Numbers 11:1-3

Sermon preached on September 1, 2013 by Laurence W. Veinott. © Copyright 2013. All rights reserved. Other sermons can be found at

Unless otherwise noted, quotations are from The Holy Bible: New International Version (NIV). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House.

My father-in-law loved to quote a little ditty about criticism. It goes like this:

"I hate the guys who criticize and minimize the other guys, whose enterprise has made them rise above the guys who criticize and minimize the other guys."

It's hard to avoid criticism. I read once about men drivers, (A woman must have come up with this— a wife must have noticed it) that,

"Anyone who drives slower than him is an idiot and anyone who drives faster than him is a maniac."

Very often people can't avoid being criticized. No matter what you do, you're likely to get criticized for it. Jesus spoke about this in Matthew 11:18–19 when He talked about what people said about John the Baptist and Him. He said,

"For John came neither eating
nor drinking, and they say, 'He has a demon.'
The Son of Man came eating
and drinking, and they say,
'Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a
friend of tax collectors and sinners.' "

Sometimes you can't win. People will criticize you no matter what you do.

They criticized Jesus. Jesus was perfect and didn't deserve any criticism, yet people criticized Him all the time.

His friends and family criticized Him. For example, when Jesus was twelve years old His parents left Jerusalem without Him, thinking He was with relatives. After they went back to Jerusalem and found Him, His mother said to Him, (Luke 2:48)

"Son, why have you treated us like this?
Your father and I have been
anxiously searching for you."

That was a complaint. One commentator I looked at said it was a mild complaint, another said it was more than a 'mild complaint', that it was a 'rebuke', while still another referred to it as a 'deep reproach'. Mary's words indicate that she received an injury because of Jesus' actions and she was criticizing Him for treating her that way.

In John 7:3–5 we read that Jesus' brothers told Him to leave and go to Judea, so that others would see His miracles. They said,

"Since you are doing these things,
show yourself to the world."

John then adds,

"For even his own brothers
did not believe in him."

His brothers mocked Jesus and in their mocking there was criticism. Jesus was criticized by His family.

His friends also criticized Jesus. In John 11:21 and 32 we read that after their brother died, both Mary and Martha said to Jesus,

"if you had been here,
my brother would not have died."

When their brother first got sick they sent word to Jesus. But Jesus delayed when He got their message. He stayed where He was for two more days. When He came to Bethany, both Mary and Martha said these words to Him. There was certainly faith in their words. But many commentators think the sisters go too far, that there is a regret and disappointment and implied criticism and a putting of their will above God's. As Calvin says,

"The only conclusion therefore is, that she inconsiderately yields to her own wishes, instead of subjecting herself to Christ."

Jesus disciples criticized Him. When Jesus was in Bethany in Simon the Leper's home, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table. We read, (Matthew 26:6–9)

"When the disciples saw this, they were indignant.
'Why this waste?' they asked.
'This perfume could have been sold
at a high price and the money given to the poor.'"

One could say that they're just criticizing the woman. But Jesus accepted her offering. Even though they may not have meant it, they were also criticizing Him.

In Matthew 16 we read that when Jesus told His disciples that He had to go to Jerusalem, be handed over to sinful men, suffer and be put to death and rise again the third day—Peter took Jesus aside and rebuked Him! He said, (Matthew 16:22)

"Never, Lord!
This shall never happen to you!"

Ordinary people criticized Jesus. When Jesus healed the men who had multiple demons in the district of the Gadarenes, and ordered the demons to go into a herd of pigs, the pigs ran down a steep cliff into the lake and died. When the people of that place heard about it they pleaded with Jesus to leave their region. (Matthew 8:34)

His enemies criticized Jesus. In Luke 13 Jesus healed a woman who had been crippled by a spirit for 18 years. It was the Sabbath day. When the synagogue ruler saw what Jesus did, he was indignant. So he said to the people, (Luke 13:14)

"There are six days for work. So come and
be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath."

