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The Sin of the Israelites in the Wilderness

Great Sins of the Old Testament

Jun 28, 2020


by: Jack Lash Series: Great Sins of the Old Testament | Category: Sin | Scripture: Psalm 78:12–78:32

I. Introduction
A. This week we come to one of the greatest sins of the OT: the sin of the Israelites in the wilderness
B. When we began this series, I read 1Cor.10:1-12 to demonstrate how the NT calls us to pay attention to the great sins of the OT and to learn from them.
1. “These things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.” 1Cor.10:6
2. Well, the fact is that the sins which 1Corinthians 10:1–12 is talking about specifically are the sins of the Israelites in the wilderness.
a. 7 Do not be idolaters as some of them were
b. 8 We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did
c. 9 We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did
d. 10 We must not grumble, as some of them did
C. In addition to the ~7 we’ll read in this sermon, there are many passages which talk about this sin:
1. Psalms 105, 106, 135, 136; Hos.2:14-23; Amos 2:7-10; Isaiah 4:5-6; 11:15-16; 40:3-5; 43:14-21; 49:8-12; 51:9-10; Jer.2:6-7; 7:22-25; Ezek. 20:5-10
D. Psalm 78:12–32 In the sight of their fathers he performed wonders in the land of Egypt, in the fields of Zoan. 13 He divided the sea and let them pass through it, and made the waters stand like a heap. 14 In the daytime he led them with a cloud, and all the night with a fiery light. 15 He split rocks in the wilderness and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep. 16 He made streams come out of the rock and caused waters to flow down like rivers. 17 Yet they sinned still more against him, rebelling against the Most High in the desert. 18 They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved. 19 They spoke against God, saying, “Can God spread a table in the wilderness? 20 He struck the rock so that water gushed out and streams overflowed. Can he also give bread or provide meat for his people?” 21 Therefore, when the LORD heard, he was full of wrath; a fire was kindled against Jacob; his anger rose against Israel, 22 because they did not believe in God and did not trust his saving power. 23 Yet he commanded the skies above and opened the doors of heaven, 24 and he rained down on them manna to eat and gave them the grain of heaven. 25 Man ate of the bread of the angels; he sent them food in abundance. 26 He caused the east wind to blow in the heavens, and by his power he led out the south wind; 27 he rained meat on them like dust, winged birds like the sand of the seas; 28 he let them fall in the midst of their camp, all around their dwellings. 29 And they ate and were well filled, for he gave them what they craved. 30 But before they had satisfied their craving, while the food was still in their mouths, 31 the anger of God rose against them, and he killed the strongest of them and laid low the young men of Israel. 32 In spite of all this, they still sinned; despite his wonders, they did not believe.
E. The record of the sin of the Israelites in the wilderness begins in Exodus 17:1–7, after the people left Sinai and “camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink.” Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink. Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” And Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?” So Moses cried to the LORD, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” And the LORD said to Moses, “I will stand before you on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.” And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the LORD. REMEMBER those names, Massah and Meribah. Massah means testing, Meribah means quarreling.
F. The same thing happens again years later in Numbers 20:1–13, showing that even after all those years in the wilderness, they hadn’t changed. The people of Israel came to Kadesh, and there was no water. And they quarreled with Moses, “Why have you made us come up out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place? ” And when Moses went to the Lord, the Lord told him to speak to the rock and He would bring water. But instead Moses struck the rock a second time with his staff, and water came out abundantly. Because of this Moses was not allowed to enter the promised land, but only to see it from afar.
G. God gave the Israelites three festivals to commemorate significant events in their formation as a nation, three times each year when the people were asked to travel from wherever they lived to Jerusalem for a week of festivities: in the spring, the Feast of Passover (or Unleavened bread), which was a celebration of the Exodus; then in the summer the Feast of weeks (or Pentecost), which was a celebration of the entrance into the promised land.
