In Numbers 14, we see a familiar story unfold: the people of Israel, having come across some hardship, “raised a loud cry”, “wept that night”, and “grumbled against Moses and Aaron”. They resolved to pick another leader and return to Egypt, rebelling against the leadership of the Lord.
The Lord promises that those who complained will never enter the land, and the promise that the Lord makes is very interesting from the perspective of God’s ultimate plan—which is the Lord dwelling on earth amongst His people, and His glory covering the whole earth as the water covers the sea. I want to examine this concept a bit and see how it fits into Numbers 14, which is the earliest mention of it in the Bible.
Israel pardoned but condemned to wander
The Lord tells Moses that He “will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them” (v.12), but Moses pleads that the Lord would pardon them, reciting the words of the Lord that He spoke after Moses had cut the second pair of tablets in Exodus 34:1-7
The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation. (Numbers 14:19; cf. Exodus 34:6-7)
The Lord grants Moses prayer, and pardons the people:
Then the Lord said, “I have pardoned, according to your word. (Numbers 14:20, ESV)
This pardon, however, does not mean there are no consequences, as we will see shortly. The pardon is applied to what the Lord said he planned to do in verse 12, that is to “strike them with the pestilence” and “disinherit them.” The Lord held back the pestilence and Israel still retained its inheritance—which is plainly Canaan, but also the dwelling of the Lord in their midst, and finally Jesus the Messiah reigning as King in Jerusalem.
After declaring His pardon in verse 20, the Lord continues:
But truly, as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord, none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice,shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers. And none of those who despised me shall see it. (Numbers 14:21-23)
This promise is familiar to Christians—the consequence of the disbelief of Israel means that they wander in the wilderness for forty years until an entire generation dies off. Earlier I mentioned that Israel was pardoned instant judgement but still had some consequences to bear, and this is the consequence (also; the ones sent to spy out the land died by plague, see verses 36-37).
So Israel still gets it’s inheritance, but “of all your [Israel’s] number, listed in the census from twenty years old and upward, who have grumbled against me, not one shall come into the land where I swore that I would make you dwell” (v. 29b-30a), and “this will I do to all this wicked congregation who are gathered together against me: in this wilderness they shall come to a full end, and there they shall die” (v.35).
The glory of the Lord over all the Earth
It is worth spending more time in this passage; Moses’ appeal to the glory and character of God is both awesome and deeply emotional. For the sake of brevity, though, I’d like to focus on part of verse 21.
There is a particular phrase that jumps out at me in verse 21, which is all the earth shall be filled with the glory of theLord. This immediately calls to mind two prophetic passages, in the Prophets Isaiah and Habakkuk. Both passages mention the whole earth being filled with the knowledge of the Lord.
They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
The first half of Isaiah 11 is a very well known Messianic prophecy, and the context reveals that at the time this phrase applies is still yet future—a future where nature has been restored to such an order by the reign of the “root of Jesse” that the wolf and the lamb will live in peace together. It is in that time that the “earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord.”
Woe to him who builds a town with blood
and founds a city on iniquity!
Behold, is it not from the Lord of hosts
that peoples labor merely for fire,
and nations weary themselves for nothing?
For the earth will be filled
with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
Habakkuk’s use of the phrase finds us in the middle of a prophecy that speaks about the Chaldeans (or Babylonians), whom God is raising up (Habakkuk 1:6) for the “judgement” and “reproof” of Israel (Habakkuk 1:12b) . Habakkuk complains that the wicked seem to be going unpunished, and then we see a series of “woes” against the wicked.
In verse 12-14, the woe is grounded in our focus statement; why should there be woe? Because the earth will fill with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord! The implication is clear: while one may build a town with blood or a city on iniquity, it is for nothing, there is no escapein the end. The LORD rules all the earth.
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
who alone does wondrous things.
Blessed be his glorious name forever;
may the whole earth be filled with his glory!
Amen and Amen!
Finally, the phrase also shows up in Psalm 72:19 as well. Here David blesses the Lord. I don’t know if it is significant that David chooses this phrase in his prayer, but David knew the Scriptures and may have gleaned the phrase from the book of Numbers; I think this is very probable.
If this is true, it is also a noteworthy insight into David’s prayer life: he takes the statements and promises of God from the Scriptures and prays them back to God as praise to His name. David does not see his prayer answered in his lifetime, but He will see it come to its full fruit at the end of the age!
Three of the four texts indicate that this promise of the glory of the Lord filling the earth is future: Numbers: “all the earth shall be filled”; Isaiah: “the earth shall be full”; Habakkuk: “the earth will be filled”.
As we saw earlier, the future is the only time where the Isaiah prophecy can be fulfilled.
In God’s statement in Numbers 14:21-23, He creates a comparison in order to demonstrate the truth of what He is about to say and do. In other words, in the same way that A is true and B is true, so the action C God is about to perform is true.
He provides two truths to ground the comparison. As
(A) The Lord lives (v.21a)
is true, and as
(B) All the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord (v.21b)
is true, so the action
(C) “none of those who despised me shall see it” (v.22a)
Everything that comes after verse 21 until the end of verse 24 is the action.
Well, this means that not only did Numbers 14:21 have immediate implications for the people of Israel then, but it has contemporary implications for believers as we look towards and wait for the return of Jesus.
God has given us in this passage not only a promise for Israel, but for all time—that the knowledge of His glory will cover the whole earth. He uses a low point in the journey of Israel to the promised land to inject an eternal ray of hope into the world; no matter how bad our situations get, no matter how dark the world gets around us, no matter how bitterly we fail as emissaries of the glory of God, God will be known throughout the earth.
And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. (Revelation 21:23-25)