Bible Commentaries

The Biblical Illustrator

Numbers 16

Verses 1-35

Numbers 16:1-35

Korah . . . Dathan, and Abiram . . . gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron.

Korah, Dathan, and Abiram

I. The rebels.

1. Influential.

2. Numerous,

3. Deluded--

II. Their sin. Rebellion against the authority of God which was invested in Moses.

1. Cause in Korah (see Numbers 3:30); whence it appears that for some unexplained cause a younger relative was appointed to the headship of the Kohathites. Korah was descended from the second son of Kohath (Numbers 6:18), whilst the present head was descended from the fourth son.

2. Cause in Dathan and Abiram. The priesthood transferred from the first-born of every family to one particular tribe, and that a branch of the house of Moses. But this was done by command of God, not of Moses alone.

3. Cause in the two hundred and fifty. Their own assumed rights might be interfered with, so they thought.

4. Cause in their followers. General dissatisfaction. They charged upon Moses the effects of their own selfishness. Pride in all of them.

III. Their punishment.

1. Of Divine selection. Left on both sides to Divine arbitration. On the part of the rebels, a defiance; on the side of Moses, humble agreement.

2. Manifest. All should see it, and know thereby the Divine will.

3. Of Divine infliction. God took the matter into His own hands. It was a rebellion against Him, more than Moses.

4. Terrible.

5. Complete.

All pertaining to them perished. God could do without men who had thought so much of themselves. Learn:

1. “Our God is a consuming fire.” “A fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”

2. Beware of resisting Divine authority. “How shall ye escape,” &c.

3. Have we not all rebelled?

4. God was in Christ, making reconciliation, &c. (J. C. Gray.)

Korah, Dathan, and Abiram

The particular characters of these three men, Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, are not given in Scripture; but they seem to represent generally all those who rise up against the powers ordained of God: Korah the Levite against Aaron; Dathan and Abiram of the tribe of Reuben against Moses; but both conspiracies being combined together, indicates that it is the same temper of mind which rejects the ordinances of God whether it be in Church or State. Their sin was like that of the fallen angels who from envy, it is supposed, arose against the Son of God. But let us consider how far the case is applicable to ourselves now; as it is in some degree peculiar; for Moses and Aaron had their authority all along confirmed of God by outward signs and miracles. Add to which that their characters were such as less than any other to justify opposition or envy. For Moses was the meekest of men; and Aaron was inoffensive in all his conduct toward them. Their pre-eminence, too, was in hardship rather than in wealth or worldly power: in journeyings in the wilderness, not in the riches of Canaan. But these circumstances do not in fact prevent the application to ourselves; for the Pharisees afterwards had no miracles to prove their authority from God; and moreover they were great oppressors, covetous and cruel: yet our Lord says of them, “The Scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: all therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do”; and this He says at the very time when He is cautioning His disciples against their wickedness. They had to obey the ordinance of God, though it had neither outward sign nor holiness to support it. Nor indeed is the presence of God denied by the company of Korah as being vouchsafed to them under the guidance of Moses and Aaron; they say that “the Lord is among them,” as He was seen in the pillar of fire and the cloud, in the holy tabernacle, in the manna from heaven: but what they complained of was the want of visible fruits and enjoyments, “Thou hast not brought us into a land that floweth with milk and honey”; “Wilt thou put out the eyes of these men?” as men may say now, “We see not our tokens”; where are our spiritual privileges? where is the fulfilment of all the glorious things which the prophets have spoken of the Christian Church? But if this case is of universal application and for general warning, then the question will arise, are there no allowances, no limitations, to be made; and is there no relief in the case of oppressive governors and bad pastors? must all resistance be like that of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, displeasing to God? and is it never without sin? Let us consider this a little more particularly. If such powers are of God, then He gives such as are suitable to the people over whom they are placed; not necessarily such as they like, but such as are good for them to have, and such as they deserve. For instance, the Roman emperors during the early days of Christianity, were many of them monsters of cruelty and wickedness; but when we come to inquire into the character of the people over whom they were placed, we find the corruption of morals so deep and extensive that they were as bad as the tyrants that governed them. And it was to these Romans and living under some of the worst of these governors that St. Paul says, “Let every one be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God.” And St. Peter unto Christians under the same rule, “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king as supreme; or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by Him.” Moreover, in consequence of this, we find in Scripture that kings and people are often together condemned and visited alike. Pharaoh and Egypt both together oppressed Israel; both hardened their hearts; both were cut off together. The same order of Divine providence applies also to spiritual governors; it is so with the Church of God in all times and places; the angels of the Churches and the Churches themselves are tended on, and in each case addressed together as one by their Lord, who has the seven stars in His hand, while He walks in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks. We may therefore consider it as a general law of God’s providence, that their rulers both spiritual and temporal will be such as the people are worthy of; that if they need better rulers, the only way in which this can be produced efficiently and effectively, is by becoming better themselves. But a case of difficulty which may arise is this, if a signal repentance should take place among the people, the spirit of grace and supplication should be poured out upon them, and there should be a general awakening; then the deficiency of their pastors and rulers will come before them in a striking light; and then will be their great temptation to take the amendment of such things into their own hands. But yet not well nor wisely. Surely no reformation can be equal to that which took place suddenly and simultaneously, when the disciples of Christ were yet under the Scribes and Pharisees, yet He said, as they sat in Moses’ seat they must be obeyed. Or again, when the apostles wrote to Christians, that they must submit themselves to the powers that be, while those powers were the most corrupt of heathen governments. It is true that the change had not then become extensive, or leavened the general state of society, but the law of God’s providence was the same, for it was the gradual progress of that change which would bring over them in God’s own good time their own true governors, such as were meet for them. And in the meanwhile those evil rulers formed a part of that discipline of faith by which they were perfected and established, being purified thereby as gold in the fire. Moreover, it is observed that the Church of God has flourished more under heathen than under its own Christian rulers. This consideration may allay our impatience; we are at best so weak and frail that we need the iron rod more than the golden sceptre; in our present state the Cross is more suited for us than the crown. In prosperity we lean on an arm of flesh, and are weakened; in adversity we lean on God, and are strengthened. But then it may be said that there is a case far more grievous than this, that of evil ministers in the Church itself, whether it be of chief pastors, or of those in their own nearer and subordinate sphere. These are trials peculiarly heavy to a good man; and there are some cases which can only be considered as severe visitations of God, and the scourge of sin. But if God does not afford the power of remedying this great evil, then the same law of patience must be applied. In one ruler or pastor you may read God’s wrath, in another His love. You cannot reject either; take His wrath in meekness, and He may show you His love. And in the meanwhile, with regard to any particular case of great trial, we must practise forbearance, and God will remember us in His own good time. This duty of meekness and patience applies to a case so far as it is one we cannot remedy, like any evil or scourge that comes to us from God’s hand, we must take it as our punishment from Him. But then it may be said, when the case is one that implies grievous sin, an example which dishonours God, corrupts Christ’s little ones, and poisons the fount of life, are we to acquiesce in this? Does not the love of God constrain us not to resign ourselves to such evil--to lift up our voice and cry--to move heaven and earth? This is most true: for surely there is a remedy with God. When He has forbidden one way of redress, He has pointed out another and a better. Our Lord has pointed out the one and only way, and that is the way of prayer. He did not even Himself send forth apostles without it. Many are cast down because the Church is in bonds. It can neither appoint for itself suitable pastors, nor set aside evil ministers, nor manage its own affairs, and the government of it is falling into the hands of its enemies. But these are not the g, eat evils to be feared; the one great cause for apprehension is this, whether in the body of the Church at large the spirit of prayer is sufficiently strong to cast off all these impediments; for where prayer is, all such evils from without are thrown off, even as in the spring of the year nature throws off all the chains of winter. The imprisoned eagle may even yet soar aloft, and unfold her wing in the free expanse of heaven. (Isaac Williams, B. D.)

