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Bible Commentaries

Charles Simeon's Horae Homileticae
Numbers 16



Verse 38



Numbers 16:38. The censers of these sinners against their own souls, let them make them broad plates for a covering of the altar; for they offered them before the Lord; therefore they are hallowed: and they shall be a sign unto the children of Israel.

IT is painful, in perusing the history of the Israelites, to see how constantly they were murmuring and rebelling against God. Persons who are ignorant of their own hearts are ready to conceive of them as more perverse and obstinate than the rest of mankind: but they who know what human nature is, behold in their rebellions a true picture of mankind at large. In the chapter before us we have an exact representation of a popular tumult: we see the motives and principles by which factious demagogues are actuated, and the lamentable evils which they produce. The censers of which our text speaks were formed into plates for a covering of the altar, that they might be a sign to all future generations: and, though we have not now the altar before us, they are no less a sign to us, than they were to the Israelites of old.

Let us consider,

I. The history before us—

Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, raised a rebellion against Moses and Aaron—

[Let us mark how they proceeded. They complained that Moses and Aaron had usurped an undue authority over them: and that Moses in particular had ensnared them, and brought them into the wilderness for that very purpose [Note: ver. 13, 14.]. For the purpose of making an invidious comparison between their former situation in Egypt and their present state [Note: ver. 13, 14.], they represented Egypt as “a land flowing with milk and honey.” As to any personal interest, they disclaimed any regard to that; and professed to be actuated by a generous concern for the public welfare [Note: ver. 3.]. In a word, they were true patriots: they were enemies to usurpation and tyranny, and friends to the liberties of the people. Liberty and equality was their motto [Note: ver. 3.].

Such were their professions: and by these they imposed upon the people, and rendered them dissatisfied with the government both in church and state.

But what were their real principles? They envied the power and dignity with which their governors were invested, and were ambitious to obtain a like pre-eminence for themselves. As for any desire to ameliorate the state of the people at large, they had it not: a patriotic concern for others was a mere pretext, a popular cry raised for the purpose of gaining partisans. Korah was at the head of the Levites, and Dathan and Abiram were “men of renown among the princes of the congregation:” but they were not satisfied: they could endure no dignity superior to their own; and this was the true cause of all their discontent and clamour [Note: ver. 7.]: and if by means of this insurrection they could have obtained the distinction which they aimed at, not a word more would have been uttered on the subject of national grievances; nor would one hundredth port of the care have been taken to prevent them. It is impossible to read the history and not to see that this was the true state of the case.

What an insight does this give us into that which is usually dignified with the name of patriotism! If ever there was a mild and just governor, it was Moses. If ever there was a pious, affectionate, and diligent minister, it was Aaron. If ever there was a well-administered government both in church and state, it was at that time. If ever people had cause to be satisfied and happy, it was then. There was not a single ground of sorrow amongst all the people, except that which had arisen solely from their own perverseness, their detention in the wilderness. Yet a few factious demagogues prevail to spread dissatisfaction through the whole camp: and their oppressed state of bondage in Egypt is declared to be preferable to the grievances which they then experienced.]

But, in fact, their rebellion was against God himself—

[This is plainly declared to them by Moses [Note: ver. 11.]. What matter was there of complaint against Aaron? He did only what God had commanded him: and was he to be blamed for that? Moses forbears to make the same apology for himself: but his observation was equally applicable to himself, who had done nothing but by the express command of God. The conspirators then were in reality fighting against God himself, by whose direction every measure of the government had been taken. Moreover there was a typical design in these divine appointments, which this conspiracy was calculated to defeat. Thus, whilst envy and ambition characterized the conduct of the conspirators towards man, they betrayed also the grossest impiety and presumption towards God.]

The best estimate of their conduct may be found in the punishment inflicted for it—

[This was truly awful. Moses had obtained mercy from God for the congregation at large; but the leaders of the rebellion must be punished. Accordingly, whilst Dathan and Abiram, together with their wives, and families, and adherents, stood in the door of their tents, setting God himself, as it were, at defiance, Moses declared by what an extraordinary judgment they should perish: and no sooner had he spoken, than the judgment was inflicted: “the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them all up, with all that appertained unto them.” As for the two hundred and fifty persons who presumed to make their appeal to God respecting their title to the priesthood, “a fire came forth from the Lord, and consumed them all.” Terrible was this if viewed only as a temporal judgment: but if considered in reference to the eternal world, it was awful indeed! That it might be kept in remembrance for the instruction of future ages, “the censers, in which they had offered incense, were ordered to be made into broad plates for a covering of the altar.”]

