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CRITICAL AND EXPLANATORY NOTES
Numbers 12:1. The Ethiopian woman, &c. Heb.: “The woman, the Cushite.” This could not have been Zipporah, who was a Midianite, not a Cushite. And even if it be supposed that Miriam called her a Cushite from feelings of contempt and bitterness, yet the historian would not have confirmed the epithet by adding, “for he had taken a Cushite woman.” Moreover it is exceedingly improbable that Miriam should have reproached Moses with a marriage made many years previously, and long before he received the call to his great mission. The probability is that Zipporah had died, and Moses had entered into “marriage with a Cushite woman, who either sprang from the Cushites, dwelling in Arabia, or from the foreigners who had come out of Egypt along with the Israelites.” Such a marriage was perfectly allowable, so long as the woman was not a daughter of Canaan. Exodus 34:11-16.
Numbers 12:2. Hath He not spoken also by us? Aaron, as the high-priest, was the spiritual head of the whole nation, and as a prophetess Miriam was distinguished above all the women of Israel. Having received a measure of the prophetic spirit (Exodus 4:15; Exodus 15:20), they aspired to a share in the authority of Moses.
Numbers 12:3. Now the man Moses was very meek, &c. It has been objected that Moses, being a humble and modest man, would not have written this verse. Hence Dr. A. Clarke translates, “Now this man Moses was depressed or afflicted more than any man of that land.” Fuerst renders עָנָו, in this place, “a humble one.” Sept.: πραΰς. Vulg.: mitis. Keil and Del.: “meek.” This seems to us the best rendering. The objections which have been raised against it are not valid. The statement “is not an expression of vain self-display, or a glorification of his own gifts and excellencies, which he prided himself upon possessing above all others. It is simply a statement which was indispensible to a full and correct interpretation of all the circumstances.” When we regard these words “as uttered by Moses, not proprio motu, but under the direction of the Holy Spirit which was upon him (cf. Numbers 11:17), they exhibit a certain ‘objectivity,’ which is a witness at once to their genuineness and also to their inspiration. There is about these words, as also about the passages in which Moses no less unequivocally records his own faults (cf. Numbers 20:12 sqq.; Exodus 4:24 sqq.; Deuteronomy 1:37), the simplicity of one who bare witness of himself, but not to himself (cf. St. Matthew 11:28-29). The words are inserted to explain how it was that Moses took no steps to vindicate himself, and why consequently the Lord so promptly intervened.”—Speaker’s Comm.
Numbers 12:6-8. If there be a prophet among you, &c. Keil and Del.: “If there is a prophet of Jehovah to you (i.e. if you have one), I make myself known to him in a vision; I speak to him in a dream (בּוֹ, lit. ‘in him,’ inasmuch as a revelation in a dream fell within the inner sphere of the soul-life). Not so my servant Moses: he is approved in My whole house; mouth to mouth I speak to him, and as an appearance, and that not in enigmas; and he sees the form of Jehovah. Why are ye not afraid to speak against My servant, against Moses?
“Through this utterance on the part of Jehovah, Moses is placed above all the prophets, in relation to God and also to the whole nation. The Divine revelation to the prophets is thereby restricted to the two forms of inward intuition (vision and dream) … The prophets were consequently simply organs, through whom Jehovah made known His counsel and will at certain times, and in relation to special circumstances and features in the development of His kingdom. It was not so with Moses. Jehovah had placed him over all His house, had called him to be the founder and organizer of the kingdom established in Israel through his mediatorial service, and had found him faithful in His service. With this servant (θεραπων, LXX.) of His, He spake mouth to mouth, without a figure or figurative cloak, with the distinctness of a human interchange of thought; so that at any time he could inquire of God and wait for the Divine reply. Hence Moses was not a prophet of Jehovah, like many others, not even merely the first and highest prophet, primus inter pares, but stood above all the prophets, as the founder of the theocracy, and mediator of the Old Covenant … The prophets subsequent to Moses simply continued to build upon the foundation which Moses laid. And if Moses stood in this unparalleled relation to the Lord, Miriam and Aaron sinned grievously against him, when speaking as they did.”
Numbers 12:7. My servant Moses, &c. Comp. Hebrews 3:1-6.
Numbers 12:10. Leprous. See pp. 75–77.
Numbers 12:12. Let her not be as one dead, &c., “i.e., like a still-born child, which comes into the world half decomposed. His reason for making this comparison was, that leprosy produces decomposition in the living body.”—Keil and Del.
Numbers 12:14. If her father had but spit, &c. To spit in the face was a mark of extreme contempt. See Deuteronomy 25:9; Job 30:10; Isaiah 1:6; Mark 14:65. When a parent did this to his child, it is said the child was banished from his presence for seven days. How much more, then, should Miriam, who had sinned so grievously and whom God had smitten with leprosy, be exiled from the people and presence of God for seven days!
Numbers 12:16. The wilderness of Paran “was the great tract south of Palestine, commencing soon after Sinai, as the people advanced northwards,—that perhaps now known as the desert Et-Tih,” or the desert of the Wandering. “Between the wilderness of Paran and that of Zin no strict demarcation exists in the narrative, nor do the natural features of the region, so far as yet ascertained, yield a well-defined boundary.” (See The Speaker’s Comm., and Keil and Del. on Numbers 10:12; Smith’s Dict. of Bible, Arts. Kadesh, Paran, and Wilderness of the Wandering; and the maps of Egypt and the Peninsula of Sinai, in Stanley’s Sinai and Pal.).
THE SIN OF MIRIAM AND AARON: EVIL SPEAKING, DIVINE HEARING, AND SAINTLY SILENCE
I. The Sin of Miriam and Aaron.
“And Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses,” &c. In considering this sin, let us notice—
1. Its root. The source of this evil speaking was (so we infer from Numbers 12:2) jealousy on the part of Miriam and Aaron at the authority exercised, and the powers assumed by Moses. They were envious of his position and power, and ambitious for the exercise of equal authority. As Dr. Kitto has pointed out, the position assigned to Aaron “in the common wealth was in some respects superior to that of Moses. The function of Moses was temporary, and would pass away with his life; whereas Aaron’s was permanent in himself and his heirs, and would leave him and them the foremost and most important persons in the state. He might not therefore always regard with patience the degree in which his own high office was superseded by the existing authority of Moses.” The fact that he was the elder brother, probably contributed further to his discontent and jealousy. Miriam also was jealous and ambitious. It seemed to her, that being a prophetess, she ought to have a more eminent position and greater power. Here in their mean jealousy and “vaulting ambition” we have the root of their sin. (a).
