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The spies – Lost opportunities (Numbers 13&14)

Consistently choosing to obey God in the small things prepares us to choose his way in the vital decisions of life.

Photo: [link]C. Horner[/link], Unsplash, CC0

In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare has Brutus speak these words:

“There is a tide in the affairs of men.

Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;

Omitted, all the voyage of their life

Is bound in shallows and in miseries.”

Brutus is telling Cassius that now is the time to attack their enemies. Failure to take advantage of the present opportunity would lead to a life 'bound in shallows and in miseries’.

The Israelites in the desert faced a similar crucial decision point. The Lord had miraculously set them free from slavery in Egypt under the leadership of Moses and was leading them to a new, unknown land. As they approached it, he told them to send out twelve men to explore it: one from each tribe, so that everybody would feel included (13:1). Then the people would know exactly kind of land the Lord was taking them into (13:17:20).

The twelve men made a thorough reconnaissance of the land, exploring it from North to South over a 40-day period. They brought back fruit, including a massive cluster of grapes, to show concretely how productive the land was (13:21-25).

Then came the time to give their report to the people (13:26-33). All twelve agreed that it was a land flowing with milk and honey, just as God had promised. But there was only one problem. “The people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and large,” they bewailed. “We even saw giants there. We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.”

Two of the twelve, Caleb and Joshua, like Brutus in Shakespeare’s play, saw the opportunity that was before them. “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it,” they confidently declared. “Do not be afraid of the people of the land. Their protection is gone, but the Lord is with us” (13:30, 14:6-9). However, the other ten saw only the obstacles in front of them, and spread a bad report about the land (13:32).

It is easier to fall into unbelief than to exercise faith; and that is precisely what the Israelites did. They believed the ten discouragers. They decided (incredibly!) to try and find a leader who would take them back to Egypt, and they talked about stoning Moses and those who supported him (14:1-10).

Then the Lord intervened. After threatening to destroy the whole nation, he accepted Moses’ plea to forgive the people. But there was a price to pay. Not one person over 20 years old would enter the promised land, only Caleb and Joshua. They would wander for 40 years in the desert and their bodies would fall there. The ten men who had given the bad report were swiftly dealt with. They were struck down and died with a plague before the Lord (14:10-38)

The Israelites had refused to ‘take the tide at the flood’ and ‘all the voyage of their life was bound in shallows and in miseries’. By the time they realised what they had done, the tide was already ebbing. They made a desperate attempt to take the land. But without Moses and without the presence of the Lord, it was inevitably a disastrous failure (14:39-45).

Each of us can look back on our lives and see crucial decisions which have influenced the course of our life. ‘Thank God I decided to do that,’ we may reflect. ‘The alternative would have been disastrous.’ Or we may say plaintively, ‘If only I had taken a different decision at that point, things would have been so much better.’

Like Brutus, we may have been conscious that we were facing a crucial decision that would affect the rest of our lives. But often these decisions creep up on us unawares. We are like the Israelites, who rejected God’s purposes for the rest of their lives, but they had no awareness of the gravity of the decision which they were taking when they rejected the good advice of Caleb and Joshua.

How can we prepare ourselves for these crucial decisions? By taking heed of CS Lewis’ observation. He pointed out: Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow-creatures, and with itself.

The countless small decisions which we make every day prepare our hearts for those crucial decisions that we may only come across several times in our lives. Consistently choosing to obey God in the small things prepares us to choose his way in the vital decisions of life.

And what if we mess up, as the Israelites did? There was no way back for them, for their hearts remained hardened against the Lord. But the story of Peter shows us a very different way. He foolishly ignored Jesus’ warnings and failed to prepare himself for crucial decisions which were coming his way. As a consequence he disowned his Lord three times in time of crisis (Luke 22:31-62).

Yet that was not the end of Peter’s story. He repented, was restored by Jesus (John 21:15-19), and went on to become the chief apostle to the Jews. If we have taken bad decisions, restoration is available to us, if only we have the heart to repent and turn back to God.




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