The Provocation




In Heb. 3: 4, 5, 6, Christ is compared with Moses, who was faithful as a servant in all God's House, for a testimony of the things which were to be spoken subsequently (which we take to be "the things which we have heard"). Christ, however, is not a servant in God's House, but Son over His House; and then follows the statement that directly concerns us: "Whose house are we if we hold fast the confidence and rejoicing of the hope firm to the end." What follows is given for the purpose of teaching us what is meant by holding fast the confidence and rejoicing (or, as it has been otherwise rendered, the boldness and boasting) of the hope firm to the end. That such is the purpose is evident from the fact that the next words are I Wherefore (omitting the parenthesis to end of verse 11) take heed lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God." For information as to what is meant by departing from the living God as the result of unbelief, we are referred to the ninty-fifth Psalm, the last part of which is quoted in full and declared to be the saying of the Holy Spirit.


From this we learn that the period denominated "To-day" is the present day of our sojourn and pilgrimage on earth; and that "the end," unto which we are again and again admonished to hold fast our confession and our confidence, is the end of our pilgrim journey. We learn further that the danger against which we are so pointedly and earnestly warned is something that corresponds to the "provocation in the day of temptation in the wilderness," the dire consequence of which was that God swore in His wrath that those who provoked should not enter into His rest. What, then, was the "provocation," and what does it stand for as a type? Turning to Numbers 14. we find at verse 11 the words "And the Lord said unto Moses, How long will this people PROVOKE Me? and how long will it be ere they BELIEVE Me, for all the signs which I have shewed among them?" And at verse 23: "Surely they shall not see the land which I sware unto their fathers, neither shall any of them that PROVOKED Me see it."


Here we have the provocation and the penalty. The provocation was - not a single act, but - the culmination of a series of acts. The Lord's question was "How long will this people provoke Me?" And in verse 22 He spoke of them as "those men which ... have tempted Me now these ten times, and have not hearkened unto My Voice." Therefore, it will be profitable to trace the steps which culminated in provoking the irrevocable punishment inflicted on those whom God still owned as His people, and over whom He still continued to watch in the wilderness where they were condemned to remain. If we take care to avoid the first step of the provocation we shall not incur the indignation.


In the latter part of Numbers 10. we read of the journeyings of the Israelites under the guidance of Jehovah, the Shepherd of Israel, the Ark of the covenant going before to search out a resting place for them; and we read also the words that Moses uttered when the Ark set forward, and when it rested. Nevertheless, at the beginning of chap. 11. we find a record of the people complaining, and of the Lord's displeasure thereat. The occasion or subject of the complaint is not stated. Any complaint, therefore, concerning the incidents of our pilgrimage, may be the starting point of departure from the living God. We need to learn obedience and contentment by the things we suffer; as the Apostle Paul could say, "I have LEARNED, in whatsoever state I am, to be content" (Phil. 4: 11). This contentment does not come by nature, it must be "learned." Let us, then, watch ourselves and check every tendency to complain of the hardships of the journey.


The next incident is recorded in Numb. 11: 4-6:


"And the mixt multitude that was among them fell a lusting; and the children of Israel also wept again, saying, Who shall give us flesh to eat? We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic. But now our soul is dried away. There is nothing at all beside this manna before our eyes."


So the next step in the provocation came through the "mixt multitude" which had come up with them out of Egypt (Ex. 12: 38). It is dangerous for the people of God to have a "mixt multitude among them." These are sure to give voice to their desires, and thus stir up the flesh in the believer. Recollections of Egypt were revived. And here the deceitful heart and memory played a trick that is common enough, though hard to explain. All the asperities of their oppression in Egypt, the cruel servitude, the bitter bondage, the task-master's lash, the harsh increase of the burden, were entirely forgotten. The great wonders wrought by the Hand of the Lord and His mighty deliverance out of the house of bondage, were also forgotten. They recalled only the things of Egypt which serve to satisfy the natural appetite. They despised the bread of God, which He supplied daily for their recurring needs, and craved the food of Egypt. They were thus the types of those whom Paul characterises as "enemies of the Cross of Christ; whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, who glory in their shame, who mind earthly things" (Phil. 3: 18, 19).


