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Bible Commentaries

Charles Simeon's Horae Homileticae

Numbers 31

Verses 48-50


Numbers 31:48-50. And the officers which were over thousands of the host, the captains of thousands and captains of hundreds, came near unto Moses: and they said unto Moses, Thy servants have taken the sum of the men of war which are under our charge, and there lacketh not one man of us. We have therefore brought an oblation for the Lord, what every man hath gotten, of jewels of gold, chains, and bracelets, rings, ear-rings, and tablets, to make an atonement for our souls before the Lord.

NUMBERLESS are the occasions on which we are led to admire the condescension of God towards his chosen servants: and one of considerable importance occurs in the chapter before us. He had doomed Moses to die in the wilderness without ever setting his foot upon the promised land: and the time was nearly come for the execution of the sentence upon him. But God graciously determined to give him an earnest of those blessings which were shortly to be poured out on the surviving generation. He therefore directed Moses to “avenge the children of Israel of the Midianites, before he should be gathered unto his people.” Moses gives immediate orders to carry into effect the divine command: but he remarkably alters the language which Jehovah had used. God had said, “Avenge the children of Israel of the Midianites:” and he says, “Avenge the Lord of Midian.” The Lord marked his tender concern for Israel’s good; but Moses shewed a paramount concern for the glory of his God [Note: Compare ver. 2 and 3.]. Thus it is that the condescension and kindness of God should ever be received: and whilst He seeks the best interests of his people, we should seek his glory above every other consideration: to that every interest of ours should be subordinated.

The order being issued, a thousand from every tribe went forth to battle: (for, when God was with them, it was alike easy to subdue their enemies with many or with few:) and Phinehas, who had displayed his zeal for God in the matter of Zimri and Cozbi, was sent with them to animate their exertions. We have no particular account of the engagement; but the consequences of it are minutely detailed, and may, not unprofitably, be distinctly considered. We notice,


Their victory over Midian—

[This was most complete. All the five kings who came out against them were slain; and all their forces destroyed. That all Midian did not come to the battle, appears from this, that in two hundred years afterwards they were again a powerful nation: but all who engaged in this conflict were destroyed, their cities also were taken, and their fortresses demolished. “Balaam also,” who, though foiled in his former endeavours, had returned to them, “was slain amongst them with the sword.”
Now this victory is instructive, whether we regard it in an historical, or typical, view. As an historical fact, it teaches us, that no power can withstand the arm of the Lord; that, when aided by him, we are infallibly sure of victory; and that all who determinately set themselves against him shall perish. They may boast of their knowledge, and may wish to “die the death of the righteous;” but they shall surely be numbered with the enemies of God at last. As a type, it shews us what shall ultimately be the fate of all our spiritual enemies. Our strength may appear as nothing in comparison of theirs; but it shall prevail, and our exertions be crowned with perfect victory.]


Their slaughter of the captives—

[On the return of the Israelites from battle, Moses went forth to meet them; but finding that they had not slain the women with the men, but had taken them, together with the male children, captives, he was much displeased; and ordered them to destroy all, except the females who were virgins. Our natural compassion for the weak and helpless makes us to shudder at such an order as this: and to wonder how the soldiers could be induced to carry it into execution. But we must remember that God has a right over his creatures, to take them away at any time and in any manner that he sees fit. Whether he sweep them away by a pestilence, or cut them off by the sword, he is no more to be accused of harshness towards them, than if he take them away by the more common means of disease and age. It must be remembered too, that the women in particular had forfeited their lives by tempting the Israelites to whoredom and idolatry. Already had they occasioned the destruction of twenty-four thousand Israelites; and, if suffered to live, might have successfully renewed their former practices. It was necessary therefore in that view also to cut them off, both mothers and daughters indiscriminately; all having, either by action or connivance, been accessory to Israel’s ruin. As for the male children, they, though not actually involved in their parents’ iniquities, were justly, as in almost all cases they must be, involved in their parents’ punishment. With respect to the Israelites themselves, they were no more to be blamed, than any persons are who act as executioners under the orders of the civil magistrate. No one condemns the jury who by their verdict subject their fellow-creatures to the penalty of death; nor the judge who pronounces sentence; nor the jailer who confines the criminal; nor the officers who attend the execution; nor the man that employs the instrument of death. No one condemns the angel who destroyed the Egyptian first-born, nor him who in one night slew a hundred and eighty-five thousand of the Assyrian army: nor can any one justly condemn the Israelites, who executed the divine command in the slaughter of their captives. The case was peculiar, and not applicable to modern warfare; nor was it intended as an example to us: but, as a lesson, it is of great importance; since it shews us, that peculiar judgments await those who tempt others to sin: and that, though they may escape for a time, the most signal vengeance shall fall on them at last. It teaches us also (for this, as well as the foregoing, circumstance admits of a typical application) that we must destroy all our spiritual enemies without exception; not those only that seem more immediately to menace our destruction, but those also, which, though apparently weak and insignificant, may warp us from our duty, or in time become strong and formidable.]


