Biblical Theology- Part 8: God’s Faithfulness and Israel’s Faithlessness

March 11, 2010 at 12:28 pm 2 comments

Note: This series comes from the notes of a course I am teaching on Biblical Theology at Calvary Baptist Church. This material is organized similar to Graeme Goldsworthy’s book According to Plan.

In the Pentateuch we are continually reminded of God’s faithfulness to His covenant promises. In being brought out of Egypt and having God covenant with them, Israel, the new nation was “re-born” as the people of God. It would seem that God’s promises to the Patriarchs were now becoming reality as the Israelites looked ahead to possessing the promised land of Canaan.

The torah narrative continues in Numbers where God’s covenant people are standing in the valley of Mount Sinai headed to the Promise Land. The looming question as we read the narrative is how will God choose to fulfill His promises? We begin to see a pattern, the fulfillment and delay of fulfillment of God’s promises are the organizing principle of the reminder of the Pentateuch and of Joshua.[1]

God’s Presence among His People

Commenting Numbers Goldsworthy notes that “nothing summarizes the position of Israel and the nature of God so well as the famous blessing that God told Aaron, Moses brother, to pronounce over the people.”[2]

The Lord bless (good harvest, peace, children) you and keep you (guard and protect);
The Lord make his face to shine
(a pledge of good favor) upon you and be gracious to you;
The Lord lift up his countenance
(treating them with good favor) upon you and give you peace (overall ‘well-being’).

These words are very significant to Israel’s identity; they speak the people’s restoration to God and God’s provision for His people in a fallen world. More importantly, the very name of God rests upon Israel.[3] Therefore, they have been chosen to proclaim the one true God to the nations. This never changes, because it is a gift of sheer grace based on election.

The presence of God is also witnessed in God’s gift of the Tabernacle. Throughout Moses writings we continue to see that the tabernacle was central to the life, organization, and governance of Israel. In fact, the organization of Israel’s camp demonstrated this. “The layout of the camp was carefully organized: the tribes formed an outside circle and the priests an inner one, with the tabernacle at the center. This organization was maintained even as Israel moved throughout the wilderness on their journey to the Promise Land.[4] Both in camp and while marching, the tabernacle was central, just as God was central to the very heart of the nation.

Within Israel Moses continues “his unique ministry as prophet and priest”[5] as God instructs him from above the mercy seat in the tabernacle on how God’s people are to properly live in relationship with Him. The details of God’s instruction are very meaningful. “The emphasis on preparations is so strong…that the long-awaited fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham concerning the land of Canaan appears to be imminent.”[6] Furthermore, to signify the presence of God, during the day a cloud rested above the tabernacle and during the night it was fire.[7]

“The sense that God actually lives among His people is enhanced by the guidance of Israel by the cloud. Whenever it is taken up from the tabernacle the people move on until the cloud stops at the place they are to rest. This is a pilgrim people whose God goes with them.”[8]

God’s name, the tabernacle, and His very presence leading Israel signify the fulfillment of the covenant, and the relationship of grace He has initiated with them. They begin they journey from Mount Sinai to the Promise Land and all is well in the first 10 chapters of Numbers. But at the 11th chapter there is a sudden transition to rebellion which “vividly draws attention to the fickleness of the Israelites.”[9]

Israel’s Faithlessness

Simply put, Israel did not trust God. There are several instances where “the people refused to accept difficult conditions God was making them endure.[10][11] There were also instances where the people refused to accept the leaders God had provided for them.[12] “Nothing is more remarkable than the grace of God, and nothing illustrates that grace more than God’s perseverance and goodness to a continually rebellious and impatient people.”[13] Here are two examples from Israel’s history of rebellion and doubt in spite of God’s promises.

  1. One of the most forthright examples of the Israelites rebellion occurred while Moses was away on Mount Sinai when the people created and worshipped the golden calf. Because of Moses intercession for them, as their mediator, God did not pour out His wrath on them even though they deserved it.[14] Notice that the Levites were faithful during this episode, thus God appoints them to guard the tabernacle.
  2. Another explicit rebellion of the people of Israel is their refusal to enter the Promise Land.[15] Twelve scouts are sent to spy and report on the land of Canaan. Ten of them return in fear because of the strength of the people and their large fortified city, thus incite fear among the Israelites. Yet Joshua and Caleb remind the people of God’s presence.[16] But the Israelites remain faithless arguing that obtaining the land is impossible and it would be better to return to Egypt.

In light of His people’s faithlessness God declares to Moses: “How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me?”[17] Again, Moses intercedes for the people and prevents their total destruction,[18] but they are judged. God declares that only Joshua and Caleb will enter the Promise Land with a new generation of Israelites. In other words, those who experienced the power of God in the exodus will wander for forty years in the desert and die there. Simply put, Israel would not trust God.

