Numbers 11:23 Commentary - Charles Simeon's Horae Homileticae (Old and New Testaments)
GOD’S WORD SURE
Num 11:23. And the Lord said unto Moses, It the Lord’s hand waxed short? Thou shalt see now whether my word shall come to pass unto thee, or not.
IN reading the history of the Israelites, we cannot fail of being struck with the wonderful display of God’s patience and forbearance towards them. No displays of love and mercy on his part would satisfy them. They were always murmuring, and wishing that they had never come out of Egypt at all. It was a small matter in their eyes that they were supplied with manna from the clouds from day to day: they must have flesh to eat; and so intense was their desire after that gratification, that they actually wept before God, whole families of them, throughout the camp, saying, “Give us flesh, that we may eat [Note: ver. 10, 13, 18.].” Nor was Moses himself blameless in this matter: for though he did not in the least participate with them in their inordinate desire for meat, he questioned God’s power to give them meat: and it was this unbelief of his which brought forth from Jehovah the reproof which we have just read, and which will be the subject of our present discourse.
In this reproof we see,
The evil of unbelief—
It is the most common of all evils—
[It pervades the whole human race. It is found in the godly, no less than in the ungodly. Even Abraham, the father of the faithful, was by no means free from it. Repeatedly did he desire his wife to deny her relation to him as a wife, and to call herself his sister, lest persons, captivated with her beauty, should kill him for the sake of obtaining an undisturbed possession of her; thus betraying his fears, that God was either not able to protect him, or not sufficiently interested in his welfare to watch over him. And Moses, on the occasion before us, was evidently under the power of unbelief. Some, indeed, would understand his reply to God as a mere question, and a desire to be informed whether the flesh which he would give should be that of beasts or fishes: but then the answer would have corresponded with it, and would merely have informed him that it was not the flesh of beasts or of fishes that he would supply in such abundance, but the flesh of birds. But Moses’ question was evidently founded on the magnitude of the supply which God had promised. He had declared, that the whole people of Israel, not less than two millions in number, should be supplied with it, “not one day, nor two days, nor five days, nor ten days, nor twenty days, but even a whole month, until it should come out at their nostrils, and be loathsome unto them [Note: ver. 19, 20.].” To that, Moses in a way of unbelief, asks, How, when the fighting men alone amounted to six hundred thousand men, should they all be so fed as “to suffice them,” (twice is that idea suggested,) and that “for the space of a whole month?” And God’s answer to him clearly shews, that it was unbelief that was here reproved: “Is the Lord’s hand waxed short?” Thou hast seen how easily I brought frogs and locusts upon the land of Egypt; and am I less able to supply flesh of any kind that I may see good? “You shall see now (presently) whether my word shall come to pass, or not.”
When we see persons so eminent for the grace of faith as Abraham and Moses, yet ‘giving way to unbelief, we need scarcely adduce any further proof of the universal prevalence of this evil. It exists, indeed, in very different degrees in men, being in some only occasional, whilst in others it is the entire habit of their minds: but there is not a man under the whole heavens who has not reason to mourn over the workings of this corruption, when he is brought into circumstances to call it forth. From other evils many persons may be accounted nearly free: but this works equally in men of every class, and every age.]
It is also the most specious of all evils—
[No one will avow a doubt of God’s power to effect whatsoever he shall please: his pretext will be, that he cannot conceive how God should condescend to shew such extraordinary favour to one so insignificant and worthless as himself. But God himself never puts this construction upon it: he always regards it as a denial of his perfections, and resents it in that view. We have a remarkable instance of this in Ahaz. God told him, by the prophet, to “ask a sign of him, either in the depth or in the height above.” But Ahaz, wishing to hide his unbelief, pretended that this was too great an honour for him, and that therefore he could not presume to ask any such thing: “Ahaz said, I will not ask, neither will I tempt the Lord.” But was this construction admitted on God’s part? No: He viewed the evil as it really was, and not as it was glossed over by this self-deluded monarch; and therefore, with just indignation, he replied, by his prophet, “Hear ye now, O house of David! Is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will ye weary my God also [Note: Isa 7:10-13.]?” So, whatever we may imagine, a want of entire confidence in God, whatever be the circumstances under which we are placed, will appear in its true colours before God, and be condemned by him as unbelief.]
