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Matthew Henry's Commentary – Verses 20–35
Verses 20–35

We have here God’s answer to the prayer of Moses, which sings both of mercy and judgment. It is given privately to Moses (Num. 14:20-25), and then directed to be made public to the people, Num. 14:26-35. The frequent repetitions of the same things in it speak these resolves to be unalterable. Let us see the particulars.

I. The extremity of the sentence is receded from (Num. 14:20): “I have pardoned, so as not to cut them all off at once, and disinherit them.” See the power of prayer, and the delight God takes in putting an honour upon it. He designed a pardon, but Moses shall have the praise of obtaining it by prayer: it shall be done according to thy word; thus, as a prince, he has power with God, and prevails. See what countenance and encouragement God gives to our intercessions for others, that we may be public-spirited in prayer. Here is a whole nation rescued from ruin by the effectual fervent prayer of one righteous man. See how ready God is to forgive sin, and how easy to be entreated: Pardon, says Moses (Num. 14:19); I have pardoned, says God, Num. 14:20. David found him thus swift to show mercy, Ps. 32:5. He deals not with us after our sins, Ps. 103:10.

II. The glorifying of God’s name is, in the general, resolved upon, Num. 14:21. It is said, it is sworn, All the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord. Moses in his prayer had shown a great concern for the glory of God. “Let me alone,” says God, “to secure that effectually, and to advance it, by this dispensation.” All the world shall see how God hates sin even in his own people, and will reckon for it, and yet how gracious and merciful he is, and how slow to anger. Thus when our Saviour prayed, Father, glorify thy name, he was immediately answered, I have glorified it, and will glorify it yet again, John 12:28. Note, Those that sincerely seek God’s glory may be sure of what they seek. God having turned this prayer for the glorifying of himself into a promise, we may turn it into praise, in concert with the angels, Isa. 6:3; The earth is full of his glory.

III. The sin of this people which provoked God to proceed against them is here aggravated, Num. 14:22; 27. It is not made worse than really it was, but is shown to be exceedingly sinful. It was an evil congregation, each bad, but altogether in congregation, very bad. 1. They tempted God—tempted his power, whether he could help them in their straits—his goodness, whether he would—and his faithfulness, whether his promise would be performed. They tempted his justice, whether he would resent their provocations and punish them or no. They dared him, and in effect challenged him, as God does the idols (Isa. 41:23), to do good, or do evil. 2. They murmured against him. This is much insisted on, Num. 14:27. As they questioned what he would do, so they quarrelled with him for every thing he did or had done, continually fretting and finding fault. It does not appear that they murmured at any of the laws or ordinances that God gave them (though they proved a heavy yoke), but they murmured at the conduct they were under, and the provision made for them. Note, It is much easier to bring ourselves to the external services of religion, and observe all the formalities of devotion, than to live a life of dependence upon, and submission to, the divine Providence in the course of our conversation. 3. They did this after they had seen God’s miracles in Egypt and in the wilderness, Num. 14:2. They would not believe their own eyes, which were witnesses for God that he was in the midst of them of a truth. 4. They had repeated the provocations ten times, that is, very often: the Jewish writers reckon this exactly the tenth time that the body of the congregation had provoked God. First, at the Red Sea, Exod. 14:11. In Marah, Exod. 15:23; 24. In the wilderness of Sin, Exod. 16:2. At Rephidim, Exod. 17:1; 2. The golden calf, Exod. 32:1-35. Then at Taberah. Then at Kibroth-Hattaavah, Num. 11:1-35. And so this was the tenth. Note, God keeps an account how often we repeat our provocations, and will sooner or later set them in order before us. 5. They had not hearkened to his voice, though he had again and again admonished them of their sin.

