And he called the name of the place Massah, and Meribah, because of the chiding of the children of Israel, and because they tempted the LORD, saying, Is the LORD among us, or not? And at Taberah, and at Massah, and at Kibrothhattaavah, ye provoked the LORD to wrath. Likewise when the LORD sent you from Kadeshbarnea, saying, Go up and possess the land which I have given you; then ye rebelled against the commandment of the LORD your God, and ye believed him not, nor hearkened to his voice. Ye have been rebellious against the LORD from the day that I knew you.
~ Exodus 17:7, Deuteronomy 9:22-24
And the LORD said unto Moses, How long will this people provoke me? and how long will it be ere they believe me, for all the signs which I have shewed among them?
~ Numbers 14:11
Yet they tempted and provoked the most high God, and kept not his testimonies: And they tempted God in their heart by asking meat for their lust.
Psalm 78:56, Psalm 78:18
Neither let us tempt Christ, as some of them also tempted, and were destroyed of serpents.
~ 1 Corinthians 10:9
John Owen’s Commentary on the Book of Hebrews, Verses Seven through Eleven.
Wherefore (as the Holy Ghost saith, To day if ye will hear his voice, Harden not your hearts, as in the provocation, in the day of temptation in the wilderness: When your fathers tempted me, proved me, and saw my works forty years. Wherefore I was grieved with that generation, and said, They do alway err in their heart; and they have not known my ways. So I sware in my wrath, They shall not enter into my rest.)
~ Hebrews 3:7-11
First, The sin is contained in these words: “As in the provocation, in the day of temptation in the wilderness: where your fathers tempted me, proved me, and saw my works, forty years.”
1. The first thing occurring in the words according unto our former distribution of them, relating to the sin mentioned, is the persons of the sinners. They were their “fathers,” the progenitors of them to whom the apostle wrote. And they are in the next verse further described by their multitude, — they were a whole generation, “I was grieved with that generation.”
Who these were was declared before in the exposition of the words, and it is plain from the story who are intended. It was the people that came up out of Egypt with Moses; all of whom that were above twenty years of age at their coming into the wilderness, because of their manifold sins and provocations, died there, Caleb and Joshua only excepted. So the Lord threatened, Numbers 14:26-30,
“And the LORD spake unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying, How long shall I bear with this evil congregation, which murmur against me? I have heard the murmurings of the children of Israel, which they murmur against me. Say unto them, As truly as I live, saith the LORD, as ye have spoken in mine ears, so will I do to you; your carcasses shall fall in this wilderness, and all that were numbered of you, according to your whole number, from twenty years old and upward, which have murmured against me, doubtless ye shall not come into the land concerning which I sware to make you dwell therein, save Caleb the son of Jephunneh, and Joshua the son of Nun.”
And so it came to pass; for when the people were numbered again in the plains of Moab, it is said, “Among these there was not a man of them whom Moses and Aaron the priest numbered, when they numbered the children of Israel in the wilderness of Sinai;” that is, besides those two who were excepted by name, Numbers 26:64-65. These were the fathers ofthe present Hebrews; that is, as it is expressed, Jeremiah 11:10, אֲבוֹתָם הָרִאשֹׁנִים, — their “forefathers,” as we render the words; rather their “first fathers,” those whom God first took into the express covenant with himself, for the place hath respect unto that very sin which is here reported: “They are turned back to the iniquity of their first fathers, which refused to hear my words,” who hearkened not unto the voice of God. And this limits the term unto those in the wilderness, seeing the former patriarchs did not refuse to hear the word of God. But they are generally called אֲבוֹתindefinitely, πατέρες, the “fathers,” as others also that followed in succeeding generations; once by our apostle they are termed πρόγονοι, — “ progenitors,” 2 Timothy 1:3. Now the psalmist mentioning (and our apostle from him) the sin of the people in the wilderness, and proposing it with its consequents unto the present Hebrews, calls them their “fathers,” —
(1.) Because that people were exceedingly apt to boast of their fathers, and to raise a confidence in themselves that they must needs receive mercy from God on their account. And they had, indeed, no small privilege in being the posterity of some of those fathers. Our apostle reckons it as one of their chief advantages, Romans 9:4-5 :
“Who are Israelites, to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises; whose are the fathers, and of whom, as concerning the flesh, Christ came.”
It hath a place in the great series of the privileges of that church. And when the church-state is made over to the Gentiles, it is promised her, that instead of these fathers she should have her children, Psalms 45:16, — those that should succeed unto them in holiness and the favour of God. But this people ran into a woeful mistake, which their posterity are hardened in at this day. Their only privilege in this matter was because God had freely and graciously given his promises unto their fathers, and taken them into covenant with himself; and the due consideration hereof tended only to the exaltation of the rich and free grace of God. So Moses expressly declares, Deuteronomy 7:7-8, and elsewhere. But forgetting or despising this, they rested on the honor and righteousness of their fathers, and expected I know not what as due unto them on that account. This vain confidence our Savior frequently rebuked in them, and so did the apostle. And for this reason the psalmist and the apostle, having occasion to mention the sins of the people of old, calls them their “fathers;” minding them that many of them in whom they gloried were sinful provokers of God.
(2.) It is done to mind them of their near concernment in the example proposed, unto them. It is not taken from amongst strangers, but it is what fell out amongst their own progenitors.