Korah, Dathan, and Abiram

I. The sin.

1. A jealousy of the privileges and positions of God’s appointed priesthood.

2. A lack of reverence for sacred things.

3. An unauthorised and presumptuous intrusion into Divine mysteries.

II. The conviction.

1. Moses acted wisely.

2. Modestly.

3. Prudently.

III. The punishment.

1. It destroyed the guilty.

2. It involved the innocent.

3. It was deterrent in its tendency.

Lessons:

1. The fatal consequences of extreme irreverence.

2. Before we find fault with others we should take heed to ourselves.

3. All who attempt to get to heaven through their own efforts, instead of by the merits of the great High Priest, Jesus Christ, shall share the fate of these wicked men. (Preacher’s Analyst.)

Korah, Dathan, and Abiram

I. The sin of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram was this: they were discontented with the arrangement made for public worship by the choosing out of Aaron and his family to be priests. The argument they used was a very plausible one, because it depended upon the great truth of the Lord’s being with all His people, consecrating and sanctifying them all, making them all in a certain sense holy to the Lord, in a certain sense priests. It also flattered the vanity of the people, and strengthened them in the notion that they were oppressed by their rulers.

II. The answer to this argument was that Moses and Aaron had not lifted themselves up at all; the Lord had lifted then up. This was the answer which was ultimately given, with very terrible emphasis, by the swallowing up of Korah and his company. Korah and his company had laid great stress on the fact that all the congregation of the Lord were holy. Moses and Aaron might very well have replied, that they for their part by no means questioned the fact. Moses had never represented the choice of Aaron and his family as a declaration that they only of the people were holy. Nothing could be a greater mistake on the part of the people than to take this view of the priestly consecration.

III. Between our own priesthood and that of the Israelites there is still the great common ground of ministry before God in behalf of others which must be at the basis of every religion. Hence both priest and people may learn a lesson. The priest may learn that his office does not imply that he is holier or better than his brethren, but that it does imply greater responsibility, greater opportunities of good, greater sin if he does evil. And the people may learn to be gentle and considerate to those who are over them in the Lord, not to be ready to find fault and condemn, but rather to be charitable, and forbearing, and gentle. (Bp. Harvey Goodwin.)

Korah, Dathan, and Abiram

God has brought the Israelites out of Egypt. One of the first lessons which they have to learn is, that freedom does mean license and discord--does not mean every one doing that which is right in his own eyes. From that springs self-will, division, quarrels, revolt, civil war, weakness, profligacy, and ruin to the whole people. Without order, discipline, obedience to law, there can be no true and lasting freedom; and therefore order must be kept at all risks, the law obeyed, and rebellion punished. Now rebellion ought to be punished far more severely in some cases than in others. If men rebel here, in Great Britain or Ireland, we smile at them, and let them off with a slight imprisonment, because we are not afraid of them. They can do no harm. Bat there are cases.in which rebellion must be punished with a swift and sharp hand. On board a ship at sea, for instance, where the safety of the whole ship, the lives of the whole crew, depend on instant obedience, mutiny may be punished by death on the spot. And so it was with the Israelites in the desert. All depended on their obedience. The word must be, Obey or die. As for any cruelty in putting Korah, Dathan, and Abiram to death, it was worth the death of a hundred such--or a thousand--to preserve the great and glorious nation of the Jews to be the teachers of the world. Moses was not their king. God brought them out of Egypt, God was their king. That was the lesson which they had to learn, and to teach other nations also. And so not Moses, but God must punish, and show that He is not a dead, but a living God, who can defend Himself, and enforce His own laws, and execute judgment, without needing any man to fight His battles for Him. And God does so. The powers of nature--the earthquake and the nether fire--shall punish these rebels; and so they do. Men have thought differently of the story; but I call it a righteous story, and one which agrees with my conscience, and my reason, and my experience also of the way in which God’s world is governed until this day. What, then, are we to think of the earth opening and swallowing them up? This first. That discipline and order are so absolutely necessary for the well-being of a nation that they must be kept at all risks, and enforced by the most terrible punishments. But how hard, some may think, that the wives and the children should suffer for their parents’ sins. We do not know that a single woman or child died then for whom it was not better that he or she should die. And next--what is it, after all, but what we see going on round us all the day long? God does visit the sins of the fathers on the children. But there was another lesson, and a deep lesson, in the earthquake and in the fire. “Who sends the earthquake and the fire? Do they come from the devil--the destroyer? Do they come by chance, from some brute and blind powers of nature?” This chapter answers, “No; they come from the Lord, from whom all good things do come; from the Lord who delivered the Israelites out of Egypt; who so loved the world that He spared not His only-begotten Son, but freely gave Him for us.” Now I say that is a gospel which we want now as much as ever men did; which the children of Israel wanted then, though not one whit more than we. You cannot read your Bibles without seeing how that great lesson was stamped into the very hearts of the Hebrew prophets; how they are continually speaking of the fire and the earthquake, and yet continually declaring that they too obey God and do God’s will, and that the man who fears God need not fear them--that God was their hope and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore would they not fear, though the earth was moved, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea. And we, too, need the same lesson in these scientific days. We too need to fix it in our hearts, that the powers of nature are the powers of God; that He orders them by His providence to do what He will, and when and where He will; that, as the Psalmist says, the winds are His messengers and the flames of fire His ministers. And this we shall learn from the Bible, and from no other book whatsoever. God taught the Jews this by a strange and miraculous education, that they might teach it in their turn to all mankind. (C. Kingsley, M. A.)

Korah

God was pleased under the old, as He has done under the present dispensation, to constitute the priesthood of His Church, in accordance with that principle of orderly arrangement which runs through all His ways, in a threefold order, with a regular distribution and gradation of powers from the lowest to the highest. But the wisdom of men does not quietly acquiesce in God’s wisdom when it goes counter to the interests, impulses, and aspirations of self-love. Men are easily brought to doubt the divinity of a system that sets others over them, and assigns them only an inferior station, even though that be honourable and good. The spirit of discontent and rebellion broke out even in the life of Aaron, and during the sojourn in the wilderness. Even thus early did the presumption of man dare to criticise and amend the institutions of God, and under the guise of a zeal for liberty and for right, the favourite pretext of ambition and selfishness, to break the order which God had established, and substitute devices of its own creation. Korah was a Levite, but he aspired also to be a priest, and could not acquiesce in those limitations, which, what he may have called the accident of birth and the arbitrary restraints of the Law, imposed upon him. And he easily drew to him associates in his nefarious enterprise. The sedition was wide-spread, and threatened the most fatal consequences. Jealousy of power and place is contagious, and always finds an answering sentiment in many hearts. Broach it once among any body of men, and it will run “like sparks among the stubble.” Equality and the lowering of eminence and distinction, and disregard of law, are popular doctrines, and easily clothe themselves in specious forms. It is alleged that all society is sacred; there is, there ought to be, no special sacredness in any in eminent place, which inferiors in office or men in private condition are bound to recognise and respect. Thus the bonds of social order in the Church, in the State, are loosened and destroyed. We stand on the dignity of human nature, and the spiritual equality of all Christians: we can have no rulers, we will brook no superiors, we will obey no restrictions--the spurious pleas of presumptuous self-will and ambition, in the State and in the Church, in all ages. God, however, quickly interfered in this instance, to vindicate and protect His own appointments, and keep that sacred polity which His wisdom had provided for His Church from being trampled on and destroyed. What, then, is this “gainsaying of Core” to us? and what may we learn from it that is profitable for admonition and instruction in righteousness?

