No nation was so favored as Israel. Though not mighty or large, God had chosen them, in keeping with His covenant with Abraham and had delivered them from the hand of mighty Egypt. God led them, provided food and water, covenanted with them to be their God.
But in the wilderness they griped and groaned, and when they came to the edge of the Promised Land, two spies said, “Let’s go!” and ten said, “No!” They didn’t trust God’s promises that He could defeat all the Canaanites, no matter how numerous, how gigantic or how well fortified they might be. They refused to go into the land out of fear. Then, when God said they would die in the wilderness for their unbelief, they tried to go in without God’s presence with them and failed miserably.
They didn’t enter into their rest.
Our last study in Hebrews concluded at verse 6, a warning against falling away from Jesus Christ. Our author has been making the case that Jesus is vastly superior to any other being—whether an angel or the most revered man in Jewish history (Moses). We learned that Moses was “faithful,” and so was Jesus. However, Moses was faithful as a servant in God’s house, whereas Jesus was faithful as a Son over God’s house. This fact proves that Jesus is superior to Moses and worthy of their utmost love and loyalty.
Moses was faithful, but Moses’ generation was not. In verses 7-19 of Hebrews 3 our author turns to the generation of Israelites that Moses led out of bondage in Egypt and warns his readers not to be like them. Do NOT follow their example.
7 Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, “Today, if you hear his voice, 8 do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness, 9 where your fathers put me to the test and saw my works for forty years. 10 Therefore I was provoked with that generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart; they have not known my ways.’ 11 As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest.'” 12 Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 13 But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 14 For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. 15 As it is said, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.” 16 For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? 17 And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? 18 And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? 19 So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.
Verse 7 begins the second warning passage in the book of Hebrews. The first warning, in Hebrews 2:1-4 was “Don’t drift.” Here is it more serious, “Don’t harden your hearts.” This warning passage continues through 4:13. The warning is divided into two sections.
Verses 7-11 record the Old Testament event of Israel’s conduct in the wilderness, quoted from Psalm 95:7-11. The author is going to build upon this event and apply it to his current readers (and thus to us today).
By the way, Psalm 95 is a worship psalm, beginning with strong affirmations of worship. It starts with an invitation to come into God’s presence to sing praises to Him. But after this call to worship, it suddenly shifts gears to warn them against hardening their hearts as the wilderness generation did. Thus, a heart problem that the wilderness generation had, endangers God’s people again in the psalms and now in Hebrews. It would appear that this is a perennial problem that we need to be vigilant against.
So for us today, two thousand years after the use of it in Hebrews, it remains the Holy Spirit’s message. There is a timeless urgency to the message. We must listen to the Holy Spirit’s message today, for it is God’s message for the church in this troubled age.
Keep in mind that this lengthy quotation from Psalm 95 directly ties in to what was written in verse 6, “but Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son. And we are his house if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope.” He is explaining what he means by “holding fast our confidence and the boast of our hope.”
That first generation out of Egypt, with few exceptions, did not do it. They, therefore, missed out on the blessings of God, both temporally and eternally. Their unbelief cost them dearly.
Verses 12-19 then apply this to the readers of this epistle, with a restatement of the Old Testament quote. The point of the author is that there is a very real and present danger that this generation might follow in the footsteps of their ancestors.
Our author is drawing a comparison between the experience of Israel in her Exodus out of physical bondage in Egypt and the Church’s Exodus out of spiritual bondage in sin. The point that he makes here in Hebrews 3 is that we need to be very, very careful that no one in our midst makes the same mistake that many Israelites made.
The application begins with the word “Therefore” (v. 7) and is meant to be connected with the “Take care” of verse 12. “Therefore,” because of the bad example of the wilderness generation as expressed in Psalm 95 (vv. 7-11), “take care” or “be on guard” that you and your brothers in Christ don’t fall into the same hardness of heart.
- The Warning from Israel’s Bad Example (Hebrews 3:7-11)
The quote from Psalm 95 is introduced as an address from “…the Holy Spirit.” This is true of all of Scripture, although it was written by 40 men over the course of 1,500 years, it was all under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
Peter confirms this when he says…
20 knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. 21 For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
The psalmist makes it explicit here that the words he is writing are the words of the Holy Spirit. So listen up!