2. Its occasion. It is probable that the fact that Aaron and Miriam had not been consulted in the choice of the seventy elders awakened their discontent. But that which they put forth as the occasion of their reproaches was the marriage which Moses had contracted with the Cushite woman. This seems to have annoyed Miriam, and led her to engage Aaron in envious and evil speeches. That Miriam was the instigator of the open rebellion appears from three things:
(1) That she is named before Aaron.
(2) From the use of the feminine verb תְדַבֵּר in Numbers 12:1; and
(3) from the fact that the punishment fell upon her only, and not upon Aaron. It appears that Aaron was deficient in firmness, and was too easily persuaded by others. Weakly and wickedly he yielded to the desire of the people for a golden idol (Exodus 32:0); and now at the instigation of his sister he unites in rebellion against the leader whom God had appointed. It is natural that the wife of Moses would be regarded with feelings of respect and honour in the camp. Miriam was jealous of these honours; she wished to occupy the rank of chief lady in the camp; hence she instigated this mean and sinful rebellion.
3. Its expression. They “spake against Moses,” &c. Evil speaking is a grievous offence in the sight of God. But when, as in this case, the evil speeches are directed against His chosen servants, the sin is greatly aggravated. “Jealousy, the green-eyed monster,” discovers flaws in and heaps reproaches upon its object, even though his character and conduct be most faultless and beautiful. The bitter feeling goes forth in unjust and bitter speech. (b)
II. The Divine Cognizance of their Sin.
“And the Lord heard.” No one utterance of all the myriads of voices in His universe ever escapes His ear. There is a Divine Hearer of every human speech. This is clear from—
1. His omnipresence. See Psalms 139:7-12. He who is everywhere present sees all things, hears all things.
2. His infinite intelligence. He to whom all things are known cannot be ignorant of the evil speeches of men.
3. His interest in His servants. God is deeply concerned in the honour and welfare of His servants. Their reputation is a sacred thing in His sight. Therefore He notes all the evil which is spoken against them.
Let all evil speakers and slanderers ponder the solemn truth that every whisper is distinctly audible to the Divine ear.
III. The commendable conduct of Moses under the provocation of their sin.
1. He was sorely tried. Under any circumstances it is a severe trial to be reproached without cause, or to be falsely accused; but the trial of Moses was embittered by the source from whence it sprung. Comp. Psalms 55:12-15.
2. He bore his sore trial most nobly. Under extreme provocation he maintained a saintly silence. He did not resent the attack made upon him, or attempt in any way to vindicate himself, for he was “meek and lowly in heart.” “Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth.” We have here a hint as to—
(1) The nature of meekness. “Meekness,” says Attersoll, “is a gift of the Spirit, which moderateth anger and desire of revenge, forgiving offences and pardoning injuries for peace and quietness sake: so that albeit a man be provoked by injuries received, yet he doth not intend nor enterprize to requite it, but bridleth all hatred and impatience.” (c)
(2) The occasions of its manifestation. When we are injured personally, like Moses, we must be meek. But when the honour of God is impeached, like Moses in the matter of the golden calf (Exodus 32:19-29), we must be zealous and determined. He was “as bold as a lion in the cause of God, but as mild as a lamb in his own cause.”
1. In the conduct of Miriam and Aaron we have a beacon. Let us shun their sin, &c.
2. In the conduct of Moses we have a pattern. Let us imitate his meekness.
(a) Ambition threw Adam out of the garden of God: it quickly crept into the family of Christ, and infected his disciples, and, therefore, being a subtle and secret evil, it is to be looked unto that it steal not suddenly upon us. If any man ask what it is, I answer, It is an immoderate desire after dignity, it is a thirst that never can be quenched; for as the covetous person hath never enough money, so the ambitious hath never enough honour; it is a secret poison, a hidden plague, the mistress of craft, the mother of hypocrisy, the father of envy, the fountain of vices, the moth of piety, a blind guide and leader of the hearts of men; finally, we may say of the love of it as Paul doth of the love of money, “It is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10). The farther we think ourselves from it, the nearer commonly it cometh unto us; and, therefore, “let nothing be done through strife and vainglory, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves “(Philippians 2:3—W. Attersoll.
(b) Sweetness is lost if you pour in bitterness to it. And certainly, if otherwise you have many sweet qualities and virtues, if you have an ill tongue to speak against Moses, the bitterness of it will mar them all. The little bee hath but a little sting, and, therefore, the wound is not mortal that she can make; yet little as it is, it procureth usually her death if she be caught. So will your stinging tongue, assure yourself, kill you, although it little hurt him or her whom you have stung. The foul frog lieth all day in the mud and mire, at night putting up the head and croaking with a foul noise; and such foul creatures are they said to be that have croaking tongues against Moses. Put a swine into the sweetest garden you can make, and what will he do? Smell to the pleasant rose or any other delightful flower there? No; but straight he will fall to rooting, and with his foul mouth turn up both moor and mould of every good thing. Such foul swize are they said to be, that have foul tongues, ever passing by that which is good, and rooting up the good names of them, whose virtues, how sweet soever to God and men, yet to them are ever hateful. I will go no further, but pray you to mark him that toppeth a candle, and taketh not good heed, doth he not usually black his fingers and sometimes also burn them, although he make the candle more bright? So do such persons as will be meddling with their neighbours’ lives. Well may their prattling make them burn and shine more bright, whom they meddle withal; but their own fingers carry a mark—nay, their souls receive such a blot as all the water in the sea will not wash off, but only the saving blood of Christ Jesus, upon repentance and amendment. Follow we not, then, Miriam and Aaron speaking against Moses, but pray for His grace to guide our tongues in a holy course, and so, clean tongues being the outward tokens of our clean souls, our life shall be godly and our end happy.—Bishop Babington.
