They That Fall in the Wilderness
May 24th, 1959 @ 7:30 PM
THEY THAT FALL IN THE WILDERNESS
Dr. W. A. Criswell
5-24-59 7:30 p.m.
In one of those strange coincidences that I suppose would never happen again – and this is the first time in years that has ever happened – the passage I have come to in preaching through the Bible in the New Testament is the same passage that I have come to in preaching through the Old Testament at the 8:15 o’clock service. This morning the sermon was on the wandering in the wilderness. And this evening in the third chapter of the Book of Hebrews, it is the same subject.
Let us read together our text from the third chapter of the Book of Hebrews beginning at the eighth verse and reading to the end of the chapter. The title of the sermon is They Who Fell in the Wilderness. Hebrews chapter 3, verse 8 to the end – now all of us, let us read it together. Let’s start at the seventh verse – Hebrews chapter 3, verse 7:
Wherefore, as the Holy Ghost saith: "Today, if ye will hear His voice,
Harden not your hearts as in the provocation, in the day of temptation in the wilderness,
When your fathers tempted Me, proved Me, and saw My works forty years.
Wherefore I was grieved with that generation, and said, "They will always err in their heart, and they have not known My ways."
So I sware in My wrath, "They shall not enter into My rest."
Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God;
But exhort one another daily, while it is called "Today," lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.
For we are made partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast unto the end,
While it is said: "Today, if ye will hear His voice, harden not your hearts as in the provocation."
For some, when they had heard, did provoke:howbeit not all that came out of Egypt by Moses.
But with whom was he grieved forty years? Was it not with them that had sinned, whose carcasses fell in the wilderness?
And to whom sware He that they should not enter into His rest, but to them that believed not?
So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief.
This has been called the cemetery chapter of the Bible. It is one of the saddest chapters to be read. It is like a dreary November day when the landscape is swept with a drenching rain and the rotting leaves in showersfall to their graves in a musty and molding earth. It is the description of the loss of a whole generation in the wilderness, all of whom who died, their carcasses falling in the wilderness, failing to enter into the land of rest.
The difference between chapter 3 and chapter 4 of the Book of Hebrews is the same difference between chapters7 and chapters8 of the Book of Romans. Chapter 7 in the Book of Romans is a chapter of despair:"Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" [Romans 7:24] Chapter 8 is a book of wonderful triumph:"There is therefore now no condemnation to them who are in Christ Jesus" [Romans 8:1].
So it is here in between chapter 3 and chapter 4 of the Book of Hebrews. Chapter 3 is the wandering in the wilderness – those who failed ofthe Promised Land. Chapter 4 is of those who have entered into rest as the people of God. Both of them are pictures. They are symbols. They are portrayals of the inner experience of the Christian life. We live in one of those chapters – all of us – either in chapter 7 of Romans or chapter 8, either in chapter 3 of Hebrews or chapter 4. The tragedy of it is that most of us live in chapter 7 of Romans, or most of us live in chapter 3 of the Book of Hebrews.
The wilderness experience is without doubt one of the saddest stories ever to be read on the pages of history whether in the sacred Book or in profane story. There could hardly have been a prouder nation than was Israel when they stood that glorious, victorious morning on the banks of the Red Sea. They had been delivered by miraculous power from the oppression of the tyrant [Exodus 14:15-31]. Pharaoh’s hand was broken and they stood there with the glory of God above them, forever Egypt behind them, and the Promised Land before them. How they sang, and how they exalted in the power of the Lord upon them [Exodus 15:1-21].
The Promised Land was just a few weeks’ march away [Exodus 13:17] and there was many a man who, even then, was dreaming and thinking of the vineyards and the olive groves and the pomegranates and the fig trees, every man with his home at rest in God’s promised provision [Numbers 16:14, 20:5]. And yet of that vast host of more than 600,000 fighting men of war [Exodus 12:37] who stood in national triumph that day at the Red Sea, there were but two who entered into the Promised Land [Numbers 14:28-32, 38]. The rest of them fell by the way in the wilderness [Deuteronomy 2:16-19], their carcasses buried in the burning sands, the vast solitude their mausoleum.