You might notice that, throughout this entire warning passage, the word “Today” is very prevalent. It is used five times (verses 7, 13, 15 and twice in 4:7). The stress on the fact that “Today” is the day of opportunity to respond to and believe in Jesus Christ, whether that “today” happened in the days of Moses, the days of David, the first century or today in the 21st century.
We all, everyone of us, has an opportunity to hear His voice, and we will respond to it in one of only two ways: believe it or reject it.
The author says, “…if you hear his voice…” As we’ve seen in this passage (v. 6, 14), the word “if” carries with it the potential that they won’t actually hear his voice—they might hear it but pay no attention to it.
The danger here is introduced to us in the warning, “…do not harden your hearts.” To harden one’s heart means to close our hearts and minds to what God has to say, to resist it.
In verses 8-9, we see that the author refers to a specific incident in time, which clarifies what it means to have a hard heart. He says, “as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness, where your fathers put me to the test and saw my works for forty years.”
Two key words in these verses help us understand what it means to harden one’s heart. They are the words “rebellion” and “testing” in verse 8. The renderings here come from the Greek Septuagint, but the original Hebrew behind the word “rebellion” is meribah, and behind “testing” is massah. Check Psalm 95:7, 8, as it is rendered in your Old Testament, and you will read: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness.”
Moses illustrates this rebellion by the Israelites in the book of Exodus. In chapter 17, the people of Israel begin to complain to Moses about God’s plan. They were thirsty, with no water to be found, but they refused to trust God and quarreled with Moses. Moses said to them, ‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?’” (Exodus 17:2). Moses struck the rock and water came out.
The account concludes with this postscript: “And he called the name of the place Massah [i.e., testing] and Meribah [i.e., quarreling], because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the LORD by saying, ‘Is the LORD among us or not?’” (Exodus 17:7).
Significantly the word Meribah is used in one other place, and that is forty years later at Kadesh when Israel is again out of water and threatening rebellion, and Moses tragically strikes the rock twice instead of speaking to it as the Lord had directed (Numbers 20:1–13, esp. v. 13). The mention of these words at the beginning and end of the wilderness sojourn is meant to tell us that this conduct was repeated many times during that whole period of wandering.
So the first sign of a hard heart is the refusal of God’s hand of parental authority (Moses and Aaron) in your life (“Massah”). The second, is the critical, complaining spirit (“Meribah”). The third stage we will see in 3:16-18 is just outright disobedience.
Deuteronomy 9:7 shows us what Israel was like after forty years in the wilderness. Moses says, “Remember and do not forget how you provoked the LORD your God to wrath in the wilderness. From the day you came out of the land of Egypt until you came to this place, you have been rebellious against the LORD.”
In spite of all the miracles that God had performed throughout those forty years, in spite of all the things God did for Israel, every time a new crisis came up, their first response was to rebel against the Lord.
Hardness is rooted in unbelief. It is a decision not to believe God’s promises or God’s goodness. You would think that God’s repeated provision and protection throughout these years would have prompted trust and reliance upon God—that their first response would be to ask God for help.
Our author continues his quotation of Psalm 95 in verses 10-11, saying:
10 Therefore I was provoked with that generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart; they have not known my ways.’ 11 As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest.'”
Leon Morris writes, “We should not miss the reference to the anger of God. The Bible is clear that God is not impassive or indifferent in the face of human sin” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary—Hebrews, p. 34). The implication is pointed. If God was angry with people to whom he had graciously and mightily revealed Himself over and over again, how much more with those who have heard the gospel, felt its beauty, sensed its urgency, yet have turned away in stubborn defiance. And that is what the audience of this letter was in danger of doing.
That generation of the Exodus died in the wilderness because they had hardened their hearts and would not trust God to deliver them. The author of Hebrews is warning his own generation not to follow in their footsteps.
What was the consequence that the Israelites faced for not trusting and obeying God? They could not enter His “rest.” This was in response to the unbelief of the Israelites when they refused to go into the land God had promised to them. They grumbled against Moses and Aaron, believing they would be better off in Egypt (Numbers 14:1-3). So Numbers 14:11 says:
And the LORD said to Moses, “How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?