(c) All genuine meekness among men—all, I mean, which is more than mere easiness of disposition—may be defined to be that bearing of a man towards the things of time and of this world, which springs from having the heart broken by religious penitence and the will put humbly into the hand of God. Do we call him “meek” who gives way in silence before noisy pretension, will rather give up his due than wrangle for it, and is so far from pushing himself into foremost places, that he yields before the force or “importunity of earthly-minded” men, nor murmurs at the “usurpation of the unjust”? Is it not because his natural self-importance has been humbled into “poverty of spirit,” that he is prepared thus to accept the lowest place? Or is it “meekness,” as some older expositors defined it, to be “undesirous of revenge” (non cupidus vindicatæ)—“not easily provoked”, slow to take offence, and, though stung deep, betraying no personal bitterness, but hiding oneself beneath the wing of God, who is the promised “avenger of all such”? Surely he forbears and forgives best who knows by the depth of his contrition for personal guilt how deeply he has been forgiven. Or shall we say he is the “meek” man, who, resting in the quiet and peaceable enjoyment of so much as God has been pleased to give, can meet each turn of fortune’s wheel with an equal mind, quarrelling neither with injurious providence, nor with more successful rivals; in prosperity unassuming, undesponding in adversity? Show me a will made pliable to the Heavenly Father under the experience of grace and forgiven sin, and I will show you equanimity above the philosophers—the equanimity of the Christian child! Yes, we must be converted to become meek.—J. O. Dykes, M.A., D.D.
THE MODERN APPLICATION OF AN ANCIENT INCIDENT
The incident recorded in these verses warrants the following practical observations:—
I. The possession of the greatest gifts does not exempt men from the liability to meanness and sin.
Miriam, a prophetess and poet, and Aaron an eloquent man (Exodus 4:14), in a measure inspired by God (Exodus 4:15), and appointed by God the religious head of the nation (Exodus 28:0), are here guilty of extreme meanness and great sin. The possession of great gifts does not necessarily involve the possession of great grace also. Balaam was a highly gifted man; but he was covetous, unprincipled, &c. A man may hold high office in the Church, and yet sin grievously. Let persons of great abilities and influence remember their great responsibilities. Let those who occupy prominent positions in religion look well to their own spiritual life and health. (a)
II. The most excellent and eminent servants of God are not exempt from the reproaches of men.
Even Moses, so distinguished for piety as he was, was spoken against.
“No might nor greatness in mortality
Can censure ’scape; back-wounding calumny
The whitest virtue strikes: What king so strong,
Can tie the gall up in the slanderous tongue?” Shakespeare.
“Be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow
Thou shalt not escape calumny.”—Ibid
“The worthiest people are the most injured by slander,” said Swift, “as we usually find that to be the best fruit which the birds have been pecking at.” It was said of our Holy Lord, “He hath a devil and is mad.” “If they called the Master of the house Beelzebub, how much more them of His household?” (b)
III. Our greatest trials sometimes arise from the most unlikely quarters.
It was remarkably so in the present trial of Moses. It arose from—
1. Persons in eminent positions. One would have thought that they would have sympathised with and endeavoured to sustain Moses in the duties and burdens of his office; but, &c.
2. Persons of excellent character. Aaron and Miriam were undoubtedly, in the main, good and worthy persons. Many of the trials of ministers and other religious leaders in our own day come from religious and well-meaning men; from their unreasonable complaints, their ignorant criticism, their conceited censures, &c.
3. Persons in near relationship. The present trial of Moses arose from his own brother and sister. David suffered sorely in this way from Absalom, Ahithophel, et al. Comp. Psalms 41:9; Psalms 55:12-14. When trials arise in this way they cause great disappointment. We expect such different things from kinsfolk and friends. They also cause sore distress. They wound the tenderest feelings, &c.
IV. The Lord takes cognizance of the reproaches which are cast upon His servants.
When “Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses, … the Lord heard.”
1. He is perfectly acquainted with all things. “The Lord is a God of knowledge.” “His understanding is infinite.” “God knoweth all things.”
2. He is deeply interested in all that concerns His servants. This interest is set forth in most expressive forms in the Scriptures (Deuteronomy 32:9-10; Isaiah 49:15-16 : Zechariah 2:8). The reputation of His servants is sacred and precious in His sight.
V. The servants of the Lord do well in bearing patiently the reproaches which are cast upon them.
Moses did not attempt to vindicate himself against the reproaches of Miriam and Aaron. The good man in similar circumstances may well follow his example in this. If we are thoroughly devoted to God’s service, we may safely leave it to Him to vindicate us against the reproaches of man. Comp. Job 16:19; Psalms 37:5-6. (c)
(a) Years ago Hamburg was nearly half of it burned down, and among the incidents that happened there was this one. A large house had connected with it a yard, in which there was a great black dog, and this black dog in the middle of the night barked and howled most furiously. It was only by his barking that the family were awakened just in time to escape from the flames, and their lives were spared; but the poor dog was chained to his kennel, and though he barked and thus saved the lives of others, he was burned himself. Oh! do not you, who work for God in this church, perish in that fashion. Do not permit your sins to enchain you, so that while you warn others you become lost yourselves. Do see that you have the godliness which has the promise of the life to come.—C. H. Spurgeon.
(b) I think there is no Christian, but sooner or later, first or last, shall have cause to say with David, “False witnesses did rise up, they laid to my charge things that I knew not” (Psalms 25:11). They charged me with such things whereof I was both innocent and ignorant. It was the saying of one, that there was nothing so intolerable as accusation, because there was no punishment ordained by law for accusers, as there was for thieves, although they stole friendship from men, which is the goodliest riches men have. Well, Christians, seeing it has been the lot of the dearest saints to be falsely accused, and to have their names and reputes in the world reproached, do you hold your peace, seeing it is no worse with you than it was with them, of whom this world was not worthy.—Brooks. (c) The celebrated Boerhaave, who had many enemies, used to say that he never thought it necessary to repeat their calumnies. “They are sparks,” said he, “which, if you do not blow them, will go out of themselves. The surest method against scandal is to live it down by perseverance in well-doing, and by prayer to God, that He would cure the distempered mind of those who traduce and injure us.” It was a good remark of another that “the malice of ill tongues cast upon a good man is only like a mouthful of smoke blown upon a diamond, which, though it clouds its beauty for the present, yet it is easily rubbed off, and the gem restored, with little trouble to its own lustre.”—Dict. of Illust.