(3.) To warn them of their danger. There is a propensity in children to follow the sins of their fathers. Hence some sins prove eminently national in some countries for many generations. The example of parents is apt to infect their children. The Holy Ghost, then, here intimates unto them their proneness to fall into disobedience, by minding them of the miscarriage of their fathers in the same kind. This intimates unto them both their duty and their danger. Again, these fathers are further described by their number. They were a whole “generation;” that is, all the people of that age wherein they were in the wilderness. And this contains a secret aggravation of the sin mentioned, because there was in it a joint conspiracy as it were of all the persons of that age. These are they who were guilty of the sin here reported. And we may observe from this expression and remembrance of them, —
Obs. 12. That the examples of our forefathers are of use and concernment unto us, and objects of our deepest consideration.
God in his dealings with them laid in instruction for their posterity. And when parents do well, when they walk with God, they beat the path of obedience plain for their children; and when they miscarry, God sets their sins as buoys to warn them who come after them of the shelves that they split upon. “Be not as your fathers, a stiff-necked generation,” is a warning that he oft repeats. And it is in the Scripture an eminent part of the commendation or discommendation of any, that they walked in the way of their progenitors. Where any of the good kings of Judah are testified unto for their integrity, this is still one part of the testimony given unto them, that they walked in the way of David their father, in the paths that he had trod before them. And on the other side, it is a brand on many of the wicked kings of Israel, that they walked in the ways of Jeroboam the son of Nebat. Their examples, therefore, are of concernment unto us, —
First, because ofttimes the same kind of temptations are continued unto the children that the fathers were exercised withal. Thus we find in experience that some temptations are peculiar to a nation, some to a family, for sundry generations; which produce peculiar national sins, and family sins, so that at least they are prevalent in them. Hence the apostle chargeth national sins on the Cretians, from the testimony of Epimenides, who had observed them amongst them; —
κρῆτες ἀεὶ ψεῦσται, κακὰ θήρια, γάστερες ἀργαί,
Titus 1:12, “The Cretians are alway liars, evil beasts, slow bellies.” Lying, dissimulation, cruelty, and sloth, were the sins of that nation from one generation to another, children learning them from the example of their parents. So many families for a long season have been infamous for cruelty, or deceit, or the like. And these hereditary sins have proceeded in part from hereditary temptations: some are inlaid in their natural constitutions, and some are inseparably annexed unto some special course of life and conversation, wherein persons of the same family succeed one another. Now it is a great warning unto men, to consider what sad events have befallen them that went before them by yielding unto those temptations which they themselves are exercised withal.
Again, there is a blessing or a curse that lies secretly hid in the ways of progenitors. There is a revenge for the children of the disobedient unto the third and fourth generation; and a blessing on the posterity of the obedient for a longer continuance. The very heathen acknowledged this by the light of nature. Plato says expressly, εἰς τετάρτην γενεὰν διαβιβάζει τὴν τιμωρίαν, — “ Punishment falls on the fourth generation.” And they had the substance of it from their oracle: —
᾿αλλὰ κακῶς ῤέξασι δίκας τέλος οὐχὶ χρονεστὸν
῎ηδε παραίτατον· εἰ καὶ διὸς ἔκγονοι ει῏εν
κ᾿ αὐτῇς γὰρ κεφαλῇσι, καὶ ἐν σφετεροίσι τεκέσσιν
εἰλείται· καὶ πῆμα δὸμοις, ἐπὶ πήμασι, βαίνει.
So is that saying common in the same case, Iliad. υ 308: —
καὶ παίδων παῖδες, τοί κεν μετόπισθε γένωνται.
The design is what we have asserted, of the traduction of punishment from wicked parents to their posterity. But there are conditions of the avoidance of the curse, and enjoyment of the blessing. When fathers have made themselves obnoxious to the displeasure of God by their sins, let their posterity know that there is an addition of punishment coming upon them, beyond what in an ordinary coupe of providence is due unto themselves, if they continue in the same sins. So God tells Moses, in the matter of the golden calf which Aaron had made, when he had prevailed with him not immediately to destroy the whole people: “Nevertheless,” saith he, “in the day when I visit I will visit their sin upon them,” Exodus 32:34; — that is ‘If by their future sins and idolatry they shall provoke me to visit and punish them, I will add unto their punishment somewhat from the desert of this sin of their forefather Whence is that proverb among the Jews, “That there is no evil befalls them but it hath in it some grain of the golden calf.” להניח ליירד פישעי ישראל בגיהנם שאברהם יושב על פתחי של גיהנם שלא, saith Rashi, — “He will mix a little somewhat of the guilt of this sin with the rest of their sins.” And therefore the same word, of “visiting,” is here used as in the threatening in the commandment, Exodus 20:5. And when one generation after another shall persist in the same provoking sins, the weight of God’s indignation grows so heavy, that ordinarily in one part or other it begins to fall within the third or fourth generation. And doth it not concern men to consider what have been the ways of their forefathers, lest there lie a secret, consuming curse against them in the guilt of their sins? Repentance and forsaking their ways wholly intercept the progress of the curse, and set a family at liberty from a great and ancient debt to the justice of God. So God stateth this matter at large, Ezekiel 18. Men know not what arrears may by this means be chargeable on their inheritances; much more, it may be, than all they are worth is able to answer. There is no avoidance of the writ for satisfaction that is gone out against them, but by turning out of the way wherein they are pursued. The same is the case of the blessing that is stored for the posterity of the obedient, provided they are found in the way of their forefathers. These things render them and their ways objects of our consideration. For moreover, —
Obs. 13. It is a dangerous condition, for children to boast of the privilege of their fathers, and to imitate their sins.
