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Bible Commentaries

The Biblical Illustrator
Numbers 31

 

 

Verses 1-12

Numbers 31:1-12

They warred against the Midianites.

The vengeance of Jehovah on Midian

I. That in the administration of the Divine government the punishment of sin is certain.

1. The sin which the Midianites had committed.

2. The Author of the punishment of the Midianites.

3. The executioners of the punishment.

4. The severity of the punishment.

II. That God can work by many, or by few, in the execution of His purposes. The accomplishments of the purpose of God by this small force was fitted to answer three ends.

1. To teach them that this expedition was, in a special manner, the Lord’s.

2. To teach them that He can effect His purposes “by many or by few” (1 Samuel 14:6; 7:1-25.).

3. To check any temptation or tendency to self-glorification on the part of the soldiers.

III. That God honours the holy zeal of His servants by employing them as leaders in the execution of His purposes.

IV. That God enriches His people with the spoils of their enemies. (W. Jones.)

The Midianites reckoned with

1. God would have the Midianites chastised, an inroad made upon that part of their country which lay next to the camp of Israel, and which was concerned in that mischief, probably more than the Moabites, who, therefore, were let alone. God will have us to reckon those our worst enemies that draw us to sin, and since every man is tempted when he is drawn aside of his own lusts, and those are the Midianites which ensnare us with their wiles, on them we should avenge ourselves; not only make no league with them, but make war upon them by living a life of mortification. God hath taken vengeance on His own people for yielding to the Midianite’s temptations; now the Midianites must be reckoned with that gave temptation ; for the deceived and the deceiver are His (Job 12:16), both accountable to His tribunal; and though judgment begin at the house of God, it shall not end there (1 Peter 4:17). There is a day coming when vengeance will be taken on those that have introduced errors and corruptions into the Church, and the devil that deceived men will be cast into the lake of fire. Israels quarrel with Amalek that fought against them was not avenged till long after, but their quarrel with Midian that debauched them was speedily avenged, for they were looked upon as much the more dangerous and malicious enemies.

2. God would have it done by Moses in his life-time, that he who had so deeply resented that injury might have the satisfaction of seeing it avenged. See this execution done upon the enemies of God and Israel, and afterwards thou shall be gathered to thy people. This was the only piece of service of this kind that Moses must farther do, and then he has accomplished, as a hireling, his day, and shall have his quietus. (Matthew Henry, D. D.)

Vengeance executed on Midian

This is a very remarkable passage. The Lord says to Moses, “Avenge the children of Israel of the Midianites.” And Moses says to Israel, “Avenge the Lord of Midian.” The people had been ensnared by the wiles of the daughters of Midian, through the evil influence of Balaam the son of Peer; and they are now called upon to clear themselves thoroughly from all the defilement which, through want of watchfulness, they had contracted. The sword is to be brought upon the Midianites; and all the spoil is to be made to pass either through the fire of judgment or through the water of purification. Not one jot or tittle of the evil thing is to be suffered to pass unjudged. Now, this war was what we may call abnormal. By right the people ought not to have had any occasion to encounter it at all. It was not one of the wars of Canaan. It was simply the result of their own unfaithfulness--the fruit of their own unhallowed commerce with the uncircumcised. Hence, although Joshua, the son of Nun, had been duly appointed to succeed Moses as leader of the congregation, we find no mention whatever of him in connection with this war. On the contrary, it is to Phinehas, the son of Eleazar the priest, that the conduct of this expedition is committed; and he enters upon it “with the holy instruments and the trumpets.” All this is strongly marked. The priest is the prominent person; and the holy instruments, the prominent instrumentality. It is a question of wiping away the stain caused by their unholy association with the enemy; and, therefore, instead of a general officer with sword and spear, it is a priest with holy instruments that appears in the foreground. True, the sword is here; but it is not the prominent thing. It is the priest with the vessels of the sanctuary; and that priest the selfsame man who first executed judgment upon that very evil which has here to be avenged. The moral of all this is, at once, plain and practical. The Midianites furnish a type of that peculiar kind of influence which the world exerts over the hearts of the people of God--the fascinating and ensnaring power of the world used by Satan to hinder our entrance upon our proper heavenly portion. Israel should have had nothing to do with these Midianites; but having, in an evil hour, been betrayed into association with them, nothing remains but war and utter extermination. So with us, as Christians. Our proper business is to pass through the world as pilgrims and strangers; having nothing to do with it save to be the patient witnesses of the grace of Christ, and thus shine as lights in the midst of the surrounding moral gloom. But, alas! we fail to maintain this rigid separation; we suffer ourselves to be betrayed into alliance with the world, and, in consequence, we get involved in trouble and conflict which does not properly belong to us at all. War with Midian formed no part of Israel’s proper work. They had to thank themselves for it. But God is gracious; and hence, through a special application of priestly ministry, they were enabled, not only to conquer the Midianites, but to carry away much spoil. God, in His infinite goodness, brings good out of evil. (C. H. Mackintosh.)