Rowland Hill, when once scurrilously attacked in one of the public journals, was urged by a zealous friend to bring a legal action in defence; to this he replied with calm, unruffled dignity,—“I shall neither answer the libel, nor prosecute the writer, and that for two reasons: first, because, in attempting the former, I should probably be betrayed into unbecoming violence of temper and expression, to my own grief, and the wounding of my friends; and in the next place, I have learned by experience, that no man’s character can be eventually injured but by his own acts.”—Gleanings.
THE INQUEST OF THE LORD INTO THE SIN OF MIRIAM AND AARON
We now come to the second scene in this painful chapter of Israelitish history. Consider—
I. The solemn convocation.
“And the Lord spake suddenly unto Moses, and unto Aaron, and unto Miriam, Come out,” &c. (Numbers 12:4-5). We have here the solemn summons of the Divine Voice to Moses and to the two offenders, the majestic descent of the cloud of the Divine Presence, &c. Two great truths appear to be set forth in all this:
1. The timeliness of the Divine interposition. “The Lord spake suddenly.” His interposition was not delayed. In due season, at the earliest fitting opportunity, He appears for the vindication of His reproached servants.
2. The righteousness of the Divine judgment. This seems to be taught by the summoning of the offenders and of the person wronged before Him, and by the descent of the cloud of His presence. He knows all things, yet, He makes inquiry, &c. There is no haste in the Divine judgments; but patient and thorough examination precedes them. Comp. Genesis 3:8-13; Genesis 6:12; Genesis 11:5; Genesis 18:21; Zephaniah 1:12. (a)
The unimpeachable righteousness of the judgments of God should prove—
1. A comfort to the upright when unjustly reproached.
2. A warning to the wicked.
II. The splendid vindication. “And he said, Hear now my words:
If there is a prophet of Jehovah to you,” &c. (Numbers 12:6-8). Miriam and Aaron had aspired to equality with Moses, and disputed his claim to superior authority, and now Jehovah splendidly vindicates his pre-eminent character, and privileges, and consequent authority. He asserts that Moses was—
1. Pre-eminent in the intimacy of his communion with God. In the revelations which God made to men there were different degrees of clearness. To prophets He spake in visions and dreams; He revealed His will to them in “the inner sphere of the soul-life.” But He spake to Moses “mouth to mouth,” “i.e., without any mediation or reserve, but with the same closeness and freedom with which friends converse together” (Exodus 33:11). He spake to Moses “as an appearance, and that not in enigmas,” i.e., His communications were made to him directly and in the plainnest and most intelligible manner. And of Moses He says further, “the similitude of the Lord shall he behold.” By “the similitude” we are not to understand the unveiled essence of the Deity (John 1:18; 1 Timothy 6:16) nor any representation of God in the form of man or in the form of the angel of Jehovah (Ezekiel 1:26-28; Daniel 7:9; Daniel 7:13; Genesis 16:7). “It was the Deity Himself manifesting Himself so as to be cognizable to mortal eye.” Thus Moses was exalted far above all the other prophets. (See explanatory notes on Numbers 12:6-8.)
2. Pre-eminent in his faithfulness in the charge which he received of the Lord. “My servant Moses is approved in My whole house.” The “house” of Jehovah in this place does not signify the Tabernacle, but the covenant people, who were to be instructed and regulated by Moses. In all his duties to the people of God, Moses is declared faithful; in all he was approved by God. “He said and did everything in the management of that great affair, as became an honest good man, that aimed at nothing else but the honour of God and welfare of Israel.” How completely does the Lord vindicate His servant, and how highly does He honour him! Well does Trapp say, “God had never so much magnified Moses to them, but for their envy. We cannot devise to pleasure God’s servants so much as by despiting them. Quisquis volens detrahit famæ meæ, nolens addit mercedi meæ, saith Augustine; He that willingly detracteth from mine honour, doth, though against his will, add to my reward.”
III. The unanswerable interrogation.
“Wherefore, then, were ye not afraid to speak against My servant, against Moses?” This inquiry implies that their speech against Moses was—
1. Unreasonable. “Wherefore, then,” &c. Their reproaches were groundless. The Divine “Wherefore?” reveals the utter absence of any true cause for them.
2. Profane. “Were ye not afraid to speak against My servant?” In reproaching the servant, they had dishonoured the MASTER. “The rule is, Injuria illata legato redundat in legantem, Wrong done to a messenger reflects on him that sent him.”
3. Daring. “Why were ye not afraid?” If they had considered, they would have discovered strong reasons to dread the result of their conduct. “We have reason,” says Matthew Henry, “to be afraid of saying or doing anything against the servants of God; it is at our peril if we do so, for God will plead their cause, and reckon that what ‘touches them touches the apple of His eye.’ It is a dangerous thing to ‘offend one of Christ’s little ones’ (Matthew 18:6). Those are presumptuous, indeed, that ‘are not afraid to speak evil of dignities’ (2 Peter 2:10).” Interrogated thus by the Lord, Aaron and Miriam were “speechless,” like the man at the marriage feast who had not on a wedding garment (Matthew 22:12). Their conduct was utterly indefensible.
IV. The Divine anger.
“And the anger of the Lord was kindled against them, and He departed.” There are here two considerations concerning the anger of the Lord:
1. Its righteousness. It was kindled by sin—the sin of Aaron and Miriam. The anger of God is a perfectly holy principle which hates and antagonises sin. (b)
2. Its manifestation. “And He departed.” “The removal of God’s presence from us,” says Matthew Henry, “is the surest and saddest token of God’s displeasure against us. Woe unto us if He depart; and He never departs till we by our sin and folly drive Him from us.” “The final absence of God is hell itself.” (c)
The time approaches when God will summon all men to give account of themselves and their lives to Him. “Prepare to meet thy God.”