The manna which God supplied to His people in the wilderness stands for the Word of God on which His people are privileged now to feed, that they may be nourished up in the words of faith (1 Tim. 4: 6). From this we may learn that it is a very serious matter to slight the Word of God. To do so is to neglect the appropriate spiritual food which God, in His goodness, has supplied, in order that we may be nourished and strengthened to bear the trials of the way. Disinclination to feed on the Word is a common complaint among Christians, particularly among such as have fellowship with the mixed multitude of Christendom, who have no taste at all for the bread of life. Let us take careful note of this, and not permit either the habits of our neighbours or the pressure of things about us, to divert us from the daily, deliberate, meditative reading of the Word of God. Regular attention to this important matter will go far towards fitting us to overcome the severe trials that surely lie in our path. The reading matter of the day, that is devoured by the people of the world, and by the mixed multitude, is utterly unfit for the people of God. Not only is it quite void of spiritual nutriment, but it vitiates the taste therefor. Much of the religious literature of the day is no better, and some of it is even worse. The attempt to make spiritual things palatable, by means of artistic and literary expedients, is sure evidence of a state of spiritual decline, which may end in apostasy. It is written of the Israelites that they subjected the manna to culinary expedients in order to make it more palatable, not relishing it in the state in which God gave it to them. For "the people went about, and gathered it, and ground it in mills, or beat it in a mortar, and baked it in pans, and made cakes of it" (Numb. 11: 8). But that did not satisfy them; for eventually they came to such a pass as to say, "Our soul loatheth this light bread" (Numb. 21: 5). It is safe to say that, of the literature of the day, not the thousandth part contains any spiritual nutriment; and beside that, it must be remembered that the very soundest and most spiritual books cannot take the place of the Word of God. This admonition applies to the old and young alike.


To despise the provision which the Lord has made for His people is to despise the Lord Himself, as He said on the occasion we are now considering, "Ye have despised the Lord Who is among you, and have wept before Him, saying, Why came we forth out of Egypt?" (Numb. 11: 20).


God has taken pains to teach us very plainly and forcibly the seriousness of neglecting our spiritual food, which He supplies, namely, the words of eternal life. The incident of the preference of the Israelites for the food of Egypt is rehearsed in Psalm 78. There it is written, "And they sinned yet more against Him by provoking the Most High in the wilderness. And they tempted God in their heart by asking meat for their lust",(verses 17, 18). And the reason is given, "Because they BELIEVED NOT in God, and trusted not in His salvation, though He had commanded the clouds from above, and opened the doors of Heaven, and had rained down manna upon them to eat, and had given them of the corn of Heaven. Man did eat angels' food" (verses 22-25). The brief explanation is that "THEIR HEART was not right with Him" (verse 37).


Again in Psalm 106. the incident is recited in detail; and, as we have already seen, Psalm 95. refers prominently and pointedly to the provocation in the day of temptation in the wilderness.


Proceeding with the record given in Numbers, we find in chap. 12. the sedition of Aaron and Miriam against Moses, which amounted to rebellion against the Word of God, Who spoke through Moses. Aaron and Miriam wished their utterances to have the same authority as those of Moses. "And they said, Hath the Lord indeed spoken only by Moses? Hath He not spoken also by us?" Many among professed Christians are saying the same thing to-day, putting the uninspired words of man on the same level with the Word of God. Those who were most closely related to Moses "refused him that spake on earth" (Heb. 12: 25), and they did "not escape" punishment.


Chapter 13. relates another step in the departure of the Israelites from the living God, giving a further manifestation of the existence in themselves of "an evil heart of unbelief." The subject of this chapter is the sending of the spies to investigate and report upon the Promised Land. They believed not God's report concerning the land. His announcement did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard. So they sent chosen leaders to spy the land, with instructions to "SEE the land, what it is; and the people that dwelleth therein, whether they be strong or weak, few or many; and what the land is that they dwell in, whether it be good or bad; and what cities they be that they dwell in, whether in tents or in strong holds; and what the land is, whether it be fat or lean, whether there be wood therein or not " (ver. 18, 19, 20).


From Deut. 1: 22 we learn that the sending of the spies was the act of the people, God permitting them in all these matters to have their own way, which they preferred to His. They saw His works, but did not know or desire His ways. Moses in his farewell words to the people said:


"And I said unto you, Ye are come unto the mountain of the Amorites, which the Lord our God doth give unto us. Behold, the Lord thy God hath set the land before thee. Go up and possess it, as the Lord God of thy fathers hath said unto thee. Fear not, neither be discouraged " (Deut. 1: 20-22).


This surely should be enough for those who had faith in God. But "their heart was not right with Him." They did not hold the beginning of their confidence, in which they set out from Egypt, stedfast unto the end. They wished to "see the land," not believing the word of the report concerning the "things not seen." So the account continues:


"And ye drew near unto me, every one of you, and said, We will send men before us, and they shall search us out the land and bring us word again by what way we must go up and into what cities we shall come" (verse 23).


