HEBREWS 3:11-12

Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall

Heb. 3:11a “SO I SWARE IN MY WRATH,…” (PS 95:11a)

Israel’s repeated instances of unbelief in the face of overwhelming evidence provoked God to anger. His patience was finally exhausted, and He pronounced an irrevocable sentence.


Here is the dreadful consequence of Israel’s sin. They were barred from Canaan, the land of rest. It was only an eleven-day journey from the regions of Horeb to the borders of Canaan (DT 1:2). Six hundred thousand men, flushed with hope and victory, left Egypt and headed for Canaan with confidence. Vineyards, oliveyards, and a land flowing with milk and honey were less than two weeks away. But something went dreadfully wrong.

Instead of eleven days, the journey required forty years; and of the six hundred thousand men that began the trek, only two, Joshua and Caleb, reached a family burying place in Canaan. In forty years 599,998 men were buried in the desert waste, “the sands their winding sheet; the solitude their mausoleum” (Meyer).

It’s a pathetic picture—weary travelers trudging through a desert, no permanent homes, no hope of a resting place, falling one by one at a rate of about forty per day, leaving their bodies behind, filling a desert with unmarked graves.

Their tragedy was heightened not only by the curse they suffered, but also by the blessing they missed. They were kept from their destiny. They had been slaves in Egypt, but God has prepared a special place for them, Canaan. It was their Promised Land, where they could enjoy their God, their nation, their families, and their freedom.

They perished without realizing this great blessing, which God had prepared for them. Their unbelief kept them from enjoying the fullness that God meant for them to have.

The “rest” of Canaan was a picture of consecration rest, rest that comes from a surrender of one’s mind, will, and heart to God. It is a rest that gives one victory over sin, a rest that provides true and abiding intimacy with God, a rest that allows one to say, “Whate’er betide, it is well with my soul.”

Such peace with God is available only to those who abide in the center of God’s will. Only in the place fixed by His hand can we find rest. It is the smile of God alone that renders any place or condition good or desirable (Owen).

Few believers know the meaning of inner rest. Many are the victims of murmuring and discontent, their lives a monotony of failure. Such believers are a tragedy. Their lack of faith in God’s ability to deliver causes them to fall short of the fullness offered in Christ.

Canaan was the picture of a victorious Christian life. Many still die before they ever get there. Thus our writer appeals to his readers to avoid this pitfall…

Heb. 3:12a “Take heed,…”Be alert! There are spiritual enemies out there. Some believers live as if there were no devil to tempt them, and no evil to ensnare them. Such a careless profession will result in disaster. Our course is warfare, and anyone not careful in battle will fall before his enemies.

Philopoemen, the great Greek commander, wherever he went, was considering all the ways and places he could possibly be ambushed. He never dropped his guard, and thereby became the greatest captain of his day.

We must have the same attitude. We walk a dangerous road. “Your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (1 P 5:8). He is also a serpent that tries to drag us down into a pit. Anyone who walks in the midst of lions, serpents, and pits, without care, will inevitably be bitten or fall, or both.

No matter how strong you think you are, a lapse in concentration will sting you. Ulysses S. Grant later proved himself the greatest Union General of the Civil War, but on April 6, 1862, he let the Confederates attack him by surprise. He lost 10,000 men and was almost relieved of his command. He was never surprised in battle again. He learned from his mistake.

We need to do the same thing. We have all been side-swiped, broadsided, and rammed often enough to know the ferocity of our foes. Let’s never be caught off guard again. Stay in prayers and keep your faith strong. Take heed.

Heb. 3:12b “…brethren,..”

This tender form of address would soften blunt and straight-forward words. The writer wants his readers to know his words flow from a heart of love. He sees them as fellow believers. He has confidence in them. He expects them to do well. There are tenderness and gentleness in his firmness.

Heb. 3:12c “…lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing…”

What happened in the wilderness can happen again. The generation that died in the wilderness stands as a warning for all ages to come. Their unhappy and miserable example serves as beacon to us. Speaking of them, I Corinthians 10:11 says, “All these things happened unto them for examples: and they are written for admonition.” Israel’s fall is forever a warning to all who come after them. “The ruin of others should be a warning to us to take heed of the rock they split upon” (Henry).

The first readers of Hebrews were also being tempted to hesitate in going forward. Persecution was tempting them not to carry on to the full victory God had for them. We face the same struggle. We always feel the undertow. There is always the temptation to quit pressing ahead.

Yielding to such pressure, though, means a refusal to go on in the Christian walk to its intended goal. It would mean a “wilderness” existence, unrest, aimlessness, and unfulfilled desires; in short, a miserable existence. If we harden our hearts and refuse to hear God, the consequences have to be terrible.

In the Christian life there are only two basic choices available to us: great peace or great misery, Canaan-life or Wilderness-life. Belief turns wilderness into a paradise. Unbelief turns a paradise into a wilderness. The choice is that stark. Belief is rare, but rewards. Unbelief reigns, but ruins.

It is of supreme importance to see what option was never afforded to Israel in the wilderness. They were not allowed a chance to return to Egypt. Going back to that bondage would have pictured the loss of redemption, something God would not let happen.

Israel might suffer, be barred from Canaan, and die, but they could never go back to Egypt. Once redeemed, they could not cease to be the people of God. They contemplated going back to Egypt (NB 14:3; AC 7:39), but God would not allow it. The choice was not theirs to make. They belonged to God. He alone could make such a decision.

Their unbelief in the wilderness had nothing to do with their deliverance from Egypt. Nothing could undo their redemption. Their unbelief in the wilderness did not send them back into Egypt, it rather kept them from the full blessing of God, and gave them a life of misery.

Heb. 3:12d “…from the living God.”

A believer cannot be sent back into lostness, but grieving God is a dangerous matter. Backslidden believers must deal with a living God. He is not a mere historical God, one that has been, and is no more. Nor is He a theoretical God, one who lives only in the abstract philosophies of theologians. The Lord is not a dormant God, one who is passive and sluggish. He lives. He lives always, intensively, and vitally. You will have to deal with Him. He is great and dreadful, able to punish and avenge.

Refusal to trust in Him is an affront to His character. There can be no blessing or rest while we grieve Him. Faith ever has been and ever shall be the condition of blessing.

God was leading Israel in the wilderness, but somewhere along the way they quit following. Distance came between them. Unbelief caused them to depart, to grow farther from Him. I hope the first readers of Hebrews did not repeat this sad scenario. I also hope it will not be repeated by the present day readers of Hebrews.