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Bible Commentaries

F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary
Numbers 20

 

 

Verses 1-41

We resume the story of the wanderings of the people as we open chapter 20. It would appear that what is given us in Numbers 15:1-41; Numbers 16:1-50; Numbers 17:1-13; Numbers 18:1-32; Numbers 19:1-22 inclusive is not concerned with questions of time. This is clear if we refer to the detailed list of the camping places, given to us in Numbers 33:1-56. The last verse of Numbers 12:1-16 recorded their departure from Hazeroth, a place mentioned in Numbers 33:17. The first verse of our chapter places them at Kadesh in the desert of Zin, and in Numbers 33:1-56 we have to pass on to verse 36 to find them there. Evidently therefore they were now not far from the end of their forty years in the wilderness.

Remarkably enough it was at Hazeroth that Miriam spoke against Moses and was smitten with leprosy. Now at Kadesh she died and was buried. We know but little about her. No other sister of Aaron and Moses is mentioned, so we are probably right in identifying her with the elder sister who acted so wisely, as recorded in Exodus 2:1-25. She is called a "prophetess" in Exodus 15:20, and she led the women of Israel in their triumphant song. But the point where natural feeling prevailed and she failed is no more hid from us than are the failings of her brothers.

At Kadesh Miriam disappeared and so did the singing, for there was no water. Unbelief once more prevailed and there was chiding instead. They blamed Moses for having brought them to an "evil place." Of course they had not got the pleasing fruits of the promised land for they had refused to go up into it and were suffering God's disciplinary action in the wilderness. Again, and for the fourth time, the leaders fell on their faces, thus putting themselves out of sight as far as possible, and the glory of the Lord appeared; not now for judgment, as was the case in Numbers 16:1-50, but for mercy.

The instruction to Moses was that in conjunction with Aaron he should take "the rod." This was evidently the rod of Aaron that had budded, for Moses took it "from before the Lord," where it had been laid up according to Numbers 17:1-13. With this rod in his hand, typical of priestly grace, Moses was to speak to the rock in the presence of the people, and it would give forth the water to meet their need. We have to go back to Exodus 17:1-16, where we have the account of the original smiting of the rock to bring forth the water. Once having been smitten, speaking to the rock sufficed.

If we turn to 1 Corinthians 10:4, we find the Apostle mentioning "that spiritual Rock that followed them;" that is, the rock of Israel's history is conceived of as one, though many years passed between the two episodes, and Christ was typified thereby. No need for Christ to be smitten twice. Once sufficed, and rivers of life-giving water flowed to us. Moses with the rod of priestly grace in his hand represented God, and so on God's behalf he had but to speak, and again waters would be given. When our "Great High Priest... passed into the heavens" (Hebrews 4:14), He was, so to speak, laid up before the Lord, and when the word was given, what copious waters flowed from Him in the gift of the Spirit, as recorded in Acts 2:1-47. Had Moses contented himself with speaking to the rock, as instructed, the type would have been correctly given.

But what happened? Irritated beyond his endurance by the perversity of the people, instead of speaking to the rock Moses lifted up his hand and "smote the rock twice." He did this with "his rod," which we understand to mean that rod of authority with which he opened the waters of the Red Sea in Exodus 14:1-31, and rightly smote the rock in Exodus 17:1-16. This most highly honoured servant of God failed rightly to represent the grace that was typified by the rod that budded.

And it was not only a matter of what he did but also of what he said. True enough, the people were sadly rebellious in heart. He was not inaccurate in addressing them as "ye rebels," but in saying, "must we fetch you water out of this rock," he presented himself and Aaron as the doers of the miracle, instead of leading the thoughts of the people up to God Himself. Hence, though God did not fail but gave an abundant response, His disciplinary action fell on both Moses and Aaron. Neither of them would be permitted to lead the people into the land.

