the Fifth Week of Lent
Verse-by-Verse Bible Commentary
New American Standard Version
Bible Study Resources
Bridgeway Bible Commentary
Korah, Dathan and Abiram (16:1-50)
In the events recorded in this chapter, two groups combined to rebel against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. One was a group of 250 prominent Levites under the leadership of Korah, who were envious that only Aaron and his family were allowed to be priests. The other was a group headed by two Reubenites, Dathan and Abiram, who were envious and critical of Moses’ leadership of the nation (16:1-3).
Moses again allowed God to be the judge. He asked both groups to appear before God with him to see who was right. The Reubenites refused but the Levites went, taking a crowd from the camp with them in support (4-15). The Levites were to burn incense in firepans, or censers (which, as a rule, only Aaron and his sons were allowed to do), so that God might show his approval or otherwise (16-19).
God threatened to destroy the whole camp, and although Moses and Aaron knew he had the right to do so, they begged him not to (20-24). He responded to their prayer by destroying only those who actually took part in the rebellion. Korah, Dathan, Abiram and some of their chief supporters were swallowed up by the earth in the sight of the camp, but the 250 Levites suffered a different fate. They had wanted to burn incense before God; now they were burnt by fire from God (25-35).
Neither the fire nor the firepans used by the rebellious Levites could be used again. Eleazar the priest emptied the firepans and had them beaten into a bronze plate to cover the altar, where it was a constant reminder that only the family of Aaron could burn incense before God (36-40).
The people blamed Moses and Aaron for the death of the rebels and gathered at the tabernacle in a hostile demonstration against the leaders (41). Again God threatened to destroy the people (42-45), and again Moses and Aaron begged him not to. But God’s judgment in the form of a deadly plague had already begun, and it was stopped only when Aaron made atonement for them by burning incense. This emphasized once more that only the priests could take fire from the altar and offer it with incense before the Lord (46-50).
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Flemming, Donald C. "Commentary on Numbers 16:36". "Fleming's Bridgeway Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/​commentaries/​bbc/​numbers-16.html. 2005.
Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible
"And Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest, that he take up the censers out of the burning, and scatter thou the fire yonder; for they are holy, even the censers of these sinners against their own lives; and let them be made beaten plates for a covering of the altar: for they offered them before Jehovah, therefore they are holy; and they shall be a sign unto the children of Israel. And Eleazar the priest took the brazen censers, which they that were burnt had offered; and they beat them out for a covering of the altar, to be a memorial unto the children of Israel, to the end that no stranger, that is not of the seed of Aaron, come near to burn incense before Jehovah; that he be not as Korah, and as his company: as Jehovah spake unto him by Moses."
The great purpose of preserving the bronze censers and of making from them a memorial "unto the children of Israel" was that of perpetuating the Aaronic priesthood as exclusive possessors of that priesthood, as stated in Numbers 16:40.
"To the end that no stranger, that is not of the seed of Aaron, come near to burn incense before Jehovah ..." This regulation displeased many in Israel, and when Jeroboam came to the throne of the Northern Israel, one of his sins was that of appointing priests of all the people (1 Kings 13:33,34). It was from this basic root that the eventual destruction of the Northern Israel derived. No priesthood of Israel in any sense was ever able either to add to or to diminish from the Sacred Scriptures, because, the power to augment is also the power to diminish, and it is simply inconceivable that if any such power had pertained to Jewish priests, particularly those of Northern Israel who generally were not Aaronic in any sense, and still less any of those in Southern Israel (Judah), could ever have left in the Pentateuch (and the Prophets also) such a fantastic array of material that is detrimental to the image of that priesthood as actually found there. Aaron was an idolater in the matter of the golden calf. Nadab and Abihu were destroyed by Jehovah for disobedience. And God finally disinherited, outlawed, and cursed the whole Levitical priesthood for their sins and arrogant disobedience. "I will send the curse upon you: yea, I have cursed your blessings already" (Malachi 2:2).
Coffman's Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Numbers 16:36". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/​commentaries/​bcc/​numbers-16.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
Smith's Bible Commentary
Now we get to chapter sixteen and this guy Korah, who is brought into mention in the book of Jude, has gotten the conspiracy together. He is of the tribe of Levi and he said, "Hey Moses, you take too much upon yourself. You've got the whole thing tied up with your family. You've appointed your brother as the high priest. Look, we're Levites and we have just as much right to offer the sacrifices to the Lord as does Aaron and we want to have a part in the service to God, more than just carrying this tent around." So Moses said, "All right. You get your little band together, two hundred and fifty guys, and you get your incense burners and you bring them with fire in them tomorrow and incense and we'll see what the Lord will do."
Well, Korah stirred up the Israelites. He gathered a big crowd around and the people were all, you know, "incensed". Yeah, Moses taking too much upon himself, whole family deal. He's just, you know, putting his family in there and all. And they were really gathered against Moses and Aaron again. And Korah the Levite was the leader of this insurrection and rebellion. And there were a couple of other fellows that Moses commanded to come and they said, "We're not gonna do it. We don't have to obey you." Dathan and Abiram.
We'll not come up ( Numbers 16:11 ):
Is it a small thing that you brought us out of Egypt and you haven't brought us up into the land? We're not in the land; this is a wilderness place? You didn't keep your word. You think we're gonna listen to you now? We don't have to come up. And so there was a real mutiny, rebellion in the camp. Korah and Abiram and all, and so Moses gathered the congregation of Israel together and he said, "Okay, you guys. You don't want to come out you just stand there in your tents with your families and kids. And all of you that want to go along with this you just stand over there. If this thing be of the Lord, then let the Lord do a new thing. Rather than you guys going on and dying natural deaths, let the Lord open up the earth and swallow you alive right down into the pit." And no sooner had Moses said it then the earth opened up and Korah and the whole rebellious troop went right down into the pit. The earth closed up again and a great fear came upon Israel.
And all of Israel that were round about them fled at the cry of them: Lest the earth would swallow them up also. And fire came up from the LORD, and consumed these two hundred and fifty guys with their incense burners ( Numbers 16:34-35 ).
These guys that were wanting to offer incense and all, the fire of the LORD wiped them all out. So Moses said, "All right, now take these little incense burners that were made of brass and flatten them out into plates and use these brass plates to cover the altar as a constant reminder that no one intrudes into the office of the priesthood except he be anointed and called of God." And so those brass plates over the altar were a continual reminder to the people that God had anointed and appointed the family of Aaron to the priesthood and no man takes that office unto himself or presumptuously. That is to just keep men from rising up and saying, "Well man, I'm priest over you. Now I'm the spiritual one and the holy one and I have an inside track with God".
Now in the New Testament there was to be no priesthood at all. That whole system was abolished by Jesus Christ who has become our great High Priest and has entered into heaven for us and has opened the door for all of us to have free access unto God through Him. And in the church of Ephesus, the Lord commended them in that they hated the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which was the establishing of the priesthood laity in which the Lord said, "I hate" to the church of Pergamos rebuked them because that which was rejected by the church of Ephesus was accepted by the church of Pergamos. Thou hast there the deeds of the Nicolaitans and the Lord again declared his hatred of it. Why? Because Jesus died to make free access for every one of you to come into heaven and each of you are equally close to God.
God's ear is open to your prayer and to your cry just as readily as He is to my prayer or my cry. I am no closer to God than you. I am no more spiritual than you. I have no more access to God than you. I have no privileges that you do not have. We are all one together in Jesus Christ; equally privileged, equally blessed and equal opportunities for each of us to come before God at any time. And that's a glorious thing to me that God has broken down any kind of barriers that would hold men back and away from God. And I feel that it is dangerous in the church to set up a spiritual hierarchy, whether we call it priesthood or shepherding or anything else. Where I say to the person, "Now look, I'll go to God for you and I'll tell you what God wants you to do with your life. Now don't you trust in yourself, you trust in me and I'll get God's word and God's direction for you. So if you wanna, you know, buy a new car you come to me first and I'll tell you whether or not you should and all".
Hey I feel like Moses, Lord I didn't conceive all these people, I can't handle all that kind. I wouldn't want to carry that kind of a load. I don't want to shepherd or lord over you. I'm your servant. I'm here as God's ambassador to declare God's love and God's truth and God's Word to you. I'm here to serve you not to lord over you, not to tell you or not to try to direct your life but to tell you, "hey, you seek the Lord. You seek guidance from him." Cause I might tell you something that's absolutely wrong and then you come back and say, "You told me to do that and, man, look what happened". I've counseled too many people who've come back and said, "Man, you told me this and ooh boy. I really messed up, you know. It's just rotten, you know." That's why I don't like to counsel anymore. Man, I don't like that kind of responsibility. You seek the Lord and you let God guide you.
