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You have to be impressed with Moses, Aaron, Caleb and Joshua when you read Numbers 14. The people have turned against them because of the spies' report on conditions in Canaan. They want to go back to Egypt. Worse yet, they are fully prepared to stone their leadership (14:10). Watch for the attitude on the part of these four men: “Then Moses and Aaron fell facedown in front of the whole Israelite assembly gathered there. Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, who were among those who had explored the land, tore their clothes…” (14:5, 6). This last gesture was one of mourning, of deep distress. These men pleaded with the people to obey God and claim the land that they had been promised.

But there was more. The Lord took Moses aside and expressed His feelings about the matter, making it plain that He was prepared to destroy the nation-in-waiting and make of Moses a much greater nation (14:10-12). What an offer! What an appeal to a lesser man who, tempted to make a name for himself and frustrated by his current situation, might accept the deal.

But not this man. Numbers 12:3 tells us that: “Moses was a very humble man, more humble than any one else on the face of the earth.” Humility doesn’t equal weakness or ineffectiveness. We certainly can’t say that Moses was a weak leader. No one ever had a “congregation” bigger or more difficult than his!

The people, totally unaware, would have reason to be thankful for the man they were so eager to stone. Moses interceded on their behalf to hold back the righteous judgment of God on the Hebrews. At the end of his beautiful prayer he asks, “In accordance with your great love, forgive the sin of these people, just as you have pardoned them from the time they left Egypt until now” (14:19).

Moses is an example of the person described in Ezekiel 22 as the man God looks for to “stand in the gap” to hold back His judgment. The man who stands in the gap for us today is Jesus, who intercedes for us (Romans 8:34; Hebrews 7:25). I ask myself if I am a person who stands “in the gap” pleading before God on behalf of others.

Something else struck me here. Moses’ argument as he pled with God centered around God’s reputation among the pagan nations. If God destroyed the Hebrews would not the nations watching the events laugh and believe that this God was pretty weak if He couldn’t control His people and ended up having to destroy them (14:13-16)? At first glance we might think that this logic was what made God reconsider. But when we look at the whole of Scripture, particularly the Old Testament, we realize that on many occasions God judged His people without any apparent concern for what the pagan nations thought. In fact, He often used the pagan nations as instruments of that judgment. If, and when, those pagan nations overstepped their mandate as God’s tool, He judged them as well. His concern was always with making His people into the holy nation that He had designed them to be, and if judgment was the only way to accomplish that, then judgment it would be.

In this case, the threat of judgment was a test for Moses. Would he “stand in the gap” or take the offer of a better “pulpit” from which to preach? Moses, like many of us, was thinking from the human perspective—we think we need to protect God’s reputation so that He continues to be held in high esteem. And that’s good! That’s our reality in the smaller picture that makes up our journey with God. On the grander scale, God can defend Himself,  though sometimes for the greater good He does not appear to do so. But He always does what He does, sometimes in defiance of all human logic, to conform His people into His image and likeness as they were before sin entered the tranquility of the garden.

Moses’ prayer holds a key to the character of God: “Now may the Lord’s strength be displayed, just as you have declared: ‘The Lord is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion…” (14:18).

It takes a strong man to forgive rather than to lash out. Judgment is sometimes necessary but serves even God only as a last resort. Moses, whose quick temper had often gotten him into trouble before, learned here a valuable lesson in leadership, and an incalculable lesson on love and intercession.


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