Two things are prominent in this action of the congregation of Israel; first, that they had more confidence in the report of men than in that of God; and, second, that they had more confidence in the guidance of human leaders than in that of God, notwithstanding that He, as Moses reminds them, "went in the way before you to search you out a place to pitch your tents in, in fire by night to show you the way ye should go, and in a cloud by day" (verse 33).


Taking the two accounts (that in Numbers and that in Deuteronomy) together, we may see that God was virtually ignored by His people. They did not consider His purpose or will in the matter, or even consider whether He had a will as to their entering the land of their inheritance. They disregarded His promise made to them in Egypt that He would "bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey" (Ex. 3: 8). They acted as if they lacked trustworthy information concerning that land; as if their entering or not was a matter for their own choice after due investigation and deliberation, and as if, in case they should decide to enter, they would have to determine for themselves the route to take.


Can it be denied that there are Christians - in name, at least, and probably in fact as well - who are acting similarly with reference to "the things which we have heard" concerning the habitable earth to come, the Rest that remaineth unto the people of God? We apprehend that the number of such is great. "Let us fear, therefore, lest a promise being left us of entering into His rest, any of you should seem to come short of it. Let it be noted that it was those who had heard the announcement of God that provoked Him by the way in which they acted with regard to the things announced. "For some, when they had heard, did provoke" (Heb. 3: 16). The announcement was perfectly plain. It could not be misunderstood, although it could be treated with indifference, slighted and neglected.


Now, it is expressly stated that good things have been announced to us, "as well as unto them" (Heb. 4: 2). This is not the preaching of the gospel of God's grace to the unconverted. It is the announcement by God Himself of good things to come, which He has prepared for those who love Him and manifest their love by holding fast the beginning of their confidence in Him steadfast unto the end. This is the "word" which will not profit, if not mixed with faith in us who have distinctly heard it.


The action of the congregation of Israel in the matter of the spies teaches plainly the lesson that when the people of God are lacking in the energy of faith, by reason of insufficient spiritual nourishment, due to their own neglect of the Word of God, the effect is to throw them back upon the resources of nature, and upon the methods and means of the natural man, even in matters connected with their spiritual concerns. This is a condition that widely prevails at the present day. On every hand we see attempts at producing spiritual results by means of natural agencies, and the consequences are deplorable indeed. All these fleshly activities are outward manifestations of the inward presence of an evil heart of unbelief; and the source of it all is the failure to heed, believe, and obey the Word of God.


The spies returned and reported to the congregation the things that they had seen, which, in the state of their heart towards God, outweighed the things that He had spoken concerning the land. "They brought up an evil report of the land which they had searched" (Numb. 13: 32). God describes the action of the spies as "bringing up a slander on the land" (Numb. 14: 36). In Psalm 106., God says, "Yea, they despised the pleasant land, they believed not His Word" (verse 24). And this unbelief culminated in the rebellion recorded in Numb. xiv. "And they said one to another, Let us make a captain, and let us return into Egypt." This was the last step in their departure from God, and brought upon them the judgment of being shut out from the land which they had despised.


In studying this incident, in the light of what is said of it in the Psalms and in Hebrews, we observe that the action of the congregation of Israel was the natural outcome of the state of their heart. "Their heart was not right with Him, neither were they steadfast in His covenant" (Psa. 78: 37). Accordingly, in applying the lesson to us, the Holy Spirit has much to say about the state of our hearts. These are the exhortations that are spoken in our ears: "The Holy Ghost saith, To-day, if ye will hear His Voice, harden not your hearts." "Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief." "While it is said, To-day, if ye will near His Voice, harden not your heart." "Again, He limiteth a certain day, saying in David, To-day, after so long a time; as it is said, To-day, if ye will hear His Voice, harden not your hearts" (3: 8, 12, 18; 4: 7). The Word of God which lays everything bare, as the two-edged knife of the priest exposed all the inward parts of the offering, pierces even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart (4: 12). All our hidden thoughts and intents are laid open to the Eyes of Him with Whom we have to do. And it is because of this that God has given to us the services of "a great High Priest Who has passed through the heavens," and a throne of grace to which we have access by His Name and in the merits of His Sacrifice on our behalf.


