The Israelites’ wilderness wanderings continue in Numbers 21-22. Even though they had chosen not to enter the Promised Land because of their perceived battles, the battles came to them in the wilderness. They faced the kingdoms of Edom, Arad, Amorites, and Ammonites. In all of these battles, the outcome of the standoff was based not in the strength of the Israelite people, but in the amount of trust they had in God.
The Israelites were a stubborn people though. They had a tendency to forget the lessons they had just learned. In Numbers 21, they had just shown their trust in God when they defeated the king of Arad. But, in verse 4, they began to grumble and complain against God, asking why they had come out of Egypt to the wilderness. This is a recurring pattern with the Israelites. When they face difficult circumstances, they begin to complain. God always responds strongly to their complaints – sometimes strikingly so. It makes him incredibly angry each and every time they begin to act in this way. In this instance, he sent poisonous snakes among the people. At other times, he sent plagues, fire, or disease – anything to show his displeasure.
We know that this action – the complaining and grumbling against God’s ordained path – causes God anger. But, as I am reading through the book of Numbers, it’s hard for me to really rectify the description of this wrathful, vengeful God and the God of the New Testament who sent his son to wipe away all sins. Why did it make God this angry? Is it really that bad to complain?
To answer this question, we can turn to the other passage that we were looking at today: Luke 1. This is the story of the pregnancy announcements of both John the Baptist and Jesus – both of which happened before they got pregnant! John the Baptist parents were Zechariah and Elizabeth, another Levite from the line of Aaron. Zechariah was chosen to serve in the temple, a once in a lifetime opportunity for him, when an angel of the Lord appeared and told him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. There will be joy and delight for you” (Luke 1:13-14). After this, I would imagine that Zechariah would be jumping for joy – the desires of his heart, his deepest prayer, had been answered! But, that’s not the picture that we get. Zechariah responds, “How can I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is well along in years” (Luke 1:18). Zechariah’s prayers were answered, but he wanted proof. He wanted God to prove himself to Zechariah. It seemed like an angel of the Lord appearing to Zechariah just wasn’t enough for him.
In both the Israelites’ and Zechariah’s situation (as well as the situation with Balaam and his donkey in Numbers 22), they wanted God to prove himself to be God. The previous faithfulness God had shown them wasn’t enough; they wanted God to prove himself to be big enough and powerful enough in that moment for them to trust him. But – I don’t think, for any of these people, anything that God could have done in that moment would truly have caused them to trust him more. It wasn’t on God to prove himself to them. For the Israelites, he caused the plagues in Egypt, split the Red Sea, routed whole armies. For Zechariah, he sent a messenger to talk to him face to face and tell him that his greatest desire was answered. They had already received their signs. It was the people’s responsibility to soften their hearts enough to trust in God. They needed to believe that God was who he said he was and would do what he said he would do.
We are required to trust in the same way. God has done tremendously more than we have ever deserved. He is currently doing more in our lives than we could ever hope for. It is our responsibility to trust him to be God. We just have to follow in obedience to him.
~ Cayce Fletcher