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Thursday, July 25th, 2024
the Week of Proper 11 / Ordinary 16
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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 17

Preacher's Complete Homiletical CommentaryPreacher's Homiletical

Verses 1-13


In this chapter the High-priesthood of Aaron is further confirmed by a supernatural and significant sign.

Numbers 17:4. The testimony, “i.e., the Two Tables of the Law; cf. Exodus 25:16. No doubt the rods lay in front of the Tables within the Ark.”—Speaker’s Comm.

Numbers 17:5. I will make to cease from Me. “שָׁכַךְ, Hiph., to cause to sink, to bring to rest, construed with מֵעַל in a pregnant signification, to quiet in such a way that it will not rise again.”—Keil and Del.

Numbers 17:6. Twelve rods. “Possibly the two tribes of the children of Joseph were reckoned together, as in Deuteronomy 27:12. But as these two tribes had separate princes, and it was with the names of the princes that the rods were marked (Numbers 17:2), it is more probable that the whole number of rods was twelve exclusively of Aaron’s, as the Vulgate expressly renders (‘fuerunt virgæ duodecim absque virga Aaron’).”—Speaker’s Comm.

Numbers 17:8. Yielded almonds. “Or rather ‘ripened almonds,’ i.e., ‘brought forth ripe almonds.’ Probably different portions of the rod showed the several stages of the process of fructification through which those parts which had advanced the furthest had passed. The name almond in Hebrew denotes the ‘waking tree,’ the ‘waking fruit;’ and is applied to this tree because it blossoms early in the season. It serves here, as in Jeremiah 1:11-12, to set forth the speed and certainty with which, at God’s will, His purposes are accomplished.”—Ibid. “This was miraculous … for no ordinary branch would have buds, blossoms, and fruits upon it, all at once.”—M. Henry.

Numbers 17:10. For a token, &c. Keil and Del. translate: “For a sign for the rebellious, that thou puttest an end to their murmuring, and they die not.” Aaron’s rod was probably lost while the Ark was in the hands of the Philistines; for it is stated in 1 Kings 8:9 that there was “nothing in the Ark save the two tables of stone.”

Numbers 17:12-13. “A new section should begin with these verses. They are connected retrospectively with chap. 16; and form the immediate introduction to chap. 18. The people were terror-stricken with the fate of the company of Korah at the door of the tabernacle, followed up by the plague in which so many thousands of their numbers had perished. Presumption passes by reaction into despair. Was there any approach for them to the tabernacle of the Lord? Was there any escape from death, except by keeping aloof from His presence? The answers are supplied by the ordinances that follow; ordinances which testified that the God of judgment was still a God of grace and of love.”—Speaker’s Comm.

Numbers 17:13. Keil and Del. translate: “Every one who comes near to the dwelling of Jehovah dies; are we all to die?”


(Numbers 17:1-5)

The directions which are here given to Moses teach us—

I. That true ministers of religion are elected by God.

In directing Moses to place these rods in the tabernacle, the Lord promises to meet with him there, and He says, “And it shall come to pass, that the man’s rod whom I shall choose, shall blossom.” God called Aaron to his office (Hebrews 5:4). He here makes arrangements for confirming that call, and placing it beyond dispute. To enter the Christian ministry for its honours, or its emoluments, &c., is an awful sin. To refuse to enter it when convinced of the Divine call thereto is also a sin. The authority of the true minister of Christ arises from his being sent forth by God. Comp. 1 Corinthians 12:4-11; 1 Corinthians 12:28; Galatians 1:1; Ephesians 4:7-13. (a)

II. It is of great importance that men should know that their ministers of religion are called by God.

The Lord here makes arrangements for His own miraculous interposition, in order that the Israelites might be completely convinced of the Divine authority of Aaron in his office. It is important that people should be convinced of the Divine call of their ministers, in order that—

1. They might regard them with becoming respect. They are ambassadors for Christ; and should be treated as such. Comp. John 13:20; Philippians 2:29; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13; 1 Timothy 5:17.

2. They might take heed to their message. If the ministers of Christ come to be regarded as mere lecturers on religious themes, having no authority from God, their ministry will be productive of little true and lasting good. Crowds may gather round the eloquent preacher, but they will be like those which gathered round the ancient prophet (Ezekiel 33:30-32). When people see in their ministers a Christlike life, and manifest fitness for their sacred duties, and the signs of the Divine approval of their ministry, let them rest assured that such ministers have their commission from God, and their ministry should be received accordingly. “Despise not prophesyings.” “Take heed how ye hear.” (b)

III. The vitality of sin is of dreadful tenacity.

The miraculous sign for which Moses is directed to make arrangements was necessary to completely subdue the murmurings of the children of Israel. The previous judgments, although so numerous and terrible, had not effectually destroyed their tendency to murmur against the leaders whom God had appointed. “Many men’s lips,” says Trapp, “like rusty hinges, for want of the oil of grace and gladness, move not without murmuring and complaining.” It is a thing of extreme difficulty to eradicate any evil disposition from the human heart. “For such is the habitual hardness of men’s hearts, as neither ministry, nor misery, nor miracle, nor mercy, can possibly mollify. Nothing can do it, but an extraordinary touch from the hand of Heaven.” (c)

IV. God is engaged in eradicating sin from human hearts.

“I will make to cease from me the murmurings of the children of Israel,” &c. He cries to the sinner, “O do not this abominable thing, which I hate.” His laws are all against sin. The great redemptive mission of Jesus Christ aims at the destruction of sin. “He appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.” (d)

Since God is thus engaged, we may confidently anticipate that the crusade against sin will be gloriously triumphant. “He shall not fail nor be discouraged, till He have set judgment in the earth: and the isles shall wait for His law.”


(a) The ministry is the Divinely-appointed agency for the communication of God’s will to man. As a Divine institution, it advanced its claims in the beginning, and in no solitary instance have they been relinquished since. This Divine authorization and enactment are still in force. The Bible says, when Christ ascended up on high, “He led captivity captive, and received gifts for men; and he gave some apostles, and some prophets, and some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” There might be something special, perhaps, in this original commission, but the principle of its Divine origin is evidently presented as the principle of the ministry itself; for St. Paul, who was not then called, who speaks of himself afterwards as one born out of due time, earnestly and anxiously vindicates the heavenly origin of his apostleship: “I certify you, brethren, that the Gospel which was preached of me is not of men; for I neither received it of men, neither was I taught it but by the revelation of Jesus Christ” This it is which is the elevation of the Christian ministry, which exalts it far above human resources and human authority. It travels on in its own majestic strength—Heaven-inspired and Heaven-sustained. Moreover, the same passage which tells us of the institution of the ministry, announces its duration, and tells of the period when it shall be no longer needed, “Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.” This period, thus Divinely appointed for the cessation of the ministry, has obviously not yet arrived.—W. M. Punshon, LL.D.

It would appear to be a difficult lesson for the Church to learn, that God will choose His own instruments. In spite of a thousand proofs of sovereignty on this matter, the Church will stubbornly try to have a hand in the choice of ministers. Now that civilization has become a very devil to us, we say that God’s agents shall not be carpenters, fishermen, tentmakers, or ploughmen. No, certainly not; they shall be sons of gentlemen; they shall have hands unhardened by labour; they shall be favourites of conventional fortune. God will not have this; He will not be indebted to His creatures. The shepherd shall be entrusted with His thunder, and the husbandman shall wield His lightning; the little child shall subdue the dragon, and the suckling shall not be afraid of the cockatrice.—Joseph Parker, D.D.

(b) How many hear the Gospel, but do not hear it attentively! A telegram on the Exchange—they read it with both their eyes—will there be a rise or fall of stocks? An article from which they may judge of the general current of trade—how they devour it with their minds, they suck in the meaning, and then go and practise what they have gathered from it. A sermon heard, and lo, the minister is judged as to how he preached it—as if a man reading a telegram should say the capital letter was not well inked on the press, or the dot to the “i” had dropped off the letter; or as if a man reading an article of business should simply criticise the style of the article, instead of seeking to get at its meaning, and act upon its advice. Oh, how men will hear and think it to be right, to be the height of perfection, to say they liked or disapproved of the sermon! As if the God-sent preacher cared one doit whether you did or did not like his sermon, his business being not to please your tastes, but to save your souls; not to win your approbation, but to win your hearts for Jesus, and bring you to be reconciled to God.—C. H. Spurgeon.

(c) That plant must possess great vitality which increases by being uprooted and cut down. That which lives by being killed is strangely full of force. That must be a very hard substance which is hardened by lying in the blast furnace, in the central heat of the fire, where iron melts and runs like wax. That must be a very terrible power which gathers strength from that which should restrain it, and rushes on the more violently in proportion as it is reined in. Sin kills men by that which was ordained to life. It makes Heaven’s gifts the stepping stones to hell, uses the lamps of the temple to show the way to perdition, and makes the Ark of the Lord, as in Uzzah’s case, the messenger of death. Sin is that strange fire which burns the more fiercely for being damped, finding fuel in the water which was is tended to quench it. The Lord brings good out of evil, but sin brings evil out of good. It is a deadly evil; judge ye how deadly! O that men knew its nature and abhorred it with all their hearts! May the Eternal Spirit teach men to know aright this worst of ills, that they may flee from it to Him who alone can deliver.—Ibid.

(d) God stands between the right and the wrong, not looking pleasant on the one and equally pleasant on the other; not looking as the sun looks, with a benignant face on the evil and on the good; and not as man looks, with only a less benignant face on the evil. He stands with all the fervour of His infinite love and all the majesty of His unlimited power, approving good, and legislating for it on the one side; and disapproving evil, and abhorring it, and legislating it down to the dust, and beneath the dust, into infamy and eternal penalty, on the other side. And if there be one truth that speaks throughout the Bible like the voice of God, and resounds with all the grandeur of Divine intonation, it is the truth that God does not look with an equal eye upon the evil and the good, that He is a discriminator of character, a lover of that which is right, and a hater of that which is wrong.—H. W. Beecher.


(Numbers 17:6-11)

In this rod we have an illustration of—

I. The characteristics of the true Christian ministry.

1. Life. The rod of Aaron was quickened into life by God, while all the other rods remained mere dead wood. The true minister is alive spiritually. The life of supreme sympathy with God is his. “That which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” “This is life eternal, that they might know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom Thou hast sent.” “He that hath the Son of God hath the life.” “I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me,” &c. The true minister is aflame with zeal for the glory of God, and the conversion of sinners, and the sanctification of believers. Without this spiritual life man is utterly unfit for the Gospel ministry, even though he possessed every other qualification in great measure. (a)

2. Beauty. “The rod of Aaron for the house of Levi was budded, and brought forth buds, and bloomed blossoms.” It was not only living, but beautiful. The true minister of Christ is adorned with the beauties of holiness. The Gospel which he preaches to others he endeavours to illustrate in his own life; he translates his creed into his conduct. (b)

3. Fruitfulness. “The rod of Aaron.… yielded almonds.” This was not promised by the Lord (comp. Numbers 17:5); it makes the vindication of the priesthood of Aaron more gloriously complete and conclusive. God is often better than His word: His performances never fall beneath His promises, but frequently transcend them. The true minister, like the rod of Aaron, is fruitful. His life and work are blessed by God to the conversion of sinners, and the edification of believers in Christ, and the leading of the young into the faith and service of the Lord Jesus. He is useful in quickening holy thoughts and noble purposes, in training souls for spiritual service, and in leading them in such service. He is not only alive himself, his ministry is life giving to others. (c)

II. The origin of the true Christian ministry.

The transformation of the rod of Aaron was the work of God. We have an extraordinary manifestation of the Divine power in giving life to this piece of dead wood, and causing it to put forth buds, blossoms, and fruit. It was unquestionably a supernatural achievement. The attributes of a true minister of Jesus Christ are gifts of God. Spiritual life is His gift. “Born of the Spirit.” “The gift of God is eternal life, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” “I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.” Spiritual beauty is bestowed by God. It is “the beauty of the Lord our God upon us.” We are being transfigured into the image of the Lord, “from glory to glory, even as by the Lord the Spirit.” “The Lord will beautify the meek with salvation.” Spiritual fruitfulness is also the gift of God. “As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in Me,” &c. (John 15:4-5.) “Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers by whom ye believed, even as the Lord gave to every man?” &c. (1 Corinthians 3:5-7.) Thus every true minister is a creation of God, and a gift of God to His Church.

III. The influence of the true Christian ministry.

“And the Lord said unto Moses, Bring Aaron’s rod again before the testimony, to be kept,” &c. Thus this rod was to remain, and to continue to exercise a beneficent influence in repressing the disposition of the Israelites to murmur against the servants of the Lord. In like manner the true Christian ministry and its fruits are abiding things; and the manifestation of those fruits is calculated to silence murmurers and detractors. The holiest and most useful ministers may be assailed by detraction and even by cruel slander, as Aaron was; but his life and work will in due time silence the detractors and cover them with shame. The results of the life and work of the true minister will be the most effective vindication of his Divine call, and will “put to silence the ignorance of foolish” and wicked men.


(a) I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to say I would go to church no more. Men go, thought I, where they are wont to go, else had no one entered the temple in the afternoon. A snow-storm was falling around us. The snow-storm was real, the preacher merely spectral; and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him into the beautiful meteor of the snow. He had lived in vain. He had no one word indicating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love, had been commended, or cheated, or chagrined. If he had ever lived and acted, we were none the wiser for it. The capital secret of his profession—namely, to convert life into truth—he had not learned. Not one fact in all his experience had he yet imported into his doctrine. This man had ploughed, and planted, and talked, and bought, and sold; he had read books; he had eaten and drunken; his head aches; his heart throbs; he smiles and suffers; yet was there not a surmise, a hint, in all the discourse that he had ever lived at all. Not a line did he draw out of real history. The true preacher can always be known by this, that he deals out to the people his life—life passed through the fire of thought. But of the bad preacher, it could not be told from his sermon what age of the world he fell in; whether he had a father or a child; whether he was a freeholder or a pauper; whether he was a citizen, or any other fact it his history.—R. W. Emerson.

For the spiritual being, man, the only real life is in goodness. Can it not be proved so? If the fountain of all the life that flows through the fields of the universe is God, God is but another name for goodness. All the life that proceeds from Him, therefore, must be according to goodness or love, whether it beats in the bosom of a sinless child, or nerves the arm of a hero-saint; whether He rounds a planet, or tints a roseleaf; whether He balances the Pleiades in their spheres, or adjusts the microscopic machinery of an insect’s wing; whether the afflatus of His Spirit bears up the “seraph that adores and burns” before the throne, or lights the lamp of a feebler reason in these vessels of clay. Only so far as we share in the Father’s goodness, then, are we partakers in His life. The measure of our being, as living souls, is precisely the measure of our excellence. In proportion as our actions are in harmony with Divine laws, and our familiar frame of feeling with God’s will, we live. Herein is the Apostolic saying true, “To be spiritually-minded is life.” Every rising-up of pure aspiration; every clinging to principle when you are tempted; every choice of abstract right above politic selfishness; every putting down of sensual passion by prayer; every preference of a truth which inherits a cross, over the lie that flatters you with a promise of prosperity—is a palpable motion of God’s life within you. Indeed, this is the most intimate subjective knowledge you have of God. God, out of His express revelation, never speaks to us so audibly as when His Spirit prompts us to struggle, or braces us for a sacrifice. A generous impulse is the plainest pledge of His presence; a devout trust in Him, the mightiest demonstration of His Fatherhood.—F. D. Huntington, D.D.

You know the difference between slow motion and rapidity. If there were a cannon ball rolled slowly down these aisles, it might not hurt anybody; it might be very large, very huge, but it might be so rolled along that you might not rise from your seats in fear. But if somebody would give me a rifle, and ever so small a ball, I reckon that if the ball flew along the Tabernacle, some of you might find it very difficult to stand in its way. It is the force that does the thing. So, it is not the great man who is loaded with learning that will achieve work for God; it is the man, who however small his ability, is filled with force and fire, and who rushes forward in the energy which Heaven has given him, that will accomplish the work—the man who has the most intense spiritual life, who has real vitality at its highest point of tension, and living, while he lives with all the force of his nature for the glory of God.—C. H. Spurgeon.

(b) Beauty and love ought always to go together. In the highest moral realm, in the noblest moral traits, there should be the beautiful. Religion is itself beautiful. Its fragments, like shining particles of gold, are beautiful; but at every stage and step of its development toward moral perfection, it grows in the direction of beauty, and the highest conception of beauty is in character. Physical beauty is but the outward symbol and the lower representation of that which has its true existence only in spiritual elements. Religion is beautiful, because it is the service of the God of beauty. Its inward and characteristic experiences are full of beauty.—H. W. Beecher.

A true man after Christ will be the most noble and beautiful thing upon the earth—the freest, the most joyous, the most fruitful in all goodness. There is no picture that was ever painted, there is no statue that was ever carved, there was no work of art ever conceived of that was half so beautiful as is a living man, thoroughly developed on the pattern of Christ Jesus.—Ibid

(c) Vitality is a test of any system of doctrine, as it is of any teacher’s qualification. If you would flud the value of any message, ask of it, Does it live? Do viral pulses leap through it? Does it reproduce its life? Does it help men to live? Does it leave them more alive or more dead than they were without it? Get an answer to these questions, and you will find whether the given ministry is of heaven, or of a private self-interest—whether it comes out of the all-quickening and all comprehending God, or out of some dreamer’s brain.

Nothing goes with much momentum, in the long trial, that does not carry life with it. Accumulate the learning of a thousand Melancthons; pile together the erudition of ancient schools and modern universities; what does it contribute to the real treasure of men, if it does not create life in them? The alcoves of libraries may be but the chambers of a mausoleum,—sepulchres of thought, instead of nurseries—and meeting houses, spiritual dormitories. Eloquence, burning as Peter the Hermit’s, is wasted breath, unless the succeeding life of men shows that it reached the springs from which that life was fed. So in all communication of man with man. Nothing tells, nothing does execution, nothing survives very long, but what makes men feel and will and act,—nothing but the “word of life.” Find me a book, a speech, a preacher, a gospel, that is not life-giving, and I know there is no true message, no inspiration, no revelation from God there.—F. D. Huntington, D.D.


(Numbers 17:8)


I. The threefold significance of the rods which were laid to settle the question in dispute.

1. They were historic. The rods of the tribes were handed down from one generation to another, outliving many generations, and reminding the men of the present of the events of the past, as the mace of a city in England calls up to our minds events which have been connected with it in the past.

2. They were representative. They represented every man of the tribe as a mace represents every citizen, or as the heraldic sign of a noble house represents each member of the house, and the number upon the colour of each regiment represents each soldier in the regiment.

3. The rod was a sign of personal authority when borne by the man who alone was entitled to carry it—the head of the tribe. The macebearer derives no authority from bearing the sign of it, but in the hands of the chief magistrate it is an emblem of official power. The coronet in the hands, or even upon the head, of a commoner, means nothing; but it means rank upon the brow of him to whom it rightfully belongs.

II. Aaron’s rod represented more remarkable historic events, and signified more authority, than the rods belonging to the heads of the other tribes.

It is generally supposed to have been the rod used by him and by Moses in the performance of the miracles of Egypt and the wilderness (comp. Exodus 7:9; Exodus 7:19, &c.). It was, therefore, connected with a miracle in the past—it had been alive. And it signified an authority not derived from birth (Exodus 6:16-20), but conferred by the special selection of God. The present miraculous manifestation may suggest—

1. That the creation of life is the highest manifestation of Divine power. Miracles of increase may to some extent find an analogy in the works of man when he works in co-operation with the established laws of nature. He sows a seed and reaps thirty-fold, and so on. But there is life in the seed to work upon. The giving of life to the dead can in no way be imitated by man. The character of this miracle, therefore, seems intended—

2. To vindicate most forcibly the right of God to decide who should be, not only the head of the tribe of Levi, but the priestly head of the entire nation. He who could thus dispense with all the seasons in the production of the flowers and fruit upon the rod, had a right to set aside the ordinary laws of primogeniture. God is not handcuffed by either. His natural of social laws. He can break all laws except those of moral rectitude. To violate them is His blessed impossibility.

3. It may further suggest that the choice of God would be justified in the after history of Israel. The choice for special service begins with God. The selection of an earthly ambassador springs not from himself, but from the king who sends him. So the Saviour and King of men said to His ambassadors, “Ye have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you.” But His choice was justified by their “bringing forth fruit which remained” (John 15:16). So the choice of Aaron’s family was justified by the fruit which some members brought forth to bless the nation. Their faith and courage in entering Jordan, the zeal of Phinehas (Numbers 25:7), &c., were typified in the budding and fruit-bearing rod which was their symbol.—From “Outlines of Sermons on the Miracles and Parables of the Old Testament.”


(Numbers 17:8)

Let us advance from the ancient record to the still-living Gospel of the fact. The Rod in many graphic tints shows Jesus. The very name is caught by raptured prophets—Isaiah 11:1; Zechariah 6:12-13. Thus faith gleans lessons from the very title—Rod.

But the grand purport of the type is to reject all rivals. It sets Aaron alone upon the priestly seat. The parallel proclaims, that similarly Jesus is our only Priest. God calls—anoints—appoints—accepts, and ever hears Him; but Him alone. In His hands only do these functions live.

Next, the constant luxuriance has a clear voice. In nature’s field, buds—blossoms—fruit, soon wither. Not so this Rod. Its verdure was for ever green; its fruit was ever ripe. Beside the Ark it was reserved in never-fading beauty. Here is the ever-blooming Priesthood of our Lord. Psalms 110:4; Hebrews 7:24.… Because Christ ever lives, and ever loves, and ever prays, and ever works, therefore His kingdom swells. And so it shall be while the need remains. But when the last of the redeemed is safely gathered in, then heaven shall no more hear the interceding Priest. Then the one sound from the vast throng shall be—Hallelujah.

Mark, moreover, that types of Jesus often comprehend the Church. It is so with these rods. The twelve at first seem all alike. They are all sapless twigs. But suddenly one puts forth loveliness; while the others still remain worthless and withered. Here is a picture of God’s dealings with a sin-slain race. Since Adam’s fall, all are born lifeless branches of a withered stock. When any child of man arises from the death of sin, and blooms in grace, God has arisen with Divine almightiness.

Believer, the Budded Rod gives another warning. It is a picture of luxuriance. Turn from it and look inward. Is your soul thus richly fertile? Instead of fruit, you often yield the thorn. John 15:8. Whence is the fault? John 15:4. Perhaps your neglectful soul departs from Christ. Meditate in God’s law day and night, and you “shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water,” &c. Psalms 1:3.

But if the Budded Rod rebukes the scanty fruit in the new-born soul, what is its voice to unregenerate worldlings? Hebrews 6:8.—Henry Law, D.D.


(Numbers 17:12-13)

This last miraculous interposition, coming after the preceding judgments, awakened a salutary dread in the minds of the rebellious people, and led them to cry to Moses in great bitterness of spirit, “Behold, we die, we perish, we all perish,” &c. This cry of theirs suggests the following observations:—

I. That sinners are prone to pass from one extreme of evil to the opposite one.

A little while ago they went to the extreme of presumption, now they are in the extreme of despair. “See,” says Dr. A. Clarke, “the folly and extravagance of this sinful people. At first, every person might come near to God, for all, they thought, were sufficiently holy, and every way qualified to minister in holy things. Now, no one, in their apprehension, can come near to the tabernacle without being consumed (Numbers 17:13). In both cases they were wrong; some there were who might approach, others there were who might not. God had put the difference. His decision should have been final with them; but sinners are ever running into extremes.” “In the preceding events,” says Scott, “they ‘despised the chastening of the Lord;’ and now they fainted when rebuked by Him.” For another instance of their swift transition from one sinful extreme to another, comp. Numbers 14:1-5, with Numbers 14:40-45.

II. The Divine judgments may produce outward submission, while the heart remains as rebellious as ever.

These Israelites were subdued, but they were not penitent. They do not recognise the fact that the thousands who perished, perished because of their sins; they do not confess their own sins. Their cry is that of a people who are painfully conscious that they have to do with a Being against whose judgments they cannot stand; but who evidently feel themselves injured by those judgments. Their cry was really a complaint against God. They felt themselves unable to cope with Him, and, therefore, yielded an unwilling submission to Him. Law and judgment may subdue rebellion, but they cannot enkindle loyalty; they may compel to submission, but they cannot convert to affection. It is only love that can do this.

III. The Divine judgments may produce outward submission while the mind entertains most erroneous moral opinions.

The people cried, “Whosoever cometh anything near unto the tabernacle of the Lord shall die.” They are still in error. They have renounced the error, that all men might approach the tabernacle, but they have adopted the error that no one might approach unto it. There were those who might come near unto it; the priests might do so; it was their business to do so. And all might avail themselves of the offices of the priests; and were under solemn obligations to do so. But the judgments which they had experienced had not taught them this. Under the judgments of God men are not in a fit state for learning much concerning their relation to Him. And judgments are neither designed nor fitted to teach much, except man’s utter inability to withstand God. Judgments are for correction rather than instruction. They have been used with effect for the destruction of the false and evil, but they are not fitted for building up the true and good. It was correction that Israel most needed when they were visited by these judgments. They persistently refused instruction. And, as is remarked by Keil and Del., “if this fear of death was no fruit of faith, it was fitted for all that to prevent any fresh outbreaks of rebellion on the part of the rejected generation.”

IV. The most stout-hearted rebels against God must, sooner or later, submit to Him.

If they will not submit willingly, they will be compelled into submission. Comp. Job 9:3-4; Job 40:9; Job 22:21; Psalms 50:12; 1 Corinthians 15:25. (a)


(a) If we were profane enough to imagine the Lord to be vulnerable, yet where is the bow and where the arrow that could reach Him on His throne? What javelin shall pierce Jehovah’s buckler? Let all the nations of the earth rise and rage against God, how shall they reach His throne? They cannot even shake his footstool. If all the angels of heaven should rebel against the Great King, and their squadrons should advance in serried ranks to besiege the palace of the Most High, He has but to will it and they would wither as autumn leaves, or consume as the fat upon the altar. Reserved in chains of darkness, the opponents of his power would for ever become mementoes of His wrath. None can touch Him; He is the God that ever liveth. Let us who delight in the living God bow before Him, and humbly worship Him as the God in whom we live and move and have our being.—C. H. Spurgeon.

As you stood some stormy day upon a seacliff, and marked the giant billow rise from the deep to rush on with foaming crest, and throw itself thundering on the trembling shore, did you ever fancy that you could stay its course, and hurl it back to the depths of ocean? Did you ever stand beneath the leaden lowering cloud, and mark the lightning’s leap, as it shot end flashed, dazzling athwart the gloom, and think that you could grasp the bolt and change its course? Still more foolish and vain his thoughts, who fancies that he can arrest or turn aside the purpose of God, saying, “What is the Almighty that we should serve Him? Let us break His bands asunder, and cast away His cords from us!” Break His bands asunder! How He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh!—Thomas Guthrie, D.D.

Prosperity is not found in opposing God. It is only by falling in with His arrangements and following His designs. A prosperous voyage is made by falling in with winds and currents, and not in opposing them; prosperous agriculture is carried on with coinciding with the favourable seasons of the year, and taking advantage of the dews, and rains, and sunbeams that God sends, and not in opposing them; prosperity in regard to health is found in taking advantage of the means which God gives to secure it, and not in opposing them. And the sinner in his course has no more chance of success and prosperity, than a man would have who should make it a point or principle of life always to sail against tides, and currents, and head-winds; or he who should set at defiance all the laws of husbandry, and plant on a rock, or in the dead of winter; or he who should feed himself on poison rather than on nutritious food, and cultivate the nightshade rather than wheat. If a man desires prosperity, he must fall in with the arrangements of God in His providence and grace; and wisdom is seen in studying these arrangements, and in yielding to them.—Albert Banes, D.D.


(Numbers 17:12-13)

This was the language of desperation, remorse, and enmity to God. Israel had deeply transgressed and hardened themselves in transgression, and a just God had repeatedly visited them in wrath. Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, and their company, had been swallowed up, and 250 men bearing impious fire had been consumed, and the surviving rebels said,—“Ye have killed the people of the Lord.” When further punished, crushed, but not humbled, again they murmur against God, as in the text.
Affecting description of the ravages of sin and death. Let us consider—

I. The devastations of death.

A true picture of all mankind—“Behold, we die, we perish, we all perish—we are consumed with dying.”

1. Sad universal picture. True in all ages, countries, climes. Death is universal and unavoidable: no exemption, old and young, strong and weak, rich and poor, tyrant and oppressor, the wise man and the fool—all die. Same phenomena, sickness, pain, suffering, decay—in all lands. (Job 14:1-2, &c.; Isaiah 38:12; Isaiah 40:6-8.) How many gone from among us, and we are hasting after them, and soon shall be with them.

2. And whither are they gone? Ask the philosopher, the sceptic, the Deist—they cannot tell you—they have no comfort for you: perhaps your departed ones are annihilated, or they wander in other bodies, or are absorbed in Deity! Ah! man without God’s Word knows nothing of the future.

They are in the separate state—they have begun to be eternally happy or miserable—eternal woes or eternal bliss—a second death—oh! terrible: the first death is sad, but what is the second? “Where their worm never dies,” &c.

II. The cause of these widespread desolations of death.

Again ask the philosopher, the philanthropist, the disbeliever in the Scripture account of it—Why all this misery, pain, death? How do you reconcile it with a God of benevolence? They are silent. Our answer is one word—“Sin”—“our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.” (Isaiah 64:6.)

1. This world is a penal state. A fact much overlooked. It so far resembles the future world of suffering, with this difference—this world is both penal and probationary, that is penal only. But this world is a state of punishment—we are born into it under the curse and wrath of God—and every pain, sorrow, grief—bodily, mental, spiritual—is a punishment for original sin, or the effect of actual sin. “We die, we perish, we all perish,” because we sin, we all sin. Universal death proves universal sin; because death is the penalty of sin. (Romans 5:12.) Almost all men hasten death and shorten their lives by sin. It peoples gaols and madhouses, and feeds the tomb. (Romans 6:23.) The mortal wound—“sting of death is sin.” (1 Corinthians 15:56.) “Brings forth death.” (James 1:15.)

2. Alas, this, too, peoples hell! “The wicked turned into hell.” (Psalms 9:17; Matthew 23:33; 2 Peter 2:4.) First death only dark portal to the second.

III. The remedy for this widespread desolation of sin and death.

It was that very “tabernacle” which these frightened, but desperate sinners dreaded. There only was their refuge; there the mercy-seat; there the propitiation—the sacrificing priest, the altar, and a sin-forgiving God above it. Yet they said, “Whosoever cometh near the tabernacle of the Lord shall die.” And perhaps they were right—for as of the Gospel it typified, so the tabernacle was a means of life or death, according as it was approached—“of life unto life, or of death unto death.” (2 Corinthians 2:16.) But there was no other refuge, no other salvation.

Now Christ is our true tabernacle (Hebrews 8:2.) “He hath put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.” (Hebrews 9:26.) “He hath abolished death.” (2 Timothy 1:10.) He has offered one sacrifice for sins. (Hebrews 10:12.) He is our “Apostle and High Priest;” our living “Advocate with the Father.” (1 John 2:1.)

Here is the universal remedy—Christ Jesus the Lord—He is “the tree, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations.” (Revelation 22:2.) “The shadow of a great rock in a weary land.” “He healeth broken hearts”—“wipes tears from sorrowing faces”—lights up the grave with joy—makes men “long to depart” that they may “be with Him.” By faith in Him His people rejoice in tribulation—count temptations “all joy”—heavy burdens are lightened, long troubles shortened and sweetened: and they have “a hope full of immortality.” Well has He said, “Oh death, I will be thy plagues!” (Hosea 13:14.)

With what view do you regard Almighty God?—as terrible, revengeful, cruel, relentless? Do you read these attributes in the present miseries of the world? Do the promised miseries of another world confirm them? Does the language of the text suit you? Then it is because you do not know God. Conscious guilt and dread of punishment we have in common with devils who “believe and tremble;” but only repent, humble your proud hearts, lay low that unbelieving spirit, and seek mercy through the Son of His love, and then you “shall see the end of the Lord, that He is very pitiful and of tender mercy.” Some men will “treasure up wrath against the day of wrath;” but if you “flee from the wrath to come,” and lay hold on the all-sufficient Saviour, you shall taste the sweetness of His mercy.

Let all who know Him, and love Him, cleave unto Him in His tabernacle, His mercy-seat; they shall find His name “Love,” and shall rejoice before Him.—F. Close, D.D.

Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Numbers 17". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/phc/numbers-17.html. Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1892.
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