Between the Dead and the Living (Numbers 16:48)

He took his stand between the dead and the living, so that the plague was checked.

Numbers 16:48

This particular verse is part of a dark few days in Israel’s history. Korah, a Levite, stirred up a bunch of people to talk smack about Moses and claim that he (Moses) was lording his position over everyone. Moses wrote the first few books of The Bible and says that he was the most humble man that ever lived. Every time I read that, I think of the person who said, “He’s a humble little man with much to be humble about.” That’s probably a lot like what Moses was thinking. Meanwhile, back in Numbers, Korah and his followers end up swallowed by the ground. The ground opens, those people and their stuff fall into the gaping holes, and the ground closes up. No graves. No markers. Just dirt where there had been a tent and people and stuff. Shortly after this happens, people start griping again and claiming that Moses dragged them out of Egypt to die in the wilderness. Moses and Aaron are on their faces in front of God, begging Him not to wipe out that bunch of whiners behind them. Moses sends Aaron to get incense and to make atonement for the people and Aaron runs into the midst of the congregation; runs through the dead and dying until he finds the living and takes a stand there.

The line between life and death was marked by one person: the high priest. Since Hebrews tells me that Jesus is my High Priest, I have zero problem looking at what Aaron did here and seeing how it applies to Jesus and me. And it applies quite tidily. Jesus and the atone He made on the cross are the line between life and death. Jesus came down from Heaven (life) into this world (death) and walked among the mixture of people who were both alive and dead in a spiritual sense. He is the line that separates; His cross the boundary marker.

But Revelation says that God has made everyone He saved priests after a fashion. So I should also be interceding; standing between the living and the dead. I admit, I’m terrible at interceding for others. I have a lamentably short attention span and a sporadically terrible memory — sporadically because it can randomly recall entire passages of literature and whole plots of novel series but can forget the name of someone’s child for whom I’ve been asked to pray. If intercession is a gift, I did not receive it. But my High Priest stands between the living and the dead and He calls me — and every believer — to follow Him, which includes into the place He stands. I may not always be good at intercession, but He calls me to come stand beside Him between life and death and to halt the curse. Maybe that’s only a metaphor of working with Him to stop the progress of sin in my own heart and life, I don’t know, but that is the place He stands and I’ve been called to walk — and stand — beside Him. Will anything I do ever stop the progress of some plague? Again, I don’t know. But I will continue not to know until I go and stand beside my High Priest between the living and the dead.

Your sons … will suffer for your unfaithfulness (Numbers 14:31-33)

‘Your children, however, whom you said would become a prey—I will bring them in, and they will know the land which you have rejected. But as for you, your corpses will fall in this wilderness. Your sons shall be shepherds for forty years in the wilderness, and they will suffer for your unfaithfulness, until your corpses lie in the wilderness.’

Numbers 14:31-33

I wondered, when I read the verses about God visiting the sins of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations, how God could punish one person for another person’s sin. It seemed odd to me and out of keeping with God’s character as I understood it in The Bible. This morning, I read over this verse and the thought process makes a bit more sense, I think.

God’s indignation here takes place after the spies come back with a bad report and the people all get together to stone Moses and Aaron and go back to Egypt. God is rightly miffed with these people. And the punishment is in keeping with the crime. The spies had forty days to go back and forth in the Promised Land and see how great things were. So God promises forty years of wandering: one year per day of spying. If they were so worried about whether or not they could defeat the people of the land, they could have asked for a sign. God is not above comforting our hearts when we’re legitimately freaking out. Just look at Gideon. Gideon doesn’t even ask for a sign, but God says to Gideon (my paraphrase), “Gideon, I told you to go down and lay the smack down on those guys in the valley, there, but you’re freaking out. So take your servant and sneak on down to eavesdrop a bit and what you hear will be encouraging and then you’ll be ready to kick butt and chew bubble gum — minus the bubble gum, since it hasn’t been invented yet.” Gideon goes down, hears encouraging words, then proceeds to lay a major whooping on Midian. Saul’s son Jonathan does something similar. But these spies don’t do that. Two of the spies aren’t asking for any sort of sign because they’re thinking (my paraphrase, again), “Yeah, buddy! This is good land. God is totally making good on His promise and I think I’m going to build a house right over there. Yeah. That ridge line looks good. Nice view. The giants will have to go, though.” Caleb had thoughts like that, at least. I mean, dude is asking for hill country when he’s, like, 85. And he knows full well that the giants are in the hill country he asks for. He then proceeds to kick some giant keister all up and down those hills. Good stuff. The other ten spies are freaking out about the giants and the walled cities and all that madness.

