Moses here makes a large rehearsal of the fatal turn which was given to their affairs by their own sins, and God’s wrath, when, from the very borders of Canaan, the honour of conquering it, and the pleasure of possessing it, the whole generation was hurried back into the wilderness, and their carcases fell there. It was a memorable story; we read it Num. 13:1-14:45; but divers circumstances are found here which are not related there.
I. He reminds them of their march from Horeb to Kadesh-barnea (Deut. 1:19), through that great and terrible wilderness. This he takes notice of, 1. To make them sensible of the great goodness of God to them, in guiding them through so great a wilderness, and protecting them from the mischiefs they were surrounded with in such a terrible wilderness. The remembrance of our dangers should make us thankful for our deliverances. 2. To aggravate the folly of those who, in their discontent, would have gone back to Egypt through the wilderness, though they had forfeited, and had no reason to expect, the divine guidance, in such a retrograde motion.
II. He shows them how fair they stood for Canaan at that time, Deut. 1:20, 21. He told them with triumph, the land is set before you, go up and possess it. He lets them see how near they were to a happy settlement when they put a bar in their own door, that their sin might appear the more exceedingly sinful. It will aggravate the eternal ruin of hypocrites that they were not far from the kingdom of God and yet came short, Mark 12:34.
III. He lays the blame of sending the spies upon them, which did not appear in Numbers, there it is said (Deut. 13:1, 2) that the Lord directed the sending of them, but here we find that the people first desired it, and God, in permitting it, gave them up to their counsels: You said, We will send men before us, Deut. 1:22. Moses had given them God’s word (Deut. 1:20, 21), but they could not find in their hearts to rely upon that: human policy goes further with them than divine wisdom, and they will needs light a candle to the sun. As if it were not enough that they were sure of a God before them, they must send men before them.
IV. He repeats the report which the spies brought of the goodness of the land which they were sent to survey, Deut. 1:24, 25. The blessings which God has promised are truly valuable and desirable, even the unbelievers themselves being judges: never any looked into the holy land, but they must own it a good land. Yet they represented the difficulties of conquering it as insuperable (Deut. 1:28); as if it were in vain to think of attacking them either by battle, “for the people are taller than we,” or by siege, “for the cities are walled up to heaven,” an hyperbole which they made use of to serve their ill purpose, which was to dishearten the people, and perhaps they intended to reflect on the God of heaven himself, as if they were able to defy him, like the Babel-builders, the top of whose tower must reach to heaven, Gen. 11:4. Those places only are walled up to heaven that are compassed with God’s favour as with a shield.
V. He tells them what pains he took with them to encourage them, when their brethren had said so much to discourage them (Deut. 1:29): Then I said unto you, Dread not. Moses suggested enough to have stilled the tumult, and to have kept them with their faces towards Canaan. He assured them that God was present with them, and president among them, and would certainly fight for them, Deut. 1:30. And for proof of his power over their enemies he refers them to what they had seen done in Egypt, where their enemies had all possible advantages against them and yet were humbled and forced to yield, Deut. 1:30. And for proof of God’s goodwill to them, and the real kindness which he intended them, he refers them to what they had seen in the wilderness (Deut. 1:31, 33), through which they had been guided by the eye of divine wisdom in a pillar of cloud and fire (which guided both their motions and their rests), and had been carried in the arms of divine grace with as much care and tenderness as were ever shown to any child borne in the arms of a nursing father. And was there any room left to distrust this God? Or were they not the most ungrateful people in the world, who, after such sensible proofs of the divine goodness, hardened their hearts in the day of temptation? Moses had complained once that God had charged him to carry this people as a nursing father doth the sucking child (Num. 11:12); but here he owns that it was God that so carried them, and perhaps this is alluded to (Acts 13:18), where he is said to bear them, or to suffer their manners.
VI. He charges them with the sin which they were guilty of upon this occasion. Though those to whom he was now speaking were a new generation, yet he lays it upon them: You rebelled, and you murmured; for many of these were then in being, though under twenty years old, and perhaps were engaged in the riot; and the rest inherited their fathers’ vices, and smarted for them. Observe what he lays to their charge. 1. Disobedience and rebellion against God’s law: You would not go up, but rebelled, Deut. 1:26. The rejecting of God’s favours is really a rebelling against his authority. 2. Invidious reflections upon God’s goodness. They basely suggested: Because the Lord hated us, he brought us out of Egypt, Deut. 1:27. What could have been more absurd, more disingenuous, and more reproachful to God? 3. An unbelieving heart at the bottom of all this: You did not believe the Lord your God, Deut. 1:32. All your disobedience to God’s laws, and distrust of his power and goodness, flow from a disbelief of his word. A sad pass it has come to with us when the God of eternal truth cannot be believed.
VII. He repeats the sentence passed upon them for this sin, which now they had seen the execution of. 1. They were all condemned to die in the wilderness, and none of them must be suffered to enter Canaan except Caleb and Joshua, Deut. 1:34-38. So long they must continue in their wanderings in the wilderness that most of them 1346 would drop off of course, and the youngest of them should be cut off. Thus they could not enter in because of unbelief. It was not the breach of any of the commands of the law that shut them out of Canaan, no, not the golden calf, but their disbelief of that promise which was typical of gospel grace, to signify that no sin will ruin us but unbelief, which is a sin against the remedy. 2. Moses himself afterwards fell under God’s displeasure for a hasty word which they provoked him to speak: The Lord was angry with me for your sakes, Deut. 1:37. Because all the old stock must go off, Moses himself must not stay behind. Their unbelief let death into the camp, and, having entered, even Moses falls within his commission. 3. Yet here is mercy mixed with wrath. (1.) That, though Moses might not bring them into Canaan, Joshua should (Deut. 1:38): Encourage him; for he would be discouraged from taking up a government which he saw Moses himself fall under the weight of; but let him be assured that he shall accomplish that for which he is raised up: He shall cause Israel to inherit it. Thus what the law could not do, in that it was weak, Jesus, our Joshua, does by bringing in the better hope. (2.) That, though this generation should not enter into Canaan, the next should, Deut. 1:39. As they had been chosen for their fathers’ sakes, so their children might justly have been rejected for their sakes. But mercy rejoiceth against judgement.
VIII. He reminds them of their foolish and fruitless attempt to get this sentence reversed when it was too late. 1. They tried it by their reformation in this particular; whereas they had refused to go up against the Canaanites, now they would go up, aye, that they would, in all haste, and they girded on their weapons of war for that purpose, Deut. 1:41. Thus, when the door is shut, and the day of grace is over, there will be found those that stand without and knock. But this, which looked like a reformation, proved but a further rebellion. God, by Moses, prohibited the attempt (Deut. 1:42): yet they went presumptuously up to the hill (Deut. 1:43), acting now in contempt of the threatening, as before in contempt of the promise, as if they were governed by a spirit of contradiction; and it sped accordingly (Deut. 1:44): they were chased and destroyed; and, by this defeat which they suffered when they provoked God to leave them, they were taught what success they might have had if they had kept themselves in his love. 2. They tried by their prayers and tears to get the sentence reversed: They returned and wept before the Lord, Deut. 1:45. While they were fretting and quarrelling, it is said (Num. 14:1): They wept that night; those were tears of rebellion against God, these were tears of repentance and humiliation before God. Note, Tears of discontent must be wept over again; the sorrow of the world worketh death, and is to be repented of; it is not so with godly sorrow, that will end in joy. But their weeping was all to no purpose. The Lord would not harken to your voice, because you would not harken to his; the decree had gone forth, and, like Esau, they found no place of repentance, though they sought it carefully with tears.