Numbers 32:23 says, “Be sure your sin will find you out” (KJV). This is a curious-sounding caution, especially if read in isolation. So we’ll review its context, especially the entire chapter of Numbers 32, then see what else the Bible has to say on the topic of our sin being “found out.”
The statement “be sure your sin will find you out” is set in the completion of the exodus of Israel from Egypt. After wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, the tribes of Israel were finally preparing to cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land. Military-aged men from all twelve tribes were required to help each tribe conquer its assigned territory, a task that would involve much time and hardship.
Before the Israelites crossed over the Jordan, the tribes of Gad and Reuben let it be known that they liked it right where they were, east of the Jordan. The land there was ideal for raising cattle (Numbers 32:1), and the leaders of those tribes approached Moses for permission to settle on the east side, rather than in Canaan. Moses at first said “no”: “Should your fellow Israelites go to war while you sit here?” (verse 6). He then accused them of failing to desire to enter the Promised Land, as the previous generation had done: “This is what your fathers did” (verse 8). And he reminded them that it was this very sin that caused the Lord’s anger to burn against them for 40 years, and he warned them that they risked bringing destruction on the whole nation all over again (verses 13–15).
But Gad and Reuben had a different intention, as they explained. They asked Moses if they could leave their flocks and families behind in settlements while the men armed themselves and went to war in Canaan. After their assurances that they were not abandoning their fellow Israelites, Moses agreed to their request. He told them they must fight until the land was subdued, and only then could they return to their property east of the Jordan. Moses then added the warning: “But if you fail to do this, you will be sinning against the Lord; and you may be sure your sin will find you out” (Numbers 32:23).
When Moses said, “Be sure your sin will find you out,” he did not mean, “Everyone will find out about your sin.” If the trans-Jordan tribes failed to keep their promise, it would be a sin against the Lord and the whole nation, and their sin would be obvious to all. Rather, Moses’ warning that they could be sure their sin will find them out hints at the strange-but-true nature of sin.
In several places in the Bible, sin is described in terms that make it seem as if it were a living being with a mind and will of its own. God poetically warns Cain that “sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it” (Genesis 4:7). James explains how, figuratively speaking, people “are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” (James 1:14–15). Paul, in Romans 7:14–25, describes sin as though it were a being living within him, enslaving him against his will and making him do what he himself hates and condemns: “It is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it” (verse 20).
In the statement “be sure your sin will find you out” is revealed the mystery of sin. The nature of sin is such that, whether or not others discover your sin, your sin will “discover you.” You cannot run from the consequences. Sin carries within itself the power to pay the sinner back, and sin’s payback is hell. Don’t even think about toying with sin. It cannot be tamed, outrun, or shaken off. No matter how safe you think you are, if you are a sinner, your sin will find you out.
Moses’ warning to the tribes of Israel, “be sure your sin will find you out,” is echoed by Paul: “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life” (Galatians 6:7–8). The only way to escape sin’s consequences is to be forgiven of your sin by faith in the death and resurrection of Christ (Romans 10:9; 1 John 2:2; Revelation 1:5).