1. We learn the sacredness of the ministry, and of its divinely appointed order Every man was to know his place and to keep it, and to do the duty of his place and none other, and not, on some specious plea of a higher fitness or a larger usefulness, intrude on work which God had given to others. Now, here are great principles, and these are applicable to the Church in all her periods and in all her forms. There is a ministry now in the Church, and it is there not because man made it, but God. “Let a man,” says St. Paul, “so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God.” They hold their place, if they are really anything at all, by a Divine commission. Without a ministry recognised as truly Divine, there will never be religious stability, nor long, religious life and true Christian morals. And when these are gone, civil liberty and political order will not last long. And the first, the fatal step towards these dreadful losses is taken when that constitution of the ministry which Christ appointed is changed, and the sacred office begins to be looked upon as a thing which men may mould and alter to their convenience and their fancy.

2. But we must spare a little space for the broader lesson which this “gainsaying of Core” teaches us, namely, that in the social system, we all, ministers and laymen, especially ministers, have our place, which is appointed us of God, and our true wisdom and happiness lie in knowing what it is, and keeping in it. Korah had a place, and a very good place, but he did not like it. He sought a better by unlawful means, and he lost all, and “left his name for a curse unto God’s chosen.” He forgot that God had assigned him his place, and that contentment in it was a part of his religious obedience, the service that God required at his hands. How full this world is of restless and uncomfortable aspirings! Men see around them higher places, happier ones as they think; places that are certainly grander, that shine more, that seem to contain a greater plenitude of good, and to open larger sources of pleasure and enjoyment. They are discontented. They are envious. They get very little comfort from what they have by reason of their uneasy hankerings after what they have not. The true antidote of this great evil is faith; faith in God and in His overruling Providence; faith in the Divine order into which we find ourselves wrought, faith in the social economy under which we live as a Divine structure and appointment; faith in our own assignment to that place and those relations in it, which, whatever we may think of them, are the mind of God concerning us, the work of that great fashioning Hand which “ordereth all things in heaven and earth,” and which appoints to all inferior agents their place and their work, not in caprice, not in cruelty, not in partiality, not in a reckless disregard of their rights and their welfare, but in wisdom, in equity, in benevolence, for His glory and the greatest good of the greatest number of His creatures. (R. A. Hallam, D. D.)

Whatsoever evil men do, they are ready to justify it

When evil men have committed evil, they are ready to justify their evils that they may seem good. We see this in Saul, 1 Samuel 13:11; 1 Samuel 31:12; 1 Samuel 15:15; John 12:5-6. Judas pretended the poor and his great care of them; albeit he cared not for them, but for himself.

1. For men are affected to their actions as they are to themselves. Though they be corrupt, yet they would not be thought to be so; and therefore they seek excuses for themselves, as Adam did fig leaves to cover his shame and his sin.

2. If they should pretend nothing, all would be ready to condemn them; therefore, to blind the eyes of others, they cast a mist before them as jugglers used to do that they may not be espied.

Uses:

1. This serveth to reprove divers sorts that go about to varnish their actions with false colours, thereby to blind the world and to put out their eyes. These show themselves to be rank hypocrites.

2. We are to judge no otherwise of all such as transgress the law of God, whatsoever their allegations be. How many men are there that think even palpable sins to be no sins at all, because they can blanch and colour them over! (W. Attersoll.)

Elevated character exposed to violence

Some years ago I went to see the lighthouse which, standing on Dunnet Head--the Cape Orcas of the Romans--guards the mouth of the Pentland Firth. On ascending the tower, I observed the thick plate-glass windows of the lanthorn cracked--starred in a number of places. I turned to the keeper for an explanation. It appears that is done by stones flung up by the sea. The wave, on being thrown forward against the cliff, strikes it with such tremendous force as to hurl the loose stones at its base right up to the height of 300 feet. So are the great light-bearers, by the exposure of their position, and in spite of the elevation of their character, liable to be cracked and starred by the violence of the world. (T. Guthrie.)

Seek ye the priesthood also?--

Wicked ambition faith fully rebuked

I. The greatness of the privileges conferred upon the Levites.

II. The unrighteousness of the ambition cherished by them. Their ambition involved--

1. The disparagement of their present privileges. Their privileges “seemed but a small thing unto them.” Great as they were, they did not satisfy them. “Ambition,” says Trapp, “is restless and unsatisfiable; for, like the crocodile, it grows as long as it lives.”

2. Interference in the Divine arrangements. “Seek ye the priesthood also?”

III. The heinousness of the rebellion in which they engaged. Moses points out to them concerning their rebellion that--

1. It was unreasonable. “What is Aaron that ye murmur against him?” The high priest was merely an instrument in the hand of the Lord.

2. It was exceedingly sinful. “Thou and all thy company are gathered together against the Lord.” “Those resist the prince who resist those that are commissioned by him” (comp. Matthew 10:40; John 13:20; Acts 9:4).

Conclusion:

1. Let us crush every rising of ambition which is not in harmony with wisdom and righteousness.

2. Let us seek to give to our ambition a righteous and noble direction. (W. Jones.)

The privileges of the Levites

1. They were separated from the congregation of Israel, distinguished from them, dignified above them; instead of complaining that Aaron’s family was advanced above theirs, they ought to be thankful that their tribe was advanced above, the rest of the tribes, though they had been in all respects upon the level with them. Note, it will help to keep us from envying those that are above us, duly to consider how many there are above whom we are placed. Many perhaps who deserve better are not preferred so well.

2. They were separated to very great and valuable honours.

3. He convicts them of the sin of under valuing these privileges, “Seemeth it a small thing unto you?” It ill becomes you, of all men, to grudge Aaron the priesthood, when at the same time that he was advanced to that honour, you were designed to another honour dependent upon it, and shine with rays borrowed from him. Note:

4. He interprets their mutiny to be a rebellion against God (Numbers 16:1). While they pretended to assert the holiness and liberty of the Israel of God, they really took up arms against the God of Israel: “Ye are gathered together against the Lord.” Note, those that strive against God’s ordinances and providences, whatever they pretend, and whether they are aware of it or no, do indeed strive with their Maker. Those resist the prince who resist those that are commissioned by him. For alas! saith Moses, “What is Aaron that ye murmur against him?” If murmurers and complainers would consider that the instruments they quarrel with are but instruments whom God employs, and that they are but what He makes them, and neither more nor less, better nor worse, they would not be so bold and free in their censures and reproaches as they are. They that found the priesthood, as it was settled, a blessing, must give all the praise to God; but if any thought it a burden, they must not therefore quarrel with Aaron, who is but what he is made, and doth as he is bidden. Thus he interested God in the cause, and so might be sure of speeding well in his appeal. (Matthew Henry, D. D.)

Separation for nearness to God

I. God’s separation of His servants.

1. The demand for this may come with the first Divine call of which the soul is conscious. To one living a worldly life there comes a conviction of the folly of this, which is really a Divine call to rise and pass from it, through surrender to Christ, to the number of the redeemed. But that call is not easy to obey at first. The influences under which we have grown hold us where we are; aims to which we have been devoted, and in which we have much at stake, refuse to be lightly abandoned; old associations and pleasures throw their arms about us, like the family of Bunyan’s pilgrim, detaining us when we would flee; the world’s beauty blinds us to the greater beauty of the spiritual, and we fear to cast ourselves into the unknown.

2. This demand is repeated by God’s constant requirement of His people. For it is the law of spiritual life to “die daily,” to “crucify the flesh with the affections and lusts”; and what is that but to sever ourselves for Christ’s sake from objects to which the natural man would cleave!

