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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 33

The Biblical IllustratorThe Biblical Illustrator

Verses 1-2

Numbers 33:1-2

These are the Journeys.

The journeys of Israel

This chapter gives a very graphic and instructive picture of a much larger scheme of journeying. The local names may mean nothing to us now, but the words “departed,” “removed,” “encamped,” have meanings that abide for ever. We are doing in our way, and according to the measure of our opportunity, exactly what Israel did in this chapter of hard names and places mostly now forgotten. Observe, this is a written account: “And Moses wrote their goings out.” The life is all written. It is not a sentiment spoken without consideration and forgotten without regret; it is a record--a detailed and critical writing, condescending to geography, locality, daily movement, position in society and in the world. It is, therefore, to be regarded as a story that has been proved, and that will bear to be written and re-written. The one perfect Biographer is God. Every life is written in the book that is kept in the secret place of the heavens. “All things are naked and open unto the eyes of Him with whom we have to do.” Nothing is omitted. The writing is plain--so plain that the blind man may read the story which God has written for his perusal. Who would like to see the book? Who could not write a book about his brother that would please that brother? Without being false, it might be highly eulogistic and comforting. But who would like to see his life as sketched by the hand of God? “Enter not into judgment with Thy servant: for in Thy sight shall no man living be justified.” “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of Thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.’ What a monotony there is in this thirty-third chapter! This will be evident to the eye. The reader sees but two words or three, and all the rest are difficult terms or polysyllables unrelated to his life. The terms are “departed,” “removed,” “went.” The language of actual life is a narrow language which may be learned in a very brief time. So with our daily life: we rise, we sit, we retire; we eat and drink, and bless one another in the name of God ; and go round the little circle until sometimes we say, “Can we not vary all that, and add to it some more vivid line? Has no friend of ours the power of flushing this pale monotony into some tint of blood?” Then we fall back into the old lines: we “depart” and “remove” and “pitch”; we “pitch” and “depart” and “remove”; we come and go and settle and return; until there comes almost unconsciously into the strain of our speech some expressive and mournful sigh. “Few and evil have been the days of Thy servant.” Yet, not to dwell too much upon this well-ascertained fact, we may regard the record of the journeys of Israel as showing somewhat of the variety of life. Here and there a new departure sets in, or some new circumstance brightens the history. For example, in the ninth verse we read: “And they removed from Marah, and came unto Elim: and in Elim were twelve fountains of water, and threescore and ten palm trees.” Sweet entry is that! It occurs in our own secret diaries. Do we not dwell with thankfulness upon the places where we find the waters, the wells, the running streams, the beautiful trees, and the trees beautiful with luscious fruitage? Then comes the fourteenth verse: “And they encamped at Rephidim,” &c. Such are the changes in life. We have passed through precisely the transitions here indicated. No water; nothing to satisfy even the best appetences of the mind and spirit; all heaven one sheet of darkness, and the night so black upon the earth that even the altar-stairs could not be found in the horrid gloom; if there was water, it had no effect upon the thirst; if there was bread, it was bitter; if there was a pillow, it was filled with pricking thorns. There is another variety of the story; the thirty-eighth verse presents it: “And Aaron the priest went up into mount Her at the commandment of the Lord, and died there.” Is that line wanting in our story? All men do not die on mountains. Would God we may die upon some high hill! It seems to our imagination nearer heaven to die away up on the mountain peaks than to die in the low damp valleys. Granted that it is but an imagination. We need such helps: we are so made that symbol and hint and parable assist the soul in its sublimest realisations of things Divine and of things to come. (J. Parker, D. D.)

Moses’ diary of travels and its teachings

God wished the people to remember these journeys; and He wishes all ages to know of them and to learn from them. Let us notice a few of the lessons God intends these journeys to teach us.

They impress upon us the great fact of God’s continued presence and interest in human life.

They point out to us that God is the one true and safe Guide through life.

They present to us a picture of human life, and thus tend to give us correct views of life.

They show to us that the greatest evils of life and its only dangers come from sin.

They suggest the comforting thought that by trusting in God and following Him we are sure to possess the inheritance which He has promised His people. (D. Lloyd.)

The itinerary of Israel from Egypt to Canaan

. An incentive to gratitude to God.

1. Emancipating them from bondage in Egypt.

2. Repeatedly delivering them from their enemies.

3. Infallibly guiding them in their journeys.

4. Constantly providing for them in the desert.

5. Inviolably guarding them from dangers.

An encouragement to obey and trust God. He is unchangeable; therefore His past doings are examples of what we may expect Him to do in the future. History, properly studied, will be the nurse of faith and hope (comp. Psalms 78:3-8).

A monitor against sin.