Special attention should be paid to the consequences of the provocation, as announced in these words of the Lord to Moses: "Surely they shall not see the land which I sware unto their fathers, neither shall any of them that provoked Me see it." "As I live, saith the Lord, AS ye have spoken in My Ears, SO will I do to you. Your carcases shall fall in this wilderness, and all that were numbered of you, according to your whole number, from twenty years old and upward, which have murmured against Me, doubtless ye shall not come into the land which I sware to make you dwell therein, save Caleb the son of Jephunneh, and Joshua the son of Nun" (Numb. 14: 23, 28, 29, 30).


Briefly, then, the punishment visited upon the Israelites consisted in giving them what they had preferred. They preferred not to enter the land; and God granted them their choice. It seems that, when the people of God desire their own ways, in preference to His, He often allows them to have their desire. When they longed for the food of Egypt He gave them a surfeit of flesh; but "while the flesh was between their teeth, before it was chewed, the wrath of the Lord was kindled against the people, and the Lord smote the people with a very great plague" (Numb. 11: 33). So in the Lord's dealings with His people to-day, those who long for the enjoyments, indulgences, pleasures etc., which this world affords, are often permitted to have them; but sometimes ere they can derive any satisfaction therefrom - "ere it was chewed" - they are cut off in the midst of their carnal pleasures according as it is plainly declared, "if ye ([regenerate] believers) live after the flesh ye shall die" (Rom. 8: 13).


In the words of Psalm 78: 29-31: "So they did eat, and were well filled; for He gave them THEIR OWN DESIRE; they were not estranged from their lust. But while the meat was yet in their mouths, the wrath of God came upon them, and slew the fattest of them, and smote down the chosen men of Israel." And in the words of Psalm 106: 13-15: "They soon forgot His works; they waited not for His counsel; but lusted exceedingly in the wilderness, and tempted God in the desert. AND HE GAVE THEM THEIR REQUEST; but sent leanness into their soul."


Once more, when the people wished to investigate the land for themselves by chosen representatives, God again gave them their desire. He allowed the whole congregation to be halted for forty days, while the leaders of Israel, one man from each tribe, searched the land concerning which God Himself had given them a report. But for every day they thus hindered the carrying out of His promise - a promise made four hundred years previous to Abraham, and renewed to them through Moses - they were condemned to spend a year in the wilderness. "After the number of the days in which ye searched the land, even forty days, each day for a year, shall ye bear your iniquities, even forty years, and ye shall know My breach of promise (or estrangement)" (Numb. 14: 34).


And finally, when the people turned back and tempted God, and limited the Holy One of Israel (Psa. 78: 41), and said. "Would God we had died in this wilderness" (Numb. 14: 2), God again gave them their wish, saying, "As ye have spoken in Mine ears so will I do to you" (14: 28).


This should teach us to search our hearts, by the light of God's Word, for any desires which are not in accord with His revealed purpose for us. In the particular case which we are now studying, it is God's revealed purpose to lead many sons unto glory; and it is necessary to the accomplishment of this purpose that they should give heed to, and obey, the word spoken to them. This purpose of God is not for their satisfaction only, or chiefly. It is primarily for His own satisfaction, and for the glory of His First-Begotten, Who glorified Him in the earth, and Who is now waiting for the joy that was set before Him when He endured the Cross. It is an exceeding, serious matter to hinder this purpose of the Father. He has graciously made it known to us, and great will be our loss if we set not our hearts in line with its accomplishment. If, therefore, we allow and cherish in our hearts desires for the seen things of this age, giving them preference over the things which we have heard" but have "not seen as yet," then, regardless of our Christian name and profession, we do provoke God, and render ourselves liable to such consequences as the Israelites brought upon themselves; that is to say, we may fail to enter into the "Rest" that God has announced to us, and be condemned instead to have our portion in the wilderness of this age, and in the things that pertain to it, according to the desire of our hearts.


It is important to observe that those who provoked God in the wilderness by their unbelief and disobedience, and who were in consequence shut out of the Promised Land, did not cease to be the Lords people, and that He did not refuse to pardon their iniquity. Moses interceded for them, as he had done at Sinai, and said, "Pardon, I beseech Thee, the iniquity of this people, according to the greatness of Thy mercy, and as Thou hast forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now. And the Lord said, I HAVE PARDONED according to thy word" (Numb. 14: 19, 20).


