While sin still is “barbs in your eyes and thorns in your side,” and so may we seek to avoid it, above all, let’s be thankful to the Barb-Taker, the Thorn-Wearer. Because he’s the one who, in love, not only illustrated, but who embodied, the indescribable harm of our sin. As Paul says, “For he who knew no sin became sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those of them whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall trouble you in the land where you dwell. – Numbers 33:55
The Oxford dictionary defines a barb as “a sharp projection near the end of an arrow, fishhook, or similar item.” While a thorn—well, you know what a thorn is.
Imagine a barb in your eye. A thorn in your side. Talk about painful. Debilitating. Something that hurts.
That’s the picture God uses to warn the pre-land Israelites what it’ll be like if they don’t drive out the nations. The nations will be “barbs in your eyes and thorns in your side.” Translation: They’ll really hurt you. As he says, “They shall trouble you.”
Yet the bigger question is, Why? Why will these nations hurt the Israelites?
Why They Will Be Barbs and Thorns
To answer, first, let’s think about what we would assume to be the reason. With the language of “barbs” and “thorns,” our initial answers would probably assume that the nations would physically harm the Israelites. For example, that the nations would attack the Israelites back—that’d make the most sense of barb- and thorn-like language, wouldn’t it?
Or, if we were to take a non-physical answer, perhaps we’d assume that the nations will make the Israelites less prosperous. That sure would be “troubling.”
Or finally, perhaps we’d put a more modern emphasis on it and make it something like the nations would make the Israelite’s feel less secure and important and loved.
All those would be harmful. But the Lord gives us the true reason. And it isn’t any of the above. Instead, it’s simple: The nations will be barbs and thorns because they’ll lead the Israelites to turn away from God and to sin. It’s that simple.
A Much Bigger Barb
Now, let’s be honest. We may hear that and think it sounds just religious. “Really? The intensely painful barb is just idolatry and sin?”
Yet the reason God calls uses such an extreme descriptions as “barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides” is precisely because God wanted them (and wants us) to know how incredibly hurtful idolatry and sin actually are.
They may think that leaving the nations and engaging in their worship wouldn’t be that big of a deal—for “We’re still God’s people!” as they often thought, or “God is gracious after all!” as we often think. But the reality is, the picture of idolatry and sin’s effects is eyes being pierced with barbs and sides being struck with thorns.