Because of unbelief the children of Israel, after the miraculous delivery from slavery in Egypt, were not allowed to enter the Promised Land and for forty years they wandered around the wilderness. The story is told in the fourteenth chapter of Numbers.
“Then the Lord said: ‘I have pardoned, according to your word; but truly, as I live, all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord—because all these men who have seen My glory and the signs which I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and have put Me to the test now these ten times, and have not heeded My voice, they certainly shall not see the land of which I swore to their fathers, nor shall any of those who rejected Me see it. But My servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit in him and has followed Me fully, I will bring into the land where he went, and his descendants shall inherit it. Now the Amalekites and the Canaanites dwell in the valley; tomorrow turn and move out into the wilderness by the Way of the Red Sea.’
“And the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, ‘How long shall I bear with this evil congregation who complain against Me? I have heard the complaints which the children of Israel make against Me. Say to them, “As I live,” says the Lord, “just as you have spoken in My hearing [passing sentence on themselves], so I will do to you: The carcasses of you who have complained against Me shall fall in this wilderness, all of you who were numbered, according to your entire number, from twenty years old and above. Except for Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun, you shall by no means enter the land which I swore I would make you dwell in. But your little ones, whom you said would be victims, I will bring in, and they shall know the land which you have despised. But as for you, your carcasses shall fall in this wilderness. And your sons shall be shepherds in the wilderness forty years, and bear the brunt of your infidelity, until your carcasses are consumed in the wilderness. According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, for each day you shall bear your guilt one year, namely forty years, and you shall know My rejection. I the Lord have spoken this; I will surely do so to all this evil congregation who are gathered together against Me. In this wilderness they shall be consumed, and there they shall die.” ’
“Now the men whom Moses sent to spy out the land, who returned and made all the congregation complain against him by bringing a bad report of the land, those very men who brought the evil report about the land, died by the plague before the Lord.” Numbers 14:20–37.
They wandered and kept wandering until all the people that had come out of Egypt above 20 years of age (except Caleb and Joshua) had died. The whole wilderness became a cemetery. Their experience was carefully recorded as an example to help the people who live at the end of time before the return of Jesus Christ. This story is for us, for we are those people.
In I Corinthians 10:1–13, it says, “Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ. But with most of them God was not well pleased, for their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.
“Now these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted. And do not become idolaters as were some of them. As it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.’ Nor let us commit sexual immorality, as some of them did, and in one day twenty-three thousand fell; nor let us tempt Christ, as some of them also tempted, and were destroyed by serpents; nor complain, as some of them also complained, and were destroyed by the destroyer. Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.”
Paul goes into great detail about their experience as they wandered back and forth for so many years. So that others may learn from it, He mentions some of the major sins that were committed, causing many of them to be destroyed. He says, “For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end, while it is said: ‘Today, if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.’ For who, having heard, rebelled? Indeed, was it not all who came out of Egypt, led by Moses? Now with whom was He angry forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose corpses fell in the wilderness? And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who did not obey? So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief. Therefore, since a promise remains of entering His rest, let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it. For indeed the gospel was preached to us as well as to them; but the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard it.” Hebrews 3:14–4:2.
John also mentions the wanderings in the book of Revelation. “But I have a few things against you, because you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality.” Revelation 2:14.
Ellen White said, “We here read the warnings which God gave to ancient Israel. It was not His good pleasure that they should wander so long in the wilderness; He would have brought them immediately to the Promised Land had they submitted and loved to be led by Him; but because they so often grieved Him in the desert, He sware in His wrath that they should not enter into His rest, save two who wholly followed Him. God required His people to trust in Him alone. He did not wish them to receive help from those who did not serve Him.” Testimonies, vol. 1, 281.
The older you get, the more you recognize that many of the difficulties experienced in life are the result of choices that have been made earlier. There is no way to escape the fact that choices you make as a youth will affect your future.
The Israelites made wrong choices during the first year or two in the wilderness that affected their outcome. They continually rebelled against the Lord. Their failure of not entering Canaan a few months after they left Egypt was the result of their own choices.
Remember what Paul said, in I Corinthians 10:11 that all these things happened to them for examples for the people that are living in the end of the ages. We are those people.
Listed below are the reasons the Israelites were prohibited from entering the Promised Land:
- In Hebrews 3:15, Paul says, “If you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.” A heart is hardened by not listening. When the Holy Spirit speaks to your mind and you neglect to act on it and are determined to go your own way, the next time the Spirit speaks the voice will not be heard as distinctly. In that way a heart becomes hardened and less likely to respond to truth. Millions of people put off responding to the “still small voice” for a more convenient time, but the voice grows more faint with every rejection. (See Prophets and Kings, 169.)
