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Matthew Henry's Commentary – Verses 11–19
Verses 11–19

Here is, I. The righteous sentence which God gave against Israel for their murmuring and unbelief, which, though afterwards mitigated, showed what was the desert of their sin and the demand of injured justice, and what would have been done if Moses had not interposed. When the glory of the Lord appeared in the tabernacle we may suppose that Moses took it for a call to him immediately to come and attend there, as before the tabernacle was erected he went up to the mount in a similar case, Exod. 32:30. Thus, while the people were studying to disgrace him, God publicly put honour upon him, as the man of his counsel. Now here we are told what God said to him there.

1. He showed him the great evil of the people’s sin, Num. 14:11. What passed between God and Israel went through the hands of Moses: when they were displeased with God they told Moses of it (Num. 14:2); when God was displeased with them he told Moses too, revealing his secret to his servant the prophet, Amos 3:7. Two things God justly complains of to Moses:—(1.) Their sin. They provoke me, or (as the word signifies) they reject, reproach, despise me, for they will not believe me. This was the bitter root which bore the gall and wormwood. It was their unbelief that made this a day of provocation in the wilderness, Heb. 3:8. Note, Distrust of God, of his power and promise, is itself a very great provocation, and at the bottom of many other provocations. Unbelief is a great sin (1 John 5:10), and a root sin, Heb. 3:12. (2.) Their continuance in it: How long will they do so? Note, The God of heaven keeps an account how long sinners persist in their provocations; and the longer they persist the more he is displeased. The aggravations of their sin were, [1.] Their relation to God: This people, a peculiar people, a professing people. The nearer any are to God in name and profession, the more he is provoked by their sins, especially their unbelief. [2.] The experience they had had of God’s power and goodness, in all the signs which he had shown among them, by which, one would think, he had effectually obliged them to trust him and follow him. The more God has done for us the greater is the provocation if we distrust him.

2. He showed him the sentence which justice passed upon them for it, Num. 14:12. “What remains now but that I should make a full end of them? It will soon be done. I will smite them with the pestilence, not leave a man of them alive, but wholly blot out their name and race, and so disinherit them, and be no more troubled with them. Ah, I will ease me of my adversaries. They wish to die; and let them die, and neither root nor branch be left of them. Such rebellious children deserve to be disinherited.” And if it be asked, “What will become of God’s covenant with Abraham then?” here is an answer, “I shall be preserved in the family of Moses: I will make of thee a greater nation.” Thus, (1.) God would try Moses, whether he still continued that affection for Israel which he formerly expressed upon a like occasion, in preferring their interests before the advancement of his own family; and it is proved that Moses was still of the same public spirit, and could not bear the thought of raising his own name upon the ruin of the name of Israel. (2.) God would teach us that he will not be a loser by the ruin of sinners. If Adam and Eve had been cut off and disinherited, he could have made another Adam and another Eve, and have glorified his mercy in them, as here he could have glorified his mercy in Moses, though Israel had been ruined.

II. The humble intercession Moses made for them. Their sin had made a fatal breach in the wall of their defence, at which destruction would certainly have entered if Moses had not seasonably stepped in and made it good. Here he was a type of Christ, who interceded for his persecutors, and prayed for those that despitefully used him, leaving us an example to his own rule, Matt. 5:44.