Israel’s progress

It is instructive to compare this warfare of the children of Israel with their earlier battles. There are many points of difference between them. In Egypt, when surrounded by their enemies, they were not called to fight. They were quite unprepared for war; but God fought for them, and they were still, and held their peace. Then again, subsequently they were attacked by the Amalekites. They did not begin the encounter, but only repelled the attacks; whereas on this occasion Moses said unto the people (Numbers 31:3). Their earlier encounters were all in self-defence--their later ones were aggressive. Here, then, we cannot but discern a mark of progress in Israel’s history. At first, when they were weak, and without experience of God’s power and unchanging love, they were more passive. Now that they had been formed into a more compact body, and trained to arms, and still more, had experienced the power and faithfulness of God, they were called to be aggressive, to attack and destroy the enemies of God. Now, we think, that this progress in Israel’s history is typical in the Christian life. In the first beginnings of the spiritual life the young Christian’s mind is chiefly passive. God’s work is to show him his own needs and what are his enemies. The very spirit of the gospel is aggressive, not in a worldly sense, nor indeed in the sense in which it was true of Israel, but in a higher and holier sense; for it is a spirit of faith in God-a spirit of holy jealousy for God’s glory--a spirit of deep compassion for perishing souls. Do you ever ask yourselves, What progress is my soul making? There are many signs; and it is safer not to try ourselves by one only. If you are living near to God you will be growing more and more dead to the world. But note another mark. When Moses sent them into the battle, a thousand of every tribe, he sent Phinehas, the son of Eleazar the priest, with them, and the holy instruments, and the trumpets to blow in his hand. What these holy instruments were we are not informed, but doubtless they were meant to be symbols of God’s presence with His people. The priest, and holy instruments, and silver trumpets, were as needful as their weapons of war. These were a practical warning against a spirit of revenge, and an encouragement to depend wholly on God. They must have served to impress most powerfully on the minds of the Israelites that this war was a great moral act, and that in engaging in it they should depend wholly on God. And these accompaniments of war showed also progress in Israel’s history. Their earlier battles were always acts of faith; but then no priest went forth with their army, no holy instruments were carried forth, or trumpets blown; for it was subsequently that they were brought into covenant with God at Sinai, and had still brighter tokens of His presence--subsequently, that the two silver trumpets were appointed to carry terror into the hearts of their enemies, and to make them realise that they were remembered before Jehovah. And this may suggest to us one point of difference between the earlier and later conflicts of a Christian. When he is young and inexperienced in conflict, there is generally too much confidence in self. But when God has taught him deeper lessons in the work of war, he has lees confidence in self and more in God. Then it is not his own courage or skill, not his own strength or perseverance, but Christ his eternal and ever-present Priest, the holy instruments of the sanctuary, and the silver trumpet of the gospel, which are his great and only hope of victory. But there is still another point of progress discernible in this part of Israel’s history, and that is in the use that was made of the spoils of the Midianites. Jehovah gave them this victory. They all felt it. It was in His name that they went forth, and in His name that they triumphed. Here we find that they “brought the captives, and the prey, and the spoil, to Moses and Eleazar, the priest, and unto the congregation of the children of Israel” (Numbers 31:12). And then a division of the booty took place. It was divided into two equal parts, one of which was given to those who went into the battle, and the other belonged to those who remained in the camp. Those who encountered the Midianites being but a small part of Israel, only twelve thousand men, had in reality the largest share; and this was but right, as they had been exposed to the dangers of war. But this was not the whole of the arrangement. The most important part remains to be mentioned. After this division had taken place, a part was to be consecrated to God. Of that which belonged to the warriors themselves one five-hundredth part was offered unto the Lord as a heave-offering, as we are expressly told, “And Moses gave the tribute which was the Lord’s heave-offering unto Eleazar the priest” (Numbers 31:4). This portion, then, came to the priests. Of the other part, which belonged to those who did not go into battle, one-fiftieth part was consecrated to God, “And of the children of Israel’s half, thou shalt take one portion of fifty of the persons, of the beeves, of the asses, and of the flocks, and of all manner of beasts” (Numbers 31:30). This portion belonged to the Levites. And so, if we compare together the portion of the priests with that of the Levites, we find that was as one to ten. But even this is not all. When those who went into battle were numbered, it was found that there “lacked not one man,” not one was lost. This was a wonderful proof of God’s care and protection. No less than twenty-four thousand fell by the plague, and not even one in the war with a powerful people. This produced a strong impression on the minds of the officers. They were thankful, as well they might be, for God’s goodness; and they showed their gratitude by making an additional freewill-offering to God. “We have, therefore,” they say, “brought an oblation for the Lord, what every man hath gotten, of jewels, of gold, chains and bracelets, rings, ear-rings, and tablets, to make an atonement for our souls before the Lord” (Numbers 31:50); and this offering was brought by Moses and Eleazar the priest into the tabernacle of the congregation, for a “ memorial for the children of Israel before the Lord.” Now in all this we can discern progress in Israel’s history. In the earlier part of it we do not meet with any such arrangement, but when brought into immediate covenant union with God, He taught them practically that they themselves, and all that they had, belonged to Himself. He trained them to a spirit of self-denial. This is an important lesson which this history impresses upon us. If we were asked, “What are the two graces in which Christians are most wanting?” we should answer, “charity” and “self-denial”; that charity which bears long, which covers a multitude of sins, and that spirit of self-denial which leads us habitually to crucify the old man, and to place God’s glory before our own comfort, ease, and pleasure. There are many Christians who are sound in doctrine, and who seem to glory that they are free from this and that error, but there is much self-indulgence in their lives. (G. Wagner.)