1. But they also had a feast in the fall commemorating Israel’s time in the wilderness (Lev. 23:42–3; cf. Neh. 8:14–15). It was called the Feast of Booths (or ingathering, Exod. 23:16).
2. But the Feast of Booths was about more than celebrating God’s faithfulness and provision during those 40 years in the wilderness. It was also a remembrance of the lessons learned from the failures of that generation of Israelites.
3. For instance, one of the songs the people would sing each year as they walked to Jerusalem for the Feast of Booths was Psalm 95.
a. This psalm begins by celebrating the joy of coming into the Lord’s presence. But then the psalm suddenly takes a dramatic turn: applying the lessons from those days in the wilderness to today.
b. Psalm 95:7b–11 Today, if you hear his voice, 8 do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, 9 when your fathers put me to the test and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work. 10 For forty years I loathed that generation and said, “They are a people who go astray in their heart, and they have not known my ways.” 11 Therefore I swore in my wrath, “They shall not enter my rest.”
4. So, the sin of Israel in the wilderness wasn’t just relevant to the generation in the wilderness. It was relevant for all the generations which followed, and they kept reminding themselves of it.
H. And it is not just relevant to them, but to us in the NT days as well. We see this in Hebrews 3:7–12, which quotes this whole section of Psalm 95 and applies it to Christians in the NT.
1. So, it’s like a football. The lessons of the sins of the Israelites in the wilderness was handed to the next generation of Israelites by Moses before they crossed over the Jordan into the promised land.
2. Then it was picked up by several of the psalmists and prophets and passed down to the generations to come.
3. And then Paul and the author of Hebrews (and even Stephen in his great sermon, Acts 7:39) pick it up and pass it on to all of us in the NT church.
4. So, it’s pretty clear that God wants to make these things known to His people today that we might not fall into the sin of the Israelites in the wilderness.
II. In order for us to understand the sin of the Israelites in the wilderness, let’s list the ingredients.
A. The demonstration of God’s saving powers
1. They saw Moses’s staff turn into a snake and his hand turn leprous and than back again.
2. They saw the ten plagues.
3. They put blood on their doors to escape the angel of death.
4. They saw the parting of the Red Sea.
5. They saw fire, smoke, heard the trumpet sound and entered into covenant with God at Mt. Sinai.
6. They saw the glow on Moses’ face when he came from meeting with God.
7. The sin we’re talking about today is not the sin of mankind, but the sin of the privileged few. What we have before us today is an insider sin, not an outsider sin.
B. Hardship/want/testing
1. Deut.8:2 “Your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness...testing you”
2. Thirst, hunger, delay, fatigue, danger, promised land-less, constant traveling in uninhabitable places, war, a 40 year road trip
3. Heb.3:8 “on the day of testing in the wilderness”
4. So, this sin is a sin which occurs in the context of stress, the context of being tested. It is not a sin which typically occurs to those whose lives are sailing along smoothly.
C. Divine provision and protection
1. Heb.3:9b “and saw my works for forty years” 40 yrs of the Lord’s providential/disciplinary works
2. The mighty works of the Lord didn’t stop. They continued during their 40 years of testing.
3. They saw the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud leading them in the wilderness.
4. They saw water come out of the rock twice.
5. They saw manna miraculously fall from the sky.
6. They saw God’s provision of quail as meat to eat.
7. They looked up at the bronze serpent to avoid serpent bites.
8. Enemies were put to flight. Their sandals didn’t wear out.
9. So, this isn’t a sin which occurs to someone like Job, who sits there suffering for years without any communication or intervention of the Lord. This is a sin which affects people who have witnessed and continue to witness God’s provision, God’s instruction, God’s involvement.
D. The bottom line is that this sin was a kind of sin which happens to people just many of like us.
1. People who have been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have seen the work of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come. (Hebrews 6:4–6)
2. And yet people who are under stress, people who are facing burdens/difficulties/worries in life.
3. And it’s not like God has not taken care of these people. He has blessed them in numerous ways, and provided for them time after time.
