In Numbers 11, Israel is just closing in on the promised land. They had been miraculously delivered from Egypt with an incredible display of God’s power, they had been fed supernaturally every day of their journey, had had rivers of drinking water spring from a rock, and had seen the tangible presence of God in the midst of his people as he lead them as a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night. In short, the people had seen God work wonders for his people, and had also been told of God’s gracious plans for their future.
Despite all of this, Numbers 11 begins:
And the people complained in the hearing of the LORD about their misfortunes, and when the LORD heard it, his anger was kindled, and the fire of the LORD burned among them and consumed some outlying parts of the camp. (Numbers 11:1 ESV)
That they complained “in the hearing of the Lord” is important. All complaining is heard by God, and it is not something that he takes lightly. In this case, many of those who were complaining died as a result. Why then is complaining such a big deal? Isn’t it just a way that people unwind or “vent” their frustrations? The problem with all complaining is that it is ultimately against God. When we complain, we are saying to God that he is not wise (we know what we need better than he does); we are also saying that God is not good (he is holding back from us what we want); we are also saying that God is not powerful (because he just can’t seem to deliver the things we want). This is serious stuff, which is why complaining and “grumbling” have such serious consequences in the Pentateuch.
The complaints of the Hebrews show that they have a distorted sense of reality to the point where it almost looks delusional:
… And the people of Israel also wept again and said, “Oh that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” (Numbers 11:4-6 ESV)
What is so bizarre is that these people who had been miraculous delivered from their misery and slavery in Egypt, being to get nostalgic for their old lives as slaves. ‘Oh, wan’t it just so good when we were in Egypt and could eat whatever we want’. They mention eat fish “that cost nothing”. Cost nothing! Nothing but their slavery, nothing but the oppression of their taskmasters, nothing but having their newborn sons slaughtered. This is one of the most insidious things about sin. It distorts our vision of the past, so that we can look at even the most miserable periods in our lives with rose coloured glasses. The moment you find yourself thinking of or expressing any kind of nostalgia for the “good old times” of your slavery to sin and death, check yourself – you are in trouble.
Complaining is not only fundamentally against God, it is actually a rejection of God.
…because you have rejected the LORD who is among you and have wept before him, saying, “Why did we come out of Egypt?”’ (Numbers 11:20 ESV)
Numbers 14 continues on with the story of Israel’s complaining, grumbling attitude.
Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the LORD bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to one another, “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.” (Numbers 14:1-4 ESV)
The people were grumbling against their leadership (on the surface), but it is the Lord that is really the focus of their complaint, as they accuse him of bringing them out of the wilderness only to kill by them by the sword. Their grumbling spirits lose all grip on reality, as they consider how they could voluntarily take themselves back to the land of their slavery and oppression. This is really an indictment of their faith. At their core, they do not believe that God can and will deliver on His promises, and they do not believe that God desires to do them good. They have bought into Satan’s ubiquitous lie that God is holding out on them because he doesn’t have their best interest at heart.
Numbers 14:23 says that those who have complained against and have not believed in the promises of God have actually “despised” God. This is not the position you or I want to be in. So often I think we (myself included) complain about people or circumstances, and don’t see that as a big deal. Scripture takes a radically different view. All complaining is ultimately against God because all things are under God’s control. There isn’t a circumstance in your life or mine that exists apart from the sovereign plan of God, to to complain is to tell God that his plan is wrong, that he doesn’t know what he’s doing. It also questions his goodness. God has promised to work all thinks together for good for his people, but when we complain, we are saying that we don’t functionally believe this.
My exhortation to you (and I’m writing to myself most of all) is to consider your attitude about whatever circumstance in life that you tend to complain about. Is it your family, your job, your financial status, your ministry? Identify your grumbling and call it what it is. It isn’t venting, it is sin. When you do this, don’t wallow, don’t beat yourself up, don’t just try harder – repent. Confess your complaining sin to God and he has promised that he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us of all unrighteousness. We believe in a God of grace, who gave his only son, Jesus, to die on the cross to take on himself the penalty for all our sin (including complaining), so that we could be forgiven and credited with the very righteousness of Christ.
For people like me, that is such good news? Is it for you?