Select your language
Nuer (Sudan/South-Sudan)
Tshiluba (DR Congo)

How to React to Failure

Michael Hardt

This article looks at four different occasions when Moses acted in a way that may puzzle many minds. Three times, when the people had sinned, he interceded for them although he apparently had every reason to show indignation. His self-denial and the "counter proposals" that he made to God are most remarkable, if not astonishing. However, once the motivation of this man of God on these three occasions has become clear, it is so much the more astonishing that on the fourth occasion he does not intercede at all.




Exodus 32:12



Numbers 14:19



Numbers 16:46

Identification with those who had been judged


Numbers 25:5

Continued fornication and idolatry


A brief comparison of the four incidents may provide an answer to the apparent puzzle.

1.) Exodus 32

"Turn from the heat of Thine anger, and repent of this evil against Thy people!" (v. 12b).

The first occasion occurred immediately after the law had been given (or even simultaneously). They had "turned aside quickly" (v. 8) and made a molten calf: "Up, make us a god" (v. 1). Burnt-offerings and peace-offerings were brought (v. 6) and the calf was acknowledged as the god who had brought them out of the land of Egypt (v. 4). The people that had stated "All that Jehovah has spoken will we do!" (Ex. 19:8) was now engaged in idolatry.

God had taken notice, even of the details. He relates these details to Moses (vv. 7-9) and concludes, "it is a stiff-necked people. And now let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them, and I may consume them" (vv. 9-10). At the same time, God promises Moses that he will be spared from this judgment, and that: "I will make of thee a great nation."

We might pause here to ask ourselves how we would have reacted in Moses' place. He had not had the least involvement in the people's sin. We might expect him to express that he shared God's righteous indignation. This was the opportunity for him to secure a place of honour: "I will make of thee a great nation" (v. 10). Instead, we read that "Moses besought Jehovah his God, and said, Why, Jehovah, doth Thy wrath burn against Thy people, which Thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt." (v. 11). Instead of condemning, he intercedes for this "stiff-necked" people. This action must be a riddle to anyone sufficiently honest to admit how easily we condemn fellow Christians. In taking the attitude of an intercessor, Moses became a striking picture of Christ interced­ing for His people (Heb. 7:25). There is little Moses can say as to the people's virtues but he finds reasons to ask God to "repent," i.e. to change His mind as to the announced judgment:

  • Why, Jehovah, doth Thy wrath burn against Thy people, which Thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a strong hand? (v. 11)
  • Why should the Egyptians speak. (v. 12)
  • Remember Abraham, Isaac and Israel, Thy servants, to whom Thou sworest by Thyself.

First, it was God who had brought the people out of Egypt (not Moses: v. 7). Secondly, the enemies of the people would mock and blaspheme. Thirdly, God had sworn by Himself, not by the faith­fulness of the people. To put it briefly, it was God's glory Moses was concerned about, not his own honour or prospects, nor carnal indignation towards God's people (there was, of course, a case for indignation against the people, as God's own wrath makes clear, but the overriding consideration that guided Moses was God's glory).

The remarkable result is that "Jehovah repented of the evil that He had said He would do to His people" (v. 14). The people were spared and a testimony remained as the people continued in their journey through the desert towards the promised land. This was the result of a man of God who was concerned about God's honour and not his own, and who therefore interceded for the people.

Later on, once Moses had come down from the mountain, a number of other actions followed: Moses broke the two tables of the law (v. 19), he demanded a decision (v. 26), and judgment had to be exercised (v. 26). The seriousness of the failure (idolatry) required a decision as well as judgment of those who did not want to be "for Jehovah." However, the focus of this article is on the fact that Moses interceded for the people.

2.) Numbers 14

"Pardon, I beseech Thee, the iniquity of this people" (v. 19).

Twelve spies had searched out the land of Canaan, but only two of them brought back good news. The ten "brought. an evil report," saying, "the land, which we have passed through to search it out, is a land that eateth up its inhabitants; and all the people that we have seen in it are men of great stature; and there have we seen giants." (Num. 13:32).

As a result of this message of unbelief "the whole assembly lifted up their voice, and cried" (ch. 14:1). Further, they murmured against Moses (v. 2), wished they had died in Egypt (v. 2) and accused God (v. 3). Their proposal is a shocking one: "Let us make a captain, and let us return to Egypt." When Joshua and Caleb brought a good report (vv. 6-9), "the whole assembly said that they should be stoned with stones" (v. 10).

