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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 16

Parker's The People's BibleParker's The People's Bible

Verses 1-50

Every Man In His Place

Numbers 16:0

This is strikingly modern in its temper. This ancient democracy has steadily kept pace with the ages and is at this moment as lively and audacious as ever. It is hard for men to keep their places; it is hard because the next higher place appears to be so near and so accessible. It is always difficult for the heart to be quiet, contented, restful in God; it is fertile in plan, ambitious in spirit, conscious of great power, and not wholly unconscious of great deserts. But men fritter away their strength by finding fault with their positions. We can only work really and deeply, and therefore lastingly, as we have the blessed consciousness of being where God has put us, and doing the kind of service God has indicated. The appointment may be an inferior one, but it is divine, and, therefore, if we answer it with faithfulness and obedience, we shall find in the discharge of its duties sweet comfort and a continual re-invigoration of our best motive and purpose. The people who rebelled against Moses had inferior appointments in connection with the tabernacle; but they were not content with these: they actually sought not only the priesthood, but, according to the literal translation, the high-priesthood. They would have censers such as Aaron himself used; they would try what they could do on the throne; they did not see any reason why they should be excluded from the very pontificate of Israel. Who ever did see any reason why he should not be a great man? It is expecting much of human nature to expect it to be just what it is, and to accept the position simply, loyally, gratefully; but only in such acceptance of position can men be their best and do their best. Let a preacher once get it into his mind that he ought to move in a larger circle and have a pulpit twice the size of his present pulpit, and the ambition which moves his mind in that direction, takes away from him much of his working strength, so that, instead of filling the little sphere, or the sphere comparatively small, he shrinks within it and becomes for all effective service a smaller man than he really is. Let us accept our position whatever it be, saying, God put me here, he takes care of me while I am here, and when he wants me in some larger place he will send for me, and until the message comes I will serve him with both hands diligently, and my heart shall be as a fire burning up towards him in aspiration and sacrifice.

What a picture life is with regard to personal position and social gradation! and we cannot alter the picture; do what we may, still the graduated lines are plainly written, and they constitute a kind of unnamed but verily inspired Bible. There are men who are as Moses and Aaron amongst us, and there are men who are as Korah, and Dathan, and Abiram. Outbreaks of temper do occur in regard to social position and influence. The question will arise, "Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" but all complainings arise and perish without touching the settled and determined lines of personal function, and social gradation, and ecclesiastical and other relationships. There is a tide in these things, as in the sea, and no Canute can roll back the advancing water. It is not enough to assent to these propositions; the aim of their statement is to constitute itself into a noble persuasion to adopt them and to make them part of the rule and guide of life. Moses said, If this is the case, meet me to-morrow; bring your censers, put fire therein, and put incense before the Lord to-morrow; and whom the Lord chooses, let him be pontiff. That is the only appeal. The battle has been settled ten thousand times, and still the war of ambition rages in the human heart. The morrow came; the competitors were there; what became of them we know. It would be difficult to believe the letter of this ancient history if we did not see the same fate happening to every Korah, Dathan, and Abiram in our own day. Modern facts help us to receive the testimony of ancient history. In all the departments of life there are men who are as Moses and Aaron. Take any department of life that may first occur to the imagination. Shall we say the department of commerce? Even in the marketplace we have Moses and Aaron, and they cannot be deposed. Where is the man who thinks he could not conduct the largest business in the city? Yet the poor cripple could not conduct it, and the greatest punishment that could befall the creature would be to allow him to attempt to rule a large and intricate commercial concern. But it seems to be hard for a man to see some other man at the very head of commercial affairs whose word is law, whose signature amounts to a species of sovereignty, and to know that all the while he, the observer, is, in his own estimation, quite as good a man a person of remarkable capacity, and he is only waiting for an opportunity to wear a nimbus of glory a halo of radiance that would astound the exchanges of the world. But it cannot be done. There are great business men and small business men: there are wholesale men and retail men, and neither the wholesale nor the retail affects the quality of the man's soul, or the destiny of the man's spirit; but, as a matter of fact, these distinctions are made, and they are not arbitrary: in the spirit of them there is a divine presence. If men could believe this, they would be comforted accordingly. Every preacher knows in his inmost soul that he is fit to be the Dean of St. Paul's, or the Dean of Westminster, every preacher knows that; but to be something less something officially lower and yet to accept the inferior position with a contentment which is inspired by faith in God, is the very conquest of the Spirit of heaven in the heart of man, is a very miracle of grace. Even the Apostle Paul required education in this matter "for," said he, "I have learned," referring to a process of daily education "in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content." Shall we take the department of poetry? As a matter of fact, even in that department there are some men higher than others. It is an astounding thing that there should be in the department of poetry some men who can make poetry, and some men who can only read it. How difficult to believe that the man who has made two lines rhyme cannot write the "Idylls of the King"! There is always the secret hope that the development may come late; it is an ineffable comfort to know that some men reached their highest influence at a very remote period of life. Who made these men different? Who made one man able to make paper and another man able to write upon it as the great poets have written? We cannot be atheistic in presence of such facts. We may differ about the name to be applied, but there is the absolute fact that even in the region of poetry, some men can make it and other men cannot. When it is made, there is no mistake about it; the heart answers the appeal; the world waits to see where the fire will fall, and when it has fallen there is no mistaking the answer of the human observer. We know the Bible by the reading of it; we know inspiration by the sharing of it; we feel that the stranger beside us is a guest from heaven, because he makes our heart burn within us. We did not make ourselves; we must not attempt to appoint ourselves. We must remember that we are not our own: that we are the flock of God the sheep of his pasture: that he formed us, and not we ourselves: that the very hairs of our head are all numbered, and that in the Father's house there are many mansions. "O, rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for him; and he will give thee thine heart's desire," or, if not, he will give thee some larger blessing, showing the capacity of the heart is not the measure of the divine bounty.