Their dedication of the spoils—

[Immense were the spoils taken on this occasion: and the distribution of them which God appointed, seemed to afford universal satisfaction. Half was given to the congregation at large, and half was reserved for the host that took them. From each was a tribute taken for God: from the half belonging to the congregation, a fiftieth part; and from that belonging to the warriors, a five hundredth part. This shews us, that God must have a portion of all that his providence has allotted to us: whether we earn it ourselves, or receive it as the fruit of others’ labour, God must be acknowledged in it, and be glorified with it.
But, on mustering the troops, a most wonderful fact was ascertained. Notwithstanding only twelve thousand went to the war, and the enemy whom they attacked were so numerous, and their success had been so great, not one single man was missing from their ranks. This filled them with utter astonishment, and with the most lively gratitude: and all with one accord desired to make their acknowledgments to God, by dedicating to him a part, if not the whole, of the gold and jewels which they had taken, every man for himself. Accordingly, the whole of the spoil having been purified either by fire or water, and the soldiers themselves also having been purified from the pollution which the slaughter of so many persons, and the touching of the dead, had occasioned, the gold and jewels were presented unto God for the service of his sanctuary, “as an atonement for their souls.” The word “atonement” which is here used, is not to be understood as importing an expiatory sacrifice, but only (as it is afterwards explained) “a memorial.” These spoils were presented, precisely as the half shekel, or “atonement-money,” was appointed to be, in commemoration of a most wonderful deliverance [Note: Exodus 30:12-16.]. The Israelites presented them, first, as an acknowledgment of their desert; (for they deserved death, no less than the people whom they had destroyed:) next, as a memorial of their deliverance; (which was truly astonishing:) and lastly, as a testimony of their gratitude; a sense of which they desired to retain to the end of life; and to transmit to their latest posterity.

O that there were in all of us such an heart! that we could see in such a view our obligations to God! and that we were thus forward to express our sense of them in every possible way! The preservation of our lives is not indeed so manifest, as in their case; but it is not at all less the work of God. Think of the diseases and accidents to which we have been exposed, and the havoc made by them on those around us; and you shall see that we, no less than the Israelites, are indebted for our lives to the good providence of our God. Apply the same thought to our souls; and then say, whether we have not as abundant calls for gratitude, as they — — — How then shall we testify our gratitude to God? I answer, Whatsoever he has given to us for a prey, that let us present to him for a sacrifice of thanksgiving. Has he given us time, and health, and money, and influence; and, above all, has he infused an heavenly life into our souls? let us devote it all to him, and “glorify him with our bodies and our spirits which are his.” The Israelites thought their jewels would be ill employed as ornaments for their wives or daughters, when they might be of use for the service and honour of God: thus should we also estimate whatever we possess; not by the gratification it will afford to our pride and vanity, but by the good it will enable us to do to our fellow-creatures, and the service in which it may be employed for our heavenly Benefactor. This only would I observe in relation to it, that we must first give up ourselves to God, and then our property [Note: 2 Corinthians 8:5.]. Without our hearts no sacrifice whatever will be accepted of him: but if we “give ourselves to him as living sacrifices, we shall perform a holy, a reasonable, and an acceptable service [Note: Romans 12:1.]:” and every victory we gain, together with every blessing we enjoy, whether public and national, or private and personal, demands it at our hands.]

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Bibliographical Information
Simeon, Charles. "Commentary on Numbers 31". Charles Simeon's Horae Homileticae. 1832.