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Bible Commentaries

Kingcomments on the Whole Bible

Numbers 31

Verses 1-2

Command to Take Vengeance on the Midianites

Moses gets his last task here. Before the people can take possession of the blessings of the land, the people must take the LORD’s vengeance on Midian. The evil connections with these enemies must be broken, otherwise the blessing cannot be enjoyed. These connections are wicked in God’s eye and form an obstacle to His blessing. God does not allow His servant Moses to leave the world until he has seen the full revenge. We also see here that a servant is not taken away until after his task has been completed.

Midian is a brotherhood. He also descends from Abraham, but his mother is Ketura (Genesis 25:1-Exodus :). They are neighbors of Moab and have connected themselves with them to destroy Israel (Numbers 22:4; Numbers 25:1-Ezra :). On that basis God has pronounced His judgment on them (Numbers 25:16-Job :) and now let it be executed by His people.

It is good to say again that the people of God have different kinds of struggles to fight. One of those kinds is the fight against Amalek. This is a defensive struggle that takes place in the wilderness. This struggle represents for us the daily struggle against which surrounds us in the world in which we live. Another kind of struggle is against the Canaanites. This is a struggle of attack, which takes place in the land to conquer it. This struggle represents the struggle we have to fight to master the spiritual blessings God has given us.

Here it is the struggle against Midian. This is a struggle of attack, which takes place in the wilderness. But there is a difference with the fight against Amalek. The fight against Amalek is inevitable. The one against Midian could have been prevented, but has become necessary because of the people’s own unfaithfulness. The people had connected with that enemy as a result of the teachings of Balaam.

It does happen that we have become enemies of the world because we have maintained friendly relationships with her. That friendship has become a trap for us. Nevertheless, God gives us a complete victory as soon as we start to regard the world as hostile. However, everything that has seduced us must be completely destroyed, without compromise.

This is what we also find in Christianity, for example when a Christian does not reside in the world as a stranger, but mixes with it, often with nice but unbiblical motives. We can have fun with the people of the world. But where is the limit? When we become aware that we have gone too far, we notice how much effort it takes to get rid of it. If we have gone into something where we don’t belong, it requires struggle to get out of it. That would not have been necessary if we had remained faithful.

Verses 3-6

Who Should Go to the War

The LORD speaks of the vengeance for the sons of Israel on the Midianites (Numbers 31:1). When Moses speaks of it, he speaks of the LORD’s vengeance (Numbers 31:3). A small part of the people must fight the enemy so that it is clear that God has given them victory (cf. Joshua 7:1). The whole people, every part of them, must have a share in that struggle. Each tribe furnishes the same number of men.

The leader is not Joshua but Phinehas, the priest. The circumstances of the failure of the people require that. A priest is the leader of this fight, because this fight must work the cleansing of the defilement that has come over Israel through the connection with Midian. Phinehas leads the battle because he has already distinguished himself before in the battle against Midian (Numbers 25:7-Ruth :). He has already used his sword once to judge Midian. If we let ourselves be carried away, away from God, and we want to go back, then Phinehas must be in front, with the sword. He is the man who knows the holiness of God.

Phinehas knows that the victory must come from the LORD. Therefore he has the trumpets with him, that the LORD may hear them (Numbers 10:9). Priests can sound the alarm and seek God’s help in this necessary battle. By “the holy vessels” are probably meant the trumpets. The fact that they are mentioned after that means that “the trumpets” are a more detailed description of these holy vessels. It seems unlikely that “the holy vessels” mean for example the Urim and the Thummim (Exodus 28:30), because Phinehas was not yet the high priest.

Verses 7-12

The Battle and Its Outcome

All men are killed. That not all the people have been killed we see later, when Midian is again a formidable enemy of the people (Judges 6:1-Leviticus :). The five kings are heads of Midian tribes. In Numbers 25 Zur is called “chief” (Numbers 25:15), and in Joshua 13 “princes” is mentioned (Joshua 13:21).

Also Balaam cannot escape judgment. His name is associated with that of the five kings. It seems that he was their advisor. He falls with the enemies of God’s people with whom he has joined. He has wished to die the death of the upright (Numbers 23:10), but he has continued to live in his wickedness. He did not want to join the people of the righteous. What he is separated from in his life, he is separated from in his death and will remain so forever.

In His grace God gives His people a great victory with much spoil. He fights for his people, because his honor is involved. If we are dragged along by false influences, it also involves God’s honor.

Verses 13-20

Further Commands from Moses

On the side of the people there is no loss (Numbers 31:49), which is a proof that this battle is from and for God. Now the people still have to learn that evil must be radically eradicated. We must learn that too. The men are killed, because they are a great danger by their strength. But also the women must be killed, because their danger is even greater because of their temptation. It is they who have caused so much harm to the people. The virgins of Midian do not need to be killed. They have not lent themselves to fornication. That teaches us that we must distinguish in the exercise of judgment.

Furthermore, we learn that being engaged in evil, even though it is commissioned by the Lord, defiles. It is necessary to purify, to cleans and use the cleansing water. Reading God’s Word brings about that cleansing.

Verses 21-24

Requirements for Cleansing

Everything that Israel has captured must be purified. The cleansing is done by putting it in the fire and then washing it with water. What cannot stand the fire should only be cleansed with water. The cleansing is carried out under the responsibility of Eleazar, who as a high priest must ensure that the cleansing is done strictly according to the prescription of Numbers 19 (Numbers 19:1-Song of Solomon :).

