UNBELIEF IN THE WILDERNESS.
Hebrews 3: 7-19.
THE apostle has compared and contrasted Moses, the servant of God and the mediator of the old dispensation, with the Lord Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of the Father, and the mediator of the new and everlasting covenant. Great was the glory of Moses, and whether we think of his marvelous history, of his unique position as prophet, priest, and king in Israel, of his grand and deep character, or of the fundamental and mighty work which was accomplished through him, we can easily understand why it is written, that there arose not a prophet like unto him until He came who is above all, the Lord from heaven. We judge of magnitude by comparison. It is because the Jews had some idea and appreciation of the greatness of Moses that the apostle avails himself of this, to point out to them the far higher glory of the Lord Jesus. Though in the life and character of Moses there are many striking excellencies and virtues, the faithfulness of Moses is the feature on which the apostle dwells. It is, indeed, the most important feature in our character as servants of God. This is the one thing required of us, to be faithful. And well were it for us if we laid more stress on faithfulness, and thought less of gifts and talents, or of success and results. For while it belongs to God to appoint unto each of us severally our position, to distribute gifts according to His wisdom and good pleasure, and to reward us with results and harvests, hundredfold, sixtyfold, or thirtyfold, it belongs to us to be faithful to God wherever He has placed us, and in the gift and task which His love assigns. We see the summary and result of the true disciple's life in the decisive words of the Master: " Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things." Moses was faithful in all God's house. In every branch of the work with which he was entrusted he carried out the commandments of God. He added nothing of his own to the instructions which he received; he left out nothing, but ordered all things as he was commanded. And though sorely tried by Israel's ingratitude, rebelliousness, and stubbornness, his faithfulness never wearied nor wavered. But while Moses was faithful as a servant, Jesus was faithful as the Son. Moses, sinful and imperfect, was himself part of the house; Jesus the Holy One, the Son of God, is Lord over the house. The dispensation of which Moses was mediator was temporary, preparatory, and typical of the new covenant, in which all things are eternal, substantial, and heavenly. Moses, as the Saviour testified, wrote of Christ. The whole law pointed to the Messiah. Jesus fulfilled the law, because He was the Perfect Man, in whom alone the law in its depth and breadth was realized and manifested, and because He bore the curse and the condemnation which the law pronounces against transgressors. All the promises of salvation which the typical (or gospel) part of the Mosaic dispensation contained, all sacrifices, festivals, and priestly mediation, found its substance and fulfillment in Christ. How much greater then is He than Moses!
God spake with Moses face to face, yet is Jesus only The Prophet, for as the only begotten He declared the Father: we see the Father when we see Jesus. Moses was full of love and the priestly spirit; but Jesus was not merely willing to die for Israel, but actually laid down His life, and not for the nation only, but that He might gather in one all the children of God. Moses ruled as king in Jeshurun; but Jesus is the true King, who by the Spirit can make His people willing in the day of His power, and renew their hearts into living obedience. Moses is the servant, but Jesus the Son is Lord.*[I]
The glory of Christ that excelleth is described by the apostle Paul (2Cor. 3: 6-12), a passage which should be studied in connection with our chapter.
On this contrast between the Lord Jesus and Moses the servant of God, the apostle builds his earnest exhortation. Again he interrupts the course of his massive and sublime argument by most solemn and pathetic admonition. His great aim in this epistle is to exhort. He is bent, with all intensity of purpose and of watchful love, to beseech the Hebrews to be steadfast. He is moved with fear ; his heart trembles with anxiety, while he points to the glory of the great High Priest ; he is continually giving vent to the pent-up feelings of affection and solicitude with which he regards the dangerous condition of the Hebrew believers. Oh, it is so like Paul, the apostle of love! He seems to me to have had a thousand hearts. He loved each church as if it was the only one he possessed. He felt their burden, he rejoiced over their order, steadfastness, and gifts; he ceased not to give thanks for them, and to pray for the blessing and help which each of them needed; he remembered the names of their saints, he watched over them with the affectionateness of a tender mother and nurse. While he seems lost in the contemplation of divine truth, soaring like an eagle far above vale and mountain-peak, and gazing with steadfast eye into the brightness of the sun, he is always like his blessed and dear Lord, who in homely but most touching language compares Himself to a hen gathering her chickens under her wings.
