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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 17

The Biblical IllustratorThe Biblical Illustrator

Verses 1-13

Numbers 17:1-13

Write Aaron’s name upon the rod of Levi.

Aaron’s rod

Instructive to the Israelites.

1. An end hereby put to murmuring. By an incontrovertible sign they knew who was the true priest.

2. A preventative furnished against future rebellion. Miracles apt to be forgotten; of this the evidence was to be preserved. Kept for a token.

Suggestive to Christians. Every man has some rod on which he leans. The Christian’s is faith. Like Aaron’s rod, faith flourishes--

1. Most in the sanctuary. There are strengthening influences, and a Divine power. It will become a barren stock elsewhere.

2. Under circumstances in which other rods cannot live. The almond flourishes even before the winter is fully past. Faith budding in adversity.

3. Produces fruit and flowers on the bare stock of adversity.

4. Bears fruit speedily when God causes His blessing to rest upon it. “Believe and be saved.”

5. Stirs the Christian up to vigilance. Almond-tree a symbol of watchfulness.

Typical of Christ.

1. For it is perpetual. Aaron’s rod laid up as a lasting remembrance.

2. It bore fruit on a barren stock. Jesus, a root out of a dry ground.

3. It was distinguished among the sceptres of the princes. Christ’s kingdom and sceptre rule over all. He is a plant of renown.

4. It was the object of special favour. So in Jesus, He “was well pleased.” He was “elect and precious.”

Symbolical of a true teacher.

1. His home the house of God.

2. Presents himself constantly before the testimony.

3. In himself dry and barren.

4. Relies upon God for fruitfulness.

5. Produces by Divine help not flowers only, but fruit also.

6. As a dry and lifeless stock he receives quickening power from God; so with his flowers and fruit he presents himself before God, and offers all his works to Him.


1. The wisdom of God in choice of methods.

2. To seek a strong and living and practical faith.

3. To rejoice in and rely upon the perpetual high priesthood of Christ.

4. To endeavour, like the almond-tree, to bring forth fruit early. (J. C. Gray.)

Aaron’s rod that budded

This is our subject: the miraculous conversion of Aaron’s rod into a living, blossoming, and fruit-bearing plant. It must have been a most convincing prodigy for the purpose it was designed to answer, for the people no sooner saw it than they cried out in remorse for their wavering allegiance, “Behold, we die! we perish! we all perish!” But beyond the age wherein the marvel occurred, this putting vegetable life into that dry staff has frequently been borrowed and used for other objects. Thus Achilles, in classic poetry, when enraged against Agamemnon, is made by Homer to refer to this miracle:--

“But hearken! I shall swear a solemn oath

By this same sceptre, which shall never bud,
Nor boughs bring forth, as once ; which, having left
Its stock on the high mountains at what time
The woodman’s axe lopt off its foliage green
And stript its bark, shall never grow again :-

By this I swear!”

And amongst Latin literature you will, some of you, remember that a certain king confirms a covenant with AEneas by a similar oath.

