Living Between the Times

June 09, 2016

by Iain Duguid

The story of the book of Numbers is written to a people whose lives are lived between the accomplishing of their redemption and its consummation, between the exodus and the Promised Land. The book starts by identifying this people as those who came out of Egypt. The story of the book of Numbers essentially picks up where the books of Genesis and Exodus left off. God chose for himself the family of Abraham and redeemed them from their bondage in Egypt. He then brought them into the wilderness to Mount Sinai where he graciously entered into a covenant with them. They were to be his people, and he would be their God. As a token of that promise, he gave them the tabernacle, a tent in which he would dwell in their midst. The Lord has done what he promised Abraham in bringing his descendants out of their bondage—but he has not yet brought them into the Promised Land.

They live in between the times, and their present experience is not one of the fullness of their salvation but rather of the wilderness along the way. This should all sound familiar to us. We live as they did—between salvation accomplished and salvation completed. We live between the work of God in accomplishing our salvation at the cross and the time when that salvation will be brought to its consummation when Christ returns. We too live between the times. What is more, our experience of this world is likewise one of wilderness rather than fullness. Jesus promised his disciples one sure thing in this world—tribulation (John 16:33), and he has been faithful to his promise. Wars, sickness, sin, broken relationships, misunderstandings, pain, tears—all of these are part of our experience in this world. We should surely therefore be able to identify with the experiences and temptations of the first wilderness generation.

However, as we journey toward the consummation of our salvation when Christ returns, there is one other certainty that Jesus promised his disciples, isn’t there? Jesus promised us his presence with us in the wilderness: “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). This too matches Israel’s experience in the wilderness, for God did not bring them out of Egypt and then abandon them to make their own way through the wilderness. The provision he made for them in the tabernacle in the wilderness should therefore speak to us also, for we have God’s presence with us through his Holy Spirit.

The Temptation to Lose the Plot

What are the chief temptations of life in the wilderness? The first temptation is surely the danger of losing the plot. The people of Israel were constantly tempted to doubt that there really was a Promised Land ahead. All they could see with their eyes was the barrenness of the wilderness. All they could hear with their ears was the howling wasteland around them. All they could taste on their tongues was the hunger and thirst of the wilderness. The wilderness was very real, and the obstacles in terms of opposition and lack of resources were very visible, while the Promised Land seemed very remote. Life must often have seemed to be a succession of completely unrelated and random events that were getting them nowhere. They surely felt as if their whole lives were slipping away from them in one meaningless round of unsatisfying experiences.

That is what it means to live by faith: to affirm the reality of God’s plot for our lives even when we cannot see it with our eyes.

Isn’t that somewhat like our lives? The surface structure of our lives often appears chaotic and random, just one frustration after another, like the surface narrative of the book of Numbers. You wake up, you go to work, you go home, you go to bed. There is never enough time to get everything done, never enough money to meet all your commitments, never enough of you left for yourself or to give to others. Events that God could so easily have orchestrated to make your life more straightforward regularly become tangled and twisted. This life is often a chaotic wilderness.

So what is life all about? Sometimes we are tempted to believe that the wilderness we see is really all there is: that when all is said and done, there is no guiding purpose or meaning to this world. Our lives appear as meaningless as the game of cricket is to the uninitiated: days full of incomprehensible activity that at the end of them accomplish exactly nothing. Yet the deeper structure of the book of Numbers points us in a different direction. On the surface our lives may seem to wander from one place to the next, driven apparently off-course by our grumbling and sin and the vicissitudes of fate. Yet under and through and behind it all, there is a guiding hand, a divine author, who holds the whole grand narrative in his hand and brings it around to the ending he himself has written for us. There is a story line to our personal stories, an intricate plot that will, after all of life’s twists and turns, end up with him bringing us into the place he has prepared for us. That is the reality to which we need to firmly hold.

The Need to Live by Faith

That is what it means to live by faith: to affirm the reality of God’s plot for our lives even when we cannot see it with our eyes. The first generation did not live by that faith; they believed their eyes and distrusted and abandoned God and so experienced the bitterness of death in the wilderness. The second generation, however, had a new opportunity to begin again on that journey and start afresh to live by faith. The story of the next generation has just begun at the end of the book of Numbers. The end of their story is left open because the writer is not simply interested in recording the faith or folly of ancient generations. He is far more concerned to challenge us as to our faith in God’s promises. As Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 10:6, after summarizing the wilderness experience, “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.” The question for us, therefore, is: “Do we believe the Word of God, and are we consistently willing to act upon it, whether or not it makes sense to those around us?” The lives of faithful pilgrims show the indelible marks of their faith. Their lives are utterly inexplicable unless the Word of God is true and Heaven is their ultimate destination. Everyone around them can see that they have staked everything on the faithfulness of God to do what he has promised. In contrast, others live as if their lives are simply tied to eking out the best existence they can in the wilderness, as if this really is all there is.

It is profoundly challenging to ask ourselves how our lives would be different on Monday morning if there were no Heaven. I suspect that for most of us the answer would be, “Not much.” That’s why we grumble so much about the food and the accommodations along the way, as if this temporary way station were really our home. That’s why our lives are not radically different from the non-Christians all around us. We’ve lost the plot of our story and have forgotten that we are in the middle of an incredible exodus from death to life, a journey from the city of destruction to our heavenly home.

This piece is adapted from Iain Duguid, Numbers: God’s Presence in the Wilderness (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 19–21. Used with permission of the publisher.

Iain Duguid

Dr. Duguid (PhD, Cambridge) is professor of Old Testament at WTS.

Next Post...

Why Pastors Need Commentaries

June 09, 2016

by Kent Hughes