Numbers 32:1-24.

I Did it My Way!


 

Freedom.  What ideas fill your mind when you consider the meaning of this word?  The founders of the Grand Experiment that was the American democratic republic found freedom from tyranny to be of great value.  In declaring their position they referred to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as an unalienable right granted by God, Himself.[1]  People desire to be free to raise their families, free to interact in commerce, and free to worship without fear of reprisal or persecution.

 

If there is one thing that people are willing to fight for, it is freedom of choice.  Many, if not most, wars and rebellions stem from the conflicts that arise between those who desire freedom of choice and those who work to take that freedom away.  The sources of such persecution come from every facet of life including secular, pagan, and religious social powers.  Many a dictator is characterized as one who accomplishes his own desires by wielding political power to force others to conform to his/her self-promoting agenda, and many such dictators have experienced a violent demise at the hands of those who rise up in rebellion. 

 

Such freedoms have been won at great cost when the sins of arrogance and greed are exercised in society.  Yet, freedom in and of itself is never free from responsibility.  If one is free to raise a family, therein lays the responsibility of doing so to the benefit of each of its members.  Most places in the world provide its citizens with the freedom to drive a motor vehicle, yet not without the responsibility to adhere to a set of driving rules that make the experience as safe for all people as possible.  In many countries its citizens are free to own weapons; yet such ownership is subject to regulations to keep that activity safe.

 

It is easy for us to forget that all freedom is exercised successfully only when it is restrained by responsibility.  When we behave in a manner that expresses our own freedom while denying the same freedom for others, we have denied the very form of freedom itself and can find a myriad of consequences in any manner of strife and destruction.

 

Since these truths apply to every area of life, they also apply to those who have placed their faith in the LORD as they are engaged in the activities of faith.  An important part of freedom of choice is exercised in the freedom of religious conviction and freedom of worship.  Yet even in the community of faith the same need for responsibility remains.  If I were to exercise my perception of what I want in order to express my concept of freedom in worship, and trod on others by doing so, I have denied the basis of freedom and denied the faith that is open to all believers.  We find many examples in scripture that teach that the LORD desires to bless those who are faithful to Him, and yet the receipt of these blessings is always accompanied with some form of responsibility. 

 

The book of Numbers provides a history of the nation of Israel from the time of the Exodus from Egypt to their entrance into the land of Canaan, a period of about forty years.  An excellent example of the freedom that people of faith can find in the LORD’s purpose is found in Chapter 32, an example that illustrates God’s purpose of blessing, His permissive grace that gives people of faith a freedom of choice, and the responsibility that comes with those choices.

 

FREEDOM:  I WANT IT MY WAY!

 

Numbers 32:1-5Now the children of Reuben and the children of Gad had a very great multitude of cattle: and when they saw the land of Jazer, and the land of Gilead, that, behold, the place was a place for cattle; 2The children of Gad and the children of Reuben came and spake unto Moses, and to Eleazar the priest, and unto the princes of the congregation, saying, 3Ataroth, and Dibon, and Jazer, and Nimrah, and Heshbon, and Elealeh, and Shebam, and Nebo, and Beon, 4Even the country which the LORD smote before the congregation of Israel, is a land for cattle, and thy servants have cattle: 5Wherefore, said they, if we have found grace in thy sight, let this land be given unto thy servants for a possession, and bring us not over Jordan.

 

It has been two generations since Israel experienced the Exodus from Egypt, approximately forty years, or two generations after they first marched to Kadesh Barnea where, prepared to enter the Promised Land they refused, as a nation, to enter after listening to the agenda of ungodly men rather than listen to the voice of the LORD.  Now, those who turned against God have died in the wilderness and it is time for Joshua and Caleb to lead them across the Jordan and take possession of the land that the LORD gave to Abraham about four hundred years prior.

 

However, as the nation is about to embark on their journey into this new land, a problem arises.  The leaders of two of the tribes have decided that they are quite satisfied with the land of Jazer and Gilead, the land east of the Jordan River between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea where they are now encamped.  This land was taken in God-ordained battle against the Midianites who sought to destroy Israel.  The desire of the two tribes to keep this land was quite reasonable:  it would support the great number of cattle that they had accumulated, it was close to the fertile valley of Jordan, and the land was already cleared of its inhabitants as the entire army of Israel was successfully set against Midian. 

 

Though this may appear like a very reasonable request, is this truly God’s purpose for these Israelite tribes?  Is this request consistent with God’s promise to Abraham?