3. And this demand of God is supplemented by His frequent providence. He calls us to voluntary separation, He also separates us whether we will or no. Evidently spiritual life needs much loneliness.

II. This separation is for nearness to Himself.

1. For apprehending God, we need separation from what is wrong. Every turning, however little, towards the world from the demand of conscience is a turning a little more away from God, till He is behind us and we lose sight of Him, and live as though He were not. Yea, sin not only turns the back on Him, it dims the eye to the spiritual so that though He stand before us we are blind to His presence.

2. Besides this, for communion with God we need separation from engrossing scenes and tasks. “How rare it is,” said Fenelon, “to find a soul still enough to hear God speak!”

3. Moreover, for God’s tenderest ministry we need separation from other joys.

III. This is the answer to the spirit of murmuring. Then is the time to think how we are separated for nearness to God, and to hear the question in the text, “Seemeth it but a small thing unto you?”

1. Let it comfort us in enforced severance from what we love. When we reflect on what we are severed from, let us reflect on the rare compensation--what we are severed to. God is the sum of joy, it is heaven to serve Him and to see His face, all else is nothing compared with conscious nearness to Him, and that is our desire and prayer.

2. Let this impel us to seek Divine nearness in the time of our separation. For nearness has not always followed separation in our experience: on the contrary, the seasons of isolation we have referred to have sometimes left us farther from God than we were. May not that be due to the fact that fellowship with Him requires that we go to Him for reception?

3. And let this give us victory over the temptation to cleave to evil. For when we first hear the call to relinquish sin the demand seems too great, as though we were to leave all for nothing. And after our Christian course has begun, it seems impossible to give up many an object we suddenly find forbidden. From what, then, we are called to leave, let us turn to think of what we are called to have. “Fear not, Abram,” God said to the patriarch, who had refused the spoil at the slaughter of the kings, “Fear not, Abram, I am thy exceeding great reward!” And so He says to us, adding, as we waver, Lovest thou these more than Me; are they more to you than My favour, My fellowship, Myself? (C. New.)

The greater our means are to prevent sin, the more we offend if we reject those means

We learn hereby that the more helps we have to prevent sin, the greater our sin is if we break these bands and east these cords from us. The sins of the Israelites are often aggravated, because the Lord had sent His prophets among them (Jeremiah 7:13-14; Jeremiah 11:7-8; Jeremiah 35:14; Psalms 78:17; Psalms 78:31; Psalms 78:35; Psalms 78:56; Matthew 11:21-24; Daniel 9:5-6). The reasons:

1. First, because those men sin against knowledge, having the Word to inform them and their own consciences to convince them.

2. Secondly, it argueth obstinacy of heart; they have many strokes given them, but they feel none of them. For such as transgress in the midst of those helps that serve to restrain sin do not sin of infirmity, but of wilfulness. Now, the more wilful a man is, the more sinful he is.

Uses:

1. This convinceth our times of much sinfulness, and in these times some places, and in those places sundry persons to be greater sinners than others. And why greater? Because our times have had more means to keep from sin than other times have had. What hath not God done for us and to us to reclaim us? Thus do we turn our blessings to be our bane, and God’s mercies to be curses upon us.

2. Secondly, it admonisheth all that enjoy the means of preventing sin as benefits and blessings, the Scriptures and Word of God, His corrections, His promises and threatenings, His patience and longsufferance, that they labour to make profit by them and to fulfil all righteousness, lest God account their sin greater than others.

3. Lastly, learn from hence that the Word is never preached in vain, whether we be converted by it or not (see Isaiah 55:10-11). (W. Attersoll.)

Every man in his place

In all the departments of life there are men who are as Moses and Aaron. Take any department of life that may first occur to the imagination. Shall we say the department of commerce? Even in the market-place we have Moses and Aaron, and they cannot be deposed. Where is the man who thinks he could not conduct the largest business in the city? Yet the poor cripple could not conduct it, and the greatest punishment that could befall the creature would be to allow him to attempt to rule a large and intricate commercial concern. But it seems to be hard for a man to see some other man at the very head of commercial affairs whose word is law, whose signature amounts to a species of sovereignty, and to know that all the while he, the observer, is, in his own estimation, quite as good a man--a person of remarkable capacity, and he is only waiting for an opportunity to wear a nimbus of glory--a halo of radiance--that would astound the exchanges of the world. But it cannot be done. There are great business men and small business men: there are wholesale men and retail men, and neither the wholesale nor the retail affects the quality of the man’s soul, or the destiny of the man’s spirit; but, as a matter of fact, these distinctions are made, and they are not arbitrary: in the spirit of them there is a Divine presence. If men could believe this, they would be comforted accordingly. Every preacher knows in his inmost soul that he is fit to be the Dean of St. Paul’s, or the Dean of Westminster--every preacher knows that; but to be something less--something officially lower--and yet to accept the inferior position with a contentment which is inspired by faith in God, is the very conquest of the Spirit of heaven in the heart of man, is a very miracle of grace. (J. Parker, D. D.)

Leaders of disaffection

It is always a most critical moment in the history of an assembly when a spirit of disaffection displays itself; for, if it be not met in the right way, the most disastrous consequences are sure to follow. There are materials in every assembly capable of being acted upon, and it only needs some restless master spirit to arise, in order to work on such materials, and fan into a devouring flame the fire that has been smouldering in secret. There are hundreds and thousands ready to flock around the standard of revolt, when once it has been raised, who have neither the vigour nor the courage to raise it themselves. It is not every one that Satan will take up as an instrument in such work. It needs a shrewd, clever, energetic man--a man of moral power--one possessing influence over the minds of his fellows, and an iron will to carry forward his schemes. No doubt Satan infuses much of all these into the men whom he uses in his diabolical undertakings. At all events, we know, as a fact, that the great leaders in all rebellious movements are generally men of master minds, capable of swaying, according to their own will, the fickle multitude, which, like the ocean, is acted upon by every stormy wind that blows. Such men know how, in the first place, to stir the passions of the people; and, in the second place, how to wield them when stirred. Their most potent agency--the lever with which they can most effectually raise the masses--is some question as to their liberty and their rights. If they can only succeed in persuading people that their liberty is curtailed, and their rights infringed, they are sure to gather a number of restless spirits around them, and do a vast deal of serious mischief. (C. H. Mackintosh.)

Discontent a rebellion against God

God counts it rebellion (cf. Numbers 17:10). Murmuring is but as the smoke of a fire; there is first a smoke and a smother before the flame breaks forth: and so before open rebellion in a kingdom there is first a smoke of murmuring, and then it breaks forth into open rebellion. Because it has rebellion in the seeds of it, it is counted before the Lord to be rebellion. When thou feelest thy heart discontented and murmuring against the dispensation of God toward thee, thou shouldest check thy heart thus: “Oh! thou wretched heart! What I wilt thou be a rebel against God?” (J. Burroughs.)

Fatal discontent

A fern told me that it was too bad to be always shut up in a shady place, and float; it wanted to grow beside the red rose in the garden. The fern said, “I have as much right to be out in the sunshine as the rose has, and I will be out.” I transplanted the little malcontent, and in one hot day the sun struck it dead with his dart of fire. Now, if we be where Christ means us to be, in shade or in light, and will grow according to His will, it shall be well with us, but if we touch that which is forbidden, we shall be made to remember that it is written, “In the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die.” (J. Parker, D. D.)