What does this have to do with the price of tea in China? Not a thing. But it has everything to do with the idea of the sins of the fathers being visited on the sons. When God pronounces judgment on the fathers — the spies and the folks who planned to stone Moses and Aaron and go back to Egypt — God makes note that the wrongs these men were committing would impact the lives of their children. These men and women would be punished for their own wrong-doing, absolutely, but their children are along for the ride. The kids can’t go off on their own and God doesn’t want them to. God wants them to see what happens when people put their faith in the wrong place. Since the parents are obviously unable to teach their children faith — what with their horrible memories and awesome imaginations about how great Egypt was and how fat and happy they were there and how quick they are to want to go back (God notes that they’ve considered going back TEN TIMES since leaving … that’s one time for every plague God dropped on Egypt) —God will do the teaching. But the lesson will be hard. The parents chose the curriculum, but the children have to attend the classes. The same is true still.

I may think that my wrong-doing doesn’t hurt anyone else, but it does. Whenever God has to school me, my wife and daughter are along for the ride. Every one of my whimpers while I’m learning the lesson is communicated to both of them. If I’m miserable, then that misery is shared among the family. The sins of the father (me) are visited on the child (just the one, for now) and possibly on her children and their children. The consequences of my bad choices can carry on for a while and I will not bear that burden alone, no matter how I might try to. Suddenly, God saying that He will visit the sins of the fathers on the sons to the third and fourth generations makes a whole lot more sense. That’s about as long as I’m likely to live if I live to be a very old man. And my understanding of what God is on about in that promise increases.

In a larger sense, this idea that our sins (or, more accurately, their consequences) are carried by those who come after (and alongside: Joshua and Caleb had to endure the wandering, too, and they came back with a good report) translates to the body of Christ; the family of God. Nothing I do is done in isolation from others. Every action carries in it the seeds of consequence. The seeds may not sprout. That happens sometimes. But not often. And the consequences can be good (for obedience) or bad (for sins). Whatever seeds I put down are the fruit that will be harvested. If I’m putting down the seeds of obedience then I can expect to see a harvest of blessing. Maybe not in my own life, but definitely in lives I’ve touched — my wife, my daughter, the fellow believers I spend time with at church and in general … even people I don’t even consider having come into contact with. My parents’ yard is a breeding ground for illustrations of this principle. My dad and I were looking over his yard years ago when we noticed a seedling in among the weeds. We hadn’t planted that tree (it turned out to be rather a large tree, too), but someone else had planted a tree of that type in the neighborhood and the birds had dropped a seed. Weeds grow everywhere, no big surprise there, but I’ve noticed that there are more weeds around when someone in the neighborhood is not tending their yards. If everyone is taking care of their yards, then the weeds are fewer and the random plants are curious, but not bad. If anyone in the neighborhood is letting their yard go then there are weeds to tear out in everyone’s yards. So it is with us. If I’m tending my life and working to get the weeds (sins) out and cultivate the good plants (fruit of the Spirit) then those around me have an easier go of things. And vice versa.

This morning’s application is this: I need to attend to my life and keep the garden that is me as free of weeds (sin) as possible. This is not only beneficial for me, but for those around me.

And the LORD heard it. (Numbers 12:1-2)

Then Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married (for he had married a Cushite woman); and they said, “Has the LORD indeed spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well?” And the LORD heard it.

Numbers 12:1-2

Once, many years ago, my mom was out shopping with my sister and my sister, just a small child at the time, saw a woman who was overweight. She, innocent thing that she was, asked my mom when the lady was going to have her baby. The point of that little story is this: We are heard.