And so they made these plates and they were a memorial that no stranger which is not of the seed of Aaron should come near to offer incense before the LORD that they be not like Korah, and his company: [verse forty] And on the next day all the congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron, and said, You have killed the people of God ( Numbers 16:39-41 ).
Oh at this point I would have said, "Forget it!" Now they come to Moses said, "You've killed the people of the Lord" because the earth had opened up and swallowed these guys and the fire came out and consumed them. Now they're trying to blame Moses. Oh, oh, oh, oh, I couldn't take it. And so, boy the anger of God was really kindled against the people at this point. Moses and Aaron went in before the Lord and Moses said to Aaron, "Hey, get the incense and go out because the plague has already started. The people are beginning to drop like flies and you stand between the living and the dead and make intercession." So Moses grabbed the incense and he went out and he stood between the living and the dead to stop the plague of God that was wiping out these people for their murmuring.
There's a beautiful picture of intercession; standing between the living and the dead. And we as Christians often do this, our intercession for those that are lost.
Copyright © 2014, Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, Ca.
Smith, Charles Ward. "Commentary on Numbers 16:36". "Smith's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/​commentaries/​csc/​numbers-16.html. 2014.
Dr. Constable's Expository Notes
The rebellion of Korah and his followers ch. 16
"As the laws increase and the constraints grow, the people seem less willing or less capable of following them. At this point in the narrative we see that the whole order of the priesthood is thrown open to direct confrontation. God’s Word revealed at Sinai, which at first seemed so final and authoritative, is now being challenged on every side." [Note: Ibid.]
"In Num 16:1-17:28 (Eng. Numbers 16:1 to Numbers 17:13), three stories illustrate the need for and legitimacy of the Aaronic priesthood [i.e., Numbers 16:1-35; Numbers 16:36-50; and ch. 17]. As there had been challenges to Moses’ leadership in chs. 11-14, so here there are challenges to Aaron’s." [Note: Ashley, p. 295.]
It is not possible to determine from the text where or when during the 38 years of wandering this incident took place. This story ties in with what precedes in that Korah and his companions failed to appreciate their calling and became discontented. The tassels on their garments should have reminded them of their high calling and privilege. It was not the "rabble" or even the ordinary Israelites who instigated this rebellion but some of the Levites (cf. Numbers 8:5-26).
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Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Numbers 16:36". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/​commentaries/​dcc/​numbers-16.html. 2012.
Dr. Constable's Expository Notes
The Lord created another visual aid to remind the Israelites that offering incense was a ministry of the priests only. The priests overlaid the altar of burnt offerings with a second layer of bronze that they hammered out of the rebels’ censers (cf. Exodus 27:2). [Note: See Jonathan Magonet, "The Korah Rebellion," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 24 (October 1982):3-25.]
"As we think about the notion of the ’holy,’ we recognize that things are made holy in Scripture, not because people are holy, but because the things are presented to the Lord, who is holy. Since these wicked men presented their censers to the Lord, the censers are holy, despite the men’s own wickedness." [Note: Allen, p. 843.]
God’s judgment of Korah’s company did not cause the congregation as a whole to submit to God’s will through Moses and Aaron. The people charged Moses and Aaron with killing their leaders (Numbers 16:41). On the contrary, Moses had been responsible for God sparing the nation through his intercession on several occasions. The fact that the people called Korah’s company "the LORD’s people" (Numbers 16:41) shows how they failed to appreciate what it really meant to be His people (cf. Numbers 11:29; Judges 5:11; 1 Samuel 2:24; 2 Samuel 1:12; 2 Samuel 6:21; 2 Kings 9:6; Ezekiel 36:20; Zephaniah 2:10).
Moses and Aaron fell on their faces when they heard God’s intention to judge the whole congregation with death (Numbers 16:43; Numbers 16:45). Since incense symbolizes prayer in Scripture (cf. Exodus 30:8; Psalms 141:2; Luke 1:10; Revelation 5:8; Revelation 8:3-4), Aaron apparently moved among the people interceding for them. The plague (Numbers 16:46) was obviously a divine judgment involving sudden death, but more than this Moses did not reveal. A total of 14,700 people died (Numbers 16:49).
Why did Moses not intercede again here?
"All the motives which he had hitherto pleaded, in his repeated intercession that this evil congregation might be spared, were now exhausted. He could not stake his life for the nation, as at Horeb (Exodus 32:32), for the nation had rejected him. He could not longer appeal to the honour of Jehovah among the heathen, seeing that the Lord, even when sentencing the rebellious race to fall in the desert, had assured him that the whole earth should be filled with His glory (chap. Exodus 14:20 sqq.). Still less could he pray to God that He would not be wrathful with all for the sake of one or a few sinners, as in chap. Exodus 16:22, seeing that the whole congregation had taken part with the rebels. In this condition of things there was but one way left of averting the threatened destruction of the whole nation, namely, to adopt the means which the Lord Himself had given to His congregation, in the high-priestly office, to wipe away their sins, and recover the divine grace which they had forfeited through sin,-viz. the offering of incense which embodied the high-priestly prayer, and the strength and operation of which were not dependent on the sincerity and earnestness of subjective faith, but had a firm and immovable foundation in the objective force of the divine appointment." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, 3:112.]
Another explanation is that the writer did not record Moses’ prayer of intercession and God’s reply in the text in this case.
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Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Numbers 16:36". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/​commentaries/​dcc/​numbers-16.html. 2012.
Gill's Exposition of the Whole Bible
And the Lord spake unto Moses,.... Immediately after these men were consumed by fire from him; out of the same cloud from whence that proceeded, he spoke:
saying: as follows.
The New John Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible Modernised and adapted for the computer by Larry Pierce of Online Bible. All Rights Reserved, Larry Pierce, Winterbourne, Ontario.
A printed copy of this work can be ordered from: The Baptist Standard Bearer, 1 Iron Oaks Dr, Paris, AR, 72855
Gill, John. "Commentary on Numbers 16:36". "Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible". https://www.studylight.org/​commentaries/​geb/​numbers-16.html. 1999.
Henry's Complete Commentary on the Bible
35 And there came out a fire from the LORD, and consumed the two hundred and fifty men that offered incense. 36 And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, 37 Speak unto Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest, that he take up the censers out of the burning, and scatter thou the fire yonder; for they are hallowed. 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. 39 And Eleazar the priest took the brazen censers, wherewith they that were burnt had offered; and they were made broad plates for a covering of the altar: 40 To be a memorial unto the children of Israel, that no stranger, which is not of the seed of Aaron, come near to offer incense before the LORD; that he be not as Korah, and as his company: as the LORD said to him by the hand of Moses.
We must now look back to the door of the tabernacle, where we left the pretenders to the priesthood with their censers in their hands ready to offer incense; and here we find,
I. Vengeance taken on them, Numbers 16:35; Numbers 16:35. It is probable that when the earth opened in the camp to swallow up Dathan and Abiram a fire went out from the Lord and consumed the 250 men that offered incense, while Aaron that stood with them was preserved alive. This punishment was not indeed so new a thing as the former, for Nadab and Abihu thus died; but it was not less strange or dreadful, and in it it appeared, 1. That our God is a consuming fire. Is thunder a sensible indication of the terror of his voice? Lightning is also the power of his hand. We must see in this his fiery indignation which devours the adversaries, and infer from it what a fearful thing it is to fall into the hands of the living God,Hebrews 10:27-31. 2. That it is at our peril if we meddle with that which does not belong to us. God is jealous of the honour of his own institutions, and will not have them invaded. It is most probable that Korah himself was consumed with those 250 that presumed to offer incense; for the priesthood was the thing he aimed at, and therefore we have reason to think that he would not quit his post at the door of the tabernacle. But, behold, those are made sacrifices to the justice of God who flattered themselves with the hopes of being priests. Had they been content with their office as Levites, which was sacred and honourable, and better than they deserved, they might have lived and died with joy and reputation; but, like the angels that sinned, leaving their first estate, and aiming at the honours that were not appointed them, they were thrust down to Hades, their censers struck out of their hands, and their breath out of their bodies, by a burning which typified the vengeance of eternal fire.