(a) There are many ways of representing perfect justice. The Thebans represented her as having neither hands nor eyes, for the judge should neither receive bribes nor respect persons. We, for similar reasons, picture her with a sword in one hand, scales in the other, and bandaged eyes. Whatever doubt there may be as to the justice of the earthly judge, as to that of the Heavenly there can be none. Now, His ways may sometimes appear to be “unequal.” We see the wicked in prosperity and the righteous in adversity. Like David, we are troubled at it. But when with David we “enter into the tabernacle of God, then understand we their end;” for God “hath appointed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness by that Man whom He hath ordained.”—J. G Pilkington.
(b) There is a deep wrath-principle in God, as in all moral natures, that puts Him down upon wrong, and girds Him in avenging majesty for the infliction of suffering upon wrong. Just as we speak of our felt indignations, and tell how we are made to burn against the person, or even the life of the wrong-doer, so God has His heavier indignations, and burns with His more consuming fire. This combustion of right anger is that girding power of justice that puts Him on the work of redress, and that armature of strength upon His feeling, that enables Him to inflict pain without shrinking.—H. Bushnell, D.D.
Say you that God is love? Oh! but look round this world. The aspect of things is stern—very stern. If they be ruled by love, it is a love which does not shrink from human agony. There is a law of infinite mercy here, but there is a law of boundless rigour, too. Sin, and you will suffer—that law is not reversed. The young, and the gentle, and the tender, are inexorably subjected to it. We would shield them if we could; but there is that which says they shall not be shielded.
They shall weep, and fade, and taste of mortal anguish, even as others. Carry that out into the next world, and you have “wrath to come.”—F. W. Robertson, M.A.
(c) Think of God sending a famine upon the soul—of minds pining and dying because Divine messages have been withdrawn! We know what the effect would be if God were to withhold the dew, or to trouble the air with a plague, or to avert the beams of the sun; the garden would be a desert, the fruitful field a sandy plain, the wind a bearer of death, summer a stormy night, and life itself a cruel variation of death, so penetrating, so boundless is the influence of God in nature. Is it conceivable that the withdrawment of God’s influence would be less disastrous upon the spirit of man?—Joseph Parker, D.D.
HONOUR TO MOSES; GREATER HONOUR TO CHRIST
We have an inspired comment in the New Testament on these words (Hebrews 3:1-6). Paul, reasoning with the Jews, tries to divert their minds from giving to Moses a glory that was in excess; and to show that all the honour they gave to Moses, the early servant, belonged in a far richer degree to Jesus, their rejected Lord. It is said that Moses, in all his offices, as priest, as prophet, as ruler, as teacher, as guide, was faithful in all his house.
What was his house? “Whose house,” says the Apostle, “are we.”
What does faithfulness mean? Whatever be the function assigned to you, that you honestly, impartially, earnestly, and fully discharge. Moses was in the midst of the people of God faithful. He finished the tabernacle; and you remember how specific are the injunctions laid down, and how minutely Moses fulfilled them all. So Jesus, the antitype, dimly foreshadowed by Moses, has been faithful in all the arrangements of His house. He has furnished it with precious sacraments; He has appointed it a teaching and a preaching ministry; He has redeemed it by His precious blood; He has bequeathed to it the ceaseless presence of His Holy Spirit, &c.
The Apostle justly says, that this Moses, who was faithful in all his house is counted worthy of glory; though One is counted worthy of greater glory. The very comparison indicates that Moses was counted worthy of honour. We need not disparage the servant in order to exalt the Master. Moses was a servant in the house; as a servant to be honoured; Jesus, the Builder of the house, as the Builder of the house to have the great and the lasting glory. Comp. John 5:23.
We see what is the true definition of the Church. The definition of Scripture of the Church is not the size of an edifice, or the splendour of its architecture; but the regenerated men that meet together in the name of Christ, &c. The orator may collect a crowd, but that is not a Church. The architect may build a cathedral, but that is not a Church. It is living stones, knit together by living love, not dead stones fastened together by dead mortar, that constitute a Church of the Lord Jesus Christ.
We see also the true oneness of the Church of Christ in all ages. There was, says the Apostle, but one house. “Moses was faithful in all his house; … whose house,” says the Apostle, “are we.” Then the Church that was in the days of Moses is the Church that exists now. There never has been but one Church; there never has been but one religion—I mean true religion; there never has been but one Saviour. The formula has differed, the circumstances have varied, the degree of spirituality or conformity to Christ has differed; but the substance has been everywhere and always essentially the same.
Now the argument of the Apostle (Hebrews 3:1-6) is most logical; a building infers and suggests a builder; an effect throws you back upon a cause; a creation leads you back or upwards to a Creator; and if Christ be the builder of all, and peculiarly the builder of that edifice of living stones which is called the Church; to build which requires more of God than to build the universe; then, says the Apostle, of how great honour ought He to be the inheritor who is thus God, the Builder and the Maker of all? If it required God to make a world; it requires God to regenerate sinners; nay, if possible more so. Omnipotence has but to mould the obedient dust into all its forms of beauty, of symmetry and order; and no resisting element, from first to last, will intrude to disturb the perfection, or to mar the beauty of the product. But in dealing with sinners here is not simply dead material to be moulded into its varied forms of loveliness and symmetry, but resistant passions, rebellious feelings, reluctant appetites, diverging tendencies; a thousand things to obstruct, to resist and to mar. And hence, if it required God to build the outer world, it requires no less a God to build that inner house, &c. Now then, argues the Apostle, if the servant Moses is counted by every Jew worthy of honour, what language shall express the honour due to Him who built all things? Comp. Hebrews 1:0. And thus he shows that Christ is superior to Moses; that He is superior to angels; he proves by comparison that he is God; and therefore, that the glory, and the honour, and the thanksgiving, and the praise are exclusively due to Him, who redeemed us by His blood, and has made us what we are.
