The worst sin generated by self is spiritual pride. It is the worst because it is author or companion of all other sins. We said also that it is a perversion of man’s natural desire to be good—a wholesome desire if it leads to pursuit of true goodness. But if any being, man or angel, decides to cast aside God’s law and write his own rules of conduct, then he falls into pride of the worst sort, spiritual pride, for he is claiming the right to define good for himself. He is putting himself in the place of God, the original source of moral law. He is treating himself as divine.
Spiritual pride afflicts not only the open rebels against God, but also many like the Pharisees who think they are keeping God’s law, when actually they are following a man-made religious system. So, their goodness is another counterfeit feeding spiritual pride.
But anything other than true goodness is evil. Consider the case of Lucifer, the first created being who aspired to deity. More than that, he actually schemed to replace God. Why did he fancy himself justified in pushing God aside? No doubt he assumed that he was in some essential way better or more deserving than God. Not by God’s standards, of course, but by his own standards, for he felt he could determine right and wrong for himself. Pride, therefore, was the sin at the root of his rebellion. And it was spiritual pride because it was a misguided pride in his own ability to chart the best course. What did Lucifer bring forth in his self-appointed role as the new author of morality? He invented murder and lying (John 8:44).
Lucifer fell from his high estate as covering cherub, setting the pattern for all other pretenders to divinity. There was Julius Caesar, who in many ways appeared to be the noblest Roman of them all. Because of his commanding personality and military genius, his troops viewed him as a godlike figure. And he ascribed godlikeness to himself, for he assumed that he had the right to kill people. He did not shrink from usurping God’s power over life and death. Before he was done conquering Gaul, he had caused more than a million people to die, many of them civilians butchered by his troops. What was Caesar’s end? It was a moment of complete disgrace, when a group of former friends ganged up on him and stabbed him to death.
Caesar’s hero was Alexander the Great, whose death was no less inglorious. At age 32, he succumbed in Babylon soon after a night of drunken revelry in the same palace, perhaps in the same room, where Daniel had interpreted Nebuchadnezzar’s dream foretelling the rise and downfall of Greece. As for Napoleon, he died in lonely exile after a miserable decline due to cancer, jaundice, and other natural ailments whose effects were compounded by gradual poisoning traceable to multiple sources, including toxic medicines and arsenic fumes from his wallpaper. How did Hitler, another murderer of millions, die? He and his mistress committed suicide in a dirty rat hole of a bunker while bombs dropped all around. The last follower in Lucifer’s footsteps will be the Antichrist. He too will fall. The bright sword from Christ’s mouth will consume him, and he will be instantly raised and cast alive, kicking and screaming, into hell.
Yet you are no better than these monsters of mayhem if you, like them, flatter yourself that you have the right to choose your own path through the moral complexities of life. In your spiritual pride, you are declaring that the wrong person is sitting on the throne of the universe. It should be you. But you are no real rival to God. You are just another pretender like Satan. You are the man in Psalm 36, who sees neither God nor self correctly (Ps. 36:1-4). He flatters himself and fears not God. That is a deadly combination of wrong perceptions.
If you have a problem with authority, you had better deal with it. The Bible says that rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft (1 Sam. 15:23). In other words, every rebel is a little Satan. Be careful that you do not fall under Satan’s condemnation.
The Lamentable History of Israel’s Wanderings
When Moses led the nation of Israel out of Egypt, they left in great triumph. The Pharaoh and his army lay dead in the Red Sea or on its shores. The nation that had lorded over them as slave master now languished in ruins, the result of all the plagues that God visited on the land at the bidding of His servant Moses. Among the belongings that Israel carried away was a great quantity of gold and other riches that the Egyptians had thrown at them as inducement to get out as quickly as possible (Exod. 12:33-36). At their head was a man of God, endowed with power to do mighty miracles. You would think that the tide of recent blessings would have lifted the nation to enough exhilaration and optimism to keep them in good spirits through whatever lay ahead, though it were bad trouble and suffering.
