38. Yet he, being merciful, expiated their iniquity,1 and did not destroy them: and he multiplied to turn away his anger, and did not stir up all his wrath. 39. And he remembered that they were flesh; a spirit2 that passeth, and returneth not. 40. How often did they provoke him in the desert, and grieve him in the wilderness! 41. And they returned, and tempted God, and limited the Holy One of Israel.
38. Yet he, being merciful, expiated their iniquity. To show the more fully that no means had succeeded in bending the Israelites, and causing them to return to a sound state of mind, we are now informed that, although God bare with their multiplied transgressions, and exercised his mercy in forgiving them, they had no less manifested their wickedness in abusing his benignity in every instance in which it was displayed, than they had shown themselves refractory and obstinate when he treated them with severity. At the same time, the reason is assigned why they did not utterly perish. They no doubt deserved to be involved in one common destruction; but it is declared that God mitigated his anger, that some seed of them might remain. That none might infer, from these examples of vengeance which have been mentioned, that God had proceeded to punish them with undue severity, we are told that the punishments inflicted upon them were moderate -- yea, mild, when compared with the aggravated nature of their wickedness. God kept back his hand, not looking so much to what they had deserved, as desiring to give place to his mercy. We are not, however, to imagine that he is changeable, when at one time he chastises us with a degree of severity, and at another time gently draws and allures us to himself; for in the exercise of his matchless wisdom, he has recourse to different means by which to try whether there is really any hope of our recovery. But the guilt of men becomes more aggravated, when neither his severity can reform them nor his mercy melt them. It is to be observed, that the mercy of God, which is an essential attribute of his nature, is here assigned as the reason why he spared his people, to teach us that he was not induced by any other cause but this, to show himself so much inclined and ready to pardon. Moreover, as he pardoned them not only in one instance, nor in one respect, it is affirmed that he expiated their iniquity, that he might not destroy them; and again, that although he had been oftentimes provoked, he yet ceased not to turn away his anger; and, finally, that he mitigated his chastisements, lest the people should be overwhelmed with the weight of them.
39. And he remembered that they were flesh. Another reason is now brought forward why God had compassion on the people, which is, his unwillingness to try his strength against men who are so constituted as to live only for a short period in this world, and who then quickly pass away; for the forms of expression here used denote the frailty by which the condition of men is made miserable. Flesh and spirit are frequently contrasted in the Scriptures; not only when flesh means our depraved and sinful nature, and spirit the uprightness to which the children of God are born again; but also when men are called flesh, because there is nothing firm or stable in them: as it is said in Isaiah, (Isaiah 31:3,) "Egypt is flesh, and not spirit." In this passage, however, the words flesh and spirit are employed in the same sense -- flesh meaning that men are subject to corruption and putrefaction; and spirit, that they are only a breath or a fleeting shadow. As men are brought to death by a continual wasting and decay, the people are compared to a wind which passes away, and which, of its own accord, falls and does not return again. When we have run our race, we do not commence a new life upon the earth; even as it is said in Job,
"For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that the tender branch thereof will not cease. Though the root thereof wax old in the earth, and the stock thereof die in the ground; yet through the scent of water it will bud, and bring forth boughs like a plant. But man dieth and wasteth away; yea, man giveth up the ghost, and where is he?" (Job 14:7)
The meaning, then, as we may now clearly perceive, is, that God, in the exercise of his mercy and goodness, bare with the Jews, not because they deserved this, but because their frail and transitory condition called forth his pity and induced him to pardon them. We shall afterwards meet with an almost similar statement in Psalm 103:13-16, where God is represented as being merciful to us, because he sees that we are like grass, and that we soon wither and become dry like hay. Now, if God find in us nothing but misery to move him to compassion, it follows that it is solely his own pure and undeserved goodness which induces him to sustain us. When it is affirmed that men return not, when they have finished the course of their life in this world, it is not meant to exclude the hope of a future resurrection; for men are contemplated only as they are in themselves, and it is merely their state on earth which is spoken of. With respect to the renovation of man to the heavenly life, it is a miracle far surpassing nature. In the same sense it is said, in another place, "His spirit goeth forth, and returneth not," (Wisdom 16:14;) language which implies that men, when they are born into the world, do not bring with them the hope of future restoration, which must be derived from the grace of regeneration.
40. How often did they provoke him in the desert? Here the preceding sentence is confirmed, it being declared that, as they had in so many instances provoked God in the wilderness, by the vast accumulation of their sins,3 they must of necessity have perished a thousand times, had not God as often shown himself favorable and merciful towards them. The interrogatory form of the sentence expresses more significantly that they continued sinning without intermission. The word wilderness includes in it the circumstance both of place and of time. By this it is intended, first, to reprove their ingratitude, in that the memory of God's benefits, while still so fresh in their minds, and even the sight of them daily before their eyes, were not at least able to check them in their wickedness; and, secondly, to condemn their impetuous and infatuated recklessness, in heaping up such a multitude of sins within so short a period.
In the same sense it is added immediately after, (verse 41,) that they returned to their former ways, and tempted God. The word return does not here signify change, but a continued course of sinning. The heinous indignity which is done to God when men tempt him, is expressed by a beautiful metaphor. The Hebrew word
2 "C'est a dire, souffle." -- Fr. marg. "That is to say, a breath." Dr Adam Clarke translates, "the spirit goeth away, and it doth not return." "The present life," he observes, "is the state of probation; when, therefore, the flesh, the body, fails, the spirit goeth away into the eternal world, and returneth not hither again." He considers the translation in our English Bible, "a wind that passeth away, and cometh not again," to be a bad one, and that it may be productive of error; as if when a man dies, his being were ended, and death were an eternal sleep.
3 "They provoked God at least ten times, (Numbers 14:22,) during the first two years of their journey through the wilderness. 1. at the Red Sea, (Exodus 14:11, 12;) 2. at the waters of Marah, (Exodus 15:24;) 3. in the wilderness of Sin, (Exodus 15:2;) 4. when they kept the manna until the following day, (Exodus 16:10;) 5, when the manna was collected on the Sabbath, (Exodus 16:27;) 6. in Rephidim, where there was no water, (Numbers 20:2, 13;) 7. at Horeb, when a molten calf was made, (Exodus 32:1, etc.;) 8. at Taberah, (Numbers 11:1, 2, 3;) 9. when they lusted for flesh, (Numbers 11:4;) 10. when they murmured at the news brought by the men, who had been sent to search the land, (Numbers 14:1, etc.") -- Cresswell.