The Day Mercy Didn’t Triumph Over Judgment
Reading: Numbers 14–16
Over the past few Sundays, we have been in James. Beginning in 1:19, James begins addressing our need to be quick to hear God’s word and practice what we hear, yet slow to speak God’s word in judgment on others and slow to become angry, executing wrath on others. God is slow to anger, which means mercy for us. We too need to “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful.” (James 2:12-13 NIV)
This past Sunday I illustrated the destructive power of evil speech from Numbers 12, in the account of Miriam, Aaron, and Moses (Numbers 12:1-10), and then in Numbers 13, with the evil report from the ten spies (Numbers 13:32-33). In what follow these events, there is a sad illustration of what it means to be quick to speak God’s word in judgment, rather than allowing mercy to triumph over judgment. I had hoped to cover this illustratively during one of the messages, but thought the wiser of it in regard to time. So that is the purpose of this post.
Moses Intercedes for the Assembly
In response to the evil report from the ten spies,
All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness! 3 Why is the LORD bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?” 4 And they said to each other, “We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.” (Numbers 14:2-4 NIV)
Moses and Aaron fell on their faces in appeal to the people not to rebel against the Lord. The congregation decided to stone Moses and Aaron. The Lord intervened by appearing in His glory (Numbers 14:10). The Lord declares the consequences of their rebellion:
“I will strike them down with a plague and destroy them, but I will make you into a nation greater and stronger than they.” (Numbers 14:12 NIV)
Moses, however, interceded before the Lord on their behalf, appealing to the Lord with what the Lord had already revealed about Himself to Moses in Exodus 34:6-7. Moses asks the Lord to do as he promised and demonstrate His power by being slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving the iniquity of this people (Numbers 14:17-19). The Lord pardons them, not wiping them out with disease and disinheriting them as He had declared He would.
Moses Instructs Aaron to Intercede for the Assembly
Allow me to fast forward to Numbers 16 and the story of Korah’s rebellion. I will focus on the end of that scene. Day one, Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and On rebelled against Moses and Aaron. Moses told them to assemble the next morning, and then separated those who were rebelling from those who weren’t. It wasn’t a pretty scene for those following Korah.
On the third day, the whole congregation grumbled against Moses and against Aaron and the Lord intervened once again. This time He told Moses to get away from the congregation for He was going to consume them in a moment (Numbers 16:41-45). Moses immediately instructs Aaron to make atoning intercession for the people and to stop the plague. It didn’t stop all the death, but it spared the vast majority of the congregation.
In each of these cases, the Lord declared His judgment, but was slow to carry out that judgment, allowing time for Moses to intercede. Then the Lord responded to that intercession despite what He had already declared He would do.
The Assembly Stones a Man With No Intercession
These two cases may help us understand an odd little story that is sandwiched in between them. In the midst of explaining sacrificial regulations, the difference between intentional and unintentional sins, and instruction to wear tassels on their garments, is the account of a man caught gathering wood on the Sabbath. It is a very short story and its shortness may reveal a problem.
While the Israelites were in the wilderness, a man was found gathering wood on the Sabbath day. 33 Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and the whole assembly, 34 and they kept him in custody, because it was not clear what should be done to him. 35 Then the LORD said to Moses, “The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp.” 36 So the assembly took him outside the camp and stoned him to death, as the LORD commanded Moses. (Numbers 15:32-36 NIV)
Those who found this man brought him before Moses, Aaron, and the whole congregation. This is the same assembly that the Lord had just declared were to be struck with a plague and destroyed (Numbers 14:12), but were spared when Moses appealed to the Lord’s abounding love (Numbers 14:18). Once again, the Lord declares his judgment. This judgment, like the one He had declared against the assembly of Israel, was a just judgment. It is very similar to that previous judgment. But there is no delay by the assembly before stoning him to death. It is like there is something missing.
In the story before this, and the story following this, judgment was declared by the Lord for the assembly or congregation. In each case they are spared through intercession. But here, those who have received mercy did not extend mercy. Neither did they appeal to God in intercession for the one who had broken the Sabbath.
I am not suggesting that breaking the Sabbath was a minor sin, or one not worthy of punishment. I will suggest that it certainly was no more significant a sin than rebellion of the people against Moses and Aaron in the other two accounts it is sandwiched between. Mercy triumphs over judgment, but only for those who are merciful (James 2:12-13).
Is this small account given to teach us how severely we should punish Sabbath breakers? Is it an illustration of how quick the Israelites were to obey God? (If so it stands in contrast to everything else we learn about them in the books of Moses.) Or is it placed between the other two accounts to expose how incongruent their treatment of one another was in comparison to the mercy they had received. Even though they had the covenant, they failed to extend the mercy of the covenant to others. Might it be telling us that with the judgment they judged others with, that they too would ultimately be judged? (Matthew 7:1-2)
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