Moses took the only course that was open to him. It is no use arguing with men as to greatness: let the appeal be to experience; let us come to the testimony of fact. This applies to the pre-eminence of the Cross of Christ. Many a Korah, Dathan, and Abiram has said to the Cross, Thou dost take too much upon thee. The Cross says, Let the appeal be to history, to fact, to power. The Cross never claims to be accepted without examination, and testing, and competition in some sacred and noble sense of that term. Philosophy has said, I can save the world, and as for thee, thou grim Cross, thou takest too much upon thee; thou art broad in sentimental appeal, but I am subtle in all my researches and fundamental in all my relations and my instructions. The Cross is willing that philosophy should be tried. It has been tried. It has a beautiful voice, a delicate touch, an eye that sees in the darkness. The Cross does not despise the love of wisdom which is the true definition of philosophy; but philosophy cannot touch the whole life: it touches certain men, appeals with great effect to certain qualities of men: it speaks to men of large capacity or of ample leisure, to persons who have time to give to the study of philosophy proper attention; but philosophy, as ordinarily understood, does not get into the universal heart, does not cover the universal experience, does not rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep; it lacks what the Cross has the patience, the sympathy, the long hand that reaches into the heart's innermost necessity and ministers to the life's profoundest need. Morality says to the Cross, Thou dost take too much upon thee; I can make the world what it ought to be. And the Cross says, Let the appeal be to history; let the appeal be to facts; let us abide by the arbitrament of reality. So morality comes with small recipes and nostrums and codes of behaviour, and bills of disci pline, and insists upon registering human behaviour according to certain more or less pedantic laws; but morality never touches the world's deepest wound; morality is, according to its own verbal definition, a manner, a posture, a calculated attitude, a providence based upon a species of arithmetic. So philosophy, morality, imagination, new schemes, new books, have all arisen to challenge the supremacy of the Cross. Is the Cross not a philosophy? The Cross is the profoundest of all philosophy, though it does not come to the world under that name, but under some tenderer designation. Is not the Cross a morality? The Cross insists upon righteousness; it will have nothing to do with wickedness; it seeks to purge human nature of its depravity. It does not begin with codes of behaviour, but with regeneration with the new or second birth of the heart, and out of that will come clean hands, a pure tongue, a noble speech, a charitable disposition, and a sacrificial service of the world. So we do not separate Christianity from philosophy, morality, imagination, great and intellectual speculation; but we put these things all in their right places and relations, and the appeal of Christianity is an appeal to sinners, to lost men, to hearts that cannot heal themselves, to a ruin complete and absolute; afterwards we come to high thinking, brilliant speculation, a very apocalypse of vision and wonder and gracious delight. So Christianity asks for no quarter upon any arbitrary or superstitious grounds; it is willing that to-morrow every Korah, Dathan, and Abiram shall meet it, and let the contest be settled by experience. Christianity can call upon a thousand men to speak in its name and ten thousand times ten thousand more day by day. Let the question be What has most deeply touched your life? What has given you the surest and strongest hope under the pressure of a guilty conscience, the charges of an accusing memory? What has touched your tears most lovingly and healingly? What was it that sat up with you longest in the dark night time? What was it that found for you flowers in the snow, and summer among the winter ice? Speak out be just; and the heart will say, whenever there has been any real experience, The Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ has covered most of my life, most has healed my diseases, has spoken to me a larger language than I ever heard before "God forbid that I should glory, save in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ."