With God, it’s easy for the believer to feel like they’re being ignored. I sometimes feel as though the prayers I pray meet with the silence of Heaven. No reply. No response. Not even a divine grunt of acknowledgement that I’ve spoken. Just silence. This entry is not about the silence or the reasons that may exist for it, but is, rather, about the fact that God hears.

Miriam had been instrumental in God’s plan to keep Moses alive. It was Miriam who followed the basket that Moses floated in; Miriam who offered to find a wet nurse for Pharaoh’s daughter; Miriam who brought her own mother—Moses’ mother—to be that wet nurse. It was also Miriam who led the women of Israel in celebration after the destruction of Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea. She’s called a prophetess in The Bible (Ex 15:20), so there is no doubt that she is important to God. Aaron was made Moses’ spokesman when Moses objected to speaking to Pharaoh on the grounds that he (Moses) had some issue with speaking clearly. Aaron and his sons were ordained as the line of the high priest. Bit important. Add to this the fact that Miriam and Aaron were Moses’ older siblings and you have a recipe for complaint. Complain they did.

And the LORD heard it.

Now, their punishment seems harsh. God takes the time to call all three siblings out to the tent of meeting and give Aaron and Miriam both a verbal smackdown. Miriam catches still more and is leprous for seven days. Sucked to be her. Some speculate that Miriam caught more punishment because she was the instigator in the complaint. The Bible doesn’t say, so I’ll conclude that God has His reasons why Miriam got a harsher smackdown than Aaron and just move on. God even goes so far as to give the reason for their chastisement: Prophets are one thing and Moses is something else. God tells the two older siblings that He speaks to prophets in a particular way. Miriam would know this, being a prophetess. But God keeps going and tells them that He speaks to Moses differently. Prophets get dreams and visions and such. Moses gets the plain, unadorned facts. No symbols or anything like that. God deals the hand open with Moses. A person who relates to God on terms like that? God thinks they’re pretty special. But Aaron and Miriam didn’t think about that. They complained about Moses being the special one and Moses being the only one anyone thought God was talking to and … that’s probably enough to get the idea across.

And the LORD heard it.

What does God hear from me? I can be like Miriam in her Exodus 15:20 days, dancing and singing and generally praising God. God will hear it. I can be like Moses, standing in the gap between God and people; asking God to raise up more servants to share in the work He has given me to do. God will hear it. I can be like Aaron and minister to God on behalf of others and to others on behalf of God. God will hear it. I can do amazing good with the words that come from my mouth and God will hear every syllable. Or I can complain and make those around me miserable and God will hear every last phoneme. James tells me that bridling my tongue; controlling my words may be the single most difficult thing I will ever do. James goes so far as to say that the one who does not sin in what he says is mature (perfect) and able to control his whole body (James 3:2). God hears every word that comes out of my mouth. Every. Word.

What has the LORD heard from me?

 

Living Word, please forgive my failing with regard to my speech. I know that I have said things that ought not be said. I know that my words have not always been edifying and encouraging to others. I admit these to be wrong and ask that You would teach me how to hold my tongue when what I would say is not edifying or encouraging; when my words are not praise and prayer and life, but complaint and curse and death.

Is the LORD’s power limited? (Numbers 11:23)

The LORD said to Moses, “Is the LORDS power limited? Now you shall see whether My word will come true for you or not.”

Numbers 11:23

“Is the LORD’s power limited?” It’s a question that every believer has to resolve. For Moses, the question is asked when he — having seen God part seas and guide through pillars of fire and cloud and rain bread from Heaven, not to mention the plagues in Egypt — wonders how there will be enough meat to feed Israel — 600 000 men, not counting women and children — for a month. Moses was caught in the trap that so many of us fall into, the trap of focusing on our deficiency.

I should lead with the reality that God has nothing to prove to me. He knit me together in my mother’s womb; has sustained me all the days of my life; has provided for all my needs; has protected my life — sometimes miraculously. All this to say that God has already provided abundant proof of His power and ability to accomplish what concerns me. More and more, I find that my prayers take the form of, “God, I know You can, but I’m not sure if what I want You to do is the best thing, so ….” I can go on for hours that way and God, having all eternity, is patient enough to let me ramble my way through the thought process.