It is true that all the nation rejoiced on the other side of the Red Sea. To celebrate their victory over the pursuing host of Egyptian soldiers, they sang a song composed by Moses for the occasion (Exod. 15:1-19), and the women followed Moses’ sister Miriam as, with a timbrel in her hand, she led them in song and dance (Exod. 15:20-21).
But their enthusiastic support for Moses’ leadership did not last long. Just three days later, after searching for water and finding none except the undrinkable waters of Marah, which means "bitterness," they "murmured against Moses, saying, What shall we drink?" (Exod. 15:24). Moses, under the Lord’s direction, met their need by casting into the waters a tree that turned them from bitter to sweet. An amazing feat! Here was another proof that Moses deserved the people’s confidence. He was a man so close to God that he could take them over every hurdle and around every obstacle. So now were they willing to bury the barbs of criticism and follow him as the one God appointed to exercise authority? No, the large majority fell into grumbling and complaining as a habitual manner of life.
1. A month later they complained for lack of the same kind of food they enjoyed in Egypt (Exod. 16:3). God responded by providing manna.
2. Not long afterward, the congregation again found themselves without water. Did they humbly beseech Moses to ask for the Lord's help? No, they grumbled that they were thirsty, even presuming to give their leader a good scolding (Exod. 17:1-2). Moses told the Lord that some of the people were ready to kill him (Exod. 17:4). The Lord in mercy provided water from a rock. Moses named the place Massah, which means "temptation," and Meribah, which means "strife."
3. Notice that until now the Lord did not punish the people for their rebellious spirit. The reason perhaps is that He had not yet delivered the law. But in the third month after their departure from Egypt, they reached the wilderness of Sinai, the site of the mountain where He intended to meet with them and reveal the Ten Commandments. There He called Moses up into His presence and instructed him for forty days on His will for the nation. But while Moses was gone, the people became impatient with waiting and devised their own religion, supposedly devoted to Jehovah but blasphemously representing Him as a golden calf. In their moral decadence they even thought that they could worship Jehovah with immoral rites. From the traditions of their forefathers and from what they had already learned under Moses’ leadership, they should have recognized the wickedness in what they were doing. They were without excuse. So when Moses came back, the Lord unleashed a judgment that left three thousand dead (Exod. 32:28). The Lord threatened to abandon Israel in the wilderness, but at Moses’ intercession, He consented to remain.
Had the nation grown weary of offending the Lord? By no means.
4. Even as the nation was marching away from Sinai, the people started to complain again. At a place called Taberah ("burning"), the Lord sent a fire that consumed some of the unhappy stragglers (Num. 11:1-3).
5. Almost immediately afterward, a large portion of the people, both among the Israelites themselves and the non-Israelites who had chosen to join the exodus from Egypt, became disgruntled with the food (Num. 11:4-35). They could remember the rich cuisine of Egypt, including "the cucumbers, the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick" (Num. 11:5), but now all they had day after day was the same boring manna. The people became so overwrought with discontent that Moses heard weeping everywhere. One food they especially missed was meat, so the Lord said in essence, "If they want meat, I will give them meat." He caused an immense flock of quail to fall dead all around the camp. The birds were piled up almost a yard deep for miles in every direction. But even while the people were gorging themselves with the meat they had demanded from the Lord, He sent a plague that killed many of the worst complainers. The place was called Kibrothhattaavah ("the graves of lust").
