The petitioner of this prayer in Numbers 14 verse 17 was Moses. The occasion of his prayer was the rebellion of the people of Israel in the desert. In keeping with GOD’s command and the wish of the people, Moses had sent twelve spies to search out the Promised Land. It was just over a year ago since they had left Egypt and begun their journey to the land that GOD had promised to their ancestors: ‘a land flowing with milk and honey.’ On the way, He had appeared to them at Mount Sinai and had given them the Ten Commandments; and they, on their part, had pledged their obedience to Him in the well-known statement:
Na-aseh v’nishma. - We will obey and hear.
Now, at last, they had arrived at the borders of the land and Moses had addressed them in the words of Deuteronomy, Chapter 1, verses 20 and 21:
You have come to the mountains of the Amorites, which the LORD our GOD is giving us. Look, the LORD your GOD has set the land before you. Go up and possess it as the LORD GOD of your fathers has spoken to you. Do not fear or be discouraged. It was at this point that the people requested that they should send twelve spies to search out the land for them. GOD approved of their request and allowed it. But when the spies came back with a mixed report, with only two out of the twelve dissenting, the people balked at the order to conquer the land. In fact Moses put his finger at the real cause of the disobedience in Deuteronomy 1, verse 26:
Nevertheless you would not go up, but rebelled against the commandment of the LORD your GOD. In plain terms, they had been looking all along for any colour of an excuse not to obey and hearken as they had vowed, and now the unfaithful spies gave them the alibi they needed. To anticipate the result, let us emphasize here, that it was not fear that was the primary cause of their disobedience. Because in the same narrative we read that they also rebelled against GOD’s oath of exclusion, and tried to enter the land against His declared sentence that they would not be permitted to enter upon their promised possession for forty years. Of course, that ended in failure, as Moses reminded them.
To return to our narrative, let us look for a moment at what the people said and did on receiving the unfavourable report of the spies. Numbers 14, verse 1:
Then all the congregation lifted up their voices and cried, and the people wept that night. Paradoxically, they treated it as the greatest disaster that GOD had brought them to the Promised Land. They still hankered after the land of their bondage, as the following verses record; verses 2 and 3:
And all of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron, and the whole congregation said to them, ‘If only we had died in the land of Egypt; or if only we had died in this wilderness. Why has the LORD brought us to this land to fall by the sword that our wives and children should become victims? Would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?’
They wept; they murmured, and they came near to executing the two spies who dissented from their decision. Verse 10:
And all the congregation said to stone them with stones. And if the LORD had not intervened at this point, they would have done so. Not surprisingly, the LORD their GOD said to Moses (verse 11):
How long will these people reject Me? And how long will they not believe Me; with all the signs which I have performed among them? He then revealed His purpose to strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them, and begin again with Moses as He had done with Abraham. Then it was that Moses prayed for mercy for his people, including the Words which we quoted at the beginning.
And now I pray, let the power of my Lord be great just as You have spoken,
saying the LORD is long-suffering and abundant in mercy; forgiving iniquity and transgression. But He, by no means, clears the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation. Pardon the iniquity of this people, I pray, according the greatness of Your mercy, just as You have forgiven this people from Egypt, even until now. For the record, Moses prevailed with GOD, and the people were spared. But the ten unfaithful spies died by the plague.
What was the essence of Moses’ petition? And the answer is: he based his prayer on the power and promise of GOD. The power to forgive; and His promise to do so! It is the former that he stressed, the Biblical teaching on the forgiveness of sins: that in order to forgive us, GOD puts forth His power; a power that exceeds the power He displayed at creation. In other words, GOD displays more power in forgiving sinners, than He did when He created the Universe. To do the latter, He had only to speak the Word, and it was done. But to forgive sinners, He had to provide a sin-bearer that could atone for us all. Isaiah 53, verse 6:
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one, to his own way. And the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. Moses’ prayer for the forgiveness of his people, and the prayer of us all for forgiveness, can only be accepted on the basis of what Messiah has done for us, as described in detail in Isaiah, Chapter 53. But in order to cover the sins of all time, committed by all His people, GOD had to provide an everlasting atonement. This He has done through Messiah. Daniel 9, verse 24:
To finish the transgression, to make an end of sins, to make reconciliation for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness.
Who is this Messiah of whom we speak? He is ADONAI TSIDKEINU, the LORD, our Righteousness! Described by all the prophets as the ‘Righteous One’ who took our guilt and condemnation upon Himself, and paid the debt we owed to the offended justice of GOD. Isaiah 53, verse 11:
By his knowledge, My righteous Servant shall justify many, for He shall bear their iniquities. This is the reason why Israel, as a people, exist today. This is the ‘prophet like Moses’ who has made intercession for the transgressors; and this is the One, Whom we know by name, YESHUA HA’MASHIACH, the Redeemer from Nazareth. Shalom.