4. And because there is a such a parallel between us and the Israelites in the wilderness, we are especially susceptible to this same sin.
III. And what is that sin?
A. At the heart of the sin of the Israelites in the wilderness was the fact that, despite God’s wonders, they still did not believe.
1. In Psalm 95:7 it says, “your fathers put me to the test and put me to the proof, THOUGH THEY HAD SEEN MY WORK.”
2. They were God’s peculiar people, and He was more gracious to them than anyone else.
3. But they had so much to learn, and they desperately needed hardships to teach them.
4. But every time God allowed them to experience hardships, they resented it.
5. God kept helping them — but they kept resenting Him. They weren’t angry that He didn’t give them what they needed. They were angry because He allowed them to go through hardships at all. When they got hungry, they also got angry.
6. Like some of you, I’ve gone out to help my kids with car troubles dozens and dozens of times over the years. My children call on the phone and say, “Dad, I have a flat tire.” or “My car won’t start.” or “My car is making a really weird noise.” And I talk to them and, if necessary, drive to where they are to help them out.
a. But what if one of my children called and instead of asking for my help, he began to get angry and accuse me of sabotaging their car, and never being there when they needed me?
b. That’s what the Israelites were doing.
B. In order to understand this sin better, I think we need to look at one more story, a story of Jesus.
1. How can you learn about sin by looking at Jesus? It’s actually the best way.
2. In Matthew 4 we read the story of Jesus being tempted by Satan.
3. The fact that Jesus was tested in the wilderness for 40 days makes us think of the Israelites being tested in the wilderness for 40 years. (Tested is the same Greek word as tempted.)
4. If we go back 2 chapters to Matt.2&3, we would notice more parallels between Israel & Jesus.
a. There was an attempt on his life by the king just like the Pharaoh tried to kill the Hebrew boys.
b. Just like Israel, He came back from Egypt.
c. In His baptism He came through the waters of the Jordan, just like the Israelites.
5. But like Israel Jesus is tested in the wilderness for 40 days, going without food.
6. But what does Jesus do when He is faced with that kind of extreme testing? He cites Scripture.
7. But what verses does He quote to respond to Satan’s temptation?
8. In all three cases, He quotes a verse having to do with Israel’s testing in the wilderness.
a. Dt.8:3 He humbled you & let you hunger and fed you with manna, that he might make you know that man doesn’t live by bread alone, but by every word coming from the mouth of God. Mt.4:4
b. Dt.6:16 You shall not put the LORD your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah. Mt.4:7
c. Dt.6:13 It is the LORD your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve. Mt.4:10
C. Putting God to the test
1. Deut. 6:16 reads: "Do not test the Lord your God as you did at Massah."
2. Ps. 78:18-19 - "They willfully put God to the test by demanding the food they craved."
3. Let’s talk more about what it means to test God.
4. Testing is asking someone to perform some task in order to prove themselves to you.
5. Testing someone implies putting yourself above them. The teacher tests the student, not the other way around. The teacher questions and evaluates and judges the student.
6. Testing God means requiring God to perform according to our demands in order to prove Himself.
7. It’s a form of acting like you are God and He is Your servant.
8. The two words are the same. God tells His people that He was testing them, but He also tells them that they must never test Him.
D. This helps us understand the essence of the sin of the Israelites in the wilderness.
1. They had two very different potential responses: they could trust or they could accuse.
2. At first, with a new baby, there is no difference between the two. They cry when they’re hungry or in pain, and you figure out what’s wrong and take care of it. We shouldn’t think of babies as rude when they cry in hunger. That’s the only way they have to communicate.
3. But as a child grows older, they learn the difference between asking politely for something and demanding it. They learn the difference between making a humble request and being angry that their wants aren’t being fulfilled.