1. Man’s proneness to sin.

2. God’s antagonism against sin.

3. The great evil of sin.. (W. Jones.)

The travels of Israel

This is a review of the travels of the children of Israel through the wilderness. It was a memorable history, and well worthy to be thus abridged, and the abridgment thus preserved, to the honour of God that led them and for the encouragement of the generations that followed. Observe here--

How the account was kept (Numbers 33:2). “Moses wrote their goings out.” When they began this tedious march God ordered him to keep a journal or diary, and to insert in it all the remarkable occurrences of their way, that it might be a satisfaction to himself in the review and an instruction to others when it should be published. It may be of good use to private Christians, but especially for those in public stations, to preserve in writing an account of the providences of God concerning them, the constant series of mercies they have experienced, especially those turns and changes which have made some days of their lives more remarkable. Our memories are deceitful, and need this help, that we may “remember all the way which the Lord our God has led us in this wilderness” (Deuteronomy 8:2).

What the account itself was. It began with their departure out of Egypt, continued with their march through the wilderness, and ended in the plains of Moab, where they now lay encamped.

1. Some things are observed here concerning their departure out of Egypt, which they are minded of upon all occasions as a work of wonder never to be forgotten.

2. Concerning their travels towards Canaan, observe--

(1) They were continually upon the remove. When they had pitched a little while in one place, they departed from that to another. Such is our state in this world: we have here no continuing city.

(2) Most of their way lay through a wilderness, uninhabited, untracked, unfurnished even with the necessaries of human life, which magnifies the wisdom and power of God, by whose wonderful conduct and bounty the thousands of Israel not only subsisted for forty years in that desolate place, but came out at least as numerous and vigorous as they went in. At first they pitched in the edge of the wilderness (Numbers 33:6), but afterwards in the heart of it. By lesser difficulties God prepares His people for greater. We find them in the wilderness of Etham (Numbers 33:8), of Sin (Numbers 33:11). of Sinai (Numbers 33:15). Our removes in this world are but from one wilderness to another.

(3) That they were led to and fro, forward and backward, as in a maze or labyrinth, and yet were all the while under the direction of the pillar of cloud and fire. He led them out (Deuteronomy 32:10), and yet led them the right way (Psalms 107:7). The way God takes in bringing His people to Himself is always the best way, though it does not always seem to us the best way.

(4) Some events are mentioned in this journal, as their want of water at Rephidim (Numbers 33:14), the death of Aaron (Numbers 33:38-39), the insult of Arad (Numbers 33:40); and the very name of Kibroth-hattaavah, “the grave of the lusters” (Numbers 33:16), has a story depending upon it. Thus we ought to keep in mind the providences of God concerning us and our families, us and our land, and the many instances of that Divine care which hath led us and fed us and kept us all our days hitherto. (Matthew Henry, D. D.)

Verses 50-56

Numbers 33:50-56

Ye shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you.

The expulsion of the Canaanites

. The imperative command.

1. To utterly expel the inhabitants of Canaan.

2. To completely destroy all idolatrous objects and places.

3. To equitably divide the land.

4. The authority by which they were to do these things.

The solemn warning.

1. Those whom they spared would become their tormentors. “Under these metaphors,” says Dr. A. Clarke, “the continual mischief that should be done to them, both in soul and body, by these idolaters, is set forth in a very expressive manner. What can be more vexatious than a continual goading of each side, so that the attempt to avoid the one throws the body more forcibly on the other? And what can be more distressing than a continual pricking in the eye, harassing the mind, tormenting the body, and extinguishing the sight?” “That which we are willing should tempt us we shall find will vex us.”

2. The God whom they disobeyed would disinherit them. (W. Jones.)

The danger of allowing sin

The Israelites were now on the confines of the land of promise. So God speaks to them about the future, tells them what it was His will that they should do when they enclosed the land of promise, and what would be the consequence of disobedience. These, then, are the two points which we may consider--Israel’s calling, and the consequences of neglecting it.