 

Many times when we make decisions as a body of believers, we look at the situation around us and find ourselves in Midian.  It is very easy to be quite satisfied with our current circumstances, to stand on our past accomplishments, and become blinded to the big picture of God’s purpose for us as it relates both to those current circumstances and to the future.  As those who are expected to do so, the leadership that have been called to serve in our church fellowships must make decisions that affect the entire body, decisions that may be more consistent with living in Midian than with crossing into the new territory to which the church is called.

 

It is amazing that God gives us such freedom of choice.  We can choose do to things our own way, and in doing so we often expect God to bless our choices.  Yet, the responsibility that accompanies freedom remains.  There are also circumstances that arise as a result of those choices.

 

Reuben and Gad chose to remain in Midian and not take part in the taking of the Promised Land of Canaan.  Their choice was in direct opposition to God’s purpose for Israel, yet they were unabashed in their desire to have it their own way, giving little or no consideration to the consequences that could arise from that choice:  consequences that Moses is wise enough to illuminate.   

 

FREEDOM:  MY WAY ALWAYS IMPACTS OTHERS.

 

Numbers 32:6-7And Moses said unto the children of Gad and to the children of Reuben, Shall your brethren go to war, and shall ye sit here? 7And wherefore discourage ye the heart of the children of Israel from going over into the land which the LORD hath given them?

 

First, Moses notes two of the consequences of their choice:  consequences that would have a tremendous negative impact on the nation of Israel.  Many times our choices, though sounding reasonable, are established with little thought or interest of their consequences within the body as a whole, or within the context of the true calling of the fellowship in the community at large.  It is encouraging to observe a church that approaches decisions based upon what the LORD is doing in their midst and the way the consequences of those decisions impact the entire spectrum of those who are part of the fellowship and surrounding community.  When a church is sensitive and responsive to these two issues, it tends to meet the needs of its entire membership, move into the ministries that the LORD presents to the body, and it is a church at peace. 

 

The consequence of the fulfilled desires of Reuben and Gad impact all of Israel.  First, their remaining behind in Midian would serve to discourage the entire nation since the land is promised to all Israel, and that included Reuben and Gad who initially settled in the land of their great-grandfather, Abraham about 14 generations ago.  Also, it is rather obvious that the entire nation of Israel fought and won the land of Midian, the same army that is called to enter the Promised Land.  How could Reuben and Gad think that their 84,000-man portion of the Army of Israel could now rest east of the Jordan when the Promised Land is yet to be taken?  To lose such a military contingent could be disastrous to the nation, not just in numbers, but in the rebellion against God that the refusal to enter the Promised Land represents.

 

Often the consequences of simple decisions that seem reasonable and prudent are dramatic.  I recall a church that did away with its nursery because of a lack of babies in the fellowship.  Consequently, visitor after visitor who came with infants had no place prepared for them when they arrived.  Though the visitors were welcomed with sincerity, those visitors did not return.  Now the church has no preschoolers and only one child.  There are only a few young adults.  Some of the members later informed me that my ministry was to assist the church in “closing its doors” and moving its elderly membership across the street to the cemetery. 

 

Many churches use the gifts that its people give to the “Lord’s work” on building projects and other expenses that serve to build the edifice and increase their own comfort while they keep their pastors in poverty (or less) and fail to meet the needs of those around them.  One does not need to focus very deeply on one’s own church experience without finding self-centered decisions that have similar consequences.

 

It is likely that Reuben and Gad never considered that their request would have such an impact on the nation.  Moses had shown them how their choice impacts those around them.  He has yet to show them how their choice impacts their status before the LORD Himself, an area that we often completely ignore.

 

Numbers 32:8-15Thus did your fathers, when I sent them from Kadeshbarnea to see the land. 9For when they went up unto the valley of Eshcol, and saw the land, they discouraged the heart of the children of Israel, that they should not go into the land which the LORD had given them. 10And the LORD’S anger was kindled the same time, and he sware, saying, 11Surely none of the men that came up out of Egypt, from twenty years old and upward, shall see the land which I sware unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob; because they have not wholly followed me: 12Save Caleb the son of Jephunneh the Kenezite, and Joshua the son of Nun: for they have wholly followed the LORD. 13And the LORD’S anger was kindled against Israel, and he made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until all the generation, that had done evil in the sight of the LORD, was consumed. 14And, behold, ye are risen up in your fathers’ stead, an increase of sinful men, to augment yet the fierce anger of the LORD toward Israel. 15For if ye turn away from after him, he will yet again leave them in the wilderness; and ye shall destroy all this people.

