The Return of the Spies

Francis Bourdillon, 1881


"At the end of forty days they returned from exploring the land." Numbers 13:25

God had promised to bring the children of Israel into a land "flowing with milk and honey" that is, a rich and fruitful country, where all their needs would be fully supplied. After a toilsome journey through the wilderness, they had now reached the borders of Canaan; and Moses, by the command of God, sent out men to search the land. Twelve men were sent a man from every tribe. Their orders were to "See what the land is like and whether the people who live there are strong or weak, few or many. What kind of land do they live in? Is it good or bad? What kind of towns do they live in? Are they unwalled or fortified? How is the soil? Is it fertile or poor? Are there trees on it or not?" And Moses added this charge, "Do your best to bring back some of the fruit of the land."

The spies did as they were commanded and searched the land as far as Hebron. In the course of their search they came to one place of remarkable fruitfulness the brook or valley of Eshcol. So rich were its fruits, that they there cut "a branch with a single cluster of grapes, and they carried it on a pole between two of them; they also brought some pomegranates and figs." Thus laden, they returned to Moses and the congregation.

They could not but speak well of a land so fertile. "We came," said they, "to the land to which you sent us. It flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit." So far all was encouraging. But when they went on to describe the inhabitants and their cities, their tone was changed. "However," they said, "the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large. We even saw descendants of Anak there!"

And when Caleb, one of their number, and Joshua with him, tried to cheer the people, saying, "Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it" the rest of the spies still spoke in the most discouraging way. "We are not able," said they, "to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are."

Thus "they brought to the people of Israel a bad report of the land that they had spied out, saying: The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. We saw the Nephilim [giants] there. We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them."

The people were filled with fear by this report. "All the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night." They went further, and "grumbled against Moses and against Aaron." "Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness!" And, despising God's commands to them by Moses and disregarding His promises, "they said one to another: Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt!"

It would be too long to enter at large into what followed. It is enough to say that, in consequence of this unbelief and disobedience the spies who brought the evil report were at once visited with death, and all those of that generation who were grown up to manhood were condemned to wander in the wilderness until they died and never to enter the land of Canaan. Though they were on the very borders of the land when this happened, it was not until forty years afterwards that they, or rather their children, entered it. All except Caleb and Joshua, the faithful two, died in the wilderness.

What do we learn from this sad history? A solemn lesson against unbelief. It is in this way that the apostle applies it, in his epistle to the Hebrews. He first quotes the 95th Psalm. "Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says: Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts, as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness, where your fathers put Me to the test and saw My works forty years. Therefore I was provoked with that generation, and said: 'They always go astray in their heart; they have not known My ways.' As I swore in My wrath: They shall never enter My rest!"

Then from this example, He gives a warning against unbelief: "Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God". He goes on afterwards to apply the Psalm yet more closely: "As it is said, 'Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.' For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was He provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who were disobedient?"

And lastly He brings all to this conclusion: "So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief" and thus applies the whole subject, "Therefore, while the promise of entering His rest still stands let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it."

Yes, we too have a promised rest, a good land the heavenly Canaan. God, who promised to the Israelites after their journey through the wilderness, "a land flowing with milk and honey" has promised to all who seek it through Jesus Christ, rest and glory with Him in Heaven when they shall have passed through the wilderness of this world. Just as the land of Canaan, fruitful and delightful, lay before the Israelites when the spies were sent out so is the heavenly Canaan prepared for the spiritual Israel, for every believer. God gave Canaan to Israel; they were expressly warned against saying in their heart, "My power and the might of my hand has gotten me this wealth."

Heaven is a gift likewise, God's free gift for Christ's sake. "The free gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord."

Yet numbers fall short of it; for when the apostle warns against seeming to come short, He means really coming short. As almost a whole generation of Israel never entered Canaan, though the promise was made to them and the land lay before them so thousands to whom the offers of the gospel come fail to enter into the rest of God.

