This is one of the most intriguing passages in all of scripture for me. God’s faithfulness to His people, the faith of the leadership of Israel, and the faithlessness of the people are all held in strong counterpoint to one another. After all this time, beginning with Jacob coming to Joseph in Egypt, or maybe even with God’s promise to Abraham in Gen. 11, God’s people are finally going to take possession of God’s land. All they have to do is trust Him. The God who brought miraculous plagues on their enemies in Egypt, who passed over them but killed the firstborn of the Egyptians, who parted the Red Sea, who led them with a pillar of cloud and fire, who gave them manna, water, and quail, this God who was so very active in their lives had more than earned their trust. And all they had to do was trust that He would keep doing what He had been doing all this time.
But they couldn’t. It’s amazing to me that when you put “but” in a sentence, the whole direction of the sentence changes. “All they had to do was trust God, but…” We see it in the report of the spies: “This land is amazing – all that God promised it would be – but…” From a report of God’s faithfulness, it became a report of their faithlessness. “We can’t attack those people! They are giants with walls and strength far beyond ours.” And so the faithful spies, Joshua and Caleb, use the same tactic. “Yes, the people are huge and have walls, but… God is faithful and will strengthen us.”
I wonder what God might have done to these people had His people been faithful. Plagues and miracles? Power and strategy? New leaders with insights into war that hadn’t been seen before? I guess we’ll never know.
And so God comes to the discussion with his own “but”. “These people are faithless after all I’ve done so I will strike them down with a plague and destroy them, but… through Moses I will raise up a new people for myself as I did through Abraham.” And Moses reminds God of His faithfulness and mercy, and God relents, but refuses to allow the faithless to see the Promised Land. Because of them, they wander for 40 years, “one year for every day they explored the country”, and die in the desert as they had requested.
What might God do in our lives if we are only faithful?