This was almost continually the state of the Jews. They were still boasting of their progenitors, and constantly walking in their sins. This they are everywhere in the Scripture charged withal. See Numbers 32:14. This the Baptist reflected on in his first dealing with them: “Bring forth,” saith he, “fruits meet for repentance; and think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father,” Matthew 3:8-9. On every occasion they still cried out, “We have Abraham to our father,” — he who was so highly favored of God, and first received the promises. For his sake and by his means they expected to be saved temporally and eternally. Hence they have a saying in their Talmud, לֹאאּתִהְיֶה אַחֲרֵיאּרַבִּים לְרָעֹת“Abraham sits at the gates of hell, and will not permit that any transgressors of Israel shall go in thither,” — a great reserve against all their sins, but that it will deceive them when they are past relief. It is true they had on this account many privileges, as our apostle testifies in sundry places, Romans 3:1-2; Romans 9:4-5; and so he esteemed them to be as to his own personal interest in Philippians 3:4-5. But whilst they trusted unto them and continued in the sins of them who had abused them, it turned to their further ruin. See Matthew 23:29-32. And let their example deter others from countenancing themselves in privileges of any kind whilst they come short of personal faith and obedience. Again, —
Obs. 14. A multitude joining in any sin given it thereby a great aggravation.
Those here that sinned were all the persons of one entire generation. This made it a formal, open rebellion, a conspiracy against God, a design as it were to destroy his kingdom and to leave him no subjects in the world.
When many conspire in the same sin it is a great inducement unto others to follow. Hence is that caution in the law, Exodus 23:2, “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to de, evil.” The law, indeed, hath an especial respect unto judgment and causes of differences among men. But there is a general direction in the law for our whole course: הוֹי רָד אֶתאּיֹצְרוֹ; — “Thou shalt not be after many” (or “great men”) “unto evils,” — ‘Take heed of the inclination of a multitude unto evil, lest thou art also carried away with their errors and sin;’and this aggravates the sin of many. It doth so also, that the opposition unto God therein is open and notorious, which tends greatly to his dishonor in the world. And what resentment God hath of the provocation that lies herein is fully expressed in Numbers 14, from Numbers 14:20 unto Numbers 14:35, speaking of the sin of the congregation in their unbelief and murmuring against him. In the first place, he engageth himself by his oath to vindicate his glory from the reproach which they had cast upon it, Numbers 14:21, “As truly as I live,” saith he, “all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD.” Some take these words to be only an asseveration of that which follows; as if God had said, ‘As truly as I live, and as the earth is filled with my glory, all these men shall perish;’but the words rather contain the principal matter of the oath of God. He swears that as they, by their conjunct sin and rebellion, had dishonoured him in the world, so he, by his works of power and vengeance on them, would fill the earth again with his glory. And there is in the following words a representation of a great πάθος, or “commotion,” with great indignation: “They have,” saith he, “seen my miracles, and have tempted me now these ten times,” Numbers 14:22. The Hebrew doctors do scrupulously reckon up these temptations. The first, they say, is in Exodus 14:11, when they said,
“Because there were no graves in Egypt.”
The second in Marah, Exodus 15:24,
“The people murmured against Moses, saying, What shall we drink?”
The third in the desert of Sin, Exodus 16:2-3,
“The whole congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron, and said, Would to God we had died by the hand of the LORD in Egypt, when we sat by the flesh-pots.”
The fourth when they left manna until the morning, Exodus 16:19-20,
“And Moses said, Let no man leave of it till the morning. Notwithstanding they hearkened not unto Moses; but some of them left of it until the morning, and it bred worms, and stank.”
The fifth was when some of them went out to gather manna on the Sabbath-day, Exodus 16:27-28, which God called a
“refusing to keep his commandments and his laws.”
The sixth was in Rephidim, at the waters of Meribah, Numbers 20:2-13. The seventh in Horeb, when they made the calf, Exodus 32. The eighth at Taberah, Numbers 11:1-3. The ninth at Kibroth-hattaavah, Numbers 11:31-34. The tenth upon the return of the spies, Numbers 14. Thus are the ten temptations reckoned up by some of the Jews, and by others of them they are enumerated with some little alteration. But whether the exact number of ten be intended in the expression is very uncertain; it seems rather to intend multiplied temptations, expressed with much indignation. So Jacob when he chode with Laban told him, “Thou hast changed my wages ten times,” Genesis 31:41; that is, frequently, which he so expressed in his anger and provocation. So doth God here, — “Ye have tempted me these ten times;” that is, ‘So often, so far, that I neither can nor will bear with you any longer.’In the whole discourse (which sinners ought to read and tremble at) there is represented as it were such a rising of anger and indignation in the face of God, such a commotion of soul in displeasure (both made use of to declare an unchangeable will of punishing), as scarce appears again in the Scripture. Thus it is for a multitude to transgress against God, as it were by a joint conspiracy. Such issues will all national apostasies and provocations receive. And this is the first general part of the example proposed to consideration, namely, the persons sinning, with the observations that arise from thence.
2. The second is the matter or quality of their sin, which is referred unto two heads: —
(1.) Their provocation, “In the provocation, in the day of temptation.”
(2.) Their tempting of him, “They tempted me, and proved me.”
(1.) Their sin consisted in their provoking. It seems not to be any one particular sin, but the whole carriage of the people in the actions reflected on, that is intended; and that not at any one time, but in their whole course. The word in the original, as was declared, signifies “to chide,” “to strive,” “to contend,” and that in words: Isaiah 45:9, הוֹי רָבאֶתאּיֹצְרוֹ, — “Woe unto him that striveth with his Maker!” And how doth or maybe do it? “Shall the clay say to him that made it?” etc. It is by “saying,” by speaking against him, that he may so strive with him. But the apostle hath expressed it by a word denoting the effect of that chiding, that is exacerbation or provocation. The expression of the actions here intended, in the places before mentioned, Exodus 17, Numbers 20:13, the chiding of the people, as we observed before, is directly said to be with Moses, as their tempting afterwards is of the Lord. Thus Moses says unto them, “Why chide ye with me? wherefore do ye tempt the LORD?” Exodus 17:2. But it is also said expressly, “They strove” (the same word) “with the LORD,” Numbers 20:13. The meaning is, that “striving” or “chiding” ( מְרִיבָה, from רוּב) being properly an altercation with or in words, Moses, and not God, was the immediate object of their chiding; but because it was about and concerning the works of God, which Moses had no relation unto but as he was his minister, servant, and employed by him, the principal object of their chiding, as formally a sin, was also God himself. In striving with Moses they strove with him, and in chiding with Moses they chode with him. This expression, then, in general compriseth all the sinful actions of that people against God under the ministry of Moses.