Every man should walk as he is called of God

As in an orchard there is variety of fruit, apple trees, pear trees, plum trees, &c., and every tree endeavours to suck juice answerable to his kind, that it may bear such a fruit; and an apple tree doth not turn a plum tree, nor a plum tree a cherry tree, &c.; but every tree contents itself to be of its own kind: so in the Church and commonwealth there are varieties of callings, pastors, people, magistrates, subjects; some higher, some lower. And here now every man is to walk as he is called of God, and learn what belongs thereunto, not to encroach or intermeddle with that which belongs to others: for the saying of that Roman general to the soldier that kept the tents, when he should have been fighting in the field, “Non amo nimium diligentem,” will be one day used of God, if He calls us to one possession, and we busy ourselves about another; if He set us on foot, and we will be on horseback; if He make us subjects, and we must needs be superiors. God will not be pleased with such busybodies. (J. Spencer.)

Respect not Thou their offering.

The resentment of Moses against sinners

Moses, though the meekest man, yet finding God reproached in him, was very wroth; he could not bear to see a people ruining themselves for whose salvation he had done so much. In this discomposure--

1. He appeals to God concerning his own integrity; whereas they basely reflected upon him as ambitious, covetous, and oppressive in making himself a prince over them. God was his witness--

2. He begs of God to plead his cause and clear him by showing His displeasure at the incense which Korah and his company were to offer, with whom Dathan and Abiram were in confederacy. “Lord,” said he, “respect not Thou their offering.” Wherein he seems to refer to the history of Cain, lately written by his own hand, of whom it is said that to him and his offering God had not respect (Genesis 4:4). These that followed the gainsaying of Korah walked in the way of Cain (they are put together, Jude verse 11), and therefore he prays they might be frowned upon as Cain was, and put to the same confusion. (Matthew Henry, D. D.)

A fire from the Lord.--

Presumptuous service

No man is indispensable to God. These men had no business to offer incense. God will not have the order of the Church or the order of the universe disturbed without penalty. Things are all fixed, whether you like it or not; the bounds of our habitation are fixed. He who would upset any axiom of God always goes down into the pit, the earth opens and swallows him up. That will be so until the end of time. It is so in literature, it is so in housekeeping, it is so in statesmanship, it is so in preaching. The whole order of creation is God’s; why can we not simply, lovingly accept it, and say, Good is the will of the Lord? Why this chafing against the bars of the cage? Why this discontent with the foundations of things? The Lord placed me here, it is the only place I am fit for, or I have been qualified by Divine compassion and love for this position: good is the will of the Lord! Better that incense be not offered than that it be offered by unworthy hands. There is really nothing in the incense; it is in the motive, in the purpose, it is in the honest handling of the censer, that good is done by any service or by any ceremony. No bad man can preach. He can talk, he can say beautiful words, but he does not preach so as to get at the heart and at the conscience, and so as to bless all the deeper and inner springs of human life and human hope. Officialism is not piety. A man may have a censer, and yet have no right to it. A man may be robed in the clothes of the Church, but be naked before heaven, and be regarded by high heaven as a violator and an intruder. Whoever uses a censer gives himself more or less of publicity: by so much does he become a leader; and by so much as a man is a leader does God’s anger burn hotly against him when he prostitutes his leadership. How many men were there? Two hundred and fifty. That was a great numerical loss. Yes, it was: but numerical losses may be moral gains. The congregation must be weighed as well as numbered. Some churches would be fuller if they were emptier. The Church of Christ would be stronger to-day if all nominal professors were shed off, if the earth would open and swallow them up every one. These were two hundred and fifty trespassers. Whatever they were outside the Church, they had no right to be within it in the sense which they now represent by this action. No true man was ever cut off, let me say again and again. The whole emphasis is upon the word “true.” He may not be a great man or a brilliant man, he may be nothing of a genius, but if he be true, that is the only genius God desiderates as fundamental and permanent. (J. Parker, D. D.)

Verses 37-40

Numbers 16:37-40

Take up the censers.

Divine economy

What God has kissed must not be lost; what God has consecrated must be preserved. The two hundred and fifty men may be burned up, the censers may be scorched, but they shall be turned to some use in the sanctuary. O thou great Economist, the very stones of Thy house are sacred to Thee; they are not sacred as magically consecrated, but they are sacred because Thou hast told men to seek in the quarries of the earth and in the forests of the land for stone and wood to put together to make a sanctuary for Thee; and once Thine, Thine for ever. The stones are dear to Thee, yea, the dust of Zion is more than the constellations of the sky. If we have given anything to the Cross, it is God’s; it will never be unholy. At the beginning of every year some men say, “So much for Christ.” They say, “There it is; every penny is His, it will all go to His treasury.” Such men can never be vexed and fretted by appeals, because they have given the money, and when they have spent all the money they say so, and God is as pleased with their not giving as with their giving, because they have given it all. They first set it apart, they consecrated it, they took it to the Cross and said, Jesus, this little handful is all Thine; help me to spend it aright. It is all gone, so when the next applicant comes and gets nothing, God is not displeased. So let us give ourselves to Christ; then every hair on our head is His, and will be numbered; all our outgoings and incomings, our downsittings and uprisings, will be of consequence to Heaven. Why? Not because of the detailed action, but because the life out of which all of that action came was itself baptized, made holy with the chrism of fire. (J. Parker, D. D.)

Verses 41-50

Numbers 16:41-50

On the morrow all the congregation . . . murmured.

Transgression and intercession

I. A new rebellion raised the very next day against Moses and Aaron. Be astonished, O heavens, at this, and wonder, O earth! Was there ever such an instance of the incurable corruption of sinners! (Numbers 16:41). On the morrow the body of the people mutinied--

1. Though they were but newly terrified by the sight of the punishment of the rebels. Warnings slighted.

2. Though they were but newly saved from sharing in the same punishment, and the survivors were as brands plucked out of the burning, yet they fly in the face of Moses and Aaron, to whose intercession they owed their preservation.

II. God’s speedy appearing against the rebels. When they were gathered against Moses and Aaron, perhaps with design to depose or murder them, they looked towards the tabernacle, as if their misgiving consciences expected some frowns from thence; and behold the glory of the Lord appeared (Numbers 16:42) for the protection of His servants, and confusion of His and their accusers. Moses and Aaron thereupon came before the tabernacle, partly for their own safety; there they took sanctuary from the strife of tongues (Psalms 37:5; Psalms 31:20), and partly for advice, to know what was the mind of God upon this occasion (Numbers 16:43). Justice hereupon declares, They deserve to be consumed in a moment (Numbers 16:45). Why should they live another day who hate to be reformed, and whose rebellions are their daily practices? Let just vengeance take place and do its work, and the trouble with them will soon be over; only Moses and Aaron must first be secured.

III. The intercession which Moses and Aaron made for them. Though they had as much reason, one would think, as Elias had, to make intercession against Israel (Romans 11:7), yet they forgive and forget the indignities offered them, and are the best friends their enemies have.

1. They both fell on their faces, humbly to intercede with God for mercy, knowing how great their provocation was. This they had done several times before upon the like occasion; and though the people had basely requited them for it, yet God having graciously accepted them, they still have recourse to the same method. This is praying always.

2. Moses perceiving that the plague was begun in the congregation of the rebels, i.e., that body of them which was gathered together against Moses, sends Aaron by an act of his priestly office to make atonement for them (Numbers 16:46). And Aaron readily went, burnt incense between the living and the dead, not to purify the infected air, but to pacify an offended God, and so stayed the progress of the judgment (Numbers 16:47).

IV. The result and issue of the whole matter.

1. God’s justice was glorified in the death of some. Great execution the sword of the Lord did in a very little time. Though Aaron made all the haste he could, yet before he could reach his post of service there were fourteen thousand seven hundred men laid dead upon the spot (Numbers 16:49). Note, those that quarrel with lesser judgments prepare greater for themselves; for when God judgeth He will overcome.

