41 Yea, they turned back and tempted God, and limited the Holy One of Israel.
One of the most sobering verses in all the Bible is Psalm 78:41, which says that they “limited the Holy One of Israel.” It is an awesome, sobering thought that mere man could limit Almighty God.
The Hebrew word translated as limit literally means “to mark off” or “to circumscribe”—as if to put boundaries around. This verse has reference to Israel’s refusal to possess the Promised Land. That experience is related to us first in Numbers 13, and then it is recounted again by Moses in Deuteronomy 1:19-26.
Israel has been out of Egypt for 18 months at this point. The shortest route from Egypt to the Promised Land would have taken 11 days, but God routed them through the Sinai Peninsula while teaching them and preparing them to be his people. They paused at Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments and God’s law. Then they marched to the borders of Kadesh-Barnea, where the Lord told them to go up and possess the land. He encouraged them to not be afraid and to not be discouraged. But the doubting, hesitant people came to Moses with a suggestion that spies be sent ahead to determine “by what way we must go up.”
So Moses, yielding to the pressure of the multitude, appointed a “Promised Land search committee.” They went into the land, and for 40 days they searched it out. They found it abundant with fruit … truly a land that flowed with milk and honey. But the land was also filled with giants, and it had cities with walls that reached up to the heavens—at least so they said.
So they came back with a divided report. Eleven of the 13 spies were afraid and suggested that the children of Israel not try to possess the land. Only Joshua and Caleb had faith enough to believe God and attempt to go in.
Moses reproved the people. He told them that they should not dread nor be afraid because “the Lord your God which goeth before you, he shall fight for you, according to all he did for you in Egypt before your eyes; and in the wilderness, where thou hast seen how the Lord thy God bear thee, as a man doth bear his son, and all the way that you went, until you came into this place. Yet in this thing you did not believe the Lord your God.”
Israel’s problem was that it did not have believing faith. The end result was that they did not take the Promised Land but rather wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. The Lord was angry with Israel and so all of the unbelieving spies died. In fact every person above the age of 20 died in the wilderness without ever having seen the Promised Land.
Israel lacked believing faith. They preferred the security of slavery to the risk of freedom. Consequently they tied the hands of God. He wanted to give them the land, but they did not believe enough to attempt to take it, so they limited the Holy One of Israel.
In many ways we stand on the borders of a promised land. God wants to give us this city. He is telling us, “Go up and take it.” The only limiting factor is our faith. Do we have believing, daring faith that will enable us to risk, to launch out, and to take God at his word? What kind of faith do we need? We need the kind of faith that cares, the kind of faith that dares, and the kind of faith that shares.
1. We need a faith that cares.
We need a faith that cares for all men. We are masters at wall-building today. We constantly build social walls, racial walls, religious walls, educational walls, and cultural walls. As the people of God, we are not to be in the wall-building business but in the wall-tearing-down business. Ephesians 2:14 says that Jesus has broken down the middle wall of petition between us. Therefore the areas are not different between the Jew or the Greek, the bound or the free, the male or the female.
Dr. Charles Drew was one of the truly great black American scientists and surgeons. He was a pioneer in the vast blood program of the American Red Cross. Among other things, he found a way to separate blood plasmas from whole blood and preserve it long enough to get it from America to the battlefields of the world in World War II. As a result of his efforts, the lives of thousands upon thousands of American soldiers were saved during World War II. With help from his team, Charles Drew demonstrated that blood plasma not only had enough of blood’s wondrous ingredients to save lives on its own, but in many cases of violent injury and shock, plasma was actually preferable to the more troublesome and risky whole blood. Plasma could be stockpiled for months, unrefrigerated, without spoiling. It could be administered to patients instantly without having to worry about blood typing or cross-matching. As a result of Charles’ research and supervision, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, adequate plasma was on hand. Of every 100 wounded men who were given transfusions with it, 93 recovered.
However, two months short of his 47th birthday, the good doctor was severely injured in an automobile accident and severed a large blood vessel. They denied him admission into a nearby hospital because he was black, and he died for lack of blood. But none need die for lack of Christ’s blood. “He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).
When Christ died on Calvary’s cross, the greatest wall of all was torn down from top to bottom to provide free access into our Lord’s forgiveness. As followers of Jesus, we need to be committed to keeping walls torn down.
The book of Revelation closes with a great invitation: “The Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will” (Revelation 22:17). We join in that chorus, “Let all come.” We need the kind of faith that cares.
2. We need a faith that dares.
Halford E. Luccoch said, “How sad, that we have not had the exhilaration of earthly explorers who marched off of their maps.” They had no maps in certain areas of the world in ancient days. There were certain waters that were not chartered. Earlier explorers had the joy and the exhilaration of going into areas that were yet unknown. Modern man generally prefers the safety of chartered waters and mapped territory. We must have the daring faith of those early explorers.
When the spies were sent out, their mission was to determine the “best way” to take the Promised Land. They came back saying, “No way.” Their mission was to determine how to, and they suggested not to.
There are some things not up for debate in the church. Missions and evangelism are among them. That was settled at the Olivet Conference between Jesus and his disciples. Beware of the grasshopper mentality that sees the giants as bigger than God. We need to cultivate a believing faith. Israel was 18 months out of Egypt and could have been in the Promised Land by that time. Nevertheless they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years because they lacked believing faith. I know of some churches that have been wandering in the wilderness longer than that for the very same reason.
We never test the resources of God until we attempt the impossible. That always involves risks of failure. When we tackle any undertaking such as “Great Day in May,” there is the chance that we may fail. We may not have 3,000 in Sunday school. We may not get a million and a half dollars. So the leader winds up with egg on his face. However, I have discovered two things about that. Number one is that the egg washes off. Number two is that even though we may not succeed, we will get a whole lot closer than we would if we didn’t try. It is a whole lot better to try and to fail than to never try and to succeed. We need the kind of faith that cares and the kind of faith that dares.
3. We need a faith that shares.
One of the purposes of Israel was to be a missionary people. They were to take the land for their king. They were not put into the Promised Land just to enjoy the fruit of the land, but they were put there to conquer it and become a missionary people. By the same token, God has not put us here just to enjoy the luxury and the wonder and the splendor of this town and this complex. We are here as his missionary people. We must get on with that mission. The Christian army is the only one that trains its justice chaplains and its band directors. The curse of the church is the eternal childhood of believers. Most pastors are little more than babysitters. They are there to entertain and to maintain. We must dismiss those ideas once and for all and get on with the grand and glorious work of God.
We need to have a caring, daring, and sharing faith. The only difference between a despairing church and a daring church is the focus of faith. It needs to be on God rather than on the giants. I would rather have green willingness than ripe indifference and complacency.
During the Civil War, a 13-year-old boy was a bugler for a band of soldiers. They found themselves in the midst of a bloody battle and it seemed that they would all die. In the midst of the fighting, the commander yelled, “Tell the bugler to sound the retreat!” Nothing happened. Then in a few moments the orderly reported, “The bugler said he doesn’t know how to sound the retreat.”
I’m not interested in sounding the retreat. I am interested in sounding the charge. We are to be on the offensive. We are to attack. The only thing that limits what we can do is our faith. Early in his ministry Jesus came to Nazareth and the scriptures give us this sad commentary on that day: “Jesus could do no mighty works there because of their unbelief.” The one thing that limits God is our faith. He is not limited by giants in the land. He is not limited by walls that reach up to the sky. He is limited only by our faith.