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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 16

The Pulpit CommentariesThe Pulpit Commentaries

Verses 1-40



THE GAINSAYING OF KORAH (Numbers 16:1-40).

Numbers 16:1

Now Korah … took men. וַיִּקַּח קֹרַח. The word "took" stands alone at the head of the sentence in the singular number. This does not by itself confine its reference to Korah, because it may be taken as repeated after each of the other names; at the same time, the construction suggests that in its original form Korah alone was mentioned, and that the other names were afterwards added in order to include them in the same statement. The ellipsis after "took" (if it be one) may be filled up by "men," as in the A.V. and in most versions, or by "counsel," as in the Jerusalem Targum. The Septuagint has in place of יִקַּח ἐλάλησε, representing apparently a different reading. Some commentators regard it as an anacoluthon for "took two hundred and fifty men … and rose up with them;" others, again, treat the "took" as a pleonasm, as in 2 Samuel 18:18 and elsewhere; but the change of number from וַיִּקַּח to וַיָּקוּטוּ makes it difficult. It seems best to say that the construction is broken and cannot be satisfactorily explained. Indeed there can be no question that the whole narrative, like the construction of the opening verses, is rely confused, and leaves on the mind the impression that it has been altered, not very skillfully, from its original form. The two parts of the tragedy, that concerning the company of Korah, and that concerning the Reubenites, although mingled in the narrative, do not adjust themselves in the mind, and the general effect is obscure. It is sufficient to point out here that no one can certainly tell what became of the ringleader himself, who was obviously the head and front of the whole business. Some are strenuously of opinion that he was swallowed up alive, others as strenuously that he was consumed with fire; but the simple fact is that his death is not recorded in this chapter at all, although he is assumed to have perished. The obscurity which hangs over this passage cannot be traced to any certain cause; the discrepancies and contradictions which have been discovered in it are clue to mistake or misrepresentation; nor can any evil motive be plausibly assigned for the interpolation (if it be such) of that part of the story which concerns the Reubenites. If, for some reason unknown to us, an original narrative of Korah's rebellion was enlarged so as to include the simultaneous mutiny of the Reubenites and their fate; and if, further, that enlargement was so unskillfully made as to leave considerable confusion in the narrative, wherein does that affect either its truth or its inspiration? The supernatural influence which watched over the production of the sacred narrative certainly did not interfere with any of those natural causes which affected its composition, its style, its clearness or obscurity. Korah, the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi. On the genealogy of the Levites see Exodus 6:16-22, and above on Numbers 3:17-19. It is generally supposed that some generations are passed over in these genealogies. Korah belonged to the same Kohathite sub-tribe as Moses and Aaron, and was related to them by some sort of cousinship; his father (or ancestor) Izhar was the younger brother of Amram and the elder brother of Uzziel, whose descendant Elizaphan had been made chief of the Kohathites. Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab. Eliab himself was apparently the only son of Pallu, the second son of Reuben (Numbers 26:5, Numbers 26:8). If the word "son" is to be literally understood in all these cases, then Korah, Dathan, and Abiram would all be great-great-grandsons of Jacob himself. On, the son of Peleth. It is one of the strange obscurities of this narrative that On, who appears here as a ringleader, is never mentioned again either in this chapter or elsewhere. Sons of Reuben. Reubenites. The encampment of their tribe was on the south side of the tabernacle in the outer line (Numbers 2:10), while that of the Kohathites was on the same side in the inner line. Thus they were to some extent neighbours; but see below on Numbers 3:24.

Numbers 16:2

And they rose up before Moses. It is suggested that the Reubenites were aggrieved because their father had been deprived of his birthright in favour of Judah, and that Korah was aggrieved because the Uzzielites had been preferred in the person of Elizaphan to the Izharites (Numbers 3:30). These accusations have nothing whatever in the narrative to support them, and are suspicious because they are so easy and so sure to be made in such cases. In all ecclesiastical history the true reformer, as well as the heretic and the demagogue, has always been charged with being actuated by motives of disappointed ambition. Without these gratuitous suppositions there was quite enough to excite the anger and opposition of such discontented and insubordinate minds as are to be found in every community. With certain of the children of Israel. These were gathered front the tribes at large, as implied in the statement that Zelophehad a Manassite was not amongst them (Numbers 27:8). Famous in the congregation. Literally, "called men of the congregation." Septuagint, σύγκλητοι βουλῆς, representatives of the host in the great council (cf. Numbers 1:16; Numbers 26:9).

Numbers 16:3

They gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron. They had risen up before Moses, i.e; made a tumult in his presence, because they regarded him (and rightly) as the actual ruler of Israel in religious as well as in secular matters. At the same time, the attack of Korah and his company (with whom alone the narrative is really concerned here) was directed especially against the ecclesiastical rule which Moses exercised through his brother Aaron. Ye take too much upon you. רַב־לָכֶם, "much for you," probably in the sense of "enough for you" (cf. the use of רַב in Genesis 45:28), i.e; you have enjoyed power long enough; so the Targum Palestine. It may, however, be taken with the following כִּי as meaning, "let it suffice you that all the congregation," &c.; and so the Septuagint, ἐχέτω ὑμῖν ὅτι, κ.τ.λ. The Targum of Onkelos renders it in the same sense as the A.V. All the congregation are holy, every one of them. This was perfectly true, m a sense. There was a sanctity which pertained to Israel as a nation, in which all its members shared as distinguished from the nations around (Exodus 19:6; Le Exodus 20:26); there was a priesthood which was inherent in all the sons of Israel, older and more indelible than that which was conferred on Aaron's line—a priesthood which, apart from special restrictions, or in exceptional circumstances, might and did assert itself in priestly acts (Exodus 24:5, and compare the cases of Samuel, Elijah, and others who offered sacrifice during the failure of the appointed priesthood). It Moses had taken the power to himself, or it he had (as they doubtless supposed) restricted active priestly functions to Aaron because he was his brother, and wholly under his influence, their contention would have been quite right. They erred, as most violent men do, not because they asserted what was false, but because they took for granted that the truth which they asserted was really inconsistent with the claims which they assailed. The congregation were all holy; the sons of Israel were all priests; that was true—but it was also true that by Divine command Israel could only exercise his corporate priesthood outwardly through the one family which God had set apart for that purpose. The same God who has lodged in the body certain faculties and powers for the benefit of the body, has decreed that those faculties and powers can only be exercised through certain determinate organs, the very specialization of which is both condition and result of a high organization. The congregation of the Lord. There are two words for congregation in this verse: קָהָל here, and עֵדָה before. The former seems to be used in the more solemn sense, but they are for the most part indistinguishable, and certainly cannot be assigned to different authors.

Numbers 16:5

He spake unto Korah. That Korah was the mainspring of the conspiracy is evident (cf. Numbers 16:22; Numbers 27:3; Jud Numbers 1:11). It may well be that his position as a prominent Levite and a relation of Moses gave him great influence with men of other tribes, and earned him a great name for disinterestedness and liberality in advocating the rights of all Israel, and in denouncing the exclusive claims and privileges by which he himself (as a Levite) was benefited. It is often assumed that Korah was secretly aiming at the high-priesthood, but of this, again, there is not a shadow of proof; his error was great enough, and his punishment sore enough, without casting upon him these unfounded accusations. It would be more in accordance with human nature if we supposed that Korah was in his way sincere; that he had really convinced himself, by dint of trying to convince others, that Moses and Aaron were usurpers; that he began his agitation without thought of advantage of himself; that, having gained a considerable following and much popular applause, the pride of leadership and the excitement of conflict led him on to the last extremity. The Lord will show who are his. אֶת־אַשֶׁר־לוּ, the meaning of which is defined by the following words, "whom he hath chosen." Moses refers the matter to the direct decision of the Lord; as that decision had originated the separate position of Aaron, that should also vindicate it.

Numbers 16:6

Take you censers. מַחְתּוֹת. Septuagint, πυρεῖα. Translated "fire-pails" in Exodus 27:3. From the number required, they must have been either household utensils used for carrying fire, or else they must have been made in some simple fashion for the occasion. The offering of incense was proposed by Moses as a test because it was a typically priestly function, to which the gravest importance was attached (Le Exodus 10:1; Exodus 16:12, Exodus 16:13), and because it was so very simply executed.

Numbers 16:7

Ye take too much upon you, ye sons of Levi. רַב־לָכֶם, as in Numbers 16:3. The exact meaning of this tu quoque is not apparent. Perhaps he would say that if he and Aaron were usurpers, the whole tribe of Levi were usurpers too.

Numbers 16:8

Hear, I pray you, ye sons of Levi. No son of Levi is mentioned in the narrative except Korah, and this address itself passes into the second person singular (Numbers 16:10, Numbers 16:11), as though Korah alone were personally guilty. It is possible enough that behind him was a considerable body of public opinion among the Levites more or less decidedly supporting him; but there is no need to impute any general disloyalty to them.

Numbers 16:9

Seemeth it a small thing to you. Rather, "is it too little for you." חַמְעַט מִכֶּם.

Numbers 16:11

For which cause both thou and all thy company are gathered together. It does not follow that Korah was seeking an exclusive dignity for himself; or for his tribe. His "company" apparently included representative men from all the tribes, or at least from many (see on Numbers 16:2). They were seeking the priesthood because they affirmed it to be the common possession of all Israelites. Against the Lord. It was in his name that they appeared, and to some extent no doubt sincerely; but since they appeared to dispute an ordinance actually and historically made by God himself, it was indeed against him that they were gathered. And what is Aaron, that ye murmur against him? The construction is broken, as so often when we have the ipsissima verba of Moses, whose meekness did not enable him to speak calmly under provocation. The sentence runs, "For which cause thou and all thy company who arc gathered against the Lord,—and Aaron, who is he, that ye murmur against him?" It was easy to represent the position of Aaron in an invidious light, as though they were assailing some personal sacerdotal pretensions; but in truth he was only a poor servant of God doing what he was bid.

Numbers 16:12

And Moses sent to call Dathan and Abiram. The part really taken by these men in the agitation is very obscure. They were not of the two hundred and fifty, nor were they with them when they gathered together against Moses and Aaron—perhaps because they took no interest in ecclesiastical matters, and only resented the secular domination of Moses. Neither can we tell why Moses sent for them at this juncture, unless he suspected them of being in league with Korah (see below on Numbers 16:24). We will not come up, i.e; to the tabernacle, as being spiritually the culminating point of the camp.

Numbers 16:13

Is it a small thing. Rather, "is it too little," as in Numbers 16:9. A land that floweth with milk and honey. A description applying by right to the land of promise (Exodus 3:8; Numbers 13:27), which they in their studied insolence applied to Egypt. Except thou make thyself altogether a prince over us. Literally, "that (כִּי) thou altogether lord it over us." The expression is strengthened in the original by the reduplication of the verb in the inf. abs; גַּם־הִשְׂתְּרֶר

Numbers 16:14

Moreover thou hast not brought us. According to the promises (they meant to say) by which he had induced them to leave their comfortable homes in Egypt (Exodus 4:30, Exodus 4:31). Wilt thou put out the eyes of these men? i.e; wilt thou blind them to the utter failure of thy plans and promises? wilt thou throw dust in their eyes?