In all Paul's epistles we feel the warm breath of affection; we hear the voice, tremulous with emotion, we see the earnest and loving countenance of the fatherly man. Even when he writes to the Romans, whom he had never seen, he says, " I long to see you, that I may impart unto you some spiritual gift, that ye may be established ; that is, that I may be comforted together with you by the mutual faith both of you and me." What can exceed his tender love to the churches of Thessalonica and Philippi? or the soul-stirring expostulations which in anguish of mind he addresses to the Galatians, of whom he travails again in birth, that Christ may be formed in them ? How fatherly, how considerate, how exquisitely delicate and sensitive is he in his treatment of the Corinthian church. In all his epistles he continually interrupts the doctrine with the expression of his love, his anxiety, his joy and sorrow; we see his heart bound up in the churches. So in this epistle he constantly exhorts and beseeches the Hebrews (and us also) to abide in Christ, to take heed unto ourselves, to be faithful unto the end.
Thus is it in all Scripture. The love of God, seeking our salvation, pervades all its teaching. Do we not throughout the whole Scripture hear God, as it were, sighing, "Oh that they were wise; that they hearkened unto my voice!" Do we not hear the tearful voice of Jesus saying, “If thou hadst known?" Do we not throughout behold the loving arms of God outstretched to receive us? May we return love with love, so that Christ's joy may be full in us?
The thought of Moses naturally suggests the Israelites in the wilderness. Faithful was the Mediator, through whom God dealt with them: but was Israel faithful? God spoke: did they obey? God showed them wonderful signs: did they trust and follow in faith? And if Israel was not faithful under Moses, and their unbelief brought ruin upon them, how much more guilty shall we be, and how much greater our danger, if we are not faithful unto the Lord Jesus?
The history of the wanderings of Israel in the wilderness is most instructive. No Scripture is of private interpretation, but is catholic and eternal. Whatsoever things were written afore-time were written for our learning. Of this history especially, the apostle Paul, who dwells on it in his epistle to the Corinthians, tells us that all these things happened unto them for ensamples ; and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come. (1Cor. 10) According to the solemn words addressed by the glorified Saviour to the church of Thyatira, Israel's experience is to be a warning to all the churches. The books of Moses are thus of permanent importance to God's children. Israel's history in the wilderness is typical throughout. It is a marvelous history from beginning to end. The exodus out of Egypt, the passage through the Red Sea, the giving of the Law at mount Sinai, the manna, the pillar of cloud and fire, the victory over Amalek, the rock that followed them, the garments that never became old ; all is miracle, full of the wondrous love and power of God, who is Israel's redeemer. Consider the Messenger, the Angel of the Covenant, Christ, who led them. Their whole life and history was a life and history by the word of God. Do you know this as a pre-sent experience?
It was a history of solemn and glorious privilege. God separated Israel unto Himself. They were shut up to God. Their daily need, their absolute dependence on divine help and bounty, the constant gift of manna, guidance and defense, which so visibly descended from the Lord, the giver of all ; the daily beholding of God's mighty and gracious works—all this was a marvelous privilege, the life of faith was made near and easy. Dependence on second causes is a great snare to man; for since the fall the tendency of man is to forget the Creator. Israel in the wilderness had to live daily and exclusively by God's power and goodness. How solemn, yet how glorious, to be thus constantly depending on God and constantly beholding His omnipotent love. Is this not a picture of the Christian's life?
It is a sad history from beginning to end : continual murmuring, doubt, ingratitude, idolatry, sin ; looking back unto Egypt and its pleasures, for-getting its degradation and bondage, doubting God's goodness and power, yielding to the temptations of lust and tempting the Lord Jehovah, the faithful and merciful Christ.*[II]
It is a sad history, full of fearful judgments. Long, dark years, of most of which we know nothing but the ominous allusions in the prophetic books to the worship of Moloch and Remphan. And yet the Lord was with them all the days, and every day, ready to bless and to gladden them. Do you understand the parable?