There are two things to be considered in this matter of provocation; —
[1.] The sin that is included in it;
[2.] The event or consequent of it, — God was provoked. The former seems firstly intended in the Hebrew word, the latter in the Greek.
[1.] For the sin intended, it is evident from the story that it was unbelief acting itself by murmuring and complaints; the same for the substance of it by which also they tempted God. This the apostle declares to have been the great provoking sin, Numbers 20:19 : “So we see that they could not enter in, by reason of unbelief.” That was the sin which so provoked God as that “he sware in his wrath that they should not enter into his rest.” Yet it is not their unbelief absolutely considered that is intended, but as it brought forth the effects of chiding with Moses and murmuring against God, which on all occasions they fell into. Though unbelief itself, especially in such a season, be a provoking sin, yet this murmuring and chiding so added unto its provocation that it is directly laid on their accounts. But they also, as the apostle says, are to be resolved into their spring or cause, — that is, unbelief. They are but an especial sign, circumstance, or effect of their unbelief.
[2.] The effect of this sin was the provocation or exacerbation of God. The Hebrew word which the apostle here expresseth by πικρασμός, is כָּעַס; which sometimes is taken actively, for “provoking,” “inciting,” “stimulating,” “imbittering;” sometimes passively, for “indignation,” “perturbation,” “sorrow,” “grief,” “trouble.” In the whole it includes the imbittering of the mind of its object, with an excitation unto anger, displeasure, and wrath. Now, these things are ascribed unto God only by an anthropopathy. Such effects being usually wrought in the minds of the best men when they are unjustly and ungratefully dealt withal, God, to show men the nature of their sins, ascribes them unto himself. His mind is not imbittered, moved, or changed; but men have deserved to be dealt withal as if it were so. See Jeremiah 8:19; 2 Kings 21:15; Isaiah 65:3; Jeremiah 25:7; Jeremiah 32:29; 2 Chronicles 28:25.
Now, this provocation of God by their unbelief, acting itself in murmuring, chiding, and complaining, is further expressed from the season of it, — it was in the “day of temptation,” the day of Massah. The denomination is taken from the name of the place where they first murmured for water, and tempted God by the discovery of their unbelief. As it was called Meribah from the contention, chiding, and provoking, so it was called Massah from the tempting of God there, — the “day of temptation.” In this expression, not the addition of a new sin to that of provocation is intended, but only a description of the sin and season of that sin. It was in the “day of temptation” that God was so provoked by them. How also they tempted him we shall see afterwards. Now, as this day signally began upon the temptation at Meribah, so it continued through the whole course of the people’s peregrination in the wilderness, — their multiplied tempting of God made this whole time a “day of temptation.”
Now, let us consider hence some further observations: —
Obs. 15. The sinful actings of men against those who deal with them in the name of God, and about the works or will of God, are principally against God himself.
The people chode with Moses; but when God came to call it to an account, he says they strove with him and provoked him. So Moses told the people, to take them off from their vain pretences and coverings of their unbelief: Exodus 16:2, “The whole congregation murmured against Moses and Aaron.” But saith he, Exodus 16:7, “The LORD heareth your murmurings against him: and what are we that ye murmur against us?” As if he had said, ‘Mistake not yourselves, it is God, and not us, that you have to do withal in this matter. What you suppose you speak only against us, is indeed directly though not immediately spoken against God.’So God himself informs Samuel, upon the repining of the people against him: “They have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them;” because he ruled them immediately in the name of God, 1 Samuel 8:7. They pretended weariness of the government of Samuel, but were indeed weary of God and his rule. And so what was done against him, God took as done against himself. And under the new testament, our Savior in particular applies this rule unto the dispensers of the gospel, Luke 10:16, saith he, “He that heareth you heareth me; and he that despiseth you despiseth me; and he that despiseth me despiseth him that sent me.” The preachers of the gospel are sent by Christ, and therefore their opposition and contempt do first reflect dishonor upon him, and through him upon God himself.