The rebels were overthrown and a marvellous providence asserts itself immediately in connection with the overthrow:

"And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest, that he take up the censers out of the burning, and scatter thou the fire yonder; for they are hallowed. The censers of these sinners against their own souls, let them make them broad plates for a covering of the altar: for they offered them before the Lord, therefore they are hallowed: and they shall be a sign unto the children of Israel" ( Num 16:36-38 ).

So Christianity uses the weapons of its opponents: as David uses the sword of Goliath; so that which has been consecrated unto the Lord, even by men whose spirit and temper were not divine, must be claimed for the service of the altar. The altar was made of wood, yet it was covered with metal that the continual burning upon it might not injure the structure; and now "the censers of these sinners against their own souls," shall be made into "broad plates for a covering of the alta;r." Behold the Cross what changes it is undergoing in outward appearance! What are these things which men are nailing to it now? Swords taken in war, trophies brought from the battlefield, crowns once erected in ignoble pride against the supremacy of Christ. So the process goes on. What a Cross it is! What a spectacle! nailed to it every weapon that has ever been raised against it; and in the very upbuilding of the Cross through the generations we shall read a history which no pen could ever fully write. Shall we join this process of nailing to the Cross that which we have used against it? We have used our little genius let us go and nail it to the Cross. We have opened our mouth in rude eloquence in many a charge and objection against the Cross let us give our remaining breath to the praise of him who has never looked upon us but with upbraiding or hopeful gaze. We have fooled away our money in helping those to propagate their views whose object was to turn all earth into a flat plane confined within the four corners of a definite boundary, and to shut out the blue heavens, or to use them merely for the sake of convenience let us take what remains and say, Thou wounded Lamb of God, we know thou canst pardon sin, but canst thou forgive folly? we know not the measure between the tragedy of thy sacrifice and the turpitude of our guilt, but we are not only sinners: we are fools oh canst thou, Son of God, pity the fool as well as forgive the criminal? we thought to fight against thee: we meant to win: we accepted the challenge, and now there is nothing left of our rebellious selves but our censers, Galilean, thou hast conquered!

Let us then accept our places in the divine providence; let us acknowledge a divine order in social relations; do not let us attempt to settle great social questions by the rule of thumb. Do not imagine that rich and poor can be levelled together all into one plane by some easy democratic method; do let us recognise the presence of a marvellous providence in life. On the other hand, do not let us take such a view of that providence as to lead us to tyrannise over our weaker fellow-creatures; do not let us imagine that we are gods and have a right to override all poor and inferior persons; the true line of wisdom lies between. What hast thou that thou has not received? that should be the question which every man should hear addressed to himself when he is counting his gold and adding fields to his estate and is most conscious of his commanding intellect and his imperial genius. And as for the poor, they should be taught that poverty is no disgrace. There is a rich poverty. There is a noble failure in life; there is a bankruptcy with extenuating circumstances. There are sufferings that have a divine meaning behind them. So we will have no boasting and no despairing. We are free the rich and the poor, the leader and the follower. "The Lord reigneth; let the earth rejoice."