We begin by reminding you that among the greatest of our blessings in this world is our strict obligation to do the Divine will and to keep the Divine law. It is far more worth our while to sing of God’s statutes than it is to sing of God’s promises. Where should we be in a country without human authority, and a human authority founded on a reverence for the Divine? Very truly does Bushnell say that, “without law, man does not live, he only grazes.” If he had no government he would never discern any reason for existence, and would soon not care to exist. How different is the world of Voltaire from the world of Milton I The one finds nothing but this clay world and its material beauties, flashes into a shallow brilliancy of speech, and, weaving a song of surfaces, empties himself into a book of all that he has felt or seen. But the other, at the back of all and through all visible things, beholds a spirit and a Divinity. Now is there not a very beautiful picture of the comeliness and the beneficence of law in the old miracle that was wrought upon the rod of Aaron? That staff, as we have put it to you, was selected as the sign of authority. This was a declaration, first, that no law was perfect that did not display life and beauty and fertility; and a declaration, secondly, that by God’s choice that perfect law dwelt in the high priest. But apart from the imagery as a message to the children of Israel, I cling to that blooming staff as the very best type I can find anywhere of what God’s rule is amongst us and in His Church. I find myself taught by this early prodigy on Aaron’s staff that God’s dominion is the dominion of the almond-branch. It is a rod; alas! for us, if there were no rod. But it is a rod displaying all the three several pledges and gradations of life; and thus--oh! beautiful coincidence, if it be nothing more--God turns His law towards the children of men into what the forbidden tree so falsely appeared to the first transgressor--“pleasant to the eye, and good for food.” Of course I know that the staff or the sceptre is the symbol of authority, because a staff is that with which one person smites another. The ultimate significance of a rod is a blow. But is it nothing to be taught by God’s picture-alphabet of the Old Testament that He smites only with buds, and with flowers, and with fruit? This seems to change, even to any child’s apprehension, the whole character of the sovereignty under which we bow in the modern camp of the Church. You tremble as you read the chapter of hard duties. Turn the leaf, and you will come upon the chapter of precious promises. There is not a verse in the Bible that is not in flower with some comfort; aye, though it be a verse that smites you with a difficult commandment. You are never to tell a man to do a single thing in religion without telling him that God will help him to do it. You are never to command a sacrifice from me for Christ’s sake without comforting me with the assurance that “God is able to give me much more than this.” If you have a strong, rough, hard stick of responsibility, you must show it to me bursting out all over with the rich petals and the hanging clusters of the sovereignty of Divine grace. Aye, for I want you to mark well that here was a miracle within a miracle. The natural almond-branch never has upon it at one time buds, blossoms, and fruit. But I seem to be taught by this accumulation of successive life all at once on one stem that there is no element of mercy wanting in the code by which I am to be managed. But remember that if we deserve nothing but the rod, and yet if God never uses the rod save with the buds, the blossoms, and the fruit, “He may well record it against us if either we despise the chastening of the Lord, or faint when we are rebuked of Him.”

But now the real and only proper commentary on the facts of the Pentateuch will be found in the doctrines of the Epistle to the Hebrews. Do you believe that all those lives would have been lost, and all that commotion would have been made about the prerogative of Aaron’s priesthood, but for that other Priest on whom the whole world was to rely--the Priest for ever--“made, not after the law of a carnal commandment, but after the power of an endless life”? It is not by one Scripture, it is by scores, that I find myself pointed, through that staff, to the real government of this world in the rod out of the stem of Jesse. “He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground, without form or comeliness.” And yet, all the while, He was the “rod out of the stem of Jesse.” And when I read, in the Book of Numbers, how the Hebrews rose up against Aaron and put him to shame, I can only take it for a foreshadowing of another rebellion, when they insulted another Sceptre, who was “despised and rejected of men.” We preach to you Christ, a stumbling-block to the Jews. And scarcely can you wonder that so long as the rod was only the root out of a dry ground, the Son of the carpenter and the Friend of sinners, there was “ no beauty in Him that they should desire Him.” But that is not the staff with which, this day, God governs His Church. No, no! He hath declared that lowly peasant preacher to be “the Son of God with power, in that He hath raised Him from the dead.” Ah, that night in which they concealed Aaron’s rod in the tabernacle of witness, it was never less living, never less blossoming, than then. But it was not left in darkness, neither did it see corruption. And on the appointed morning men found it, marked by the choice of the Omnipotent with the buds, the blossoms, and the fruit. In like manner the coldest, darkest, least living period in Immanuel’s career was when they hid Him, among all the other millions of the dead, in the tomb cut out of the rock in the garden of Joseph. “But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first-fruits of them that slept.” He was raised up “a plant of renown.” And from that glorious Easter morning the “rod out of the stem of Jesse” has been “the tree whose leaves are for the healing of the nations,” and “filling the face of the world with fruit.” Men can be governed by a Mediator and yet not perish. “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.” That is a rod, but “if any man sin we have an Advocate with the Father,” that is, “Aaron’s rod that budded”--the rod of the Priest. Reuben, Gad, and all the rest have rods. Christianity is not alone in the sternness of its government or the severity of its sanctions. But it is alone in telling me how I can receive remission of sins that are past, and how I can obtain the strongest of motives for a life of obedience in the time to come. (H. Christopherson.)