2. His mercy was glorified in the preservation of the rest. God showed them what He could do by His power, and what He might do in justice, but then showed them what He could do in His love and pity. He would preserve them a people to Himself for all this, in and by a Mediator. The cloud of Aaron’s incense coming from his hand stayed the plague. Note, it is much for the glory of God’s goodness that many a time, even in wrath, He remembers mercy; and even when judgments have been begun, prayer has put a stop to them, so ready is He to forgive, and so little pleasure doth He take in the death of sinners. (Matthew Henry, D. D.)

The aggravated rebellion of the people, the effectual intercession of the good, and the justice and mercy of God

I. The aggravated rebellion of the people.

1. Terrible disregard of Divine warnings.

2. Base ingratitude to Moses and Aaron.

3. Profane characterisation of the wicked as the people of God.

II. The speedy interposition of Jehovah.

1. The manifestation of His glory.

2. The declaration of the desert of the rebels.

III. The effectual intercession of Moses and Aaron.

1. The kindness of Moses and Aaron. Their conduct reminds us of Him who prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

2. The courage of Aaron. He feared neither the excited people who were embittered against him, nor the pestilence which was smiting down the people by thousands, but “ran into the midst of the congregation,” &c.

3. The zeal of Aaron. He was now an old man, yet he “ran into the midst,” &c. An example for Christian ministers.

4. The success of Aaron. “The plague was stayed.” How great is the power of prayer!

IV. The exercise of the justice and mercy of God.

1. Here is an impressive display of Divine justice. Many slain.

2. Here is an encouraging manifestation of Divine mercy. Some spared.

Conclusion: Learn--

1. The heinousness of sin.

2. The great value of a faithful ministry.

3. The readiness of God to forgive sin. (W. Jones.)

Make an atonement for them.

The sin of man and the salvation of God

I. There is an awful controversy between a holy God and a rebellious world. Our sin resembles theirs in many aspects, and has the same aggravations.

1. As it directly strikes against the authority and the grace of God, whatever be the form it assumes.

2. As it is often committed in the face of frequent and awful warnings.

3. As it is heightened by the experience of God’s preserving and upholding mercy.

II. There is at hand a prescribed and Divinely approved remedy.

1. That our only escape from threatened wrath is through the mediation and advocacy of our High Priest.

2. That the plan of salvation by faith is as efficacious in reality as it is simple in its mode of application.

3. That an immediate application to it is our only protection against certain ruin. “Go quickly.” (S. Thodey.)

An awful spectacle, and a surprising remedy

I. An awful spectacle exhibited. When private prayer is a task, and the minor moralities of life begin to be disregarded, there are fearful symptoms of decay and declension. “The plague is begun.”

II. The surprising remedy found. “Take a censer,” &c. Where is the physician who would have recommended this as a cure for the plague? Who would have thought that the appearance of a single priest amidst the dying and the dead should have stopped the progress of the pestilence? Yet the incense and the fire and the oblation accomplish that for Israel which all the wisdom of the Egyptians could never have achieved. Who does not, in like manner, rebel against God’s appointed method of pardon? or question the mysterious virtue of Christ’s atoning blood, and doubt the efficacy of faith, repentance, and prayer?

III. A practical application demanded.

1. What infinite solemnity attaches to all the offices of religion! Death and life are involved. The two hundred and fifty men that offered incense perished: their spirit was bad. What if we bring strange fire! Aaron’s offering saves life. If awful to preach, so also to hear.

2. How dreadful if the plague be in the heart, and we, unconscious of danger, neglect the remedy! “Examine yourselves.”

3. What need ministers have for the prayers and sympathies of their people!

4. Rejoice in the absolute sufficiency of salvation applied by the Spirit. (S. Thodey.)

Aaron staying the plague

I. The willingness of Aaron to intercede.

1. Regardless of the plague.

2. Regardless of the people’s enmity.

II. The nature of Aaron’s intercession.

III. The success of Aaron’s intercession. Conclusion:

1. Let us tremble at the wrath of an offended God.

2. Let us rejoice in the intercession of our Great High Priest. (J. D. Lane, M. A.)

The plague stayed

I. The evil.

II. The punishment.

1. Divine.

2. By the plague.

III. The remedy.

1. In itself, not apparently adapted.

2. Connected with pious intercession.

3. Intercession grounded on sacrifice.

4. Efficient.

Learn:

1. The extreme evil of sin.

2. The riches of the grace of God.

3. The immediate duty of the sinner--to call earnestly on the Lord. (J. Burns, D. D.)

Mercy rejoiceth against judgment

I. Sin and its consequence.

1. The sin of the Israelites was rebellion against God.

2. The terrible visitation.

II. The atonement, and its success.

1. A significant act.

2. The completeness of His atonement.

II. The special lessons to be derived from hence.

1. The faithful minister of God’s Word dares not withhold the instruction to be derived from it concerning the terrible judgments which ungodly men bring on themselves by continuing in sin against a just and holy God.

2. If the judgment against sin is so terrible to contemplate, how much need have we to accept God’s own way of deliverance! (E. Auriol, M. A.)

He stood between the dead and the living.

The high priest standing between the dead and the living

The whole scene is typical of Christ; and Aaron, as he appears before us in each character, is a most magnificent picture of the Lord Jesus.

I. First, look at Aaron as the lover of the people. See in Aaron the lover of Israel; in Jesus the lover of His people. Aaron deserves to be very highly praised for his patriotic affection for a people who were the most rebellious that ever grieved the heart of a good man. You must remember that in this case he was the aggrieved party. Is not this the very picture of our Lord Jesus? Had not sin dishonoured Him? Was He not the Eternal God, and did not sin therefore conspire against Him as well as against the Eternal Father and the Holy Spirit? Was He not, I say, the one against whom the nations of the earth stood up and said, “Let us break His bands asunder, and cast His cords from us”? Yet He, our Jesus, laying aside all thought of avenging Himself, becomes the Saviour of His people. Well, you note again, that Aaron in thus coming forward as the deliverer and lover of his people, must have remembered that he was abhorred by this very people. They were seeking his blood; they were desiring to put him and Moses to death, and yet, all thoughtless of danger, he snatches up his censer and runs into their midst with a Divine enthusiasm in his heart. He might have stood back, and said, “No, they will slay me if I go into their ranks; furious as they are, they will charge this new death upon me and lay me low.” But he never considers it. Into the midst of the crowd he boldly springs. Most blessed Jesus, Thou mightest not only think thus, but indeed Thou didst feel it to be true. Thou wast willing to die a martyr, that Thou mightest be made a sacrifice for those by whom Thy blood was spilt. You will see the love and kindness of Aaron if you look again; Aaron might have said, “But the Lord will surely destroy me also with the people; if I go where the shafts of death are flying they will reach me.” He never thinks of it; he exposes his own person in the very forefront of the destroying one. Oh, Thou glorious High Priest of our profession, Thou mightest not only have feared this which Aaron might have dreaded, but Thou didst actually endure the plague of God; for when Thou didst come among the people to save them from Jehovah’s wrath, Jehovah’s wrath fell upon Thee. The sheep escaped, but by “His life and blood the Shepherd pays, a ransom for the flock.” Oh, Thou lover of thy Church, immortal honours be unto Thee! Aaron deserves to be beloved by the tribes of Israel, because he stood in the gap and exposed himself for their sins; but Thou, most mighty Saviour, Thou shalt have eternal songs, because, forgetful of Thyself, Thou didst bleed and die, that man might be saved! I would again draw your attention to that other thought that Aaron as a lover of the people of Israel deserves much commendation, from the fact that it is expressly said, he ran into the host. That little fact of his running is highly significant, for it shows the greatness and swiftness of the Divine impulse of love that was within. Ah! and was it not so with Christ? Did He not baste to be our Saviour? Were not His delights with the sons of men? Did He not often say, “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how am I straitened till it be accomplished”? His dying for us was not a thing which He dreaded. “With desire have I desired to eat this passover.”