Numbers 16:15

And Moses was very wroth. The bitter taunts of the Reubenites had just enough semblance of truth in them to make them very hard to bear, and especially the imputation of low personal ambition; but it is impossible to say that Moses did not err through anger. Respect not thou their offering. Cf. Genesis 4:4. It is not quite clear what offering Moses meant, since they do not seem to have wished to offer incense. Probably it was equivalent to saying, Do not thou accept them when they approach thee; for such approach was always by sacrifice (cf. Psalms 109:7). I have not taken one ass from them. Cf. 1 Samuel 12:3. The ass was the least valuable of the ordinary live stock of those days (cf. Exodus 20:17). The Septuagint has here οὐκ ἐπιθύμημα οὐδενὸς αὐτῶν εἴληφα, which is apparently an intentional paraphrase with a reference to the tenth commandment (οὐκ ἐπιθυμήσεις κ.τ.λ.). Neither have I hurt one of them. As absolute ruler he might have made himself very burdensome to all, and very terrible to his personal enemies. Compare Samuel's description of the Eastern autocrat (1 Samuel 8:11-17).

Numbers 16:16

And Moses said unto Korah. After the interchange of messages with the Reubenites, Moses repeats his injunctions to Korah to be ready on the morrow to put his claims to the test, adding that Aaron too should be there, that the Lord might judge between them.

Numbers 16:18

Stood in the door of the tabernacle, i.e; at the door of the court, so that they were visible from the space outside.

Numbers 16:19

And Korah gathered all the congregation against them. It does not follow that the whole congregation was actively or deliberately on Korah's side. But a movement ostensibly in behalf of the many as against the few is sure to enlist a general, if not a deep, sympathy; nor is it to be supposed that Moses and Aaron could escape a large amount of unpopularity under the grievous circumstances of the time. The thoughtless multitude would have hailed their downfall with real though short-lived satisfaction. The glory of the Lord appeared. As before (Numbers 14:10), filling the tabernacle probably, and flashing out before the eyes of all

Numbers 16:21

That I may consume them in a moment. Literally, "and I will consume them." The same thing must be said of this as of Numbers 14:11, Numbers 14:12.

Numbers 16:22

O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh. אֵל אֱלֹחֵי הָרוּחֹת לְךָ־בָּשָׂר. The ruach is the spirit of life which the Creator has imparted unto perishable flesh, and made it live. In some sense it belongs to beasts as well as to men (Ecclesiastes 3:19, Ecclesiastes 3:21); but in the common use of the word men only are thought of, as having received it by a special communication of a higher order (Genesis 2:7; 1 Corinthians 15:45). Moses, therefore, really appeals to God, as the Author and Giver of that imperishable life-principle which is lodged in the mortal flesh of all men, not to destroy the works of his own hands, the creatures made in his own image. Here we have in its germ that idea of the universal fatherhood of God which remained undeveloped in Jewish thought until Judaism itself expanded into Christianity (cf. Isaiah 63:16; Isaiah 64:8, Isaiah 64:9; Acts 17:26, Acts 17:29). Shall one man sin. Rather, "the one man (הָאִישׁ) hath sinned," i.e; Korah, who had misled all the rest.

Numbers 16:23

The Lord spake unto Moses. No direct answer was apparently vouchsafed to the remonstrance of Moses and Aaron, but it was tacitly allowed.

Numbers 16:24

Get you up from about the tabernacle of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. The word "tabernacle" (mishcan) is the same word which is so translated in Numbers 16:9, but not the same which is used in Numbers 16:18,Numbers 16:19; it properly signifies "dwelling-place." It is certainly the natural conclusion, from the use of this expression here and in Numbers 16:27, that this mishcan was something different from the "tents" (אָהָלֵי) mentioned in Numbers 16:26, Numbers 16:27, and was some habitation common to the three rebels (see below on Numbers 16:31). The Septuagint, in order to avoid the difficulty, omits the names of Dathan and Abiram, and has only ἀπὸ τῆς συναγωγῆς Κορέ.

Numbers 16:26

Touch nothing of theirs. Because they, and all that belonged to them, were anathema, devoted to destruction. Compare the case of Achan (Joshua 7:1).

Numbers 16:27

And Dathan and Abiram … stood in the door of their tents. To see what Moses would do. Nothing is said of Korah.

Numbers 16:28

Nor I have not done them of mine own mind. Literally, "that not of my heart", כִּי־לֹא מִלִּבּי. Septuagint, ὅτι οὐκ ἀπ ἐμαυτου

Numbers 16:29

If they be visited after the visitation of all men. פָקַד is of somewhat doubtful meaning; it seems to answer to the ἐπίσκεψις and ἐπισκοπὴ of the Septuagint,, and to our "oversight," or "visitation"

, which is regarded, according to the general instinct of mankind, as being "under the earth" (cf. Philip. Numbers 2:10 b; Revelation 5:13). They were to go down "quick" into Sheol, because they were still alive at the moment that they were lost to sight for ever.

Numbers 16:31

The ground clave asunder that was under them. As it sometimes does during an earthquake. In this case, however, the event was predicted, and wholly supernatural. The sequence of the narrative would lead us to suppose that the earth opened beneath the tents of Dathan and Abiram in the camp of Reuben. It is difficult to think of the gulf as extending so far as to involve the tent of Korah in the Kohathite lines in the same destruction, while there is nothing to suggest the idea that the earth opened in more than one place. It is true that the camps of the Reubenites and of the Kohathites were more or less contiguous; but when it is remembered that there were 46,500 adult males in the former, and 8600 males in the latter, and that a broad space must have been left between the two lines of encampment, it is obviously improbable that Korah's tent was in a practical sense "near" to those of Dathan and Abiram, unless indeed he had purposely removed it in order to be under the protection of his Reubenite partisans. It is very observable that not a word is said here as to the fate of Korah himself. It is implied in Numbers 16:40 that he had perished, and it is apparently asserted in Numbers 26:10 that he was swallowed up with Dathan and Abiram (see the note there). On the other hand, Deuteronomy 11:6; Psalms 106:17 speak of the engulfing of the other two without any mention of Korah himself sharing their fate; and while "all the men that appertained unto Korah" perished, his own sons did not (Numbers 26:11). On these grounds it is held by most commentators that Korah died by fire among those who offered incense (Psalms 106:35). This, however, is untenable, because "the two hundred and fifty men who offered incense" are distinctly mentioned as having been his partisans (Psalms 106:2), and are always counted exclusive of Korah himself. On the whole, while it is certain that the narrative is very obscure, and the question very doubtful, it seems most agreeable to all the testimonies of Holy Scripture to conclude—

1. That Korah had left his own place, and had some sort of dwelling (mischan) either in common with Dathan and Abiram, or hard by their tents.

2. That the earth opened and swallowed up the mishcan, of Korah, and the tents of Dathan and Abiram.

3. That Korah's men (see next verse) and their property were swallowed up with his mishcan, and (as far as we can tell) Korah himself also. If this be correct, then the much disputed heading of the chapter in the A.V. will be right after all.

Numbers 16:32

And their houses, i.e; their families, as in Numbers 18:13. And all the men that appertained unto Korah. Literally, "all the men who to Korah." Whether it means his dependants, or his special partisans, is uncertain: Perhaps some had clung to his fortunes in blind confidence when the rest gat up from his mishcan.

Numbers 16:34

At the cry of them. לְקֹלָם, "at the noise of them;" at the mingled sound of their shrieks and of the natural convulsion amidst which they disappeared.

Numbers 16:35

There came out a fire from the Lord. The fire probably flashed out from the sanctuary with the destructive force of lightning. The two hundred and fifty men. These had remained swinging their censers before the gate of the tabernacle while Moses and (presumably) Korah himself had gone to the camp of Reuben.

Numbers 16:37

Speak unto Eleazar. This is the first time that any special duty is assigned to Eleazar, who was destined to succeed to the high-priesthood. We may suppose that he was sent instead of his father because the duty of gathering up the censers could hardly have been carried out without incurring legal defilement by contact with the dead. Out of the burning. Or, "out of the burnt." Septuagint, ἐκ μέσου τῶν κατακεκαυμένων. From amongst the charred and smouldering corpses. Scatter thou the fire yonder; for they are hallowed. The censers had been made holy even by that sacrilegious dedication, and must never revert to any common uses; for the same reason the live coals which still remained in them were to be emptied out in a separate place.

Numbers 16:38

These sinners against their own souls, בְּנַפְשֹׁתָם, "against their own lives." The thought is not that they had ruined their souls, but that they had forfeited their lives. The Pentateuch does not contemplate any consequences of sin beyond physical death. The same phrase occurs in Proverbs 20:2. For a covering of the altar. The altar of burnt incense. The censers were no doubt brazen pans, and when beaten out would form plates which could be affixed to the boards of which the frame of the altar was composed.

Numbers 16:40

That he be not as Korah. וְלֹא־יִחְיֶח. That he do not meet with the same fate as Korah.


Numbers 16:1-40


It is quite clear that the homiletic application of this passage turns upon a question which is strongly controverted—a question which it is alike impossible (save at the cost of honesty and truth) to shirk, or to take for granted one way or the other. That the rebellion of Korah was directed under specious pretences against a divinely-ordained priesthood vested in one man and his successors is of course undenied, but is of little interest or value apart from its application to our own times and circumstances. The practical question which immediately arises, and arises only to be disputed, is this, What priesthood now corresponds to that assailed in Aaron? It may no doubt be said that there is nothing which now answers to it, nothing of which that was a shadow and a type; that Judaism was a sacerdotal religion, but that Christianity is not. If that were true then Korah was after all right; his only error was that he held opinions in advance of his age. But apart from that, such a position simply robs both the incident and record of any value for ourselves, and is point-blank opposed to the Apostolic teaching in such places as 1 Corinthians 10:11, and Jud 1 Corinthians 1:11. In the latter the "gainsaying of Korah" is specified as one of those typical acts of wickedness in which a virulent form of moral evil active in the days of the apostle had been anticipated both as to sin and punishment; the bad men of whom he speaks (1 Corinthians 1:4, 1 Corinthians 1:8, 1 Corinthians 1:10) had already met their doom in a figure when Korah and his company perished. It is clear that Holy Scripture recognizes, both generally and specifically, a teaching value for Christian times in this record. The most useful and honest plan will therefore be to set forth the elements of the question impartially, and to leave them to the consideration of the reader. Some points will come out with sufficient clearness to command general (if not universal) assent; and others will at least be cleared of misleading arguments and false associations.

I. The first position which we can take up with authority and certainty is the positive position that THE PRIESTHOOD OF AARON AND HIS SONS WAS THE OLD TESTAMENT TYPE AND SHADOW OF THE PRIESTHOOD OF CHRIST CONFERRED UPON HIM IN HIS HUMAN NATURE AS THE SON OF MAN. This is argued and proved with many illustrations by the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews (see especially Numbers 5:4, Numbers 5:5; Numbers 7:11-28; Numbers 8:1-4; Numbers 10:11-14, Numbers 10:21). The elaborate comparison of the two priesthoods, the old and the new, which was also infinitely older,—and especially the assertion that the Levitical priests were many only because death deposed them from office (Numbers 7:23), whilst Christ abideth for ever,—forbid us to regard any other priesthood than that of our Lord as the Christian analogue of the Jewish priesthood. As far as the type went Aaron lived on in all his priestly race, just as he had lived before in his chosen ancestor Abraham (Hebrews 7:10): there was but one Jewish high-priest, and unto him corresponds in the kingdom of heaven Jesus and Jesus alone. Herein all will be substantially agreed who loyally accept the testimony of Scripture, and herein (if it be clearly and devoutly held) is the real heart of the matter, and the sufficient safeguard against superstition.

