. At the same time, the problems of water, heat and discomfort would have made this a very tricky choice, and God never told them to take the long way around.

In the verses just before He made victory possible when they cried out to Him and sought to do His exposed will – but that didn’t keep them DOING it. They decided to go around, and they complained about it as if God MADE them do it – and MADE it harder on them. Their hardship came from their choices – not His direction. Yet, they forgot that – and blamed Him!

Have you ever done that? Have you made a choice to buy a car without a single breath of prayer, and then cried out to God, “Why did You do this to me?” when you were sitting in your driveway late for an appointment with a car that was broken… again? Did you ever shake your fist at God and tell Him that you “just don’t understand why relationships don’t work for you” when you get involved with people that are well outside of what God’s Word says you should be looking for?

How often even believers make choices that are not in harmony with God’s Word, and then become quickly discontented when the choices don’t work out. It is funny how we think. Perhaps when we do right and get right – we may quickly start to think that we somehow deserve blessing because it came from our faithfulness. In almost the next breath, we think that if we choose outside the lines of God’s stated principles – God is to blame when things don’t “work out”. “If God is good, why am I going through this?” Perhaps the answer is as simple as “God didn’t want you to choose what led you into the situation”.

In the case of Israel, He got blamed for a choice that He never encouraged, and an issue He was never consulted about.

The Prescription: Complaint (speak against the leadership of Moses and care of God):

21:5 The people spoke against God and Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this miserable food.

As the people left the point of entry the spies reported from, the Lord kept meeting Israel’s most basic needs, but He didn’t seem to be coming through with the abundant life they truly wanted and felt they were promised. They were quick to complain. What they seemed to have forgotten was that grapes WERE GROWING JUST FINE – back where HE TOLD THEM TO GO. Because they chose to turn another way – they found none of that blessing and then complained as if God was “holding out on them”. He wasn’t – they were holding out on Him. Let me illustrate the problem:

You have just won a vacation to a wonderful resort – all expenses paid. Dinner shows, meals and accommodation are all included. They even included in the package not only air tickets, but a beautiful red convertible to drive for the holiday. This has the potential to be a wonderful vacation. You study the brochure and look at the pictures – you can hardly believe how beautiful the place is. You get on the plane on the appointed day and fly there with your spouse, and pick up your rental car. You follow the map to the entrance of the resort. Just as you reach the resort, you decide to turn opposite the signs go into a wooded area across from the entrance. In the woods you see an abandoned shack. Instead of going back to the resort entrance, you and your spouse spend the whole vacation in the misery of an abandoned shack. When you get home, you write to the company and complain that none of the amenities you expected were in the shack, in spite of the fact that you chose not to go where you were told. Is it there fault?

Many times our failure to obey brings hardship, as God’s richest blessings go untouched and untapped by the wayward. In the place of His praise comes our complaint – in the place of His peace comes our unending turmoil. The lesson must be learned anew – what I have comes from God’s hand. The right course of action is to acknowledge that, and follow His direction. All other courses bring pain.

The First Product: Pain (The problem was a proper perspective – so God “refocused” them with troubles).

21:6 The LORD sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.

It seems sometimes the only way for God to get us to reverse wrong-headed course on the journey is to put a wall in our way that makes us stop and recognize how obstinate we are truly becoming. My dad used to say, “We spank even for bad attitude!” He knew that sometimes we just couldn’t seem to shake off the nasty, sour heart without the assistance of an outside source of encouragement to reconsider our mouth and our defiance. Sometimes a good whack was in order. He seems to have gotten the idea from the Bible, of all places!

While some may be sitting here thinking God isn’t acting in a loving and caring manor, let me challenge you with a thought.

Calgary Canada is in the midst of a gripping flood. If a man decided to jump into the water that was raging from the floods and he drowned, would you think this was a result of the water’s evil, or the man’s poor choice?