And the reason hereof is, because in their work they are representatives of God himself, — they act in his name and in his stead, as his embroiders: 2 Corinthians 5:20, “Now then,” saith the apostle, “we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God.” They treat with men as sent of God, in his name, about the affairs of Christ. The violation of an ambassador amongst men is always esteemed to redound unto the dishonour of him by whom he is employed; for it is he unto whom the injury and affront are principally intended, especially if it be done unto him in discharge of his office Nor are kings or states ever more highly provoked than when an injury is offered or an affront done unto their ambassadors. The Romans of old utterly destroyed Tarentum in Italy, and Corinth in Greece, on that account; and occasions of the same nature have been like of late to fill the world with blood and tumult. And the reason is, because, according to the light of nature, what is done immediately against a representative as such, is done directly and intentionally against the person represented. So it is in this case. The enmity of men is against God himself, against his way, his works, his will, which his ambassadors do but declare. But these things absolutely are out of their reach. They cannot reach them nor hurt them; nor will they own directly an opposition unto them. Therefore are pretences invented by men against those who are employed by God, that under their covert they may execute their rage against God himself. So Amaziah, priest of Bethel, complained to Jeroboam the king, saying, “Amos hath conspired against thee in the midst of the house of lsrael: the land is not able to bear all his words.” It is not because he preached against his idolatry, or denounced the judgments of God against the sins of men, that Ama-ziah opposeth him; no, it is merely on the account of his sedition, and the danger of the king thereby, Amos 7:10. And when, as itis likely, he could not prevail with the king for his destruction, he deals with him personally himself, to flee away, and so to render himself suspected, Amos 7:12-13. He had used an invidious expression concerning him to the king, קָשַׁר עָלֶיךָ, — “He hath conspired against thee;” that is, to take away thy life. The word is used concerning two kings of Judah, one after another, and the matter ended in their death, 2 Chronicles 24:25; 2 Chronicles 25:27. And it is mostly used for a conspiracy ending in death. And yet all this was from enmity against God, and from no affection to the king. Under the shade of such pretences do men act their opposition unto God upon his messengers. God sees that they are all but coverts for their lusts and obstinacy, — that himself is intended; and he esteems it so accordingly.
Instruction lies plain herein for them who, by vainly-invented pleas and pretences, do endeavour to give countenance to their own consciences in opposition unto those who speak in the name and treat about the things of God. Let them look to it; though they may so satisfy themselves, in and by their own prejudices, as to think they do God good service when they kill them, yet they will find things in the issue brought unto another account. This lies so clear from what hath been spoken that I shall not further insist on it. But let them principally consider this, and thence what is incumbent on them, who are called to deal with others in the name of God. And, —
[1.] Let them take heed that they neither do, nor act, nor speak any thing but what they have sufficient warrant from him for. It is a dangerous thing to entitle God or his name unto our own imaginations. God will not set his seal of approbation, he will not own a concernment in our lie, though we should think that it tends to his glory, Romans 3:7. Neither will he own what is done against us as done against himself, unless we stand in his counsels, and be found in the ways of his will. There is no object of a more sad consideration, than to see some men persecuting others for their errors. They that persecute, — suppose them in the right as to the matter in difference between them and those whom they do oppress, — yet do certainly act against God in what they pretend to act for him; for they usurp his authority over the souls and consciences of men. And they that are persecuted do sacrifice their concernments to the darkness of their own minds. God may concern himself in general to own their integrity towards himself, even in their mistakes; but in the particular wherein they suffer he will not own them. Whether, therefore, we are to do or to suffer any thing for God, it is of great concernment unto us to look well to our call or warrant. And then,
[2.] When men are secured by the word and Spirit of God that their message is not their own, but his that sent them, — that they seek not their own glory, but his, — they may have hence all desirable grounds of encouragement, supportment, and consolation, in all the straits and temptations they meet withal in this world. They can be no more utterly prevailed against (that is, their testimony cannot) than can God himself. So he speaks to Jeremiah:
“I will make thee a fenced brazen wall; they shall fight against thee, but they shall not prevail against thee: for I am with thee to save thee, and to deliver thee, saith the LORD,” Jeremiah 15:20.
And in what they suffer God is so far concerned, as to account all that is done against them to be done against himself. Christ is hungry with them, and thirsty with them, and in prison with them, Matthew 25:35-40. Again, —
Obs. 16. Unbelief manifesting itself in a time of trial is a most provoking sin.
This, as we have showed, was the sin of the people in their provocation of God. And it is a great sin, — the great sin, the spring of all sins at all times; but it hath many aggravations attending of it in a time of trial. And this compriseth the first sense of the limitation of time in that word, “This day,” before intimated, namely, an especial time and season wherein the guilt of this sin may be eminently contracted. For I speak not of unbelief in general with respect unto the covenant and the promises thereof, but of unbelief as working in a distrust of God with respect unto the dispensations of his providence. It is a disbelieving of God as to any concernment of our own when we have a sufficient warrant to believe and put our trust in him, when it is our duty so to do. And two things we may make a brief inquiry into: —
[1.] What is required that men may be in such a condition as wherein they may contract the guilt of this sin? And hereunto three things do belong: —
1st. That in general they be found in the way of God. God’s promises of his presence, and of his protection unto men, are confined unto his own ways, which alone are theirs, or ought so to be: “He shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways,” Psalms 91:11; — that is, the ways that he hath appointed thee to walk in. The benefit of which promise the devil vainly attempted to deprive our Savior of, by seducing him to ways that were not his, ways that God had not appointed. Men in ways of their own, — that is, in the crooked paths of sin, — are not obliged to trust in God for mercy and protection in them. So to do, or to pretend so to do, is to entitle God to their lusts. For men to say they trust in God in the pursuit of their covetousness, injustice, oppression, sensuality, or in ways wherein these things have a prevailing mixture, or to pray for the protecting, the blessing presence of God in them, is a high provocation. Every difficulty, every opposition that such men meet withal is raised by God to turn them out of their way. And to expect their removal by him, or strength and assistance against them, is to desire the greatest evil unto their own souls that in this world they are obnoxious unto. The Israelites here blamed were in the way of God, and no opposition ought to have discouraged them therein.
2dly. That in particular they have a warrantable call to engage into that way wherein they are. A way may be good and lawful in itself, but not lawful to a man that enters upon it without a sufficient call to engage in it. And this deprives men also of the grounds, of expectation of God’s presence, so as to that particular way wherein they cannot contract the guilt of this sin; though commonly it is distrust of God that casts men into such ways. It was the way and work of God that the Israelites should destroy the Amorites and possess their land; but when they would in a heat, without a sufficient warrant, go up into the hill and fight with them, Moses says unto them,
“Go not up, for the LORD is not among you;… and they were discomfited unto Hormah,” Numbers 14:42-45.