II. The second position which we can take up on purely Scriptural grounds, and which is not fairly assailable, is the negative position THAT NO ARGUMENT AGAINST MINISTERIAL OR SACERDOTAL ASSUMPTIONS OR CLAIMS IS VALID WHICH IS BASED UPON THE HOLINESS AND PRIESTLY CHARACTER OF ALL THE FAITHFUL. It is perfectly clear that Korah and his company had both Scripture and fact on their side when they said that all the congregation were holy and all were priests. They erred in taking for granted that the priesthood of all Israelites was really inconsistent with the special priesthood of Aaron. As things were, it is certain that the universal priesthood of Israel could best express itself, best translate itself into worship, through the ministerial acts of Aaron and his sons. A spiritually-minded Jew, who recognized most deeply his own priestly calling in Israel, would most devoutly give thanks for the separation of the tribe of Levi and family of Aaron, because he would feel that no one benefited so much by that separation as himself; far from standing between him and the God of Israel, it enabled him to draw nigh to God in a multitude of ways otherwise impossible. He would indeed be able to argue from the histories of Gideon, of Samuel, of Elijah, and of others of the chosen race, that the priesthood of the ordinary Israelite, although usually dormant as to outward sacerdotal functions, was always capable of being called into play by Divine permission under stress of circumstances, and he would be prepared to understand the significance of such a passage as Revelation 7:5-8, in which Levi takes his place again (and not at all a foremost place) among the tribes, the Holy Ghost thus signifying that in the world to come all such distinctions will be merged for ever in the common priesthood of the saved. But in the mean time there was nothing antagonistic, either in doctrine or in practice, between the truth which Korah asserted and that other truth which Korah assailed: the priesthood of the many was helped, not hindered, by the special priesthood of the few. It is therefore impossible honestly to use such texts as 1 Peter 2:9; Revelation 1:6, against the doctrine of a special Christian priesthood, because they only assert of Christians what the texts relied upon by Korah asserted of the Jews.

III. Abandoning the false line of argument just mentioned, we may yet so far develop the first position taken up as to maintain with confidence, THAT NO PRIESTHOOD CAN HAVE ANY EXISTENCE IN THE CHURCH OF CHRIST OTHER THAN THAT OF OUR LORD HIMSELF. This is made evident, not only by the exclusive way in which his priesthood is dwelt upon in the New Testament, but (what concerns us more in this place) by the whole analogy of the Old. Aaron alone had the priesthood, and the extreme malediction of God lighted upon all, even of the separated tribe, who dared to meddle with it; but Aaron was certainly the type of Christ Himself. Any priesthood which should claim to have any independent existence, even if it professed to draw its authority from Divine appointment, would be ipso facto in direct antagonism to the solitary prerogative of Jesus Christ. Hence it follows that the upholders, not the impugners, of such a priesthood would be "in the gainsaying of Korah." It follows also that there can be no direct analogy drawn between those who rose up against Moses and Aaron, and those who rise up against any earthly ministry; it will be shown that a true resemblance may be traced under certain conditions.

IV. Admitting these principles, which ought not to be controverted, we may bring the question to a practical issue as follows:—While there cannot be set over us any other priesthood than the only, immutable, and incommunicable priesthood of the Messiah, yet there is nothing in Holy Scripture to negative a priori the idea THAT OUR LORD (being withdrawn from sight and sense) MAY CHOOSE TO PERFORM PRIESTLY FUNCTIONS UPON EARTH VISIBLY AND AUDIBLY BY THE HAND AND MOUTH OF CHOSEN MEN; nor is there anything to negative a priori the further contention that those men were and are set apart in some special and exclusive way. Whether this be so is a matter of fact which must be decided upon the testimony, fairly and conscientiously weighed, of Scripture and of history. It depends upon the two historical questions.

1. Whether our Lord constituted the apostles his representatives for any priestly functions.

2. Whether the apostles transmitted such representation to others after them. In any case our Lord is the only priest, or rather has the only priesthood, although upon one view of the ease he will execute some offices of his priesthood by means of visible human agents, in whom and through whom he himself speaks and acts.

Without, therefore, entering upon any argument, we can safely conclude as to the Christian application of this passage.

1. That it must be directly referred to the everlasting priesthood of Christ, and to assaults upon it, or infringements of it.

2. That it may be in a secondary sense referred to a visible Christian priesthood, and to assaults upon it, on the supposition that such priesthood is in fact and in truth only the priesthood of Christ ministered in time and space by his appointment.

In point of fact there are many obvious and many subtle resemblances between the gainsaying of Korah and the popular contention against a Christian priesthood, or even against any Christian ministry, which no thoughtful student of Scripture can overlook, In the homiletics) however, which follow these are left to speak for themselves, and the deeper line of application will be followed. Consider, therefore—

I. THAT KORAH ON ONE SIDE, DATHAN AND ABIRAM ON THE OTHER, HAD HARDLY ANYTHING IN COMMON EXCEPT DISLIKE TO THE RULE OF MOSES, THE MEDIATOR OF ISRAEL AND KING IN JESHURUN (Deuteronomy 33:5). His dislike was ecclesiastical, theirs was political; but this common dislike made them allies, and gave them a "tabernacle" in common (verse 27). Even so amongst the many who say, "We will not have this man to reign over us" (Luke 19:14), there are to be found the most various dispositions, and the most distinct causes of complaint. As in the days of his earthly ministry, so now the opposition to him and to his sole governance is made up of the most heterogeneous, and at other times dissociate, elements.

II. THAT KORAH WAS HIMSELF A LEVITE OF SOME DISTINCTION, AND WAS THE SOUL OF THE CONSPIRACY. Even so it is hardly possible to find in history any grave assault upon the work or doctrine of Christ which has not been inspired by some one whose ecclesiastical position has given him both aptness and influence for this evil.

III. THAT KORAH REPRESENTED MOSES AND AARON IN AN INVIDIOUS LIGHT, AS MEN WHO KEPT THE PEOPLE IN SPIRITUAL SUBJECTION, AND DENIED TO THEM THEIR COMMON RIGHTS AS CHILDREN OF ISRAEL. Even so the constant clamour of unbelief is that Christianity is a system devised in the interests of tyranny and obscurantism in order to keep men in moral slavery, and to rob them of their freedom of thought, and to fetter their freedom of action.

IV. THAT KORAH ASSERTED TRUE FACTS AND APPEALED TO TRUE PRINCIPLES IN OPPOSITION TO WHAT HAD BEEN DIVINELY APPOINTED, AND WAS TO BE DIVINELY VINDICATED. Even so do men continually bring against the Truth himself facts which are undeniable, and principles which must be admitted. Herein is the real danger when war upon the Truth is waged with half-truths plausibly paraded as whole, with truths on one side confidently assumed to be fatal to the complemental truths on the other side. The liberty, e.g; of private judgment is arrayed against the authority of inspiration; the universal fatherhood of God against any distinction of the children of God, or necessity for the mediation of Christ; the fact that we are all members of one body against any mutual subordination or distribution of functions amongst those members.

V. THAT KORAH WAS PROBABLY SINCERE IN SO FAR AS HE HAD PERSUADED HIMSELF THAT HE WAS RIGHT, otherwise he would hardly have ventured upon the fatal test. Even so the leaders of opposition to Christ are commonly sincere; only vulgar intolerance brands them off-hand with hypocrisy or self-seeking. And this is their power, for men are led by personal regard and trust much more than by any ability to judge between rival systems. The only way to meet the sincerity and zeal of error is by showing a more transparent sincerity and a more ardent zeal on the side of truth (2 Corinthians 6:3-10; 1 Timothy 4:12-16; Titus 2:10).

VI. THAT WHEN MOSES HEARD THE INDICTMENT AGAINST HIMSELF AND AARON HE COULD BUT REFER IT TO THE DECISION OF THE LORD. The people were either actively or passively on the side of Korah, and argument had been unavailing. Even so when Christianity at large, or any system which we believe to be an integral part of Christianity, is assailed with popular and plausible arguments, there is really nothing to be done but to refer it to the arbitrament of God himself. Arguments convince only those that are convinced; clamours only intensify prejudice; mutual accusations only repel—Moses himself effected nothing by the angry words into which he was betrayed. And the arbitrament of God is unequivocally declared by our Lord to be the practical outcome of our religion in our lives (Matthew 7:15, Matthew 7:20; John 13:35). That the test is not capable of easy or of immediate application, that it has to be applied broadly, and with many allowances for disturbing causes, is true; but yet it is the test, and the only test, to which our Lord calls us. It is the test out of which Aaron, with all the weight of popular opinion against him, will ultimately come triumphant; in which Korah, with all his sincerity and plausibility, will come to nothing. And note that while religious questions must be referred to the arbitrament of God, and that arbitrament is not always distinct or immediate in this world, there is a further decision which will be absolutely certain and conclusive. "Even tomorrow the Lord will show who are his," "for the day shall declare it" (1 Corinthians 3:13), and "it shall be revealed by fire," as it was with Korah's company. Woe unto them who cannot abide, whether personally or as to their work, the test of fire. Our God is still, as then, a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29), and that fire burns and will burn against all falsity of teaching, as well as all unholiness of living (1 Corinthians 3:15; Hebrews 12:14). And note again that "even him whom he hath chosen will he cause to come near unto him;" for although the election be not arbitrary, yet it is the election of grace, and not the personal worth or aptitude or desire, that does place any, or will place any hereafter, near unto God.

VII. THAT THE AMBITION OF KORAH WAS THE MORE TO BE BLAMED BECAUSE HE WAS HIMSELF A LEVITE, AND INTRUSTED WITH A SPECIAL MINISTRY IN HOLY THINGS. Even so is ambition or envy especially evil in a Christian man, forasmuch as he has an "unction" and an office in the body of Christ to which he cannot with all his zeal do justice, and which if faithfully used will bring him the highest possible reward (cf. Luke 22:26; 1Co 12:16, 1 Corinthians 12:22; 1 Peter 2:5; 1 John 2:20, 1 John 2:27; Revelation 3:21; Revelation 7:14, sq.).

VIII. THAT THE PARTICULAR OFFENCE OF KORAH AND HIS COMPANY WAS THEIR DARING TO OFFER INCENSE, WHICH AARON ALONE MIGHT DO, The incense seems to have signified not simply "prayer," but rather the intercessory and prevailing prayer of the great High Priest and Mediator. Thus the "much incense" in Revelation 8:3, Revelation 8:4, which is undoubtedly the intercession of Christ, is added to and rises with the prayers of all saints. Thus then the special sin reprobated in Korah is any interference with the mediatorial office of Christ, whether by endeavouring to draw near to God through other mediators, or without any mediator at all (cf. John 14:6; Galatians 1:8; 1 John 2:1).

IX. THAT THE COMPANY OF KORAH (WHATEVER BECAME OF HIMSELF) DIED BY FIRE, THE ELEMENT IN WHICH THEY SINNED. Even so he that presumptuously meddles with holy things, not being holy himself, shall perish by that very nearness which he rashly courted. The hand that is really and entirely wet can be plunged into molten metal without injury, and so he who is covered with the robe of righteousness may be a ministering servant of the consuming Fire, and live; but how great is the risk if the call be not clear.