“Is the LORD’s power limited?” My conclusion is both yes and no. I’ll start with the no. God’s power is not limited in scope. He is able to do absolutely anything, provided it is in concert with His nature and will. Can He create something out of nothing? Sure. He’s done it before. Can He lie? Nope. Not in His nature. While this might be viewed as a limit to His power by some, I think that being able to accomplish what He sets out to accomplish without prevarication is actually a greater display of power. Let’s see those who cry “Limited power” on God’s inability to lie go out and accomplish their stated goals without lying. At all. Ever. Won’t happen. But God is able to accomplish His goals — all of them — without lying. Most impressive. But I did say that I conclude that His power is limited. I think that His power is limited by our expectations — or lack thereof — and consequent requests. We think that God is either unable to do something or not really needed for it, so we don’t invite His power. For example, we fall sick. James tells us to call for the elders and get prayer for healing. Most of us call a doctor and get a prescription. Is that bad? No. God gave us doctors, too. But we don’t see healing because we don’t ask for it. Or we ask, but for completely the wrong reason. Another example is provision. Some of us work long hours to make money and find that there never seems to be enough. So we work Sundays and every other day and night we might get to church and fellowship with God’s people. We work so much that we don’t even stop to say “Good morning.” to God while we’re drinking our coffee. Our priorities are all out of whack and we wonder why we can’t make ends meet, when Jesus told us to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all the things we need would be provided. Doesn’t mean we stop going to work. It means we make God our first priority and He will provide what we need, including the ability to work well; to work as if for Him. It is this lack of trust and failure to invite God to show Himself mighty on our behalf that limits His power, I think. He is not lacking in power. He is lacking in people looking for Him to display His power on their behalf.

Guidance (Numbers 10:31)

Then he [Moses] said, “Please do not leave us, inasmuch as you [Moses’ brother-in-law] know where we should camp in the wilderness, and you will be as eyes for us.”

Numbers 10:31

I read this verse and thought, “Whoa, Moses and I have something in common … and it’s not a good thing.”

Israel is being guided by God. By GOD. I need to let that sink in a minute before I’m really ready to think about this verse. The Bible is not saying God gave Israel guidance through prophecies or interpretation of His Word. God is literally going before Israel. Pillar of cloud/fire rises up, Israel packs their stuff and follows until the pillar comes to rest again. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. This pattern of direct guidance will go on for a long time. What do Moses’ request to his brother-in-law (BiL) and God’s guidance have in common? They’re happening at the same time. Moses asks his BiL to act as a guide to them and show them where they should camp. That’s what the verse says. But The Bible just established that the pillar of cloud/fire was guiding Israel to where they should camp. What gives?

I think that what’s happening is an all-too-common occurrence among believers. I know it happens to me more often than I’d like to admit. The believer gets clear, indisputable guidance from God about what they should do and the believer (pause for effect) looks for human counsel. Sometimes it’s good to confirm that what I think I’ve heard from God is, in fact ,what God said. Sometimes we as believers are listening for what we want to hear not what God is actually saying. So confirmation can be good. But when God’s direction to us is obvious — we’re talking painfully, blatantly, screamingly obvious (Say a pillar of cloud/fire obvious? Yes! THAT obvious.) — then asking for human counsel is crazy. I mean, Moses is following the pillar of cloud/fire that is the presence of God — the One Who created the Earth, wilderness included — and he’s asking his BiL for directions to good camp sites? This seems like a problem to me. Worse, I know I’m guilty of this same thing.

Years ago, I was engaged and the engagement ended. Things did not end gently or calmly and there was much hurt on both sides. But I had prayed and had clear direction from God on what should be done. I was talking with a family member about what I had been instructed to do; what I planned to do and this family member told me, in essence, that I was crazy to do it. For a time, I listened to the family member’s advice about what I should do and all the peace God had given me — every last morsel — was gone. The turbulence and difficulty of the situation flooded in and I had trouble getting my bearings. When I made good on what God had told me to do, the peace was restored, but it wasn’t the same. This was a drastic example of the damage that can be done when we know conclusively what God’s will is (I was riding in the eye of a most impressive storm due to God’s guidance) and we seek out or give heed to human wisdom (no peace there … none at all).