IV. The sentence passed upon them for this sin. 1. That they should not see the promised land (Num. 14:23), nor come into it, Num. 14:30. He swore in his wrath that they should not enter into his rest, Ps. 95:11. Note, Disbelief of the promise is a forfeiture of the benefit of it. Those that despise the pleasant land shall be shut out of it. The promise of God should be fulfilled to their posterity, but not to them. 2. That they should immediately turn back into the wilderness, Num. 14:25. Their next remove should be a retreat. They must face about, and instead of going forward to Canaan, on the very borders of which they now were, they must withdraw towards the Red Sea again. To-morrow turn you; that is, “Very shortly you shall be brought back to that vast howling wilderness which you are so weary of. And it is time to shift for your own safety, for the Amalekites lie in wait in the valley, ready to attack you if you march forward.” Of them they had been distrustfully afraid (Num. 13:29), and now with them God justly frightened them. The fear of the wicked shall come upon him. 3. That all those who had now grown up to men’s estate should die in the wilderness, not all at once, but by degrees. They wished that they might die in the wilderness, and God said Amen to their passionate wish, and made their sin their ruin, snared them in the words of their mouth, and caused their own tongue to fall upon them, took them at their word, and determined that their carcases should fall in the wilderness, Num. 14:28; 29, and again, Num. 14:32; 35. See with what contempt they are spoken of, now that they had by their sin made themselves vile; the mighty men of valour were but carcases, when the Spirit of the Lord had departed from them. They were all as dead men. Their fathers had such a value for Canaan that they desired to have their dead bodies carried thither to be buried, in token of their dependence upon God’s promise that they should have that land for a possession: but these, having despised that good land and disbelieved the promise of it, shall not have the honour to be buried in it, but shall have their graves in the wilderness. 4. That in pursuance of this sentence they should wander to and fro in the wilderness, like travellers that have lost themselves, for forty years; that is, so long as to make it full forty years from their coming out of Egypt to their entrance into Canaan, Num. 14:33; 34. Thus long they were kept wandering, (1.) To answer the number of the days in which the spies were searching the land. They were content to wait forty days for the testimony of men, because they could not take God’s word; and therefore justly are they kept forty years waiting for the performance of God’s promise. (2.) That hereby they might be brought to repentance, and find mercy with God in the other world, whatever became of them in this. Now they had time to bethink themselves, and to consider their ways; and the inconveniences of the wilderness would help to humble them and prove them, and show them what was in their heart, Deut. 8:2. Thus long they bore their iniquities, feeling the weight of God’s wrath in the punishment. They were made to groan under the burden of their own sin that brought it upon them, which was too heavy for them to bear. (3.) That they might sensibly feel what a dangerous thing it is for God’s covenant-people to break with him: “You shall know my breach of promise, both the causes of it, that it is procured by your sin” (for God never leaves any till they first leave him), “and the consequences of it, that it will produce your ruin; you are quite undone when you are thrown out of covenant.” (4.) That a new generation might in this time be raised up, which could not be done all of a sudden. And the children, being brought up under the tokens of God’s displeasure against their fathers, and so bearing their whoredoms (that is, the punishment of their sins, especially their idolatry about the golden calf, which God now remembered against them), might take warning not to tread in the steps of their fathers’ disobedience. And their wandering so long in the wilderness would make Canaan at last the more welcome to them. It should seem that upon occasion of this sentence Moses penned the Ps. 90:1-17, which is very apposite to the present state of Israel, and wherein they are taught to pray that since this sentence could not be reversed it might be sanctified, and they might learn to apply their hearts unto wisdom.

V. The mercy that was mixed with this severe sentence.

1. Mercy to Caleb and Joshua, that though they should wander with the rest in the wilderness, yet they, and only they of all that were now above twenty years old, should survive the years of banishment, and live to enter Canaan. Caleb only is spoken of (Num. 14:24), and a particular mark of honour put upon him, both, (1.) In the character given of him: he had another spirit, different from the rest of the spies, an after-spirit, which furnished him with second thoughts, and he followed the Lord fully, kept close to his duty, and went through with it, though deserted and threatened; and, (2.) In the recompence promised to him: Him will I bring in due time into the land whereinto he went. Note, [1.] It ought to be the great care and endeavour of every one of us to follow the Lord fully. We must, in a course of obedience to God’s will and of service to his honour, follow him universally, without dividing,—uprightly, without dissembling,—cheerfully, without disputing,—and constantly, without declining; and this is following him fully. [2.] Those that would follow God fully must have another spirit, another from the spirit of the world, and another from what their own spirit has been. They must have the spirit of Caleb. [3.] Those that follow God fully in times of general apostasy God will own and honour by singular preservations in times of general calamity. The heavenly Canaan shall be the everlasting inheritance of those that follow the Lord fully. When Caleb is again mentioned (Num. 14:30) Joshua stands with him, compassed with the same favours and crowned with the same honours, having stood with him in the same services.

2. Mercy to the children even of these rebels. They should have a seed preserved, and Canaan secured to that seed: Your little ones, now under twenty years old, which you, in your unbelief, said should be a prey, them will I bring in, Num. 14:31. They had invidiously charged God with a design to ruin their children, Num. 14:3. But God will let them know that he can put a difference between the guilty and the innocent, and cut them off without touching their children. Thus the promise made to Abraham, though it seemed to fail for a time, was kept from failing for evermore; and, though God chastened their transgressions with a rod, yet his loving kindness he would not utterly take away.