We infer from the whole—
1. The greater glory of the New Testament economy. The figures are removed because their reality has come.
2. The greater responsibility of all who live under so clear, so simple, so spiritual an economy. Comp. Hebrews 10:28-29.
3. Paul shows us also the secret of our safety (Hebrews 3:6).
4. If Christ was faithful in His house, and Moses faithful in his, let us be faithful in ours (Matthew 24:45-50).
Are we living stones, laid upon Christ the rock?—Arranged from “Sabbath Morning Readings,” by John Cumming, D.D.
THE PUNISHMENT OF MIRIAM AND AARON
I. The Divine judgment because of the sin of Miriam and Aaron.
“And the cloud departed from off the tabernacle; and, behold, Miriam became leprous,” &c. (Numbers 12:10).
1. The punishment was inflicted by the Lord. “Leprosy,” says Archbishop Trench, “was often the punishment of sins committed against the Divine government. Miriam, Gehazi, Uzziah, are all cases in point; and when Moses says to the people, ‘Take heed of the plague of leprosy’ (Deuteronomy 24:8), this is no admonition diligently to observe the laws about leprosy, but a warning lest any disobedience of theirs should provoke God to visit them with this plague. The Jews themselves called it ‘the finger of God,’ and emphatically, ‘the stroke.’ It attacked, they said, first a man’s house; and then, if he refused to turn, his clothing; and lastly, should he persist in sin, himself—a fine parable, let the fact have been as it might, of the manner in which God’s judgments, if a man refuse to listen to them, reach ever nearer to the centre of his life. So, too, they said that a man’s true repentance was the one condition of his leprosy leaving him.” The leprosy of Miriam was certainly “the stroke” of Divine punishment because of her sin.
2. The punishment was appropriate to the sin. “Her foul tongue,” says Bishop Hall, “is justly punished with a foul face, and her folly in pretending to be a rival with Moses is made manifest to all men, for every one sees his face to be glorious, and hers to be leprous. While Moses needs a veil to hide his glory, Miriam needs one to hide her shame.” Not content with her exalted position, she aspired to the highest place of all, and for seven days she was not allowed even the lowest place in the camp, but was completely exiled from it.
3. The punishment fell most severely upon Miriam. Aaron was not struck with leprosy.
(1) She was the instigator of the sin. The Lord visits her greater guilt with a severer punishment.
(2) Aaron’s office of High Priest also probably helped to shield him. Had he been smitten with leprosy he would have been deeply disgraced in the eyes of the people, and his holy office would probably have been brought into disesteem amongst them.
(3) Yet Aaron was not altogether exempted from punishment. As priest he had to examine Miriam and pronounce her leprous. Again he had to examine her and pronounce her clean before she was readmitted to the camp. That he deeply realized his painful position is evident from the narrative (Numbers 12:10-12). Let us remember that there is judgment with God, He punishes men for their sins. If His chosen and distinguished servants sin against Him, He “will visit their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with stripes.” (a)
II. The Divine judgment leading to personal humiliation.
“And Aaron said unto Moses, Alas! my lord, I beseech thee,” &c. (Numbers 12:11-12). We see here—
1. Humble acknowledgment to Moses. A short time since Aaron had spoken against Moses; but mark the humility with which he now approaches him, and the respect with which he now addresses him—“Alas! my lord, I beseech thee,” &c. When the Lord takes up the cause of His servants He speedily humbles their detractors.
2. Confession of sin. “Lay not the sin upon us, wherein we have done foolishly, and wherein we have sinned.” Though he was not himself smitten with leprosy, yet Aaron deeply feels and penitently acknowledges his sin.
3. Entreaty for the removal of the severe judgment from Miriam. “Let her not be as one dead,” &c. “Leprosy,” says Archbishop Trench, “was nothing short of a living death, a corrupting of all the humours, a poisoning of the very springs, of life; a dissolution little by little of the whole body, so that one limb after another actually decayed and fell away. Aaron exactly describes the appearance which the leper presented to the eyes of the beholders, when, pleading for Miriam, he says, ‘Let her not be as one dead, of whom,’ ” &c. Thus he invokes the aid of Moses in intercession for the removal of the dreadful punishment. How speedily God by His judgments can humble men! Even the greatest and the mightiest are utterly unable to sustain His strokes.
III. The remarkable acknowledgment of the eminence of Moses, the servant of the Lord.
In Aaron’s confession and appeal to Moses we have a splendid tribute to the character and power with God of the latter.
1. In the manner in which he was addressed by Aaron. “And Aaron said unto Moses, Alas! my lord, I beseech thee,” &c.
2. In the appeal which was made to him by Aaron. “Let her not be as one dead,” &c. This appeal implies on the part of Aaron—
(1) Faith in the magnanimity of Moses—that he would not retaliate upon them for their attack upon him; that he was forgiving and generous.
(2) Faith in the influence which Moses had with God. Aaron does not dare to present his prayer directly to God, but he seeks the mediation and intercession of Moses. Thus out of the evil speaking of Aaron and Miriam against Moses, God brings a splendid tribute to the magnanimity, the holiness, and the spiritual power of His servant. Men in prosperity may reproach the servants of the Lord, but in adversity they will eagerly seek their sympathies and services.
IV. The distinguished magnanimity and grace of Moses.
“And Moses cried unto the Lord, saying, Heal her now, O God, I beseech Thee.” There was no resentment in his heart towards the brother and sister who had injured him; but fullest forgiveness for both, and sincerest pity for his smitten sister. His prayer for Miriam is an anticipation of the precept of our Lord, “Pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). We have another beautiful example of this forgiving and gracious spirit in the “man of God out of Judah,” who prayed that the withered hand of Jeroboam, which had been stretched out against him, might be healed (1 Kings 13:1-6). This spirit found its supreme and perfect expression in the Lord Jesus Christ. For those who crucified Him, when He was enduring the anguish of the cross, He prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Let us imitate Him.