Israel’s calling. This was to drive out all the inhabitants of the land, to dispossess them, and themselves to dwell in it. If we view this with reference to the inhabitants themselves, we must regard it as the righteous judgment of God upon them on account of their sins. But we may also regard this visitation with reference to Israel, and then it will become evident that it was necessary for their safety. The Israelites themselves were so prone to fall away from God that their being surrounded by many idolatrous and degraded nations would be sure to lead them gradually away from Him. They would soon cease to be a separate people--a people consecrated to Jehovah. That little word “all” is very expressive. It shows that the judgment was to be universal. It proved the greatness of God’s care for Israel. It was also the test of Israel’s obedience; and it was a test, we know, which they did not stand. They substituted a partial for an unreserved obedience, and drove out same, but not all, the inhabitants of the land. We find a long list of Israel’s defects of obedience in Judges 1:21. Now, in this, as in so many other points, Israel’s calling is typical of the Christian life. In what way? We often take Canaan to be a type of heaven. Yet it is easy to see that there are many points in which Canaan was no type of heaven; and one of these evidently was that whereas in heaven there will be no sin, no enemies, no temptations, in Canaan all these existed. In this point of view, then, Canaan was not a type of heaven, but rather of the Christian life now; and to that command, “Drive out all the inhabitants of the land, and dispossess them,” we shall find an analogous one, descriptive of the Christian calling, “Put off the old man with his deeds.” There is a principle of evil, called in Scripture the “old man,” which comprehends sinful desires and evil habits; and this we are called to dispossess of the land. The old man is daily to be put off, the new man to be put on. The old man, though nailed to the cross, is never utterly extinct until the earthly house of our tabernacle is exchanged for the “building of God, the house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” The new man requires to be constantly strengthened by fresh gifts of the Spirit of God. When, then, God says, “Drive out all the inhabitants of the land,” it has a meaning for the Christian; and its meaning virtually is, “Mortify the old man,” crucify the whole body of sin. Do not spare any sin. Let all be resisted and overcome. Now, the old man is in no sense the same in every Christian. It is the principle of sin, the principle of self. In whatever heart it is, its nature is the same; but in other aspects it is not always the same--for instance, it is not always the same in its power. In one Christian it prevails much, in another more believing and watchful heart it is kept under control. Then, again, it is made up of different elements, and the elements which constitute it are not always the same in their proportions. Thus, the chief element in one case will be pride, in another self-righteousness, in another hypocrisy, in another vanity, in another temper, in another impurity. Sometimes two will appear together in intimate alliance, and those not unfrequently two very opposite evils. In endeavouring, then, to carry out the injunction, “Drive out all the inhabitants of the land,” it is important, on the one hand, that we should be aware of the element of the old man which is most prominent in it; and, on the other, that we should never forget that our besetting sin is not the only evil against which we have to contend, but against the old man as a whole.

The consequences of neglecting this calling. We see it in Israel. They did not fulfil the command, “Drive out all the inhabitants of the land.” Most of the tribes allowed some to remain, whom they brought under tribute; in fact, with whom they made a league. The consequence was that those few inhabitants, though not powerful, caused them constant trouble; sometimes they seized an opportunity to attack them again; still oftener they proved a snare to them by leading them into sin, so that in the expressive language of Scripture they were “pricks in their eyes, and thorns in their sides.” Thus Israel’s sin was made their punishment. They spared those whom they ought not to have spared, and they suffered terribly in consequence. All this bears upon the Christian’s life. There is a deep mystery in the spiritual life. How wonderful it is that there should be two principles--two natures in perpetual warfare with each other in the Christian’s heart--the one of God, the product of the Spirit, the other of Satan, the result of the Fall; the one the ally of God, holding communion with Him, the other allied with the powers of darkness, an enemy in the camp ever ready to open the gates! It seems to be God’s purpose not to put His people at once and for ever beyond the reach of temptation, but to exercise their faith and patience, and to show the power of that Divine principle which His own grace has put into their hearts. Do not, then, be cast down when you are deeply and painfully conscious of this inward conflict. Take it as God’s appointment. Remember that it is to prove you, and that God proves you in mercy, to make you more than conqueror. But there is another point of view in which we must look at this. There are many cases in which this painful severity of conflict is owing, in great measure, to previous unfaithfulness to God. Suppose a person to have indulged in some sinful habit at any period of his life; it may be a want of truth, or impurity, or in any other sin, though the power of that sin will be broken by the entrance of the Spirit of God into the heart, yet it will cast its shadow long after it. The habitual sins of the unrenewed man are the snares and temptations of the renewed man. There is much of practical warning in this solemn truth. If ever you are tempted to indulge any sinful thought in your heart, remember that that indulgence will certainly find you out again. God may, in mercy, forgive it; but if He does so that act of unfaithfulness will bring bitterness into the soul, will prepare the way for new conflicts and temptations. We should cast ourselves wholly on Jesus for the forgiveness of all past and present sins, and for strength to drive out “every inhabitant of the land”--the old man, with all his deceitful lusts. (G. Wagner.)