It will be proper then that we distinctly consider,

II. The instruction to be gathered from it—

To us, no less than to the Jews, does this event most clearly speak. It shews us,

1. That sin is an act of hostility against our own souls—

[These rebels might be said to sin against their governors and against God: but they were “sinners also against their own souls:” and, had the object of their desire been the destruction of their own souls, they could not have prosecuted their end by any surer means. Little is this thought of by those who live in sin: but, whatever be the sin which they commit, the effect is still the same [Note: Proverbs 8:36.]. If a man will only keep from sin, he may defy all the assaults either of men or devils. Men may destroy his body, but they cannot touch his soul. Satan himself cannot hurt his soul, without his own consent. Sin is the only medium by which the soul can receive any injury. But that inflicts upon it a deadly wound: that destroys its innocence and peace: that brings down upon it the wrath of an incensed God: that subjects it to everlasting misery. See how the earth swallowed up some, and how the fire consumed others; and there you will learn the fate of all who die in their sins: hell will open wide its mouth to swallow them up, and unquenchable fire will consume them as its proper and appointed fuel — — — O that men were wise, and would consider this; and turn, every one of them, from the evil of their ways!]

2. That opposition to constituted authorities is highly displeasing to God—

[We are far from denying that there is such a thing as real patriotism: nor do we mean to say that tyranny and oppression may not rise to such a height, as to justify the overthrow of an existing government. But this we say, that a real Christian will not be hasty to complain of grievances, even where they do exist; much less will he bear the smallest resemblance to these factious people, whose case we have been considering. The Christian is one of “them that are quiet in the land.” He regards government as God’s ordinance; and the persons who are invested with authority as God’s representatives. He considers that, in obeying them, he obeys God; and in unnecessarily and vexatiously opposing them, he opposes God: and he Knows that “God is the avenger of all such,” yea, that such persons “shall receive to themselves damnation [Note: Romans 13:1-2.]:” the government itself may justly inflict punishment upon them; and God himself will punish such conduct in the eternal world. Persons of this stamp often pretend to religion: and so they did in the days of the Apostles: but those who “despise dominion, and speak evil of dignities,” have a “woe” denounced against them: their spirit is justly marked as a compound of envy, covetousness, and ambition; and having resembled Cain and Balaam in their spirit, they shall resemble Korah in their fate: they shall be eternal monuments of God’s heavy displeasure [Note: Jude, ver. 8, 11.].

Happy would it be if persons who are of a factious and turbulent disposition would look occasionally on thesecensers,” and reap the instruction which they are intended to convey!]

3. That a rejection of Christ must of necessity prove fatal to the soul—

[Moses as the governor, and Aaron as the high-priest, of Israel, were types and representatives of the Lord Jesus Christ [Note: Acts 7:37-39; Hebrews 8:1-2; Hebrews 9:11-12.]: and in rebelling against them, they virtually rebelled against him also. Thus, amongst ourselves, how many are there who say, “We will not have this man to reign over us [Note: Luke 19:14.]!” Some complain of his authority, as imposing an insupportable yoke upon them; and others of his priesthood, as prohibiting any access to God except through him as the only Mediator. But what the issue of such rebellion will be, we are faithfully warned, and that too with some reference, it should seem, to the judgments exercised on Korah and his company [Note: Hebrews 10:26-27.]. At all events, if the opposers of Moses and Aaron were so fearfully destroyed, we may be sure that a far heavier judgment awaits the contemners and opposers of Christ [Note: Hebrews 10:28-29 with Luke 19:27.] — — — Let those who do not thankfully come to God by Christ, and unreservedly obey his holy will, be instructed by these events — — — In particular, we entreat them to act like Israel in the case before us: “All Israel that were gathered round the tents of Dathan and Abiram, fled at the cry of them: for they said, Lest the earth swallow us up also [Note: ver. 34.].” Could we but hear the cry of those that are in hell, we should no longer sit supine and confident. O let us realize this thought ere it be too late, and “flee in earnest from the wrath to come!”]

Verse 48



Numbers 16:48. And he stood between the dead and the living: and the plague was stayed.

CORRUPT as human nature is, there are some sins which we scarcely think it possible for a rational being to be guilty of; and, if it were suggested to us that we ourselves were in danger of committing them, we should be ready to reply, “Is thy servant a dog, that he should do this thing?” Such is the sin which all the congregation of Israel committed on the very day after the death of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. These three persons had excited a rebellion against Moses and Aaron; Korah and his company aspiring to the priesthood, and Dathan and Abiram, with their friends, affecting the office of supreme governor. For this their impiety they had been severely punished; Korah and his company being destroyed by fire that issued from the tabernacle; and all the relatives of Dathan and Abiram being swallowed up by an earthquake. These signal judgments, one would have thought, should have effectually silenced every murmur throughout the camp: but, instead of being humbled, the people were the more enraged; and murmured more than ever against Moses and Aaron, complaining, that the people who had been destroyed were “the people of the Lord,” and that Moses and Aaron had been their murderers: “Ye have killed the people of the Lord.” God now renewed his threatening to destroy them: but Moses and Aaron “fell upon their faces,” as they had done frequently before [Note: Compare ver. 45 with Numbers 14:5; Numbers 16:4; Numbers 16:22.], and importuned God to spare them. God however would not spare them, but sent a plague among them for their destruction. But no sooner did Moses perceive that “the plague was begun,” than he sent Aaron with an offering of incense to arrest its progress. Aaron went immediately into the midst of the people, and succeeded according to his wishes: “he stood between the dead and the living: and the plague was stayed.”