One of our men figured out how many funerals there were every day for that many people to die in a period of forty years. There were something like 250 funerals every day. I can imagine in that oriental way and manner of lamentation and grief – I can imagine the solemnity, the sobriety, the sadness, the solemnness of everyday’s camp life in the wilderness. This is the first time, dear people, I have ever realized why it was that the ninetieth Psalm – which is the Psalm of Moses [Psalm 90:1], the man of God [1 Chronicles 23:14] – why the ninetieth Psalm is so inexpressibly sad.
I have read it – I have heard Dr. Fowler read it – innumerable numbers of times at funeral services. It was an expression – it is an expression of the sadness and the sorrow and the disappointment and the grief, the tears and the heartache of those long, wearisome years in the wilderness.
We are consumed by Thine anger,and by Thy wrath we are troubled.
Thou hast set our iniquities before Thee . . .
Return, O Lord!How long? And let it repent Thee concerning concerning Thy servants.
Make us glad according to the days whereinThou hast afflicted us, and the years wherein we have seen evil.
[Psalm 90:7-8, 13, 15]
The ninetieth Psalm – all of it is like that. It’s a picture of, it came out of, those years of indescribable grief and sorrow.
It’d be hard for us to realize all of the disappointment that lay in that sentence: that interdiction that sent them out to die,wandering in the wilderness in a burning desert [Numbers 14:28-35]. For one thing, the sandstorm in a hot country like that is indescribable. I was in Karachi, the capital of Palestine, in the middle of August on a hot burning day, and the air was filled with fine, powdery dust. I cannot describe the uncomfortable misery of those hours, not only the sandstorm but the mirage – just over the way the green glens, the palm trees, the flowing water – and it mocks the thirst of a thirsty man and it does despite to every hope of gladness that he has in his life.
The wilderness wandering is emblematic of the unrest of this life: always striking; always pitching camp; never a place to rest; moving, moving, moving. The wilderness wandering is emblematic. It’s a picture of the wearisomeness of the wanderings when we’rewithout God in this world [Hebrews 3:7-19]: tired, the same monotonous horizon, this day and another day just like it. It is an emblem; it is a picture of the unsatisfied longings of this mortal life: no place, no home, no rest, somehow always hungering and eating the same food till the soul loathes it, wandering in the wilderness of this world.
Why was it the interdiction of God they should not enter the Promised Land? [Numbers 14:22-23] Why was it this unbelief that prohibited their crossing Jordan? The author speaks of it here, and that’s what he’s speaking of.
There are three reasons for that unbelief that sent them out into the restless weariness of that wilderness, and the first was this: because of a murmuring spirit [Psalm 106:24-26]. "Harden not your hearts, as in the provocation, in the day of trial in the wilderness" [Hebrews 3:8]. They were constantly at it. And somehow, a murmuring, fault-finding heart lends itself to unbelief, lack of faith, lack of persuasion.
In the sixteenth chapter of the Book of Exodus, they didn’t have any bread. They had the kneading troughs but no flour, and they fell immediately into that complaining, murmuring spirit [Exodus 16:2-3]. In the seventeenth chapter of the Book of Exodus, they had no water, and immediately they fell into that same murmuring, fault-finding, lack-of- faith spirit [Exodus 17:1-3]. And in the thirteenth chapter of the Book of Numbers, the same thing again: they stand at the very edge of the Promised Land, and instead of entering in with great faith in God, they fell into that same murmuring spirit [Numbers 13:25-33]. The one hundred sixth Psalm describes it:
Yea, they despised the pleasant land;they believed not God’s word,
But murmured in their tents, and harkened not unto the voice of the Lord.
