Here we have, I. Orders given to send spies to search out the land of Canaan. It is here said, God directed Moses to send them (Num. 13:1; 2), but it appears by the repetition of the story afterwards (Deut. 1:22) that the motion came originally from the people; they came to Moses, and said, We will send men before us; and it was the fruit of their unbelief. They would not take God’s word that it was a good land, and that he would, without fail, put them in possession of it. They could not trust the pillar of cloud and fire to show them the way to it, but had a better opinion of their own politics than of God’s wisdom. How absurd was it for them to send to spy out a land which God himself had spied out for them, to enquire the way into it when God himself had undertaken to show them the way! But thus we ruin ourselves by giving more credit to the reports and representations of sense than to divine revelation; we walk by sight, not by faith; whereas, if we will receive the witness of men, without doubt the witness of God is greater. The people making this motion to Moses, he (perhaps not aware of the unbelief at the bottom of it) consulted God in the case, who bade him gratify the people in this matter, and send spies before them: “Let them walk in their own counsels.” Yet God was no way accessory to the sin that followed, for the sending of these spies was so far from being the cause of the sin that if the spies had done their duty, and the people theirs, it might have been the confirmation of their faith, and of good service to them.
II. The persons nominated that were to be employed in this service (Num. 13:4-15), one of each tribe, that it might appear to be the act of the people in general; and rulers, person of figure in their respective tribes, some of the rulers of thousands or hundreds, to put the greater credit upon their embassy. This was designed for the best, but it proved to have this ill effect that the quality of the persons occasioned the evil report they brought up to be the more credited and the people to be the more influenced by it. Some think that they are all named for the sake of two good ones that were among them, Caleb and Joshua. Notice is taken of the change of Joshua’s name upon this occasion, Num. 13:16. He was Moses’s minister, but had been employed, though of the tribe of Ephraim, as general of the forces that were sent out against Amalek. The name by which he was generally called and known in his own tribe was Oshea, but Moses called him Joshua, in token of his affection to him and power over him; and now, it should seem, he ordered others to call him so, and fixed that to be his name henceforward. Oshea signifies a prayer for salvation, Save thou; Joshua signifies a promise of salvation, He will save, in answer to that prayer: so near is the relation between prayers and promises. Prayers prevail for promises, and promises direct and encourage prayers. Some think that Moses designed, by taking the first syllable of the name Jehovah and prefixing it to his name, which turned Hoshea into Jehoshua, to put an honour upon him, and to encourage him in this and all his future services with the assurances of God’s presence. Yet after this he is called Hoshea, Deut. 32:44. Jesus is the same name with Joshua, and it is the name of our Lord Christ, of whom Joshua was a type as successor to Moses, Israel’s captain, and conqueror of Canaan. There was another of the same name, who was also a type of Christ, Zech. 6:11. Joshua was the saviour of God’s people from the powers of Canaan, but Christ is their Saviour from the powers of hell.
III. The instructions given to those spies. They were sent into the land of Canaan the nearest way, to traverse the country, and to take account of its present state, Num. 13:17. Two heads of enquiry were given them in charge, 1. Concerning the land itself: See what that is (Num. 13:18; and again, Num. 13:19), see whether it be good or bad, and (Num. 13:20) whether it be fat or lean. All parts of the earth do not share alike in the blessing of fruitfulness; some countries are blessed with a richer soil than others. Moses himself was well satisfied that Canaan was a very good land, but he sent these spies to bring an account of it for the satisfaction of the people; as John Baptist sent to Jesus, to ask whether he was the Christ, not to inform himself, but to inform those he sent. They must take notice whether the air was healthful or no, what the soil was, and what the productions; and, for the better satisfaction of the people, they must bring with them some of the fruits. 2. Concerning the inhabitants—their number, few or many—their size and stature, whether strong able-bodied men or weak,—their habitations, whether they lived in tents or houses, whether in open villages or in walled towns,—whether the woods were standing as in those countries that are uncultivated, through the unskillfulness and slothfulness of the inhabitants, or whether the woods were cut down, and the country made champaign, for the convenience of tillage. These were the things they were to enquire about. Perhaps there had not been of late years such commerce between Egypt and Canaan as there was in Jacob’s time, else they might have informed themselves of these things without sending men on purpose to search. See the advantage we may derive from books and learning, which acquaint those that are curious and inquisitive with the state of foreign countries, at a much greater distance than Canaan was now from Israel, without this trouble and expense.
IV. Moses dismisses the spies with this charge, Be of good courage, intimating, not only that they should be themselves encouraged against the difficulties of this expedition, but that they should bring an encouraging account to the people and make the best of every thing. It was not only a great undertaking they were put upon, which required good management and resolution, but it was a great trust that was reposed in them, which required that they should be faithful.