Yet was there in Israel also faith and love; and God remembers the time of their espousals, when they followed Him in a land that was not sown. There were not merely murmurings, but hymns of praise and thanksgiving; there were willing offerings unto the Lord of gold and silver, there was victory over the enemies, there were Joshua and Caleb, who followed the Lord fully.
In the book of Psalms, which is to a certain extent a response to the five books of Moses, as well as the starting-point of the subsequent prophets, frequent reference is made to the history of the wilderness. It is remembered, first in order to ascribe glory to God, and to give thanks unto Him for His mercy and for His marvelous works. And secondly, to hold up the mirror to man, and especially Israel, that we may learn humility and faith. The apostle quotes Psalm 95, in which the exhortation, based upon Israel's disobedience and punishment, is peculiarly solemn and emphatic. You must have noticed how frequently the Psalms are quoted in this epistle. Our Saviour also singles them out as a special portion of Scripture. The church in all ages has honored and loved the Psalms. David was chosen to be the sweet singer of Israel, not merely the old covenant Israel, but the whole Israel of God.
Here is perfect sympathy with all our weakness and fluctuating experience, and at the same time faithful and sure guidance ; here we find a perfect expression of feeling and soul-experience ; here are the deepest and truest utterances of repentance and of faith—of the soul's mournful complaints in darkness and sorrow, and of jubilant rejoicing and thanksgiving in the sunshine of divine favor ; here is a true analysis of the heart ; here we behold the doubts and conflicting thoughts, the fear and tumult of the soul—all that ever moves and agitates the saints of God. But the Psalter is not merely an expression of our feelings ; it guides, corrects, and elevates us. David prays with us according to the mind of God. He is not merely our brother, but he is also a type of Christ. In the Psalms we learn the mind of Messiah in His union with His people. Hence the Psalter is the incomparable and comprehensive manual and hymn-book of the saints.*[III]
The quotation is introduced (like all Scripture quotations in this epistle) as the word of God, “as the Holy Ghost saith." Even the subjective lyrical portions of Scripture proceed out of divine depths, as well as depths of the human heart. Holy men spake and not merely spake, but sang with human, real music, in joy, in sorrow, in gladness and in tears, and yet as they were moved by the Holy Ghost. But in this quotation it is possible that the reference to the Holy Ghost has a special meaning and propriety ; for it is the office of the Spirit (in the divine economy of grace) to glorify the Father and the Son, to direct us to Christ's word, to cause us to listen to the Father's voice. As the Father says of Christ, “Hear Him;" and as the Son always magnifies the Father's word, so the Holy Ghost testifies not of Himself, but of the Father and the Son.
The psalm begins with an exhortation to praise God. Joyous and festive is the tone in which it commences. It describes God in His greatness and power. It starts with the assurance that He is the Rock of our salvation. The Lord the Creator is also the Shepherd of His people. David calls on us to sing; and song is the expression of joy, peace, and love: " 0 come, let us sing unto the Lord: let us make a joyful noise to the Rock of our salvation. Let us kneel before the Lord our maker. For He is our God; and we are the people of His pasture, and the sheep of His hand." But with a sudden transition the psalmist, or as the apostle Paul prefers to say, the Holy Ghost exhorts us most solemnly not to harden our hearts as Israel did in the temptation.
Notice, (1) when we hear God's voice—and, oh, how clearly and sweetly does He speak to us in the person of His Son Jesus, the Word incarnate, who died for us in Golgotha !—the heart must respond. The assent of the intellect, the admiration of the understanding, the fervor of the imagination, and even the conviction of the con-science, do not suffice. God speaks to the heart of Jerusalem. (Isaiah xl., original) By this expression is meant the centre of our spiritual existence, that centre out of which thoughts and affections precede, out of which are the issues of life, that mysterious fountain which God only can know and fathom. Oh that Christ may dwell there!