What a blow this must have been to both, and particularly to Moses, who had given up so much, and gone through so much, with this end in view. Are we tempted to think it very drastic discipline? Let us remember two things. First, Moses had been specially commissioned to speak on God's behalf. What God had to say to the people came through his lips, since he came from God to them. Aaron as priest was commissioned to go from the people to God, and was not God's spokesman, so angry words from his lips would not have been so grave a matter. The failure of Moses was precisely at that point which was most important of all, as giving the word from God.

And second, we are now in a position to observe that the discipline had in it an element of mercy. If Moses had been spared to lead the host into the land, what further heart-breaks would have been his! When, after some fifteen centuries, he stood on the mount of transfiguration with Christ and spoke with Him of His decease, he was for that moment in the land under far happier circumstances.

We may also note the typical import of this episode. Moses was the Apostle and Mediator of the law-system, and as such did not lead the people in. The good land of God's purpose, whether for Israel or for us, cannot be entered and enjoyed on the basis of law and law-keeping.

Verse Numbers 20:13 speaks of the place where all this happened as " the water of Meribah," which was the name given to the spot where the rock was rightly smitten, as recorded in Exodus 17:7. Thus from the outset the two events were linked together.

In verses Numbers 20:14-21, we find a move forward towards the land is contemplated, and the district inhabited by the descendants of Esau, on the east side of the Dead Sea, lay right across their path. We have had no mention of Esau since Genesis 36:1-43. That chapter informed us that "Esau is Edom," and also that "kings reigned in the land of Edom, before there reigned any king over the children of Israel." The children of Esau had "dukes" in plenty, giving us an early example of what we find so often in Scripture and in our own experience, that the man who loves the world and ignores God, goes ahead in the world beyond the man who fears God.

Moses' request for right of way through the land of Edom was expressed in very discreet and conciliatory language, yet it was refused at the point of the sword. Though fully four centuries had passed we see the character of Esau reproduced in his descendants. And if we glance for a moment at the short prophecy of Obadiah, written nearly a thousand years later, we find that people marked by the same proud antagonism to their "brother Jacob," and God's unsparing judgment against them. Moses however accepted the rebuff, for the moment of Edom's judgment had not yet come.

The time had now arrived for Aaron to disappear. As was the case with Moses a little later his death was notified in advance. He had no period of debility nor bed of sickness, for he could go to the top of a mountain in the sight of the people. There, stripped of his garments, which were placed upon his son, he died. The Aaronic priesthood, being for earth, was transmissible, "because they were not suffered to continue by reason of death" (Hebrews 7:23). This was the first time that the priesthood had to be transmitted, hence it was done in a very public way by God's appointment, so that no one could challenge Eleazar's new position. The type however is insignificant when compared with the Antitype. The priesthood of the Lord Jesus is heavenly, and it is, as the next verse in Hebrews tells us, an "unchangeable," or "intransmissible" one. Being the Son, He is "consecrated for evermore."

Numbers 21:1-35. At this point the long conflict that was involved in the conquest of the land of Canaan, began. Moses had avoided fighting with Edom, since the judgment of that people was deferred to a later day. King Arad in the south of Canaan took the initiative, and attacked Israel with some small success at first, but ultimately brought entire destruction upon himself and his people. So here for the first time we meet with the complete destruction of cities and peoples, that marked Israel's entrance into the promised land, which is not infrequently denounced by unbelievers as being an atrocity that should never have taken place.

In so saying, however, men are really challenging God, for He authorized Israel's action, and empowered them to carry it out. God has the right to judge men and take their lives, when they carry their sin to insufferable heights. He did it by the flood of waters, when the antediluvians had filled the earth with violence and corruption. When the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah had become very grievous, He did it by an eruption of some kind. In the days of Abraham the iniquity of the Amorites was not yet full, but now it was full, and God elected to destroy them, not by flood or fire, but by the armies of Israel, who were to act as His "battle axe and weapons of war" (Jeremiah 51:20). He will act thus again on two occasions: first, as the millennial age is ushered in, as is predicted in 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9; and again at the close of the millennial age, as predicted in Revelation 20:9. Who shall say Him, nay?