Moses’ request wouldn’t, to my recollection, cause any problems while Israel was in the wilderness. But Midian, Moses’ BiL’s people, show up once Israel is in the Promised Land and harass Israel — even becoming one of the groups that the judges womp on.

It’s possible for believers to get God’s will wrong. But when we know; absolutely know what God’s will is, then we are fools to seek out or even listen to human counsel. Particularly the counsel of those who are not fellow believers.

The Will of God (Numbers 9:17-18)

Whenever the cloud was lifted from over the tent, afterward the sons of Israel would then set out; and in the place where the cloud settled down, there the sons of Israel would camp. At the command of the LORD the sons of Israel would set out, and at the command of the LORD they would camp; as long as the cloud settled over the tabernacle, they remained camped.

Numbers 9:17-18

The ninth chapter of Numbers goes on in this same fashion for a while, detailing just how attentive Israel was to whether or not the pillar of fire/cloud stayed put or moved. The pillar’s movement was regarded, rightly, as the command of the LORD.

Since it is unlikely that any pillars of fire or of cloud will be descending on anything in my life, the application rests in what the pillar’s movements symbolized: the command of God. Throughout The Bible, God gives commands to His children. Some of them are specifically to Israel while others are broadly applicable to all believers.The commands that are applicable to all believers fall into the category of “Am I being obedient to this?”. Jesus told His disciples that we would do as He commands if we love Him. Interesting that He didn’t cite fear as a motivator for obedience, but love. I’ll consider that at greater length some other time.

Great. God gives me commands in scripture. Woo! How does that parallel with the whole staying put until the pillar moves deal? There are two applications for that particular item this morning. The first applies to the general will of God while the second applies to the specific. The distinction between the general will of God and the specific is as simple as “The general applies to all believers everywhere ever while the specific applies to me and my life right here right now and potentially to no one else anywhere ever.”

With regard to the general will of God, I’ve noticed that God will sometimes bring me to a realization of what some part of His general will is — loving my neighbor, for example — and He will stay on that particular command for a long while. Sometimes, God brings me to a new understanding of what a command means and He has moved on the very next day. Sometimes He has moved on before lunch. Sometimes we —God and I — are camped on that principle for months. This is how the pillar applies to me with regard to the general will of God. He is going to conform me to Himself and some parts of that process will take more time than others. Some lessons will be more difficult to get through my thick skull. In the end, His goal is to make me like Christ in every way except His Godhood.

As far as the specific will of God goes, there are times when God brings me to a place in my life — my current dwelling, for example — and keeps me there for a period of time. Sometimes I’m aware of how long the visit is going to last — like a temporary teaching contract I entered into some four years ago. Other times I’ve no idea how long I’ll be staying put — back to the apartment example. These are specific aspects of His will for me and how long I will stay in each of these varies based on how long God wants me there. There are specific components — who I married, for example — that are a combination of God’s will (He gave pretty specific criteria for who believers should and should not marry) and my own will (I have a choice, after all), but these often come with a predefined period of time I’ll be spending there (the rest of my natural life, in the case of marriage). Other components — where I live, where I work, which church I fellowship in, and so on — of God’s specific will are not so definite in their time frame. I may work for my current employer until retirement or God may move me along to somewhere else. My family may fellowship at our current church until my daughter goes to college or God may move us along to some other place. The nature of God’s specific will is that it is specific. If I remain in place after the pillar has moved then I lack the guidance I need to keep moving along in God’s will. It’s challenging and I’ve missed the pillar’s movements (or lack thereof) more than once.

So, with regard to His general will, God will sometimes keep me learning a single lesson for a long while and sometimes He will move us along tout suite. With regard to God’s specific will, He will keep me in a specific place or circumstance until He is ready to move me along. Keeping me on a particular point of His general will is about bringing me into conformity with Christ. Keeping me in a particular aspect of His specific will is about fruitfulness. There are probably other reasons for each, but those are the reasons I’m able to get my mind around this morning.

Prescribed Blessing (Numbers 6:22-27)

Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and to his sons, saying, ‘Thus you shall bless the sons of Israel. You shall say to them:

The LORD bless you, and keep you;
The LORD make His face shine on you,
And be gracious to you;
The LORD lift up His countenance on you,
And give you peace.’