Unto a lawful way, then, in general, a lawful call in particular must be added, or we have not a sufficient foundation for the discharge of that duty whose defect is now charged by us.
3dly. They must have a sufficient warranty of the presence and protection of God. This is that which makes faith and trust a duty. And God gives it two ways, —
1. In general, in the promise of the covenant, wherein he hath undertaken to be with us, to bless us, and to carry us through the course of our duty: Hebrews 13:5, “He hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.” This alone is a sufficient ground and foundation for faith and trust in every condition. And this the Israelites had in the promise made unto Abraham and others of their forefathers,
2. By giving some signal instances of his power, wisdom, and care, in his presence with us, by protection, direction, preservation, or deliverance, in those ways of his wherein we are engaged. When by this means he hath given us experience of his goodness, faithfulness, and approbation of the ways wherein we are, this adds a specialty unto the general warrant for faith in the word of promise. And this they also had in all those works of God which they saw for forty years.
[2.] It must be inquired, what it is that makes any time or season to be a day of trial, seeing the miscarriage of men in such a season is expressed as a great aggravation of their sin. And they are the things that follow: —
1st. That there be a concernment of the glory of God in the performance of that duty wherein we are to act faith, or to trust in God. So God tried the faith of Abraham in a duty wherein his glory was greatly concerned. For by his obedience in faith, it appeared to all the world that Abraham respected God, and valued a compliance with his will above all things in this world whatever. So God himself expresseth it, Genesis 22:12 : “Now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.” This was the tenth and last trial that befell Abraham. Nine times he had been tried before: —
1. In his departure out of his country;
2. By the famine which drove him into Egypt;
3. In the taking away of his wife there by Pharaoh;
4. In his war with the four kings;
5. In his hopelessness of issue by Sarah, whence he took Hagar;
6. In the law of circumcision;
7. His wife taken item him again by Abimelech;
8. His casting out of Hagar after she had conceived; 9. His expulsion of Ishmael
In some of these it is known how he failed, though in most of them he acquitted himself as became the father of the faithful. But now the “fluctus decumanus” came upon him, his last and utmost trial, wherein he was made a spectacle to men, angels, and devils. The Jews tell us great stories of the opposition made by Satan, in his arguing with Abraham and Isaac about and against their obedience in this thing; and no doubt but he employed himself unto that purpose. And it is endless to show how many eyes were upon him; all which gave a concernment of glory unto God. Here, therefore, Abraham in a most especial manner acquits himself; whence God gives him that testimony, “Now I know that thou fearest God;” that is, ‘Now thou hast made it known beyond all exception.’ And this puts a blessed close unto all his signal trials. When, therefore, God calls men forth unto the performance and discharge of any duty wherein his glory and honor in the world is concerned, then he makes it unto them a time of trial.
2dly. Difficulties and opposition lying in the way of duty make the season of it a time of trial. When men have wind and tide with them in their sailing, neither their strength nor their skill is tried at all; but when all is against them, then it is known what they are. When the sun shines and fair weather continues, the houses that are built on the sand continue as well as those that are built on the rock; but when the rain, and the floods, and the wind come, they make the trial Whilst men have outward advantages to encourage them in the ways of God, it is not known what principles they act from; but when their obedience and profession are attended with persecution, reproach, poverty, famine, nakedness, death, then it is tried what men build upon, and what they trust unto, — then it is to them a time of trial.
Further; to give light unto our proposition, we may inquire how or by what means men do or may act and manifest their unbelief at such a time or season. And this may be done several ways: —
[1.] By dissatisfaction in and discontent at that condition of difficulty whereinto they are brought by the providence of God for their trial. Herein principally did the Israelites offend in the wilderness. Their condition pleased them not. This occasioned all their murmurings and complaints whereby God was provoked. It is true they were brought into many straits and difficulties; but they were brought into them for their trial by God himself, against whom they had no reason to repine or complain. And this is no small fruit, effect, and evidence of unbelief in trials, — namely, when we like not that condition we are brought into, of poverty, want, danger, persecution. If we like it not, it is from our unbelief. God expects other things from us. Our condition is the effect of his wisdom, his care and love, and as such by faith ought it to be acquiesced in.
[2.] By the omission of any duty that is incumbent on us, because of the difficulties that attend it, and the opposition that is made unto it. The “fearful” and “unbelieving” go together, Revelation 21:8. When our fear or any other affection, influenced or moved by earthly things, prevails with us to forego our duty, either absolutely or in the most special and eminent instances of its practice, then unbelief prevails in the time of our trials. And this way also in particular did the Israelites fail. When they heard of fenced cities and sons of Anak, they gave up all endeavors of going into the land of Canaan, and consulted of making a captain to lead them back again into Egypt. And no otherwise is it with them who forego their profession because of the giant-like opposition which they find against it.
[3.] When men turn aside and seek for unwarrantable assistances against their difficulties. So did this people, — they made a calf to supply the absence of Moses; and were contriving a return into Egypt to deliver them out of their troubles. When men in any thing make flesh their arm, their hearts depart from the Lord, Jeremiah 17:5.
[4.] When men disbelieve plain and direct promises merely on the account of the difficulties that lie against their accomplishment. This reflects unspeakable dishonor on the veracity and power of God; — the common sin of this wilderness people, they limited God, and said, Can he do this or that? Seldom it was that they believed beyond what they enjoyed. Here lay the main cause of their sin and ruin. They had a promise of entering into the land. They believed it not; and, as our apostle says, they “could not enter in because of unbelief.” The promise was to their nation, the posterity of Abraham; the accomplishment of it in their persons depended on their faith. Here was their trial. They believed not, but provoked God; and so perished.