II. Now view Aaron as the great propitiator. Wrath had gone out from God against the people on account of their sin, and it is God’s law that His wrath shall never stay unless a propitiation be offered. The incense which Aaron carried in his hand was the propitiation before God, from the fact that God saw in that perfume the type of that richer offering which our Great High Priest is this very day offering before the throne. Aaron as the propitiator is to be looked at first as bearing in his censer that which was necessary for the propitiation. He did not come empty-handed. Even though God’s high priest, he must take the censer; he must fill it with the ordained incense, made with the ordained materials; and then he must light it with the sacred fire from off the altar, and with that alone. Behold, then, Christ Jesus as the propitiator for His people. He stands this day before God with His censer smoking up towards heaven. Behold the Great High Priest! See Him this day with His pierced hands, and head that once was crowned with thorns. Mark how the marvellous smoke of His merits goeth up for ever and ever before the eternal throne. ‘Tis He, ‘tis He alone, who puts away the sins of His people. His incense, as we know, consists first of all of His positive obedience to the Divine law. He kept His Father’s commands; He did everything that man should have done; He kept to the full the whole law of God, and made it honourable. Then mixed with this is His blood--an equally rich and precious ingredient. The blood of His very heart--mixed together with His merits--these make up the incense--an incense incomparable--an incense surpassing all others. Besides that, it was not enough for Aaron to have the proper incense. Korah might have that too, and he might have the censer also. That would not suffice--he must be the ordained priest; for mark, two hundred and fifty men fell in doing the act which Aaron did. Aaron’s act saved others; their act destroyed themselves. So Jesus, the propitiator, is to be looked upon as the ordained one--called of God as was Aaron. But let us note once more in considering Aaron as the great propitiator, that we must look upon him as being ready for his work. He was ready with his incense, and ran to the work at the moment the plague broke out. The people were ready to perish and he was ready to save. Jesus Christ stands ready to save thee now; there is no need of preparation; He hath slain the victim; He hath offered the sacrifice; He hath filled the censer; He hath put to it the glowing coals. His breastplate is on His breast; His mitre is on His head; He is ready to save thee now. Trust Him, and thou shalt not find need for delay,

III. Now view Aaron as the interposer. Let me explain what I mean. As the old Westminster Annotations say upon this passage, “The plague was moving among the people as the fire moveth along a field of corn.” There it came; it began in the extremity; the faces of men grew pale, and swiftly on, on it came, and in vast heaps they fell, till some fourteen thousand had been destroyed, Aaron wisely puts himself just in the pathway of the plague. It came on, cutting down all before it, and there stood Aaron the interposer with arms outstretched and censer swinging towards heaven, interposing himself between the darts of death and the people. Just so was it with Christ. Wrath had gone out against us. The law was about to smite us; the whole human race must be destroyed. Christ stands in the forefront of the battle. “The stripes must fall on Me!” He cries; “the arrows shall find a target in My breast. On me, Jehovah, let Thy vengeance fall.” And He receives that vengeance, and afterwards upspringing from the grave He waves the censer full of the merit of His blood, and bids this wrath and fury stand back.

IV. Now view Aaron as the saviour. It was Aaron, Aaron’s censer, that saved the lives of that great multitude. If he had not prayed the plague had not stayed, and the Lord would have consumed the whole company in a moment. As it was, you perceive there were some fourteen thousand and seven hundred that died before the Lord. The plague had begun its dreadful work, and only Aaron could stay it. And now I want you to notice with regard to Aaron, that Aaron, and especially the Lord Jesus, must be looked upon as a gracious Saviour. It was nothing but love that moved Aaron to wave his censer. The people could not demand it of him. Had they not brought a false accusation against him? And yet he saves them. It must have been love and nothing but love. Say, was there anything in the voices of that infuriated multitude which could have moved Aaron to stay the plague from before them? Nothing! nothing in their character! nothing in their looks! nothing in their treatment of God’s High Priest! and yet he graciously stands in the breach, and saves them from the devouring judgment of God! If Christ hath saved us He is a gracious Saviour indeed. And then, again, Aaron was an unaided saviour. He stands alone, alone, alone! and herein was he a great type of Christ who could say, “I have trodden the winepress alone, and of the people there was none with Me.” Do not think, then, that when Christ prevails with God, it is because of any of your prayers, or tears, or good works. He never puts your tears and prayers into His censer. They would mar the incense. There is nothing but His own prayers, and His own tears, and His own merits there. “There is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” Nor doth He need a helper; “He came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” “He is able to save unto the uttermost them that come unto God by Him.” He was, then, you will perceive, a gracious Saviour, and an unaided one; and, once more, Aaron as a saviour was all-sufficient. Trust thou thy soul with Christ, and thy sins are at once forgiven, at once blotted out.

V. Aaron as the divider--the picture of Christ. Aaron the anointed one stands here; on that side is death, on this side life; the boundary between life and death is that one man. Where his incense smokes the air is purified, where it smokes not the plague reigns with unmitigated fury. There are two sorts of people here this morning, and these are the living and the dead, the pardoned, the unpardoned, the saved, and the lost. A man in Christ is a Christian; a man out of Christ is dead in trespasses and sins. “He that believeth on the Lord Jesus Christ is saved, he that believeth not is lost.” Christ is the only divider between His people and the world. On which side, then, art thou to-day? (C. H. Spurgeon.)

The plague in the wilderness

I. To say that this evil had its origin in sin, would be to say nothing. All evil proceeds from sin : there is not a pang or sorrow in the universe which has not this as its source. But then suffering owes its existence to sin in various ways. Sometimes it is sent in mercy to prevent sin; thus Paul had a thorn in the flesh “lest he should be exalted.” At other times it comes to discover sin and subdue it in the Christian’s heart. “Before I was afflicted,” says David, “I went astray, but now have I kept Thy word.” More frequently, however, its design is to answer the purposes of God’s moral government; to punish sin: to manifest the abhorrence in which the great Ruler of the universe holds it, and thus to deter His creatures from the commission of it. And such was its object here. The Israelites had sinned against the Lord; this plague was the punishment of their sin.

1. This offence involved in it an overlooking of God’s providence; at all events, a refusing to acknowledge it. God will not allow us to say for ever, “Accident brought this evil on me, chance this disease, a casualty this bereavement, the injustice or treachery of my fellow-man this loss and poverty.” Either by His Spirit, or by His providence, or by both, God will drive this atheism out of us. He will force us to say, “It is the Lord. He is in this place, and I knew it not. Verily there is a God that judgeth in the earth.”

2. The murmuring of these sinners included in it also a daring censure of God’s ways. Whatever God does bears the impress of God. In some way or other it manifests His perfections, and consequently is calculated to bring honour to His name. Now a mind in a right state praises Him for every work of His hands; and it does so on account of the traces of His glory it either discovers in that work, or, though hidden, believes to be there. Indeed, this is God’s great design in all His doings, to draw forth praise from His creatures by revealing to them His excellencies, and thus to surround Himself with a delighted and adoring universe. It follows, then, that to censure any of God’s ways is, as far as in us lies, to frustrate the object at which God aims in these ways; to rob Him of His honour, and worse than this--to asperse His character and vindicate His enemies. And of this offence these Israelites were guilty.