This subject is to be considered in a two-fold view;

I. As an historical fact—

In this view it is worthy of particular attention. We cannot but admire,

1. The interposition of Aaron—

[If ever opposition was unreasonable, it was then: if ever a people had offended beyond all sufferance, it was at that time. Well might Moses and Aaron have said, ‘We have interceded for you often enough: we have repeatedly saved every one of you from destruction: and now, because God has seen fit to punish some of the ringleaders in rebellion, we are charged with having killed them. If mercies will not reclaim you, it is high time that judgments should be tried.’ But not a thought of this kind entered into their hearts. They were filled with nothing but compassion and love. They fell on their faces to intercede for these rebellious people, as much as if they had received no provocation at their hands. The expedient suggested by Moses was instantly carried into effect: and Aaron, at his advanced age, ran with haste into the midst of the congregation, to make an atonement for them. He did not know but that the incensed people would wreak their vengeance upon him, as they had frequently threatened to do; and put him to death, as the author of their present sufferings. Nor could he be certain, but that, if he ran into the midst of the plague, it might sweep him away together with the rest. But he thought not of himself, nor listened for a moment to any personal considerations. He was intent only on saving the lives of his fellow-creatures.

What a glorious example did he afford to all future ministers! What a blessing would it be to the Church, if all her priests were like him; if all could say, “I count not my life dear to me, so that I may but fulfil my ministry [Note: Acts 20:24.];” “most gladly will I spend and be spent for my people, though, the more abundantly I love them, the less I be loved [Note: 2 Corinthians 12:15.]:” “I could wish even to be accursed after the example of Christ, if I might but by any means save only some [Note: Romans 9:3; 1 Corinthians 9:22.]:” yea, most cheerfully would “I suffer all things for their sakes, that they might obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory [Note: 2 Timothy 2:10.]!” Were there more tender compassion amongst us, more ardent love, more self-denying zeal, more active exertion to “pluck our people as brands out of the fire,” and more willingness to perish in the attempt, we might not stop the mouths of gainsayers, it is true; but “we should save many souls alive,” and have them to be “our joy and crown of rejoicing” to all eternity. O that “God would speak the word, and that great might be the company of such preachers [Note: Psalms 68:11.]!”]

2. The effect of it—

[How wonderful! No sooner does the cloud of incense arise from Aaron’s hands, than the plague is stayed! On the day before, two hundred and fifty censers full of incense had been offered at the tabernacle, and had brought instantaneous destruction on the offerers: now the incense from one single censer averts destruction from all the congregation of Israel. The plague was spreading its ravages with such rapidity, that already, notwithstanding Aaron’s haste, fourteen thousand seven hundred persons had died of it: but the moment he reached the spot, the arm of justice was arrested, and the sword fell from the hand of the destroying angel. It proceeded irresistibly till it came to Aaron; but could not advance one hair’s breadth beyond him. On the one side of him all were dead; on the other, all remained alive. What a testimony was this to Aaron’s divine appointment! What a refutation was here of the accusations brought against him! and, above all, what an encouragement was here given to all future generations to abound in prayer and intercession! O! what might not be effected for the souls of men, if all ministers were men of prayer, and all who profess themselves the servants of the Lord would interpose between the living and the dead! O that “a spirit of prayer might be poured out upon us” all! If only we took our fire from off the altar of burnt-offering, the smoke of our incense should come up with acceptance before God: “We might ask what we would, and it should be done unto us [Note: John 15:7.].”]

As a history this passage is instructive: but it is no less so,

II. As an emblematic record—

They who read the Scriptures merely as a history, read them like children. The Old Testament, as well as the New, contains the deepest mysteries: and, to understand it aright, we must consider it not only “in the letter, but in the spirit.” Now the passage before us has undoubtedly an emblematic import: it was intended to shadow forth,

1. The means by which God’s wrath is to be averted—

[Aaron himself was a type of Christ; and the atonement which he now made for the people was typical of that great atonement which Christ himself was in due time to make for the sins of the whole world. There was indeed no animal slain; for there was now no time for sacrifice: but the fire taken from off the altar of burnt-offering, whereon the sacrifices were consumed, was considered on this occasion in the same light as “an atonement:” and the incense burnt on this occasion typified the intercession of our great High-Priest. By these two, the sacrifice and intercession of Christ, the whole world is to be saved. To this the whole Scriptures bear witness. What can be clearer than the prediction of the prophet Isaiah; “He bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors [Note: Isaiah 53:12.]?” What more express than the declaration of the beloved Apostle; “If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, and he is the propitiation for our sins [Note: 1 John 2:1-2.]?” The one intent of the Epistle to the Hebrews is to establish and illustrate this glorious truth.