It is, moreover, the most offensive of all evils—
[There is no grace so highly honoured of God, as faith; nor any evil so reprobated by him, as unbelief. Other evils are acts of rebellion against his authority; but this rises against every one of his perfections. It doubts his wisdom, his power, his goodness, his love, his mercy; yea, it questions even his veracity; and reduces the infinite Jehovah to a level with his own creatures; insomuch that Balaam, when checking the vain hopes of the king of Moab, could find no language more appropriate than this: “God is not a man, that he should lie; or the son of man, that he should repent. Hath he said, and shall he not do it? Hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good [Note: Num 23:19.]?” What an indignity he considers it, is plain from his very answer to Moses: “Is the hand of the Lord waxed short? Thou shalt see whether my word shall come to pass or not.” This is no slight rebuke: it is similar to that which he gave to Sarah, when she doubted whether she should ever bear to Abraham the promised child: “Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying, Shall I of a surety bear a child, which am old? Is any thing too hard for the Lord [Note: Gen 18:12-13.]?” How Zacharias was reproved for his unbelief in the temple, you well know [Note: Luk 1:20.]. And amongst all the provocations which the Israelites committed in the wilderness, this was the one which God laid most to heart: “How oft did they provoke him in the wilderness, and grieve him in the desert! Yea, they turned back, and tempted God, and limited the Holy One of Israel: they remembered not his hand, nor the day when he delivered them from the enemy [Note: Psa 78:40-42.].”]
Finally, it is the most fatal of all evils—
[Other evils, if we come to God in the exercise of faith, may be forgiven: but this evil, whilst it is yet dominant in the soul, precludes a possibility of forgiveness; because it keeps us from God, to whom we ought to come; and puts away from us that mercy which he offers to bestow. The whole adult population of Israel perished in the wilderness. What was it that prevented their entrance into Canaan? We are told, “They could not enter in because of unbelief [Note: Heb 3:18.].” And what is it which, under the Gospel also, is the great damning sin? it is this: “Go into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature: he that believeth and is baptized, shall be saved; and he that believeth not, shall be damned [Note: Mar 16:15-16.].”]
Whilst the answer of God to Moses reproves this evil, it points out to us,
Its proper antidote—
To prevent its ever gaining an ascendant over us, we should,
Reflect on God’s power as already exercised—
[Had Moses only called to mind the wonders which God had already wrought for his people, he would not have “staggered at the promise” that was now given. Nor shall we doubt the certainty of any promise whatever, if we bear in remembrance what God has already done. It is for this end that God himself refers us to all his wonders of creation, providence, and redemption. Of Creation, he speaks thus: “Why sayest thou, O Jacob, and speakest, O Israel, My way is hid from the Lord, and my judgment is passed over from my God? Hast thou not known? hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary? there is no searching of his understanding [Note: Isa 40:27-28.].” So, in reference to his Providence: “Wherefore, when I came, was there no man; when I called, was there none to answer? Is my hand shortened at all, that it cannot redeem? or have I no power to deliver? Behold, at my rebuke, I dry up the sea; I make the rivers a wilderness; their fish stinketh, because there is no water, and dieth for thirst. I clothe the heavens with blackness, and make sackcloth their covering [Note: Isa 50:2-3.].” So also respecting Redemption, St. Paul expressly tells us that God’s particular design, in converting and saving him, was, to shew to all future generations his power to save, and to cut off all occasion for despondency from the whole world: “For this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first (in me, the chief of sinners) God might shew forth all long-suffering, for a pattern to them who should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting [Note: 1Ti 1:16.].” It is in this view that the knowledge of the Holy Scriptures is of such infinite benefit to the soul: for when we see what God has already done, it is almost impossible to doubt his power to effect whatever in his mercy he has promised to us.]