Aaron’s rod blossoming and bearing fruit

As the priesthood of Aaron was a type of the priesthood of Christ, there is here a suggestion of facts which must have their counterpart in Christ’s life and history.

1. The atonement and death of our Lord Jesus were matters of Divine appointment. The whole work of our salvation originated with God.

2. But more than this--which is the essential truth here enshrined--we see here that God often manifests Himself in unexpected forms of beauty and of grace. The dry rod blossomed and bare fruit. The powers of Divine salvation were enshrined in the person of the Carpenter of Nazareth. There was life for a dead world in the Cross and in the grave of the dead Christ.

There are suggestions here concerning Christian life.

1. Christian life begins with God.

2. The Christian life manifests itself in unfavourable conditions. It is in human souls a power of active benevolence, or it is nothing at all. It takes hold of human misery with a healing hand, and it changes it into blessing. Where sin abounded there grace does much more abound.

3. There is beauty associated with the developments of Christian life and character. There is nothing half so winning as Christian grace.

Suggestions in relation to the gospel ministry.

1. There is a Divine designation of men to the highest service of the Church.

2. But what is the qualification of men thus sent? Evidently the possession of Divine life, the gift which is to be imparted to those needing it. To be a Christian teacher a man must be a Christian and must know the things of Christ.

3. How, then, are we to judge a man’s Divine call and authority? Only and solely by the blossoms and fruit--by the spiritual results of his ministry.

Last of all, there are here suggestions concerning Christian humiliation.

1. The world has not known its best benefactors. It has always had a scornful word for the saintly and the true-hearted. It has always risen up in rebellion against the anointed of the Lord.

2. Here is a word of encouragement to all weak and mistrustful and diffident and self-emptied souls. “I am but a dry rod,” says the old labourer in the Master’s vineyard, and the holy matron whose life has been careful and troubled about many things, but who has ever been anxious to honour and serve her dear Lord in lowliest ways and household duties. “I am but a dry rod,” says the saint, waiting dismission to rest, who has not done what he would or been as useful as he desired and hoped and prayed to be. “I am but a dry rod,” says one whose strength has been weakened by the way, and whose unfinished purposes lie sadly enough at his feet, fallen out of hands which could not longer hold them or fashion them into completeness. “We are but dry rods,” say many earnest, anxious, longing souls who hardly dare to trust for the future, because so often when they would do good evil is present with them. We are not saved by trust in our own righteousness or by satisfaction with our own goodness and deeds. But God’s grace is all-sufficient, and He can work miracles of beauty and fruitfulness where human might is feeblest, and self mistrust is greatest, and humility of spirit is deepest. (W. H. Davison, D. D.)

The Divine plan for vindicating the high priesthood of Aaron, and its moral teaching

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

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

1. In order that they may regard them with becoming respect.

2. In order that they may take heed to their message.

The vitality of sin is of dreadful tenacity. “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.”

God is engaged in eradicating sin from human hearts. (W. Jones.)

Aaron’s rod an illustration of the true Christian ministry

. The characteristics of the true Christian ministry.

1. Life,

2. Beauty.

3. Fruitfulness.

The origin of the true Christian ministry. God’s creation, and gift to the Church.

The influence of the true Christian ministry. Abiding. (W. Jones.)

The budded rod, a type of Christ

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). 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; (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.) (Dean Law.)

The rod of Aaron

Buds are evidence of life. A nominal Christian is like a dead trunk, and he cannot bud unless the sap of Divine grace courses through him. Spiritual life is an attribute of the converted Christian. The spiritual life of a being is his presiding sentiment or disposition--the chief inspiration of his soul--that which gives motion and character to his mental and moral being.