Therefore God lifted up His hand against them, to overthrow them in the wilderness.
I want you to know one of the worst things that can consume and possess a man’s life is that kind of a murmuring and skeptical and fault-finding spirit:
"Down there at that church, why, they’re all hypocrites."
"Down there at that church, why, the preacher’s just interested in money."
"Down there at that church – I’m just as good out here where I am."
"Down there at that church . . . "
All kinds of things to find fault. I realize that from the preacher to the least member of the congregation, there are things to murmur about, things to find fault with. There are things that are not as they ought to be. There are not things as they can be and should be and, by God’s grace, will be.
But, oh, it is the curse of a man. It will damn his soul and ruin his life when he gives himself to skepticism and to murmuring and to fault-finding. That fellow over there, he may not be everything he ought to be, but brother, I’m not either. And that congregation down there may not be all that it ought to be, but it’s God’s congregation; it’s God’s church. And instead of finding fault, instead of murmuring, instead of being skeptical, we ought to look up to the glorious goodness of God. We may not be all right, but He’s all right.
You know, I have the same feeling about criticizing the church – murmuring and fault-finding with the people of God – as I would if a fellow walked around in the days when my mother could walk around and find fault with her. I would be the first to realize that my mother isn’t perfect, wasn’t perfect. She made lots of mistakes; she made many errors. She was not saintly all the time. But it would have been a cheap son – it would have been a no-account boy go around finding fault with my mother.
Well, not in the same way but in the same intensity, I love this church like I’d love my mother. I dote on this church. I honor and respect this congregation. Every time I ever hear skeptical, sarcastic criticisms of it, I have that same feeling as if a fellow were walking around criticizing my mother.
Now, our spirit ought always to be: if it is weak, it’s because I’m not strong. I must help my church. If it’s not doing right, I must help our church to do right. Any lack, any failure, any shortcoming is a matter of prayer and intercession. Take it to God and may the Lord help our church as He makes us strong for it, to do good by it.
That was the first thing that led to unbelief – that provocation in the wilderness, murmuring and finding fault with Moses and with Aaron and with God. The thing wasn’t just as it ought to be they felt. Bread wasn’t just so [Exodus 16:2-3]; water wasn’t just so [Exodus 17:1-3]; the place wasn’t just so [Numbers 13:25-33], and it led to the spirit of unbelief.
Skepticism is a cruel thing in a man’s life. A constructive criticism is wonderful: "Preacher, you can preach better than that." That’s right, and I ought to and by God’s grace, let’s pray that I shall. And a church can do better than it does. By God’s grace, let’s help it to do better. But our criticism ought always to be on the positive side: "Come on, stand up. Come on, lift your face up. Come on, let’s do better for God! ‘Arise and shine, thy light is come’" [from Isaiah 60:1].
The spirit in their hearts was one of murmuring and fault-finding and skepticism, and it led to their unbelief.
Now, we must not delay too long. The second reason that contributed to their unbelief is here in this twelfth verse: "They departed from the living God" [Hebrews 3:12]. They thought they could do better themselves. They elected their own captain. God elected Moses [Exodus 3:10-12]. They could elect a better one themselves, and they left the living God in order to work out their own fortune and their own destiny [Exodus 32:1-6].
"I can do it better by myself": that leads to the spirit of unbelief – to depart from God and to do it yourself, work it out yourself. "Don’t need God, don’t need His help, don’t need His love, don’t need His grace, don’t need His forgiveness, don’t need His mercy, don’t need His direction. I do it myself. I stand on my own."That leads to the spirit of rejection and unbelief. Like Jeremiah said of the people in his day:
My people, My people have done two evils:
One, they have departed from Me, the living God,
andthey have hewn them out cisterns–broken cisterns that can hold no water.
[from Jeremiah 2:13]
It’s mighty easy for a man to say, "I’m going to take my life in my own hands. I’m going to live it up like I please. I’m going to leave God out of it." It’s easy for a man to do that, but when he does, it leads to that heart of unbelief.
