Numbers 11
Pulpit Commentary Homiletics

I. A CHAIN OF MORAL SEQUENCES, containing the following links: -

1. The people's sin. The complaints probably various, as may be illustrated from other narratives.

2. Their sin noticed. "The Lord heard it," as he hears every idle word, and reads every sinful thought (see outline on Numbers 12:2).

3. This notice awakens God's anger. By the necessity of his nature, "God is angry with the wicked every day."

4. His anger flamed forth in visible judgments. "The fire of the Lord burned among them," for "our God is a consuming fire," either to purge us from our sins, or to destroy us in our sins.

5. These judgments are fatal, "and consumed them" (Psalm 76:7). For another chain of sequences cf. James 1:14, 15.


1. God's mercy tempers judgment. The fire only destroys "those in the utmost part of the camp" (Psalm 102:8-10).

2. The judgments inflicted humble the people, and lead them to appeal to Moses. Such judgments are blessings. Servants of God sought for by sinners, or even despisers, in the day of trouble (cf. Isaiah 70:14).

3. Moses, when appealed to, himself appeals to God. We disclaim all power as saviours, but look and point to the one Saviour (Psalm 60:11; Acts 3:12).

4. God appealed to in acceptable intercession, turns from the fierceness of his wrath (Psalm 99:6). And the High Priest of sinners, by a more costly mediation and a prevailing intercession, still interposes for sinners who "come unto God by him" (Romans 8:34; Hebrews 7:25). - P.

We have here a very painful self-revelation. Through prophets and apostles, and especially through his Son, God has said many humiliating things of the children of men, but nothing more humiliating than by their own actions they have written down against themselves. Note -

I. A SPIRIT UNAFFECTED BY CHASTISEMENT. The people run away from pain, but do not cease from lust. They forget the blow of Jehovah almost before the wound is healed. Nor let us wonder at their stupidity, for this fire of God was only a more rapid and more manifest form of that fire of Divine chastisement which comes in some form to us all. We treat all pain as the Israelites did. As they cried to Moses, so we cry to our fellow-men, and make no mention of our sin against God. We never stop to think of the fire of God as having his anger in it, or a check upon us in our selfish career (Psalm 78; Isaiah 1:2-6; Isaiah 9:13; Jeremiah 7:23-28).

II. A SPIRIT UNCHANGED BY BENEFITS. So far as any word or action here shows, they might have utterly forgotten everything God had done for them. They do recollect the manna, but only to grumble at it and despise it. God had indeed abounded toward them in grace and power, wisdom and prudence, yet not one of all his doings is remembered to his glory. What then of our state of mind in regard of the wonderful manifestations of God in Christ Jesus? We, even more than the Israelites, are the objects of God's gracious interposition. It seemed of no use to remind them of God the Deliverer and Provider. And so now, although Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, although he has conquered sin and death for all mankind, yet mankind is far more concerned about matters a long way less important. The truth was, the Israelites had not yet been delivered, in the highest sense of the word. The body was free but the spirit was in bondage. Egypt had still a strong hold upon their hearts. Their experience there must have been a strange mixture of oppression and pampering. Compelled to make bricks without straw, and yet they had flesh to eat.

III. A SPIRIT THAT SOON FORGOT PAST GRIEVANCES. It was not so long ago that they had been sighing and crying by reason of their bondage (Exodus 2:23). Then their lives were bitter, and all the flesh they got could not sweeten them. These past grievances were immeasurably greater than anything they had to complain of now. Then there was really no comfort in life at all - oppression and injustice gave wormwood flavour to everything; now they are but minus some old comforts. They have plenty to eat, and that of special miraculous food, by which God said to them at every meal, "Open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it." It was well for them even in the wilderness troubles that they were not as Egypt; for though Egypt might have flesh to eat, it was surely eaten amid many groans and sighs. The ten plagues and the destruction of Pharaoh and his army were a very serious set-off against the most savoury of creature comforts.