Balaam also the son of Beor they slew with the sword.--

The fate of Balaam

Who shall describe the terrors of this recreant prophet, during that brief moment that ensued between the lifting up and the letting down of that fatal weapon? We know how Balaam regarded death. We know that he regarded it with dread. “Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his.” And now he was about to die the death of the wicked! As in a moment, we may be sure, the whole panorama of his life, and its true significance, flashed before him.

I. Death the testing time of life. We may exaggerate the importance of death. We may treat it as more important than life; whereas its chief importance is in relation to life. But in its relation to life its importance is scarcely to be exaggerated. And its chief significance, in this respect, undoubtedly consists in its bearing on the future.

II. The awfulness of death to one who has lived a sinful and unholy life. There can be no doubt that God did His utmost to save this man. Nothing that was likely to be helpful to his salvation was withheld from him; and all this Balaam must have felt and realised, when at last his course of crime had brought him to that life-revealing spot, the shadow of death. And if such was his retrospect in the hour of death, what must have been the prospect that opened up to his imagination and his fears? And what makes the fate of Balaam so terrible to think of, is the apparently minute point of departure from the course of rectitude in which his wrong-doing commenced. Balaam only, at first, desired to have the pecuniary recompense which the service of Balak promised him. He had no desire to do wrong. He did not love unrighteousness; he only loved the “wages” of unrighteousness. And yet that little germ of evil in his breast at last overcame all right feeling and all right principle; and reduced the famous prophet of Pethor to the level of the lowest schemer and the basest plotter. The smallest angle at the juncture of two lines will, if these lines be continually produced, lead them wider and wider at every stage. And so if there be the least departure from the path of Fight at the beginning there will be infinitely divergeness in the end. (W. Roberts.)

The doom of the double-hearted

I. He wanted to serve two masters. These were the same as the Lord in after days designated God and mammon. He wanted not to offend either; to please both. He was like Issachar crouching between two burdens. Such is the certain failure of all who make the like attempt.

II. He wanted to earn two kinds of wages. The wages of righteousness and the wages of unrighteousness (2 Peter 2:15), were both in his eyes; he would fain have the pay both of God and of the devil. He was unwilling to do or say anything which would deprive him of either. He was as cautious and cunning as he was covetous.

III. He wanted to do two opposite things at the same time. He wished both to bless and to curse. He was willing to do either according as it might serve his interests. The only question with him was, “Would it pay?”

IV. He wanted two kinds of friendship.

V. He wanted to have two religions. He saw religion to be a paying concern, a profitable trade, and he was willing to accept it from anybody or everybody, to adopt it from any quarter if it would but raise him in the world, and make his fortune. But this double service, and double friendship, and double religion, would not do. He would make nothing by them. They profited him nothing either in this life or that to come. His end was with the ungodly, his portion with the enemies of Israel. And his soul, where could it be? Not with Israel’s God, or Israel’s Christ, or in Israel’s heaven. He reaped what he sowed. He was a good specimen of multitudes in these last days. They want as much religion as will save them from hell ; not an atom more. The world is their real god; gold is their idol; it is in mammon’s temple that they worship. Look to thy latter end. What it is to be? Where is it to be? With whom is it to be? Anticipate thy eternity. Is it to be darkness or light, shame or glory? (H. Bonar, D. D.)