Let us then look beyond Aaron and the rebellious Israelites, to Christ and a rebellious world. Let us see with what eager desire for our welfare he left the bosom of his Father, and came into the midst of us, not at the risk of his life, but on purpose to “make his soul an offering for sin [Note: Isaiah 53:10.].” Let us hear too with what compassion he interceded for his very murderers; “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” Let us look through the shadow to the substance. Then shall we have a right understanding of the history when we view it as “a shadow of good things to come.”]

2. The efficacy of them for the end proposed—

[Death was arrested in its career, and could proceed no further. And to what is it owing that our rebellious world has not long since been consigned over to destruction? “Not unto us, O Lord Jesu Christ, not unto us, but unto thy name be the praise:” thou by thine atoning blood hast made reconciliation between God and us; and by thy prevailing intercession hast procured for us the mercies we so greatly need. Can we doubt whether this statement be true? St. Paul expressly tells us that Christ is “our Peace:” and, in that view of him, exultingly exclaims, “Who is he that condemneth? it is Christ that died, yea rather that is risen again, who also maketh intercession for us [Note: Romans 8:34.]:” and he tells us further, that “Christ is able to save to the uttermost all that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for us [Note: Hebrews 7:25.].”

Here then again let us view the history in its proper light: and let us learn, Whither to look, and, In whom to hope, whensoever our sins have raised the divine displeasure against us. Let us learn too the force of that apostolic argument, so weak in logic, but so sound in theology, “If the censer in Aaron’s hand prevailed for the preservation of one rebellious people from, temporal death, how much more shall the atonement and intercession of Christ prevail for the everlasting salvation of our souls, yea, for the souls of the whole world [Note: See Hebrews 9:13-14.]!”]

From the whole of this subject let US learn the duties,

1. Of faith—

[In the case before us, the benefit was conferred on account of Aaron’s faith, just as our Lord afterwards healed the paralytic on account of the faith of those who brought him: but in the great concerns of our souls, nothing can be obtained but through the exercise of our own faith. Notwithstanding our great High-Priest has performed the whole of his office, no benefit will accrue to us, unless we believe in him. In this respect we are to resemble the Israelites when bitten by the fiery serpents; we must look unto the brasen serpent in order to be healed; or, in other words, we must regard the Lord Jesus Christ as our Advocate and propitiation: we must renounce every other hope, and “flee for refuge to him as to the hope set before us.” On the one hand, we must not construe the forbearance of God as an approbation of our ways, as though we had no ground for fear: nor, on the other hand, should the greatness of our guilt or the multitude of our provocations make us despair, as though there were no ground for hope: but, viewing Christ as the appointed Mediator between God and us, we should “go to God through him,” trusting to his promise, that “he will in no wise cast us out.”]

2. Of love—

[We see not men struck dead around us under any visible marks of the divine displeasure: but we know that “God is angry with the wicked every day,” and is summoning multitudes to his tribunal under the weight and guilt of all their sins. What are we then about? How can we behold these things with such indifference? Why do we loiter? Why do we not run, as it were, into the midst of the congregation, in order, if possible, to awaken them from their stupor, and to save their precious souls? Why do we not at all events betake ourselves to prayer? We have, at least, our censers nigh at hand, if only we would take fire from the altar of burnt-offering, and burn incense on them. Let it not be said, “This is the work of ministers:” doubtless it is so; but not of them exclusively: they should lead the way, it is true, and be examples to the flock; but others should imitate their example, and “be followers of them, as they are of Christ;” or rather, should follow Christ, whether they will follow him or not. I call you then, every one of you, to forget yourselves, as it were, and your own personal concerns, and to be swallowed up with love and pity for your perishing fellow-creatures. Remember that they are not a whit safer by reason of their delusions. They may call rebels, “the people of the Lord;” but that will not make them the Lord’s people. They may cry out against God’s judgments as injustice and cruelty; but that will not prevent those judgments from being inflicted, either on others or themselves: yea rather, it will bring down those very judgments the more speedily, and more heavily, upon them. Try then to stir up within you the feelings of men, the feelings of Christians: “Of some have compassion, making a difference: and others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire, hating even the garment spotted by the flesh [Note: Jude, ver. 22, 23.].”]


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Bibliography Information
Simeon, Charles. "Commentary on Numbers 16:4". Charles Simeon's Horae Homileticae. 1832.

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Tuesday, December 10th, 2019
the Second Week of Advent
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