1. The prayer of his petition is, in one word, Pardon, I beseech thee, the iniquity of this people (Num. 14:19. With this he begins, and somewhat abruptly, taking occasion from that dreadful word, I will disinherit them. Lord (says he), then the Egyptians shall hear it. God’s honour lay nearer to his heart than any interests of his own. Observe how he orders this cause before God. He pleads, [1.] That the eyes both of Egypt and Canaan were upon them, and great expectations were raised concerning them. They could not but have heard that thou, Lord, art among this people, Num. 14:14. The neighbouring countries rang of it, how much this people were the particular care of heaven, so as never any people under the sun were. [2.] That if they should be cut off great notice would be taken of it. “The Egyptians will hear it (Num. 14:13), for they have their spies among us, and they will tell it to the inhabitants of the land” (Num. 14:14); for there was great correspondence between Egypt and Canaan, although not by the way of this wilderness. “If this people that have made so great a noise be all consumed, if their mighty pretensions come to nothing, and their light go out in a snuff, it will be told with pleasure in Gath, and published in the streets of Askelon; and what construction will the heathen put upon it? It will be impossible to make them understand it as an act of God’s justice, and as such redounding to God’s honour; brutish men know not this (Ps. 92:6): but they will impute it to the failing of God’s power, and so turn it to his reproach, Num. 14:16. They will say, He slew them in the wilderness because he was not able to bring them to Canaan, his arm being shortened, and his stock of miracles being spent. Now, Lord, let not one attribute be glorified at the expense of another; rather let mercy rejoice against judgment than that almighty power should be impeached.” Note, The best pleas in prayer are those that are taken from God’s honour; for they agree with the first petition of the Lord’s Prayer, Hallowed be thy name. Do not disgrace the throne of thy glory. God pleads it with himself (Deut. 32:27), I feareth the wrath of the enemy; and we should use it as an argument with ourselves to walk so in every thing as to give no occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, 1 Tim. 6:1.

(2.) He pleads God’s proclamation of his name at Horeb (Num. 14:17; 18): Let the power of the Lord be great. Power is here put for pardoning mercy; it is his power over his own anger. If he should destroy them, God’s power would be questioned; if he should continue and complete their salvation, notwithstanding the difficulties that arose, not only from the strength of their enemies, but from their own provocations, this would greatly magnify the divine power: what cannot he do who could make so weak a people conquerors and such an unworthy people favourites? The more danger there is of others reproaching God’s power the more desirous we should be to see it glorified. To enforce this petition, he refers to the word which God had spoken: The Lord is long-suffering and of great mercy. God’s goodness had there been spoken of as his glory; God gloried in it, Exod. 34:6; 7. Now here he prays that upon this occasion he would glorify it. Note, We must take our encouragement in prayer from the word of God, upon which he has caused us to hope, Ps. 119:49. “Lord, be and do according as thou hast spoken; for hast thou spoken, and wilt thou not make it good?” Three things God had solemnly made a declaration of, which Moses here fastens upon, and improves for the enforcing of his petition:—[1.] The goodness of God’s nature in general, that he is long-suffering, or slow to anger, and of great mercy; not soon provoked, but tender and compassionate towards offenders. [2.] His readiness in particular to pardon sin: Forgiving iniquity and transgression, sins of all sorts. [3.] His unwillingness to proceed to extremity, even when he does punish. For in this sense the following words may be read: That will by no means make quite desolate, in visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children. God had indeed said in the second commandment that he would thus visit, but here he promises not to make a full end of families, churches, and nations, at once; and so it is very applicable to this occasion, for Moses cannot beg that God would not at all punish this sin (it would be too great an encouragement to rebellion if he should set no mark of his displeasure upon it), but that he would not kill all this people as one man, Num. 14:15. He does not ask that they may not be corrected, but that they may not be disinherited. And this proclamation of God’s name was the more apposite to his purpose because it was made upon occasion of the pardoning of their sin in making the golden calf. This sin which they had now fallen into was bad enough, but it was not idolatry.

(3.) He pleads past experience: As thou hast forgiven this people from Egypt, Num. 14:19. This seemed to make against him. Why should those be forgiven any more who, after they had been so often forgiven, revolted yet more and more, and seemed hardened and encouraged in their rebellion by the lenity and patience of their God, and the frequent pardons they had obtained? Among men it would have been thought impolitic to take notice of such a circumstance in a request of this nature, as it might operate to the prejudice of the petitioner: but, as in other things so in pardoning sin, God’s thoughts and ways are infinitely above ours, Isa. 55:9. Moses looks upon it as a good plea, Lord, forgive, as thou hast forgiven. It will be no more a reproach to thy justice, nor any less the praise of thy mercy, to forgive now, than it has been formerly. Therefore the sons of Jacob are not consumed, because they have to do with a God that changes not, Mal. 3:6.