Life is a resistless force. The smallest blade of grass that raises its tiny head into light, or the feeblest insect that sports in the sunbeam, displays a force superior to that which governs the ocean or controls the stars. Man stands erect, the tree rises, and the bird soars, because of life.

Life is an appropriating force. Vegetable and animal existences have a power of appropriating to themselves all surrounding elements conducive to their well-being, just as the life of the plant converts the various gases around it into nutriment to promote its strength and development. Wherever there is true religion, there is a power to render all external circumstances subservient to its own strength and growth; all things work together for its good.

Life is a propagating force. It has “the seed in itself.” Forests start from acorns, and boundless harvests from the solitary grain. It is said that the grateful Israelites, anxious to carry away a bud, a blossom, or almond as a memento of the occasion, the flowers and fruit on the rod were repeatedly and miraculously renewed for that purpose. Be that as it may, wherever there is religious life it will spread; it scatters broadcast the incorruptible seed which liveth and abideth for ever.

Life is a beautifying force. There are two kinds of beauty--the sensational and the moral. Nature in her ten thousand forms of loveliness, and art in her exquisite expressions of taste, are ministries to the former, whilst spiritual truth, moral goodness, and the holiness of God address the latter. The one is the poetry of the eye and ear ; the other, of the soul. The beauty that appeals to the religious nature of man is the beauty of holiness--the beauty of the Lord--the glory of God in His goodness.

Life is a fructifying force. The true Christian not only lives and unfolds a noble disposition, but is really useful. St. Paul speaks of “the fruit of the Spirit”--righteousness, goodness, truth. The first, as opposed to all injustice and dishonesty; the second, as opposed to the ten thousand forms of selfishness; the third, as opposed to all that is erroneous and false in the doctrines and theories of men. (G. L. Saywell.)

Aaron’s rod

Here are three miracles in one:--

1. That a dry rod--made of the almond tree--should bring forth buds in a moment.

2. That those buds should presently become blossoms anal flowers.

3. That these should immediately become ripe fruit, and that all at once, or at least in a little space.

Nature makes no such leaps. All this was supernatural to these ends.

1. For a testimony of God’s calling Aaron to the priesthood.

2. For a type of Christ, the Branch (Isaiah 11:1).

3. For a figure of the fruitfulness of a gospel ministry.

4. For a lively representation of a glorious resurrection. (C. Ness.)

Lessons from the budding rod

A wonderful work of God, which sundry ways may profit us.

1. As first to consider that if the power of God can do this in a dry stick, cannot He make the barren woman to bare, and be a joyful mother of children? Can He not do whatsoever He will do? By this power the sea is dried, the rock gives water, the earth cleaveth under the feet of men, fire descends whose nature is to ascend, raiseth the dead, and calleth things that are not as if they were. In a word, He is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, &c.

2. This rod is a notable type of Christ, His person and office. Of His person, in that He was born of the Virgin Mary, who, though He descended of the royal blood, yet was now poor and mean, as that royal race was brought exceeding low, nothing remaining but as it were a root only. Now the said Virgin flourisheth again as Aaron’s rod did, and beareth such fruit as never woman bear. Of this speaks Isaiah the prophet, when he saith, “There shall come a rod forth of the stock of Jesse, and a graft shall grow out of his roots.” Of His office both priestly and kingly. His priestly office is figured in that being offered upon the cross He was as Aaron’s dried rod, or as the Psalm saith, “dried up like a potsherd.” But when He rose again He became like Aaron’s budding and fruit-bearing rod, bringing forth to man, believing on Him, remission of sins, righteousness, and eternal life. His kingly office, in that He governeth His Church with a rod or sceptre of righteousness, as it is in the Psalm: “The sceptre of Thy kingdom is a right sceptre.” Which rod and sceptre is the preaching of the gospel, &c.

3. Again, it was a resemblance of true ministers, and of all faithful men and women, for none of all these ought to be dry and withered sticks, but bear and bring forth buds and fruit according to their places.

4. It is a shadow also of our resurrection by which we should grow green again, and flourish with a new and an eternal glory, having like dead seed lain in the ground, and we shall bring forth ripe almonds, that is, the praise of God’s incomprehensible goodness to us for ever and ever.

