When someone’s life here on earth is drawing to a close, they often begin reflecting upon what is most important. They want to pass on a final word of instruction, something they want their posterity to remember when they are gone. We can see an example of this in the book of Numbers, which records some of
Moses’ final words to the people of Israel. They had wandered around in the wilderness for forty years as a result of their unbelief, and finally, they have returned to the plain across the Jordan river from Jericho. Moses has a heavy burden for the people, knowing that in just a short time, Joshua would be left with an entire nation who has been commission to invade and conquer a land their forefathers trembled at when they spied it out.
The Lord recognized this fact, and since Moses was the one who had led Israel all these years, God uses him to pass on a final set of instructions. Most of this charge is found in the book of Deuteronomy, but there is a very significant part that is found in the book of Numbers. In it, we read this solemn warning—
“Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘When you cross over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, and destroy all their figured stones, and destroy all their molten images and demolish all their high places; and you shall take possession of the land and live in it…but if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then it shall come about that those whom you let remain of them will become as pricks in your eyes and as thorns in your sides, and they will trouble you in the land in which you live. And as I plan to do to them, so I will do to you.’”Numbers 33:51-56
Strong words, but it was imperative that Israel grasp what He was saying. When they crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land, it was going to take work: they had to destroy all the nations that lived in it. This was not a job for a week, a month, or even a year. The land was vast, the people strong, and the Israelites relatively untrained in battle. It would require courage, determination, and an unwavering reliance upon the Lord.
The much easier choice would be to let some of the people live. Of course, they would drive out the really wicked ones, but others…well, they might not be so bad. After all, they were already living in the land, weren’t they? At least, that was how they might rationalize it.
The Lord knew this was a very real danger, and so He gives this stern warning. They were to leave nothing of the pagan worship in the land. Israel was to destroy the altars, the shrines, the idols, the carvings, the sacred pillars, all of it. If they didn’t, they would inevitably become like the nations around them. When that happened, the Lord warned, the peoples around them would be Israel’s downfall, inflicting pain like “pricks in [their] eyes and as thorns in [their[ sides” (Numbers 33:55).
I don’t know if you have ever found yourself caught in a thorn thicket, but it isn’t fun, to put it lightly. A friend I used to work with got a shard of metal in his eye once, and he couldn’t do anything until he got it out, and even then, his eyes were still tearing up and inflamed. Neither one of these are situations anyone would desire, and that was entirely the point. If Israel allowed the pagans around them to live in the land, great pain, sorrow, and suffering would come about because of such disobedience. Not only that, but God Himself would oppose Israel if they did (Numbers 33:56). Ouch.
But notice the condition once again. God did not say all this would come about if the Israelites became like the Canaanites, but rather, He said to Israel that it would happen “if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land” (Numbers 33:55). Not if they assimilated, but if they even let the pagan cultures remain in the land. Why did He have such a high standard?
The reason is that it is an inevitable part of our fallen nature that if we flirt with sin, we will fall into it. If Israel let false worship remain, they would eventually take part in it. Don’t believe me? Just read the book of Judges. Its pages are filled with example after example of how the people of Israel turned away from the Lord, and they were abused, enslaved, and persecuted by the nations remaining in the land. How long did it take for Israel to forget God? Just one generation (Judges 2:7-12). In a single generation, Israel moved from being a people who “served the Lord,” to a nation who “forsook the Lord…and followed other gods from among the gods of the peoples who were around them.” Sin cannot be trifled with—it is way too dangerous.
So while God’s instructions to entirely wipe out the heathen nations may sound drastic, it takes extreme measures to guard against sin. And while we are not called to annihilate unbelievers, we still have a calling to take significant steps to guard ourselves and our hearts.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul emphatically states, “Make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts” (Romans 13:14). In another Epistle, he commands through the Holy Spirit, “Do not give the devil an opportunity” (Ephesians 4:27). Don’t tolerate sin, don’t flirt with it, don’t even overlook it. Don’t give Satan a foothold in your life.
So how do we do that? What does it mean to not give Satan an opportunity? There is no “one-size-fits-all” plan for guarding every believer from sin, for we each have our own struggles, our own temptations, our own specific weaknesses. I might struggle with lust more than another brother, but he may struggle with anger more than I do. So the standards that we each need to put in place might be different.
Yet the point is that we need to have them in place. If you struggle with lustful thoughts, don’t put yourself in situations where you know temptation will come, such as watching certain movies or reading certain stories. If you struggle with lying, get a fellow brother or sister in Christ (or two or three) to hold you accountable in telling the truth. The specifics will be different for whatever temptation we face, but we cannot afford to let our guard done.
Sometimes that means taking drastic measures. Think I’m kidding? Jesus said to cut off a hand and tear out an eye that leads us into sin (Matthew 5:29, 30). He was using a hyperbole to illustrate the point that it is far better to give up something we think we have a “right” to than to keep it and fall into sin. For some people, they make a choice to not go to theaters at all. Others might not go to a restaurant that even serves alcohol, even if they don’t order any themselves. Drastic, but it is what it takes. Something may not b wrong in and of itself, like an eye is not sinful, but we need to avoid it if it gives our enemy a foothold in our lives.
So for each one of us, what “Canaanites” do we have that we have not completely driven out of our hearts and minds? God calls us to bring “every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:4, 5). It will take drastic measures, but sin is nothing to be trifled with; the stakes are way too high. Therefore, we need to be brutally honest in our self-examinations, stalwart in our stand for Christ, and unflinching in our resistance against sin. Footholds will become strongholds if we allow them to remain in our lives. We cannot afford to let that happen. We have to root them out, and we have to do it now.