II. Care is taken to perpetuate the remembrance of this vengeance. No mention is made of the taking up of their carcases: the scripture leaves them as dung upon the face of the earth; but orders are given about their censers, 1. That they be secured, because they are hallowed. Eleazar is charged with this, Numbers 16:37; Numbers 16:37. Those invaders of the priesthood had proceeded so far, by the divine patience and submission, as to kindle their incense with fire from off the altar, which they were suffered to use by way of experiment: but, as soon as they had kindled their fire, God kindled another, which put a fatal final period to their pretensions; now Eleazar is ordered to scatter the fire, with the incense that was kindled with it, in some unclean place without the camp, to signify God's abhorrence of their offering as a polluted thing: The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord. But he is to gather up the censers out of the mingled burning, God's fire and theirs, because they are hallowed. Having been once put to a holy use, and that by God's own order (though only for trial), they must not return to common service; so some understand it: rather, they are devoted, they are an anathema; and therefore, as all devoted things, they must be made some way or other serviceable to the glory of God. 2. That they be used in the service of the sanctuary, not as censers, which would rather have put honour upon the usurpers whose disgrace was intended; nor was there occasion for brazen censers, the golden altar was served with golden ones; but they must be beaten into broad plates for a covering of the brazen altar,Numbers 16:38-40; Numbers 16:38-40. These pretenders thought to have ruined the altar, by laying the priesthood in common again; but to show that Aaron's office was so far from being shaken by their impotent malice that it was rather confirmed by it, their censers, which offered to rival his, were used both for the adorning and for the preserving of the altar at which he ministered. Yet this was not all; this covering of the altar must be a memorial to the children of Israel, throughout their generations, of this great event. Though there was so much in it astonishing, and though Moses was to record it in his history, yet there was danger of its being forgotten in process of time; impressions that seem deep are not always durable; therefore it was necessary to appoint this record of the judgment, that the Levites who attended this altar, and had their inferior services appointed them, might learn to keep within their bounds, and be afraid of transgressing them, lest they should be made like Korah and his company, who were Levites, and would have been priests. These censers were preserved in terrorem, that others might hear and fear, and do no more presumptuously. Thus God has provided that his wonderful works, both in mercy and judgment, should be had in everlasting remembrance, that the end of them may be answered, and they may serve for instruction and admonition to those on whom the ends of the world are come.
These files are public domain and are a derivative of an electronic edition that is available on the Christian Classics Ethereal Library Website.
Henry, Matthew. "Complete Commentary on Numbers 16:36". "Henry's Complete Commentary on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/​commentaries/​mhm/​numbers-16.html. 1706.
Kelly Commentary on Books of the Bible
The previous portion of the Book of Numbers, viewed as a history, has evidently a prefatory character, however important and divinely wise. It is in a great measure preparatory for that which we have now to look at, the proper journeying of the children of Israel and the instruction which Jehovah gives founded on their path through the wilderness. We have had the numbering of the people, and the ordinances in view of service, special defilement and special devotedness, and other provisions of grace, for heart and conscience, for eye and ear, marked for the journey through the wilderness.
From verse 11 of Numbers 10:1-36 the history of the actual journey begins, and a very remarkable fact is at once brought before us, and one that must strike every rational mind, though it ought not so much to surprise the child of God. It may seem somewhat embarrassing that, after having laid down the place of the ark in the centre of the house of Israel (and we can all understand how becoming it was that Jehovah should thus be in the midst of His people whether encamped or marching), now when they go forth there should be a change.* What drew out the difference was that Moses counted on the kindly help of his father-in-law. Man fails as always: God is invariably true to His word. Nevertheless He does not bind Himself that He shall not go beyond His stipulation. To my own mind this is admirably according to the perfection of God; for it is not a question this of God forgetting what was due to His own name. The ordinance that He had laid down at the beginning shows the affection that He bore to His people, the place that was suitable to His majesty, as having been pleased to come down and be in their midst; but the want of His people, the anxiety of His servants, the failure of what had been reckoned upon to meet the difficulties of the way, at once drew out His grace I will not say with the cords of a man, but according to that infinite goodness which bends to the necessities of the way, and which feels for every perplexity, great or small, in the hearts of His servants.
*Let me here cite one of those coincidences which are so natural in a writer who was himself an eye-witness, but wholly improbable for a mere compiler, however upright, to think of at a later day; for the more minute, the less is the likelihood that such details would be noticed. "In the second chapter of the book of Numbers the writer describes the divisions of the twelve tribes into four camps, the number of each tribe, and the total number in each camp. He fixes the positions each was to take round the tabernacle, and the order of their march; and he directs that the tabernacle, with the camp of the Levites, should not set forward between the second and third camps. But in the tenth chapter occurs what seems at first a direct contradiction to this; for it is said that after the first camp had set forward, then the tabernacle was taken down; and the sons of Gershon, and the sons of Merari, set forward, bearing the tabernacle, and afterwards the second camp, or standard, of the children of Reuben. But this apparent contradiction is reconciled a few verses after, when we find that though the less sacred parse of the tabernacle, the outside tent and its apparatus, set out between the first and second camp; yet the sanctuary, or holy of holies, with its furniture, the ark and the altar, did not set out till after the second camp; as the direction required. And the reason of the separation is assigned, that those who bore the outside tabernacle might set it up, and thus prepare for the reception of the sanctuary against it came. Would a forger or compiler who lived when these marches had wholly ceased, and the Israelites had fixed in the land of their inheritance, have thought of such a circumstance as this?" (Dean Graves' Works, ii. p. 49.)
It is this which accounts for the difference. Jehovah felt for Moses and felt for the people too. And so the ark, which according to the strict rule was entitled to the place of chiefest honour in the midst of the host that moves forward, now deigns to do the work of a courier, if I may so say, for the people, not only finding the way for them, but acting as an advanced guard to the host. How characteristically this displays the unchanging goodness of God! On the one hand, the ordinance marked what was due to God, on the other was seen in this the gracious consideration which surrendered ritual for love. What real consistency God maintains with Himself. There is always this where grace reigns. The word of God may seem to be wanting for a little, but God never departs in the smallest thing which has the character of an ordinance, but to bring out His character far more perfectly than if all had been rigidly carried out.
The unerring word of God gives us both facts, by the same scribe and in the same book. There was no forgetfulness of His mind, but a tender solicitude about His people a fine fruit of the same divine grace which all our hearts can well appreciate. Alas! it was very different with the people. If the need of the people drew out greater grace on God's part, the people are found complaining with bitter ingratitude in the scene just after. Jehovah heard it: His fire burned amongst them, and consumed them that were in the uttermost parts of the camp. The people cried out, but first of all to Moses. And when Moses prayed unto Jehovah, a further scene ensues; for even divine wrath failed to act permanently on their souls. But here we find the result of that mixed multitude which had come out of Egypt with them. Proof was soon given that there is no departure from the mind of God which does not produce a sad harvest in days to follow. The strangers who were mixed up with them fell a-lusting; and the children of Israel also wept again, and said, "Who shall give us flesh to eat?" This was worse than the complaining just before. It was contempt of signal grace. There was utter blindness to the goodness of God. "We remember," said they, "the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely. But now our soul is dried away: there is nothing at all, beside this manna. And when Moses heard the people weep throughout their families, every man in the door of his tent, the anger of Jehovah was kindled greatly; Moses also was displeased."
This is followed by the remarkable passage between Jehovah and His servant. Moses himself is downcast through sorrow and distress of circumstances, and confesses that he is not able to bear with His people. Then Jehovah bids him gather to him seventy men of the elders of Israel. Was this really according to the full mind of the Lord? or did the Lord not take Moses at his word, and, as the result, share his singular honour with these elders? Jehovah came down, it is said, in a cloud and spake to him, and took of the Spirit that was upon him and gave it unto the seventy elders; and it came to pass that when the Spirit was upon them, they prophesied, and did not cease. And this gave occasion also to the haste of Joshua, who was somewhat indignant for his master. Neither was this well. It was weakness in Moses that he could not trust Jehovah to care for His people; but it was yet more in Joshua to be over jealous for Moses' sake. The singular distinction with which God had honoured Moses ought to have raised Joshua above such feeling. "Envies" thou for my sake?" said Moses. "Would God that all Jehovah's people were prophets, and that Jehovah would put his spirit upon them."
Blessed anticipation of that which God was going to do another day the very day in which we are now brought to God, and in which He has gathered us together in one! Do we understand this day of ours? Are our hearts in the secret of it? Are we misled by Joshua's feeling? or do we share the mind of Moses? Undoubtedly it is an hour of feebleness but withal of blessedness, of infinite peace and joy in the Lord. But we find even more.
Jehovah then listened to the complaint of His people in despising the bread that came down from heaven, and gave them what they sought after. How grave a consideration for our souls! Not only a believing prayer may have its answer from God, but an unbelieving one; and a miserable thing where the heart is not humble, and does not betake itself at once to God. Happy would it have been for Israel had they checked their murmuring, and rebuked their own souls before God! Surely, if the answer had brought them on their knees, and into the dust before God, it would have been better with Israel; but they were practically far from God. They chose to be their own purveyors, and distrusted Him who loved them. We shall soon find that this spread still farther.
And is it not a serious thought, my brethren, that we are reading but the starting-point of the journey, according to this book the very object of which is to show the journeyings of the people of God? Yet, on the one hand, we have seen the incomparable grace of the Lord that has always streamed out to meet the wants of His people, that knows how to exceed, who never gives less, and never will bind Himself not to give more. Such is God. On the other hand, the people were only constant in rebelliousness of heart. It begins too with those who ought to have known better, but too soon fell under the enticements of the strangers who could not appreciate the goodness of their God. Thus, when a descent or fall comes, it is invariably that which is most carnal which carries the day. It was not that the mixed multitude slipped unperceived into the thoughts of Israel, but that Israel sank down to their lowest desires and contempt of what came from Jehovah.
