“Then the men who had gone up with him said, ‘We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are.’ So they brought to the people of Israel a bad report of the land that they had spied out, saying, ‘The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height’…” Numbers 13:31-32
“When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid.” 1 Samuel 17: 11
Though these two texts seem as if they could be taken from the same account, they are not. In fact, the events they recount are, by most estimates, separated by at least four hundred years. Both of these texts come from crucial moments in Israel’s history, and each demonstrates a tragic failure on Israel’s part to trust in God entirely. The fact that these events transpired, though separated by a considerable amount of time, reinforces the fact that people do not change.
In the Numbers passage, we find Israel on the verge of one of the greatest moments in its then brief history. It had been roughly over a year since Israel had been led out of Egypt by God and His servant Moses. Since then, God has provided for Israel in the wilderness, and led them to Mount Sinai, where He gave Moses the Law, which Moses would then relay to the people. In that same time, Israel would be grumbling almost continuously against Moses and God, continually desiring to be slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt rather than living free with God in the wilderness. But now, Israel is on the border of the Promised Land, the land which God swore to their fathers to give them; in a sense, they are on the doorsteps of being home. There is only one catch: the land is inhabited, and Israel will have to fight to possess it. God, however, has already promised it to them and has vowed to go before them and aid Israel in their quest to capture this land.
Moses sent twelves spies into the land to scope it out and see what lay before them. They came back forty days later with a report of land abundant in resources and fertility–flowing with milk and honey as they said. The abundance and richness of the land wasn’t enough to encourage the spies, though; many fixated on the strength of the walled cities and the size of the people who inhabited the land. Of the twelve spies, only two–Joshua and Caleb–thought Israel could take the land; only two of the twelve trusted in God to deliver on His promise. The other ten couldn’t get past the giants and the obstacles, and in turn, they turned the people against going into the land. They spread dissension and bad reports throughout the camp, and they set the people of Israel against going into the very land that God had promised to them. These ten spies convinced Israel that these giants were too great for them to defeat, and in turn, that God was not big enough to aid Israel. Nevermind the fact that God had just previously intervened in a way unseen before in all of human history to save Israel from slavery; He sent plagues of blood, frogs, lice, flies, diseases on the Egyptian livestock, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and the death of all the Egyptian firstborns. He parted the Red Sea so that Israel could escape when Pharaoh’s armies were closing in upon them, and he caused that same sea to engulf those same armies after His people passed through safely.
Israel had seen God’s presence descend upon Sinai and upon the Tabernacle; they witnessed God provided manna and quail and water from rocks. Here Israel was standing at the doorway of the land that God had promised to Abraham that his descendants would inherit, and those descendants are saying to God “we don’t want it.” Their ingratitude is staggering, but their lack of faith in God to give the land to them is even more so. It is for this that Israel would be punished to wander in the wilderness for forty years. The Israelites had to wander until everyone from the ungrateful generation of the Exodus died; only Joshua and Caleb–the two faithful spies–would live to inhabit the Promised Land.
Fast forward about four hundred years; Israel has possessed the land and has established a kingdom for themselves. They live in a continuous cycle of following God and then straying away from Him, and this passage from I Samuel represents a moment in which their faith is waning. Israel’s first king, Saul, though a decent warrior, is a weak and vacillating leader; seldom does he seek after God. In fact, just before the events of this passage transpired, God withdrew His blessing from Saul and informed him that a new king would soon be taking the throne.
In this passage from I Samuel, the Israelites are being confronted by their nemesis of this era, the Philistines. At this particular encounter, the Philistines bring out their secret weapon, a 9’9″ giant named Goliath. The giant came out every day for forty days and issued a challenge to the Israelite army, a one-on-one fight between him and Israel’s best fighter, with the loser’s army becoming the victor’s slaves. All of Israel, Saul included, are disheartened and dismayed. No one thinks of God; no one seeks Him. All Saul and the armies of Israel can focus on is the giant before them and the fact that they have no answer for him. It is quite nearly the same scenario as was previously seen with the ten spies convincing the rest of the camp that they could not take the Promised Land from the giant Canaanites. Saul and his armies exhibit no faith in God. However, the Lord was with a shepherd from Bethlehem named David, and he, like Caleb and Joshua, knew who had already won the battle. It was this same David who had just previously been anointed to be Israel’s next king, and it is he who would who God would use to deliver Israel from the Philistines and their giant.
Israel in Saul’s day commits the same sin as their forefathers did in Moses’ day: just as the Exodus generation did not have faith in God to deliver them from the giants to help them possess the land, Saul’s generation did not have faith in God to deliver them from the giant Philistine to help them remain in the land. Saul and his armies were no better than the ten faithless spies; they never learned.
Are we any better than the Israelites of Moses’ or Saul’s day? Are we like the masses who see the obstacles before us and count the reasons why we–why God–can’t do something? Or are we like Caleb and Joshua and David, counting the reasons why God can and will do something? Do we trust in God when it isn’t easy to do so? What is our faith like in the moments when the “rubber meets the road?”
Sadly, far too often these texts presented to us as a prosperity gospel of sorts in which we are told that “if we trust in God, He will deliver us from the giants in our lives.” Yes, God has the power to deliver us and, yes, He can deliver us–if that be His will. Our faith, however, is not a bargaining chip to be played with God; we cannot go before the Creator of the universe and say “I will believe in you if you do this for me.” These texts are about trusting in God, regardless of what the situation is. Sometimes the giants aren’t to be slain, and even then we must still trust in God. We must have faith like Job demonstrated when, in all his anguish, he cried out “though He slay me, still will I hope in Him,” (Job 13:15). Do we do live that type of faith, or do we lose our faith at the first sign of opposition? Do we view God as being bigger than our circumstance, or is our situation bigger than God? Do we have big faith in a big God or a little faith in a small God? Is our God one who cannot be contained by the heavens, or is our God one who fits in the box in which we try to put Him?
God promised Israel that he would give them the land, and He promised to keep them in the land, as long as they had faith and served Him obediently. They forgot this promise. Christ promised that He would be with us always, even until the end of the age. Do we live with the security and peace that promise affords us in every situation, regardless of the outcome, or have we, too, forgotten His promise?