Reflect on his veracity, as unalterably pledged—
[When did God ever violate his engagements? His word has been pledged for many things; and has been questioned of mankind: but when did he abstain from fulfilling it? He said to our first parents in Paradise, “In the day that ye eat of the forbidden tree, ye shall die.” No, says the tempter, “Ye shall not surely die.” But whose word proved true? Satan’s? or the Lord’s? Again, to the antediluvians, God said that he would destroy by water every living creature, except what should be contained in the ark. During the building of the ark, the scoffers were lavish enough of contempt. But did God’s word fail, either in relation to those who were to be saved, or to those who were doomed to perish? The destruction of Sodom, the captivities of Israel and Judah, the sending of the Messiah, the establishment of the Redeemer’s kingdom in the world, furnished plenty of matter for doubt, before they were accomplished: but they all came to pass in their season, according to the word of God. For the captives who were restored to Judea from Babylon, it was said, “that if they would continue there, and be obedient to the king of Babylon, they should be preserved in peace and safety: but that if, through fear of the king of Babylon, they should flee to Egypt for safety, they should all perish [Note: Jer 44:12-14.].” And, when they would not be persuaded to remain there, but would go to sojourn in Egypt, the Lord sent this word to them: “All the remnant of Judah that are gone into the land of Egypt to sojourn there, shall know whose word shall stand, theirs or mine [Note: Jer 44:26-28.].”
But, that we may depart as little as possible from our text, let us see the event of the prediction before us. God sent a wind; and brought such a number of quails, that they fell round about the tents of Israel, and filled the whole country for the space of one hundred and twenty miles in circuit, above a yard deep: so that the whole people occupied about six-and-thirty hours in collecting them; every one, even of those who gathered the least, collecting as much as eighty bushels for his own use [Note: ver. 31, 32.]. Now it was seen “whether God could fulfil his word or not.” It was seen, too, whether they had reason to repent of their inordinate desires or not: for “while the flesh was yet in their mouths, ere it was chewed, the wrath of the Lord was kindled against the people, and smote them with a very great plague [Note: ver. 33 with Psa 78:26-31.].”
The truth is, that “it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one jot or tittle of God’s word to fail [Note: Luk 16:17.].” “He cannot lies:” “he cannotlie [Note: Tit 1:2.] he cannot deny himself [Note: 2Ti 2:13.].” He could as soon cease to exist, as he could falsify his word in any one particular. And, if we could only bear this in remembrance, we should never give way to unbelief, or doubt the accomplishment of any thing which the Lord God hath spoken.]
Those who doubt the fulfilment of God’s promises—
[Who amongst us is not conscious of great defects in this particular? Who, in trying circumstances, has not found it difficult to cast all his care on God, as caring for him; and has not rather been ready to say with David, “I shall one day perish by the hands of Saul?” Who, whilst he has professed to call God his Father, has been able habitually to walk before him with the same confidence that a child places in his earthly father? Yet this is our duty: and it is a shame to us that we find the performance of it so difficult. But let us remember what a God we have to do with; how “merciful and gracious; and how abundant in goodness and truth:” and let us “never stagger at any of his promises through unbelief; but be strong in faith, giving glory to God.” And if, according to the views of sense, there be no hope, “let us against hope believe in hope;” and rest assured, that “whatever God has promised, he is both able and willing to perform.”]
Those who question the execution of his threatenings—
[Men will dissuade us from regarding, as we ought, the sacred oracles; and will venture to place their own word in opposition to God’s. Your own heart, too, will be apt to suggest, “I shall have peace, though I walk after the imagination of my own evil heart [Note: Deu 29:19-20.].” But what God said to Moses, he says to us: “Thou shalt know whether my word shall come to pass unto thee or not [Note: Eze 24:14.].” Go on; listen to your carnal advisers; let them tell you that there is no need to give yourselves up to God; and that you may be the servants both of God and Mammon at the same time. Go on; and take their word in preference to God’s; and wait to see “whose word shall stand, theirs or his.” But remember, that if, unhappily for you, God’s word shall take place, and that threatening be executed, there will be no room left for repentance: your state will be fixed, and that for ever. Choose ye, then, whom ye will believe, and whom ye will serve: and, if ye be truly wise, shut your ears against the assurances of an ungodly world, and say, in reference to them all, “Let God be true, and every man a liar [Note: Rom 3:4.].”
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Charles Simeon's Horae Homileticae (Old and New Testaments)
Charles Simeon (1759 - 1836) was an English evangelical Anglican cleric.
Horae Homileticae reflects the rich source of Biblical understanding of Simeon, a towering figure in the history of evangelical theology.