Alas! we find failure everywhere with the very lawgiver himself. But the fault of his too eager servant recalled him to the grace he felt. He delighted in the goodness of God, even though it might seem to involve somewhat taken away from himself; but he did not think of self but of God. It was right assuredly, when the people greedily fell under the degrading wishes of the mixed multitude of Egypt, that Jehovah should then rise up in His displeasure and smite them at the time when they flattered themselves with His answer to their cry. But His was an answer of grief; it was an answer that brought its own deep penalty along with it not only leanness into their souls, but an indignant rebuke from God Himself. And it is said, His "wrath was kindled against them ere the flesh was chewed, and Jehovah smote the people with a very great plague."
But we have not yet done with the painful phases of unbelief. It must be proved everywhere. What is man? "And Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses." And for what? Avowedly because of the type of still richer counsels which their hearts never appreciated "Because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married; for he had married an Ethiopian woman. And they said, Hath Jehovah indeed spoken only by Moses? hath he not spoken also by us? And Jehovah heard it. (Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth.)" So much the worse for them. Had Moses defended his own cause, I am persuaded God had not so dealt with Aaron and Miriam. Supposing a person were ever-so much in the right, still the want of faith which fights for self always thwarts the activity of grace.
Here therefore as everywhere, when the thing is simply committed to Him, the Lord takes it up; and nothing is more serious for the adversary. "Jehovah spake suddenly unto Moses;" for now it was an incomparably graver thing than the complaints and murmurs and lustings of the mixed multitude, or even Israel. In proportion to the blessings that grace has given is the grievousness of that which is contrary to God, and therefore does He speak suddenly unto Moses and to Aaron and to Miriam, "(dome out ye three unto the tabernacle of the congregation." They do His bidding; "And Jehovah came down in the pillar of the cloud, and stood in the door of the tabernacle, and called Aaron and Miriam:" It was in the presence of Moses; but Jehovah had to do with them. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
"And he said, Hear now my words: If there be a prophet among you, I Jehovah will make myself known unto him in a vision, and will speak unto him in a dream. My servant Moses is not so, who is faithful in all mine house. With him will I speak mouth to mouth, even apparently, and not in dark speeches: and the similitude of the Lord shall he behold; wherefore then were ye not afraid to speak against my servant Moses? And the anger of Jehovah was kindled against them; and he departed." But not without the mark of His hand, not without the judgment that dealt in the way most painful to her who evidently was the chief in this stroke of insubjection. For, "behold, Miriam became leprous, white as snow: and Aaron looked upon Miriam, and, behold, she was leprous. And Aaron said unto Moses, Alas, my lord, I beseech thee, lay not the sin upon us, wherein we have done foolishly, and wherein we have sinned. Let her not be as one dead, of whom the flesh is half consumed when he cometh out of his mother's womb. And Moses cried unto Jehovah" how blessed the place of intercession! "Moses cried unto Jehovah, saying, Heal her now, O God, I beseech thee. And Jehovah said unto Moses, If her father had but spit in her face, should she not be ashamed seven days? let her be shut out from the camp seven days, and after that let her be received in again. And Miriam was shut out from the camp seven days: and the people journeyed not till Miriam was brought in again."
Then comes another incident. It was not merely the working of a spirit of repining and distrust of Jehovah which infected the whole people even to those that were nearest to Moses; but we have grave unbelief as to the land to which they were journeying. Here however it is clear that Jehovah allowed the wish to be carried out: "Send thou men." We know from elsewhere how this originated that it was not in faith, but unbelief. Nevertheless Jehovah, as we have seen, lets them prove the principle. That is, not only does He lay down what is according to His own mind, not only may He in gracious care and consideration for His people go beyond it; but, further, He may allow that to be carried out which was not originally of Himself, and yet everywhere secure His own glory. So here spies are sanctioned; and we shall see the result of it. "Moses sent them to spy out the land of Caanan, and said unto them, Get you up this way southward." And so they did, and came back with one cluster of grapes so large that they bore the branch between two on a staff. They brought also pomegranates and figs. And they returned from searching the land after forty days. And this was the report. "We came unto the land whither thou sentest us, and surely it floweth with milk and honey; and this is the fruit of it. Nevertheless the people be strong that dwell in the land, and the cities are walled, and very great: and moreover we saw the children of Anak there. The Amalekites dwell in the land of the south: and the Hittites, and the Jebusites, and the Amorites, dwell in the mountains: and the Canaanites dwell by the sea, and by the coast of Jordan."
Unbelief itself could not deny the goodness of the land, nor ignore the magnificent specimen they carried between them. But they thought of the men that dwelt there, and not of God. And what had God brought them out of the land of Egypt for? Had He said that there were no children of Anak there? Had He represented the land to be a desert region where the sons of men did not dwell? Never. Jehovah had fully stated who were to be there hundreds of years before. It was a plain forgetfulness of their distinctive glory and blessedness. Is this a strange thing? Let us remember that we too are in the place of our trial. Let us never forget that we have a better salvation, founded on a better redemption, and with better hopes Nor have we a less dangerous wilderness than Israel had to pass through; but for us it is not external power, nor the governmental goodness of Jehovah, but our God and Father, yea, as Jesus knew Him; not only in all the love that rested on Him when here below, but in all the faithfulness to which He binds Himself now to us in virtue of redemption itself.
And how is it that we treat Him how trust Him? Let us read the book at any rate as the true picture of that which we are apt to be To believe that we are in danger is the very way to be preserved from it. To believe that He is caring for us in love is the surest way to enjoy all through the faithfulness and the strength of His love. It was not so with these spies. Nevertheless there is always a witness for God; there is a remnant even among the spies. "And Caleb stilled the people before Moses, and said, Let us go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it. But the men that went up with him said, We be not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we."
All their thoughts were "God is not." That which is so sadly true of the unbeliever was evidently yielded to by His own people. "They are stronger than we." And where then was God? They brought up an evil report of the land. This was an advance in evil; and the allowance of evil always brings in a worse. "They brought up an evil report of the land which they had searched unto the children of Israel, saying, The land through which we have gone to search it is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof, and all the people that we saw in it are men of a great stature. And there we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, which come of the giants, and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight." And what did this matter, if God was for them? Alas! "the congregation lifted up their voice again and cried, and the people wept that night." But they were tears of unbelief, not of sorrow. "And all the children of Israel murmured against Moses, and against Aaron, and the whole congregation said unto them, Would God that we had died in the land of Egypt! or would God that we had died in this wilderness!" They were just as unbelieving about the glory that was before them, the land of Canaan as the type of it, as they were about Egypt which they had left, and about the wilderness through which they were passing.
The consequence was judgment; and no wonder. For they say, "Let us make a captain, and let us return unto Egypt." This is the sure result. The heart that refuses to go on with God goes back to Egypt in its desires. "Then Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before all the assembly of the congregation of the children of Israel. And Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb," the two who had brought the good report, "rent their clothes; and they spake unto all the company of the children of Israel, saying, The land which we passed through to search it is an exceeding good land." Let us not forget this. We owe it to our God to give a good report of the land which lies before us. "If Jehovah delight in us, then he will bring us into this land and give it us a land, which floweth with milk and honey. Only rebel not ye against Jehovah, neither fear ye the people of the land; for they are bread for us: their defence is departed from them, and Jehovah is with us. Fear them not. But all the congregation bade stone them with stones. And the glory of Jehovah appeared in the tabernacle of the congregation before all the children of Israel." This was Israel Israel in the wilderness Israel in presence of the goodly land and of the earnest which had been set before their eyes.
The glory of Jehovah appears accordingly, and then He speaks to Moses. "How long will this people provoke me? and how long will it be ere they believe me, for all the signs which I have showed amongst them? I will smite them with the pestilence, and disinherit them, and will make of thee a greater nation and mightier than they." What is the effect now? How does Moses answer this offer? God was willing to begin again to make a fresh start. As with Abraham, so He would take Moses as a fresh stock to work from. He was willing to make him such a name as Moses otherwise could not hope for. The heart of Moses answered to the heart of God. He would not hear of it. The offer was to bring out the love that held to what God can afford to be to His people. What He might do for Moses he would not now think of. And Moses said unto Jehovah, "Then the Egyptians shall hear it." How blessed to hear a man feeling for Jehovah's name and glory! "Then the Egyptians shall hear it (for thou broughtest up this people in thy might from among them); and they will tell it to the inhabitants of this land: for they have heard that thou, Jehovah, art among this people, that thou, Jehovah, art seen face to face, and that thy cloud standeth over them, and that thou goest before them, by day time in a pillar of cloud, and in a pillar of fire by night. Now if thou shalt kill all this people as one man, then the nations which have heard the fame of thee will speak, saying, Because Jehovah was not able to bring this people into the land which he sware unto them, therefore he hath slain them in the wilderness. And now, I beseech thee, let the power of my Lord be great, according as thou hast spoken" (verses 13-17).