Korah was the leader of the famous rebellion against his cousins Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, for which he paid the penalty of perishing with his followers by an earthquake and flames of fire (Numbers 16:0 ; Num 26:9-11 ). The particular grievance which rankled in the mind of Korah and his company was their exclusion from the office of the priesthood, and their being confined those among them who were Levites to the inferior service of the tabernacle, as appears clearly, both from the words of Moses in Numbers 16:9 , and from the test resorted to with regard to the censers and the offering of incense. The same thing also appears from the subsequent confirmation of the priesthood to Aaron (Numbers 17:0 ). The appointment of Elizaphan to be the chief of the Kohathites ( Num 3:30 ) may have further inflamed his jealousy. Korah's position as leader in this rebellion was evidently the result of his personal character, which was that of a bold, haughty, and ambitious man. This appears from his address to Moses in Numbers 16:3 , and especially from his conduct in Numbers 16:19 , where both his daring and his influence over the congregation are very apparent. Were it not for this, one would have expected the Gershonites as the elder branch of the Levites to have supplied a leader in conjunction with the sons of Reuben, rather than the family of Izhar, who was Amram's younger brother. From some cause which does not clearly appear, the children of Korah were not involved in the destruction of their father, as we are expressly told in Numbers 26:11 , and as appears from the continuance of the family of the Korahites to the reign at least of Jehoshaphat ( 2Ch 20:19 ), and probably till the return from the captivity (1 Chronicles 9:19 , 1Ch 9:31 ). Perhaps the fissure of the ground which swallowed up the tents of Dathan and Abiram did not extend beyond those of the Reubenites. From Num 26:27 it seems clear that Korah himself was not with Dathan and Abiram at the moment. His tent may have been one pitched for himself, in contempt of the orders of Moses, by the side of his fellow-rebels, while his family continued to reside in their proper camp nearer the tabernacle; or it must have been separated by a considerable space from those of Dathan and Abiram. Or, even if Korah's family resided amongst the Reubenites, they may have fled, at Moses's warning, to take refuge in the Kohathite camp, instead of remaining, as the wives and children of Dathan and Abiram did ( Num 16:27 ). Korah himself was doubtless with the two hundred and fifty men who bare censers nearer the tabernacle ( Num 16:19 ), and perished with them by the "fire from Jehovah" which accompanied the earthquake.

Smith's Dictionary of the Bible.


Almighty God, thou art our Father. God is love. We live in God; without God we cannot live. Thou hast made us, and not we ourselves. The lot is cast into the lap, but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord. Thou hast given unto us a time of birth and a time of death, and no hand can alter the record. We stand in God's eternity. As the mountains are round about Jerusalem, so the Lord is round about his people. Not a sparrow falleth to the ground without our Father; the very hairs of our head are all numbered. Behold, in what a way hast thou led us these many years in the wilderness! When there was no water, thou didst find streams in the rocks; when the pool was bitter, the healing tree was nigh; when thou didst send upon us a great judgment, in the whirlwind we heard a tone of mercy. In wrath thou dost remember mercy; in judgment thou art compassionate. The mercy of the Lord endureth for ever; and this will we say with the passion of great love. The way of man is not in himself. The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away, and the Lord's way is always right. Even so, Father: for so it seemeth good in thy sight would we say in every event of time, how much soever we may be disappointed, and how heavy soever may be the burden we have to bear. This is the time of endurance; this is not the season of explanation. What we know not now we shall know hereafter, and thy answer shall be greater than our question, and where we were much pained we shall be mightily delivered and glorified from on high. Thou art the Father of our life. We are thine, not our own. If we have aught that is our own, it was thine first and will be thine last, for we ourselves are bought with a price. Make us tender, loving, sympathetic, always living in others and for others; and watch over us with Christly solicitude, even though it become aggravated into pain of mind and sorrow of soul because of ingratitude and because of rebellion. May our love be measured by the divine love, and not be changeful, fickle, and uncertain; may it be a great love, originating in the Cross, sustained by daily grace, made larger and more intelligent by the constant inspiration of the Holy Ghost. Bless the orphan, the sad, the lonely, the friendless. Why these miseries should come upon us we cannot wholly tell in words, though there is a voice in our heart which tells us that the way of the Lord is right. Where thou hast given heavy burdens, thou wilt give needful strength; where the tears are many and hot, thy hand will be present in its gentleness. The Lord succour those who need continual help; be a light to the blind, a staff to the weak, a Guide to the perplexed, and the Saviour of all. We commend to thee the children who have no earthly father, those whose homes have been desolated by sudden death, or other invasion of distress. Thou dost anticipate our prayer: and, behold, the infinite answer of thy pity is uttered upon the earth before our prayer is heard in heaven. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ, Son of man, Son of God, God the Son, who loved us and gave himself for us, and who, being our Saviour and Priest, is not ashamed to be called our Brother. Amen.