4. And that difference is very important.
a. When we humbly pray in faith, we presume the goodness and power of God.
b. When we complain and grumble, we presume the indifference or the powerlessness of God.
5. Of course, there is a third alternative. Both prayer and complaining are directed toward the Lord, although many times complainers don’t realize that.
6. But a third alternative is just to fret and not address God at all. Let me say two things about this.
a. This is a very sad alternative. God is so ready for us to come to Him for help. He is so eager to help. And He loves it when His children call Him from the road, and say, “Daddy, I’m lost. Will you please help me figure out where to go?” or “Daddy, I’ve made a mess of things. I need Your help!” How many times must God help us before we feel confident He will help us this time?
7. One of the sad things about losing my father is that he was one person I always knew would be willing to help me, no matter what it was. And most of us don’t have a lot of people like that.
a. But though there were many things he did, there were many things my dad couldn’t help me with.
b. But those who love the Lord have in Him someone who is not only willing but He is able.
c. Psalm 55:22 Cast your burden on the LORD, and he will sustain you.
d. 1Peter 5:7 Cast all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.
8. Why don’t we think that way about God?
a. He’s the One leading us through the wilderness. He’s the One leading us to the promised land.
b. He’s the One testing us, that he might humble us. He is the One who sometimes lets us go hungry and then sets a banquet for us in the presence of our enemies, so we might learn you know that man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. He’s the One who disciplines us as a loving father disciplines His child, not to harm the child but to help the child.
9. His resisting temptation is a terrible criticism of you and me. It ruins all our excuses.
a. All the times we blame our sin on hunger or fatigue or headache or sickness. All the times we point to our situation, our loneliness, our lack of support.
b. Circumstances don’t cause you to sin. Circumstances merely bring out what’s already in the heart.
c. Jesus didn’t sin even in these terribly agonizing circumstances, because there wasn’t any sin to bring out.
d. “In my heart there is a treason, one that poisons all my love.” This wasn’t true about Jesus.
e. He’s the One who succeeded where all others failed.
IV. The wilderness and the Christian life
A. Other periods of Israel’s history: conquest, judges, united kingdom, disintegration, exile
1. But as far as I can think, the only ones of these which are used to show us where we are today are the wilderness and the exile.
2. We are traveling through the wilderness, having been saved by the new and greater Moses (Christ) from slavery in our old life (Egypt), and on our way to — but not yet having entered — the new and greater promised land.
3. God is at work and we can see that but it’s very hard. It’s scary. It’s exhausting, perplexing. There are vipers&enemies. It seems like it goes on forever. It seems like more than we can endure, even though we know our lives are a perfect combination of divine deprivation & divine provision.
4. The question is: Will we grow more thankful, more humble, more trusting? Or will we grow harder and more cynical, more bitter?
B. Think about the whole idea of going to school.
1. At great sacrifice and expense, schools are set up for the education of children.
2. They are not designed to harm children or deprive children. They are designed to help them.
3. And yet, not every student sees it that way. Some students resent school.
4. Now sometimes it’s because of bad teachers or other extenuating circumstances.
5. But some kids just don’t want to learn lessons. They don’t want to develop their minds. They don’t want to learn from history. So, there is this great dysfunction.
6. And that’s exactly what we’re talking about this morning.
7. Our lives are a classroom and God is our teacher. But sometimes we just don’t want to learn. We want to be the way we are. We don’t want to be developed or adjusted or improved.
8. And so we resent God’s school of instruction. And it actually has the opposite effect on us.
9. We get harder instead of softer. We get more cynical instead of more humble and loving.
10. The question is: Do we think we need God’s instruction/discipline? Or do we think we’re fine without it? Does His rod and staff comfort us (Ps.23:4) or embitter us?
11. God had a good purpose for the hardships Israel experienced in the wilderness. He says this in Deut. 8:2-5 “Your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart. He let you hunger and fed you with manna that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the LORD your God disciplines you.”
C. Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.