Now, the reasons of the greatness of this sin, and its aggravations, are contained in the previous description of it. Every instance declaring its nature manifests it also to be heinous. I shall take up and only mention three of them: —
[1.] There is, as was showed, an especial concernment of the glory of God in this matter. He calls men forth in such a season to make a trial of their obedience. He makes them therein, as the apostle speaks, a spectacle unto men and angels. And the hinge that the whole case turns upon is their faith. This all other actings hold a conformity unto. If here they discharge themselves aright, the glory of God, the manifestation whereof is committed unto them, is preserved entire. If herein they fail, they have done what lies in them to expose it to contempt. See Numbers 14:21. So was the case in the trial of Job. God permitted Satan to try to the uttermost whether he believed in him and loved him sincerely or no. Had Job failed herein, how would Satan have vaunted and boasted, and that against God himself! And the same advantage do others put into his hands, when at any time they miscarry in point of faith in a time of trial.
[2.] The good and welfare, the peace and prosperity of the church in this world, depend on the deportment of men belonging to it in their trials; they may, at least as unto God’s outward dispensations towards them, sin at a cheaper rate at other times. A time of trial is the turn of a church’s peace or ruin. We see what their unbelief cost this whole generation in the wilderness; and these Hebrews, their posterity, were now upon the like trial. And the apostle by this instance plainly intimates unto them what would be the issue if they continued therein; which accordingly proved to be their utter rejection.
[3.] Add hereunto, that it is the design of God in such particular instances to try our faith in general as to the promises of the covenant and our interest therein. The promise that this people had principally to deal with God about, was that of the covenant made with Abraham, the which all pretended to believe. But God tried them by the particular instances mentioned; and failing therein, they failed as unto the whole covenant. And it is so still. Many pretend that they believe the promises of the covenant as to life and salvation by it firmly and immovably. God tries them by particular instances, of persecution, difficulty, straits, public or private. Here they abide not, but either complain and murmur, or desert their duty, or fall to sinful compliances, or are weary of God’s dispensations. And this manifests their unsoundness in the general; nor can it be otherwise tried.
Again, observe that, —
Obs. 17. There is commonly a day, a time, wherein unbelief ariseth to its height in provocation.
We showed before that there is a day, an especial season of God’s dealing with the sons of men, by his word and other means of grace. The due observance and improvement hereof is of the greatest importance unto them. “Today, if ye will hear his voice;” — that is, the day wherein God’s dispensations of grace and patience come to their ἀκμή, “status rerum inter incrementum et decrementum,” — their height. After this, if not closed with, if not mixed with faith and obeyed, they either insensibly decline, in respect of their tender or efficacy, or are utterly removed and taken away. In like manner there is a day, a season wherein the unbelief of men in its provocation comes to its height and uttermost issue, beyond which God will bear with them no longer, but will break off all gracious intercourse between himself and such provokers This was the direct case with these Israelites They had by their unbelief and murmuring provoked God ten times, as was declared before; but the day of their provocation, the season wherein it arrived to its height, came not until this trial mentioned, Numbers 14, upon the return of the spies that went to search the land. Before that time God often reproved them, was angry with them, and variously punished them, but he still returned unto them in a way of mercy and compassion, and still proposed unto them an entrance into his rest, according to the promise; but when that day once came, when the provocation of their unbelief was come to its height, then he would bear with them no longer, but swears in his wrath that they should not enter into his rest. From that day he took hold of all occasions to exercise severity against them, flooding them away, Psalms 90:5, until that whole evil generation was consumed. And so it was with their posterity as to their church and national state. God sent unto them, and dealt variously with them, by his prophets, in several generations. Some of them they persecuted, others they killed, and upon the matter rejected them all, as to the main end of their work and message. But yet all this while God spared them, and continued them a people and a church, — their provocation was not come unto its height, its last day was not yet come. At length, according to his promise, he sent his Son unto them. This gave them their last trial, this put them into the same condition with their forefathers in the wilderness, as our apostle plainly intimates in the use of this example. Again, they despised the promises, — as their fathers had done in the type and shadow, so did they when the substance of all promises was tendered and exhibited unto them. This was the day of their last provocation, after which God would bear with them no more in a way of patience; but enduring them for the space of near forty years, he utterly rejected them; — sending forth his servants, “he slew those murderers, and burned up their city.” This is that which our Savior at large declares in his parable of the householder and his husbandmen, Matthew 21:33-41.
And thus in God’s dealing with the antichristian state, there is a season wherein the angel swears that “there shall be time no longer,” Revelation 10:6; that God would no longer bear with men, or forbear them in their provocations and idolatries, but would thenceforth give them up unto all sorts of judgments spiritual and temporal, unto their utter confusion, — yea, “send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie, that they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness,” 2 Thessalonians 2:11-12. And concerning this day two things may be observed: —
[1.] That it is;
[2.] That it is unalterable.
[1.] It is uncertain. Men know not when their provocations do come or will come unto this height. Jerusalem knew not in the entrance of her day that her sin and unbelief were coming to their issue, and so was not awakened to their prevention; no more than the men of Sodom knew when the sun arose that there was a cloud of fire and brimstone hanging over their heads. Men in their sins think they will do as at other times, as Samson did when his locks were cut, and that things will be made up between God and them as formerly, — that they shall yet have space and time for their work and duty; but ere they are aware they have finished their course, and filled up the measure of their sins.
“For man also knoweth not his time: as the fishes that are taken in an evil net, and as the birds that are caught in the snare; so are the sons of men snared in an evil time, when it falleth suddenly upon them,” Ecclesiastes 9:12.