We now reach an incident in the wilderness journey that stands out in striking fashion, inasmuch as it furnishes the third great type of the death of Christ The people grew weary of the way and tired of the manna. They had just seen God's power in the destruction of King Arad, yet it was forgotten. The trials of the wilderness filled their thoughts and they had lost their taste for the food from heaven, which was typical of Christ. Their flesh was still crying out for the delicacies of Egypt, typical of the world. They reached a point when the manna was positively distasteful to them.

So in the governmental ways of God they reached a spot infested by serpents whose bite injected a poison that acted like fire in their veins and ended in death. Can we not see at once a type of that "sin in the flesh," of which Romans 8:3 speaks? In the Garden of Eden Satan not only lured man into an act of disobedience but he also injected into his moral constitution the poison of sin, which accounts for the fact that "the carnal mind," that is, the mind of the flesh, "is enmity against God." This having taken place spiritual death has supervened, and mankind lies by nature dead in trespasses and sins. Our state, poisoned by sin, lies at the root of the many offences from which we need to be justified. What has God done to meet that poisoned state?

The answer to that question lies before us in type. How Moses made a serpent of brass, erected it on a pole, so that any afflicted person might look and live, is very well known. We are concerned with its typical import. Our Lord's own words, recorded in John 3:14 make it abundantly clear that in it His own death is indicated. The particular aspect of His death typified is that found in Romans 8:3. The brazen serpent was made in the likeness of that which was the source of the trouble; so, God sent His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh but also as a sacrifice for sin, being Himself sinless.

The death of Christ, from this aspect, was the condemnation of sin in the flesh. Sin is the potent energy of lawlessness, and flesh — man's flesh — is the vehicle in which it works. The lawless nature of Israel's flesh had been demonstrated in the wilderness journey, and then came the episode of the brazen serpent The hopeless lawlessness of the flesh in the whole of mankind had been proved, and came to its climax, in the cross of Christ; and just there God's condemnation of sin — the root principle — fell once and for all.

But the wonder is that death has in the cross of Christ, become the way of life. The uplifted brazen serpent became the way of life to many; but only to those who obeyed the glad proclamation and turned their eyes upon it. The whole arrangement was of such a nature as to appear foolish to a reasoning mind and only appeal to faith. We cannot help thinking that the men of intellect in Israel would have been tempted to reason that the scheme was absurd; that there could be no connection between a glance at a piece of brass and release from the effects of poison; and therefore to ignore the proclamation. The child in its mother's arms, if told to look, would not have reasoned but would have looked and been cured

In keeping with this are the Lord's words, "Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes" (Matthew 11:25). Faith, not reason, is the way of blessing.

From this point the people "set forward," as verse Numbers 20:10 tells us; and there can be no doubt that it is when a Christian apprehends the death of Christ, in that aspect of it typified by the brazen serpent, that a forward movement of a spiritual sort begins. But before they really started for the promised land, there came the episode of the well to which they were conducted by the mercy of God, without their asking for it. Now here we have a type of the gift of the Holy Spirit, as we see by the Lord's words recorded in John 4:14 and John 7:37-39.

It is very striking how the two types — the brazen serpent and the springing well — are brought together in this one chapter, just as the realities typified are found together in the opening verses of Romans 8:1-39. Only there the order is reversed. Verse Numbers 20:2 speaks of the Holy Spirit as "the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus," and verse Numbers 20:3 of the condemnation of "sin in the flesh;" that is, of the old life "in Adam." There is no more important lesson for a believer to learn than that his old life as a child of Adam has been condemned in the cross of Christ, and that the Holy Spirit indwelling him is the power of that new life which is his in Christ, and upon which no condemnation can ever rest.