While in the wilderness a plague of deadly snakes is sent as judgment among God’s grumbling people. Moses cries out to God and intercedes for the people and is told to set a bronze snake on a pole in the middle of the camp. If anyone was bitten by one of these deadly snakes they were told to simply look as the bronze snake and they would be saved from death.[19] Looking at the bronze snake was simply an act of faith in the promise of God. “The brass serpent, the image of the curse upon Israel, was lifted up as a sign of God’s power over the curse and His deliverance from it.”[20]

It becomes quite clear that Israel is incapable of keeping their covenant promise. They continue to reject the paradise that God has placed before them, because they are simply afraid of completely trusting God. Near the end of Numbers[21] we are given a list of forty places where the Israelites camped after leaving Egypt, before ending up at the edge of the promise land. “The lengthy description of the long journey suggests that the people are now near their journey’s end; and if God has helped them thus far, then He will surly enable them to reach their goal, the land of Canaan.”[22] Hart reminds us of a reoccurring theme, namely, that God’s promises cannot be thwarted by circumstances or man:

“The failure of Israel to believe seemed to threaten the fulfillment of God’s promise of the land, but by the end of Numbers the picture is bright again. God has not revoked His promise; He is bringing His people into Canaan.”[23]

We continue to see that the history of God’s redemption moves from grace to grace.

Preparing to Enter the Promise Land

Forty years after the exodus event a new generation of Israelites prepare to enter the Promise Land. In the book of Deuteronomy we have the sermonic words Moses gives the Israelites before entering the land under their new leader Joshua.[24]

As the narrative continues we see a covenant renewal with the new generation that reminds and emphasizes Israel of their faithless history and God’s faithfulness to His promises.[25] In fact, much of Moses words are devoted to explaining that “even God’s people are intrinsically sinful, and the inevitability of their moral failure. Despite all God has done for His people, they will surely disobey.”[26] Yet here they stand prepared to enter the Promise Land. Moses exhorts the people to be reminded of God’s grace, and be obedient to God’s voice.[27] So, “to keep ‘moving’, Israel must keep listening and obeying.”[28] Goldsworthy explains:

“Now there is opportunity for a new beginning. The Lord…is a God who fights for His people. But, as ever, the covenant has a conditional side. Deuteronomy repeats the stipulations of the covenant that are to be obeyed…[expressing] the relationship of covenant faithfulness”[29] And the very essence of covenant faithfulness is expressed in these words: Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”

If there is only one God, and that God has chosen one people to make Himself known to all other peoples of the world, the grace shown to that people should motivate total devotion from the chosen people. These covenant stipulations, or sanctions, are graciously given to Israel to explain what it means to live in relationship with God by explaining what happens if you obey and what happens if you don’t. The focal point is God’s goodness in choosing and saving Israel, and the blessings that come from His covenant love. This points Israel to be reminded of their responsibility to live as the Holy people of God.

In Deuteronomy we find the “most eloquent expression of the kingdom of God and the purpose of creation.”[30] So, it would be a mistake to think that the reward/punishment structure simply functions to motivate covenant faithfulness by the treat of destruction. Remember, Israel’s salvation was not based on their faithfulness to God[31], but God’s sovereign grace and choice. Thus, they are stirred up to obedience ‘from the heart’[32] in response[33] to God’s redemptive love. “The goal of this election is that Israel should be His people in the good land, the new Eden.”[34][35]

This is something that the faithless Israel does not deserve. Israel may be God’s chosen nation, but not because of their moral stature.[36] In fact, God has chosen a ‘stiff-necked’[37] people who are prone to idolatry and disobedience.”[38][39]

Into the Promise Land[40]

The New Leader Joshua

After forty long years in the wilderness the Israelites are ready to face their enemy. Their new leader Joshua is reminded of God’s promise: God will give them the land and no one will be able to stop Him, and thus them.[41]

Joshua’s name literally meant ‘the Lord has delivered.’[42] Joshua was the successor to Moses and the person divinely chosen to lead the nation of Israel across the Jordan, to take the Promise Land in order to realize the covenant blessings that God had given Israel. So, Joshua gave life to Israel in that though him the covenant promises were realized and fulfilled.