By this we are taught that God's pardon to His children does not mean the remission of the appropriate consequences of their wrong-doing. That is what we usually mean when we ask forgiveness of our sins; but God's pardon is something different from that. It is written that every transgression and disobedience receives a just recompense of reward (Heb. 2: 2); and again, that whatsoever a man soweth that shall he also reap (Gal. 6: 7). And again, that everyone shall receive the things done in his body according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad (2 Cor. 5: l0). And again, "He that doeth wrong shall receive for the wrong which he hath done" (Col. 3: 25). God's pardon means that He does not cast away His people though He punishes their sins; as said the Psalmist: "Thou answeredst them, 0 Lord our God: Thou wast a God that forgavest them, Thou tookest vengeance of their inventions" (Psa. 99: 8). He shut the disobedient people out of the Land of Promise; but He Himself accompanied them. The pillar of cloud and fire never left them. The manna never failed. For "about the time of forty years suffered He their manners in the wilderness" (Acts 13: 18). We often think of what they suffered, and seldom of what God suffered. Nevertheless, "in all their affliction, He was afflicted." See also Neh. 9: 19.


God's dealings with David impressively teach the same lesson. Immediately upon David's confession of sin, Nathan said, "The Lord also hath put away thy sin" (2 Sam. 12: 13). Nevertheless, the punishment for the sin was not remitted or abated. The sword never departed from David's house, and the other items of his punishment were fully carried out, according to the Word of the Lord (2 Sam. 12: 10-12).


As we have seen, the righteous retribution which God visits upon His people, frequently takes the form of permitting them to have the preference of their own hearts. It was thus when the people said, "Give us a king to judge us" (1 Sam. 8: 6). God first warned them clearly by His prophet Samuel what would happen to them if they rejected Him and chose a human king to rule over them (verses 9 - 18). "Nevertheless, the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel, and they said, Nay, but we will have a king over us, that we may be like all the nations" (19-20). So God gave them a king in His anger, and not only so, but He gave them just such a king as their own hearts desired.


On another greater and more solemn occasion, a choice was presented to the people. The choice then offered them lay between Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and Barabbas, the murderer. And they all cried saying, "Not this man, but Barabbas" (John 18: 40). The apostle Peter subsequently reminded the people of Israel of that choice saying, "Ye denied the Holy One and the just, and desired a murderer to be granted unto you, and killed the Prince of Life" (Acts 3: 15). That choice was in reality the choice of "the princes (or rulers) of this world" (1 Cor. 2: 8); and accordingly, God allowed the world to have the ruler it preferred; for the Devil, who has the power of death, is "the prince (or ruler) of this world" (John 14: 30); and "he was a murderer from the beginning" (John 8: 44).


Before leaving the record of the provocation in Numb. 14., we would direct attention to the remarkable promise found in verse 21: "But as truly as I live, all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord." It is a very significant fact that the Lord, in pronouncing the judgment that excluded the disobedient people from the land of Canaan, should have uttered and recorded an oath which is to have its fulfilment in the habitable earth to come, where of Canaan was the type.


The essence of the lesson put before us in the incidents of the "Provocation" is that, when God, having redeemed for Himself a people at a great price, and having revealed to them His mighty power and His tender mercy, speaks to them of a place of wondrous blessing which He Himself has chosen for them, and into which He purposes to bring them; and when those to whom this purpose is revealed despise "the pleasant land" and manifest a preference for the things they are leaving behind them, God's fiery indignation is aroused against them, insomuch that He shuts them out of the promised blessing and leaves them to a dreadful alternative.


The same lesson is taught by the Lord Himself in the parable of the great supper (Luke 14: 16-24). The Lord had been speaking of recompense at the Resurrection of the just whereupon one of those that sat at table with Him said: "Blessed is he that shall eat bread in the Kingdom of God" (verses 14, 15). The general subject of the parable, therefore, is the Kingdom of God, which will be introduced at the Resurrection of the just; and the specific subject is the blessing of eating bread (which signifies the satisfaction of the soul) in that Kingdom. "A certain man made a GREAT supper and bade many!" This great supper represents the "good things to come," to which the saints of this era are invited. But the invited guests were more interested in the things of their immediate surroundings than in the great supper. Their conduct revealed the preference of their hearts. Therefore the lord of the household was "angry," and sent out his servant to bring others in ("seeing therefore that some must enter therein" Heb. 4: 6), in order that his house might be filled. And concerning those who lightly esteemed his invitation, he declared, "I say unto you that none of those men that were bidden shall taste of my supper! They preferred not to come, and he left them to the consequences of their choice.


How, then, shall we escape if we, after the same example of unbelief, make light of and neglect "so great salvation," whereof a beginning was spoken by the Lord?