The subject is evidently thoroughness. Do the work completely--root and branch, in and out, so that there may be no mistake as to earnestness--and the result shall be security, peace, contentment; do the work partially--half and half, perfunctorily--and the end shall be disappointment, vexation, and ruin. Causes have effects; work is followed by consequences. Do not suppose that you can turn away the law of causation and consequence. Things are settled and decreed before you begin the work. There is no cloud upon the covenant, no ambiguity in its terms. He is faithful who hath promised--faithful to give blessing and faithful to inflict penalty. There was so much to be undone in the Canaan that was promised. It is this negative work which tries our patience and puts our faith to severe tests. We meet it everywhere. The colonist has to subdue the country, take down much that is already put up, root out the trees, destroy the beasts of prey, and do much that is of a merely negative kind, before he begins to sow corn, to reap harvests, and to build a secure homestead. This is the case in all the relations of life. The weed is not the green thing on the surface; that is only the signal that the weed is underneath. The work that has to be done is a work of eradication. The weed must be torn up by its every fibre. The theory of the Bible is that it has to encounter a human nature that is altogether wrong. It is not our business, at this point, to ask how far that theory is true. The Bible itself proceeds upon the assumption that “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way”; “There is none righteous, no, not one”; “God hath made man upright, but they have sought out many inventions”; “there is none that doeth good, no, not one”; the whole head and the whole heart are not righteous or true before God. That being the theory of the Bible, see what it proposes to do. What iconoclasm it must first accomplish! How it must swing its terrific arms in the temples of our idolatry and in the whole circuit of our life, breaking, destroying, burning, casting out, overturning, overturning! What is it doing? It is preparing; it is doing the work of a pioneer; it is uttering the voice of a herald. Mark the audacity of the book! It speaks no flattering word, never uncovers before any man, bids every man go wash and be clean. A book coming before society with so bold a proposition must expect to be encountered with resolute obstinacy. If we suppose that we are ready-made to the hand of God, to be turned in any direction He is pleased to adopt, we begin upon a false basis; our theory is wrong, and our conception will lead us to proportionate disappointment. God has to do with a fallen intelligence, an apostate heart, a selfish will; and therefore He undertakes much negative work before He can begin constructive processes. What a temptation there is, however, to reserve something. Point to one instance in all the Biblical history in which a man actually and perfectly accomplished the Divine will in this matter of destruction. A good deal of destruction was accomplished, unquestionably; but was there nothing left? “What meaneth, then, this bleating of the sheep in mine ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?” The temptation to reserve something is very strong. In many a life great improvement takes place without eradication being perfected. We are not called in the Bible merely to make great improvement. That is what we have been trying to do by our own strength and wit, and which we have always failed in doing. Nowhere do the sacred writers encourage us to make considerable advance upon our old selves. The exhortation of the Bible is vital. Suppose a man should have been addicted to the meanest of all vices--the vice of lying, the vice that God can hardly cure--suppose such a man should lie less, is be less a liar? Suppose he should cease the vulgarity of falsehood and betake himself to the refinement of deceit, has he improved? Bather, he has aggravated the first offence--multiplied by infinite aggravations the conditions which first constituted his character. So we are not called to great improvements, to marvellous changes of a superficial kind; we are called to newness of birth, regeneration, the washing of the Holy Ghost, the renewal the recreation of the inner man. If not, punishments will come. If you will not do this, “those which ye let remain of them shall be pricks in your eyes, and thorns in your sides, and shall vex you in the land wherein ye dwell”; they will tease you, excite you, irritate you; they will watch for the moments of your weakness, and tempt you into apostasy. (J. Parker, D. D.)

Unexpelled sin a thorn in the side

Every one can trace in his own life how one unconquered sin becomes a thorn in the side. For ours also is commonly but a half-completed conquest. We have not made war upon our sin in its fastnesses and breeding-places, in the lurking-places of thought and of our habitual tone. We did not believe that happy was he who dashed the little ones against the stones; we did not grapple and put an end to the young things that grow up to be strong and subduing sins. We were not remorseless, did not rouse ourselves to take stern and extreme measures. But it is not enough to let sin alone so long as it does not violently molest us. If we know our own hearts at all, we know that sin may be lodging in them, and gathering strength, without making incursions that visibly devastate the life. And so it has come true in our experience that God has not driven out what we would not rouse ourselves to drive out, and our sin has become a thorn in our side. Again and again that thing we would not slay makes us cry out before God that life is not worth having if it is to be life with this sin. We may learn to wear the thorn under our garment, and go about smiling, as if there were not terrible havoc being made of our peace with God; we may wear it as the ascetic wears his spiked girdle under his frock; but it is there, reminding us by pain and misery and weakness of our slackness in cleansing our life. One sin thus excepted and overlooked cleaves to us and makes itself felt in all our life: not a day passes but something occurs to give it occasion; it is a thorn in our flesh, carried with us into all companies, cleaving to us at all times; our one inseparable; exasperating, saddening, heart-breaking in its pertinacity. (Marcus Dods, D. D.)


Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Numbers 33". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tbi/numbers-33.html. 1905-1909. New York.
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