- In Hebrews 3:16, Paul says, “For who, having heard, rebelled.” Rebellion occurs when God says to do something, and you decide to act differently.
- In Hebrews 3:17, Paul puts it plainly when he says, “They sinned.” Ellen White comments about that in the book Patriarchs and Prophets, 410. She says [towards the end of their wanderings], “Here Miriam died and was buried. From that scene of rejoicing on the shores of the Red Sea, when Israel went forth with song and dance to celebrate Jehovah’s triumph, to the wilderness grave which ended a lifelong wandering—such had been the fate of millions who with high hopes had come forth from Egypt. Sin had dashed from their lips the cup of blessing. Would the next generation learn the lesson?”
After leaving Egypt and especially after crossing the Red Sea, the children of Israel were excited. They had all promised to be faithful and follow the Lord. We still have the same experiences today. When people get excited, they say, “O, we are going to finish the work in the next three to four years. We have a short-wave radio station. We’re going to reach the whole world.” The Lord allows things to develop so that the excitement wears off and the real heart is revealed. Often the situation takes a completely different turn. The Israelites thought they would be in the Promised Land in a few short months.
While they waited for Moses to return from the mount where he met with the Lord, the patience of the Israelites was tested. Led on by the mixed multitude that had left Egypt with them, they determined that they would not remain in the wilderness. Some wanted to go back to Egypt while others wanted to go forward to the Promised Land. One thing was sure—they did not want to stay in the wilderness. They had made their decision. However, they sinned and all died in the wilderness. “Sin had dashed from their lips the cup of blessing.” Ibid.
- In Hebrews 3:18, Paul explains it again. He says, “They did not obey.” There are many people today who want to be religious but they never understand the role that obedience must play as part of their religion.
- In Hebrews 4:3, Paul says that they did not enter into His rest.
- In Hebrews 3:19, Paul says, they could not enter into the Promised Land. These people had to die in the wilderness because of their unbelief. When the Bible talks about belief or unbelief, the same words can be translated faith or doubt. Unbelief means you do not trust what God has said enough to do what He says and put it into practice. We all need to pray to the Lord that we might have belief and never be a victim of unbelief. Life dishes up many situations where because of the circumstances Satan tempts unbelief.
John the Baptist said in John 3:35, 36, “The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand. He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” Unbelief will prohibit you from entering into the Promised Land.
Remember, these things are examples or types. The wilderness is the experience that we are going through right now in this world and represents the biggest cemetery. The land of Canaan is the Promised Land. It represents a land in heaven where God is going to take all of His faithful ones. The choices we make day by day will determine if we will make it or die in the wilderness. This death is not just temporal but is the loss of eternal life. Many Israelites who died in the wilderness will not be in the heavenly Canaan.
- Concerning the Israelite wandering, it says in Hebrews 4:1, “Therefore, since a promise remains of entering His rest, let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it.” This appears to be a description of people who are trying to get there but they never make it. This would make the worst kind of nightmare, with your mind all confused about everything, thinking that somebody is chasing but you cannot get away from them. It seems that the faster you run, you can never get away till something wakes you up. You come short. “They came short.” Tragically, they never made it.
- In Hebrews 4:2 is an especially sad reason for failure of the Israelites to enter the Promised Land. Paul says, “The gospel was preached to us as well as to them.” The Israelites had the gospel. We have the gospel, the good news of salvation through Jesus, and it is not complicated. Jesus said, “If you believe in Me, you have eternal life” (John 3:16). In the gospel of John that statement is made in different language over, and over, and over again. The word believe does not merely make reference to a mental assent, but it has reference to putting your trust in somebody. The Israelites had the gospel, but these people died in the wilderness. How can you perish if you have the gospel? Paul says that the gospel did not do them any good; it did not profit them because it was “not being mixed with faith in those who heard it.” Hebrews 4:2.
- In I Corinthians 10:6, Paul says, “We should not lust after evil things as they also lusted.” When God took them into the wilderness, He put them on a different diet from that which they had been used to in Egypt. They were given some health reform principles, which you can read in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. These included sanitation, quarantine, disease control, cleanliness, and diet. They did not like the health reform and wanted flesh food and more highly spiced food than the manna that was provided for them. Paul says, “Do not lust after evil things.” They lusted after the fleshpots of Egypt.
There is tremendous resistance in Adventism today against health reform. The Bible says in Psalms that they were eating angel’s food (Psalm 78:25) and they didn’t like it. They preferred the food they had become used to while in Egypt. The manna provided was such that throughout all their wanderings in the wilderness, their feet never swelled up, even though they walked many miles in the desert. Although they remained in perfect health, they continually grumbled and complained.