For the day of the Lord’s indignation comes “as a snare on them that dwell on the face of the earth,” Luke 21:35. And men are often crying, “Peace, peace,” when sudden destruction comes upon them, 1 Thessalonians 5:3. When Babylon shall say “she sits as a queen, and is no widow” (her sons being again restored unto her),
“and shall see no sorrow; then shall her plagues come in one day, death, and mourning, and famine, and she shall be utterly burned with fire,” Revelation 18:7-8.
Hence is Christ so often said to come as a thief, to manifest how men will be surprised by him in their sins and impenitency. And if the outward peace and the lives of men in this condition be respited for a while, as ofttimes they are, yet they are no longer under a dispensation of patience. There is nothing between God and them but anger and wrath. If men knew when would be their last trial, and which were it, we think they would rouse up themselves to a deep consideration of it, and a serious compliance with the call of God. But this, in the holy will and wisdom of God, is always hid from them, until it be too late to make use of it, until it can produce no effects but a few despairing wishes. God will have none of his warnings, none of his merciful dispensations put off or slighted with the hope and expectation of another season, by a foolish promising whereof unto themselves men ruin their souls every day.
[2.] It is unalterable and irrecoverable. When the provocation of unbelief comes to this height there is no space or room left for repentance, either on the part of God or the sinner. For men, for the most part, after this they have no thought of repenting. Either they see themselves irrecoverable, and so grow desperate, or become stupidly senseless and lie down in security. So those false worshippers in the Revelation, after time was granted unto them no longer, but the plagues of God began to come upon them, it is said they repented not, but bit their tongues for anger, and blasphemed God. Instead of repenting of their sins, they rage against their punishment. And if they do change their mind in any thing, as Esau did when he saw the blessing was gone, it is not by true repentance, nor shall it be unto any effect or purpose. So the Israelites finished their sin by murmuring against the Lord upon the return of the spies, and said they would not go up into the land, but would rather return into Egypt, Numbers 14. But after a while they changed their minds, “and they rose up early in the morning, and gat them up into the top of the mountain, saying, Lo, we be here, and will go up unto the place which the LORD hath promised,” Numbers 14:40. But what was the issue? Their time was past, the Lord was not among them: “The Amalekites came down, and the Canaanites which dwelt in that hill, and smote them, and discomfited them, even unto Hormah,” Numbers 14:45. Their change of mind was not repentance, but a new aggravation of their sin. Repentance also in this matter is hid from the eyes of God. When Saul had finished his provocation, Samuel, denouncing the judgment of God against him, adds, “And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent,” 1 Samuel 15:29. God firms his sentence, and makes it irrevocable, by the engagement of his own immutability. There is no change, no alteration, no reprieve, no place for mercy, when this day is come and gone, Ezekiel 21:25.
Let persons, let churches, let nations, take heed lest they fall unawares into this evil day. I say unawares to themselves, because they know not when they may be overtaken by it. It is true, all the danger of it ariseth from their own negligence, security, and stubbornness. If they will give ear to previous warnings, this day will never come upon them. It may not, therefore, be unworthy our inquiry to search what prognostics men may have into the approach of such a day. And, —
[1.] When persons, churches, or nations, have already contracted the guilt of various provocations, they may justly fear that their next shall be their last. ‘You have,’saith God to the Israelites, ‘provoked me these ten times,’ — that is, frequently, as hath been declared, — ‘and now your day is come. You might have considered before, that I would not always thus bear with you.’Hath God, then, borne with you in one and another provocation, temptation, backsliding? — take heed lest the great sin lies at the door, and be ready to enter upon the next occasion. As God told Cain, Genesis 4:7, “If thou dost not do well רֹבֶ׃ לַפֶּתַח חַטָּאת,” “peccatum ad ostium cubat,” — “sin lies down at the door,” as a beast ready to enter on the next occasion, the next opening of it. After former provocations so lieth that which shall fill the ephah, and have the talent of lead laid upon it. Take heed, gray hairs are sprinkled upon you, though you perceive it not. Death is at the door. Beware lest your next provocation be your last. When your transgressions come to three and four, the punishment of your iniquities will not be turned away. When that is come, you may sin whilst you will or while you can; God will have no more to do with you but in a way of judgment.
[2.] When repentance upon convictions of provocations lessens or decays, it is a sad symptom of an approaching day wherein iniquity will be completed. Useful repentance, — that is, that which is of any use in this world for the deferring or retarding of judgment, — is commensurate unto God’s dispensations of patience. When the fixed bounds of it (as it hath fixed bounds) are arrived at, all springs of repentance are dried up. When, therefore, persons fall into the guilt of many provocations, and God giving in a conviction of them by his word or providence, they are humbled for them according to their light and principles; if they find their humiliations, upon their renewed convictions, to grow weak, decay, and lessen in their effects, — they do not so reflect upon themselves with self-displicency as formerly, nor so stir up themselves unto amendment as they have done upon former warnings or convictions, nor have in such cases their accustomed sense of the displeasure and terror of the Lord, — let them beware, evil is before them, and the fatal season of their utmost provoking is at hand, if not prevented.
[3.] When various dispensations of God towards men have been useless and fruitless, when mercies, judgments, dangers, deliverances, signally stamped with respect unto the sins of men, but especially the warnings of the word, have been multiplied towards any persons, churches, or nations, and have passed over them without their reformation or recovery, no doubt but judgment is ready to enter, yea, if it be into the house of God itself.
Is it thus with any, is this their estate and condition? — let them please themselves while they please, they are like Jonah, asleep in the ship, whilst it is ready to be cast away on their account. Awake and tremble; you know not how soon a great, vigorous, prevalent temptation may hurry you into your last provocation.