Taking the Promise Land

God has given the land into the hands of the Israelites, but they must take the land in faith.[43] It is the initiative of God to give not only the land, but also the Canaanites into their hands. “As a response to this divine initiative, the first decision they must make on entering the land is to destroy all [remnants] of Canaanite civilization.”[44] There are several reasons for this command:

  1. Israel is primarily acting as God’s agents of judgment upon a wicked civilization.[45]
  2. God makes it clear that Israel would not be able to resist the temptations to turn and worship other gods at this stage in their national development.[46] In fact, “the general threat posed by the peoples of Canaan was so great that Israel had to [wipe out their culture] in order to avoid falling away from God and worshiping other deities.”[47]

“Israel’s conquest of the land is portrayed as a series of victories in which God directs the operation and Israel responds in obedience.”[48] Israel was called to return to God that which belonged to Him.[49] It’s important to notice that God does show grace to those outside of Israel. Rahab was an example of someone who saw the acts of God and believed in the God of Israel, similar were the Gibenonites.[50] This being an illustration of how other peoples and nations of the world could find blessing through Israel’s God.

As promised, Israel enters the land after forty years of wandering and finally finds rest.[51] There was very little that Joshua and the people had to do other than reap the rewards of victory. The prime example being Jericho, where the collapse of the walls signaled for them to enter the city and ‘take’ it.[52]

The land of Canaan was Israel’s inheritance, promised to their ancestors and given to them by their God in a covenant. Gratitude and praise were expressed by bringing the first fruits of produce to God[53], and obedience to the covenant stipulations.[54]

The only reason the promise has been fulfilled is because God has fought for them. Just as the exodus was marked with God’s hand in bringing them out of slavery so is God’s hand in bringing them into the promise land.[55] It is interesting to note that the Israelites entrance into Canaan is very similar to their exit from Egypt. In the same way that God removed obstacle of the Red Sea for the Israelites to exit Egypt, He stopped the Jordan River so that they could cross on foot.[56]

The Gospel of Jesus Christ

Gospel Living

In the Gospel accounts we see a parallel between Jesus forty days in the wilderness and Israel’s forty years in the desert. The temptations were almost identical, relating to food, protection, and idolatry. But Jesus did not give in to the temptations. Jesus is the new Israel who succeeded where Israel failed.

Remember, in the wilderness the people of Israel were humbled, tested, taught that God was faithful, and shown His provision. God’s feeding them with manna showed His children that they are given nourishment from God. We see Jesus speak of Himself as the true sustaining nourishment from God:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”[57]

The writer of Hebrews uses the imagery of Israel’s journey to describe the Christian life. Reflecting on Hebrews 11 Millar writes: “life with God is always a journey, in which people respond to His grace…faith throughout the Bible involves an initial commitment/repentance followed by a lifetime of similar decisions to submit to the sovereign Lord.”[58]

Gospel Obedience

In the narrative of Genesis-Joshua we continually see God’s people disobey, rebel, and doubt God. This problem points to ‘the problem underneath the problem’, human beings are intrinsically sinful and it is inevitable that we will morally fail. But God continually shows grace to the Israelites even when they fail. What we understand now it that the grace which God had shown to Israel in the past would be surpassed by His provision of a lasting solution to the problem of human sin.[59] Man’s sinfulness is what brings condemnation before God, which is revealed by the law and expressed in Israel’s inability to keep the covenant.

“The ultimate function of the law is not to enable obedience, but to expose disobedience, paving the way for the divine intervention which will eventually enable real obedience, and a new intimacy with God Himself.”

Yet Christ was without sin, upholding the law perfectly, and made a new covenant of faith with us. God intervenes for us and makes obedience a real possibility through Christ. In other words, Christ upholds the law and we are righteous through His obedience. Again, Christ is the true and greater Israel to which we are grafted in.[60]

Gospel Relationships

We see God’s grace and its implications of the exodus event in the lives of the Israelites.

“The nation has been redeemed, and now belongs to God. As His unique people, they must submit to Him in worship. He has redeemed them from Egypt to enjoy a relationship with Him, and to do so in His land. They must not treat one another in a way that is incompatible with how He has treated them in redeeming them.”[61]

What we see in this quote is the correlation between Israel’s obedience to worship, the land, and to human relationships.[62] How does this relate to us now? First, the proper response to God’s grace shown in salvation through Jesus Christ should be shown in our everyday life as worship.[63] Next, the land is no longer the locus of God’s relationship with His people, Christ is.[64] In other words, Christ is the promise land through which spiritual nomads find rest and nourishment.[65] Last, in view of the mercy God has shown us in redeeming us from slavery to sin, we extend that same mercy to others.[66]

The Gospel of Salvation

During the wanderings of the second generation of the Israelites we see a beautiful contrast to the gospel of Jesus Christ. They rebelled against God’s directing word and God judged them by sending poisonous snakes among them. In doing this God turned their hearts back to Him for help. The Israelites cried out for mercy and God answered by commanding Moses to make a serpent out of brass and lift it up for the people to see.