Balaam’s death

What a death was this to die for one who had been a prophet of the Lord--one who had been privileged to hold converse with Deity, and to foretell the purposes of the supreme mind! How little could he ever have imagined that he should come to this! What I he, with his great gifts and high official position--he stoop down from the eminence on which he stood to take up the sword of a rebel against Jehovah--to identify himself with a nation of debased idolators, and then end his life amid the wild tumult of battle in a vain effort to defend their cause! He degrade himself to such an extent as that? Impossible; yet so it happened. How this death contrasts with that which be had so ardently desired! Death in sanguinary conflict, surrounded by dying thousands of the enemies of God, with the din of arms and the fierce war-cry of opposing forces sounding in his ears; how different from “the death of the righteous,” calmly commending his soul into the hands of a faithful Creator, antedating heavenly joys, catching a smile from the Divine countenance, and then peacefully “dropping into eternity”! A death in a state of apostasy from God, in open rebellion against His will, in impious defiance of His power, the death of Balaam was a death without hope. Not a ray of light is there to irradiate or relieve the gloom that gathers in thick and portentous blackness over the spot where he fell. (C. Merry.)


Verses 1-54

Verse 16

Numbers 31:16

The counsel of Balaam.

The counsel of Balaam

It would seem, then, that this people that was to “dwell alone and not be reckoned among the nations” had not dwelt alone; and that one man, at least, of the people in whom God had not beheld iniquity nor seen perverseness, had been guilty of the most flagrant iniquity and perverseness. For not only had he, an Israelitish prince, brought the daughter of a Midianitish prince unto his brethren--which was in itself an unlawful act--but he had done this openly and shamelessly, in the sight of Moses, and in the sight of all the congregation of Israel (Numbers 25:6). But how came it to pass that these Moabites and Midianites, who, only yesterday as it were, displayed such relentless hostility to Israel, should, to-day, be upon such friendly terms with them? How was it that, whereas but yesterday--so to speak--the king of Moab sent princes of Moab and Midian to Balaam, the son of Beor to Pethor in Mesopotamia, entreating him to come and curse the Israelites--sparing nothing to secure this end--these hostile princes are now giving their daughters to the Israelites in the most intimate companionship? Surely there must be some treachery in this proceeding! And so it seemed there was. Balaam, after his repulse by Balak, had fled, not to his own land, but to Midian, the confederate of Moab; and, not daring to curse the people himself, had suggested to the Midianites a method of leading them into iniquity, as a means of bringing a curse on them from God. And this new scheme had propitiated Balak, who had been so fiercely enraged against Balaam, and who now” consulted” (Micah 6:5) with Balaam; who “counselled” (Numbers 31:16) this expedient of mischief. So the matter came out upon the death of Balaam, and so is it explained in my text.

1. Balaam plainly committed this crime with his eyes open to the wrong be was doing. Out of his own mouth we may judge him. In a moment of prophetic inspiration he protested to Balak that his eyes were open; that he had heard the words of God, and knew the knowledge of the Most High. Balaam’s sin, then, was committed knowingly, consciously, wilfully. He was not “overtaken in a fault.” He set himself to do wickedly.

2. And he was influenced to take this course by the meanest of motives. He “loved the wages of unrighteousness.”

3. And if anything could have aggravated the meanness of the motive that influenced Balaam in betraying Israel, it was the baseness of the method he adopted to accomplish that design. God had revealed to him, in prophetic insight, the secret of Israel’s greatness and strength. And Balaam used the very inspiration which God gave him to injure, fatally, God’s own chosen people. And the cowardice of his procedure was in keeping with its baseness. He would not touch Israel himself. He dare not utter a word against them; but be could whisper suggestions of evil into the ears of others, that they might execute the diabolical design. (W. Roberts.)

Balaam’s devilish policy

This policy was fetched from the bottom of hell. “It is not for lack of desire that I curse not Israel; thou dost not more wish their destruction, than I do thy wealth and honour; but so long as they hold firm with God, there is no sorcery against Jacob: withdraw God from them, and they shall fall alone, and curse themselves; draw them into sin, and thou shalt withdraw God from them. There is no sin more plausible than wantonness. One fornication shall draw in another, and both shall fetch the anger of God after them; their sight shall draw them to lust, their lust to folly, their folly to idolatry; and now God shall curse them for thee unasked.” Where Balaam did speak well, there was never any prophet spake more divinely; where he spake ill, there was never any devil spake more desperately. Ill counsel seldom succeedeth not; good seed often falls out of the way, and roots not; but the tares never light amiss. This project of the wicked magician was too prosperous. (Bp. Hall.)
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Bibliography Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Numbers 31:4". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/tbi/numbers-31.html. 1905-1909. New York.

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Friday, September 20th, 2019
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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