They criticized Jesus for healing people on the Sabbath day. In Matthew 9:2ff we read that Jesus was criticized for telling the paralytic that his sins were forgiven. At other points in His ministry people said that Jesus had a devil, that He was demon possessed. (John 8:48) They said that He cast out demons by the prince of demons, Beelzebub. (Matthew 12:24) Pilate criticized Jesus for not answering his questions. Those who mocked Jesus on the cross criticized Him for not coming down from the cross.

Isn't that incredible? I wonder how many times the Bible records people complaining about Jesus. It would not be a small number.

All those things show us that we need to be very careful about complaining.

As fallen human beings we are by nature very censorious. We have a spirit of complaint in us that we need to put to death. We complain about things that we should never complain about. Our text is another illustration of this. We read, (Numbers 11:1–3)

"Now the people complained about their hardships
in the hearing of the Lord,
and when he heard them his anger was aroused.
Then fire from the Lord burned
among them and consumed
some of the outskirts of the camp.
When the people cried out to Moses,
he prayed to the Lord and the fire died down.
So that place was called Taberah,
because fire from the Lord had burned among them."

Complaining can be a terrible thing. There are two lessons about complaining that our text teaches us.

First of all, it shows us that

we need to nip in the bud the attitude that breeds discontent and complaint.

As the apostle Paul instructed the Philippian Christians, (Philippians 2:14–16)

"Do everything without
complaining or arguing, so that you
may become blameless and pure,
children of God without fault
in a crooked and depraved generation,
in which you shine like stars in the universe
as you hold out the word of life."

As Christians the proper attitude we are to have is one of thankfulness and joy. Joy is one of the fruits of the Spirit. If we allow the Holy Spirit to work in us He will replace the spirit of complaint with a spirit of gratitude and thankfulness to God. He will open our eyes to our standing in Christ and help us to rejoice in that and be filled with thanks to God.

In many places in Scripture God teaches us that we are to be giving thanks to God. The psalms of the Old Testament are full of such teaching. Psalm 136 is one of the greatest in this regard. The first three verses say,

"Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good.
His love endures forever.
Give thanks to the God of gods.
His love endures forever.
Give thanks to the Lord of lords:
His love endures forever."

The Psalm goes on and lists reason after reason for God's people to give thanks to God. If you look at the book of Psalms you'll see that it tells us over and over to be giving thanks to God. There is no one like our God. He has done so many glorious things for His people that they should be constantly giving thanks to Him.

The New Testament confirms this. Colossians 3:17 says,

"And whatever you do,
whether in word or deed, do it all
in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving
thanks to God the Father through him."

Colossians 4:2 adds,

"Devote yourselves to prayer,
being watchful and thankful."

And 1 Thessalonians 5:18 tells us,

"give thanks in all circumstances, for
this is God's will for you
in Christ Jesus."

Instead of complaining to each other in difficult times, the Bible tells us to have great faith and confidence in God. Our faith should be so strong that we should be able to have joy and rejoice in God no matter how bad things are. We should be able to do this even in the most difficult of circumstances. Habakkuk 3:17–19 is one such place. It says,

"Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep
in the pen and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.
The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to go on the heights."

We are to be rejoicing in God.

How sinful were the people in our text. Our text tells us that they complained about 'their hardships'. What hardships? No special difficulty is mentioned for the complaint. Timothy R. Ashley writes, (Numbers (NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 201.

"The immediate context gives no cause for this murmuring; indeed, it occurs in the context of Yahweh's gracious provision for the guidance and leadership of his people on the way (esp. in 9:15–10:35)."

But the people here are complaining. I guess they thought that they had it more difficult than they should have. It seems they thought this ever since Moses came to them in Egypt. But they were looking at it all wrong. They were the Lord's people. There was no one like them on earth, those on whom God set His love. They complained against Moses and thought they had it difficult in Egypt, yet they had it wrong. Here's what God said to them when they got to Mount Sinai. (Exodus 19:4)

"You yourselves have seen
what I did to Egypt,
and how I carried you on eagles' wings
and brought you to myself."

God carried them on eagle's wings. They didn't appreciate what God was doing for them.

Aren't we often like that? I mean,

we have it so good.

