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Occasional Letters - Pressing Forward

D Newell, Glasgow

I don’t know about you, but for me one of the most exhilarating scenes in the Old Testament is when Israel strikes camp and starts its march towards the land of God’s providing. They had spent a full year at Mount Sinai, receiving the law and discovering more about the solemn responsibility of entering into covenant relationship with the Lord who had redeemed them. This involved the communication of basic information and instruction for living. But that, of course, is not the only way to learn, although it is probably the most painless. We all learn by listening; we also learn by hands-on experience – and the journey to Canaan would be full of such on-the-spot education for a nation that constantly proved its sinfulness. C H Mackintosh puts it well: "Man is the same everywhere…proved to be a total failure. The very moment he moves, he breaks down". Certainly, the minute Israel began their journey they collapsed into churlish murmuring and discontent (Num 11.1,4; 12.1). And to say this is by no means to point the finger exclusively at Israel, for they stand in Scripture as God’s testimony to the depravity of every human heart. Where Israel fails, we all fail. Yet God in grace used their very disobedience as an opportunity to instruct them in His ways!

But let’s go back to that promising beginning. Listen to this stirring account of the removal from Sinai:

"And they departed from the mount of the Lord three days’ journey: and the ark of the covenant of the Lord went before them in the three days’ journey, to search out a resting place for them. And the cloud of the Lord was upon them by day, when they went out of the camp. And it came to pass, when the ark set forward, that Moses said, Rise up, Lord, and let thine enemies be scattered; and let them that hate thee flee before thee. And when it rested, he said, Return, O Lord, unto the many thousands of Israel" (Num 10.33-36).

What a dignified departure! Note the sense of location: behind them was "the mount of the Lord" (the only occasion as far as I know that Sinai is so described), before them was "the ark of the covenant of the Lord", and above them was "the cloud of the Lord". God had set His hand upon His people so that they were hedged about on every side. As a result, whichever way they looked, everything (if you like, past, present, and future) was related to the Lord. That is what it means to be saved: the living God dominates our vision. The final verses suggest a fourth point. Among them, as the nation’s shepherd, was Moses, "the servant of the Lord" (Deut 34.5; Num 12.7), who concludes the chapter by engaging in earnest prayer to God on behalf of Israel.

Imagine the scene. If any of those travellers were to glance back they would see on the horizon the outline of Sinai, and remember the fear that had gripped their souls when Jehovah had descended upon the mountain to commune with Moses. After all, it was not that long ago that there were "thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud; so that all the people that was in the camp trembled. And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet with God; and they stood at the nether part of the mount. And mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire: and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly. And when the voice of the trumpet sounded long, and waxed louder and louder, Moses spake, and God answered him by a voice. And the Lord came down upon mount Sinai, on the top of the mount: and the Lord called Moses up to the top of the mount; and Moses went up" (Ex 19.16-20). Those were momentous days. Could Israel easily forget the greatness, the holiness, the ineffable majesty of Jehovah? Alas, how soon our thoughts of God become unworthy of Him.

Look ahead, and in the distance, reverently carried by the Levites, was the Ark of the Covenant. I assume this was its normal placing in the march (Josh 3.6,11), with the rest of the sanctuary items following further back in the procession (Num 10.21). Its position up front was not, I think, a silent rebuke to Moses for inviting Hobab to be their scout en route. There was no unbelief in sensibly availing himself of his brother-in-law’s specialised knowledge (Num 10.29-32). The Ark and the cloud guided, doubtless, but Hobab could point out local watering places and pastures. All believers can benefit from the practical experience of those who have been longer on the journey. Of course, few of the two million or so Israelites would be able actually to see the Ark, but there it was, taking the lead as the mobile throne of their divine King, assuring them of victory in their coming battles with the enemy. Were they not the executors of God’s judgment on the wicked Amorites (Gen 15.13-16)? The forces opposed to them were mighty, but their God was mightier. A recent book on the Battle of Britain tells the stirring story of No 87 squadron, led by its CO in the late summer of 1940 against a vast flying armada of German bombers and fighters. One of the pilots recalls that "we seemed to be going into the biggest formation of aeroplanes you ever saw. Then [the CO’s] voice came on the radio and he said, ‘Target ahead, come on chaps, let’s surround them’. Just nine of us". In the mercy of God, Churchill’s "few" held at bay the strength of the Luftwaffe; and in the sovereign purpose of God, Israel’s untrained warriors would rout the wicked Canaanites. With this in mind, Moses’ words at the close of Numbers 10 are a call to military engagement: "Rise up, Lord, and let thine enemies be scattered; and let them that hate thee flee before thee". With God in the vanguard, it could be said of Israel that "five of you shall chase an hundred, and an hundred of you shall put ten thousand to flight: and your enemies shall fall before you by the sword" (Lev 26.7-8). National sin meant that all too often Israel was deprived of such victory, but their final triumph is yet to come. When Zechariah 14 is fulfilled (the Waterloo of amillennialism, a chapter so embarrassingly packed with geographical specificity that Luther confessed he just could not make sense of it) the Lord Jesus will intervene on behalf of a newly repentant and regenerated Israel ("Rise up, Lord, and let thine enemies be scattered") and come to dwell in His earthly capital, Zion ("Return, O Lord, unto the many thousands of Israel"). Yes, the Lord will yet rule this earth through His ancient people.

Let’s sum it up. The Israelite looked behind to be reminded of God’s precepts, and ahead to be assured of His gracious presence. If he looked up, he’d see God’s wonderful protection in the supernatural cloud canopy, sheltering the nation from the heat of the sun, and guiding their steps through the desert. Visible to all by day and by night, it was a constant comfort. The way might be weary but the Lord was there to meet every need (Ps 78.14; 105.39).

So how does this apply to us? Well, behind us is the work of Calvary, the foundation of our relationship with God. Israel might look back physically to Sinai, where God entered into covenant relationship with them – but we look back to the cross where the curse of Sinai’s broken law was fully borne by our sinless substitute. No more can sin be laid to our charge, as Christ has paid the whole debt (Gal 3.13-14). Ahead lies the soon coming of that same Saviour to snatch us away from this world into His immediate presence. Israel had an Ark which led them to God’s rest land on earth, but we have something much better – we await one who is personally returning to conduct us to heaven (Jn 14.3; 1 Thess 1.10). And as we continue on the journey of the Christian life, we know that, seated at God’s right hand above us, is the risen Christ in glory, His people’s sure preserver. Just as the miraculous cloud guided, protected and shaded the Israelites so the Lord Jesus constantly watches over and faithfully intercedes for His people (Heb 7.24-26). Like Israel, we constantly fall short of what we ought to be. But take heart! Our God is unchanging in His faithfulness and grace. Let us press forward in His strength.

To be continued.


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