"A hopeless case," we might say, and indeed, God's comment was: "How long will this people despise Me?  and how long will they not believe Me, for all the signs which I have done among them?  I will smite them with the pestilence, and destroy them." The charge against the people was unbelief because God had told them that He was going to give them the land and that it was a good land. Therefore, there was no need to send spies at all, and even after the spies' had given their reports, the people should have trusted God to enable them to conquer the land as promised.

In addition to this justified charge, there is again a promise to Moses to be made "a nation greater and mightier than they." And again, Moses intercedes for the people. Forgetting himself, he appeals to God in favour of the people. His intercession is based on the implications for God's glory (vv. 14-16) and on God's attrib­utes of loving-kindness and His gracious dealings with the people on previous occasions (vv. 18-19). The consequences of this inci­dent are twofold: in response to Moses' intercession, Jehovah pardons the iniquity of the people (v. 20). At the same time, governmental dealings with the people are announced: all those who were 20 years of age or more would have to die in the wilder­ness instead of entering the land, and the time of the journey would be prolonged by 40 years (v. 34).

3.) Numbers 16

"Take the censer, and put fire thereon from off the altar, and lay on incense, and carry it quickly to the assembly, and make atonement for them; for there is wrath gone out from Jehovah: the plague is begun" (v. 46). 

Without going into details, let us just notice the context of this verse. Korah, together with 250 "men of renown" had staged a revolt against Moses and Aaron, aspiring to the status of priest that belonged to Aaron and his sons (vv. 1-2, 10). God answered in judgment: "And the earth opened its mouth, and swallowed them up, and their households, and all the men that belonged to Korah, and all their property" (v. 32).

One would have thought that this judgment would leave a deep impression upon all the people. However, on the morning of the very next day the people complain, "Ye have killed the people of Jehovah." As they identify themselves with Korah and the 250 men, they merit the same judgment. God's instructions to Moses, "Get you up from the midst of this assembly, and I will consume them in a moment," are very similar indeed to the instructions he had given before the earth opened and swallowed up Korah and his companions (v. 26: "Depart"). Therefore, the only understandable reaction of Moses would have been for him to "depart" and wait for the people to be judged.

Instead, Moses asks Aaron to make atonement for the people (see the verse quoted above). Due to this priestly intervention, the plague (which had indeed begun) was stopped. The people were spared once again, although 14,700 of them died. Again, the answer to the riddle is the same. In this case of utter urgency what prompted Moses to call for intercession on behalf of God's people was a concern for God's glory and the well-being of His people.

Instead of lightly criticising God's people (or even waiting for them to be judged) we should bring in the "censer" by bringing the merits of Christ and His work before God and asking Him to have mercy upon His people on this basis.

4.) Numbers 25

"And Moses said to the judges of Israel, Slay every one his men that have joined themselves to Baal-Peor" (v. 5).

The first three cases are riddles in the sense that Moses' reaction (intercession) is hard to understand, given the people's failure. However, having observed this meek man of God three times and having seen him pleading with God, the fourth case must be a greater riddle still: Moses does not intercede at all.

Why not?  Did Moses err on this occasion?  The text of our chapter does not give the faintest indication that he did. For myself, I have found only one answer. The nature of the people's failure in the first three cases was serious (superstition, unbelief, identifica­tion with those who had been judged), but here in Numbers 25 it must be even more serious in God's sight.

What had happened?  "And Israel abode in Shittim; and the people began to commit fornication with the daughters of Moab. And they invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods; and the people ate, and bowed down to their gods. And Israel joined himself to Baal-Peor" (vv. 1-3). A first key may be found in the term "abode." It suggests a settled disposition, as opposed to a temporary state. Further, the sins of fornication (the spiritual coun­terpart is idolatry) and idolatry have become common practice. Here, a different degree of sin is reached: a state of established idolatry, resulting in Israel joining himself to Baal-Peor.

As a result, "the anger of Jehovah was kindled against Israel" (v. 3). This time, God's anger is turned away by judgment, not by intercession (vv. 4, 8b). A total of 24,000 people died.


Taking the four cases together and asking ourselves what we might learn from them, the following points come to mind. 

  1. When there is failure among God's people, the standard reac­tion of God's servant should be intercession on their behalf.
  2. God's servant is not concerned about his own honour, but about God's glory.
  3. Pursuing God's glory, the believer will act rightly: not always doing the same thing, but doing what is right in God's eyes.
  4. A situation can be reached when judgment/discipline is the only right way of dealing with the matter.

May this attempted sketch of four episodes from the desert encourage us to pray for God's people whenever there is the slightest ground for intercession, and to act in discipline when God's glory demands it.