Psalm 78:41, "Yea, they turned back and tempted God, and limited the Holy One of Israel."
This morning, society increasingly slides downward in many directions. Oftentimes we see and hear the moral decline and degradation that goes on around us. Yet, one way that modern humanity continues to decline – though it is not often discussed – is the celebration of mediocrity. In times such as these, people do not realize the potential of a great many situations and circumstances, for there is no motivation to do so. When medium to low grades in school are celebrated, what motivation is there for the student to do better? When the performance of job-related duties (our job descriptions) is met with praise as if it was something special, what motivates the employee to go "over and abound" when they have the ability to do so? When coming to church every so often, reading our Bible from time to time, and doing a good deed here and there makes someone a "good person" in the eyes of their peers, what motivates someone to put on the full wardrobe of discipleship in this world? I heard a good example from a fellow minister not long ago that stated, "When you set your standard at 10 feet above the world, you may stay 10 feet above the world, but if the world keeps getting worse, then you are getting worse even though still 10 feet above the world."
Our study verse above is in the midst of an often told account: the journeys of the children of Israel from Egypt to Canaan. This story is found and repeated in the writings of Moses, Stephen's sermon in Acts 7, as well as many other places in Scriptures. The reason that this story is so vitally important as to be repeated so many times is that these people are our examples. (I Corinthians 10:6) Sadly, they are oftentimes an example of what not to do instead of what to do, but another reason that these accounts should stay so vitally fresh unto us is from their description of God and His behaviour. Even though we are not the Israelites of old, God's actions and thinking about His children's actions in this world is ever the same today as it was then. Therefore, while the Israelites are examples for us today, these accounts should serve as a great guidepost for our expectations of God's actions and thinking regarding our lives.
Since God does not change (Malachi 3:6), then what He considered wrong then is still wrong today. What He upheld as righteous then is still righteous today. Before launching into the thoughts of this verse, let us quickly make one comment about the overall principle of this story. Whether one reads this account from this Psalm, Hebrews 3-4, I Corinthians 10, or a related account like Ezekiel 16, one thing stands out prominently. The people fell over and over again. Likewise, God chastised them over and over again. Yet, through it all and in spite of everything that these people did, God never quit loving them. God never forsook them utterly and left them forever and for all time. Such a contrast should stay with us today. God chastises me over and over again for my repeated failures before Him, but take solace dear friends, He will NEVER quit loving us or forsake us utterly in this world or the world to come.
Our verse deals with one of those "down moments" when the children of Israel forsook the Lord by tempting Him and disobeying His commandments. One might make a case that this particular portion of the passage deals with them at the banks of Canaan refusing to go in at the evil report of the 10 spies. While not specific, the language could certainly point to that. As a result of that particular occasion, God pronounced judgment on an entire generation of people. With the exceptions of Caleb and Joshua, everyone 20 years old and above would never get into that wonderfully blessed land. But, whether that is the particular account under consideration in our verse or not, let us look at the last phrase that has some particularly intriguing language.
The Psalmist says that they "limited" God. Considering what the Bible says about God's power, understanding, etc. it seems an interesting statement to say that man "limited" God. Oftentimes, I see people "attempt" to limit God by saying that "God has done all He can do, and now it is up to you to accept Jesus." We understand that such erroneous teaching does not in actuality limit God in the way that it is promoted. God still saves and has redeemed all those that He intended, nor will He lose one from His sight. So, what does a phrase like "limited the Holy One of Israel" mean?
We read another interesting and similar statement in Mark 6:5, when it declares that Jesus "could there do no mighty work." Certainly Jesus – fully God and fully man – was not in some sense diminished in power. When He laid aside His glory to descend into this earth in fleshly form, He did not cease being the Omnipotent God of this universe. (Revelation 19:6) The statement that He basically "could not do something" was not a description of His ability. Rather, it was a description of His willingness coupled with their perception of HIs actions.
Now, let us bring both our verse and the statement from Mark together and look at them in the lens of God's will and our perception of Him. Standing there on the banks of Jordan in Numbers 13, God was quite willing for His children to enter Canaan's Land. He even encouraged Moses to send spies into the land to confirm the goodness of the land that He had promised them. God did not command this activity to "see if we can really do this or not." God commanded this for eyewitnesses to show and confirm that "God is right." Everything He said is exactly the way it is. With His continued help, we shall certainly be blessed. Yet, when only Caleb and Joshua said that, multitudes suffered lasting consequences when God's willingness ceased.
The people on this occasion failed to realize the full potential of God's blessings unto them by limiting Him, His ability, and His promises in the courtroom of their own mind and perception. God said yes they could, and they said, "No we can't!" Back in Mark 6, Christ kept plainly declaring that He was sent from the Father, He is God the Son, and here are these mighty works to corroborate what He is declaring. The people kept saying, "We don't believe you." As such, one might make the case that no matter what Christ did, they would not have accepted His Person nor thought He was certifiably the Christ and Messiah. As such, He "could there do no mighty work" as they would not have perceived it or Him as mighty. By such an unwillingness to accept the great power of the occasion, Christ was thereby unwilling to perform as many miracles there as He would have and did in other places.
For the sake of space and time, let us move the discussion to our lives and this present time. How often do people settle for a lesser standard in their lives due to some perception? Whether the student in the classroom seeing no reason to strive higher, the employee seeing no monetary benefit for doing his all, or the church-goer seeing no reason to disciple more, the general point holds true. If you do not try any harder than to get an 85% on an exam, 100% will never be realized. In the spiritual kingdom, if we do not try for perfection, how many blessings will be lost and unrealized along the journey? While we realize that perfection is not possible, that should be the goal.
How often does God make the promise to bless us with His kind and gracious presence when we walk in obedience to the truth? The teaching is richly and abundantly found throughout Scripture. Yet, how much of that do I fail to realize by settling for less than I could perform? Many times, ministers are posed with the statements, "I just don't get much out of church. I don't get much out of Bible reading. My prayers don't ever seem to go anywhere." While the response should gently lead and nudge them along, the short but blunt answer could be that they limited God in their own mind. How oftentimes do we attend church, read our Bibles, or pray with the underlying thought, "Well here I am like I'm supposed to be"?
Dear ones, church services get sweeter the more we put into them, Bible reading becomes more enriching the more devoted energy (not just time but time and energy) that we devote to it, and prayer feels the sweetness of God's breeze the more humbly and reverently we enter into it. When our mind limits God by limiting His occasions, He will many times limit HIs presence and interaction with us. His willingness to dwell with us and enrich our service will diminish. Yet, we should never attach a conception that Him being unwilling equates to Him being unable or without power to do so. So oftentimes, He mercifully blesses us so far better than we deserve, but hopefully our desire with each passing day is to realize more and more of His blessings and presence with us.
We are approaching a time of the calendar when people make resolutions of sorts. Maybe they will try to lose weight, make more money, etc. May we daily resolve to meet more and more of the potential of service and interaction with God. May we attend more worship services this year than last, may we read more of the Bible this year than last, may we pray more this year than last, and may our obedience to His cause shine brighter this year than last. By doing so, may a whole area of God's special presence and power be felt in, with, and among us.