There are few events in scripture capable of stirring us in the same way as Israel’s rebellion at Kadesh Barnea (Numbers 13, 14). We are amazed that these people who have seen God miraculously work on their behalf time and again now are unwilling to trust Him to lead them into Canaan. Even though this destination has been the substance and goal of God’s leading them out of Egypt and of His continued promise to the people, they are unwilling to follow Him in order to drive out the inhabitants of the land.
We are even more astounded that not only do they refuse to put their faith in God and trust Him to defeat every enemy that they would encounter, but they also consider stoning Joshua and Caleb. These two men were turned upon by the Israelite people because they gave a good and positive report about the fruits of Canaan; they also insisted that God was able to bring about what He had promised (Numbers 14:5-10).
When we realise that on that day Israel turned away from the blessings that God had promised and instead wandered the wilderness for 40 years, we are saddened by their lack of faith and resulting disobedience. How terrible that they would settle for something that was so far beneath what God had ordained for them! And this so shortly after God had shown them His mighty power at the Red Sea, in providing manna in the desert, in bringing water from the rock, and in so many other ways. It does not take much to become quite frustrated with, and judgmental toward, Israel.
Lest we should become proud and self-righteous and begin accusing Israel for their attitudes and actions, the writer to the Hebrews warns us that we must be careful that our own hearts do not grow hard. We are to encourage one another daily so that none of us may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness (Hebrews 3:7-19).
If, as Hebrews rightly cautions, we also are capable of such unbelief, it would be prudent to determine what caused Israel to fall short of their high calling. What was the reason that these people, so beloved of God, ended up wandering aimlessly instead of possessing the bountiful land of milk and honey? It is likely that the answer will have much relevance for us today.
In Stephen’s sermon, found in Acts 7, he tells how God chose Moses and sent him to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt, but “they rejected him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt. They told Aaron, `Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who led us out of Egypt – we don’t know what has happened to him!’ That was the time they made an idol in the form of a calf. They brought sacrifices to it and held a celebration in honour of what their hands had made. But God turned away and gave them over to the worship of heavenly bodies. This agrees with what is written in the book of the prophets:
“`Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings for forty years in the desert, O house of Israel? You have lifted up the shrine of Molech and the star of your god Rephan, the idols you made to worship. Therefore I will send you into exile beyond Babylon’” (Amos 5:25-27; Acts 7:39-43).
Stephen points to the fact that, in the wilderness, Israel never really gave wholehearted devotion to the Lord. They might have performed the sacrifices and gone through the various acts of worship, but in their hearts they were looking back to Egypt. They wanted a god that they could see and touch – a god who would satisfy their carnal desires. They followed idols and turned away from the living God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Because of this, God turned away from them and gave them over to their own desires. As the years passed by, this idolatrous worship continued and grew until Israel paid the consequences of their spiritual adultery. They were eventually removed from the land of God’s promise and sent into exile in Babylon. Their double-minded attitude toward God resulted in severe and thorough judgment.
Jesus himself clarifies the condition that plagued Israel; they were trying to serve two masters. This is declared to be impossible. “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Matthew 6:24).
Israel had tried to serve two masters during their journey through the wilderness. The consequence of that duplicity was that when the time came to wholly trust in God to bring them into the promised land of Canaan, they simply did not believe that He could do it. Their double-mindedness meant that they were unstable and full of doubt; therefore, they did not have faith to possess the promise of God (see James 1:6-8).
Serving God And Mammon
Jesus pointed out that no man can serve two different masters. “Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” He then completes the thought by adding, “You cannot serve both God and Mammon” (Matthew 6:24).
Here Jesus sets before us two masters who desire our allegiance and obedience. The identity of God is simple and straightforward, but who is “Mammon”? The NIV explicitly translates this word as “Money” but that may be an over-simplification of the “god” that competes with the Almighty Jehovah for our affections.
Matthew Henry explains Mammon this way: “Mammon is a Syriac word that signifies gain; so that whatever in this world is, or is accounted by us to be, gain (Philippians 3:7) is mammon. Whatever is in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life is mammon. Self, the unity in which the world’s trinity centres – sensual, secular self – is the mammon which cannot be served in conjunction with God.”
The German commentator, Rudolf Stier, gives further clarification: “When our catechists tell children that the name was derived from a Syrian god of riches, they say what is not actually historically true, but it would have an appropriate sense. For the Lord designedly makes the word, `Mammon,’ the name of an idol, giving it personality in contradistinction to God, in order that His words to the hypocritical Pharisees might have this force: You are truly idolaters, you serve another besides God – will you hear his name? It is Mammon! And, as the truth and justification of this personification, there lies in its background an allusion to the prince and god of this world, the false god who is concealed in the enticements and deceitfulness of the creature.”
Both of these spiritual teachers show that Mammon is the spiritual embodiment of all that we pursue in this life that caters to our creaturely flesh and sets itself up against God. The apostle Paul agrees with this in his letter to the Ephesians, where he states: “For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure, or greedy person – such a man is an idolater – has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God” (5:5).