- In I Corinthians 10:7, Paul says, “Do not become idolaters as were some of them.” Idolatry is a huge subject. When I was a child I never thought I was an idolater. I did not worship idols. I never fell down before them. So I thought I was not an idolater. Spending time in Myanmar with my missionary parents, I had witnessed people kneeling down to a huge image of Buddha, but we were Christians. We did not kneel down to it. How shallow is often our understanding of idolatry. In I John 2:15, 16, the apostle warns about making idols of worldly things. People make many things into idols.
- In I Corinthians 10:8, Paul says, “Nor let us commit sexual immorality, as some of them did.”
- In I Corinthians 10:9, Paul says, “Nor let us tempt Christ, as some of them also tempted.” With all the evidence at the Red Sea and the manna never failing to fall to sustain them, the Israelites still questioned the presence of the Lord. They queried if the Lord was with them. (See Exodus 17:1–3.) Could we be guilty of the same kind of thinking? “Well, if God was with me, then this would not happen to me.”
- Paul says, “Don’t complain like they did.”
Because of all these things, they were not allowed into the Promised Land and had to die in the wilderness. The wilderness became their cemetery, the biggest cemetery in the world.
The Lord has led modern Israel, us, out of Egypt, and we are on a journey through the wilderness on our way to the land that He has promised us. The question remains to be answered if modern Israel will reach the Promised Land and be allowed to enter or will she die in the wilderness as did Israel before her. The devil is determined to claim her as his and cause modern Israel to die in the wilderness, as did ancient Israel. He was successful enough the last time that there were only two who went in and he wants to make the same thing happen again. Ellen White says, “Today Satan is using the same devising to introduce the same evils and his efforts are followed by the same results that in the days of Israel laid so many in their graves.” The Review and Herald, February 4, 1909.
Our carnal traits of character are not to be retained. An honest perusal of the above list will bring the conviction that many of us have been guilty of some of the same things. That being the case, what are we going to do about it? The choice remains with us. We can continue to hold on to our wrong traits of character and continue wandering or make a complete surrender to Jesus. In The Youth Instructor, March 5, 1903, we are told: “God will call us to account if we retain wrong traits of character, refusing to call to our aid the power of the Word, and in the name of Jesus correct our faults and subdue the passions of the natural heart. Many enthrone Satan in the heart, to triumph over Christ by the indulgence of evil inclinations. Sin reigns where Christ should reign. Those who thus continue to cherish sin can never be saved as they are.”
Cherished sin causes a condition in which you cannot be saved. “Unless they change, they will never enter heaven themselves, and they make very difficult the path of those who are trying to overcome. Their faulty, unconsecrated lives place them on the side of the power of darkness, while they are professedly on the side of Christ. Jesus makes them the objects of His tender solicitude and unwearied labor, until, notwithstanding all His efforts, they become fixed in sin. Then those over whom He has wept and yearned in love and compassion are left to pursue their own course. The Saviour turns from them, saying, sadly, They are joined to their idols; let them alone. God forbid that this should be said of us.” Ibid.
“Many who, like ancient Israel, profess to keep God’s commandments have hearts of unbelief while outwardly observing the statutes of God. Although favored with great light and precious privileges, they will nevertheless lose the heavenly Canaan, even as the rebellious Israelites failed to enter the earthly Canaan that God had promised them as the reward of their obedience.” Testimonies, vol. 4, 162.
It is too late in earth’s history to continue playing games. The Lord knows your spiritual condition and whether you have made a complete surrender and are willing to forsake all your sins.
When all others had apostatized, Caleb and Joshua committed their case to the Lord. If you are willing to commit your case to the Lord, He can save you. “Satan stands at our right hand to accuse us, and our advocate stands at God’s right hand to plead for us. He has never lost a case that has been committed to Him.” The Review and Herald, August 15, 1893.
You may be the weakest, most sinful person and be in a lot of trouble right now; you may think that your sin is so great that you will never get out of here. In fact, you will not, unless somebody leads you out. That Somebody Who can lead you out is Jesus Christ. He is the only Way out of the wilderness and He has never lost a case that has been fully committed to Him.
“He [Jesus] is making intercession for the most lowly, the most oppressed and suffering, for the most tried and tempted ones.” Ibid. “He will help His believing children in every emergency if they will place their entire confidence in Him, and implicitly obey Him.” The Review and Herald, March 15, 1887.
Bible texts are from NKJV unless otherwise noted.
Pastor John J. Grosboll is Director of Steps to Life and pastors the Prairie Meadows Free Seventh-day Adventist Church in Wichita, Kansas. He may be contacted by email at: email@example.com, or by telephone at: 316-788-5559.