V. The great power of the intercession of good.
In answer to the prayer of Moses Miriam was healed of her leprosy, and, after an exclusion lasting seven days, was restored to her place in the camp and congregation of the Lord. “Pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” (b)
VI. The justice and mercy of God as manifested in His treatment of Miriam.
1. He manifests His justice. To mark His abhorrence of her sin He commands that Miriam shall be shut out of the camp seven days. “To deal lightly with sin is actually to commit sin.” God punishes sin in whomsoever He finds it “There is no respect of persons with God in punishing, for none shall escape His hand. He doth not strike the poor and spare the rich; wink at the noble and honourable, and strike down the unnoble and baser sort; but He respecteth every one as He findeth him, and punisheth sin wheresoever sin reigneth, that all should fear.”
2. He manifests His mercy. He does not deal with Miriam and Aaron as they deserve, but mingles His judgment with mercy. We see His mercy in healing Miriam, and in sentencing her to only seven days banishment from the camp. He does not execute the fierceness of His anger. In wrath He remembers mercy. “He delighteth in mercy.” (c)
VII. The sin of one person checking the progress of an entire nation.
“The people journeyed not till Miriam was brought in.” For seven days the advance of the entire people was arrested by reason of the sin of Miriam. In consequence of the sin of Achan the Israelites were smitten at the battle of Ai, and ignominiously defeated. How often have we seen since those days the current of the progress of a nation, or of nations, arrested and turned back by some unprincipled and ambitious monarch, or by some unrighteous and powerful statesman! “None of us liveth to himself.” The sin of one person of high position and great influence may result in deepest injury to thousands.
The history supplies materials for a strong argument against sinning. By the heinousness of sin, by the Divine judgment upon sin, and by the injury which sin inflicts upon others, we are urged to “abstain from every form of evil.”
(a) Let us all learn this fact—that the consequences of sin are inevitable; in fact, that punishment is the extreme consequence of sin going on unchecked. There is in human nature an element of the gambler. There is a willingness to take the chances of things—a willingness to run a risk, however uncertain. There is no such element here. The punishment of sin is certain. All Scripture tells us so. “The soul that sinneth it shall die.” “Be sure your sin will find you out.” “Though hand join in hand, the wicked shall not go unpunished.” “The way of transgressors is hard.” All the world’s proverbs tell us so. “A reckless youth: rueful age.” “As he has made his bed, so he must lie in it.” “He who will not be ruled by the rudder, must be ruled by the rock.” Even Satan himself tells us so. In the old legend of Dr. Faustus, when he bids the devil lay aside his propensity for lying, and tell the truth, the devil answers, “The world does me injustice to tax me with lies. Let me ask their own conscience if I have ever deceived a single man into believing that a bad deed was a good one.” Even wicked men admit it.… God is no respecter of persons.
Fire burns and water drowns, whether the sufferer be a worthless villain or whether it be a fair and gentle child. And so the moral law works, whether the sinner be a David or a Judas, whether he be a publican or a priest. In the physical world there is no forgiveness of sins. Sin and punishment, as Plato said, walk this world with their hands tied together, and the rivet by which they are linked is as a link of adamant. A writer has said that a man who cannot swim might as well walk into a river and hope that it is not a river, and will not drown, as a man, seeing judgment and not mercy, denounced upon willing sin, hope that it will turn out to be mercy, and not judgment, and so defy God’s law. Will he escape? No. He who chooses sin must meet with retribution; must experience in his own individual person the lex talionis of offended nature—eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, burning for burning wound for wound, stripe for stripe.—F. W. Farrar, D D.
(b) I wish we did believe in prayer: I am afraid most of us do not. People will say, “What a wonderful thing it is that God hears George Müller’s prayers!” But is it not a sad thing that we should think it wonderful for God to hear prayer? We are come to a pretty pass certainly when we think it wonderful that God is true! Much better faith was that of a little boy in one of the schools at Edinburgh, who had attended the prayer-meetings, and at last said to his teacher who conducted the prayer-meeting, “Teacher, I wish my sister could be got to read the Bible; she never reads it.” “Why, Johnny, should your sister read the Bible?” “Because if she once could read it, I am sure it would do her good, and she would be converted and be saved.” “Do you think so, Johnny?” “Yes, I do, sir, and I wish the next time there’s a prayer-meeting you would ask the people to pray for my sister, that she may begin to read the Bible.” “Well, well, it shall be done, John.” So the teacher gave out that a little boy was very anxious that prayers should be offered that his sister might begin to read the Bible. John was observed to get up and go out. The teacher thought it very unkind of the boy to disturb the people in a crowded room and go out like that, and so the next day when the lad came, he said, “John, I thought that was very rude of you to get up in the prayer-meeting and go out. You ought not to have done it.” “Oh! sir,” said the boy, “I did not mean to be rude, but I thought I should just like to go home and see my sister read her Bible for the first time.” That is how we ought to believe, and wait with expectation to see the answer to prayer. The girl was reading the Bible when the boy went home. God had been pleased to hear the prayer; and if we could but trust God after that fashion we should often see similar things accomplished—C. H. Spurgeon.
Frail art thou, O man, as a bubble on the breaker,
Weak, and governed by externals, like a poor bird caught in the storm;
Yet thy momentary breath can still the raging waters,
Thy hand can touch a lever that may move the world.
O Merciful! we strike eternal covenant with Thee,
For man may take for his ally the King who ruleth kings;
How strong, yet how most weak, in utter poverty how rich,
What possible omnipotence to good is dormant in a man;
Prayer is a creature’s strength, his very breath and being;
Prayer is the golden key which can open the wicket of mercy;
Prayer is the magical sound that saith to Fate, So be it;
Prayer is the slender nerve that moveth the muscles of Omnipotence.—M. F. Tupper.
(c) Mercy is God’s Benjamin, and He delighteth most of all in it. It is the son of His right hand, though, alas! in bringing it forth, it might well have been called the son of sorrow, too, for mercy came into this world through the sorrows of the only-begotten Son of God. He delights in mercy, just as some men delight in trade, some in the arts, some in professions; and each man, according to his delight, becomes proficient in pursuing a work for the very love thereof. So God is proficient in mercy. He addicts Himself to it. He is most God-like, most happy, if such a thing may be said of Him, when He is stretching out His right hand with his golden sceptre in it, and saying to the guilty, “Come to Me, touch this sceptre, and you shall live.”—C. H. Spurgeon.