Devotion to God, and the pursuit of His kingdom, will constantly lift our eyes and desires toward heavenly things. The practical worship of Mammon, and all that it embodies, constantly drags our thoughts and motives down into this fallen, earthly sphere. As Paul shows, this will lead us into a life of immorality, impurity, and greed. Such a way of life cannot be joined to following the glorified Christ in a life of discipleship.
The Consuming Motivation Of This World
The NIV’s translation of “Mammon” simply as “Money” may be too limited, but it does bring the focus on to an issue that is becoming increasingly prominent for followers of Christ today. As we come closer to the consummation of all things in the kingdom of God, which is preceded by the false kingdom of antichrist, Satan is driving and manipulating this world and its inhabitants by the incessant pursuit of financial gain.
Since Money and the possession of it is the way to attaining all the greatest and latest “creature comforts,” mankind is driven by the desire for economic success like never before. Practice in politics, education, much religious activity, and more is now assessed and determined by economic considerations and possibilities. This has filtered into the events of everyday life and has invaded our thinking on practically every level of existence.
The Bible indicates that this obsession with financial gain will be the dominant mark of antichrist and his attempt at global supremacy. He will use his economic and technological power to extort obedience from the nations (Revelation 13:15-17). His great city, Babylon, will be the most productive financial centre the world has ever known – buying and selling everything imaginable, even the bodies and souls of men (Revelation 18:11-13). As the “state of the market” becomes the chief consideration in many decisions and actions, the world moves ever closer to this final stage of Satan’s attempt to control global affairs.
As this condition of greed grows and intensifies, moral principles and God’s laws are easily cast aside as men willingly sacrifice individual souls and lives, and the welfare of nations, on the altar of their god, Mammon. It is no wonder that “the voice from heaven” calls out to the people of God, saying: “Come out of her, my people, so that you will not share in her sins, so that you will not receive any of her plagues; for her sins are piled up to heaven, and God has remembered her crimes” (Revelation 18:4-5).
The situation referred to in Revelation may require a literal physical removal from the city and empire of Babylon at that future time, but today we are called, just as urgently, to be separate in spirit from the world and whatever is driving it toward the idolatry that will climax in opposition to God and all that is associated with Him.
A Transformed Mind
Much Christian teaching in the past 30 years has worked to undermine our focus on heavenly things. “Faith and prosperity” teaching has taken timeless Biblical principles regarding the faithful provision and care of our heavenly Father and turned them into justification and license for the pursuit of selfish gain. These teachers have created a man-centred Christianity that conforms to the ways of the world and the spirit of this age. The result is that Christians are worldly and powerless, and the Christian faith is being shaped more and more by the ways and means of this world than by the leading of the pure and heavenly Holy Spirit and the principles of the eternal Word of God.
Christ does not call us to a life of abject poverty, but He does call us to place heavenly considerations above earthly things. It is a divine and unchanging promise that if we “seek first His kingdom and His righteousness,” then “all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33). However, this “seeking first the kingdom” is much more than singing a sentimental chorus or throwing up the occasional prayer for God’s help and blessing in our daily lives. The emphasis is on seeking first His kingdom so that Christ and His kingdom are the love, joy, and utmost desire of our hearts.
Where we are placing our treasure is a good indicator as to where our heart affections lie (Matthew 6:19-21). Each one of us must allow the Holy Spirit to search us. Are we following the Lord with a whole heart? Or are we, like Israel in the wilderness, offering worship with our mouths to God but still living a life of devotion to Mammon? As it was with Israel, the end result of such double-minded religion will be judgment and separation from the presence of God.
We do not need to be over-run and entrapped by the pressures and “anxieties of life” (Luke 21:34) that are driving the world in this present day. Instead, we can be “transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – His good, pleasing, and perfect will” (Romans 12:2). This will of God is not to be just some sort of elevated theoretical pursuit, but it is our heavenly direction to a life of practical obedience and devotion. Living in the light of the will of God is the safest place to be as we travel through the wilderness of this world.
As the Scottish divine, George MacDonald, has said, “This is a sane, wholesome, practical, working faith – First, that it is man’s business to do the will of God. Second, that God takes on Himself the special care of that man. Third, that therefore that man ought never to be afraid of anything.”
The people of Israel fell short of their high calling because they had never entered into undivided obedience to the will of God. They had tried to serve two masters and had therefore been afraid when God set before them the land of promise – with both its blessings and its challenges. They had not allowed the spiritual transformation that comes from a renewed mind to occur in their lives.
If we are to reach the fulness of God’s eternal purposes for us, we must determine to follow the will of God wholeheartedly, to fully trust Him, and be completely devoted to His eternal ways. To do this, we must determine to serve God alone, as Jesus said.
“He does not say, We must not or we should not, but we cannot serve God and Mammon; we cannot love both (1 John 2:15; James 4:4); or hold to both, or hold by both in observance, obedience, attendance, trust, and dependence, for they are contrary, the one to the other. Let us not then halt between God and Baal, but choose you this day whom you will serve, and abide by your choice” (Matthew Henry).