As the father of a 4-year old and soon of a newborn, there are certain non-negotiables regarding attitude and subsequent discipline that have been set down in stone, not the least of which is whining. There is something intensely irritating and disruptive about whining that flows out of the abundance of a dissatisfied heart. Yet for all the displeasure that whining brings a parent from their child, how often do we as Christians murmur and whine about our respective circumstances without so much as a thought toward how displeasing it must be to God.
In the Book of Numbers, Moses records for us several instances of Israel’s murmuring before the LORD. In Numbers 11:1, the chapter begins with the following, “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.” From the time they left their enslavement in Egypt to the wilderness of Sinai recorded in this passage, Israel was a murmuring people. God’s chilling response to their murmuring is captured in this verse as His “anger was kindled” against them. I suppose in all the Bible there is not a more fearful description of the displeasure of God as directed toward man than the kindling of His anger. Note how God’s anger is not aroused because of an “obvious sin” such as murder, adultery, or even homosexuality. Instead, it is directed toward the grumbling and discontentment expressed by His covenant people. This should serve as a stark warning to us when we begin to classify particular sins as bottom-of-the-barrel, perhaps more obvious in their manifestation, while other sins that largely go unnoticed are overlooked, coddled, and accepted as normal personality traits. God is clear in this verse; His anger is kindled against grumbling and complaining.
In what appears to be a play on words, the kindling of God’s anger results in the “fire of the LORD” burning among the people and consuming “some outlying parts of the camp.” Think God doesn’t take the words we speak seriously? (As a reminder, Matthew 12:36 informs us that we will be accountable for every word we speak.) Interestingly, God doesn’t consume the entire camp, but strikes the outlying parts of the camp as a display not only of His sovereign rule in judgment, but speaks volumes of His mercy. God’s kindness here was meant to bring the people to repentance for their murmuring.
Continuing on in the passage from Numbers 11
“2 Then the people cried out to Moses, and Moses prayed to the LORD, and the fire died down. 3 So the name of that place was called Taberah, because the fire of the LORD burned among them.
4 Now the rabble that was among them had a strong craving. And the people of Israel also wept again and said, “Oh that we had meat to eat! 5 We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. 6 But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” Num. 11:2-6
Upon witnessing the sampling of God’s displeasure toward murmuring, the people turn their attention towards Moses and plead for His intercession with God on their behalf. This passage indicates nothing of the contriteness of the people’s heart, yet God complies with Moses’ request and relents of His anger. This should have been a sufficient warning, but the sinfulness of sin and the hardness of man’s heart is not easily swayed apart from the sovereign, irresistible grace of God to remove the heart of stone. As in the case of the men who were struck blind in Sodom and Gomorrah yet they still groped for the doorway of Lot to fulfill their lusts, the rabble in the wilderness continued in their cravings and murmured once again against the LORD.
The Hebrew phrase, translated by the ESV as rabble, is generally understood to be a reference to the nature of the people who had assembled as a mixed multitude, i.e. of Jews and Gentiles, perhaps a reference to those whom had come out of Egypt alongside the Israelites. Regardless, it becomes evident in verse 4 that the fire sent from God did not serve as a lasting reminder to warn the people of their murmuring. Surely even those upon final judgment who are in the place of everlasting torment will continue to gnash their teeth in rebellion towards the all-holy God.
Through the murmuring of the people, this time over the kind of food (manna) that God in His graciousness and provision had given the people, Moses turns again to the Lord. His impatience and irritation with the people’s murmuring reaches its apex as he simply asks the Lord to kill him (Num. 11:14-15). Christian, we are not witnessing here the outpouring of gross immorality among the people. There is no indication of sexual depravity, murderous rampage, or illicit behaviors of the kind that so fixes our attention on a regular basis through the nightly news or the kind of sin that draws gasps from our mouths that so and so in the church has committed. It is complaining; murmuring against the providence of God from a discontent heart; dissatisfied with circumstances with which one is faced and it has sparked the anger of God, a warning of judgment, and a burden so great on their only intercessor with God that he has asked to be killed. Can you begin to feel the weight of how our grumbling and complaining must be a stench in the nostrils of God?
What happens next in the Numbers 11 account is simply stunning.
16 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them, and bring them to the tent of meeting, and let them take their stand there with you. 17 And I will come down and talk with you there. And I will take some of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them, and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so that you may not bear it yourself alone. 18 And say to the people, ‘Consecrate yourselves for tomorrow, and you shall eat meat, for you have wept in the hearing of the LORD, saying, “Who will give us meat to eat? For it was better for us in Egypt.” Therefore the LORD will give you meat, and you shall eat. 19 You shall not eat just one day, or two days, or five days, or ten days, or twenty days, 20 but a whole month, until it comes out at your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you, because you have rejected the LORD who is among you and have wept before him, saying, “Why did we come out of Egypt?”’” 21 But Moses said, “The people among whom I am number six hundred thousand on foot, and you have said, ‘I will give them meat, that they may eat a whole month!’ 22 Shall flocks and herds be slaughtered for them, and be enough for them? Or shall all the fish of the sea be gathered together for them, and be enough for them?” 23 And the LORD said to Moses, “Is the LORD’s hand shortened? Now you shall see whether my word will come true for you or not.”