Thus Moses could not bear Jehovah's character to be compromised, and so he holds Him tenaciously, as it were, to His own word, saying, "Jehovah is longsuffering, and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression, and by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation. Pardon, I beseech thee, the iniquity of this people, according unto the greatness of thy mercy, and as thou hast forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now." He cleaves to the word of God and to His ways to the love that He had so often proved, even to the faithless people whom He knew so well from the first. If He had borne with them before, surely He would not turn from them now. "And Jehovah said, I have pardoned according to thy word: but as truly as I live, all the earth shall be filled with the glory of Jehovah" (verses 20, 21).
Observe how at the same time that Jehovah pronounces judgment, He acts according to the very word to which Moses had tied Him in his faith. If his faith did not rise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and their absolute and unconditional promises, it went back to the governmental pledge of Jehovah, and to this Jehovah adheres. Consequently that generation was dealt with and purged away, according to the terms of His own proclamation. He would surely hold fast His mercy, but He would by no means clear the guilty. Pardon there was, otherwise Israel had not gone into the land, but He would "by no means clear the guilty;" and so that generation fell. Thus God preserved His character intact, and His hand made good what His mouth had uttered. Another day a deeper evil would make it necessary to fall back, not on what God had said in the wilderness, but what He had promised to the fathers. In the prophets we constantly find that there is a going back in faith, not to what was brought out provisionally during the wilderness, but to what was promised at the beginning (i.e. to the fathers). Thus the end will be the accomplishment of the beginning. The law comes in by the by; and the governmental dealings that accompanied it, instructive then and for all times morally and typically, share in themselves its tentative character.
There is another thing to remark here. In this evil state of things Israel had taunted their children, or rather God about them, as if they were exposed to inevitable death. Unbelief had thus fastened on the little ones, as if it was vain to expect that such as they could pass through the desert safely, and enter the land in face of the enemy. The very people that yielded to such unbelieving doubt of Jehovah's care did themselves reap the consequences; while the children, who, as they thought, could not possibly be preserved through the horrors of the wilderness, were the only ones brought in with the two men who vindicated «oaf and held fast to His word, Caleb and Joshua. Alas! as we know, even Moses and Aaron passed away. There arose that which needed their removal as the discipline of Jehovah in their case. Caleb and Joshua, who gave God credit for a good land, and for a hand mighty enough to bring the weakest in, entered Canaan in due time; and so did the little ones, who, if their fathers were to be believed, must surely fall by the way. But God alone is worthy of trust; and we see how perfect He is in His ways, and how sure and good is the end. But we see too how dangerous it is to allow the complaints and murmurings of unbelief, lest the Lord hear and deal with us according to our folly.
If the latter part of the chapter sets before us a burst of courage, it was merely of the flesh, and received a rebuke from Jehovah. The people, heretofore so unwilling to go, are now too ready; but they went without Jehovah, and the Amalekites and Canaanites turned round on them, indicting a severe defeat. They were discomfited even unto Hormah (verses 40-45).
A chapter (Numbers 15:1-41) follows which might seem extraordinary at first sight. It is a sample of that apparent disorder in the word of God which is only an example of a higher and divine order. God does not arrange things according to man. If we have only patience and faith to believe that He never sinks below His own glory, we shall prove this, and know Him better in due time. We need not wait for it till we get to heaven; we may count on seeing what is according to His will for us here. Impossible that the heart could truly desire from God what He would keep back from it. So, after all this miserable history, universal unbelief working among the people of God, and in presence of this calamitous defeat, to the shame of Israel, before their foes that hated them, Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying, "Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When ye be come into the land of your habitations, which I give unto you, and will make an offering by fire unto Jehovah," which was duly prescribed a fresh pledge of bringing them into Canaan. And this is exactly the force of it. So again it is repeated in the middle of the chapter. "Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When ye come into the land whither I will bring you." This was His answer to the unbelief which thought that all must perish a double witness that God would surely bring them in. Unbelief along the way did not turn aside His love, nor unbelief about the end, for they despised the pleasant land. God holds calmly here to His purpose, though only He knew of the rebellion just about to break out and all that was to follow. He speaks of their future offerings of sweet savour with the drink-offerings of wine in the land of promise; and this for the stranger just as for the Israelite. For here the grace of God runs over, presumptuous sin alone being fatal, as we shall now see.
For as the next lesson we learn that God in no way bound Himself not to judge what was contrary to His glory by the way. "And while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man that gathered sticks upon the seventh day. And they that found him gathering sticks brought him unto Moses and Aaron, and unto all the congregation." And here comes out a very important principle what is to be done where we have not a distinct word of the Lord so far as we know. There is always one great safeguard, namely, to wait. Never be in a hurry in devising a remedy, or in exercising a discipline, without the word of the Lord. What is done cannot be undone. It is better to wait and take the place of ignorance, but at the same time of ignorance that is confident that the Lord hears and cares for us. This is exactly what they did. And they were right. "And Jehovah said unto Moses, The man shall be surely put to death. All the congregation shall stone him with stones without the camp." Thus, whatever might be the solemnity of the sentence, the children of Israel had a fresh proof that God entered into their difficulties and took the greatest interest in what concerned them. Never can souls wait upon the Lord and be confounded.
But there is more than that. Jehovah speaks again unto Moses, saying, "Speak unto the children of Israel. and bid them that they make them fringes in the borders of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put upon the fringe of the borders a riband of blue: and it shall be unto you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them; and that ye seek not after your own heart and your own eyes, after which ye use to go a whoring: that ye may remember, and do all my commandments, and be holy unto your God."
It is not only that God graciously waits on the people that wait upon Him, and appears for them, and knows how to give them what they have never learnt before; but He deigns to use a means, and a very weighty means, of reminding them of His word. And what is this? The riband of blue was a continual means of reminiscence for the people of the Lord. And have we nothing to remind us? Indeed we have, and there is one grand means, I am persuaded, while we are in the wilderness, of putting us in mind of His will and the walk proper to us. There is nothing that better enables us to walk on earth than the consciousness that we are of heaven. Is not this the meaning of the riband of blue?
But after such comforting thoughts as these there comes out something still more tremendous than ever inNumbers 16:1-50; Numbers 16:1-50. It is not complaint now, nor murmuring; it is not merely unbelief because of the difficulties of the wilderness, nor is it the casting of a bad character on God's gift and choice in the land which their unbelief was reluctant to go up and take in the name of Jehovah. There is a conspiracy under the fairest pretensions possible. This does not mend matters. The basest things sometimes put on the most pious guise. No man should be deceived by sound. The Christian is meant to judge things according to God. The men who did so were not by any means such as we should have thought most likely to have joined themselves rebelliously against Jehovah. "Now Korah the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi" (the most honourable portion among those who had the direct service of the sanctuary), "and Dathan and Abiram the sons of Eliab, and On the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took men." That is, there were those who belonged to the ministering class, and those that were chief men in the congregation, generally representatives of what people would call in modern days leading men in church and state. "And they rose up before Moses, with certain of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty princes of the assembly, famous in the congregation, men of renown. And they gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said unto them, Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and Jehovah is among them. Wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the congregation of Jehovah? And when Moses heard it, he fell upon his face."
It is a good thing when the haughtiness that Satan knows so well how to excite brings out nothing but lowliness and humiliation of our souls before God. Haughtiness is apt to provoke haughtiness, and flesh to irritate flesh; but it was not so with Moses. "And he spake unto Korah and unto all his company, saying, Even tomorrow Jehovah will show who are his, and who is holy; and will cause him to come near unto him: even him whom he hath chosen will he cause to come near unto him. This do; Take you censers, Korah, and all his company; and put fire therein, and put incense in them before Jehovah tomorrow: and it shall be that the man whom Jehovah doth choose, he shall be holy: ye take too much upon you, ye sons of Levi And Moses said unto Korah, Hear, I pray you, ye sons of Levi: Seemeth it but a small thing unto you, that the God of Israel hath separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to himself to do the service of the tabernacle of Jehovah, and to stand before the congregation to minister unto them?" Unbelief shows itself constantly in this very form. If God puts an honour on a man, and he does not take it from Him, it is only a stepping stone for despising the God who gave it to him while grasping after that which He has never given. There is nothing that produces such dissatisfaction as the heart's not estimating aright what God has allotted to us. Whatever is His will alone secures real joy and strength, and happy results to the glory of the Lord. Now in this case these men were not satisfied with their position either as princes of the congregation on the one hand, or as Levites on the other. They sought to be as Aaron and Moses.
