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Numbers 13-14 – Prayer for the Rebellious – Part 3

So far in our study, we have not really addressed what our series is called, Prayer for the Rebellious. Until now, we have been building up to it by showing what led Moses to pray for the people. As we come to Numbers 14:11-19, things have come to a boiling point. The people are ready to revolt against God and His chosen leaders. They are ready to stone Caleb and Joshua. They are ready to elect another leader and to head back to Egypt. But before they could do anything, God decided to stop them by shining His glory in the tabernacle. It got everyone’s attention and gave Moses the opportunity to hear from God and then respond.

  1. God’s response to their rebellion (Num. 14:11-12)

    Do you remember how Jesus responded to the unbelief of the people in Mark 9:19. There He asked similar questions that God asks now. How long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you? It shows the similarity between God the Father and God the Son.

    What does it say?

    After seeing the glory of the Lord emanating from the tabernacle, Moses went there to talk with God about the situation. The Lord asked Moses two questions about the people. How long would they reject Him? How long would they not believe Him? Their response did not make sense because He had done so many miraculous signs in their presence. The Lord was ready to send a pestilence, disinherit them, and make a greater nation from Moses’ descendants.

    What does it mean?

    God was exasperated with the rebellious people (Num. 14:11-12).

    It may be that the word exasperated is a bit strong to be used to describe God’s reaction. We think of God as being slow to anger and rich in mercy. But here we see His frustration with continuously rebellious people of Israel. His questions show this. How long would they reject Him? How long would they not believe Him?

    Let’s think for a moment. Had the people rejected the Lord and not believed Him? If you look back to the Exodus, the people were very amazed at what God did with the Ten Plagues and the Crossing of the Red Sea. But even that response had been mixed with fear and complaint. Remember when they were boxed in by the mountains and the Red Sea with the Egyptian army closing in? They had complained to Moses and accused him of bring them out to die in the wilderness (Ex. 14:11-12). And if you look at the other situations between then and now, they continued to disbelieve God and complain.

    It is no wonder that God was exasperated with their response. He had done so much for them and they didn’t respond well. Yes, they were happy temporarily when God did something good, but the daily grind of traveling through the wilderness had revealed their rejection of God and their unbelief in His promises.

    God was ready to destroy them (Num. 14:13).

    Are you surprised by what God said to Moses here? God told Moses that He would strike the people with a pestilence, disinherit them, and make a new and greater nation from Moses’ descendants. But this was not the first time that God had dealt with the Israelites’ rebellion. In Numbers 3, God had killed two of Aaron’s sons for offering strange fire on the altar. In Numbers 11, God had sent fire into the camp to destroy some of those who complained. And there were other times when God judged the rebellious people. But this was the first that I can recall where God wanted to destroy the whole lot of them.

    This shows us that there is a limit to God’s mercy. There comes a time when He finally has to deal with sin and can put up with it no more. Think back to Sodom and Gomorrah. God allowed them to continue living in their sin, had Lot living among them, but eventually came to the place where He was unwilling to allow them to live anymore. This is something that people must realize about God. He is not only the God of mercy. He is also the God of holiness and judgment.

    How does it apply?

    We must realize how our sin affects God.

    Have you ever considered how your sin affects God over time? You can see how much the sin of the Israelites affected Him. How does our sin—especially continued sin—affect the Lord. You might say that it breaks His heart. After all He has done for us, why would we continue to sin and hurt Him?

    We must realize the seriousness of our sin.

    We often think of God as the forgiving grandfatherly figure. I think we do this because we enjoy this side of God. But the Bible is also filled with statements about God’s holiness, His aversion to sin, and His anger and eventual judgment against sin. While we usually think about God’s eventual judgment on the wicked at the Great White Throne, we should also consider His response to the sins of Christians (Acts 5:1-11; Rev. 2:5,16; 3:19).

  2. Moses’ response to God (Num. 14:13-19)

    It is interesting to see how Moses responded to the Lord because he himself had been frustrated with the people back in Numbers 11:10-15. He was so frustrated that he asked God to kill him. But something had changed and Moses responded with compassion this time.

    What does it say?

    Moses replied to the Lord with a plea for mercy. He noted that if the Lord destroyed the people, the Egyptians, who had seen God bring the people out of Egypt, would hear about it and talk to the people in Canaan. They had heard that the Lord was among the people, that He had been seen face to face, that His cloud stands above them by day and a pillar of fire by night. If God killed all of these people, then the people of Canaan would say that the Lord was not strong enough to bring the people into the Promised Land. Moses then asked the Lord to show His great power by showing Himself as he had described Himself on the mountain: longsuffering, merciful, forgiving, and just. He then asked the Lord to pardon the sin of the people according to His great mercy just as He had forgiven them from Egypt until that point.

