The Tongue and the Wilderness

We have studied the last few weeks on the need to tame the tongue in James 3:1-12. One of the most powerful statements James makes is in verses 5-6 “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness….” If you are following along in our church-wide Bible reading plan, you will have just read a vivid example of this principle in the story of the ten spies who brought back a bad report. 

In Numbers 13:1 “The LORD spoke to Moses saying, “Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel.” This was the land that had been promised to Israel and was the whole point of bringing them out of the land of Egypt. So Moses chose twelve chief men, one from each tribe, and told them to be “courageous and bring some of the fruit of the land” (13:20). After forty days of spying out the land, the twelve spies returned and told the congregation some concerning things about the people already dwelling there. So Caleb, one of the twelve, encouraged them to take the land in faith and had to “quiet the people” because apparently, the report of the spies was already causing a great stir. But the ten spies spewed more fear and doubt by saying “it’s a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height…we seemed ourselves to be grasshoppers” (13:32-33). And so it goes down in the annals of biblical history that “they brought to the people of Israel a bad report of the land” (13:32). 

Understandable though, right? I mean, what’s the big deal? We probably would have been afraid too if we were in their shoes. And what they said was technically true and accurate. It’s just words. They are only expressing themselves….

Yes, but they are expressing themselves with words of unbelief and fear that disparage the promises and power of Yahweh. And as we have been learning, words have a real effect on others and real consequences. Ten men brought a bad report, expressing their fear and disbelief in the promise of God (though they had witnessed the ten plagues and the parting of the Red Sea!) and it was like a spark that set ablaze a wildfire that would have far-reaching consequences more than they could have ever imagined. 

Because of that “bad report” we read, “Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And all the people grumbled against Moses and Aaron…“Why is the LORD bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” (14:1-3). The tongue of ten men set ablaze the tongues of a few million, and they were all saying the same thing, parroting the same unbelief and fear with lots of grumbling. A fire was started and very quickly consumed and ravaged the entire nation. Joshua and Caleb tried to put out the fire, tearing their clothes and saying to all the people “The land…is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord delights in us, He will bring us into this land…Only do not rebel against the LORD and do not fear the people of the land…the LORD is with us, do not fear them” (14:6-10).

But as is often the case, their words were like trying to put out a forest fire with a bucket of water, and the “congregation said to stone them with stones” (14:10). Yet we do see how powerful a few righteous words can still be, as Moses used his tongue to intercede on behalf of the people when God said he would “strike them” (14:12). God heard Moses’ prayer and pardoned their sin. But the consequences would be grave. The ten men who brought the bad report and started the whole forest fire were struck down by a plague (14:37) and the rest of the congregation, from 20 years old and upward, were sentenced to die in the wilderness and never see the land. Even their children suffered the consequences because they would have to wander for forty years in the wilderness before Joshua would finally lead them into the promised land. Talk about destruction! Talk about the ravaging effects of words! 

I think we too quickly dismiss our careless words as “just venting” without considering the devastating effect they can have on others. Yes, we need to confess openly when we are struggling with doubts and fears. But it’s one thing to confess knowing what you think and feel is wrong and desiring help and prayer, and another thing to speak flippantly, carelessly, or unbelievingly, spreading our unbelief almost persuasively, leading others to doubt God or disobey His commands. 

O how quickly we can kill someone’s passion to do something risky for God because of our own fear and unbelief. We disguise our own fear as “wisdom” and as “just being realistic.” But untrained Israel fighting all the Nephilim was anything but realistic, yet they had the command of God to go and the promise of God that He would be with them. Will you speak in faith or will you speak in unbelief? Will you use your words like Joshua and Caleb to inspire people to obedience, or will you use your words like the ten spies to dissuade people in fear? Remember that what you say has the power to weaken or strengthen the faith of many others, and therefore every word matters for eternity!

For the glory of Christ, 

Pastor Bryan