X. THAT THESE MEN WERE "SINNERS AGAINST THEIR OWN LIVES" IN TRUTH, ALTHOUGH THEY ONLY SEEMED TO BE VINDICATING THEIR JUST RIGHTS AGAINST USURPERS. Even so is every one that seeks his supposed rights not in the spirit of meekness and of personal self-abnegation, but in a spirit of pride, contradiction, and vain-glory. To contend for oneself—albeit sometimes necessary—is of all things most dangerous, lest even in gaining our cause we lose our souls (cf. Matthew 23:12; 1 Corinthians 13:5; Philippians 2:5-7).

XI. THAT THEIR CENSERS WERE HALLOWED EVEN BY AN UNLAWFUL RELIGIOUS USE. Even so there is a kind of sanctity which attaches to every religious effort, however much it may be stained with pride or vitiated by error, and whatever ill results it may lead to, if it be made with sincerity. No such effort can be ignored as though it had not been made, nor cast out as wholly evil because not rightly made. Nothing which is done in the sacred name of religion (saving sheer hypocrisy) ought to be despised or neglected.

XII. THAT THE RESCUED CENSERS BECAME AN ADDITIONAL STRENGTH AND ORNAMENT TO THE ALTAR, AND A WARNING TO ALL GENERATIONS. Even so all assaults upon the faith and discipline of Christ are over-ruled for good, at the same time adding strength to some weak or neglected side of religion, and furnishing a warning against the mistakes and faults which misled their authors (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:19).

Consider again, with respect to the Reubenites—

I. THAT THEY WERE ANGRY WITH MOSES FOR WHAT WAS DUE TO THEIR OWN FAULT AND THE FAULT OF THE CONGREGATION, If they had not disobeyed they would have been in their own land by this time. Even so men are angry and impatient with the rule of Christ because it has not brought them peace or happiness, whereas this is wholly due to their own unfaithfulness. And so again men assail Christianity for not having reformed the world and abolished all evils, whereas they themselves will not submit to the easy yoke and light burden of Christ.

II. THAT THEY FALSELY AND WICKEDLY SPAKE OF EGYPT IN TERMS ONLY APPLICABLE TO CANAAN. Even so do the enemies of Christ speak of a state of nature, and of the life of the natural man, unvexed by fear of hell or hope of heaven, as if that had been true happiness and peace, whereas they know that it is sheer misery and slavery (Romans 1:28-32 : Romans 6:20, Romans 6:21; Ephesians 2:2, Ephesians 2:3).

III. THAT THEY CHARGED MOSES WITH AMBITION AND SELF-SEEKING, AND WITH THROWING DUST IN THE EYES OF THE PEOPLE. Even so is Christianity commonly accounted (or at least described) by its open and more vulgar enemies as mere obscurantism intended to keep the people in darkness, and to make them an easy prey to designing men for power and profit (cf. 2Co 11:12, 2 Corinthians 11:20; 2 Corinthians 12:16, &c.).

IV. THAT DATHAN AND ABIRAM, BEING OBDURATE, WERE SWALLOWED UP BY THE EARTH, because it was with their earthly lot that they were angry, and with their earthly ruler that they contended. Even so they that are of the earth earthy shall perish with the perishing world; it is their punishment that they are "swallowed up" in gross material cares or pleasures, and have no lot nor part in the upper air of spiritual life (1 Corinthians 15:48; Philippians 3:19, and compare the use of "the earth" in the Apoc; as in chapter 7:1; 8:13).

Consider again, with respect to the congregation at large—

I. THAT THEY WERE IMPLICATED IN THE SIN, AND MIGHT HAVE BEEN INCLUDED IN THE PUNISHMENT, OF THESE MEN. Even so the pride and discontent which is active in a few is latent in the many, and brings danger and damage to the whole Church of Christ. The conventional restraints of Christianity prevent for the most part any open outbreak; nevertheless, it may be said almost of the mass of nominally Christian people that they have "a revolting and a rebellious heart" (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:6; 2 Timothy 2:17; Hebrews 12:15).

II. THAT THEY WERE SAVED BECAUSE THEY GAT UP FROM THE TABERNACLE OF THESE MEN ON EVERY SIDE, AND TOUCHED NOTHING THAT BELONGED TO THEM. Even so our safety is to separate ourselves wholly from the fellowship or influence (in religious things) of such as oppose themselves to the paramount and absolute claims of Christ as Prophet, Priest, and King (Romans 16:17; 1 Corinthians 10:22; 2 Corinthians 6:14-17; Jud 2 Corinthians 1:22, 2 Corinthians 1:23).


Numbers 16:1-3


1. The ringleader and his policy. Of all the seditious movements which embittered the heart of Moses and wrought trouble in Israel during the forty years' wanderings, the rebellion of Korah was by far the most formidable. The anxious tone of the narrative betrays a consciousness of this, and it is confirmed by the facts narrated. The other seditions were either confined to a few individuals, like the sedition of Miriam and Aaron, or, like the disturbances at Marah, and Kibroth-hataavah, and Kadesh. they were the confused movements of a crowd without definite aims, without leaders, without organization. In this sedition of Korah there is not only a general ferment of rebellious feeling, but there is an organized conspiracy, with a resolute and able man at its head—a man who knows exactly what he would be at, and is consummately skilful in turning to account all the floating elements of discontent that exist in the congregation.

I. Let us begin by taking careful note of THE RINGLEADER. Korah was, like Moses and Aaron, of the tribe of Levi and family of Kohath. He was therefore a far-off cousin of the men against whom he rebelled. That Korah was the soul of the sedition is too plain to need proof. (Compare "the company of Korah," Numbers 16:6, Numbers 16:16, Numbers 16:32; Numbers 26:9, &c.; "the gainsaying of Korah," Jud Numbers 1:11). His design is not difficult to fathom. He is a man of honourable rank. But being an ambitious man, he cannot rest so long as there is in the camp any one greater than himself. He looks with envious eye on his cousins Moses and Aaron. Moses, under God, is supreme in peace and war. As for Aaron, not only has he been invested with the exclusive right to offer sacrifice and burn incense before the Lord, but his family have been set apart to form a priestly caste in Israel. These honours did not come to the brothers by birthright, but by the special gift and appointment of the Lord. It would seem that Korah was of the elder branch of the family, tie resolves to cast down both brothers from their high place. Thus far his intention is open and avowed. We need not hesitate to add that he means to vault into their place; but about this part of his intention he holds his peace for the present. So much for the man.


1. He begins by announcing a doctrine or principle. As much as anything else in the sedition, this enables us to take the measure of Korah's genius for leadership. Movements which repose merely on brute force rarely achieve abiding results. Blood and iron are not all-sufficient. A true leader of men spares no pains to get hold of men's minds. He likes to give his followers a good watchword or rallying cry. When a nation gets thoroughly possessed with a great and sound principle, when some high and far-reaching doctrine seizes its heart, it is almost invincible. It is characteristic of Korah that he so far appreciates the importance of a great doctrine to rally round, that he casts about for some truth which may be made a handle of for his purpose. In the great oracle which was the first to be uttered at Sinai he thinks he sees what will serve admirably. "Ye shall be to me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation" (Exodus 19:6). Accordingly, he raises the cry of Equality and Fraternity! Moses and Aaron have engrossed to themselves privileges which are the inalienable right of every Israelite. They have taken too much upon them, and must be stripped of their usurped honours. A cry of this sort has often been raised, in all sincerity, by men of excitable temperament. But Korah was no enthusiast. The principle that all Israelites are kings and priests, if it had been really inconsistent (as he pretended to think) with the rule of Moses and the priesthood of Aaron, would have been equally inconsistent with the rule which he coveted for himself. Still there can be little doubt that the cry Korah raised would gain him many supporters.

2. He organizes a band of conspirators. By one means or another he succeeds in gathering around him no fewer than 250 accomplices. Nor were these obscure men. They all belonged to the ruling class. They are entitled

(1) "princes of the assembly," i.e; chiefs of the congregation, natural leaders in their several tribes;

(2) "famous in the congregation," more correctly, "men summoned in the assembly," i.e; members of the national council;

(3) "men of renown," i.e; not nameless persons, but men of note among the people. Their names are not given, nor the tribes to which they belonged. Korah would take care to have all the tribes represented; but probably the Levites and Reubenites would be most numerous. It was a formidable conspiracy.

3. He diligently enlists into his company all the malcontents of the congregation. An example is seen in the Reubenites. They had a grievance. Reuben was the first-born, and as such had certain rights of priority, according to immemorial custom. These rights have been ignored, or transferred to Judah and Ephraim. The Reubenites are Korah's neighbours in the camp. He has inflamed their discontents, and held out flattering hopes. So Dathan, Abiram, and their people join him in open revolt (Numbers 16:12-14).

4. Korah does not confine his attentions to the two hundred and fifty leaders and their pronounced followers. The whole camp is pervaded with his emissaries. Things are in such a train that when the two hundred and fifty confront Moses and Aaron at the door of the tabernacle, Korah is able to "gather all the congregation" at the same time. He hopes to overawe Moses by this demonstration of popular sympathy.

We see here:—

1. An example of fine abilities abused. What an admirable helper in the kingdom of God Korah might have been! He might have been a second Joshua. Instead of that. he leads the wretched life of a conspirator, comes to a bad end, and leaves behind him an infamous name. The lust of power—the determination to be the greatest, has been the ruin of many a richly-gifted man.

2. An admonition to leaders in Church and State. There are leaders, not a few, who are such not of their own choice, but by the call of their brethren and by the clear appointment of Divine providence. It is natural and reasonable for them to expect the loyal support of the people. Certainly they are entitled to expect that they shall not be reviled and resisted, as if they had been ambitious and selfish usurpers. The example of Moses admonishes them not to be surprised if such reasonable expectations should be disappointed. A good conscience is an excellent companion under bitter reproach and opposition, but it will not always ward them off. Never was leader less ambitious, less selfish, than Moses; yet he could hardly have been treated worse if he had been another Korah.—B.

Numbers 16:4-35


2. How the rebellion was encountered and put down, Moses was the meekest of men. There were circumstances of aggravation in the rebellion of Korah which would have exhausted the meekness of most men, but they failed to break down that of Moses. The much-enduring patience of the servant of the Lord never shone out more brightly than in the way in which he encountered the sedition of his bold, unscrupulous kinsman.

I. HE CARRIED THE CAUSE BY APPEAL TO THE MOST HIGH. A proposal to this effect was made—

1. To Korah and the two hundred and fifty chiefs of the conspiracy; Numbers 16:5-7 : q.d. "You challenge the legitimacy of my government and of Aaron's priesthood. You insinuate that we climbed so high by treading on the rights of our brethren. I might plead in reply that Aaron and I did not grasp at our present honours; they were thrust on us by the Lord. But let us refer the matter to the Lord's decision. Let him show who are his, who are holy, whom he hath chosen to draw near to him in his sanctuary. Take censers and present yourselves before the Lord tomorrow; I and Aaron will come likewise. Let the Lord answer by fire." Such is the proposal. To Moses the result is not doubtful. Yet his heart yearns over the misguided men. This comes out—

(1) In his putting off the trial till next day. After a night's reflection they may perhaps repent:

(2) In his remonstrance with those of the two hundred and fifty who were Levites (Numbers 16:8-10). Their participation in the rebellion was peculiarly inexcusable.

2. To the Reubenites. Moses sent for them also; but they were not so bold as the two hundred and fifty, and refused to come. They sent back, instead, an insolent and reproachful reply (Numbers 16:13, Numbers 16:14). Nevertheless, in their case also Moses refers the decision to the Lord (Numbers 16:15): q.d. "They accuse me of playing the prince and tyrant over them, whereas I have never exacted from them an ordinary governor's dues. So far from defrauding' them, I have not taken from them so much as an ass. The Lord judge between them and me, and respect not their offering."


