There are times when self-concealment is infinitely better than activity, and humiliation than zeal. But self is learned slowly, and we often make the mistake of doing deeds when we should shed tears, and of running when we should be on our knees in true self-judgment.
So it was with Israel in Numbers 14:40. The twelve spies had returned from their forty-days search of the land, bringing with them the token of its wealth, and saying indeed, that it was a land that flowed with milk and honey. So far so good, but they added the fact that the cities were walled and very great, and that they had seen the children of Anak.
This sufficed to discourage the people; or rather to feed the flame of their unbelief—for the mission of the spies, though allowed by the Lord, was after all but an evidence of the irresolute heart of the people. Granted that the cities were great and the inhabitants tall, what of that if God were with His people? Had He not already triumphed over the power of Egypt? Had He not dried up the waters of the sea? Was His hand shortened now? No, but they left that hand out of account. They walked by sight. Faith was inoperative. The aspersion cast on the land by the spies, or, at least, by all save Joshua and Caleb, seems to have been welcome. It suited the state of the people, so that, when these two urged them to advance, saying that if the Lord delighted in them He would bring them in, they bade stone them with stones!
The occasion was as critical as it was solemn. A general mutiny had arisen. The whole assembly had rebelled against God. “Let us make a captain,” they said, “and let us return into Egypt!” In a moment they would undo all the mighty victories that grace and power had won. Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before the assembly in the silence of humiliation, whilst Joshua and Caleb stood with more than human courage in the face of that six hundred thousand mutineers, and pleaded for God and duty.
A wonderful sight, indeed! Four men confronted this host of rebels—two of them, old and heart-broken, on their faces before the God who had been offended; two of them, young, valorous, and faithful, men for the crisis, risking their lives for the sake of the truth, and pleading with their fellows with an energy that only love could produce! These men acted for God! Such crises occur, and if in Moses and Aaron we see absolute dependence on God, in Joshua and Caleb we may witness the self-renouncing devotedness of love. What a picture! Shall we weep as we regard the perverted multitude, or rejoice as we behold the grace of the four faithful servants of God? Shall not each side of the picture influence us aright? Shall we not shrink from the unbelief of the one, and seek to emulate the bold courage of the other? But how could four feeble men stay such a tide of evil? Well, they could not; but let us remember that God is ever a spectator of His people’s ways, and so we read that “the glory of the Lord appeared in the tabernacle of the congregation.” He interposed for further encouragement of faith, and for the punishment of rebellion. Better to side with God and four men, or even alone, than to have the company of 600,000 in a path of sin. If alone with God, you have His grace, even though you may be tried in various ways. If surrounded by crowds of unfaithful men, you lack the one spring of power—you have not God.
The people now discovered the awful mistake they had made. They had acted against God. Their carcases should fall in the wilderness, and their children alone, with Joshua and Caleb, should know the land which they had despised. They spent the night in contemplating their sin, and early in the morning they rose, and gat them to the top of the hill, saying, “Lo, we be here, and will go up unto the place which the Lord has promised; for we have sinned.”
Ah! had the result of that night’s deliberation been that they went down into the valley, instead of up to the top of the mountain, had they gone down instead of up, had they humbled instead of exalted themselves, how different the result would certainly have been! Grace is so ready to pardon! But the top of the mountain, the appearance of zeal, the glamour of an armed host, the noise of high sounding words, “Lo, we be here, and will go up”—all that was far more pleasing to the flesh, and more in keeping with the unjudged spirit of rebellion that marked them, than self-judgment before an offended God could have been. “Lo! we be here.” Who are the “we”? Just the same crowds as had said so flippantly a few months earlier under Sinai, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do” (Ex. 19:8). The same “we” who had never learned their absolute need of grace, and their own spiritual inability to obey one of God’s words, or to advance one step towards the land of promise.
Alas, that treacherous “we”! How often has God been shut out by the idea of our own sufficiency. But just in proportion as “we be here,” so is God not here. The excellency of the power is of God, and not of us. Then, inversely, just as the Spirit of God is our power, so is self sunk, and morally displaced. This last is beautifully true of the four men to whom, in their day, the interests of God were paramount, whilst the former is fearfully visible in the rebellion of the people.
How bright a contrast to the “We be here” of Israel in Numbers 14 are the words of Paul, whilst he realized that to him had been committed the unfolding of the mystery in Ephesians 3. It was undoubtedly the contemplation of that revelation, so wondrous and so blessed, that led him to say that he was not only the least of saints, but the least of all saints; and not only the least of all saints, but less than the least of all saints. Could he have taken lower ground? Impossible! Then where was he? Self was nowhere. There was no “I am here” in such a case.
And depend upon it, beloved, that self is not overcome by efforts to get rid of it. Its roots are too deep for that. There is but one way. “Our old man is crucified with Him” (Rom. 6:6). That is the blessed foundation. Then “reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin” (v. 11). Not dying, but “dead”; for the Christian is nowhere in Scripture told to die to sin, but to carry about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus Christ, and, practically, to be so heartily occupied with Christ and His interests, as Joshua and Caleb were with those of God, that the mind, otherwise the instrument of evil, becomes the servant of what is good. That Christ might be magnified in the body, whether by life or by death, was the consuming desire of His servant Paul (Phil. 1:20). And again, “Not I, but Christ” (Gal. 2:20).
Instead of the “We be here” of Numbers 14, may we seek more diligently to show out Christ in all our ways.