5. It resembleth our reformation and amendment of life, for when our heart feeleth what is amiss, this is as the bud; when it resolveth of a change and a future amendment, this is the blossom; and when it performeth the same by a new reformed life indeed, this is as the ripe almonds of Aaron’s rod.(Bp. Babington.)

The priesthood divinely selected

What matchless wisdom shines in this arrangement! How completely is the matter taken out of man’s hands and placed where alone it ought to be, namely, in the hands of the living God! It was not to be a man appointing himself, or a man appointing his fellow, but God appointing the man of His own selection. In a word, the question was to be definitively settled by God Himself, so that all murmurings might be silenced for ever, and no one be able again to charge God’s high priest with taking too much upon him. The human will had nothing whatever to do with this solemn matter. The twelve rods, all in a like condition, were laid up before the Lord ; man retired and left God to act. There was no room, no opportunity, because there was no occasion for human management. In the profound retirement of the sanctuary, far away from all man’s thinkings, was the grand question of priesthood settled by Divine decision; and, being thus settled, it could never again be raised. (C. H. Mackintosh.)

Aaron’s fruitful rod

Striking and beautiful figure of Him who was “declared to be the Son of God with power by resurrection from the dead!” The twelve rods were all alike lifeless; but God, the living God, entered the scene, and, by that power peculiar to Himself, infused life into Aaron’s rod, and brought it forth to view, bearing upon it the fragrant fruits of resurrection. Who could gainsay this? The rationalist may sneer at it, and raise a thousand questions. Faith gazes on that fruit-bearing rod, and sees in it a lovely figure of the new creation in the which all things are of God. Infidelity may argue on the ground of the apparent impossibility of a dry stick budding, blossoming, and bearing fruit in the course of one night. But to whelm does it appear impossible? To the infidel, the rationalist, the sceptic. And why? Because he always shuts out God. Let us remember this. Infidelity invariably shuts out God. God can do as He pleases. The One who called worlds into existence could make a rod to bud, blossom, and bear fruit in a moment. Bring God in, and all is simple and plain as possible. Leave God out, and all is plunged in hopeless confusion. (C. H. Mackintosh.)

The rods contrasted

Ponder the difference between the rod of Moses and the rod of Aaron. We have seen the former doing its characteristic work in other days and amid other scenes. We have seen the land of Egypt trembling beneath the heavy strokes of that rod. Plague after plague fell upon that devoted scene in answer to that outstretched rod. We have seen the waters of the sea divided in answer to that rod. In short, the rod of Moses was a rod of power, a rod of authority. But it could not avail to hush the murmurings of the children of Israel, nor yet to bring the people through the desert. Grace alone could do that; and we have the expression of pure grace--free, sovereign grace--in the budding of Aaron’s rod. Nothing can be more forcible, nothing more lovely. That dry, dead stick was the apt figure of Israel’s condition, and indeed of the condition of every one of us by nature. There was no sap, no life, no power. One might well say, “What good can ever come of it?” None whatever, had not grace come in and displayed its quickening power. So was it with Israel, in the wilderness; and so is it with us now. How were they to be led along from day to day? How were they to be sustained in all their weakness and need? How were they to be borne with in all their sin and folly? The answer is found in Aaron’s budding rod. If the dry, dead stick was the expression of nature’s barren and worthless condition, the buds, blossoms, and fruit set forth that living and life-giving grace and power of God on which was based the priestly ministry that alone could bear the congregation through the wilderness. Grace alone could answer the ten thousand necessities of the militant host. Power could not suffice. Authority could not avail. Priesthood alone could supply what was needed; and this priesthood was instituted on the foundation of that efficacious grace which could bring fruit out of a dry rod. Thus it was as to priesthood of old; and thus it is as to ministry now. All ministry in the Church of God is the fruit of Divine grace--the gift of Christ, the Church’s Head. (C. H. Mackintosh.)


Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Numbers 17". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tbi/numbers-17.html. 1905-1909. New York.
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