What makes this so solemn a chapter is, that the Spirit of God distinctly applies it to the anticipated course of Christendom. We all need its warning. In the epistle of Jude the beginning, way, and end are perfectly brought before us. "The way of Cain" is the great departure at the beginning of this world's moral history, where brother slew brother, jealous of his acceptance with God, as well as of the righteousness which rebuked his own want of it. "The error of Balaam" is the clerical evil of turning the name of God into a means of earthly honour and gain, not without hypocrisy. The last we have now before us, "the gainsaying of Core," and here those that depart from God perish. For this is not merely the selfish diversions of the truth to a means of aggrandisement according to the covetousness of the heart, bad as it was, but open, deliberate insurrection against the rights of Christ Himself. Moses was the apostle of the Jewish profession, as Aaron was its high priest. Christ is the apostle and the high priest of our profession; and the assertion and the exercise of a priesthood now for man is a direct invasion of that which can only be carried out exclusively by Jesus Christ at the right hand of God.
There never was a time when such pretensions were put forth more distinctly than at this present moment. Of old it was not exactly so. In earlier days the writings, for instance, of those that are commonly called "the fathers" show that it was rather an insensible slide; but the solemn fact confronts us now that it is on the part of men who have the Bible, and this circulated, read, proclaimed in the very streets an unexampled propagation of the word of God, and of that which is drawn from the word of God, and this even in what are called "Protestant lands." Consequently it takes the shape of an apostacy, accompanied by hatred of the truth of God; and so much the more because there has been in past history the fatal experience of the effects that follow a slip into a human priesthood. But now there is a growing rejection of the truth of God, and despite done to the Spirit who witnesses the grace of Christ. The attempt once more is to return to naturalism from grace and truth, after both have been fairly brought before the minds of men. No wonder therefore the Spirit of God says that they shall perish in the gainsaying of Korah.
But Jehovah acts in His most solemn vindication of His will against the adversaries, as described in this chapter. They perish too. "And the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up, and their houses, and all the men that appertained unto Korah, and all their goods. They, and all that appertained to them, went down alive into the pit, and the earth closed upon them: and they perished from among the congregation. And all Israel that were round about them fled at the cry of them: for they said, Lest the earth swallow us up also. And there came out a fire from Jehovah, and consumed the two hundred and fifty men that offered incense."
And then was marked the choice of God and the value of the high priest that had been despised. For it is said, "Speak unto Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest, that he take up the censers out of the burning, and scatter thou the fire yonder; for they are hallowed. 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 Jehovah, therefore they are hallowed: and they shall be a sign unto the children of Israel. And Eleazar the priest took the brazen censers, wherewith they that were burnt had offered; and they were made broad plates for a covering of the altar: to be a memorial unto the children of Israel, that no stranger, which is not of the seed of Aaron, come near to offer incense before Jehovah; that he be not as Korah, and as his company: as Jehovah said to him by the hand of Moses. But on the morrow all the congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron, saying, Ye have killed the people of Jehovah. And it came to pass, when the congregation was gathered against Moses and against Aaron, that they looked toward the tabernacle of the congregation: and, behold, the cloud covered it, and the glory of Jehovah appeared. And Moses and Aaron came before the tabernacle of the congregation. And Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying, Get you up from among this congregation, that I may consume them as in a moment. And they fell upon their faces. And Moses said unto Aaron, Take the censer, and put fire therein from off the altar, and put on incense, and go quickly unto the congregation, and make an atonement for them: for there is wrath gone out from Jehovah; the plague is begun. And Aaron took as Moses commanded, and ran into the midst of the congregation; and, behold, the plague was begun among the people."
Thus God was not content with an immediate and final judgment executed on the leaders of the rebellion, but the people whose hearts went with it were judged by the plague. We find here Moses and Aaron yet more remarkable for their earnestness of purpose than for the activity of divine affection in the endeavour that the grace of the Lord should appear for the guilty people. "Moses stood," it is said, "between the dead and the living, and the plague was stayed." Thus was proved doubly what God thought of the presumption of these Levites: on the one hand the judgment of the presumptuous Levite and his party, with the after-clap of the plague among the people; on the other hand the efficacy and grace of the priesthood whom pride and unbelief had sought to supplant under pretence of due honour to all the people of Jehovah.
But there is more than this in Numbers 17:1-13. God would turn it to a practical and a permanent account; and this in a gracious way now, not to call up the remembrance of a sorrowful and humbling judgment. He tells them to speak to the children of Israel that each of them should take a rod "according to the house of their fathers, and of all their princes according to the house of their fathers, twelve rods: write thou every man's name upon his rod. And thou shalt write Aaron's name upon the rod of Levi." And these were put in the tabernacle, before the testimony, where Jehovah met with Moses when He made manifest His mind. The answer was soon given. "And it came to pass that on the morrow Moses went into the tabernacle of witness; and, behold, the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi was budded,. and brought forth buds, and bloomed blossoms, and yielded almonds. And Moses brought out all the rods from before Jehovah unto the children of Israel; and they looked, and took every man his rod." It was not only an indisputable sign of choice of the person, but a most significant token of the true place of priesthood, which was here in type founded on death and resurrection. Plainly there is no bearing of fruit except according to the priesthood which Jehovah chose for them. It was not merely to be the means of staying the plague in the presence of an evident divine judgment, but the habitual witness that real fruit-bearing fit for the sanctuary of God springs only from the priesthood that Jehovah has chosen. There is the expression, no doubt, of authority; but that authority is by grace, and for gracious ends. The rod was the figure; at first the dead rod, which quickly proves the vigour of life imparted in the grace of God, and brings forth fruit for His sanctuary. Strange to say, the children of Israel are more alarmed, if possible, at the witness of the gracious power of God than at the plague which had devoured them just before. "We die," say they; "we perish; we all perish." There is nothing so blind as unbelief. Daring in the presence of a pestilence, which in itself followed an unprecedented judgment, they are fearful even unto death in the presence of the sign of all-overcoming grace in life and fruit-bearing.
In Numbers 18:1-32 we have the connection of Aaron with the tribe of Levi, which will not demand more than a few passing words. It is of the utmost importance that the external service should never be severed from the priesthood which enters within. This is exactly what seems set forth here (verses 2, 4). The tendency of ministry, when it does not presumptuously set up to priestly honour, is always to content itself with a place without, and thus to get severed from Christ on high. It never can be so without the deepest loss. Whenever ministry becomes a mere human institution, founded on education and chosen by man, instead of depending on the sovereign call of the Lord Jesus, who uses those called for His own glory, how deplorable the descent to the minister, how dishonouring to the Lord, and how ruinous the result to all concerned! The dependence of ministry then on Christ in the presence of God is what is taught, as it appears to me, by the Levite, the sign of him that is engaged in the service being given to Aaron. It was a remarkable arrangement, the force of which has not always been seen. God would thus keep up the connection of that which goes without with what passed within the veil.
The priests had all the offerings and sacrifices of which man might partake; the Levites had the tithes from all Israel: the one fed from within, the other from without; but both received from Jehovah, for He was their inheritance. Otherwise they were miserable: what else had they?
In Numbers 19:1-22, which follows, we have another most instructive ordinance of God, peculiar to the book of Numbers. "This is the ordinance of the law which Jehovah hath commanded, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring thee a red heifer without spot, wherein is no blemish, and upon which never came yoke." What the great atonement-day is to the centre of the book of Leviticus, the red heifer is to the book of Numbers. Each seems characteristic of the book wherein they are given, which shows how systematic are the order and contents of Scripture.
Thus we have here a provision distinctly for the defilements which are met with as we journey through this world. This is of vital moment in practice. There is many a soul disposed to make the atonement do, as it were, all the work. There is no truth more blessed than the atonement, unless it be His person who gives that work its divine value; but we must leave room for all that our God has given us. There is nothing which so tends to make a sect as to take truth out of its proportions, treating a part as if it were the whole mind of God. It cannot be too much insisted upon, that the Bible is the book which delivers from all petty exclusiveness. What does it matter to have good thoughts here and right ways there, if there be along with this the essential vice of settling down contented with a part of God's mind to the rejection of the rest? Our place is carrying out the Lord's will, nothing but His will, and all His will, as far as we know it. Less than this gives up the glory of Christ. It is impossible to be sectarian where His word governs all; and there is no way of being unsectarian without it. Our being in this position or that will never make us individually and really unsectarian. The seeds of error go along with wretched self, from which there is no deliverance except by walking in the power of Christ dead and risen. This too applies here, where we have not merely the wrong of sectarianism, but the evil of thus abusing the most precious truths of God. When used exclusively, they will ere long turn into an excuse for sin, whatever the high assumptions of an earlier stage.