MIRIAM SMITTEN WITH LEPROSY: TRANSFIGURATION THROUGH TRANSGRESSION
I. This transfiguration was brought to pass on account of the jealousy of Miriam of Moses, and the jealousy of God for Moses.
“Hath the Lord indeed spoken only by Moses?” (Numbers 12:2). “Were ye not afraid to speak against My servant Moses?” (Numbers 12:8).
Thoughts that contain the venom of jealousy, when expressed, form the character and pass judgment upon it. (Comp. Matthew 12:37.) Miriam’s jealousy of her brother came out in her speech, and her speech brought miraculous judgment upon her. God was jealous of the honour of His servant, and His jealousy manifested itself in words of reproof. So a righteous and sinful jealousy led to this transforming judgment. God’s words justified Him; Miriam’s condemned her.
II. The transformation was in keeping with the expressed jealousy of God and of Miriam.
The narrative leads us to think that Miriam’s feelings broke forth like sudden fire. While she was “musing, the fire burned,” and she spake bitter and angry words. And we are told that the Lord likewise spake suddenly (Numbers 12:4) in words of authority and reproof. And the punishment came suddenly. “The cloud departed, and behold Miriam became leprous.” So, we are told, shall “the coming of the Son of Man be” (Matthew 24:27). The indignation of the Lord was great, the bitter feeling of Miriam was intense, and the disease which was the consequence of both was of the most malignant kind.
I. That inequalities of position in the Church of God have their origin in the will of God. Vessels belonging to the same owner vary in the amount of cargo they carry because they vary in their capacity. One is 1,000 tons burthen, another 500, and so on. But why do they differ in tonnage? This must be referred to the will of the owner who built each one. The forest trees are all free to grow, but the willow cannot attain to the dimensions of the oak, or the ash to the strength of the cedar of Lebanon It has not been given to them to do so. So there are intellectual inequalities among God’s servants (Comp. Matthew 25:15). Why not give to each one the same number of talents? Why does not the shipbuilder build each vessel of the same size? or the Creator make each tree exactly like its fellow? Because they are destined for different service, and this destiny must be referred to the will of their owners. Neither Miriam nor Aaron could grow into a Moses.
II. That God is, from a blessed necessity, a respecter of persons in relation to character.
Some of God’s children command more affection and respect than others, because they deserve more. We find ourselves under the necessity of esteeming some more highly than others, and God is, so to speak, under the same blessed necessity. He did esteem Moses more highly than He esteemed Aaron or Miriam, and the reason is found, not in his mental superiority, but because he “was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3).
III. That the abstract devil of jealousy within the Church of God hinders its progress more than a legion of personal devils without. “The people journeyed not,” &c., (Numbers 12:15). When leaders of an army become jealous of each other’s reputation, they let loose an enemy which will soon take the wheels off the artillery, and ham string the horses; and the same devil in the Church of God has often made the chariot wheels go heavily.
IV. The practice and precept of the New Testament were anticipated by some Old Testament saints. The river at its well-head may be narrow, but the water is the same in quality as it is when it flows into the ocean. The channel was not so broad, but the spirit was the same. “Heal her now, O God, I beseech Thee” (Numbers 12:13), anticipates Acts 7:60; Luke 23:34; Matthew 5:44.—From “Outlines of Sermons on the Miracles and Parables of the Old Testament.”
THE PRAYER OF MOSES FOR MIRIAM
A man’s foes too often are those of his own house. The sister and brother of Moses spake against him; his marriage displeased them; their resentment led them beyond the mere expression of discontent; they question his authority, envy his power, are jealous of his position. They have much influence—the one a prophetess, the other a high priest. But for Divine interposition the whole of Israel might have been led to revolt against Moses’ authority. “The Lord heard it.” They are summoned to His presence. He applauds Moses; Miriam becomes a leper; Aaron also was punished. For the lips that sinned with Miriam must pronounce her leprous. And now Moses turns to God, and prays for Miriam’s recovery.
I. The prayer.
How conclusively does it attest the excellency of the character of Moses! How worthy of power is one so large-hearted and forgiving! How much of resemblance is there between the behaviour of Moses and the law of Christ! “Pray for them which despitefully use you.”
1. The prayer was explicit. Nothing vague. He prays not for wrong doers in the mass, but for one in particular, and that one who had wronged him. Many will pray general prayers heartily enough. Lips willing to say, “Have mercy on us miserable sinners,” refuse to say, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.”
2. The prayer was earnest. “I beseech Thee.” Did he see the Shekinah receding (Numbers 12:10), and would have God return at once? God’s withdrawals excite prayer.
3. The prayer was generous. “Heal her now.” Not make her penitent, or cause her to beg forgiveness, and then heal her, or remove the disease after a certain time, but, “Heal her now.” This is how true brothers always pray. Sympathy produces generosity and earnestness.
4. The prayer was well-timed. He waited not till the memory of her sin and his wrong were fainter; at once his cry goes up, as Miriam’s departing foot-fall is heard. “Love one another.” We are not to “give place unto wrath,” He gives PLACE who gives TIME.
II. The answer. Numbers 12:14.
1. It was most gracious. He condescended to return and speak to Moses. Intimates she shall be healed at the expiration of seven days.
2. It was most wise. Seven days she must suffer for her own good, for Aaron’s good, for all Israel’s good, to show that an exalted position in His service does not exempt from the punishment of sin.
3. It was most speedy. He answered at once. Why so speedy? Because He desired the innocent should not be afflicted with the guilty. Read Numbers 12:14, how God sets forth the case to Moses, so that he, seeing the wisdom of the punishment, and God’s grace in curtailing it, may be at rest.
Think, brethren, of the Miriams without the camp, think of the time when, timbrel in hand, they joined with you; now kneel with Moses to pray, “Heal them now, O God.”—R. A. Griffin.
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Numbers 12". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany