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CRITICAL AND EXPLANATORY NOTES
Moses had already received command to smite the Midianites (Numbers 25:16-18); and in this chapter we have the order given to him to execute that command, and the narrative of its execution.
Numbers 31:2. Avenge the children of Israel of the Midianites, i.e., for the injury which the Midianites had done to the Israelites in seducing them to the licentious and idolatrous worship of Baal-Peor.
Afterward shalt thou be gathered unto thy people. See p. 379.
Numbers 31:3. Avenge the Lord of Midian, because their seduction of the Israelites had violated the Divine honour.
Numbers 31:4. Of every tribe a thousand. Margin: “A thousand of a tribe, a thousand of a tribe.”
Numbers 31:5. So there were delivered. Or, so there were “counted off.”—Fuerst. Dr. Howard: “And they numbered out.”
Numbers 31:6. Phinehas. He had manifested his fitness for a prominent position in this enterprize by his zeal for God and against the idolators (Numbers 25:6-13).
With the holy instruments, and the trumpets. “Or rather, ‘with the holy instruments, to wit, the trumpets,’ for the trumpets themselves seem to be the instruments intended.”—Speaker’s Comm. Comp. Numbers 10:9.
Numbers 31:8. And they slew, &c. “Render thus: ‘And the kings of Midian they put to death, beside those that fell in the battle; namely,’ &c,”—Ibid. Comp. Joshua 13:21.
Numbers 31:10 Goodly castles. Rather, “encampments or hamlets.”—Fuerst. “Hamlets” seems preferable, “Tent-villages.”—Keil and Del.
Numbers 31:11. The spoil, i.e., booty in goods such as are mentioned in Numbers 31:22; Numbers 31:50.
The prey, i.e., the captives and the cattle seized as booty.
Numbers 31:16 Caused.… to commit trespass. Keil and Del.: “ ‘They have become to the Israelites to work unfaithfulness towards Jehovah,’ i.e., they have induced them to commit an act of unfaithfulness towards Jehovah. The word מָסַר, which only occurs in this chapter, viz., in Numbers 31:5; Numbers 31:16, appears to be used in the sense of giving, delivering, and then, like נָתַן, doing, making, effecting.”
Numbers 31:17. Kill every male, &c. “The object of the command to put all the male children to death, was to exterminate the whole nation, as it could not be perpetuated in the women. Of the female sex, all were to be put to death who had known the lying with a man, and therefore might possibly have been engaged in the licentious worship of Peor (Numbers 25:2), to preserve the congregation from all contamination from that abominable idolatry.”—Keil and Del.
Numbers 31:19 (comp. Numbers 19:11-12).
Numbers 31:22. Brass. Rather, copper, “as the mixture of copper and zinc, now known as brass, was not known to the ancients.”—Alford.
Numbers 31:23. Purified with the water of separation (comp. Numbers 19:9; Numbers 19:17-19.
Numbers 31:49. There lacketh not one man of us. A noteworthy proof of the presence and protection of God.
Numbers 31:50. Chains. Or “arm bands, arm ornaments, 2 Samuel 1:10.”—Fuerst.
Rings. “Signet rings.”—Ibid.
Tablets. “Buckles, bracelets.”—Ibid. Others say they were ornaments “worn suspended from the neck.”
To make an atonement. “An acknowledgment of having received undeserved mercies. These, if acknowledged, would have entailed guilt on the soul.”—Speaker’s Comm.
Numbers 31:52. Sixteen thousand seven hundred and fifty shekels. “In value about £20,000.”—Speaker’s Comm. “If we take the golden shekel at 10 thalers (30 shillings), the value of the ornaments taken by the officers under Moses would be about 167, 500 thalers (£25, 125).”—Keil and Del.
THE VENGEANCE OF JEHOVAH ON MIDIAN
This paragraph suggests the following observations—
I. That in the administration of the Divine government the punishment of sin is certain.
The Israelites were severely punished for the sins which they committed with the Midianites, and now the Midianites are to receive their punishment. Notice—
1. The sin which the Midianites had committed. Their women had seduced the Israelites to the licentious and idolatrous worship of Baal-Peor (see p. 487).
2. The Author of the punishment of the Midianites. The Lord Himself commanded it; and it seems to us that He prescribed the arrangements for its execution, and empowered and protected its executioners. (a)
3. The executioners of the punishment. The Israelites were called upon to avenge the gross wrongs which the Midianites had done them as the people of Jehovah. It was eminently fitting that as Israelitish men had been corrupted by the Midianites, Israelitish men should execute the judgment of God upon them. (b)
4. The severity of the punishment.
(1) It fell upon an immense number. “They slew all the males.” This does “not mean that they exterminated all the men of the nation, but only that they slew all who withstood them; for the nation itself consisted in considerable strength, and was able in a few generations to bring the Israelites themselves under subjection.” And, in addition, vast numbers were taken captives, many of whom were afterwards slain.
(2) It fell upon persons of every rank. “The kings of Midian they put to death, besides those that fell in the battle; namely, Evi,” &c. Against the punishments of God, princes and potentates are as defenceless as plebeians and paupers. “There is no respect of persons with God.” “He accepteth not the persons of princes, nor regardeth the rich more than the poor.”
(3) It involved the destruction of their towns and villages, and the loss of their property. “The children of Israel took the spoil of all their cattle, and all their flocks, and all their goods. And they burnt,” &c. (Numbers 31:9-11). (c)
In the righteous government of God sin ever brings forth sorrow, tribulation follows transgression. (d)
II. That God can work by many, or by few, in the execution of His purposes.
Out of an army of more than six hundred thousand (Numbers 26:51), only twelve thousand men were sent to this war. The number was probably small, as compared also with the forces which they had to encounter. The accomplishment of the purpose of God by this small force was fitted to answer three ends—
1. To teach them that this expedition was, in a special manner, the Lords. He was concerned in the punishment of the sin of Midian, and in the vindication of His honour, &c.
2. To teach them that He can effect His purposes “by many or by few” (1 Samuel 14:6; and Judges 7:0). (e)
3. To check any temptation or tendency to self-glorification on the part of the soldiers. (f)
III. That God honours the holy zeal of His servants by employing them as leaders in the execution of His purposes.
“Moses sent Phinehas, the son of Eleazar the priest, to the war, with the holy instruments, even the trumpets to blow in his hand.” Phinehas went with the army as the priest of the Lord, to encourage them in fighting, because the war was a holy one against the enemies of the Lord their God (comp. Numbers 10:9). His appointment to this duty, on this occasion, may be viewed—
1. As the employment of an agent of approved fitness for his duty. Phinehas had shown his fitness for this appointment (chap. 25). In the accomplishment of His purposes, God employs suitable agents and instruments. (g)
2. As the reward of distinguished service. He who is brave and faithful in one duty shall be called to other and more arduous duties (comp. Matthew 25:21).
IV. That God enriches His people with the spoils of their enemies.
“And they took all the spoil, and all the prey,” &c. (Numbers 31:11-12).
Those who have assailed the Church by persecution have defeated themselves, and confirmed and extended the Church. “The blood of the martyrs has been the seed of the Church.” And they who have attacked it with captious criticism and bitter controversy, have contributed to the strength of its defences and the extension of its triumphs. They have aroused the scholars and the thinkers of the Church to the marshalling of the evidences of our religion, and to the vindication of its claims God frustrates the designs of the enemies of His cause, and overrules them for the accomplishment of His purposes and the extension of His kingdom. (h)
(a) For illustrations on the justifiableness of war, see pp. 19, 20.
(b) For illustrations on the Executioners of Divine judgments, see pp. 252, 312.
(c) Among the causes which justify war, none is more unanimously asserted by political writers, than an attempt on the part of one community against the civil institutions, and so against the integrity and internal peace, of another. The Hebrews had therefore an undoubted right, even apart from the Divine command, to attack the people of Midian, who had treacherously endeavoured to withdraw them from their allegiance, and thus to unsettle the foundations of all their union, prosperity, and peace, and prepare them to become an easy conquest to their own arms.
Now, if it be right to wage war at all, it is not only right to wage it in such a manner as shall accomplish its object, but it would be wrong to wage it in any other manner. War is, in its very nature the infliction of suffering in order to an ulterior good; and the infliction of any degree of sumering is unjustifiable, unless so far as it may lead to this result. If, therefore, in the prosecution of a war, the measures adopted are of such lenity as to be insufficient to produce the end in view, namely, protection for the present and security for the future, the mitigated evil then becomes uncompensated by any ulterior good. It is then a causeless and unjustifiable evil; it is not mercy, but cruelty and crime. This principle is clear, and is theoretically acknowledged; yet when any application of it however wise and just, tends to severities which we are not accustomed to regard as belonging to the necessities of the case our feelings are naturally shocked. Yet the principle continues to operate, and is acknowledged in all our warfare, although, with the progress of civilisation, it has come to be understood in civilised communities, that inflictions formerly resorted to shall be forborne. But in their conflicts with barbarous nations, who have no such understanding, they are accustomed to adopt harsher measures; and this or the simple and sound reason, that the object would not otherwise be gained, and that if they were to allow a war to be to their adversaries a less evil than these adversaries were in the habit of expecting it to prove, such a self-prostrating lenity is ascribed to weakness, and not to the pride of conscious strength. Severity, in short, is beneficent, when it is suited to guard against the necessity of its own repetition; and how much or how little is adequate to that end, is a question to be determined by reference to some existing state of society. The Israelites conducted their warfares on the principles generally recognised in their time; and to have done so on any other or milder principle against such enemies as they had to contend with, would have been ruinous and suicidal. Thus only could it be effectual; and war not intended to be effectual should not be waged at all. It is confidently hoped and believed, that the time is coming, is near at hand, when war, as now conducted by ourselves—when any war,—will be looked back upon with the same feelings of disgust and horror, as those with which we now regard the conflicts of the nations beyond the Mediterranean three-and-thirty centuries ago.—John Kitto, D.D.
(d) For illustrations on the Certainly of the punishment of sin, see pp. 89, 225, 258, 312, 318, 374.
(e) The straw cannot beat the mountain into flying dust. The hand of man cannot crumble the great gigantic bulwarks behind which error has entrenched itself. You are quite right. But God hath chosen the weak things to throw down the mighty. It is not the straw that does it; it is the hand that wields it. Shakespeare dips his pen into the ink, and writes Hamlet. I take up the same pen, lip into the same ink, but I can’t write Hamlet. It is not the pen that does it; it is the writer. It is not the little instrumentality; it is the God who is able to do, and who has done exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think.—Joseph Parker, D.D.
The weakness of the instrument is a small matter when the hand is infinitely strong. You and I have said, “We are men full of infirmities. What can we do? We have but few talents, we have no social position, we have not the opportunities of doing good that some have, and, therefore, we are discouraged.” But the Lord knows thy heart, my brother. If thou wert meaner in the scale of society; if thou hadst not even one, but only half a talent; if thou wert less able to speak than thou art, and wert a man slow of speech like Moses; yet if God be behind thee, dost thou not know that every weakness of thine is according to His own intent and purport, and is as much designed as the strength of the strongest to illustrate the majesty of His might? Oh, didst thou believe, thy weakness would be thy glory; thou wouldst rejoice even to be nothing, that in this the great All-in-all might the more resplendently display Himself.—C. H. Spurgeon.
(f) This point is illustrated on p. 276.
(g) The opinion is very prevalent, and the impression still more so—though neither so prevalent as they used to be—that God is in the habit of employing unlikely instruments; that, for the purpose of revealing His all-sufficiency and bringing honour to Himself, He delights to contrast results with their secondary causes, and to disappoint the calculations founded on the supposed efficiency of human agents. To hear some men talk, you might conclude that God cannot be properly said to employ instruments at all, that in nature, and still more in providence, and most of all in grace, they are not so much instruments that He employs as obstacles, not so much things having a tendency and fitness to accomplish His designs as things altogether unsuitable and inappropriate. Now, this belief or feeling is entirely erroneous, and wofully mischievous. It is dishonouring to God, and injurious to men. Such is not God’s custom, such is not even God’s exceptional act. We rejoice in the thought that, in a sense, God does all things, that there is no power but of God, that even physical instruments and moral agents derive all their force from Him, owing to Him their existence and their efficiency; but we also hold fast by the conviction that power and wisdom go together; that God acts by laws and delights to honour them, and that in all His operations He pays profound respect to the inherent relevancy of things.—A. J. Morris.
(h) An illustration on this point appears on p. 472.
THE DOOM OF THE DOUBLE-HEARTED
“Balaam also, the son of Beor, they slew with the sword.”
Balaam had taken the field against Israel,—against a people whom he had pronounced blessed,—whom he had pronounced invincible both by earth and hell. Yes; Balaam “the son of Beor,”—he, and not another of the name,—he rushes on the bosses of the Almighty’s buckler; he defies Israel and Israel’s God!
But he fails. He would fain have cursed Israel; but he could not. He counselled Moab to seduce Israel by temptation, and his device succeeded too well. He now fetches the last stroke. In vain. He perishes ignobly. He is slain with the sword which he had defied.
Such is the end of the backslider; of one who knew the truth but did it not; who once said, “Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his.” It was certainly not the end he prayed for; yet it was the end to which his whole life had been tending. He reaped what he sowed, and in him “God was not mocked.”
He died as he lived, in fellowship with Moab, yet in heart persuaded that Israel was the beloved of the Lord, and that Jehovah was God. His life had been with Midian, and so was his death.
His grave is with the unclean. He passes from earth with none to soothe his death-bed and close his eyes; none to lament for him or build his monument. Sad end of a life of halting and indecision, and resistance of the Spirit, and braving of conscience, and rejection of light, and wretched covetousness. He “loved the wages of unrighteousness,” and verily he had his reward.
Let us see what he wanted and how he failed; how ambitious he was, yet what a life of utter failure and disappointment was his. He would fain have risen, but he sunk. He would fain have been rich, but he lost everything. What a wasted life! Yet the life of one who knew better things, but did them not; who knew that the world was vanity, yet followed it; who knew that Israel’s portion was the best, yet chose that of Moab; who knew the true God and the true Messiah, but preferred the idolatries of Israel’s enemies. He saw Him “from the too of the rocks,” but that was all. He got a passing glimpse of the cross, but no more. It was all he saw of the way of life, ere he plunged into death and woe.
I. He wanted to serve two masters.
These were the same as the Lord in after days designated God and mammon. He wanted not to offend either; to please both. He was like Issachar crouching between two burdens. But it would not do. He failed. Such is the certain failure of all who make the like attempt. “Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” He loved the one master, mammon; and he dreaded the other; but would fain do the will of both. He could not afford to lose the favour of either. Miserable life! More miserable death! The life and death of one whose whole career was one long attempt to do the bidding both of God and the devil.
II. He wanted to earn two kinds of wages.
The wages of righteousness and the wages of unrighteousness (2 Peter 2:15), were both in his eyes; he would fain have the pay both of God and of the devil. He was unwilling to do or say anything which would deprive him of either. He was as cautious and cunning as he was covetous. He would not work without wages; and he would work for a hundred masters if they would only pay him well. How like many so-called “religious” men amongst ourselves.
III. He wanted to do two opposite things at the same time.
He wished both to bless and to curse. He was willing to do either according as it might serve his interests. The only question with him was, “Would it pay?” If the blessing would pay, he would take it; if the curse would pay, he would take it; if both would pay, he would take them both. Blessing and cursing were both alike to him; confessing and denying the true God, worshipping Baal or Jehovah, it mattered not, if by “this craft he could have his wealth.” So with many among us. If Sabbath-keeping will pay, they will keep the Sabbath; if Sabbath-breaking will pay, they will break the Sabbath. True Balaams—without principle, without faith, and without fear.
IV. He wanted two kinds of friendship.
He would fain be friends with every body. Perhaps he was timid; of those whom Scripture calls fearful (Revelation 21:8); perhaps, also, he was ambitious, and sought great things for himself wherever these could be obtained (Jeremiah 45:5); certainly he had before him “the fear of man which bringeth a snare,” and the love of man’s approbation which brings no less a snare; he dreaded Israel’s God, of whom he knew much, but he dreaded also Moab’s gods, though whether he really believed in them we know not. Made up of these contradictions, and acting not by faith but unbelief, he tried to secure the friendship of all whom he counted great, whether in heaven or on earth. He shut his eyes not only to the sin but to the impossibility of such a course; he saw not that the friendship of the world is the enemy of God, and that whosoever will be the friend of the world must be the enemy of God.
V. He wanted to have two religions.
He saw religion to be a paying concern, a profitable trade, and he was willing to accept it from anybody or everybody, to adopt it from any quarter if it would but raise him in the world, and make his fortune. Perhaps he thought all religions equally right or equally wrong, equally true or equally false. He would rather not offend any god if he could help it. He would make concessions to “religious prejudices” of any kind if the prejudiced people will only help him on.… Two gods and two religions he wanted to have.
But this double service, and double friendship, and double religion, would not do. He would make nothing by them. They profited him nothing either in this life or that to come. His end was with the ungodly, his portion with the enemies of Israel. And his soul, where could it be? Not with Israel’s God, or Israel’s Christ, or in Israel’s heaven. He reaped what he sowed.
He was a good specimen of multitudes in these last days. An educated and intelligent man, shrewd and quick-seeing, of respectable character; high in favour with the rich and great, a religious man, too, after a fashion, not unsound in creed so far, for he acknowledges Jehovah as the true God. But he is fond of the world, fond of money, fond of preferment: one that would not let religion stand in the way of his advancement; who could pocket all scruples if he could pocket a little gold along with them; hollow of heart, but with a fair outside. He would rather not risk offending God, but yet he would not like to lose Balak’s rewards and honours. He would rather not take up his cross, nor deny himself, nor forsake all for his God.
So is it with multitudes amongst us. They want as much religion as will save them from hell; not an atom more. The world is their real god; gold is their idol; it is in mammon’s temple that they worship. Love God with all their heart! They don’t so much as understand the meaning of such a thing. Sacrifice riches, place, honour, friends, to Christ! They scoff at the thing as madness.
Oh, be on the side of God, out and out.… You may follow Christ in some things, but if not in all, what is your following worth? This world or the world to come, that is the alternative; not this world and the world to come. Christ all or nothing. No middle ground; no half-discipleship; no compromise. The new birth, or no religion at all.
Look to thy latter end. What is it to be? Where is it to be? With whom is it to be? Anticipate thy eternity. Is it to be darkness or light, shame or glory?
Do not sear your conscience by praying Balaam’s prayer, “Let me die the death of the righteous.” What will that avail you? It is the life of the righteous that God is calling you to lead; and He will take care of your death. Decide, halt not; else surely yours will be a wretched life, and a still more wretched death.—H. Bonar, D.D. Abridged from “Light and Truth.”
THE RETURN OF THE VICTORIOUS ARMY
Let us notice—
I. The reception of the returning warriors.
“And Moses and Eleazar the priest, and all the princes of the congregation, went forth to meet them without the camp.” Thus the chief men of the nation honour the brave men who had been avenging the Israelites and Jehovah upon the Midianites.
Learn, that services rendered to the public should be heartily recognized by the public.
II. The remonstrance with the returning warriors.
“And Moses was wroth with the officers of the host, the captains over thousands,” &c. (Numbers 31:14-16). The women had been the chief offenders in the matter which the army had been sent to avenge; they had seduced the men of Israel into sin; therefore in the execution of their commission (Numbers 31:3) the soldiers should have slain them. “The sword of war,” says Scott, “should spare women and children, as incapable of resisting; but the sword of justice knows no distinction, except that of guilty or not guilty, and more or less guilty. This war was the execution of a righteous sentence upon a guilty nation, in which the women were the principal criminals; and perhaps particular instructions had been given on this head: therefore Moses was angry when he found the women had been spared.”
Learn, the sinfulness of omissions of duty or of the merely partial performance of duty. (a)
III. The retribution to the Midianitish women.
“Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man,” &c. (Numbers 31:17-18). This may be viewed—
1. As a punishment. The law concerning adultery was, “the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death” (Leviticus 20:10). It is almost absolutely certain that many of these women had committed adultery with the Israelites in the matter of Baal-Peor. The Lord had himself put to death by the plague the Israelites who thus sinned; and now as part of His vengeance upon Midian the women who sinned are to be put to death. The tempted having been punished, it would not have been right for the tempters to escape. And since it was impossible, except by miracle, to separate the guilty from the innocent, all the women were slain (comp. 1 Peter 4:17).
2. As a precaution. The women who had been engaged in the abominable worship of Baal-peor, would, probably, had they been spared, have seduced the Israelites again into sin: and so their death may have appeared necessary for securing the purity and security of Israel. And the boys, on growing into manhood, would probably have conspired to avenge the slaughter of their parents upon Israel, and so they were put to death. Moreover, as an example of Divine retribution, it was thus rendered more impressive, “warning parents not to imitate the guilt of the Midianites, lest they should involve their beloved offspring in destruction.” (b)
Learn, that it is our duty to avoid every occasion of temptation to sin (comp. Matthew 5:29-30). (c)
IV. The purification of the returning warriors, their captives, and their spoils.
“And do ye abide without the camp seven days,” &c. (Numbers 31:19-23). The camp of Israel was regarded as holy because of the presence of the Lord God there; and the soldiers having become ceremonially unclean by their contact with the slain, could not enter therein until they were purified (comp. Numbers 5:1-4; Numbers 19:11-20). And the captives having by their captivity be come “to some extent a constituent part of the Israelitish people,” needed purification also, especially as they had practised abominable idolatry. And the spoil, as being taken from a heathen people, would need purification, before it could be admitted into the camp, and appropriated to the use of the people of God.
Learn, that it is the solemn, duty of the Church of God to maintain moral purity within its borders. “Ye are the temple of the living God, as God hath said, I will dwell in them,” &c. (2 Corinthians 6:16 to 2 Corinthians 7:1). (d)
(a) Illustrations on this point appear on pp. 278, 279.
(b) A more difficult point is the command of Moses, that the adult females and the male children among the prisoners should be put to death. Pained as we are by the recital of such horrors, and glad as we feel that such usages have passed away from the practices of war, close examination will enable us to see that the principles which have been laid down (see p. 538), supply an adequate excuse for a course which Moses himself must have regarded as distressing. His course was designed to act in terrorem, with a view to future security. It is clear that he had no satisfaction in the task. On the contrary, he appears to have been strongly excited when he beheld the array of prisoners, and to have uttered a rebuke which shows that he would far rather that whatever severity needed to be exercised should have been finished in the furious haste of onset, than that it should thus be left for execution in cold blood. As it was, however, the prisoners were upon his hands, and he had to dispose of them as the recent hazards and the present condition of the state demanded, in an age when the necessities of the world’s government involved the use of a much harsher instrumentality than is now requisite. Taking these considerations with us, it may be asked, What was to be done with these prisoners? Should they be sent home unharmed, or should they be welcomed on an equal footing to the hospitality of Israel? Then if the views already stated (p. 538) are sound, the war ought not to have been undertaken. This follows, even without insisting upon the circumstance, that had the latter alternative been adopted, the youthful sons of the Midianitish warriors would soon have grown up to be a sword in the bosom of the still feeble state and possibly to compel the hazards and hardships of another conflict. Then, with regard to the adult females, it is to be considered that it was their wicked instrumentality which had led Israel to sin, and had given occasion to the recent war; and, on the other hand, the danger to be apprehended from them if they were allowed again to try their seductive arts upon the Israelites, had just been proved to be such as the infant state would by no means tolerate.
Keeping in view, therefore, the time and country in which Moses lived, and the circumstances by which he was surrounded, is will be a bold thing for anyone to say, that as a man entrusted with the welfare of a nation he acted wrongly. That he acted only from a strong sense of duty, every one who has studied his character must know; and who among us, in these altered times, is better able than he was to judge of what his duty exacted? But if in this case he did err, in judging that the stern obligations of political duty allowed him to show no pity on more than one class of his prisoners, let him alone bear the blame of the deed. He appears to have acted on his own judgment, and does not, as usual, adduce the command of the Lord for the course which was taken.—John Kitto, D.D.
(c) A man who has been corrupted by the fire of intoxication, says, “I cannot resist the cup when I sit with my companions and it is being passed over my shoulder; I have to drink; I am seized as with an afflatus of infernal fire, and I cannot help drinking.” It may be that, when you bring yourself where liquor is dispensed, you cannot help drinking; but you can avoid going there. Once having tried it and found that you could not resist the temptation, the next time you are guilty, not for not resisting it but for going where the cup that is irresistible to you is handed about; and you are just as guilty as though you could resist the temptation and did not, only the guilt takes hold one step further back. Men are responsible for their volitions, and for those conditions which produce volitions—and this is the opinion of men generally.—H. W. Beecher.
(d) For illustrations on this point, see pp. 78, 94.
THE COUNSEL OF BALAAM
How shall we characterise the conduct of Balaam in this transaction? Consider—
I. The measure of his criminality.
To do this we must form some estimate of his knowledge of what was right for him to do towards Israel. He knew everything concerning Israel, and their relation to God. His sin was thus committed knowingly, consciously, wilfully. He set himself to do wickedly.
II. His motives in this course.
The meanest. He “loved the wages of unrighteousness.”
III. The baseness of the method he adopted to accomplish his design.
God had revealed to him, in prophetic insight, the secret of Israel’s greatness and strength. And Balaam used that very inspiration to injure, fatally, God’s own chosen people.—W. Roberts. Quoted in The Biblical Museum.
THE DISTRIBUTION OF THE SPOILS OF THE WAR
The Lord God gave directions to Moses as to how the booty taken from the vanquished Midianites should be divided. This would tend to prevent dissatisfaction and complaint, &c. Notice—
I. In this distribution the claims of all classes of the community were recognised.
The soldiers who had fought the battle and seized the booty did not retain the whole of it. They had been chosen out of the whole congregation to conduct the war for the congregation, which had therefore a just claim to share in the spoils. They “that took the war upon them, who went out to battle, and all the congregation,” the priests, and the Levites, all received a share.
Learn, that public servants should seek to benefit the entire community. (a)
II. In this distribution the claims of each class were considered and equitably dealt with.
Though all classes shared in the booty, all classes did not have equal portions. And this was just. The soldiers who had returned from the war, though only one fiftieth of the entire congregation, received for their share as much as all their brethren who had remained at home. And it was right that, inasmuch as they had borne the hardships and hazards of the war, they should be rewarded for their services. Again, the portion of the Levites was ten times as much as that of the priests, as they were vastly more numerous. But the portion of each individual among the priests must have been considerably greater than that of each individual among the Levites, as was fitting on account of the more exalted and responsible character of their office. The proportion allotted to each class seems to have been conspicuously just and fair.
Learn, that God requires us to act equitably in all our dealings.
III. In this distribution the claims of the Lord were practically acknowledged.
The portions which were given by the warriors to the priests, and by the congregation to the Levites, were “a tribute unto the Lord”—“a heave offering of the Lord.” Surely this was right and comely. He had given them the victory over the Midianites; and they would have been guilty of injustice and ingratitude if they had not presented a thank-offering to Him.
Learn, that of all our gains a portion should be devoted to the Lord God. “Thou shalt remember the Lord thy God; for it is He that giveth thee power to get wealth” (comp. Deuteronomy 8:10-18). (c)
(a) All personal and private interests must be sacrificed to the call of duty. In the higher walks of benevolent activity, there is no such thing as a life of inglorious ease.…
This sublime principle of self-annihilation is conspicuous in the Christian system. Compared with the one act of the Saviour’s consecration and surrender, the flame of a thousand worlds would have gone out in cold ashes. Having loved us even unto death this was the last possible point to which His self-devotion could reach, and never was there such a perfect oblivion of self as in His one offering on the Cross. Drinking into this spirit, His disciples forsook all and followed Him. Martyrs and confessors stand before us magnanimous in the spirit of a self-forgetting love. If the Greeks provided that their citizens might be brave in mind, and strong in body, Christianity must ever be looked upon as the religion of heroism. We must be prepared to give up whatever comes between the call of duty and our own individual interest. We know little of the power of the Cross, if it has not crucified us to the world and crucified the world to us. In proportion as we are filled with the power of the Cross, do we become superior to the littleness and the selfishness of our nature, and devote ourselves to the came of universal good.—R Ferguson. LL.D.
(b) Justice is the greatest interest of man on earth. It is the ligament which holds civilized beings and civilized nations together. Wherever her temple stands, and so long as is duly honoured, there is a foundation for social security, and general happiness, and the improvement and progress of our race. And whoever labours on this edifice with usefulness and distinction, whoever clears its foundations, strengthens its pillars, adorns its entablatures, or contributes to raise its august dome still higher in the skies, connects himself in name and fame and character with that which is and must be as endurable as the frame of human society.—Webster.
(c) A man gives away a sovereign in Christ’s name and for Christ’s sake. Look at the elements which constitute that act and give it value. The man made the sovereign honestly; it is his, in paint of fair service, by what is called right. If he keeps that sovereign, he will break no law in commerce; if he will it away to his family, he will violate no law in social equity; if he spend it upon himself, society will not condemn him. Yet the man deliberately gives that sovereign away to a poor child, to a friendless stranger, to a Christian society. See what lies behind the deed. The man says, in effect if not in words, “The money may be mine, but I myself am not my own. How then can anything, except temporarily, and under laws of stewardship and responsibility? I have no property in myself; I am bought with a price; I am God’s agent. So far as I have given society an equivalent for the sovereign, it is mine; but the strength, the skill, the knowledge by which I gained it are the gifts of God. The image is Cæsar’s, but the gold is God’s. I will hold what I have as Christ’s; holding it so, I instantly yield it at His call, saying,—Thine—oh, wounded blessed Christ—Thine is the right!” So this giving away of the sovereign is not an off-hand deed; it is not done flippantly; it is not done to save appearance; it is not done from external social pressure; it becomes a great religious act, a solemn sacrifice, a holy thank-offering.—Joseph Parker, D.D.
Additional illustrations on this point appear on pp. 342–344.
A NOBLE ACKNOWLEDGMENT OF AN EXTRAORDINARY FAVOUR
We have here—
I. An extraordinary favour received.
“And the officers which were over thousands of the host, the captains of thousands,” &c. (Numbers 31:48-49). God had not only given them a complete victory and great booty, but He had given them these things without the loss of a single man. In this we have “striking proof of the protection of God; but it is not so marvellous as to furnish any good ground for calling in question the correctness of the narrative. Rosenmuller has cited an example from Tacitus (Ann. xiii. 39), of the Romans having slaughtered all the foe without losing a single man on the capture of a Parthian castle; and another from Strabo (xvi. 11, 28), of a battle in which 1,000 Arabs were slain, and only two Romans. And Havernick mentions a similar account from the life of Saladin in his introduction (i. 2, p. 452).” It is also important to bear in mind that “the Midianites were a nomad tribe, who lived by rearing flocks and herds, and therefore were not a warlike people. Moreover, they were probably attacked quite unawares, and being unprepared, were completely routed and out down without quarter.”—Keil and Del. Again, in this extraordinary preservation of the army of Israel we view the hand of the Lord their God. “This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvellous in our eyes.” He “covered their heads in the day of battle.” At His express command they went forth to the war; and He protected them from harm. Their preservation would stamp the war and the victory its His; and so add to the impressiveness of the warning it was intended to convey. (a)
II. An extraordinary favour acknowledged.
When the officers discovered that every man who went forth to the war had returned from it safely, they went to Moses and declared the fact, taking with them a handsome thank-offering as an acknowledgment of their gratitude to God. Their acknowledgment was—
1. Voluntary. No one commanded them or exhorted them to do this: their action was spontaneous and hearty; they offered “not grudgingly, or of necessity; for God loveth a cheerful giver.”
2. Practical. They had not only thanks upon their lips, but a generous offering in their hands. They sought to express their gratitude by their gifts. (b)
3. Humble. They offered this oblation “to make an atonement for their souls before the Lord.” This does not mean that the offering was to expiate any particular offence which they had committed; but to acknowledge unmerited mercies. They felt themselves unworthy of the distinguished favours bestowed upon them. (c)
4. Liberal. “All the gold of the offering that they offered up to the Lord was sixteen thousand seven hundred and fifty shekels,” the value of which is variously estimated from £20,000, to £25,000. It was, indeed, a right noble offering. (d)
Learn, that the reception of special mercies should be followed by special acknowledgments thereof.
(1) Such acknowledgments are due to God. They cannot be withheld without sin.
(2) Such acknowledgments are a benefit to man. “It is good to give thanks unto the Lord,” &c. The practical expression of gratitude enriches the heart. (e)
III. The acknowledgment of extraordinary favours accepted.
“And Moses and Eleazar, the priest, took the gold of the captains of thousands and of hundreds, and brought it into the tabernacle of the congregation, for a memorial for the children of Israel before the Lord.” This means, as we see from Exodus 30:16, that the gold was placed in the treasury of the tabernacle.
Learn, that God is graciously pleased to accept the offerings of humble and grateful hearts. (f)
(a) No prince ever returns safe out of a battle, but may well remember how many blows and bullets have gone by him, that might easily have gone through him; and be what little, odd, unforeseen chances death has been turned aside, which seemed in a fun ready, and direct career, to have been posting to him. All which passages, if we do not acknowledge to have been guided to their respective ends and effects by the conduct of a superior and a Divine Hand, we do by the same assertion cashier all Providence, strip the Almighty of His noblest prerogative, and make God, not the Governor, but the mere Spectator of the world.—Dr. South.
(b) For an illustration on this point, see p. 341. (c)
(c) Objects seem large or little according to the medium through which they are viewed. In the microscope, what a remarkable change they undergo! The humble moss rises into a graceful tree; the beetle, armed for battle, flashes in golden or silver mail; a grain of sand swells into a mass of rock; and, on the other hand, a mountain looked at through the wrong end of a telescope sinks into a mole hill, and the broad lake into a tiny pool. Even so, according as we look at them, with the eyes of self-condemning humility, or of self-righteous pride. God’s mercies seem great or little. For example, a minister of the Gospel passing one day near a cottage, was attracted to its door by the sound of a loud and earnest voice. It was a bare and lonely dwelling; the home of a man who was childless, old and poor. Drawing near this mean and humble cabin, the stranger at length made out these words. “This, and Jesus Christ too! this, and Jesus Christ too!” as they were repeated over and over again in tones of deep emotion, of wonder, gratitude, and praise. His curiosity was roused to see what that could be which called forth such fervent, overflowing thanks. Stealing near, he looked in at the patched and broken window; and there in the form of a grey, bent, worn-out son of toil, at a rude table, with hands raised to God, and his eyes fixed on some crusts of bread and a cup of water, sat piety, peace, humility, contentment, exclaiming, ‘This, and Jesus Christ too!”—Thos. Guthrie, D.D.
(d) Illustrations on this point appear on pp. 101, 117, 342.
(e) It is well to feel that whatever good your gift may do to the Church, or the poor, or the sick, it is twice as much benefit to you to give it. It is well to give, because you love to give; as the flower which pours forth its perfume because it never dreamed of doing otherwise; or like the bird which quivers with song, because it is a bird, and finds a pleasure in its notes; or like the sun, which shines, not by constraint, but because, being a sun, it must shine; or like the waves of the sea, which flash back the brilliance of the sun because it is their nature to reflect and not to hoard the light! Oh, to have such grace in our hearts that we shall joyfully make sacrifices unto our God!—C. H. Spurgeon.
(f) On our birthdays our little children love to give their father something if it is only a bunch of flowers out of the garden, or a fourpenny piece with a hole in it; they like to do it to show their love; and wise parents will be sure to let their children do such things for them. So is it with our great Father in heaven. What are our Sunday-school teachings and our preachings, and all that, but these cracked fourpenny pieces? Just nothing at all; but the Lord allows us to do His work for His own love’s sake. His love to us finds a sweetness in our love to Him.—Ibid.
The other day, in walking down the street, a little beggar boy, having discovered that I loved flowers, came and put into my hand a faded little sprig which he had somewhere found. I did not look directly at the scrawny, withered branch, but beheld it through the medium of the boy’s heart, seeing what he would have given, not what he gave; and so looking the shrivelled stem was laden with blossoms of beauty and odour. And if I, who am cold, and ignorant, receive so graciously the offering of a poor child, with what tender joy must our heavenly Father receive the sincere tribute of His creatures, when He looks through the medium of His infinite love and compassion?.… Christ does not say, “Take the noblest things of life, and bring them perfect, to Me, and I will receive them” He says, “Take the lowest and most disagreeable thing; and if you bring it cheerfully for My sake, it shall he to Me a flower of remembrance, and I will press it in the Book of Life, and keep it for ever.” Go, then search for flowers to bring to Christ; and if you cannot find even road-side or pasture weeds—if there are only nettle and briars, and you are willing for His sake to thrust your hand into the thorn bush and bring a branch from then e, He will take it lovingly, and cherish it evermore.—H. W. Beecher.
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Numbers 31". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Fourth Week after Epiphany