Why? For the very same reason as kept the Israelites out of Canaan unbelief. They cannot enter in "because of unbelief." Let us look into this more closely. The unbelief of the Israelites was this: not that they did not believe in the goodness of the land, for the grapes of Eshcol must have convinced them of that; but that they did not believe that they could get possession of the land. The strong and warlike inhabitants, with their fortified towns, filled them with alarm. They forgot the promises of God. He had said that He would give them the land. If they had trusted in Him, not all the power of the Canaanites would have been able to resist them. The land was theirs by the promise of God. But their faith failed, and so they could not enter in.

The unbelief of those who do not embrace the gospel offer is of the like nature. They do not deny that Heaven is a place to be desired, though no unrenewed heart has really a longing after Heaven for its own sake. Almost all, however, do profess a wish to go to Heaven when they die. But they see and feel hindrances and difficulties of various kinds.

Some do not believe in salvation as the gift of God for Christ's sake, purchased by His precious blood and freely bestowed. They are not careless about their souls; but they are self-righteous in their views and hope, thinking that there must be some worthiness in them and not willing to trust Christ fully. No wonder that they find no comfort. No wonder that Heaven seems beyond their reach. Christ is the way the only way. No man comes unto the Father, but by Him. They cannot enter in because of their unbelief.

Others do really begin well. They believe the word of God and seem to embrace the gospel and to enter upon the heavenly road. They even, like the spies, pluck some of the fruits of Canaan, and in their own experience learn somewhat of the blessings of true religion. But they are easily hindered. The first difficulty frightens them. The trials, opposition, reproach, and self-denial of the Christian course discourage them. They do not rely on the unfailing word of God. They do not feel that His grace is sufficient for them. Thus, though they have put their hand to the plow they look back; and they too cannot enter in because of unbelief.

What has been said thus far applies equally to the spies and to the people. But some are more especially like the people, who listened to the spies rather than to God, speaking as He did by Moses and also by Caleb and Joshua. Such are those who are led by worldly advisers to give up serious religion and to follow the ways of those around them instead of taking up the cross and following Christ. They are not ignorant of the word of God, and perhaps they have been under faithful preaching and have felt somewhat of the power of the truth. But they allow the word of man to influence them more than the word of God and let this "bad report" outweigh what God has said. Thus they also are hindered by unbelief.

Again there are some whose case is more like that of the spies themselves who not only feared, but led others to fear. How awful a thing it is, to be the means of turning any back from following God! How heavy a weight of guilt must rest on those who hinder others from believing! A backslider, a worldly friend, or even a faint-hearted or inconsistent Christian may do harm of which he little thinks. A beginner in the Christian course is easily influenced. It should be the object of those who are further advanced, to let others see how happy a living faith makes them, and how it gives a tone to their whole life, and thus to lead them on rather than discourage them.

We may apply the subject even more generally. The careless and thoughtless, who live in complete neglect of religion what is it that leads them to such a course but lack of belief? They do not really embrace the Word of God. The things of eternity make little impression on them. Whatever they may profess to hold, they have no real belief in what God has said, whether in the way of warning, of reproof, of invitation, or of promise. It is unbelief that is their chief hindrance. They continue in a careless and ungodly course because they do not believe. What God has said is but so many unmeaning words to them.

They have no real wish for Heaven, no sense of sin or danger or need, no fear of wrath. Or, if ever they are troubled by unwelcome thoughts, those thoughts are quickly put away. They are living in unbelief. Unless they are brought to believe, that unbelief will shut them out of the promised land.

Once more, there may be a partial unbelief even in believers; for weakness of faith is but another name for unbelief mixing itself with faith. Now weakness of faith, though it will not hinder from entering in, if the faith is true does nevertheless deprive of much comfort, and greatly ruffle the peace and cloud the prospect of the Christian. Of every kind and in every degree unbelief is an evil thing. It may take a thousand forms, but its nature is still the same. Let Christians beware of it! Let nothing shake their confidence in their Savior in His precious blood, His finished work, His all-prevailing intercession, His unfailing grace and love. Let nothing lead them to doubt the word of God. Let those especially who have tasted that the Lord is gracious and have by faith seen somewhat of the goodness of the land of promise, go up and possess the land, fearing no foe, but trusting fully in Almighty power and unfailing truth.