Nothing can be used by Israel without first going through the fire. The spoils that come from our unfaithfulness must also be cleansed to make them suitable for our own use. Everything that has been in the hands of Midian and is therefore unclean must be cleansed.

We can apply this to unbiblical practices of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These unbiblical practices are a consequence of our unfaithfulness. When baptism and supper are brought back to the foundation of the Bible, when they are cleansed of what is contrary to it, they can again be accepted as a blessing from God’s hand and used for His glory.

Fire and water must thus be applied to every truth we confess and every practice we connect to it in order to use it for God. The fire speaks of judgment, the water speaks of the Word of God. Fire consumes what cannot exist for God, water removes dirt and cleanses. Everything that has been under God’s judgment and is in accordance with God’s Word can be used for His glorification. If we get to this point, it is the result of the high priestly work of the Lord Jesus that He, as the true Eleazar, does for us. He leads us to see and to do everything so that God can accept it.

Verses 25-31

How to Distribute the Booty

The booty must be divided into two parts. One half is for the warriors, the other half is for the people. The booty is not only for the warriors. David later acts in the same way (1 Samuel 30:21-Lamentations :; cf. Joshua 22:8). In proportion, the warriors get more. They have also experienced the difficulties, efforts and dangers of war.

The LORD makes sure that every Israelite can share in the joy of victory. He chooses who takes part in the war and honors them. He also wants to honor those who have stayed behind according to His sovereign will and who have faithfully fulfilled their task according to His will at their designated place.

Not everyone is equally capable of taking part in the battle. When believers achieve spiritual victories, the spoils must be shared with all. The spiritual riches one acquires must be shared with other believers.

Peter once made a fall. He has denied the Lord Jesus. The cause of this is the connection he has made with the world. He sat down in their midst (Luke 22:55). The Lord has even foretold this denial, but he said that Peter would convert from that evil way. He even connects to it a command for Peter: after that bitter experience Peter will become an instrument of blessing for others (Luke 22:31-Nahum :). His letters are proof that he has carried out that task.

The warriors must also give part to the LORD. This part is for the benefit of the Levites. Their service is also dedicated to the priestly service. Levites are encouraged in their task as they share in the spoils. Our spiritual victories should contribute to the promotion of the Levite service and through them also to the priestly service.

Everything is connected to the tabernacle (Numbers 31:30; Numbers 31:47) where ultimately the spiritual gain of each victory ends up. There God is served and God’s people have fellowship with Him and with each other. The meetings of the believers are then places where believers come from richer than they came.

Verses 32-47

Distribution of the Booty

The booty and its distribution are as follows:

Booty of sheep: 675,000
1. for the soldiers: 337,500 of which 675 (=1/1000 of 675,000) for the LORD
2. for the people: 337,500 of which 6,750 (=1/100 of 675,000) for the Levites

Booty of cattle: 72,000
1. for the soldiers: 36,000 of which 72 for the LORD
2. for the people: 36,000 of which 720 for the Levites

Booty of donkeys: 61,000
1. for the soldiers: 30,500 of which 61 for the LORD
2. for the people: 30,500 of which 610 for the Levites

Booty of people: 32,000
1. for the soldiers: 16,000 of whom 32 for the LORD
2. for the people: 16,000 of whom 320 for the Levites

Verses 48-54

The Voluntary Gift of the Spoils

A spontaneous action of the superiors takes place out of gratitude. They are impressed by the fact that no one has died. They do not attribute this to their own competence. Many have perished in Numbers 25 because of their unfaithfulness. Now that no one has perished, they give God the honor for it.

The Lord Jesus will also make sure that no one who belongs to Him will be lost (John 17:12). No one will be missed in eternal glory from all those who have fought for the Lord on earth. All who abide by the Word of God attain salvation. We see this in the picture in Acts 27, which concludes with: “And so it happened that they all were brought safely to land” (Acts 27:44). The Lord Jesus will be praised for this for all eternity. This certainty will lead us now to worship Him in “the tent of meeting” (Numbers 31:54).

From spiritual leaders it may be expected to have more understanding of God’s goodness. Here it is even mentioned that these things are given to make atonement. It is exceptional that atonement is attributed to materials. That is always reserved for the blood.

However, there are exceptions. Atonement is also done in Numbers 16 by incense, although there is connection with the altar where the fire comes from (Numbers 16:46-Galatians :). In Exodus 30, atonement takes place through silver (Exodus 30:11-Nehemiah :). In order to exist for God, a price must be paid. Then someone becomes one of the numbered. Atonement means covering.

Normally that atonement has to do with sins, that they are covered. Here it is about God’s glory covering His people after they have failed. This is about recognizing that it is only His glory that matters and that we want to hide in it, even if it is due to causes which we ourselves are to blame for.

The gold is brought by Moses and Eleazar into the tent of meeting (cf. 1 Chronicles 18:11; 2 Chronicles 15:18). All experiences should enrich our meetings. Every meeting should reflect all the experiences we have had over the past week that have impressed us with God’s goodness and faithfulness and glory.

In the history of this chapter we see an illustration of Samson’s riddle: here something to eat comes out of the eater and something sweet comes out of the strong (Judges 14:14). What the enemy (the eater, the strong) wants to do to destroy the people, works out for the glory of God and blessing for His people (something to eat and something sweet).

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Kingcomments on the Whole Bible © 2021 Author: G. de Koning. All rights reserved. Used with the permission of the author
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Bibliographical Information
de Koning, Ger. Commentaar op Numbers 31". "Kingcomments on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/kng/numbers-31.html. 'Stichting Titus' / 'Stichting Uitgeverij Daniël', Zwolle, Nederland. 2021.