God's voice is to soften the heart. This is the purpose of the divine word—to make our hearts tender. Alas! By nature we are hard-hearted; and what we call good and soft-hearted is not so in reality and in God's sight. God wishes us to be delivered from hardness of heart, that is, from dullness of perception of His love and beauty, from ingratitude and Luke warmness towards Him, from pride and impenitence, from self-seeking and unrest. When we receive God's word in the heart, when we acknowledge our sin, when we adore God's mercy, when we desire God's fellowship, when we see Jesus, who came to serve us, to wash our feet, and to shed His blood for our salvation, the heart becomes soft and tender. For repentance, faith, prayer, patience, hope of heaven, all these things make the heart tender. Tender towards God, tender towards our fellow-men, tender —think it not paradoxical—towards ourselves; I mean that state of gentleness and meekness which David describes—" Lord, my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty. . . . Surely I have behaved and quieted myself as a child that is weaned of his mother." We live in the atmosphere of forgiving and merciful love, we become also tender and loving to our own true life, freed from that restless and feverish spirit of the worldly man who, indulgent to self, which is not his true and real self, rules harshly and impatiently over the desires and sorrows of the imprisoned spirit. Can we be hard —thinking much of ourselves, discontented with our lot, envious or unforgiving, worldly and restless—when we hear the voice of God : " I am the Lord thy God ; I have loved thee with an ever-lasting love ; thou art mine." “As I have loved you, love one another”? The road may be narrow, and the sun nearly set, but hearing the voice of Jesus, the heart burns within us in love and hope.
Notice, (2) all sin begins in the heart. In the epistle to the Corinthians (1Cor. 10.) the apostle describes the rivers, the corrupt branches; there he speaks of Israel's murmuring, idolatry, and lust. Here the Spirit speaks of the fountain and root: “They do err in their hearts." And what is the error of the heart? What else but unbelief t God speaks, and the heart is to believe. If the heart is hardened, it believes not; and regarding neither the threatening nor the promises, it leans not on the strength and love of God: unbelief is the mother of all sin and sorrow.
For (3) unbelief is departure from the living God. How simple is this! As long as you trust God, you are near Him. The moment you doubt Him, your soul has departed into the strange country. Faith is the link between God's fullness and strength and our emptiness and weakness. If the soul cries out, Abide with me, or Nearer to Thee, the answer of Jesus is, Only believe!
Unbelief cannot see and understand God.*[IV] Forty years Israel had seen the works of the Most High. Every day they beheld the manna and the pillar of His guiding presence. How many miracles they witnessed! At the end of this long period and these daily visitations the Lord says (in sorrow and disappointment, to speak humanly), “They do always err in their heart, and they have not known my ways." They do not understand me. They have no eye to see my face, no perception, no sympathy ; they do not understand my meaning, my thought, my character, myself, though I have been constantly speaking, revealing, manifesting, yet do they not perceive ; it is hidden to them.
They tempted God. By fear and murmuring, by presumption and lust, by disobedience and idolatry, ten times their evil heart of unbelief manifested itself in tempting the Lord. (Num. 14:22.) Although they had seen the mighty works of God, and were continually experiencing His mercy, they doubted both His power and love; they cherished bitter thoughts against Him, they challenged Him, and demanded signs, as if He had never shown unto them the wonders of His goodness.*[V]
The Lord was grieved, and after the tenth temptation—so great is His patience—swore in His wrath that they should not enter into His rest. Doubtless many of those who died in the wilderness turned to God in repentance and faith. We cannot but believe that many of them joined with heartfelt contrition in the prayer of Moses:
"We are consumed by thine anger, and by thy wrath are we troubled. Thou hast set our iniquities before thee, our secret sins in the light of thy countenance ... 0 satisfy us early with thy mercy; that we may rejoice and be glad all our days."
But the generation as such, a warning for all ages, died in the wilderness.