6. After journeying further, the nation reached the wilderness of Paran, a convenient launching pad for invading Canaan, the land where the Lord intended Israel to dwell (Num. 12:16-14:45). But first the Lord wanted Israel to send twelve spies into the land, so that they might gather intelligence useful to an invading army. When the twelve returned, ten stated publicly that the people of Canaan were too strong for Israel to overcome. Only two spies, Caleb and Joshua, encouraged the nation to go forward in dependence on the power of God. The nation rejected the counsel of the two and instead believed the ten, and they started blaming their leaders for bringing them on a fool’s adventure. Soon such an anger against Moses and Aaron welled up in the congregation that they took up stones to stone them (Num. 14:10). These two survived only because God suddenly shone His glory from the tabernacle, causing the rebels to fall back in fear. The Lord now threatened to exterminate the whole nation except for the few loyal to Moses, but Moses interceded for the rebels, claiming God’s mercy on the grounds that such a disaster would give the surrounding nations reason to portray God as unable to fulfill His promises, for He had promised to bring Israel into Canaan. The Lord relented, yet He did not altogether spare the rebels from judgment. He declared that none of them would enter Canaan. Israel’s conquest of the land would be postponed forty years, and in the meantime all the rebels would die. The only Israelites then alive who would see Canaan would be the children under twenty and the two spies who trusted God, Joshua, and Caleb. Yet God immediately struck down the ten spies who brought an evil report.
When the nation understood the consequences of their failure to cooperate with Moses, they mourned greatly, and they decided to attempt an invasion right away rather than wait forty years. But their foray into the land was a failure. The Canaanites and Amalekites nearby mustered enough forces to rout Israel.
7. Scripture declines to tell us how much time elapsed before the next rebellion. The underlying grievance seems to have been the prospect of a prolonged exile in the wilderness (Num. 16:12-14). Some of the most prominent men in the nation aside from Moses and his family began to complain that Moses was not giving them a bigger role (Num. 16:1-40). Among them were Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and 250 others with the rank of prince. When they confronted Moses, they alleged, "Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them: wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the congregation of the LORD?" (Num. 16:3). Moses responded by putting their accusation to the test. He told Korah to bring his 250 supporters with him to the tabernacle. There they would stand with censers containing burning incense, so that everyone could see whether the Lord accepted their offering. He also told the congregation to stand well away from the tents of the three ringleaders in rebellion, for the Lord intended to punish them. All the neighboring families complied, even as Dathan and Abiram and the families of all three stood defiantly at their tent doors. Then Moses announced that the Lord was going to open the earth and swallow up everything belonging to the rebels. No sooner was the threat issued than a gulf appeared beneath their tents. Suddenly deprived of solid ground, the tents and the people before them plunged into darkness. The congregation heard the screams of those who fell. At the same time, a blistering fire sprang out from the sanctuary and utterly consumed the men standing at the entrance.
8. It would be hard to imagine a more dramatic display of God’s wrath upon rebels. You would think that it would have put an end to rebellion. Instead, it provoked even more (Num. 16:41-50). The very next day a huge murmuring against Moses swept through the camp, drawing support from "all the congregation" (Num. 16:41). The people grumbled that Moses had murdered godly men. They must have thought that Moses’ breathtaking feats of vengeance were not the work of God, but the work of black magic, of diabolical sorcery. But were they? No, again God let them see His glory in the tabernacle, so that they would recognize the true source of Moses’ power. Then He unleashed a plague on the congregation that left 14,700 of the worst offenders dead.
This plague, which came to an end only when Aaron stood protectively between the dead and the living, had the intended effect. For quite some time afterward, Moses enjoyed a respite from harsh criticism. But years later it resurfaced.
9. The issue again was lack of water. The congregation stood before Moses and whined that they would rather have died when the Lord smote their brothers years ago than live in a desolate and dreary wilderness without good food or water (Num. 20:1-13). Notice at least some progress in their understanding. The congregation now knew that past judgments were the work of God. Also, they acknowledged their dependence on Him by expressing their complaint as a sort of prayer, asking God to give them death rather than more discomfort. On this occasion God dealt with them mercifully by simply providing water from a rock. Why? Perhaps because the congregation were going through a trial truly difficult to bear. They were tired after much wandering. The surroundings were grim. They lacked the most important sustainer of life, water. Yet whereas the Lord was inclined to overlook their complaints and meet their need, Moses’ heart was less merciful. He angrily denounced them as rebels and smote the rock twice instead of speaking to it as the Lord had commanded. Since He failed to give the people a correct picture of God their provider, God judged him, not the people. The penalty was that he would not accompany the people into the Promised Land.