It will not do to confine the saint then even to Christ's atoning work, which has for ever abolished our guilt before God; not even if we add to this that we know now that in Him risen we are placed in an entirely new position, a life where evil never enters. Both most true and precious; but are these the whole truth? Certainly not; and there is no course more dangerous than to construe them as the whole truth. They are as precious as they are needed for the soul; but there is really no part of truth which is not needed, and this largeness and openness to all truth is precisely what we have to insist on. Indeed I am persuaded that this is after all what is most peculiar to avoid peculiarities and pet subjects, welcoming all truth by the grace of God. Not that one can say much if the question be, How far we have made it our own? but it is truly of God to be in a position where all truth is open to us and we to it, and which does not exclude a single fragment of God's mind and will. It will be impossible, I am assured, save on the ground of the assembly of God, to find a place which will not shut out truth, and perhaps much which is evidently most precious. It is well to guard sedulously another thing that we do not simply satisfy ourselves that we are on right ground according to God, but that our hearts earnestly desire to turn what He has given us always and only to the account of His glory.
The red heifer teaches the children of Israel on the surface of it that the work of the day of atonement had not so completely dealt with all sin that they might treat daily defilements as immaterial. It is impossible to exaggerate the value of the shedding of Christ's blood for our sins. It does give no more conscience of sins. We are justified by His blood; yea more, with Christ we have died to sin; and we are alive to God in Him. But though this is all quite true (and was then set forth imperfectly as far as figure could, when we look at an Israelite), such grace is the strongest motive why we cannot tamper with what is defiled. The very fact that we are cleansed perfectly before God is a loud call to us not to endure a blot before men. It was to guard His people from soils by the way that God gave here a provision so remarkable. "A red heifer" was to be brought "without spot, wherein is no blemish, and upon which never came yoke," a striking picture of Christ, but of Christ in a way not often spoken of in scripture. The requirement supposes not only the absence of such blemishes as was indispensable in every sacrifice; but here expressly also it must have never known the yoke, that is, the pressure of sin. How this speaks of the antitype! Christ was always perfectly acceptable unto God. "And ye shall give her to Eleazar the priest that he may bring her forth without the camp, and one shall slay her before his face."
The blood was taken and put seven times before the tabernacle. It was quite right that the connection should be kept up with the great truth of the blood that makes atonement, and that vindicates God wherever the thought of sin occurs. But its special use points to another feature. The sprinkling of the blood is the continual witness of the truth of sacrifice; but the characteristic want follows. "And one shall burn the heifer in his sight; her skin, and her flesh, and her blood, with her dung, shall he burn. And the priest shall take cedar wood, and hyssop, and scarlet, and cast it into the midst of the burning of the heifer." Then we find the ashes of the heifer laid up in a clean place. "And a man that is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer, and lay them up without the camp in a clean place, and it shall be kept for the congregation of the children of Israel for a water of separation; it is a purification for sin." In what sense? Simply and solely with a view to communion, i.e. of restoring it when broken. It is not at all a question of establishing relationships (that was already done), but on the ground of the subsisting relation the Israelite must allow nothing by the way which would sully the holiness that suits the sanctuary of Jehovah. This was the point.
Such is the true standard as set forth in this type. It is not merely the law of Jehovah condemning this or that. This shadow of good things demanded separation from anything inconsistent with the sanctuary. The form which this ordinance took was in respect of travelling through the wilderness, where they were exposed constantly to the contact of death. It is death that is here brought in as defiling in various shapes and degrees. Supposing one touched the dead body of a man, he shall be unclean seven days. What was to be done? "He shall purify himself with it on the third day, and on the seventh day he shall be clean: but if he purify not himself the third day, then the seventh day he shall not be clean." It was not permitted to purify one's self on the first day. Am I wrong in thinking that à priori we might have thought this haste much the best course? Why not at once? It was ordered not for the first but the third day. When there is defilement on the spirit, when anything succeeds in interrupting communion with God, it is of deep moral importance that we should thoroughly realize our offence.
This seems the meaning of its being done on the third day. It was to be no mere sudden feeling that one had sinned, and there was an end of the matter. The Israelite was obliged to remain till the third day under a sense of his sin. This was a painful position. He had to reckon up the days, and remain till the third, when he has the water of separation first sprinkled on him. "In the mouth of two or three witnesses" (the well-known provision in every case) "every word shall be established." Thus we see he who had come in contact with death must remain an adequate time to show the deliberate sense of it, and must take the place of one that was defiled before God. A hasty expression of sorrow does not prove genuine repentance for sin. We see something like this with children. There is many a one who has a child ready enough to ask for forgiveness, or even own its fault; but the child that feels it most is not always quick. A child who is far slower to own it may have, and commonly has, a deeper sense of what confession means. However I am not now speaking of the natural character; but I say that it is right and becoming (and this I believe to be the general meaning of the Lord's ordinance here) that he who is defiled (that is, has his communion with God interrupted) should take that place seriously. Of course in Christianity it is not a question of days, but of that which corresponds to the meaning; which is that there should be time enough to prove a real sense of the evil of one's defilement as dishonouring God and His sanctuary, and not the haste which really evinces an absence of right feeling. He who duly purified himself on the third day was in effect purified on the seventh day
Thus first of all he has a sense of his sin in the presence of this grace that provides against it; then he has at last the precious realization of grace in the presence of sin. The two sprinklings are one the converse of the other. They set forth how sin had brought shame on grace, and how grace had triumphed over sin. This seems the meaning, and more particularly for the following reason. The ashes of the heifer express the effect of the consuming judgment of God on the Lord Jesus because of sin. It is not simply blood showing that I am guilty, and that God gives a sacrifice to put it away. The ashes attest the judicial dealing of God in the consumption, as it were, of that blessed offering which came under all the holy sentence of God through our sins. The water (or Spirit by the word) gives us to realize Christ's having suffered for that which we alas! are apt to feel so little if not to trifle with it
There is another thing to notice in passing. The water of purification was not merely wanted when one touched a dead body, but in different modes and measures. That might be called a great case, but the institution shows that God takes notice of the least thing. So should we at least in ourselves. "This is the law, when a man dieth in a tent: all that come into the tent, and all that is in the tent, shall be unclean seven days. And every open vessel, which hath no covering bound upon it, is unclean. And whosoever toucheth one that is slain with a sword in the open fields, or a dead body, or a bone of a man, or a grave, shall be unclean seven days." "The bone of a man" might be a much lesser object, but whatever defiles comes into notice, and is provided for in Christ our Lord. Thus God would habituate us to the nicest discernment and the most thorough self-judgment. It is not only grave matters that defile, but little occasions, as men would say, which come between us and communion with our God and Father. At the same time He provides the unchanging remedy of grace for every defilement.
In Numbers 20:1-29 connected truth appears when they are calling out for water. "There was no water for the congregation: and they gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron." It was really, as we would say, against the infinite grace of our Lord Jesus. This is what answers to it in the antitype. This might seem strong to say of Christians; but whenever we are tried and occupied with circumstances, are we not doing so? Do you think the Lord does not know what troubles us? Do you think the Lord does not send it for our good? It may be bad in another; but the chief point we have to look at is to see the good hand of the Lord, no matter what it is. We are not to be "overcome of evil," but to "overcome evil with good." The true way to do so is to count on the Lord Jesus regulating everything. All power is given to Him on earth and heaven; and why should we not be happy in His ways with us? He it is who deals with us, whatever may be the instrument and whatever the circumstances.
Here the people, having no water, began to chide with Moses, "and spake, saying, Would God that we had died when our brethren died before Jehovah!" There is nothing too base for one even belonging to God when God is not before his eyes. "And wherefore have ye made us to come up out of Egypt, to bring us in unto this evil place? it is no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates; neither is there any water to drink. And Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, and they fell upon their faces: and the glory of Jehovah appeared unto them. And Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying, Take the rod, and gather thou the assembly together, thou, and Aaron thy brother, and speak ye unto the rock before their eyes; and it shall give forth his water, and thou shalt bring forth to them water out of the rock: so thou shalt give the congregation and their beasts drink." And Moses did take the rod from before Jehovah as He commanded him; but when he with Aaron gathered the people, he said to them, "Hear now, ye rebels!" Instead of speaking to the rock he speaks to them. He was not told to do so.
It was disobedience if Moses had done no more; but he goes farther than this, as we shall see. "Hear now, ye rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock? And Moses lifted up his hand, and with his rod." Alas! he brought another rod, his own; whereas Jehovah told him to bring "the rod;" that is, the rod of Aaron. It was the rod of priestly grace, with which God wished him to speak to the rock; the rod that told how God could cause life to work where there had been death, and could produce fruit too according to His own marvellous grace; for He knows how to quicken, entirely beyond the thoughts of man or nature. Although Moses brings out "the rod" according to the word of Jehovah, he does not use it according to Him. He strikes with his own rod. What was its distinctive character? His was the rod of authority, and of judicial power. Of old he had used that rod aright (Exodus 17:1-16): it was a question of judgment falling on the rock then only. Just so Christ "once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God." Now He ever lives to make intercession for us.