1. We are not told bow the two hundred and fifty passed the night. Some of them must have had misgivings. They could not fail to remember the tragic death of Nadab and Abihu when they drew near to the Lord with strange fire. But Korah suffered no flinching. He mustered them on the morrow. His emissaries too had been busy in the camp, for when the two hundred and fifty took their places they were surrounded with a vast congregation of eager and sympathizing spectators. This gathering it was hoped would at once confirm the resolution of the conspirators and overawe Moses and Aaron. Moses, on his part, having referred the matter to the Lord, left it in his hand; with what result need hardly be told. First the pillar of fire appeared in a way that struck dismay; and then, after a while, fire came forth and consumed Korah and his two hundred and fifty—"those sinners against their own souls."

2. The fate of the Reubenites presented features of a still more tragic interest (Numbers 16:23-34). It was resolved flint they should be made a signal example of Divine vengeance. But, in the first place, the congregation were charged to separate themselves from them (cf. Revelation 18:4). This might well have awakened fear, and led to repentance. But they were infatuated in their error. Instead of repenting and craving mercy, "they came out and stood in the door of their tents, and their wives, and their sons, and their little children." Oh these last words! What a harrowing scene they bring before the mind! Was it not enough that Dathan and Abiram and their sons should perish? Why should the women and unconscious children die? The sight is a harrowing one, but it is one that meets us every day. When a blaspheming wretch passes us on the road with his like-minded wife, and a string of little children at their heels, is not that Abiram over again, with his wife and little children? A sight not to be contemplated without fear and pity.—Read the terms in which Moses referred the decision in this case to the Lord, and the awful judgment that ensued, Numbers 16:28-34. One can hardly help commiserating the Reubenites more than the Levites, for the Levites, one would think, must have sinned against the clearer light. Yet the facts seem to show that the Reubenites were the more aggravated sinners, or at least that their families took part more entirely in their sin. This at least is certain, that while the families of the Reubenite rebels perished with them, the family of Korah survived. Centuries after this, the sons of Korah flourished in Judah, and did honourable service as psalmists (titles of Psalms 42-49, and 84-88).

The story of Korah is an admonition to nations, and especially to churches, to "look diligently lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble them, and thereby many be defiled" (Hebrews 12:15). When a society provokes God's displeasure, he does not need to send against it some external foe; there are other and more humiliating forms of chastisement at his disposal. He may suffer some root of bitterness to spring up from within; he may suffer some one of its own children to be its scourge. A Korah will work more mischief in Israel than the Egyptians and the Amalekites put together can effect.—B.

Numbers 16:19-22, Numbers 16:41-50


3. How the congregation abetted the rebels, and were only saved through the intercession of Moses and Aaron. Bold and crafty as Korah was, he could not have done so much mischief if elements of mischief had not been everywhere rife in the camp. Many things conspire to show that his policy was to inflame and turn to bad account discontents previously existing among the people. The existence of these discontents is not inexplicable. A crowd of bondmen are not to be transferred into a nation of reasonable free men all at once. Moreover, the circumstances of the congregation at Kadesh Barnea were not fitted to make the task of Moses an easy one. After having reached the threshold of Canaan, the people had been turned back and condemned to pass the rest of their days in the wilderness. To be sure they had no one but themselves to blame; but this did not mend the matter. The consciousness that the ditch into which a man has fallen is a ditch of his own digging does not always move a man to take his fall meekly. Penitent hearts may be silent under God's chastisement; but impenitent hearts blaspheme him the more for what they suffer. We need not marvel, therefore, that there were many in the congregation, besides his active coadjutors, who were ready to lend their countenance to Korah in his rebellion.

I. THE SYMPATHY OF THE PEOPLE WITH KORAH showed itself in various ways.

1. They did not rise and vindicate the government of Moses, as they ought to have done.

2. In the crisis of the rebellion they gathered together in front of the tabernacle to encourage Korah and his two hundred and fifty with their countenance. Probably enough they did this with light hearts. Individuals moving with a crowd are apt to lose the sense of personal responsibility. But we shall have to answer to God for what we do, none the less because many others are doing it along with us. In the case in hand the general countenance given to the rebels was so deeply resented by God that it had almost proved fatal to the whole nation. To swell with our voice the shouts of a popular assembly may seem a trifle; but if the shouts are directed against the maintainers of truth and righteousness, we cannot take part without sin and danger.

3. When the rebels died for their sin, the people charged Moses and Aaron with their blood (Numbers 16:41). A fresh example of perversity which again had almost proved fatal to the whole nation.

II. It is a relief to turn from the perverse ungodliness of the people to THE MEEKNESS AND UNSELFISH ZEAL OF MOSES AND AARON. When the Reubenite rebels and the 250 conspirators perished, Moses did not utter a word in deprecation of their terrible doom. A signal example had become necessary. But when the whole people was threatened, he fell on his face and pleaded for it. This he did twice, he and Aaron.

1. When the people abetted Korah and his company before the tabernacle (Numbers 16:22). Twice before Moses had been tempted to desert his office of intercessor, and to separate his fortunes from those of his brethren (cf. Exodus 32:10-13; Numbers 14:12). On this third occasion, as on the two former, he refuses to do so. On the contrary, he intercedes with the energy of a man pleading for his own life. When sin abounds and judgments threaten, may the Lord always raise up among us intercessors like Moses and Aaron!

2. When the people charged him with the death of the rebels (Numbers 16:41). This time his intercession took a new form. While the people were murmuring the plague was breaking out in the camp. How shall it be stayed? Let Aaron show himself a true priest by making atonement for the people. There is no time for presenting a sin offering. Let him instead fill his censer with coals from the altar of sacrifice, and run in between the living and the dead, burning incense. It was a palpable token and demonstration of the Divine authority of the priesthood which the rebels had affected to condemn, that whereas the two hundred and fifty had by their incense-burning brought on themselves death, Aaron by his incense-burning warded off death, and that not only from himself but from the whole congregation.

General lessons:—

1. The greatest storm of trial will not overthrow the man who makes God his strength. Moses begins, carries on, finishes his conflict against Korah with prayer (Numbers 16:4, Numbers 16:22, Numbers 16:45). Hence his unfailing meekness.

2. General demonstrations of sympathy with men who are the champions of error and unrighteousness bring guilt on the community, are displeasing to God, and may be expected to bring down his chastisements.

3. Moses, in his meek endurance of obloquy and his successful intercession for those who assailed him with it, is the figure of our blessed Lord. He endured the contradiction of sinners against himself. He prayed, "Father, forgive them." And thousands of them were forgiven. Christ's priesthood which men despise, how often is it glorified in their salvation!

4. The best answer that a Church or a ministry can give to men by whom their legitimacy is challenged or derided, is to bestir themselves like Aaron, standing between the dead and the living, and turning back the tide of destruction.—B.


Numbers 16:1-35



1. They begin by blowing up the flame of envy in one another's hearts. The vicinity of the Reubenites to the Kohathites in the camp gave opportunities for this. "Woe to the wicked man, and woe to his neighbour," is a Jewish saying perhaps derived from this incident.

2. Their sin the more serious because they were "men of renown.'' Influential sinners particularly dangerous.

3. Korah's sin especially grievous

(1) because of his kinship to Moses, but chiefly

(2) because of the honour already bestowed on him and his brethren (Numbers 16:9, Numbers 16:10). Note the insatiableness of sin.

4. Their conduct condemns their motives also as bad. They envied the power or privileges, perhaps even the provision, made for the priests, as being somewhat better than that of the Levites. "Seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not."

5. They bring a false charge against Moses (Numbers 16:3), which recoils on themselves (Numbers 16:7). God had "lifted up" Moses; they were seeking to lift up themselves.

6. They will not avail themselves of "space for repentance" till the morrow, when God will decide. They will not "sleep over it" with any advantage to themselves.

7. They are unmoved by the reminder that their murmuring is really against God (Numbers 16:11).

8. They meet the friendly interposition of Moses by a fresh conspiracy of grievous falsehoods: of ambition (Numbers 16:13), deception (Numbers 16:14 : "Wilt thou put out the eyes of these men?"), and responsibility for the evils they had brought on them by their own sins (Numbers 16:13, Numbers 16:14 : "to kill us;" "thou hast not brought us," &c.).

9. They persist in the most audacious defiance of God till the very last. Sketch Korah and his company with their censers at the door of the tabernacle, while Dathan, Abiram, and their kindred are recklessly waiting the issue at the doors of their tents, in spite of the warning of Numbers 16:26. This last act of sin one element also of their punishment.


1. The infatuation of the rebels one part of the judgment. The madness of hardened sinners their own guilt, but God's punishment (cf. Exodus 4:21; Exodus 1:0 King's 1 Kings 22:19-23; Acts 28:23-27).

2. New, strange sins call for a new, "strange work" of judgment (Numbers 16:31-33; Proverbs 29:1).

3. Those who unbidden handled sacred fire in their censers perished by the fire of God. Learn hence the guilt and peril of murmuring ,against the appointments of God in regard to the methods of his government, or the means of acceptable approach to him through our Divine High Priest. Teachers and rulers in God's Church are to be honoured and followed (1 Thessalonians 5:12, 1 Thessalonians 5:13; Hebrews 13:17), and Christ is to be recognized as "the head of all principality and power" (Colossians 2:10), and the one and only medium of acceptance with God (Psalms 2:12; John 5:22, John 5:23; John 14:6).—P.

Numbers 16:22


This name of God reminds us of some of the relations in which God stands to us his creatures, who are immortal spirits in mortal flesh. We select three, and speak of him—

I. As PROPIETOR. "He formeth the spirit of man within him" (Zechariah 12:1). The verb used is applied to a potter or a smith, and reminds us that God has modeled the human spirit, with its varied powers, according to his own ideal (Psalms 33:15). Since he formed man in his own image, he is "the Father of spirits" in a sense in which he is not the Father of animals. Thus he is our Proprietor, who can say, "All souls are mine," who feels a deep interest in "the work of his own hands" (Psalms 138:8), and who will use, according to his judgment, the spirits he has formed and variously endowed. See Moses' use of this truth in Numbers 27:15-17.

II. As HEART-SEARCHER. Sin has broken into the natural relation of God to his creatures. He has to deal with them as sinners with various degrees of criminality. Hence need of discrimination which only the Creator and Searcher of hearts possesses. This truth used by Abraham (Genesis 18:23-33) and by Moses and Aaron (Numbers 27:22). It is only the Heart-Searcher who can righteously adjust

(1) the direct punishment of sin, which falls only on the guilty (Ezekiel 18:1-32), and

(2) the indirect consequences, which may fall on the innocent (Exodus 34:7), as on Dathan's children (verses 27, 32).

In this narrative we see

(1) conditional preservation (verse 24),

(2) diverse judgments (verses 32, 35, 49),

(3) bereavements and dishonour to the survivors (Numbers 27:3). Faith in "God, the God of the spirits of all flesh," may keep us calm in the midst of judgments (Isaiah 57:16).

III. As THE SAVIOR. If God were not a Saviour there would soon be no "spirits of flesh" to be the God of (Malachi 3:6). But God's salvation is for all flesh (2Co 5:19; 1 Timothy 2:6; 1 John 2:2). If God is our Saviour, then we may delight in his proprietorship of us (Psalms 119:94; Psalms 116:12; Isaiah 43:1). And we can cheerfully accept any discipline which our Heart-Searcher sends (Hebrews 12:5-10); for "the God of my life" is also "the God of my salvation."—P.