So they shall invoke My name on the sons of Israel, and I will bless them.”

Numbers 6:22-27

I find it interesting that God went so far as to prescribe the way in which Aaron and the priests who followed would bless the Israelites. But I want to consider each component.

The LORD bless you

The word translated “bless” in this verse could also mean “kneel” or “praise”. God’s blessing sounds awesome, but it’s quite the theological notion in many ways. But the idea of God kneeling, to me, brings out the image of a father kneeling down to catch his child up in his arms. I’m a fairly new daddy, but I will gladly get down on the floor with my daughter and read or crawl around or whatever. I’m also quite fond of getting low enough for her to crawl into my arms so I can catch her up in a hug and hold her for a bit — especially after a long day. So this idea of God kneeling to me doesn’t sound submissive so much as loving. Praise is another such notion. To receive praise from men is great. To receive praise from God is AWESOME. Mark Twain once said he could live for a week on a good compliment. I wonder how long he might’ve gone on praise received from God?

and keep you

God regards each and every one of His children as a keeper. There is this notion that some people are worth putting effort into and striving to maintain a relationship with (a keeper) while others are not. God sees no such distinction. All people are worth keeping, to Him. But this blessing is more than just a reminder that God wants to keep me, it is also a request very similar to that in the prayer Jesus gave as a model — “and do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” To keep us implies the idea also of keeping us holy and separate in ways that we are, frankly, unable to on our own.

The Lord make His face shine on you

Sometimes we say that a person is beaming. What we’re saying is that they are so happy and so excited that their face seems to be glowing or shining with that happiness and excitement. There are places in The Bible where it says that God will rejoice over us with singing. That, I think, is where this blessing is going with the idea of God’s face shining on me. The request is that I would be able to make God proud; that I would so fill Him with happiness and excitement that He would beam.

And be gracious to you

For every other time in life—all those times when I’m not making God proud—there is the request that God would be gracious. That God would show me grace is a blessing unlike any other and one I should never take for granted (though I often do).

The LORD lift up His countenance on you

In order to “lift up” His countenance, there must be a time when His countenance fell. To turn His gaze on me, He must first have looked away. This dovetails beautifully with the idea of being gracious to me, because grace enables Him to look again on a child who broke fellowship and made looking at me painful.

And give you peace

The only peace we really need is peace with God and only He can supply that peace. He is the offended party in everything I ever do wrong, so it is only fitting that the blessing would request that He would give me peace.

In one of those times when I feel like I’m stretching things a bit, I’m going to suggest that this might have been prescribed as it is in order to preserve a promise being made to Israel every time the high priest blessed them. So, the high priest, speaking on behalf of THE High Priest (Jesus), says “The LORD will come down to your level [kneel, take on a body like our own] and ransom you [buy back, thus keep]. He will show you his glory [and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten full of grace] and will be gracious to you [it is by grace we have been saved]. He will lift up His countenance [fallen in death, but raised in life] and give you peace [through Him (Jesus) we have peace with the Father].” Again, I may be stretching things a bit ,but God prescribed this blessing be delivered in these words for a reason. I may have the wrong reason, but there is a reason.

How do I apply this today? I am not an Israelite, so I cannot claim their promises. However, the NT tells me that God has blessed His children (including me) with every blessing; that God will keep me from all things I should be kept from (and none that I shouldn’t); that He rejoices over me; that He is oh-so-gracious to me; that He turns to me whenever I turn to Him; that He wants peace between us. Does this blessing, given to Israel, apply to me? I think, based on the contents of the NT, that it does. Not because I am an Israelite, but because the blessing says something about the nature of God (He is loving and concerned and pleased with me when I do well and gracious to me and near to me and eagerly desiring peace between us) and the nature of God never changes. Today, and every day, I need to walk in the light of this blessing and the promises tucked into it. The promise that God loves me and wants only the best for me; the promise that God is pleased to have me as His own and wants to keep it that way; the promise that God will be gracious to me and make peace between us.

This morning (or afternoon or evening or night or whenever), if anyone is reading this and is a believer, The LORD bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you. The LORD lift up His countenance on you and give you peace.”