 

Apparently, Reuben and Gad also failed to consider the big picture of the LORD’s purpose.  Moses makes it clear that, based upon a history that they all know too well, their choice could have devastating consequences, not only for the two tribes, but for all Israel.  The nation was banished to death in the wilderness because of the testimony of ten of the twelve men who were sent from Kadesh Barnea into Canaan to report on what they find.  Only Joshua and Caleb counseled the nation to enter the land as the LORD had led them, and now only Joshua and Caleb remained to lead them in.  If ten men could condemn two generations of Israel to death, imagine the impact that a similar decision by two entire tribes would have on the nation. 

 

Surely, after such a convincing argument Reuben and Gad would fall on their faces before Moses and before the LORD (noting that the Pillar of Fire, the Shekinah Glory of God is still present in their midst) in repentance.

 

FREEDOM:  MY WAY ALWAYS REQUIRES COMPROMISE.

 

Numbers 32:16-19And they came near unto him, and said, We will build sheepfolds here for our cattle, and cities for our little ones: 17But we ourselves will go ready armed before the children of Israel, until we have brought them unto their place: and our little ones shall dwell in the fenced cities because of the inhabitants of the land. 18We will not return unto our houses, until the children of Israel have inherited every man his inheritance. 19For we will not inherit with them on yonder side Jordan, or forward; because our inheritance is fallen to us on this side Jordan eastward.

 

Rather than repent, Reuben and Gad start brainstorming how they can get their own way without experiencing the consequences that Moses illuminated.  When “they came near unto him,” they were turning away from others who would hear.  Their plan might not be easily accepted by the multitudes, so they turned to Moses himself with their idea.  Phrases like, “we will not return” and “we will not inherit” clearly communicate their stark rebellion against God, as they are fully unwilling to even consider God’s plan for their inheritance.  Realizing that they indeed did have a military responsibility to the nation of Israel they offered a compromise.  They would take the time to establish a home for their families in the land of Midian and then their entire army would join Israel in their conquest of the Promised Land.

 

What are some of the negative consequences of this plan?  We can note that, if the LORD exercises his permissive will and allows the two tribes to have what they want, the nation will be delayed in their receipt of the blessing that God has for them while Gad and Reuben settle their families.  Furthermore, while the conquest of the land takes place over the next years, the fathers will not be home to care for their families, leaving them without the protection that a home in the Promised Land would offer.

 

When we approach decisions that are contrary to the LORD’s purpose for ourselves and for our church body we will often offer compromises that seem to resolve the obvious consequences of our decision, yet by doing so we open up a broader array of consequences, all because we want it “our way” rather than the LORD’s way.

 

I am reminded of a popular song sung by Frank Sinatra (okay, I am giving away my age here), entitled “I Did it My Way.”[2]  Mr. Sinatra used this at the close of his singing career as a not-so-veiled explanation of his behavior over the years with lyrics purposely taken by songwriter Paul Anka from Frank’s own vocabulary.  Though I had always enjoyed his singing, my respect for him diminished with this testimony; one that seems to shake a fist at God in a bold declaration of independence from Him.  As a young Christian I was dismayed by this testimony and its immediate popularity.

 

FREEDOM;  MY WAY ALWAYS ENGAGES GOD’S PERMISSIVE WILL…

 

When we demand our own way, the LORD does not usually step in with a lightening-bolt of discipline and punishment, but rather, He allows us to move ahead based upon our own decisions, free to experience the consequences that they may bring.  It is evident that Moses is not going to be able to convince Reuben and Gad to join them in the inheritance of the Promised Land.  Their choice has been made, and they are adamantly holding to it, unwilling to listen to Moses or the LORD.  Therefore, Moses shares with them an alternate plan.  I have forced such alternate plans from my GPS (Global Positioning System) receiver when I refused to follow its designated path.  It would protest with the phrase “recalculating … recalculating” as it determined a new path for me.  God allows us to take alternate roads in our life’s journey in a similar way.  Moses shared with them a new plan that would avoid the destruction of the nation because of their rebellious stand.