The people were only commanded to look at the serpent of brass, and those who did were healed and lived.[67] Jesus said of Himself:

“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

What was Jesus saying? Remember that the brass serpent was an ‘image’ of the curse upon Israel, in brining healing to those who looked at the serpent lifted up God was showing His power over the curse by delivering His people from it. This is profound.

Jesus said, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”[68] Jesus was lifted up and exposed on the cross as the one accursed.[69] Just as Paul wrote, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.”[70] See, Jesus bore the curse of sin n the cross for us. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”[71]


  1. I. Hart, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 156.
  2. Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 149.
  3. Numbers 6:27.
  4. Numbers 1, 2, 4.
  5. Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 150.
  6. I. Hart, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 157.
  7. Numbers 9.
  8. Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 150.
  9. I. Hart, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 157.
  10. Numbers 11:1-3, 11:4-34, 20:1-13, 21:4-9.
  11. I. Hart, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 157.
  12. Numbers 12:1-16, 16.
  13. Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 151.
  14. The intercession of Moses also leads to God showing grace in Numbers 12:3-15.
  15. Numbers 13.
  16. Numbers 13:30, 14:6-9.
  17. Numbers 14:11a.
  18. Numbers 14:13-20.
  19. Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-15.
  20. Edmund Clowney, The Unfolding Mystery, 119.
  21. Numbers 33.
  22. Gordon Wenham, Numbers, 217.
  23. I. Hart, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 158.
  24. In Deuteronomy 29 Moses inaugurates a new covenant with a piercing analysis of Israel’s moral, intellectual, and spiritual incapacity.
  25. Deuteronomy 1-3.
  26. J.G. Millar, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 159.
  27. Deuteronomy 4:1.
  28. Miller, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 161.
  29. Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 152.
  30. Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 153.
  31. Israel is not faithful at all.
  32. Deuteronomy 10:12-16.
  33. Deuteronomy 4:20, 37-40; 5:15; 10:20-22.
  34. Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 153.
  35. Deuteronomy 8:7-10.
  36. Deuteronomy 7:6-9.
  37. Exodus 32:9. The imagery here looks back to the golden calf incident. The people have become stubborn and deaf to God’s word in the same sense that an idol is lifeless. See Psalm 115:4-11; Mark 8:18; Acts 7:51-53. The principle is “you become what you worship either for your restoration or your ruin.” So, we take on the characteristics of what we worship. G.K. Beale’s book “We Become What We Worship” is an excellent resource for seeing this theme in all of Scripture.
  38. Deuteronomy 5:29, 7:25-26, 8:2-5, 9:22-24.
  39. Millar, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 163.
  40. Goldsworthy argues that the theological thrust of Joshua can be grasped by reading the first and last two chapters of the book. (According to Plan, 157)
  41. Joshua 1:1-9.
  42. Furthermore, ‘Joshua’ in the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint) is spelled the same as ‘Jesus’ in the Greek New Testament.
  43. Joshua 1:3.
  44. Millar, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 161.
  45. Deuteronomy 9:4.
  46. Deuteronomy 7:3-6.
  47. R.S. Hess, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 167-168.
  48. R.S. Hess, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 165.
  49. Deuteronomy 7:1-6, 20-26; 20:1-20.
  50. Joshua 9.
  51. Joshua 23:1-13.
  52. Joshua 6:20.
  53. Deuteronomy 26.
  54. Deuteronomy 28:1-14.
  55. Joshua 21:43-45; 23:14.
  56. Joshua 3:1-17.
  57. John 6:32-33.
  58. Millar, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 162.
  59. Galatians 3:10-14; Romans 3:20.
  60. Hebrews 3, 4.
  61. Millar, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 162.
  62. In J.G. Millar’s article on Deuteronomy in the New Dictionary of Biblical Theology he expounds on these the correlations. (Page 162-163)
  63. Romans 12:12.
  64. John 4:24.
  65. 1 Peter 2:9-11.
  66. John 15:12-17; 1 Corinthians 12-13; 1 John 3:16-20.
  67. Numbers 21:4-9.
  68. John 12:32.
  69. Deuteronomy 21:23.
  70. Galatians 3:13.
  71. 2 Corinthians 5:21.

Entry filed under: Biblical Theology, Calvary Baptist Church, Christian Theology, Christianity, Faith, Religion, The Great Commission Resurgence, The Southern Baptist Convention, Theology.

Biblical Theology- Part 7: God’s Covenant with Moses The gospel of Jesus Christ and the Gospel accounts.

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