But here Moses, completely losing sight of the infinite grace of God in this wondrous transaction and provision for His people, and falling back on the principle of judgment, misrepresented the God that he had sought to magnify, and whose grace it was his greatest joy to reflect. It was not so now, and hence a grievous failure. It became sin unto death to Moses, for God most of all resents a grave misrepresentation of Himself on the part of one who ought to have known Him well. It was precisely because Moses and Aaron were so near to God, because they had entered (Moses particularly) into the grace of Jehovah, that now under these circumstances total failure on their part became the occasion for setting aside Moses as a vessel that had done its work. He was not fit to lead them into the land the goodly land. It was a sore trial; it was a deep pain, you may be sure, to Moses's heart, though he never distrusted Jehovah after this, I am persuaded, but bowed with beautiful grace to His will, as we shall see in the history that follows. At the same time Moses felt and was meant to feel it all. But it is a sorrow that one who had conducted them so truly according to God, and who had stood so firm in circumstances yet more trying, should have failed, as it were, when close to the very brink of the land when drawing near to the point from which they were to enter on the Canaan of Jehovah's choice. But so it was. Moses failed, departed from the rich grace of God, fell back on judgment; and judgment accordingly dealt with him. Moses did not act according to Jehovah. He lifted up his hand, and with his rod he smote the rock twice. Jehovah did not withhold the supply. The water came out abundantly; but this was to God's own praise, and in nowise an endorsement of Moses's failure. "And Jehovah spake unto Moses and Aaron, Because ye believed me not, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them."
After this (verse 14) we find Moses sending messengers, that they might pass through the land of Edom. Edom refuses; and Jehovah bids Aaron to go up. The time was come for him to pass away, and for Eleazar his son to take his place.
The endeavour to set Deuteronomy 2:29 in opposition to Numbers 20:14-21 is due either to perverse ill-will, or to mere inattention and rashness.* Edom did refuse to let Israel pass through, yet they did pass through at last. The two occasions were quite distinct. The refusal of Edom recorded in the latter scripture occurred at a different time and place from that in which Israel effected the passage through their territory. The messengers were sent from Kadesh, not the district in general but the city, in their uttermost border, it would appear on the north-west; and this before the death of Aaron. But the passage was actually made some time after his death by the south of Edom by the way of the Red Sea, as indeed we may learn from Numbers 21:1-35. SoNumbers 33:36; Numbers 33:36 et seqq. shows Israel leaving Kadesh for Mount Hor, and Aaron goes up into the mountain and dies. From Hor we next hear of their encamping in Zalmonah, when they had turned the southern extremity of Edom, and were advancing northward on the east of the mountainous tract before reaching the border of Moab. Thus, if we compare the previous verses (30-35), we see that the children of Israel first came down from Moseroth in or near Mount Hor on the west of Edom to Ezion-gaber on the Red Sea; thence they went up the Arabah again to Mount Hor (verses 36, 37), when Aaron's death took place; and thence they came down by the same western side of Edom to Ezion-gaber on the Red Sea once more, thus compassing Mount Seir many days before they turned northward. No less than thirty-seven years elapsed from the days in which they came from Kadesh-barnea till they crossed the brook Zered. (Deuteronomy 2:14) The object of that long stay there was in order that the old generation might gradually die off.
*Dr. Davidson's Introd. O. T. i. 70.
It may be added thatDeuteronomy 10:6-7; Deuteronomy 10:6-7 entirely falls in with the routes already indicated, verse 6 showing us the latter part of their upward journey from Ezion-gaber to Mosera in Mount Hor, where Aaron died, as verse 7 traces the subsequent journey down again as far as Jotbath or Jotbatha. Numbers 33:1-56. furnishes us details of this journey southward, but simply the broad facts that they departed from Mount Hor and encamped in Zalmonah on their final northward march by the eastern side of Mount Seir. Derangement in the order of the places named is only in the minds of hasty readers, not in the scriptures when patiently considered.
The only other point that I shall notice, as closing this part of my subject, is given in Numbers 21:1-35; that is, we find Israel in the presence of the Canaanite king of Arad, who at first takes some prisoners. Israel vows to Jehovah that he will utterly destroy them, if He will deliver the people into his hand. Jehovah hearkens, and such destruction ensues that the place is thence called Hormah.
Soon after this, however, occurs a very serious scene of warning for our souls (verse 4 et seqq.). It is no uncommon case: a time of victory has to be watched, lest it be a precursor of danger. A time of defeat, on the other hand, constantly prepares one for a fresh and greater blessing from God so rich is His grace. He knows how to lift up the fallen, but He makes those that are too light with their victory to feel their total weakness and the constant need of Himself. So it was with Israel. They became much discouraged immediately after their great victory, and they speak against God and against Moses. "And Jehovah sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died." They at once fly to Moses, and ask him to pray to Jehovah for them; and Moses is directed by Jehovah to make a fiery serpent. "Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived."
It is important, I think, for our souls to see this that, as connected with the wilderness and with the flesh, there is no life for man. Life is not for man in the flesh. Death is the Lord's way of dealing with fallen humanity. How then is man to live? "I if I be lifted up from the earth will draw all men unto me," to quote another New Testament application of the truth now before our minds. "I if I be lifted up" it is a Saviour no longer on the earth, but lifted up from it: I do not say in heaven, but a Saviour rejected and crucified. This is the means of divine attraction when sin has been thus definitively judged. There can be no adequate blessing without the cross for man as he is; for thus only is God glorified as to sin. This is what in type comes before us here.
But why, it may be asked, the serpent of brass? Why after that figure? For another most solemn reason. It is not only that a crucified Saviour is the means of salvation to man; but, besides, the figure intimates One "made sin," though in His own person He were the only One who "knew no sin." Had He known sin, He could not have been a Saviour according to divine holiness; had He not been made sin, we had never been really delivered from its judgment. He is, and He was made, exactly what God would have Him to be, and what we most needed Him to be. He is all this for us, and, mark, all for us now. We shall have all the glorious consequences in due time; but, even now, having Himself on the completion of His work, we have to faith all things in Him. So here Israel had all things by the way; they had life, as we see life won by victory over the power of sin and death.
Thus, as we hear just after this, God gives them joy by the way springs of joy and gladness, as we afterwards find the well in the desert which the princes digged. After all not much digging was required: with their staves was quite enough. Such is the goodness of God to us even for the wilderness. The well was not made by dint of hard work on the part of those used to labour. The princes put to their hands with their staves; and they probably did not know much about toil. But it was enough. Over-abounding grace thus gives abundant refreshment for the people as following that which God had before Him the beautiful type which Christ Himself applied to His own bearing the judgment of sin on the cross: once sin is judged, once life is given, what does God not give because of it and in unison with it? "He that spared not his own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things."
The rest of the chapter shows us the triumphant progress of the people, with their victories (often alluded to in the law and the psalms) over Sihon king of the Amorites, and Og king of Bashan. Two references are made in the account of this one to a book of that day, the book of the wars of Jehovah (verse 14); the other to certain proverbial sayings or legends then in vogue (verses 27-30). This does not, as the rationalists pretend, give the smallest support to the hypothesis that Moses composed the Pentateuch from a mass of previous material floating among the Israelites of his age and their Gentile neighbours. Written and oral, these foreign traditions are purposely cited with the exceptional end in view of proving from witnesses unimpeachable in the eyes of their most zealous adversaries that the land in debate, when Israel took it by conquest, did not belong to Ammon or Moab, but to the doomed races of Canaan and its vicinity. To the country of the former they had no just claim; that of the Amorite, etc., was given them up by God. The Amorite had taken it from Moab, and Israel from the Amorite, subsequently dwelling in all their cities, from Arnon to Jabbok, in Heshbon and all its villages. A Jewish record of its previous possessors and of their own victories might be disputed as interested by a foe; but a citation from their own current proverbial songs was conclusive; and the Spirit of God deigns to employ an extract to this end. In Judges 11:1-40 we see precisely this ground of recognised fact taken by Jephthah in refuting the claims of the then king of Ammon, and his pretensions proved baseless by the incontrovertible evidence that the Amorite had the disputed territory when Israel made himself master of it, spite of Balak king of Moab and all other rivals. On a somewhat similar principle the apostle does not hesitate to cite heathen testimonies in the New Testament, as no mean confession on their part for the matter in hand. (Acts 17:23; Acts 17:28; 1 Corinthians 15:33; Titus 1: 22)
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Kelly, William. "Commentary on Numbers 16:36". Kelly Commentary on Books of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/​commentaries/​wkc/​numbers-16.html. 1860-1890.