It is a wonder how the people of Israel had patience to stay forty days for the return of their spies, when they were just ready to enter Canaan, under all the assurances of success they could have from the divine power, and a constant series of miracles that had hitherto attended them; but they distrusted God’s power and promise, and were willing to be held in suspense by their own counsels, rather than be brought to a certainty by God’s covenant. How much do we stand in our own light by our unbelief! Well, at length the messengers return, but they agree not in their report.
I. The major part discourage the people from going forward to Canaan; and justly are the Israelites left to this temptation, for putting so much confidence in the judgment of men, when they had the word of God to trust to. It is a righteous thing with God to give those up to strong delusions who will not receive his truth in the love of it.
1. Observe their report. (1.) They could not deny but that the land of Canaan was a very fruitful land; the bunch of grapes they brought with them was an ocular demonstration of it, Num. 13:27. God had promised them a land flowing with milk and honey, and the evil spies themselves own that it is such a land. Thus even out of the mouth of adversaries will God be glorified and the truth of his promise attested. And yet afterwards they contradict themselves, when they say (Num. 13:32), It is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof; as if, though it had milk, and honey, and grapes, yet it wanted other necessary provision; some think that there was a great plague in the country at the time they surveyed it, which they ought to have imputed to the wisdom of the divine Providence, which thus lessened the numbers of their enemies, to facilitate their conquests; but they invidiously imputed it to the unwholesomeness of the air, and thence took occasion to disparage the country. For this unreasonable fear of a plague in Canaan, they were justly cut off immediately by a plague in the wilderness, Num. 14:37. But, (2.) They represented the conquest of it as altogether impracticable, and that it was to no purpose to attempt it. The people are strong (Num. 13:28), men of a great stature (Num. 13:32), stronger than we, Num. 13:31. The cities are represented as impregnable fortresses: they are walled and very great, Num. 13:28. But nothing served their ill purpose more than a description of the giants, on whom they lay a great stress: We saw the children of Anak there (Num. 13:28), and again, we saw the giants, those men of a prodigious size, the sons of Anak, who come of the giants, Num. 13:33. They spoke as if they were ready to tremble at the mention of them, as they had done at the sight of them. “O these tremendous giants! when we were near them, we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, not only little and weak, but trembling and daunted.” Compare Job 39:20; Canst thou make him afraid as a grasshopper? “Nay, and so we were in their sight; they looked upon us with as much scorn and disdain as we did upon them with fear and trembling.” So that upon the whole matter they gave it in as their judgment, We are not able to go up against them (Num. 13:31), and therefore must think of taking some other course.
2. Now, even if they had been to judge only by human probabilities, they could not have been excused from the imputation of cowardice. Were not the hosts of Israel very numerous? 600,000 effective men, well marshalled and modelled, closely embodied, and entirely united in interest and affection, constituted as formidable an army as perhaps was ever brought into the field; many a less has done more than perhaps the conquering of Canaan was, witness Alexander’s army. Moses, their commander-in-chief, was wise and brave; and if the people had put on resolution, and behaved themselves valiantly, what could have stood before them? It is true the Canaanites were strong, but they were dispersed (Num. 13:29): Some dwell in the south and others in the mountains; so that by reason of their distance they could not soon get together, and by reason of their divided interests they could not long keep together, to oppose Israel. The country being plentiful would subsist an army, and, though the cities were walled, if they could beat them in the field the strong-holds would fall of course into their hands. And, lastly, as for the giants, their overgrown stature would but make them the better mark, and the bulkiest men have not always the best mettle.
3. But, though they deserved to be posted for cowards, this was not the worst, the scripture brands them for unbelievers. It was not any human probabilities they were required to depend upon, but, (1.) They had the manifest and sensible tokens of God’s presence with them, and the engagement of his power for them. The Canaanites were stronger than Israel; suppose they were, but were they stronger than the God of Israel? We are not able to deal with them, but is not God Almighty able? Have we not him in the midst of us? Does not he go before us? And is any thing too hard for him? Were we as grasshoppers before the giants, and are not they less than grasshoppers before God? Their cities are walled against us, but can they be walled against heaven? Besides this, (2.) They had had very great experience of the length and strength of God’s arm, lifted up and made bare on their behalf. Were not the Egyptians as much stronger than they as the Canaanites were? And yet, without a sword drawn by Israel or a stroke struck, the chariots and horsemen of Egypt were quite routed and ruined; the Amalekites took them at great disadvantages, and yet they were discomfited. Miracles were at this time their daily bread; were there nothing else, an army so well victualled as theirs was, so constantly, so plentifully, and all on free cost, would have a might advantage against any other force. Nay, (3.) They had particular promises made them of victory and success in their wars against the Canaanites. God had given Abraham all possible assurances that he would put his seed into possession of that land, Gen. 15:18; 17:8. He had expressly promised them by Moses that he would drive out the Canaanites from before them (Exod. 33:2), and that he would do it by little and little, Exod. 23:30. And, after all this, for them to say, We are not able to go up against them, was in effect to say, “God himself is not able to make his words good.” It was in effect to give him the lie, and to tell him he had undertaken more than he could perform. We have a short account of their sin, with which they infected the whole congregation, Ps. 106:24. They despised the land, they believed not his word. Though, upon search, they had found it as good as he had said, a land flowing with milk and honey, yet they would not believe it as sure as he had said, but despaired of having it, though eternal truth itself had engaged it to them. And now this is the representation of the evil spies.
II. Caleb encouraged them to go forward, though he was seconded by Joshua only (Num. 13:30): Caleb stilled the people, whom he saw already put into a ferment even before Moses himself, whose shining face could not daunt them, when they began to grow unruly. Caleb signifies all heart, and he answered his name, was hearty himself, and would have made the people so if they would have hearkened to him. If Joshua had begun to stem the tide, he would have been suspected of partiality to Moses, whose minister he was; and therefore he prudently left it to Caleb’s management at first, who was of the tribe of Judah, the leading tribe, and therefore the fittest to be heard. Caleb had seen and observed the strength of the inhabitants as much as his fellows, and upon the whole matter, 1. He speaks very confidently of success: We are well able to overcome them, as strong as they are. 2. He animates the people to go on, and, his lot lying in the van, he speaks as one resolved to lead them on with bravery: “Let us go up at once, one bold step, one bold stroke more, will do our business; it is all our own if we have but courage to make it so: Let us go up and possess it.” He does not say, “Let us go up and conquer it;” he looks upon that to be as good as done already; but, “Let us go up and possess it; there is nothing to be done but to enter, and take the possession which God our great Lord is ready to give us.” Note, The righteous are bold as a lion. Difficulties that lie in the way of salvation dwindle and vanish before a lively active faith in the power and promise of God. All things are possible, if they be but promised, to him that believes.