10. The next time the people murmured, they had no excuse. The trial they were undergoing was only to walk a long way through barren terrain. And they openly invited judgment by speaking against God (Num. 21:4-9). Because His mercy toward some was exhausted, He sent a plague of venomous serpents that inflicted a high toll of fatalities. The ones still alive reacted with greater wisdom than their parents had shown at moments of crisis in years past, for they came to Moses and confessed their sin, begging God’s forgiveness and mercy. Then Moses prayed on behalf of the people, and in reply the Lord instructed him to affix a bronze serpent to a pole and raise up the strange contrivance before the people. Any victim of a serpent bite who looked at the pole would be healed. When Jesus came into this world, He explained that the bronze serpent on the pole was a picture of Jesus bearing our sins on the cross (John 3:14-15). Just as Israel was saved from death by looking at the one, so we are saved from damnation by looking at the other.
11. Yet one more rebellion swept through Israel before the nation entered Canaan (Num. 25:1-9). God obviously allowed it as a means of weeding out the spiritually unfit before He allowed the nation to move forward and reap the blessings of the Promised Land. The nation of Midian just east of Canaan was fearful that Israel would conquer and destroy them, so they sought help from the prophet Balaam, who advised them correctly that there was only one way to defeat Israel. They had to deprive Israel of God’s support, for He was the One responsible for Israel’s success. Balaam understood that God is holy. It was therefore his belief that God would angrily turn His back on Israel if they allowed the Moabites to draw them into sexual immorality and idolatry (Num. 31:16). Heeding his counsel, the Moabites sent their daughters to entice the men of Israel. The ploy succeeded so well that a large number of Israelite men committed fornication and joined in the worship of heathen gods. God was then angry with Israel as Balaam anticipated, and He sent a plague on the nation. Moses, determined to save as many as he could, commanded his subordinates to find and execute every man of Israel that had fallen into moral compromise. They were reluctant to cooperate until one man was so shameless that he led a Midianite woman through the camp into his tent. When Phinehas the priest saw it, he followed the couple and personally slew them both. Only then, after 24,000 had died, did the plague on the nation stop. Later, Israel took vengeance on the Moabites by bringing upon them the total devastation they had feared (Num. 31:7-11).
The Lesson for Us
A reader of this lesson might wonder why the Bible gives so much attention to Israel’s wrongdoing in the wilderness. Why indeed does a sad record of Israel’s failures figure so prominently in a writing intended not only for Israel, but also for believers throughout the Church Age? And why have we devoted a whole lesson to summarizing this record of events long ago? The answer is provided by Paul. The Biblical account of Israel’s wanderings is meant "for our admonition," to keep us far away from Israel’s sins (1 Cor. 10:1-12). The disasters that fell upon the nation as they struggled against God and against Moses, the human leader that God gave them, serve as a warning to us. If we rebel against God as they did, we too will fall under His wrath and judgment.
One of God’s priorities, seen clearly in that portion of His Word dealing with the history of Israel, is to teach us how bad it is to rebel against God-ordained authority. Rebellion is a cardinal sin because it is the source of all trouble and suffering and malice and depravity and despair, all riotous indulgence and lust, all making of victims, all violence and death—in short, all rot—in the universe. Simply said, rebellion is the chief threat to God’s plan for an eternal order of untarnished peace, goodness, and joy.
Now we understand the purpose of living in a world so far from perfection. The world is God’s nursery, where His babes receive a sufficient dose of evil to make them resistant to its allures. The main disease that He inoculates against is rebellion.