I don’t want to sound insensitive, but very often as a society we create our own troubles by deliberate departure from what God’s Word has stated is the right way to operate a society. The same is true in our homes, and in our personal lives. Let me be incredibly deliberate: When you choose to commit adultery – the pain to your family is not God’s doing. The snakes lived in a desert they were not commanded to be in. Their choice to enter that desert and not follow God’s direction led them to the fiery serpents.

True, the text is clear God sent the snakes – and that fact alone causes some people to cry out “foul!” because God is not subject to their inept view of love that has been misshaped by the modern definition of “tolerance”. It is equally clear WHY God sent these serpents. The people were NOT in the right place, and they were NOT following God’s instructions. People don’t normally fall from a ledge they don’t climb! I am not suggesting that innocent people don’t get hurt – I am suggesting that guilty people get hurt all the time – and they cannot blame God for putting them in harm’s way when that was their defiant choice. That blame ignores the core problem- rejection of the truth. This is why we have created a nation of victims – because we refuse to take responsibility for our choices.

The children of Israel KNEW what God wanted – but they didn’t choose to do it. That put them in the wrong place and opened the door to pain they would not have otherwise known.

God did not bring the serpents because He was mad at them, but because He wanted to underscore again the truth: When we walk in disobedience, we open the door to greater and greater suffering. This pain was real, serious and deadly to some – but it saved many others. Keep reading.

The Second Product: Repentance. The people got the message – guilt wasn’t buried deeply.

21:7 So the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, because we have spoken against the LORD and you; intercede with the LORD, that He may remove the serpents from us.” And Moses interceded for the people.

Whether we admit it aloud or not, often we know EXACTLY what we are doing that is displeasing to God – but we don’t admit it until troubles pour in. Those troubles – as serious and painful as they are – are not to scar and wound us – they are to “fix” the problem within. The only solution is repentance, and the call to repentance is prompted by trouble.

Forgiveness had to be orchestrated by God – but responded to by men.

21:8 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery [serpent], and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live.” 9 And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived.

Up went the pole – the symbol of God’s solution to the sinful rebellion. He provided a place of healing, but they needed to respond to it – or die in their pain. We could spend hours here, but any student of the Bible gets the point. We caused the sin and the pain that came with it, and God provided a place of healing and resolution.

A Pattern of Renewal: God redrew the pattern before His people – follow Me and I will give the lands and people over to you.

The rest of the passage details a series of camps and battles:

Numbers 21:10 Now the sons of Israel moved out and camped in Oboth. 11 …from Oboth [to]… Iyeabarim, …opposite Moab, to the east. 12 … they set out and camped in Wadi Zered. 13 … they journeyed and camped on the other side of the Arnon, … in the wilderness that comes out of the border of the Amorites, … 16 From there [they continued] to Beer, that is the well where the LORD said to Moses, “Assemble the people, that I may give them water.” 17 Then Israel sang this song: “Spring up, O well! Sing to it! 18 “The well, which the leaders sank, Which the nobles of the people dug, With the scepter [and] with their staffs.”

The chapter ends with a story of military victory over the Amorites – God keeping His promise to cause the people of the land to flee before Israel. Israel enjoyed victory, because they were back on track. Angry and rebellious hearts were softened by snake bites. They got the point…

Much of our pain is because we don’t want to do what God has made plain to us that we should. Even more pain is caused by our refusal to recognize God’s redirection back to Him.

To close this lesson, let’s sit with Jesus one night. He was chatting with a Pharisee who had real questions about a walk with God. Rome ruled Jerusalem, and they made life difficult. The Temple had corrupt powers pressing for ungodly actions. Nicodemus wasn’t sure why God wasn’t stepping in… Jesus told him that God WAS… and the message was RIGHT IN FRONT OF HIM. Jesus told him that he needed a NEW LIFE:

John 3:7: “Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ …9 Nicodemus said to Him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things? … 14 “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; 15 so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.

Jesus said that He would be lifted up for the sins of people. He would be like the bronze serpent on the pole. God provided a way to take away the sting and death – but men had to respond. Their response would determine their healing.