It is, after all, the oldest story in the world, so brief as to be told in a single breath. God promises blessing for obedience, and the willful heart of man resists and rebels against it. All of human history in one sentence. It was true in Eden, it was true in Nazareth, and it’s evidently true in our world today. It’s true in evangelism, it’s true in Christianity, and it’s true, if we will be honest, in our own hearts. It’s just true!
The Bible provides ample evidence of this, illustrated in the national history of God’s chosen people, the Jews. You may recall the analysis of Stephen as he summarized 1,500 years of failure to submit to God: “You stiff-necked people … you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you” (Act 7:51). And, as if further confirmation were necessary, they underscored his message by stoning him to death – damning evidence, supplied by their own behavior.
The book of Numbers recounts a cautionary tale, a lesson that must not be lost in our own privileged yet rebellious generation. After reciting the abundant blessing that the people of Israel had received, Paul shockingly reminds us that “they were overthrown in the wilderness.” He then adds this solemn warning: “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (1Co 10:5-6). He anticipates the very real possibility that we, too, may incur judgment if we are casual about sin, and if, like Israel, we resist Him.
The original narrative is the essence of simplicity. By blood, God had redeemed His people Israel from Egyptian slavery, miraculously brought them through the Red Sea, destroyed their enemies, and set them on a course to the Promised Land – a home of rich plenty (for the full story, please read Num 13-14). And now, they had come to the cusp of all that God had promised, a place called Kadesh-barnea, just at the border of untold blessing.
At this point, God assessed the degree of Israel’s obedience. They had tested Him “ten times” (Num 14:22), but now God, in turn, will test them. He had previously said with respect to the manna that He would “test them, whether they will walk in my law or not” (Exo 16:4). But now this will be the biggest test; He had proven exhaustively His own covenant faithfulness, but what of their fidelity to Him? Would they go in and possess the land He promised them, or would they resist and remain in the wilderness?
Many of us learned the venerable Sunday School chorus, “Twelve spies went to spy in Canaan. Ten were bad, two were good.” One man from each tribe was selected by Moses to survey the promised inheritance and report back to the congregation. And what a report they brought! There was perfect agreement that all they had been promised was true; Canaan was rich and fruitful, a lovely and fragrant relief from the wilderness behind them. “Milk and honey” were not merely figurative; they were real, just as God had said (Num 13:23-27).
But they did not go in. They had seen some walled cities, it is true, and they had seen some giants, but the real failure was in their own thinking. They doubted Israel’s ability to displace the Canaanites – “we are not able” (Num 13:31) – not remembering it was God’s ability, not theirs, that would bring victory. The words of Moses at the Red Sea had been forgotten: “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today …. The LORD will fight for you” (Exo 14:13-14). Sadly, with the exception of Caleb and Joshua, they were united in a belief that God was unable to perform this remaining trifle. The writer to the Hebrews summed it neatly, “They were unable to enter because of unbelief” (Heb 3:19).
Please learn this most important lesson: It was not the size of the giants that drove their resistance and rebellion; rather, it was the size of their God. The giants were not too big; their God was too small! They feared what man could do because they had forgotten what God had done. Could the God who defeated Pharaoh and his vast army be suddenly powerless before a few giants? Not long before, the Israelites had joyfully sung: “Your right hand, O LORD, glorious in power, your right hand, O LORD, shatters the enemy. In the greatness of your majesty you overthrow your adversaries …. Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?” (Exo 15:6-11). Where did that God go?
Where, indeed? It seems so easy to apply this in the gospel, and rightly so (see Heb 3-4), but we must never forget that this was, first of all, the story of a redeemed people, a people saved by blood. Our duty, as Paul reminded the Corinthians, is to see ourselves in the story, not others. And so, is it possible that God has, in some way, receded into smallness and impotence in our own calculations? We would not, we could not, deny His existence, but as a practical matter, does every giant seem bigger than Him? And can it be that our failure to appreciate our majestic and powerful God has allowed resistance and rebellion to germinate in our hearts, ultimately flowering in open sin?
When men estimate God to be small, they resist Him with seeming impunity. But rebellion never ends well for the rebel. The ten spies died immediately; for the rest, the forty days at Kadesh brought forty years of judgment. The graves that littered the remainder of Israel’s wilderness travel all had the same solemn epitaph: “God is not mocked” (Gal 6:7).
Dear believer, God has not changed. He reigns sovereignly and serenely from His glorious and eternal throne. Nothing great or small disturbs the calm of His majestic presence. His precepts and judgments are fixed forever in heaven. The God who was able to save us “when we were without strength” is the God who can keep us, even when “our foes be strong.” Those who calibrate their lives not by their own puniness but by His ineffable magnitude are those who reap incalculable blessing.
Oh, that God would give us hearts like Caleb and Joshua! Men with a big God can do mighty things and possess much land for Him. The book of Joshua records the rich inheritance, the fullness of God’s blessing, bestowed by a faithful God upon His faithful servants. Men who did not resist, who willingly yielded to God, are the heroes of faith (Heb 11:30). They were personally blessed, their families were blessed, and the people of God were blessed (Jos 24:31). May the words of David reflect our own estimation and devotion: “Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised, and he is to be feared above all gods …. Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and joy are in his place …. Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name” (1Ch 16:25-29).
 All Scripture quotations in this article are from the ESV.