The penalty was that not one of them “shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers. And none of those who despised me shall see it” (Numbers 14:23).
Only Joshua and Caleb of that generation would experience rest in the promised land. Psalm 81:10-16 expresses this problem well:
10 I am the LORD your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it. 11 “But my people did not listen to my voice; Israel would not submit to me. 12 So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels. 13 Oh, that my people would listen to me, that Israel would walk in my ways! 14 I would soon subdue their enemies and turn my hand against their foes. 15 Those who hate the LORD would cringe toward him, and their fate would last forever. 16 But he would feed you with the finest of the wheat, and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.”
An unbelieving heart never has enough proof. It may claim that it would believe if God would show Himself through miracles, but it won’t. Israel is proof of that. They had seen God’s works “for forty years” (Heb. 3:8) but they still hardened their hearts against God.
The Lord Himself testified they had done this on no less than 10 occasions (Nm 14:22). As far as God was concerned, the whole 40 years in the wilderness was a time of testing revealing what the hearts of the Israelites were really like (Dt 8:2). But they flunked the test. In spite of all the miracles God did before their eyes, they refused to believe He would do what He said. This is why He became angry with them. The more He did for them, the more they rebelled against Him. Thus, He became angry with that generation, keeping them in the wilderness until all the men of war (except Joshua and Caleb) died. Only then would He allow the next generation to enter the land–which He referred to as His “rest” (Dt 12:9). (C. S. Lovett, Lovett’s Lights on Hebrews, 70)
“Rest” is something promised in Eden. It is the nature of life lived without sin in the presence of God. It is what is promised in the Sabbath and was meant to be lived in Eden. Of course, Adam and Eve forfeited that rest.
Yet Israel could attain that rest when they entered into the land God promised them. In Exodus 33:14 God promised, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” God has promised Israel that they would experience His blessing if they were obedience, but be under His curse if they disobeyed, especially if they worshipped other gods. In this context, rest is to be protected from one’s enemies so that life could flourish.
“‘Rest’ (katapausis), as used here [in Hebrews 3-4], points to a place of blessing where there is no more striving but only relaxation in the presence of God and in the certainty that there is no cause for fear” (Leon Morris, Expositor’s Bible Commentary—Hebrews, p. 35).
We are promised rest in the gospel. Jesus said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). In this context, rest is to no longer be under the law, especially the Pharisaic excesses, they weighed men down under heavy loads of guilt and despair.
The urgency of responding in trust now is carried by the word “today” (v. 7). We are to respond to this prohibition against allowing our hearts to harden immediately. Don’t put it off another moment. The Holy Spirit is calling your heart right now. It must not be neglected.
There is nothing so hardening as delay. When God speaks to us, He asks for a tender heart, open to the whispers of His voice of love. The believer who answers the To-day of the Holy Ghost with the To-morrow of some more convenient season, knows not how he is hardening his heart; the delay, instead of making the surrender and obedience and faith easy, makes it more difficult. It closes the heart for to-day against the Comforter, and puts off all hope and power of growth. (Andrew Murray, The Holiest of All, 125)
The Exodus generation saw miracle after miracle, but not everyone believed. In fact, it is likely that most of them did not believe. That is why they died in the wilderness.
Even in the church today, there may be people who have gone through a moral reformation, go to church, live and act like Christians, have seen God do miracles for them, yet are not saved. Why? Because they have not put their whole trust in Christ alone for salvation. Maybe they haven’t consciously refused to believe in Jesus, but they just haven’t ever consciously placed their whole trust in Jesus alone to forgive their sins.
I challenge you to examine yourself. I’m not asking if you go to church, if you have experienced some wonderful spiritual experiences, even miracles, if you’ve walked an aisle or prayed a prayer. I’m asking, “Have you put your whole trust only in Jesus Christ and nothing else, for the forgiveness of your sins.”
Don’t trust in your history of church attendance, in your giving amount, in your good deeds for God. Trust only in Jesus.
And keep trusting Him. Don’t let anything distract you from trusting in Jesus Christ alone for your salvation.