And the third thing he says here that led to their rejection and their unbelief was they held not the beginning of their confidence steadfast unto the end [from Hebrews 3:14]. Somehow, they could not be persuaded that the Lord who delivered them from Pharaoh [Exodus 14:21-31] and the Lord who gave them the promise of another land and another country [Exodus 3:16-17], somehow, they didn’t believe that God who saved them could keep them. The Lord who delivered them out of the hand of Pharaoh somehow was not able to shield them from Amalek. And the great Lord God that divided the Red Sea, somehow was not able to cleave the Jordan. "The Lord God hath brought us safely across the ocean, but He’s going to leave us to drown in the ditch." They could not hold steadfast their faith and confidence unto the end. "The Lord still’s going to let us down. Somehow, the Lord’s not able to see us through. He did great things in the past, but He’snot able to do great things now. He saved me back yonder, but He’s not able to keep me and deliver me through death and to heaven now." And that spirit of a lack of confidence that God was able to see them through, that spirit led to the heart of rejection and unbelief.
Now, the exhortation of the author. He pleads:"Brethren, take heed lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief" [Hebrews 3:12]. Why, I am surprised at that: "Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief" [Hebrews 3:12]. Then, if he’s correct – and I preach the Book – if this is the inspired Word of God, belief/ unbelief is not a child of the mind. It is not a child of the intellect. It is a child of the heart.
My intellect follows my heart. My reason follows those great emotional commitments of my life; and however my heart is, my reason will follow after. If my heart gives itself to the world and to infidelity and to rejection and unbelief – if my heart does, my head will find reasons and arguments to support what my heart has done. But if my heart is given to God and full of faith, my head will find reasons and arguments to support the faith and the commitment of my heart to God. "Out of the heart are the issues of life" [from Proverbs 4:23].
If a man’s unbelief was a mere matter of his mind, of his head, of his intellect, we could sit down and work out ingenious intellectual answers for every argument that a man’s head might bring. But that doesn’t change the man. You can sit down and argue forever and forever and ever, and answer every reason and excuse forever, and intellectually go through all of the things that a man’s mind might think of, but he’sstill a rejecter and an unbeliever.
You don’t change a man in his head. Our heads follow our hearts, and our reasoning bolsters and justifies the things that we accept in our hearts. That’swhy he pleads about this heart of unbelief. If my heart’s not right, if my soul is not right, somehow my mind will be filled with skepticism and arguments and rejections. If my heart is full of death and of dying, I myself am full of skepticism and rejection. But if my heart is right with God, my reason can find a thousand thousand things to bolster, to justify, to defend the commitment that I’ve made in my heart."Give Me thine heart," says the Lord. Your mind will follow after. Your reason will follow after. Your intellect will follow after if you give God your heart.
And that’s why in this last word that he pleads in the chapter that you’ve read:"Today, if you hear His voice, harden not your heart" [Hebrews 3:7-8]. See, he doesn’t say, "Don’t array those intellectual arguments against the appeal of God." No. He says: "As the Holy Spirit saith, ‘Today, if you hear His voice, harden not your heart’" [Hebrews 3:7-8]. And he repeats it again: "Exhort one another daily, while it is called, ‘Today,’ lest any of you be hardened in your heart" [Hebrews 3:13]. And then again, "While it is said: ‘Today, if you will hear His voice, harden not your hearts’" [Hebrews 3:15].
Out of the heart are all of the issues and decisions of our life, and it’ll be in your heart that this decision is made tonight. Will you give your heart to the Lord? If you will, your mind and your intellect and your reason will follow after. If your heart is given to God when you come down this aisle, your mind, your intellect, your reason will follow with you, and you’ll go out that door and to any man that lives, you will justify the decision you’ve made by a thousand things ’cause your heart is given unto God.