    What does it mean?

    The Lord was very frustrated with the Israelites because of their unbelief and rebellion against His plan. When He suggested to Moses that He would wipe out the whole population with a pestilence, Moses chose to respond. His response contains three very important principles for prayer.

    God’s reputation is affected by His actions (Num. 14:13-16).

    Moses was concerned that God would look bad if the whole nation was destroyed. The Egyptians were still in awe of what had happened during the ten plagues and at the Red Sea. What happened there would eventually be reported so that the nations in Canaan would hear about it. People had heard that the Lord’s presence was shown by a visible cloud during the day and a pillar of fire by night. Those who heard what God had done were impressed with the Lord’s greatness. But if God destroyed the Israelites in the wilderness, these nations would no longer be impressed. They would think that God was not strong enough to bring them into the land He sworn to give them.

    One of the problems which Moses highlighted here was that the sinful response and judgment that followed could and probably would affect God’s reputation in the area. Had God promised to give them the land? Yes. Had the Israelites believed and obeyed the Lord. No. Did they deserve to go into the land? No. So the judgment suggested by God was not undeserved. They deserved to be punished. But God’s reputation among the nations would be negatively impacted by His judgment on their sinful disobedience. He would be right to judge them, but Moses was concerned that the nations would not look at it this way.

    God’s power is displayed in His mercy and justice (Num. 14:17-18).

    Moses wanted the nations (and Israel) to see God’s power, but in a different way. Instead of killing the Israelites with a pestilence, God could show His great power by living up to what He had told Moses on the mountain. There God had described Himself with the statement in verse 18. He was longsuffering, merciful, forgiving, and just. When the nations (and Israel) heard about God’s great power, it would not just be in the incredible miracles He did but also in the patience He showed when dealing with their ridiculous rebelliousness.

    If a martial artist is walking down the street and hears a man yelling curse words at him, there are two ways to show his power. First, he could show his power by karate chopping the man into pieces. No doubt the other man would recognize the martial artist’s power after the fight was over. Second, he could show his power by overlooking what was said, holding back his anger, and walking away. The other man might not recognize his power but might later realize what he had escaped when he is informed of the abilities of the martial artist.

    There is no doubt that God can show His power by destroying sinful people. He has done this on multiple occasions including the Great Flood and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. But it is His mercy toward those who deserve destruction that shows His great power of self-control.

    God’s pardon is not certain (Num. 14:19).

    Moses wanted God to pardon the iniquity of the people who had rebelled against Him. God’s great mercy was something that Moses had seen in action on multiple occasions since Egypt. God had forgiven the people for their complaining and disobedience and this is what Moses asked Him to do again. But notice that Moses was not telling God what to do. Instead, he was praying/asking God to do this again.

    This is a good reminder that God’s mercy is not something to be taken as granted. Although He has shown mercy to people on many occasions, He is not bound to show mercy in every situation. He is characteristically merciful but not obligated to do so. This fact should be remembered when there is a need for mercy.

    How does it apply?

    When we pray, we should think about what is good for God’s reputation.

    Moses’ heart-felt concern for God’s reputation is thought provoking. He was genuinely concerned with how others would view what God wanted to do. He wanted the nations to know how powerful God was in both His mercy and judgment. But it should also make us consider how we talk to God. Do we only come to Him with requests that satisfy our needs, or are we also concerned about what would affect Him?

    When we pray, we should thank God for His mercy but not take it for granted.

    When we sin, it is with great soberness that we read Psalm 51 or 1 John 1:9. We are grateful that God is merciful to us when have sinned. But we mustn’t come to the place where we think that God will always hold back judgment and overlook our sins and those of our nation. This is why we need to thank God for His mercy and continue to ask for it. There will come a time when God will no longer be willing to be merciful. While there is a wideness in God’s mercy, there is also a limit to it. Let us remember that the next time we talk to God. And let us remember that when we pray for those who have not been saved yet. There should be an urgency in praying for those who have been recipients of His mercy until now. At some point, God’s mercy will end. But it may be that our prayers will hold off His judgment and give that person one more opportunity to repent.


In this passage, we have seen two incredible things. First, we have seen the frustration of our incredibly merciful God. He had been patient with these people’s complaints and brought them to the land He had promised. But when they rebelled against His command, His patience almost came to an end. Second, we have seen the kind heart of Moses in his response to God’s frustration. His prayer included a concern for God’s reputation and also a plea for mercy on the rebellious Israelites. I hope that both response will stay with us for a while and that our prayers for others will be affected by what we have learned.