Again the apostle asks emphatically, Why did they not enter into rest? And the answer is, Because they believed not. He does not single out the sin of making and worshipping the golden calf; he does not bring before us the flagrant transgressions into which they fell at Baal-peor. Many much more striking and to our mind more fearful sins could have been pointed out; but God thinks the one sin greater than all is unbelief. We are saved by faith; we are lost through unbelief. The heart is purified by faith; the heart is hardened by unbelief. Faith brings us nigh to God; unbelief is departure from God. Does it seem strange? By faith we draw near and worship God ; by faith we receive God's love ; through faith the Holy Ghost is given unto us; by faith we obey and follow Christ. Yet is it so natural and so like the goodness of God that all should be by faith. For the Lord is our God; He is all. He is willing to be, to give, to do all; to be God for us, to us, in us. All He asks of us is to trust Him, to receive Him ; to open our empty hand td His kind and bountiful hand, and our cold and dead heart to His heart, that spared not His own Son, but gave Him up unto death. By grace are we saved through faith; and even this trust is the gift of His blessed Spirit. (Eph. 2.)
Unbelief prevented Israel's entering into the Promised Land. Then it follows that faith enters into rest. Believe with thy heart is the great lesson of the chapter. If we trust in God, then the wilderness will be converted into the garden of the Lord. See the true Israel, Jesus our Lord, who was tested in the wilderness. God proved and tried the Righteous One; Satan tempted Him. Then it was made manifest what was in Him, even a meek and lowly heart, strong in faith, tender a meek and lowly towards His heavenly Father, learning obedience because He was Son. And though the wild beasts were with Him, and His body was exhausted and weary, and the tempter's voice cunning and subtle, yet no evil came nigh unto Him ; for He dwelt in the secret place of the Most High, and abode under the shadow of the Almighty. The wild beasts dare not touch Him, the exhausted frame is upheld by the indwelling spirit ; the Scripture is both the weapon with which He fights and a tent in which He dwells; the very angels of God come down and minister unto Him. Thus the Son of Man by faith converted the wilderness into paradise. He entered into rest, He enjoyed peace with God; and there was given Him power to tread upon the lion and adder, and to trample the dragon under His feet. Worshipping the Father He conquered; and the angels of God refreshed and gladdened His heart with their heavenly converse.
Such is to be your life. Only believe, only worship, only harden not your heart, when in the Scripture and in the Spirit's teaching and in God's daily dealings you hear God's voice, and though wild beasts, hunger and privation, weakness and temptation beset you, you are safe, you are blessed. God is with you; who can be against you? Angels are around you, and you can give thanks; for you are more than conquerors, through Him that loved you, and gave Himself for you.
Looking unto Jesus, I return to the commencement of the psalm, and end in praise. I will listen to its solemn admonition, I will stand in awe, when I see the carcases of them that fell in the wilderness through unbelief ; I will humble myself when I think how often like Israel I have murmured and doubted, how often I have grieved and tempted the Lord ; but I will believe, I will cleave to Jesus, I will remember that oath which the Lord sware by Himself; As I live, saith the Lord, I have no pleasure in the death of the sinner, but rather that he should turn and live. And again, willing more abundantly to show unto the heirs of promise the immutability of His counsel, He con-firmed it by an oath, saying, " Surely, blessing I will bless thee." Let us whom God hath redeemed out of Egypt, not with gold and silver, but with the precious blood of Christ as of the true Paschal Lamb without blemish and without spot ; let us who have been rescued out of death and the power of Satan by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ; let us who have received the law of God, not as a letter which killeth, but by the outpouring of the Spirit and in the renewal of our hearts—oh, come, let us, remembering our pass-over, our resurrection-day, our Pentecost, let us sing unto the Lord ! Let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation.