"Harden not your heart" [Hebrews 3:7-8, 13, 15]. Ah! It is so imperceptible that hardening of a man’s heart – so indistinct. It is so gradual. There was a time when that limestone chalk that holds those fossil shells was a moist ooze. And now I see buildings all over Texas made out of that limestone chalk. I see it in these great buildings with those shells, those fossil shells, in it. That stone is as hard as rock; it is rock. There was a time when it was moist ooze.
There was a time when Judas [Matthew 26:14-16] was a tender child. There was a time when the hardest criminal was just a little fellow and had you told him about Jesus and His death, the little fellow would have started breathing heavy, tears coming’ to his eyes, as you tell him about Jesus dying in our stead.
How does a heart get hard? You don’t realize it. You don’t know. It’s like the freezing over of a pond. When does a pond freeze over? First, a film so thin it wouldn’t hold a needle. Then, gradually, imperceptibly, it hardens; it solidifies. And up there in the North Country, you can, one day in the cold winter time, drive a wagon over it weighted down with heavy logs. And so it is with a man’s heart: just that imperceptible hardening, callousing. And finally, he can look you straight in the eye and without any qualm of soul or conscience at allsay "no" to God, and "no" to Jesus, and "no" to the Holy Spirit, and "no" to the church, and "no" to the appeal of the preacher. And that’s why the appeal of the author of the Book of Hebrews: "Today, today, harden not your hearts. Exhort one another while it is called today. If you hear His voice, harden not your heart; enter in" [from Hebrews 3:8, 13, 15].
Come. Come. Come. In this balcony around, come. On this lower floor, come. Down one of these stairwells, into the aisle on this lower floor: "Pastor, tonight, I’ve said ‘no’ to Jesus for the last time. I’m coming tonight. This is ‘yes,’ and here I am. I give you my hand. I give my heart to God." Will you do it? Would you make it now? A family to come by letter or by confession of faith, one somebody you – a youth, a child, a father or mother. In this company, always, this is the time for somebody. This is an hour for you.
"The Holy Spirit saith, ‘Today, if you hear His voice, harden not your heart . . . " [Hebrews 3:7-8]. And this is God’s time for you, somebody you. While we sing this song and make this appeal, in this balcony, on this lower floor, into the aisle and down to the front: "Here I come, preacher, and here I am." Giving your life to God or putting your life in the fellowship of our precious church, will you make it now? On the first note of the first stanza, come. Come, while we stand and while we sing.
THEY WHO FELL IN THE WILDERNESS
Dr. W. A. Criswell
Hebrews 3:7 – 4:11
A. The marked contrast between third and fourth chapters of Hebrews
1. Like the difference between seventh and eighth of Romans
B. Each chapter represents an experience of the inner Christian life
1. Tragically most of us live in the third of Hebrews or seventh of Romans
II. The wilderness experience
A. Israel the morning after the deliverance at the Red Sea
1. Never a nation so proud, victorious – the Promised Land ahead
2. But out of that host of 600,000 fighting men, only two entered
a. Perpetual sorrow of grief and mourning (Psalm 90)
B. The scourge of the desert
C. Wilderness wandering emblematic of unrest, aimlessness, and unsatisfied longing
III. The cause of the wilderness experience
A. A murmuring, complaining spirit(Hebrews 3:8, Psalm 106:24-26, Exodus 16, 17, Numbers 13)
B. Departed from the living God(Hebrews 3:12, Jeremiah 2:13)
C. Held not the beginning of their confidence steadfast unto the end(Hebrews 3:14)
1. Somehow believed the God who delivered them, could not keep them
IV. The appeal and exhortation(Hebrews 3:8)
A. Unbelief not a child of the head, but of the heart
1. My intellect follows my heart(Proverbs 4:23)
B. The hardening of the heart(Hebrews 3:7-8, 13, 15)
1. Hearts harden gradually
2. That’s why the appeal, "Todayâ€¦"