What condescension on God’s part to His servant Moses in providing him with additional help to ease his burden in hearing the complaints of the people. On the one hand, God’s graciousness is on display. However, on the other hand, we are about to witness the hatred of God towards sin in upholding His own holiness. In case you glossed over it above, return your eyes again to verses 19-20. God is not merely going to provide meat for the malcontents who are dissatisfied with manna, He is going to gorge them with it. God would provide them so much meat it would overflow out of their nostrils and “becomes loathsome to you.” This is not a “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” passage. This is the discipline and judgment of God in handing the people over to their sinful cravings. Similar in principle to Romans 1, God often gives people up to the desires of their flesh and it is the judgment that perfectly fits the crime.
It even becomes evident that the peoples murmuring has begun to infect the faith of Moses as he begins to vocalize his unbelief in the power of the Lord, thinking somehow that God has levied against him an even greater burden of providing meat for 600,000 people for an entire month. He was blind to the stunning statement by God that it was He who would provide the meat and it would be in a direct act of judgment against the people.
Concluding this account we read of the fulfillment of God’s promise
31 Then a wind from the LORD sprang up, and it brought quail from the sea and let them fall beside the camp, about a day’s journey on this side and a day’s journey on the other side, around the camp, and about two cubits above the ground. 32 And the people rose all that day and all night and all the next day, and gathered the quail. Those who gathered least gathered ten homers. And they spread them out for themselves all around the camp. 33 While the meat was yet between their teeth, before it was consumed, the anger of the LORD was kindled against the people, and the LORD struck down the people with a very great plague. 34 Therefore the name of that place was called Kibroth-hattaavah, because there they buried the people who had the craving. 35 From Kibroth-hattaavah the people journeyed to Hazeroth, and they remained at Hazeroth.
Just as He had indicated to Moses, God provided the meat for the people, though if ever there was a fitting time to say “be careful what you wish for” it was now. In similar fashion to the fire that burned outside the camp, judgment again rains outside the camp in the form of quail. Certainly at this point the people must be satisfied that their murmuring has been heard and has bent the will of the Almighty to meet their demands. Until we read of the startling account from verse 33, “While the meat was yet between their teeth, before it was consumed, the anger of the LORD was kindled against the people, and the LORD struck down the people with a very great plague.”
Psalm 78 offers commentary on this event in the following verses
In the daytime he led them with a cloud,
and all the night with a fiery light.
15 He split rocks in the wilderness
and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep.
16 He made streams come out of the rock
and caused waters to flow down like rivers.
17 Yet they sinned still more against him,
rebelling against the Most High in the desert.
18 They tested God in their heart
by demanding the food they craved.
19 They spoke against God, saying,
“Can God spread a table in the wilderness?
20 He struck the rock so that water gushed out
and streams overflowed.
Can he also give bread
or provide meat for his people?”
21 Therefore, when the LORD heard, he was full of wrath;
a fire was kindled against Jacob;
his anger rose against Israel,
22 because they did not believe in God
and did not trust his saving power.
23 Yet he commanded the skies above
and opened the doors of heaven,
24 and he rained down on them manna to eat
and gave them the grain of heaven.
25 Man ate of the bread of the angels;
he sent them food in abundance.
26 He caused the east wind to blow in the heavens,
and by his power he led out the south wind;
27 he rained meat on them like dust,
winged birds like the sand of the seas;
28 he let them fall in the midst of their camp,
all around their dwellings.
29 And they ate and were well filled,
for he gave them what they craved.
30 But before they had satisfied their craving,
while the food was still in their mouths,
31 the anger of God rose against them,
and he killed the strongest of them
and laid low the young men of Israel.
32 In spite of all this, they still sinned;
despite his wonders, they did not believe. (Ps. 78:14-32)
After reading through and meditating on this account, is it any wonder why Puritan Thomas Brooks calls murmuring the “mother of all sins”? If you’re yet unimpressed, think about how murmuring and complaining calls into question the goodness and kindness of God; about how it rejects the supply of God in His providence. Murmuring therefore is the external product of internal unbelief. It is a dissatisfaction with Who God is and What He has done or will do. It represents the height of idolatry that man in his finiteness could do more with less. Oh, how often we find ourselves murmuring Christian. How often we grow dissatisfied with circumstances that surround us. Whether this be God’s provision in our housing, food or clothing, jobs, health, the lack of a spouse or even something so trivial as “It’s too hot” or “Why did it have to rain today.” Oh that we would not kindle the anger of God with our murmuring. Let us instead, like Job, put our hands to our mouths and be content with almighty provision of God thanking Him for the slightest of crumbs that may fall from the Master’s table.