Verse 35

"Handfuls of Purpose"

For All Gleaners

"Consumed the two hundred and fifty wen that offered incense." Num 16:35

No man is indispensable to God. Better that incense be not offered than that the censer be swung with unworthy hands. Officialism does not necessarily involve personal fitness. Incense does not disinfect corrupt hearts. The man, not the censer, is the standard of determination. Officialism in the Church often destroys the sensitiveness of the heart. What is true of officialism is true of any repetition that ends in familiarity. Mechanical religion is easily acquired; it is merely a trick of the hand, it is not the sacrifice of the heart. God's anger burns most hotly against unfaithful leaders. He may be more angry with parents than with children, with preachers than with hearers, with the experienced than with the inexperienced. God relies not upon the number but upon the character of his servants. The removal of two hundred and fifty men was a serious numerical loss, but as to character, quality, and spiritual effectiveness, there was no loss whatever. The tree is the better for the cutting off of the dead branches. That which has ceased to be useful should cease to be cumbersome. When God looks through all his hosts that he may number and value them, he will cut off no man whose spirit is true, whose purpose is noble, and whose thought is steadfast. An awful picture presents itself to the imagination as we look back upon blighted ministries, unworthy characters, dishonoured servants, and the whole line of disaster and wreckage. Many who started well have brought upon themselves the consuming anger of God. The comforting thought is that in all this judgment and desolation God reveals his kingdom as a kingdom of righteousness, truth, and purity. "Be ye clean that bear the vessels of the Lord."

Verse 38

"Handfuls of Purpose"

For All Gleaners

Sinners against their own souls." Num 16:38

This is the tremendous hold which God has upon us, namely that we cannot sin against God without committing direct wrong upon ourselves. All experience proves this to be the case. All the lower analogies tend to the confirmation of this doctrine: he who sins against cleanliness sins against his own health; he who sins against social honesty sins against his own advancement; he who sins against social truth deposes himself from the seat of honour and divests himself from all healthy influence. We are physically so constituted that a bad thought lowers the health of the brain; and unregulated passion devastates the nature in which it rages; neglect of discipline means loss of force. Carry up these analogies to the highest level; to cease to pray is to contract the outlook of the soul; to cease to do good is to diminish the power of doing it; to turn away from the heights of heaven is to impoverish the veneration which did homage to old age and bowed itself in the presence of genius and worth. To go down religiously is to go down in every point and line of life. If a man can resist God and yet maintain health of soul, without wound or scar, he would in effect be God himself. If the branch could bear fruit without the vine it would in reality be the vine. If mortality could overcome death it would prove itself to be immortality. It is necessary to the unity of all things that Right should be the fountain of health, harmony, and all that is necessary to spiritual progress. Following the line of this thought, Christians should be living exemplifications of the law which is exceeding broad; they should be men of lofty mind, able to take wide and generous views of all questions, willing to pardon offences and render assistance to weakness; their souls being right with God, their hands should be outstretched in every form of charity. Christianity is infinitely more than a set of theological particulars; it educates the soul, it strengthens the mind, it ennobles all impulses, it increases and consolidates all the forces of manhood. The soul that sins is in a state of ill-health. Sin is a positive wrong done to the quality and function of the soul. It is an insult to the better nature. It is as if a man should strike loveliness in the face, or lay his hand upon the throat of living music. Sin is murder. We must not look upon sin as a mere mistake for which ample apology can be made; it is blasphemy against all right, health, beauty, music. It is all this because it is an offence against God. When night descends upon the earth, it does not darken one room only, it fills the whole house with darkness. So when, sin is committed it is not simply one faculty that is impaired, or one impulse that is discouraged; the whole man goes down and is made the slave of conquering evil. The prodigal son was made to feel that in leaving his father he lost his property, his companions, his brother, his friends; and all these he lost because he first lost himself.

Bibliographical Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Numbers 16". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jpb/numbers-16.html. 1885-95.
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