We don’t think of rest as something we enter. Rest is something we do—or don’t do, if we’re being honest. Whatever rest is, our minds don’t think of it as a place. Yet when God delivered his people from slavery in Egypt, he promised them a place—a land to be more specific. And of all the images he could have used to picture this place, he used “rest.”
The promise was sure. The rest was as good as theirs. Four hundred years of slavery had prepared the Israelites for this moment, this redeeming Exodus into the rest of God. Yet the wilderness generation, as they came to be known because they wandered all around the “rest” in the wilderness, “failed to enter” that rest.
Think about that for a moment—how do you fail at resting? On the surface, rest ought to be one of the few things in life with the highest success rate. So how did they fail? How did they see God literally turn water into blood, split a sea in half, give them the Ten Commandments while a bunch of smoke and lightning filled the sky, and still not believe he was going to give them this strip of land along the Mediterranean Sea?
Their failure hits a little close to home.
Consumed with Self-Doubt
After God commanded Moses to send out twelve spies into the land, only two—Joshua and Caleb—come back with a good report. The other ten are doubtful enough and loud enough to cause the entire nation to complain. At first, God is livid. He asks Moses whether he’d prefer to just see the whole nation burn in flames, but Moses intercedes. God instead punishes them by denying them entrance into the Promised Land, and guaranteeing every last one of them will die in the wilderness.
It only took one bad report for the entire nation to wallow in self-doubt.
“They’re too big and we’re too small.” Nevermind the fact that God covered the entire nation of Egypt in boils and locusts. Nevermind the fact that God swallowed up Pharaoh’s entire army in the Red Sea. This was the thing that was going to do them in. They were so filled with doubt they genuinely thought it’d be better to run back to Egypt—back to slavery—than to enter God’s rest. The one he had promised them.
What better picture of restlessness is there? The Israelites would rather pack their bags and sell themselves as slaves than face the unknown, trust God, and keep going forward.
Unrelenting self-doubt focuses on the faults within and forgets the power within, given to us by the Holy Spirit of God.
Filled with Self-Reliance
All throughout the book of Numbers—which the author of Hebrews uses as an example of what not to do in the Christian life—the wilderness generation rebels against Moses. From the fact that there’s not enough meat to the fact that there’s too much meat, the Israelites grumble, moan, and complain like a toddler in a grocery store. I can almost imagine God sighing in frustration, “There’s literally endless food around you, raining down from the sky, and all you have to do is pick it up.” Even Moses’s own brother and sister try to get Moses demoted.
Yet the greatest rebellion in Numbers as far as size and threat is the rebellion of Korah. Korah led a band of two hundred and fifty men against Moses. And these weren’t just any men—the Bible says they were chiefs. These were the wealthy men, the leaders of their families. By default they spoke for their families, which included their whole clans, not just their immediate families. So Moses was not just up against two hundred and fifty men—he was up against literally thousands of people.
What was their main complaint? “You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you exalt yourself above the assembly of the Lord?” They’re saying, “You’re no better than us, and we’re no different from you. We can take care of our own—we don’t need you.”
Korah and his men looked at God’s own chosen servant, the one who spoke with him face-to-face, the one who spoke as if God himself was speaking. Korah and his rebels exhibited self-reliance to the Nth degree. They didn’t need Moses, and they didn’t need God.
Entitled to Self-Glory
Of all the people who should have entered that rest, Moses should have, right? Think about the patience he had leading over a million people. I can’t get my three-year-old dressed for preschool without coming close to a meltdown, and this guy is leading a nation of former slaves through a desert. Think about the leadership skills he possessed. He would have put John Maxwell to shame. Think about the humility, the piety, the holiness that Moses embodied. Yet he died in the wilderness. He died like Korah and his rebels. He died like the spies and their doubters.
The reason Moses did not enter the Promised Land is clear enough. Right after another miserable spell of listening to grown-ups complain about figs and pomegranates (I’m not making this up—it’s in Numbers 20), God commands Moses to speak to a rock. God promised that as soon as he did this, the rock would burst with water for the whole nation. But Moses didn’t speak to the rock. Instead, he got up so everyone could see him, yelled at them like a coach at halftime about how much he hated their constant complaining, and said—with only slight paraphrasing on my end—“You want water? You got it.” He struck the rock with his staff, instead of speaking to it, and immediately received God’s punishment.
Now, does the punishment really fit the offense? Absolutely. Because subtly hiding under the text is Moses’s motive—self-glory. “I’m the one that’s giving you water. I’m the one that led you through the wilderness. I’m the one you’ve been quarreling with.” Moses, the man who spoke with God as one speaks with a friend, put himself in the place of God. And as soon as he put himself in the place of God, he put himself out of God’s place.
We’re Not So Different
We really aren’t so different from the Israelites—are we? Do we think we’re less prone to the same self-doubt, self-reliance, and self-glory of those who lived over three thousand years before us? We’re restless because we doubt we’ve done enough, measured up enough, or marked off enough of our infinite to-do lists. We’re restless because we’re trying to muster up enough strength to be our own boss, our own person, our own God. We’re restless because we’re seeking approval, fame, some kind of glory that doesn’t belong to us.
Scripture says the wilderness generation ended up restless “because of their unbelief.” They served as an example for the early Christians who were unconvinced of Jesus’s words in Matthew 11:28—there must be something more on my part than to just come to Jesus and find rest. They were failing to see that growing spiritually means entering God’s rest, trusting in him alone, and admitting we don’t measure up. Because the truth is Jesus alone measures up. His strength is our strength, his glory is our glory, and as he sits at the right hand of the Father, his rest is our rest.
Cover photo by Keith Hardy.