3. There was yet a third evil comprehended in the murmuring of these Israelites; and this was a contempt of God’s warnings. Millions of our race have already perished; the destroying angel is hastening to cut down millions more. The world some of us deem so fair and happy is nothing better than the camp of Israel--a scene of mercy, it is true, but yet a scene of misery, terror, and death. How anxious, then, should we be to look around for a deliverer! Blessed be God, there is One near. This history speaks of Him.

II. Consider now the cessation of the pestilence.

1. It was effected by one who might have been supposed least likely to interfere for such a purpose. Can we fail to discover here the great High Priest of God’s guilty church, the despised and rejected Jesus? Aaron was a type of Him.

2. The cessation of this plague was attended with a display of the most self-denying and ardent love.

3. The cessation of this plague was brought about by means that seemed altogether inadequate, that appeared, in fact, to have no connection at all with the end proposed. (C. Bradley, M. A.)

Staying the plague

1. The origin of the judgment here spoken of. Men quickly forget the Almighty.

2. The means adopted to arrest its devastating progress. Mediation.

3. The feelings of gratitude which the removal of the plague must have inspired. (W. C. Le Breton, M. A.)

Standing between the dead and the living

In this, as in all other similar occasions, we perceive the presence of the Eternal Son, preparing the way for that perfect scheme of redemption which was to be unfolded in the fulness of time. Jesus in truth stood between the dead and the living; for Aaron was His delegate and servant: and I would apply the particulars of the present transaction to our own case and circumstances. The plague, then, to which we may now advert is the plague of sin, and the threatened death is the death of the soul. Truly the plague has begun. It began in paradise, and has been raging ever since; and as soon as it broke out, the Lord appeared to intercede and to atone. We can entertain no doubt of the existence of the evil; we cannot look far into the world, not far into the Christian world, without beholding lamentable proof of its ravages: intemperance, profligacy, and even blasphemy, meet us in every quarter; the moral pestilence is positively raging around and within the Christian camp. Nor need we look abroad for proof of this awful fact; we have each of us an evidence in our own bosom. But it was not merely the existence of the plague itself which must have wrought upon the Israelites, and have made them to accept the proffered remedy; it was also that so many lay dead before them; such multitudes of their neighbours and friends had been swept away before their eyes. And have not we, on this ground, many powerful inducements also? Have there not been presented before us in the page of history, yea, in daily report, awful numbers of the human race, to all appearance dying of the plague, dying in their trespasses and sins? Again, as the Israelites saw many destroyed, so did they likewise see many recovered and saved; and that would encourage them to lay hold of the means ordained. We also have similar encouragements under the gospel. It is not altogether a scene of desolation, of heedlessness and ruin; there have been many splendid trophies of Divine grace, many careless sinners awakened and rescued from the grave of destruction. (J. Slade, M. A.)

The living and the dead

Every minister of Jesus Christ, when he stands in the pulpit, stands in the same responsible relation as Aaron did. I stand and look at the living on one side, and on the other I see the dead. The Bible, up and down, declares that an unforgiven soul is dead in trespasses and in sins. What killed the soul? The plague. What kind of a plague--the Asiatic plague? No; the plague of sin. The Asiatic plague was epidemic. It struck one, it struck a great many; and this plague of sin is epidemic. It has touched all nations. It goes from heart to heart, and from house to house; and we are more apt to copy the defects than we are the virtues of character. The whole race is struck through with an awful sickness. Explorers have gone forth, by ship, and reindeer sledge, and on foot, and they have discovered new tribes and villages; but they have never yet discovered a sinless population. On every brow the mark of the plague--in every vein the fever. On both sides of the equator, in all zones, from arctic to antarctic, the plague. Yes, it is contagious. We catch it from our parents. Our children catch it from us. Instead of fourteen thousand seven hundred, there are more than one thousand millions of the dead. As I look off upon the spiritually dead, I see that the scene is loathsome. Now, sometimes you have seen a body after decease more beautiful than in life. The old man looked young again. But when a man perished with the Asiatic plague he became repulsive. There was something about the brow, about the neck, about the lip, about the eye, that was repulsive. And when a man is dead in sin he is repulsive to God. We are eaten of that abominable thing which God hates, and unless we are resuscitated from that condition, we must go out of His sight. But I remark again, that I look off upon the slain of this plague, and I see the scene is one of awful destruction. Gout attacks the foot, ophthalmia the eye, neuralgia the nerves; and there are diseases which take only, as it were, the outposts of the physical castle; but the Asiatic plague demolishes the whole fortress. And so with this plague of sin. It enwraps the whole soul, It is complete destruction--altogether undone, altogether gone astray, altogether dead. When I look upon those who are slain with this plague, I see that they are beyond any human resurrection. Medical colleges have prescribed for this Asiatic plague, but have never yet cured a case. And so I have to tell you that no earthly resurrection can bring up a soul after it is dead in sin. You may galvanise it, and make it move around very strangely; but galvanism and life are infinitely apart. None but the omnipotent God can resurrect it. I go further and say, that every minister of the gospel, when he stands up to preach, stands between the living and the dead of the great future. Two worlds, one on either side of us: the one luminous, the other dark; the one a princely and luxuriant residence, the other an incarceration. Standing between the living who have entered upon their eternal state, and the dead who shall tarry in their eternal decease, I am this moment. Oh, the living, the living, I think of them to-night. Your Christian dead have not turned into thin clouds and floated off into the immensities. Living, bounding, acting, they are waiting for you. Living! Never to die. (T. De Witt Talmage.)

The prevailing Intercessor

Such was our High Priest who perceived that, on account of man’s transgression, wrath was gone forth from the presence of the Lord, and that the plague was begun among the people. And He saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no intercessor. Therefore He arrayed Himself in the holy garments of glory and beauty; He put on a breastplate of righteousness, and a robe of inviolable sanctity, and He was clad, over all, with zeal as a cloak. He was anointed with the oil of gladness, with the Holy Ghost, and with power; and on His head was a crown of salvation and glory. Thus adorned and fitted for the work, He put on, for incense, the merits of His sufferings. He ran into the midst of God’s people as a Mediator, interposing Himself between the parties at variance, in order to reconcile them. He met the burning wrath, and turned it aside from all believers. And so the plague is stayed. A stop is put to the progress of everlasting destruction. “There is now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus.” And can anything, then, prevent our accepting this atonement, and thankfully receiving the benefits of this intercession? Nothing can, but an utter ignorance of our sin, and of our danger. Could a dying Israelite have been prevailed upon, think you, to reject the atonement and intercession of Aaron? No, surely. Only see how hope revives in their countenances, and joy sparkles in their eyes, all turned and fixed upon him in the execution of his priestly office. And why? Because they were sensible of their wretched and perilous estate. They needed not to be told that they were expiring by the pestilence. Oh, why are not we so? Why do we hear of the atonement and intercession of the Holy Jesus with so much cold indifference? Why, but because we see not, we know not, we feel not the want of them. And yet, what is there, within us, or without us, that doth not teach and show it us? To tell you that the world is full of sorrow, is no news; to tell you that the world is full of sin, is, I presume, no news. And from what would you desire to be delivered, if not from sin and sorrow? What, in point of wretchedness, was the camp of Israel with the pestilence in the midst of it, if compared to such a world as this? Go, thou who art tempted to reject, or to neglect the satisfaction of Christ, go to the bed of sickness, ask him who lies racked with pain, and trembling at the thoughts of the wrath to come, what his opinion is concerning the doctrine of atonement; and observe how the name of a Saviour and Intercessor puts comfort and gladness into his affrighted soul, at a time when the treasures and the crowns of eastern kings would be utterly contemned, as equally vain, worthless, and unprofitable, with the dust of the earth. (Bp. Horne.)
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Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Numbers 16". The Biblical Illustrator. https://pro.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tbi/numbers-16.html. 1905-1909. New York.