But let us listen to the solemn exhortation of the Spirit. To-day harden not your hearts. Yesterday is the past of sin and misery. To-day is the present of divine grace and man's faith. To-morrow is eternity, full of joy and glory. To-day is the turning-point, the crisis, the seed-time. To whom can we go but unto Jesus Christ, with the past of our transgression, with the yesterday of the first Adam, with the to-day of our weakness and need, with the for ever of our endless destiny? He is Jehovah, the Saviour God, the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever. Cleaving to Him we rest in mercy, which is from everlasting to everlasting.
The apostle warns us : Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief. He is anxious that not one single member of the professing Church should be lost; as he expresses it in another Scripture—he preaches Christ, warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom; that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus. (Col. 1:28.) The same spirit ought to animate the whole congregation. Each member has to take heed to him-self and the whole community, to care anxiously and earnestly for each member, that none may be lost.
Exhort one another daily; encourage, help one another by counsel, by example, by sympathy, by brotherly aid, by united prayer and praise. Walking together in peace and harmony, keep before your eyes and hearts the end of the journey.
Let us hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end, let us keep our first faith, our first love, our first hope (1Tim. 5:12; Rev. 2:4 ; Heb. 3:6), that which was given unto us when the grace of our Lord was exceeding abundant (1Tim. 1:14), even when we were made partakers of Christ.*[VI] In humility and fear, in self-abasement and self-distrust, let us during our wilderness journey cry out of the depths, and yet rejoice and be at peace ; for we are in Christ, and the Lord for whom we wait is our light and our salvation.
[I] * “Moses was a type in the world. If any should say, What is the fulfillment and consummation? I answer, King Messiah : through Him such perfection will be produced as never existed hitherto throughout all generations." (Zohar.) Many passages in the Talmudic writings teach that the law shall be abolished in the days of Messiah, and that the light and wisdom of the Messianic age far emceed that of the Law of Moses.
[II] * Comp. 1Cor. 10:9, specially verse 9.
[III] * As Johann Arndt says: "The Psalter is a necklace, consisting of the gold of doctrine and salutary instruction, of heart-reviving gems of consolation, and precious stones of beautiful prayers ; a theatre of the unveiled great purposes and works of God ; a cheerful meadow end extensive garden of roses, in which the most beautiful and fragrant flowers delight us; an infinite ocean, in which those who experience many tempests of affliction find precious pearls ; a heavenly school, where we converse with God Himself, Our great Teacher; a mirror of divine mercies, in which the glorious countenance of our most compassionate Father shines forth; the most perfect anatomy of our souls, showing not merely our inmost thoughts and passions, but their corrective and medicine."
[IV] * To know God is the source of life and the very substance of blessedness. All the gracious purposes of God are to this end, that we may know Him. Hence when the apostle John writes to fathers in Christ, he describes them thus: " Fathers, because ye have known Him that is from the beginning." (1John 2:13,14.)
[V] *The following are the ten temptations according to the Jews : (1) Exod. 14:11, from fear ; (2) Exod. 15:24, murmuring ; (3) Exod. 16:2,3, murmuring ; (4) Exod. 16:19, so, disobedience ; (5) Exod. 16:27,28, Sabbath-breaking ; (6) Num. 20:3, chiding ; (7) Exod. 32, idolatry ; (8) Num. 11:1-3, complaining ; (9) Num. 11:32, lust ; (to) Num. xiv., unbelief. The root of all sin is unbelief, as, beginning with Gen. iii., is taught throughout all Scripture. The two manifestations of unbelief are in opposite poles—presumption and distrust. The world is the wilderness; Israel's history a mirror of ours. The decision and victory must be in the heart. Christ dwelling in the heart by faith, we have peace and strength. Then can we imitate Jesus. (Matt. 4.)
[VI] * Metoxoi gegovamen. We have become by grace, what we were not by nature, partakers of Christ ; since we have part in all that Christ is and has, at present by faith, and afterwards in actual possession, as joint-heirs with the Son. irr6oraets, confidence means sometimes substance (Heb 1:3) ; sometimes, as undoubtedly in 2Cor. 9:9; 11:17, confidence and assurance. In Heb. xi. the objective and subjective aspects are combined.