 

Numbers 32:20-24And Moses said unto them, If ye will do this thing, if ye will go armed before the LORD to war, 21And will go all of you armed over Jordan before the LORD, until he hath driven out his enemies from before him, 22And the land be subdued before the LORD: then afterward ye shall return, and be guiltless before the LORD, and before Israel; and this land shall be your possession before the LORD.  23But if ye will not do so, behold, ye have sinned against the LORD: and be sure your sin will find you out. 24Build you cities for your little ones, and folds for your sheep; and do that which hath proceeded out of your mouth.

 

… AND RESULTS IN SECOND-BEST

 

With this statement, Reuben and Gad were able to hear what they wanted to hear, and obtain the end that they had adamantly chosen.  A way was found for them to reject their inheritance, replacing it with their own desired solution.  They would not receive the inheritance of their ancestors Reuben and Gad, respectively, but would substitute it for the land of Midian which the entire nation of Israel currently held.  Note that, since the LORD promised the inherited land of Canaan to them, it would also have been useful to raise cattle, establish their cities, etc, as God had promised to bring them into a good land.  Still, we see God’s permissive will at work:  if Reuben and Gad will fulfill their responsibility to the nation of Israel to fully support them in the taking of Canaan, the LORD will not judge the nation as He did at Kadesh Barnea.  Note that this is the only promise that God made.  It does not, in any way, bless the land of Midian or the decision of Reuben and Gad to receive it.  Reuben and Gad received what they wanted rather than what the LORD had promised to them.

 

When we choose our own way over that of the LORD, we have no idea of the blessing we are missing.  By remaining east of the Jordan, the two tribes would always be isolated from the remainder of the nation by the natural boundary that the river represents.  Once returning from the initial conquest of Canaan, they would no longer be available to assist the other tribes from the continual conflicts that they had with their neighbors over the next four-hundred year period.  Also, they would be exposed to eastern nations without the forces of the entire Israelite army to protect them, leaving them at the mercy of the Assyrians, Babylonians, and others.  Thought their choice seemed good for them at the time, they did not perceive the “big-picture” and settled for second-best when the best was a gift that the LORD had already prepared for them.

 

Moses’ compromise came with a curse.  Moses statement is often quoted, but probably by many who have no idea where this quote came from:  “Your sin will find you out.”  If the two tribes are not completely faithful to their promise before the LORD they will experience even greater consequences.  Note that one’s accountability for sin is not to one another, but to God, Himself.  God will hold His children to the promises they make.

 

What was the ultimate consequence of the choice or Reuben and Gad to trade their inheritance in the Promised Land for Midian?  Once the men of Reuben and Gad returned to Midian their interaction with the rest of Israel was dramatically diminished.  Consequently, their relationship with the rest of Israel was not strong.  There are few biblical references to Reuben and Gad actually taking part in the dynamic intrigue that took place between Israel and its enemies during the 400-year period of the kings that ended with of the destruction of Israel by Assyria.   

 

When you consider the direction that your church fellowship is going, is that direction driven by a Spirit-led mission that encompasses God’s true purpose for the church, or is it driven by the desires of its members to meet their own needs for social significance and entertainment?  Is your fellowship involved in the LORD’s purpose of ministering to those who need to hear the good news of God’s grace?  Is your church a beacon of God’s love to the community, embracing a lost and hurting world by serving those in need?

 

When you consider the direction that you and your family are going in this world, is it led of the Holy Spirit, or is it led of your own interests?  Is your worship of the LORD overwhelmed by your desire for comfort and entertainment?

 

We all desire freedom of choice.  We are free to make choices that serve our own desires, or free to make choices that are obedient to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.  We make choices every day, choices that can be made with a deliberate and conscious effort to follow the LORD’s direction.  When we get to the end of the day, is our testimony truly, “I did it my way,” or is it “I did it the LORD’s way”?  Let us not be satisfied with second-best, but rather draw closer to the LORD and allow Him to guide our choices.  Let us not reach the end of our days and find ourselves proclaiming “I did it my way” and miss the true blessings that the LORD has for us, individually, and as a body of believers.  When we as individuals and as members of a fellowship of faithful believers set “my way” aside, and seek “God’s way” in all we do, we will find ourselves in a position to join God in the work that He is doing around us and find true blessing and purpose in all of our days.  It is then and only then, that we will truly be free.

 

[1] Declaration of Independence, July 4 1776

[2] 1967.  Lyrics by Paul Anka, music by Claude Francois and Jaques Revaux.  Reprise Records, producer Sonny Burke.