Numbers 16:31-33


Some things are very much dreaded because so destructive. E.g; locusts, war, pestilence. But there is nothing so destructive as sin. As "no man liveth," so no man sinneth, "to himself." Of Korah, as of Achan or of other transgressors, it may be said, "That man perished not alone in his iniquity" (Joshua 22:20). The destructive effects of sin are twofold—



I. PERSONAL: on the sinner himself, as in the case of Korah the Kohathite, honoured as one of the ministers of God's ark. lllustration—Infection, taken unawares, may not be suspected by friends, hardly by the victim; but its effects (fever, eruption, &c.) will be seen by and by. Sin cannot always be kept secret (Isaiah 59:12; James 1:15). "Evil shall slay the wicked." If the consequences are not as fatal as in Korah's case, moral destruction is going on. As Alpine granite may be reduced by frost and damp to a kind of mould, so sin—some sins especially—seems to break up the moral nature and reduce it to ruins. From the personal consequences of sin the destroyer we can only be delivered by Christ the Savior (Titus 2:14).

II. SOCIAL: on others. In the case of Korah and his conspirators, sin was fatal to their families. So perhaps in the case of Achan (Joshua 7:24-26; Joshua 22:20); if not, how terrible for them to see the husband, the father, killed, and to know that he had caused the loss of thirty-six men at Ai! "Curses, like chickens, always come home to roost." We cannot sin with impunity to our family any more than Adam did. Sin propagates sin. It involves others, directly or indirectly, in its fatal consequences. Illustration—King Saul, and the catastrophe to both family and nation at Gilboa. Unrighteous statesmen. Men of high social position who are immoral or infidel. Each sinner a center of contagion (Ecclesiastes 9:18). The fate of the children of Korah's company a warning to sinful parents. The children of the godless may be expected to become the parents of godless children, and thus the evil may be perpetuated from generation to generation. Mournful epitaph for a sinner's grave: "That man perished not alone in his iniquity." "But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound (Romans 5:20, Romans 5:21; Romans 8:2, Romans 8:3).—P.


Numbers 16:1-3


Here is now the sin of Miriam and Aaron (Numbers 12:1-16) on a larger scale. Aaron, who had been inveigled into troubling Moses, is now joined with Moses in suffering from the pride and envy of others.

I. THE CONSPIRATORS. They were men of position and influence. We come upon a different kind of grievance from that of the ignorant multitude. Korah and his band may have been comparatively free from lusting after the delicacies of Egypt. Different men, different temptations. Korah was a Kohathite, joined therefore in the honourable office of bearing the ark and the sanctuary furniture (Numbers 4:1-20). The others belonged to the tribe of Reuben, the eldest son of Jacob, and with them were 250 of the leaders in the nation. A conspiracy of men of this sort was not so easily dealt with as an outbreak of the whole people. Korah was probably a man of deep, deliberate designs, able to bide his time, and watching as he had opportunity, to draw first one and then another into his schemes. Here was a set of men seeking great things for themselves (Jeremiah 45:5). They had got as far as they could get in the orderly and appointed way, but they wanted to be higher, and somehow or other Moses and Aaron blocked the way. These two men were a long way above the rest, and seemingly in an altogether different order of service, and thus the rebellious, envious spirit of Korah was excited. He was a man of the sort who would rather reign in hell than serve in heaven.

II. THE PRETEXT OF ATTACK. Conspirators against rightful authority like to have a pretext of something fair and just. Thus Miriam: "Hath the Lord not spoken also by us?" And thus Korah: "All the congregation are holy, every one of them." There was something in Korah's office to furnish temptation to an envious mind. As he was engaged in the service of the tabernacle he saw Aaron going where he dare not go, touching things which he dare not touch. He heard Moses coming forward with a message professedly from God, but it was a message from the invisible. No one saw this God with whom Moses professed to hold intercourse, and doubtless Korah concluded that the messages were presumptuous inventions of Moses himself. lie considered the honours and privileges only of the leader and priest; he made no allowance for the burdens. Being a self-seeking, self-aggrandizing man, he could see no higher feeling in others. He wanted to be at the top of the tree himself, and seeing Moses and Aaron there, lie made sure they had got there by audacity and determination, and not by any appointment from God at all. "All the congregation are holy." This was a true statement, but an insufficient reason for attack. Thus the plea of all men being equal is put forth against those who hold high rank and great power. The outward eminence only is seen; the burdens of state, the ceaseless care, are all unknown. "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown." Thus jealously Paul and Timothy were dealt with in the Church at Corinth, when they wished, not to have dominion over the faith of their brethren, but to be helpers of their joy (2 Corinthians 1:24). Little did the schismatics dream of the Apostle's trials, crowned with the thorniest of all, the care (μέριμνα) of all the Churches (2 Corinthians 11:23-28). Moses would have rejoiced to take Korah's place, or even the lowest place in the camp, if God had not put him where he was. But of all this inner life of Moses, Korah knew and cared nothing. In his eyes Moses was a self-exalted man, to be immediately and irretrievably abased. "Do we not all wear the fringes, and look each of us on Ms own riband of blue? Did you not tell us yourself that these were to remind us of our holiness towards God. Why then should you lave an access to God and consequent honour which are denied to us?" Thus these leaders of the people had yet to learn, as only bitter lessons would teach them, that they were under a theocracy. There was no room for a democracy, either real or pretended, in Israel. Nor is the Church of Christ now a democracy, though it is the fashion sometimes to speak of the democratic spirit in it. It does indeed make light of human distinctions, traditions, fashions, and prejudices, but only to put in place of them the authority of Christ. He has appointed his Church humbly and faithfully to execute his will. Professing Christians may indeed choose Church officials, but the real call and choice and guidance are of the Master himself.—Y.

Numbers 16:4-11


I. KORAH'S QUESTION IS ONE FOR GOD TO ANSWER. It brings an accusation to which Moses had no answer in any language or conduct of his own. He was in a humbler way like Jesus before his enemies. When Jesus spoke of his relation to the Father, his complete dependence on the Father's will, and obedience to it, and of himself as the sole revealer of the Father, these enemies sneered and threatened; and no reply was effectual except that in which the Father glorified the Son by raising him from the dead. And even this was denied by those so enamoured of lies that it was impossible for them to receive the truth. Moses here could but wait an answer in some effectual and crushing way out of the great Invisible. Thus we have the impressive sight of a man who knows he is falsely accused and can wait serenely for the justifying word. If be had been guilty of self-seeking, as Korah was, and with the stain of it on his conscience, he could never have appealed in this way. It was not an empty call upon God, a mere rhetorical device. The challenge to Korah and his band is definite, and expresses a sure confidence in God as vindicator of his servants. "An honest cause fears not a trial, fears not a second trial, fears not a speedy trial." An innocent person needs do nothing in rashness, nor will he seek causes of evasion and delay. Let there be time for decent preparation, and on the morrow a decisive answer shall be given.

II. THE QUESTION SHALL BE ADDRESSED TO GOD IN THE MOST EXPLICIT WAY. By a solemn act he shall be questioned, and by a solemn act he shall answer. Let the people be effectually tested as to this holiness of which Korah makes so much. If even he and his band are holy before God as Aaron is, then let them attempt a part of Aaron's office (Exodus 30:1-9). If God accepts the service from them as from Aaron, then all that Korah says may be taken as true, and Aaron may retreat into obscurity and shame as a detected impostor. Moses was ready for the one test that should be complete. It is always open to us, if we do not believe statements made on authority, to try them for ourselves. If we do not believe that arsenic is poisonous, it is quite open to us to make the experiment on our own life. It may be a foolish experiment, but it is certainly a possible one. There was no fortified wall round the sanctuary. God did not put a guard of soldiers to keep defilers back. He himself was guard of his sanctuary. His own Divine energy resided in the holy things to avenge them against any polluted touch. Thus when men repudiate gospel truth and say, "Who is Christ, or who Paul, that we should be tied to square our future and control our hopes by their requirements?" God takes in hand the clearing of his Son and servants from all reproaches. There is nothing to prevent a man trying to please God apart from him who is appointed the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and to whom all power is given in heaven and on earth; but God in his own due time will make the trial manifest as ending in disastrous, ignominious failure. The more distinct and emphatic the challenge, the more distinct and emphatic shall the answer be.

III. MOSES SUGGESTS CERTAIN CONSIDERATIONS WHICH MAY LEAD TO A TIMELY RETREAT. Moses doubtless had a prophet's premonitions of the terrible doom into which this proud band was advancing; therefore he mentions things which Korah had neglected sufficiently to consider, and which would show him that God had been honouring him as well as Moses and Aaron. Korah belonged to a tribe specially separated to the service of God. If we complain of those who stand in a higher rank than ourselves, then those who are lower may complain of us in turn. All had been by God's appointment. The tribe of Levi had no more right to complain against Moses and Aaron than any other tribe had to complain against Levi. The God who arranged one body and many members arranged tile whole body of Israel, so that every part should contribute in harmony to the whole, and receive good in return. The service of Korah was just as needful in its way as that of Moses and Aaron. Korah was clamouring for the priesthood: who then was to do Korah's work if he stepped into Aaron's shoes? Thus Moses made an appeal to whatever generous and public spirit was in him to think more seriously on the good of the whole. God could not allow any one to imperil the integrity of Israel. They were in a dangerous position, this band of rebels, yet they knew it not. It was the Lord they were gathered against, and not Moses and Aaron, and just in proportion to the greatness of their ignorance was the greatness of their peril. They had talked indeed as if it was the Lord's cause they were thinking of, but their real object, which seemed easily in their grasp, was to trample down Moses and Aaron and take their place. "What is Aaron, that ye murmur against him?" An earthen vessel is a very common, cheap, fragile thing. If it is nothing more than an earthen vessel, then you may in a moment, unhindered, dash it to pieces. But if God, to show the excellency of his power, has put his treasure in an earthen vessel, then it were safer for you to conspire against the best founded of human governments than to touch that earthen vessel with so much as your little finger.—Y.

Numbers 16:12-15


Dathan and Abiram seem to have been absent from the interview, as if to show their particular and utter contempt for Moses. It was a sort of crime against the new authority to have any dealings with him, to treat him with any civility. But Moses does not treat them as they treat him. It is good to stoop to rebels even, and show them a way of being reconciled—a way all in vain, however, so far as these two were concerned. What contempt they had silently shown by their absence is now made clear in unmistakable words. A free vent is found for all the rage and scorn pent up in their hearts, and one can see a sort of sidelong rebuke to Korah for condescending to make any terms with such a deceiver.