Jesus is our Shepherd. He is the Good Shepherd. (John 10:11) He will never leave us nor forsake us. (Hebrews 13:5) Nothing can separate us from His love. (Romans 8:35f) He arranges things so that all things work together for good for His people. (Romans 8:28) He tells us that our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us a glory that far outweighs them all. (2 Corinthians 4:17) He tells us that our present sufferings are not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be revealed in us. (Romans 8:18)

And yet we complain and complain and complain, when, in reality, Jesus is carrying us to glory on eagle's wings.

But does this all mean that we are never to complain?

No, of course not. We're not Stoics nor should we be. Jesus tells us that we can and should go to Him with all our troubles. 1 Peter 5:7 tells us,

"Cast all your anxiety on him
because he cares for you."

Philippians 4:6 says,

"Do not be anxious about anything,
but in everything, by prayer
and petition, with thanksgiving,
present your requests to God."

You see, it's not wrong to bring your troubles to God, and in a sense, complain to Him. For instance, in many of the Psalms we have God's people complaining to God. They pour out their hearts to Him. In Psalm 64:1 the psalmist says,

"Hear me, O God, as I voice my complaint; protect my life
from the threat of the enemy."

And in Psalm 142:1–2 the psalmist said,

"I cry aloud to the LORD;
I lift up my voice to the LORD for mercy.
I pour out my complaint before him;
before him I tell my trouble."

There are many examples of the saints complaining to God. We see in in Moses in verses 11-15 of our chapter. He complains to God. We also see it in Exodus 5 with Moses. After Moses went to the Israelites and Pharaoh made their work harder by making them gather straw while making the same number of bricks, Moses said to God, (Exodus 5:22–23)

"O Lord, why have you brought
trouble upon this people?
Is this why you sent me?
Ever since I went to Pharaoh
to speak in your name,
he has brought trouble upon this people,
and you have not rescued your people at all."

That's a complaint and Moses wasn't punished for it.

What's wrong with the people who complained in the first verses of Numbers 11 is that they didn't come to God in faith. Notice how they did it. We read,

"Now the people complained about their hardships
in the hearing of the Lord,
and when he heard them his anger was aroused."

They weren't going to God in faith and pouring out their hearts to Him, telling Him their complaints so that He would help them with them. It seems they were complaining to one another. John Calvin writes,

"And the Lord heard it. He more plainly declares that the people broke forth into open complaints; and it is probable that they even cast reproaches upon God…"

Philip J. Budd suggests that the problem with the people was , (Numbers (WBC 5; p. 120)

"internal faithlessness…"

C. F. Keil and Delitzsch F. write that, (Commentary on the Old Testament)

"the complaint was directed against Him and His guidance,"

They allowed their sinful censorious nature to take over. They complained against Him as if there was something wrong with Him. They sinned greatly.

So this means that you Christians need to inculcate the opposite attitude.

You should trust the Lord's guidance, His providence for your life.

No matter what happens to you, you should recognize that your life is in God's hand and that He loves you and is taking care of you. Yes, you can bring your complaints to Him. You can pour out your heart to Him. But you need to have the right attitude. You always need to be thankful. You always need to be trusting Him. You need to trust Him so much that you can say with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, (Luke 22:42)

"not my will, but yours be done."

Trust your Good Shepherd to lead you. Follow His leading with rejoicing.

The lesson for Christians here is that

you should be exceedingly thankful that God does not treat us as our complaints deserve.

Fire from the Lord came down and consumed some of the outskirts of the camp. Some commentators believe that it didn't kill any people, but that it burned the bushes and tents lying on the outskirts of the camp, and was a warning to the people of Israel as they saw it approaching. They cried to Moses and Moses interceded for them. How wonderful Jesus is. He intercedes for us. He protects us.

Lastly, for those of you who are not Christians, this shows you that

you need a mediator to speak to God on your behalf.

You're like those ancient people who complained against God. God has given you this history to warn you. You deserve God's wrath. His fiery wrath is coming. You need someone to stop it from getting to you. Only Jesus can do that. Moses pointed to Him. You need to believe in Jesus and find life in Him. Cry out to Jesus to save you. He's your only hope.