Warnings & Exhortations in Hebrews: The Peril of Provocation

Commencing with “Wherefore,” which connects the foregoing with the condition (v6), the warning proceeds with a quotation from Psalm 95:7-11. The writer ascribes the text of the psalm to the Holy Spirit (see 2Pe 1:21). The Hebrews (and we) are solemnly warned, “Today, if ye will hear his voice”1 – a phrase which is repeated (3:7,15; 4:7). God and His Son have spoken (1:1,2). Today, the Holy Spirit speaks, and He does so in complete harmony with what the Father and Son have said (Joh 15:26; 16:13; cf. 1Ti 4:1).

The Illustration of Israel in the Wilderness (3:7-11,15-19)

For the warning, the Spirit of God takes an illustration of Israel in the wilderness to portray the spiritual condition of the Hebrew believers. The Hebrews were like Israel at Kadesh-Barnea in the sense that they had been redeemed from bondage but were not yet living in the good and enjoyment of their promised inheritance – despite having a right to it, being near to it, and God calling them to enjoy it. “The provocation, in the day of temptation in the wilderness” (v8) encapsulates the many lamentable behaviours recorded in Exodus 14 through Numbers 20. Israel greatly feared their enemies; they murmured and strove against Moses their leader; they disobeyed the Lord’s commandments; they engaged in idolatry and immorality; they complained and lusted over Egypt; and they refused to enter the land. The psalmist adds, “They sinned … by provoking the most High,” they “tempted God in their heart,” and they “spake against God” (Psa 78:17-19).

God was so indignant with them that He swore that “they shall not enter into my rest” (Heb 3:11). This refers to God’s solemn judgement at Kadesh-Barnea on those who “rebelled” and “believed him not, nor hearkened to His voice,” despite the evidence of the grapes of Eshcol (Num 13:23-14:4; Deu 9:23). Consequently, God decreed the entire nation would remain in the wilderness for 40 years, and everyone who was 20 years and older, except Joshua and Caleb, died in the wilderness without ever entering the land (Num 14:22-38).

The simple reason they could not enter in was “because of unbelief” (Heb 3:19). The Hebrew believers were given this warning so that they might not “fall after the same example” (4:11). Would they follow in the footsteps of their ancient fathers and “err in their heart” and remain ignorant of God’s “ways” (3:10)? We do not know. But if we are wise, we will hear the voice of the Spirit and His instructions, and thereby guide our hearts in the way (Pro 1:5; 8:33; 23:19).

The Instructions for Christians in the Way (3:12-14)

The exhortation, “take heed, brethren” (3:12), stresses the need to listen to the warning intently, acknowledge the implications, and respond to the exhortations. Israel failed, and this is emphasised by the repetition of “they” and “them” (occurring 15 times). The expression “lest there be” (v12; see also 4:1,11) suggests the writer was conscious of the Hebrews’ propensity to go back to the rituals of Judaism, rather than their having departed already.

They are to take heed against “an evil heart of unbelief” (3:12). It is sadly too common for a believer to not take God at His Word. All of us have lapsed in faith, whether consciously or not. The NT is replete with exhortations on living by faith. Faith is the means by which we were justified (Rom 5:1), and we must continue on the same principle, for “the just shall live by faith” (Heb 10:38). Nothing less will be well-pleasing to the heart of God, for “without faith it is impossible to please him” (11:6).

Notice where unbelief springs from – the heart. The Spirit says three times, “harden not your hearts” (3:8,15; 4:7). When the heart becomes hardened, we become unable to discern the voice of the Spirit (Mat 13:15). In 3:13, we learn that the heart can become hardened by the “deceitfulness of sin.” Just as Eve was “deceived” by the serpent, sin deceives us into bypaths that deviate from the simplicity of what “God hath said” (Gen 3:1-3; 2Co 11:3). Israel thought it was “better … to return into Egypt” (Num 14:3); we too can be deceived into thinking that the principles, provisions and pleasures of the world are better than the will of God. We may be so led to think that obedience is optional or not personal, that Christian liberty permits anything I please, or that our actions have no influence on those around us.

Notice also what unbelief leads to – “departing from the living God” and disobedience (Heb 3:12,18,19; 4:6,11). “Departing” is not the mark of apostasy but of standing off, being aloof or withdrawing, and can exist well before it is seen by others. Contextually, it is the condition of a heart that is unresponsive to God or unwilling to heed His Word (cf. Psa 18:21; 119:102). Disobedience is obstinate refusal of the will of God and is always grievous, primarily to God but to others also. Lest we be deceived into thinking disobedience is inconsequential, let us remember the far-reaching influence of “that generation” – God decreed their “children shall wander in the wilderness forty years” (Num 14:33).

The antidote to hardening and deceitfulness is to “exhort one another daily” (Heb 3:13). Faithful wounds of friends (Pro 27:6) – wounds that cultivate submissive hearts that are sensitive to the Spirit’s voice – are so needed in today’s climate. The counsel of a wise Father comes to mind: “Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life” (4:23). May we be exercised to encourage one another while God permits “today” to continue.

The warning demands a personal response. The writer says, “Partakers we have become of the Christ, if the beginning of the confidence unto the end we may hold fast” (3:14 YLT). As was noted in the introductory article, the term “partaker” infers positional standing. We enter this standing by new birth, but the practical reality of personal fellowship and habitual communion with Christ is something that is conditional upon personal exercise. We can be in Christ but not know close fellowship with Christ. Can I genuinely say that I am a true companion of the Lord? Our habits and behaviours are very telling. The Lord’s own words should warn our hearts: “If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him” (Joh 14:23).

1 Bible quotations in this article are from the KJV unless otherwise noted.