I. THEIR CHARGE AGAINST MOSES. Notice how all their complaints end with him. There is no word concerning Jehovah. Korah, at any rate, made a pretence of thinking of God's glory, as if Moses were not merely injuring the people, but robbing God of their service. Dathan and Abiram talk like utter atheists, as if the promises were of Moses, and not of God, and as if the non-fulfillment came from the inability or malice of Moses, and not from the righteous indignation of God. God had said that he brought them out of Egypt to be their God. Dathan and Abiram leave God altogether out of the question. It is Moses who has brought them out of a land that might be counted one of milk and honey, as compared with the wilderness. That assertion of Jehovah's appointment, favor, and protection which Moses so rejoicingly made was to them nothing but the lying of tyrannous statecraft. Men who are themselves without perceptions of the Eternal, whose thoughts are wholly within the sphere of time and sense, are fond of speaking concerning such as walk in the light of the Eternal as if they must be either fools or knaves. It is possible that Dathan and Abiram had been so blinded by the god of this world as to have persuaded themselves they were the champions of a righteous cause. The savage and heartless aims which they attribute to him. How easy it is when one's heart is so inclined, to distort into hideousness the lineaments of the most noble characters! Vindictive minds are like those spherical mirrors which alter the shape of everything presented to them. Thus did Dathan and Abiram make it out that Moses had drawn them front comparative comfort and security, to trifle with them and knock them about hither and thither at his own caprice. How differently the same things look according to the point from which we view them! How we should be on our guard against the representations of wicked, self-seeking men! how slow to credit or even to consider any slander upon God's servants! They charge him, moreover, with drawing them into the wilderness by specious promises, made only to be broken, as if, finding he could not keep these promises, he had cunningly thrown the fault on a pretended deity behind. Men will look anywhere for the reasons of disappointment save in their own headstrong and self-regarding lives. The infallible discernment which they claim for themselves. "Do you think people have only eyes for what you would have them see?" What is harder than to get the Dathans and Abirams of the world out of the supercilious egotism in which they are entrenched? It is bad enough to have eyes and yet see not, to fail in discerning the great realities of the unseen and eternal, but it is even worse to see all sorts of horrors and iniquities that have no existence. There is a sort of people in the world who suspect everybody, and the better any one seems, the more for that very reason are they doubtful. Thus Jesus is held for a gluttonous man and a wine-bibber, one casting out demons by the prince of the demons; Paul is a pattern of duplicity; there is no real integrity among men, no real purity among women. The defiled minds of such pull down every other person, without hesitation, to their own level. There is no arguing with the man who believes that every face is nothing but a mask.

II. MOSES' INDIGNANT PROTEST. He does not address the slanderers, for where would have been the use? He makes a direct appeal to God: "Respect not their offering'." Probably they were going to set up some sort of altar in their own tents, since they refused to come to the tabernacle; only to find out, as Cain did before, and many have done since, that will-worship (Colossians 2:23) has no acceptance with God. Even if their offering had been made by the strictest ceremonial rules, what would have been its chance of acceptance with him to whom lying lips are an abomination? "Lord, who shall abide in thy tabernacle?" (Psalms 15:1-5). There is a claim here not only for the vindication of Aaron as the appointed priest, but of Moses also as the appointed leader, the faithful messenger, the pure channel of the pure commandments and promises of God. The man who would teach the people righteousness must be clear of the faintest suspicion that robbery or oppression clings to his own garments. He must be far different from those rulers of after days whom Isaiah denounces (Isaiah 1:10-15, Isaiah 1:23). "Moses got more in his estate when he kept Jethro's flock than since he came to be king in Jeshurun."—Y.

Numbers 16:16-35



1. Moses and Aaron put themselves on a perfect outward equality with the rest. They humbled themselves that they might be exalted. Aaron, already chosen of the Lord, stands with his censer and incense in the midst of the company of rebels, as if he were but a candidate waiting for approval. Such is not the way of the dignitaries of the world. Their pomp and honour is mostly a mere convention; strip them of their titles and gauds, and you would scarcely notice them in the street. But Aaron was the priest of God wherever he went, and howsoever he was surrounded. Therefore, without fear or shame, he could take the lowest place, sure that he would presently be addressed, "Come up hither." So Jesus was numbered with the transgressors, reduced to the level of criminals, crucified instead of Barabbas. Christians have often had to stand among the ranks of evil-doers, but in due time they have gone out from them, because they were not of them (1 Peter 2:19-23).

2. Korah shows unquailing audacity to the last, i.e; up to the appearing' of the glory. The more the servants of God humbled themselves, the higher and more confident were his enemies in their pride. Korah was at his very highest before he fell. Aaron, whom he had so often seen going where he was forbidden, stands now on a level with the ordinary Levite; nay, more, he is as low as the other tribes. The congregation too has gathered round Korah in sympathy and expectation, for doubtless he has promised them such things as they love. And even as God had allowed rebellious Israel to go on even to the lifting of stones against Caleb and Joshua (Joshua 14:10), so here he allows the pride of Korah to swell to its fullest extent. And hence God's people should ever gain confidence in the times when he seems to be inactive. We are not to be discouraged because the wicked go on from strength to strength. The Jews rejected Christ; they consulted to slay him; they seized him; they put him through an examination in their own court; they handed him to Pilate: he was mocked, scourged, crucified; yet God did not intervene. And who now does not see that all this time he was in process of answering the prayer, "Glorify thy Son, that thy Son also may glorify thee"? (John 17:1). Korah, rising, was lifting Moses and Aaron with him. He fell; they remained.

3. The first expression of Divine wrath. A general destruction is threatened, without mitigation or delay. And if we only consider, we shall see how fitting it was that the first word should be a menace of complete and terrible destruction. The holiness of God is a great reality, keenly sensitive to any sin. How much then was it outraged by such a daring attempt as that of Korah and his company! And the whole congregation had shown a sad alacrity in their support. Why, even we ourselves, when we hear of some great crime in which many are engaged, do not stop to make distinctions between principals and accomplices. We feel that our first, word must be one of utter abhorrence and condemnation with respect to all who had part in such great wickedness. It is only because we are so little sensitive to the evil of sin, that we find difficulty in understanding the menace of verse 21.

4. Moses and Aaron promptly intercede. God has already shown what a distance separates them from the rest of the people. Now they proceed to show it themselves. It was the hour of exaltation and triumph but, like truly humble and holy men, they were occupied with intense pity for the great multitude suddenly exposed to the full wrath of God. Was there any in that great multitude who would thus have thought of them? Their position towards God and men comes out in something like its completeness. If Moses had much on behalf of God to say to men, so he had much on behalf of men to say to God. And Jesus is put before us as the great High Priest. If the sinful Aaron could be touched with a feeling of the infirmities of his brethren, not less is the same true of the sinless Jesus. Amid the threatening penalties of sin, and with the growing consciousness of our own helplessness, we can look to him for intercessory services, even. those which he came to earth specially to render. His Father, who is God of the spirits of all flesh, sent him not to destroy men's lives, but to save them (Luke 9:56).


1. Korah, Dathan, and Abiram are devoted to destruction. The intercession of Moses and Aaron, earnest and prevailing as it is, has a limit in the request and the result. "If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it" (1 John 5:16). The people are first of all included in menace with the three chief rebels that presently they may be separated front them. Leaders and followers are both guilty, but there are degrees in wickedness as in holiness. It is perhaps of great significance, if only we will consider that God in this manifestation of his wrath came not only with three separate punishments, but three different modes of punishment. He seems to shadow forth something of degrees of punishment in the eternal world. If the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the pit; but surely the woe of a deeper fall is to those presumptuous blind who drag others with them. Here were those who would not admit that Moses and Aaron had been Divinely separated for a peculiar service, and now in their towering pride they are separated for a peculiar doom. If they had not climbed so high they would not have fallen so far.

2. As we see the people falling away from Korah, we notice what a feeble bond unites the wicked. Only a few minutes ago the people were pressing admiringly on him as he bearded Moses in the very door of the tabernacle; now they flee from him and the other two as if they infected the air with death. The bond that looks so firm is but a rope of sand. It will not hold when anything' appears that looks like a peril to individual selfishness. We may be reminded indeed of "honour among thieves," hut this at the most can only mean that wicked men may act together till the last, not that they may be trusted to do it. There is no such coherency possible amongst the wicked as amongst the good. They have no entirely common purpose; each has his own advantage to seek, and so one may easily thwart all the rest. The Jews in the hour of their triumph over Jesus are chagrined by the inscription which obstinate Pilate puts on the cross.

3. Notice the reference to the elders in verse 25. They had been appointed, seventy of them, to help Moses in the burden which had become so grievous (Joshua 11:1-23). Where then had they been all this time? Men with the Spirit of God upon them should surely have sided boldly with Moses, even before the glory appeared. Perhaps indeed they were on his side; and we must not infer too much from silence, else Caleb and Joshua would appear in a dubious light. But this much at all events may be said, that even though they were select and judicious men, and God took of the spirit that was upon Moses and put it upon them, all this was insufficient to help Moses in his extremest needs. We may take their appointment rather as an expression of regard and sympathy, something fitted to teach the elders themselves to be fall of consideration and attention towards Moses. The great crowning needs of life cannot be met by human help, even when sanctified; we must still, like Moses, fall on our faces before God. Not until God has appeared, vindicated his servant, and scattered the unfriendly crowd, do we hear that the elders of Israel followed him.

4. The carrying out of the judgment on Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. Moses announces that the mode of their death was to have great evidential value with respect to himself. Those who had been foremost as accusers and slanderers shall now be chief witnesses on his side, speaking more loudly for him in their death than ever they had spoken against him in their life. It had been their charge against Moses that he had assumed undue authority; therefore, to show how much he was in the secrets of the Divine government, he announces, not only that God himself would take in hand the execution of a righteous sentence, but would execute it in a way hitherto unheard of. And this very way Moses proceeds to indicate. What a point of faith he here reaches! what a perfect community of thought with God! for scarcely has he spoken when that happens which he said would happen, and in exactly the same way. Death and burial are included in the same act. No one was made unclean by these three men or any of their belongings.—Y.

Verses 41-50



Numbers 16:41

Ye have killed the people of the Lord. They bad in truth forfeited their own lives, and Moses and Aaron had no more part in their death than St. Peter had in the death of Ananias and Sapphira. But it was easy to represent the matter as a personal conflict between two parties, in which the one had triumphed by destroying the other. In speaking of Korah and his company as the "people of the Lord," they meant to say that their lives were as sacred as the lives of Moses and Aaron, and the crime of taking them as great; they did not know, or did not heed, that their own immunity was due to the intercession of those whom they thus charged with sacrilegious murder.

Numbers 16:42

The cloud covered it. Not soaring above it, as usual, but lying close down upon it, to signify that the presence of the Lord had passed in some special sense into the tabernacle (see on Numbers 12:5, Numbers 12:10).

Numbers 16:45

Get you up. הֵרֹמּוּ, from רָמַם. The command is substantially the same as that in Numbers 16:21. Since it was not obeyed, we must conclude (as before) that it was not intended to be obeyed. They fell on their faces. In horror and dismay. No doubt they would have interceded (as in Numbers 16:22), but that Moses perceived through some Divine intimation that wrath had gone forth, and that some more prevailing form of mediation than mere words must be sought.

Numbers 16:46

Take a censer. Rather, "the censer," i.e; the proper censer of the high priest, which he used upon the great day of atonement (Le Numbers 16:12), and which is said in Hebrews 9:4 to have been of gold, and to have been kept in the most holy place. It is not, however, mentioned amongst the sacred furniture in the Levitical books. And go quickly. הוֹלֵךְ Rather, "take it quickly." And make an atonement for them. There was no precedent for making an incense offering alter this fashion, but it was on the analogy of the rite performed within the tabernacle on the day of atonement (Leviticus 16:1-34). Whether Moses received any intimation that the wroth might be thus averted, or whether it was the daring thought of a devoted heart when all else failed, it is impossible to say. As it had no precedent, so it never serous to have been repeated; nor is the name or idea of atonement anywhere else connected with the offering of incense apart kern the shedding of blood.