If we are to know the power of the Spirit in a practical way there must be the removal of what would quench or grieve Him. Like the princes in verse Numbers 20:18, who laboured to remove the earth that would have hindered the free flowing of the water, we too must act. How often with us the things of earth are obstructive! Israel sang when the waters freely flowed, and when nothing obstructs the "springing up into everlasting life" of the well of water that Christ gives, and the outward flow from the believer of the "rivers of living water," there is indeed a song in the heart. The upspringing and the song go together.

During the wilderness journey the people sang three times. First, the song of salvation on the further banks of the Red Sea. Third, that of our chapter, which typifies the song of deliverance from the enslaving power of sin in the flesh. But between these two came the sad episode of the golden calf, when the people sang around it in nakedness, and in this we see the depths to which the professed people of God may sink.

As at the beginning of our chapter, so at the end, we hear the din of conflict. Sihon had smitten Moab but now he falls before Israel, and so too Og the king of Bashan, in spite of the fact that he was a giant, as we learn in Deuteronomy 3:11. The events that typify victory over the flesh within are followed by the record of victory over the foes without. And this is indeed the way in which things work in our spiritual experience.

But these victories were followed by what we may call a counterattack of the enemy. Though Moab had been smitten by Sihon it still existed as a kingdom and Balak its king was sore afraid. So he sought for Balaam, who had a great reputation as a man who wielded "enchantments" This we see if we turn to Numbers 24:1. If we glance at verses Numbers 20:8; Numbers 20:18 of Numbers 22:1-41, we discover that this man managed to cover his enchantments, which were of course of the devil, with the appearance of reverencing Jehovah as his God. Balak hoped to bring a curse on the people of God by enlisting the help of this professed prophet of God, who was really a servant of Satan. An attack of that kind is marked by exceeding subtilty.

Numbers 22:1-41 is occupied with the preliminaries to the attack. As we are told in 2 Peter 2:15, Balaam "loved the wages of unrighteousness," and longed to possess himself of the honours and wealth that was offered to him. On the other hand God intervened and forbade the mission declaring the people to be definitely blessed. Balak persisting a second time, Balaam again referred the matter to God, and this time was given permission to go with the understanding he could only utter what God gave to him. Going, God's anger was kindled against him.

We may be tempted to wonder at this, but we must remember that God does not change His purpose. If, knowing this, we persist like Balaam, God may change His dealings with us, as He did with Balaam, and permit us to go so that in His discipline we may reap the bitter result of our own way. Even so, as with Balaam, He will give us ample warning of what lies before us.

The incident related as to Balaam's ass has excited much unbelieving protest and even ridicule, yet it is vouched for by Peter in that passage to which we have referred. If Satan could speak through a serpent words of deceit, God can, if He chooses, speak words of warning through an ass. The eyes of Balaam's heart were blinded by his avarice and his traffic with demons, and now we see that the eyes of his head were as blind as the eyes of his heart. The eyes of his head were opened so that at last he saw the angel as clearly as his donkey had done. But the veil over the eyes of his heart remained.

The angel that confronted him held a drawn sword in his hand. The significance of this, especially as it blocked his way, would, we should think, hardly be missed. Yet evidently Balaam was blinded as to its significance, and he went forward to his doom, as it ultimately proved. He never returned to his native land. The wealth and honour, if he ever got them, he never lived to enjoy. He fell by the sword, not of the angel, who at the beginning barred his way to Moab, but of the very people that he attempted to curse in defiance of the purpose of God, as recorded in Numbers 31:8.

Let us accept the warning that his history is intended to give us. It illustrates a part of the course followed by apostates in the Christian profession, for they go in the way of Cain; and run greedily after the error of Balaam for reward, and perish in the gainsaying of Korah, as we are told in the Epistle of Jude.

 


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Bibliography Information
Hole, Frank Binford. "Commentary on Numbers 20:4". "F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/fbh/numbers-20.html. 1947.

Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, July 20th, 2019
the Week of Proper 10 / Ordinary 15
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