The sin of complaining

Series on Numbers (ch. 11:1-9)

“Now the people became like those who complain of adversity in the hearing of the Lord; and when the Lord heard it, His anger was kindled, and the fire of the Lord burned among them and consumed some of the outskirts of the camp. The people therefore cried out to Moses, and Moses prayed to the Lord, and the fire died out. So the name of that place was called Taberah, because the fire of the Lord burned among them. “And the rabble who were among them had greedy desires; and also the sons of Israel wept again and said, “Who will give us meat to eat? We remember the fish we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic, but now our appetite is gone. There is nothing at all to look at except this manna.” Now the manna was like coriander seed, and its appearance like that of bdellium. The people would go about and gather it and grind it between two millstones or beat it in the mortar, and boil it in the pot and make cakes with it; and its taste was as the taste of cakes baked with oil. And when the dew fell on the camp at night, the manna would fall with it” (11:1-9).


The basic attitudes of people, especially in group situations, have remained unchanged for generations. Whenever external changes are introduced into that group, certain members of it will start to complain. Have you been watching a movie when the film broke in the middle? Did you notice how the people around you started booing and hissing until the projector was fixed? Have you watched your favorite ball team play and one of the players drops what would normally be a routine catch? What do you and the fans around you do? You react with noise in that group situation.

What makes this story, in Numbers 11:1-9, different from the illustrations already given is that God had been controlling the outside factors among the people and they had no justifiable reason for complaining. God had done everything for them. Consider His blessings thus far:

  1. He had placed them in the wilderness to protect them from the Canaanite armies at the borders.
  2. He had organized them into an orderly camp.
  3. He had provided them with His laws for their ultimate good.
  4. He had given them food to eat (manna and quail) with little work on their parts needed to obtain it.
  5. Their clothes and shoes were not wearing out.
  6. He had provided direction, for Israel, with the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night; so, they would not wander aimlessly.
  7. He guided them toward a Promised Land; which He wanted to give to them, immediately, on their arrival. They were within a few weeks of that intended promise.
Who started the complaint is not mentioned in the text; but, the first round was followed by a second. The complaining was followed by a general unrest, to the extent that, eventually, Moses would be affected. He would complain to God that he was overburdened as Israel’s leader. Their complaints follow a definite pattern of cause and effect that we need to study. Complaining and murmuring are attitudes that are not unique to Israel. No less than four New Testament passages exhort Christians not to have the same attitude, and at least one example is given in Acts, where the peace of the church was disturbed by it. The passages are 1 Corinthians 10:10; Philippians 2:14; James 5:19; and Jude 16. The example of disturbance is found in the Grecian widows feeling neglected in Acts 6:1f.

When we trace back to the very source of all grumbling, murmuring, and complaint, we come to Satan and his devices. He knew, from the garden, the principle later quoted by Jesus: “And if a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand” (Mark 3:24-26). Satan has used that principle for success in individual and group situations. He worked this way on the hearts of Israel in order to destroy the unity of the march to Canaan. He provided a spirit of rebellion and sin against God’s plan.

I. A spirit, unaffected by punishment (11:1-4)

God became angry when Israel complained. If they were not content with what He had provided, even that which they had could easily be taken away. God temporarily, then, removed His protection from them and He started some tent fires on the outskirts of the camp. When people began to lose their homes and possessions, their plaintive cry changed from complaint to repentance and entreaty for God to stop the loss.

A short time later, however, another group among Israel began to complain again. This was brought on by a group that Moses termed “the rabble” or “mixed multitude.” These were a group of escapees from the slavery of Egypt that did not have a heritage in Israel. They were from other captive nations and had simply followed Israel into the wilderness for food and protection. They had no legitimate stake in Israel’s inheritance. They were not to share in God’s plan for His people. They were enjoying a free ride with no personal investment. Does it not seem to be a principle of humanity that those who are the least involved and have the least at stake complain the loudest? The principle can be well illustrated. Have you ever parked at a meter that had time left on it from the previous car? Someone put a nickel in the meter and left before the time ran out. You come along and get to park free “on the other fellow’s nickel.” Every church has people who park on others’ nickels. They do not give or involve themselves in the work, but they do receive the benefits. They do not pay the salaries (but they do complain about them), purchase needed equipment, or retire the debt on the property. They let others do the work and then they park on what others have done. If this upsets you, it probably should. We hear much about people living on welfare who do nothing to support the system. Is that not the same that some are doing to the Lord’s church? They are letting others do the work and pay the financing while they get free benefits - the benefits of a comfortable place of worship and fellowship, the benefits from the teaching of trained ministers and workers. Parking on the other fellow’s nickel at the meter might not be a serious matter, but parking on others’ time and involvement in the church is. These rabble-rousers had no stake in Israel yet caused such a stir that all of Israel began to join in on the complaint.

II. A spirit, unaffected by benefits (11:5-9)

Israel’s complaints and lust caused them to forget everything God had been doing for them. The manna they were eating was sustaining and nourishing. God had not planned for them to eat it for the rest of their lives. Within a few weeks, if they had been faithful, they could have been eating from the produce along the borders of Canaan. Their lust, however, caused them to disdain what God had graciously provided. They remembered what they had been eating in Egypt. We would term it “the good old days.” They thought of the spicier foods of Egypt.

III. A spirit, unaffected by past grievances (11:5-7)

Israel’s lusting made them forget the bitterness of slavery. They may have eaten abundantly, but it was under the strain of the whip. Had they removed their cloaks, the scars on their backs would have quickly reminded them of the bondage from which they had been released. In Exodus 2:23 they had so groaned under the strain of slavery that the sound of their suffering had reached heaven. Food, at that time, was probably for survival, and they loathed it. But as one author put it, “The past is always remembered as better than it was.” The lusting and complaining also made them forget the blessings of the present. It is hard to believe that those people would want to return to their former manner of life. Peter reminds us that when people are committed to sin in their minds, nothing can stop them from returning to their former nature (1 Peter 2:19-22). The wilderness was difficult, but it was intended only to be temporary.

Often, when we begin to complain about our lot in life, we need to remember this story. The Bible reminds us, over and over, that like Israel, we are only camping here on a temporary basis (1 John 2:15-17; 1 Peter 2:11).

IV. A spirit unaffected by the purpose of God

God had called them to be His people. They could not be God’s possession while under the mastery of Egypt. Only under freedom and God’s direction could Israel and God make a covenant. God had called them out of Egypt to live in a new land, a land He had purposed and promised Abraham, their forefather, that they could inherit. They were journeying toward that land. Such complaining and bitterness, on Israel’s part, could only affect that journey and interrupt that purpose to which they had been called.

In Christ, God has called us to be His people. We cannot be His people while under the bondage and yoke of slavery to sin (Romans 6:16, 17). Only under the freedom, found in Christ, can we have a covenant relationship with God (Galatians 5:1; Ephesians 4:1). God has also called us to live in a new and promised land, heaven. We are in the midst of a journey toward that land at this very moment. Think, then, how complaints, division, selfish ambition, and grumbling stop us in our journey to that promised land. When God has done so much for us, how could we dare complain a\ and murmur against Him or against one another? It is a sin that divides hearts, friends, and God’s purpose.


God has called us to live in contentment under the gracious provisions He has supplied us with. It is important, therefore, that we monitor closely our attitude toward Him. It is perhaps time to take inventory of all of the blessings God has shared with us. As the song suggests, Count your blessings, name them one by one; Count your many blessings, see what God hath done. Has not God been gracious in your life?