Numbers 16:48

And he stood between the dead and the living. If this is to be understood literally, as seems most consistent with the character of the narrative, then the plague must have been strictly local in its character; striking down its victims in one quarter before passing on to another; only thus could it be arrested by tile actual interposition of Aaron with the smoking censer. And the plague was stayed. Thus was given to the people the most striking and public proof of the saving efficacy of that mediatorial and intercessory office which they had been ready to invade and to reject. Thus also was it shown that what in profane hands was a savour of death unto death, became when rightly and lawfully used a savour of life unto life.

Numbers 16:49

Fourteen thousand and seven hundred. A very large number to have died in the course of a few minutes, as the narrative seems to imply. The plague was undoubtedly of a supernatural character, and cannot be considered as a pestilence or other natural visitation. Beside them that died about the matter of Korah. These were

(1) the two hundred and fifty men who offered incense,

(2) Dathan and Abiram, and their families,

(3) probably Korah himself,

(4) possibly some other partisans of Korah (see on Numbers 16:32), making in all about 300 souls.

Thus we get the round number of 15,000 as the total of those that perished on this occasion.

Numbers 16:50

And the plague was stayed. Not only temporarily, while Aaron stood between the dead and the living, but finally and effectually.


Numbers 16:41-50


We see in this section the priesthood of the anointed at once exercised and vindicated in the fullest and highest sense by shielding from wrath and death those who were appointed to die on account of sin. The spiritual meaning so far and so plainly eclipses the literal that we might well suppose the passage to have been written in the light of the finished work of Christ; as it is, we cannot possibly refuse to read the "mind of the Spirit" testifying before of the atonement and intercession of our High Priest. Consider, therefore—

I. THAT WRATH HAD GONE FORTH AGAINST ALL ISRAEL BECAUSE OF THEIR ACTIVE OR PASSIVE PARTICIPATION IN REBELLION AGAINST THE WILL AND ORDINANCE OF GOD. Even so had wrath gone forth against all mankind, for that all were compromised (albeit not all to the same degree, or by the same deliberate choice) in sin and rebellion (Romans 5:12, Romans 5:14; Romans 11:32; Ephesians 2:3).

II. THAT MOSES DID NOT EVEN ATTEMPT TO PRAY AT THIS TIME FOR ISRAEL, BECAUSE THE SENTENCE WAS GONE FORTH, AND EVEN HIS PRAYER HAD BEEN UNAVAILING. Even so, however much the intercessions of righteous men may have been heard in other and lesser matters (James 5:16 b.), yet could not any. human means avail to turn aside from us the sentence of death which follows upon sin (Genesis 2:17; Psalms 49:7, Psalms 49:8; Romans 6:23; Romans 7:24). And note that as far as we can see even the incarnate Son had not saved us as Lawgiver and Ruler except his intercessions had been based upon his meritorious cross and passion. Moses must give place to Aaron here.

III. THAT THE PLAGUE ADVANCED ALL THE WHILE WITH FRIGHTFUL CELERITY. Even so sin and death made havoc of an evil world ere Christ came forth to stay the plague (Romans 1:1-32, Romans 3:1-31, Romans 5:1-21). And still, where it is not stayed, its progress is as rapid and as irresistible as ever. Thousands are daily swept away to destruction.

IV. THAT THE FERVENT, SELF-SACRIFICING LOVE OF MOSES FOR HIS PEOPLE (WHO HAD OPPOSED AND REJECTED HIM) DEVISED THIS NEW REMEDY, UNKNOWN BEFORE. Even so it was the infinite, self-abasing love of the eternal Son which devised the means of our salvation, albeit we had rebelled against him and cast off his dominion (Psalms 2:2, Psalms 2:3, Psalms 2:12; Luke 19:14; John 3:16; Acts 3:26; Romans 5:8; 1 John 4:10).





Even so the one Divine deliverance from eternal death is

(1) in the high priestly intercession of Christ,

(2) offered in the golden censer of his infinite merits,

(3) offered "in the midst of the congregation,'' i.e; in our nature, wherein he lived and died, and in which he ever liveth to make intercession (Luke 23:34; John 17:19, John 17:20; Romans 5:9, Romans 5:10; Hebrews 2:12-17; Hebrews 7:24, Hebrews 7:25; Revelation 8:3, Revelation 8:4).

VI. THAT THE INCENSE WAS TO BE LIGHTED WITH FIRE FROM OFF THE ALTAR OF BURNT OFFERING, otherwise it had been as ineffectual for good as the offering of Nadab and Abihu (Le Numbers 10:1). Even so the intercessions of Christ whereby we live are not only offered as of his infinite merits, but as based upon his one perfect and sufficient sacrifice. It is fire from the altar of the cross which kindles and makes to ascend in fragrance his "much incense" before the throne. From another point of view it is the burning love which prompted and inspired his death which inspires and kindles his unceasing intercession for us.

VII. THAT AARON RAN INTO THE CAMP TO MAKE AN ATONEMENT FOR THE PEOPLE, REGARDLESS OF ANY DANGER TO HIMSELF. Even so our Lord hasted in his great zeal to expose himself to all danger in our midst in order to work out our salvation.

VIII. THAT AARON STOOD BETWEEN THE DEAD AND THE LIVING—all on one side of him (as it should seem) dead, all on the other side alive, through his intervention. Even so our High Priest stands, and stands alone, between us and death. Nothing separates us from the eternally lost but the saving efficacy of his intercession; had he not appeared upon the scene we too had perished. Moreover, he stands between the living and the dead in this sense, that all souls are divided by him and his cross into two lots, the living who accept, the dead who reject him. Thus he hung between the penitent and impenitent robbers, and thus he will place the goats and the sheep on the one side of him and on the other.

IX. THAT THE PLAGUE WAS STAYED BY AARON'S INTERPOSITION OF HIMSELF BETWEEN IT AND ITS VICTIMS. Even so Christ has averted death from us, and taken away its sting, by placing himself between it and us, by interposing between the wrath of Heaven and our souls (Romans 7:25; Romans 8:1). And so long as we are sheltered behind his atonement and intercession we are absolutely safe.

X. THAT AARON, AFTER MAKING AN ATONEMENT, RETURNED TO THE MOST HOLY PLACE WITH HIS CENSER (cf. Hebrews 9:4). Even so our Lord, after making atonement for us upon the cross, and breaking the empire of sin and death, returned to that heaven from which he came, leaving us free from the power of death.

XI. THAT THIS WAS THE GLORIOUS VINDICATION OF AARON'S PRIESTLY OFFICE, IN THAT IT BROUGHT LIFE AND DELIVERANCE TO THE VERY MEN WHO HAD DESPISED AND SLANDERED IT. How much better and more effectual than if a thousand Korahs had been slain by reason of it! Even so the true vindication of the priesthood of Christ, in whatsoever sense or by whomsoever assailed, is its marvelous and ever-living efficacy for the healing of sinners, and for their salvation from spiritual death. Those that are ready to strive against it to the uttermost today will know themselves beholden to it for life and liberty tomorrow. Whatever belongs to the priesthood of Christ must here, and here only, find its defense and confirmation, not in smiting down them that oppose themselves (which is of the law only), but in saving them from the fatal consequences of their own sin and blindness (which is of the gospel alone). Cf. Luke 9:55, Luke 9:56; John 12:47; 2 Corinthians 10:8; 2 Corinthians 13:10; Galatians 1:23; 1 Timothy 2:4.


Numbers 16:41-50


I. THE PEOPLE REMAIN UNCHANGED IN HEART. They had been terrified for the moment, and fled to what they thought a safe distance, but by the morrow all their audacity has returned. It would seem as if men soon become accustomed to even the most terrible visitations of God; and the more they see of his doings, the less able they are to understand them. There was a time when such destruction as they had gazed on would have taught them caution for more than a day, but now a day is quite sufficient to make them bolder than ever. The evidential value which Moses had pointed out in Numbers 16:28-30 is quite lost upon them. Perverse minds disregard the clearest evidence. It may be a good thing for some purposes to multiply evidences of Christianity, but if the whole earth were filled with books written on the subject, many would remain unconvinced. The conduct of these people, so quickly murmuring again, may seem scarcely credible as we read it, yet are they in reality worse than unbelievers now? If we also read of these things that happened to Israel of old, and are not in the least impressed by them, then what are we different in our folly and audacity? The lapse of more than three thousand years has not made God less jealous of his ordinances, less able and determined to punish those who slight them. Fearful things are spoken of those who crucify the Son of God afresh and put him to an open shame. Instead of marveling at Israel, we shall do well to see in it, as in a mirror, the perversity, blindness, and frivolity of the natural man everywhere. As Israel was, so are we, until and unless God puts within us a new and different life.

II. A STILL FURTHER RECOGNITION OF THE PRIESTLY OFFICE. One is not astonished to read that simultaneously with the gathering of the murmuring people, the glory of the Lord appeared again. Hitherto there has been some little interval, some time as it were for repentance, but now along with this high pitch of audacity, it is fitting that the revelation of the glory should be prompt, and prompt also the vindication of what God had but lately done. Once again he warns Moses and Aaron out of the way of death. And now what can Moses do, for his pleas are exhausted? The people have gone on sinning, until at last the ingenuity of Iris pitying heart has nothing left to say. In this extremity he turns where all must turn at last, name]y, to the atonement for sin which God has solemnly appointed. Probably in the first institution of the priestly office he did not comprehend all the power and blessing it could confer. He was now to know, and Israel with him, that atonement for sin, made through the appointed officer, had a most certain effect in destroying some, at least, of the consequences of sin. The atonement made under the law sets forth that more efficacious and searching atonement lying at the foundation of the gospel, but it was not, therefore, a mere form. It could not indeed cleanse the conscience or change the life, but it was effectual to keep back the plague that brought physical death. In the light of the honour which God here puts upon his priest, and the real effect produced by this offering for sin, how clearly we see the real effect that must come from the work of Jesus! If Aaron, the feeble, sinful type, could do so much, how much more we are bound to expect from Jesus, the sinless, perfect antitype!

III. THE SIGNIFICANCE OF AARON'S POSITION. He stood between the dead and the living. What a quickly destructive power sin has! The language indicates that Moses and Aaron were full of alacrity. Not a moment was lost in interposing the atoning service, but even so more than fourteen thousand of the people had already perished. The connection between sin and death is very close, and in such a visitation as this the closeness is made very clear. It may seem constantly contradicted, that in the day men eat of the forbidden fruit they shall surely die, but the contradiction is in appearance only. In the sinful act death is begun, and if God so chooses, its full power may be very quickly manifested. Thus when Aaron went in he found death had been before him, and he had to stand between the dead and the living. It was from the dead that the plague passed greedily on to the living, like the licking fire from the black ruins where it has done its work to the firings still unconsumed. But the moment Aaron enters, the atonement begins to work. The very fact that so many had perished, and so rapidly, glorifies the efficacy of his intervention. Sin is then at once in check. It was a noble position for the priest to occupy, and we should think of it as occupied by Jesus. He indeed stands between the dead and the living. As we gaze upon those wrecked and ruined ones, fast settled in despair, and beyond any succour that we can discern, Christ stands between us and them to give assurance that with him there is power to deliver us from such a fate. It is his great and glorious power to deliver us from death by giving to us a new and higher life, and giving it more abundantly, that mortality may be swallowed up of life (2 Corinthians 5:4).—Y.

Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Numbers 16". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tpc/numbers-16.html. 1897.
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