IV. A SPIRIT UTTERLY INSENSIBLE TO THE GLORIOUS VOCATION WHEREWITH GOD HAD CALLED THEM (Ephesians 4:1). What a difference is here revealed between Moses and the people! As Moses talks with Hobab, and lifts his prayer to God, all is expectancy, ardour, and exultation. No complaints of the manna, no hankerings after Egypt, come from that noble soul. But as for the people, Paul exactly describes them in Philippians 3:18. Their end was destruction, their God was their belly, their glory was in their shame, they minded earthly things. Even though the ark rested on the many thousands of Israel, they are blind to the glory and profit coming from the presence of it. They will go anywhere if only they can get the lost delicacies of Egypt. Such a table as Milton represents the tempter spreading out before Jesus would just have been to their taste ('Paradise Regained,' 2:337-365). Their cry is not that of natural hunger, but the passionate screaming of a pampered child. Plain living and high thinking, the Nazarite vow and the Nazarite aspiration, manna for the body and true bread of heaven for the spirit - with these things they had no sympathy. Practical truths: -

1. Let every pain that comes to us have its proper effect in the way of discipline. Thus that which otherwise will be loss is turned to substantial gain.

2. In the midst of the greatest privileges we may be near to the most subtle temptations. Where God is nearest, there Satan also may be most active.

3. We need a great work of God to bring us to a due appreciation of the spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ Jesus. It takes a great deal to make us see that godliness is profitable, having the promise of the life that now is.

"Trouble is grudgingly and hardly brook'd,
While life's sublimest joys are overlook'd."

4. Let the estimate of our wants and the provision for them be left to God. For us to live is Christ, and the highest occupation of life to seek the kingdom of God and his righteousness; then all other needed things will be added unto us. Never fear but God will give food convenient for us. N.B. John 6. gives a most instructive New Testament parallel to this passage. - Y.

I. How CAME IT THERE? It left Egypt with them (Exodus 12:38). It had been accumulating, one knows not how long, and in how many ways. Egypt had not been a very comfortable place even for the Egyptians just before the exodus. Ten plagues in swift succession and increasing severity would make many outside Israel to desire another abode. The tyranny of Pharaoh may have been grievous to many of his own people. Many would join departing Israel uninvited; many also may have been asked by well-wishers and acquaintances, "Come with us, and we will do you good" (Numbers 10:29). So now there is a mixed multitude in the Church of Christ. It cannot be kept out. The supreme relation among men is no doubt that of union in Christ, spiritual brotherhood, fellowship ever becoming more intimate and precious; but the relations that arise out of nature, all domestic and social bonds in short, must also exert their influence during the earthly course of the Church. Who can tell what effect natural feelings have had in modifying, sometimes even in obscuring, the full force of Divine truth? How hard it was to keep the first generation of Hebrew Christians from mixing the bondage of Judaism with the liberty which is in Christ! Nor must we forget that in every individual Christian there is something of the spirit of the mixed multitude, the old man not yet dead, and struggling to keep his hold, even while the new man is growing in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Whatever precaution and strictness the Church may observe, it cannot keep the spirit of the world out.

II. THE DANGER FROM ITS PRESENCE. The mixed multitude began to lust, therein acting according to its nature. There was no covenant with it, no promise to it, no assurance of Canaan. It had no lot in the tabernacle, and what share it got of the manna was to be regarded as one in later days regarded the Saviour's boon to her: "The dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table." Hence it was free to think without let or hindrance on the much-loved delicacies of Egypt. Just so there is a mixed multitude in and about the Church of Christ, which, with the spirit of the world dominant in its heart, soon makes the ways of the world to appear in its life. From many temptations you can escape by running away from the scene of them; but what must you do if temptations beset you in the very paths of religion themselves? This is the peculiar danger from the mixed multitude. When Jesus foils the third temptation in the wilderness, Satan departs from him for a season; but what shall he do when Peter, the chosen, daily companion, in the impulse of his carnal heart, would turn him from the cross? We know what Jesus did, but none the less was he exposed to the spirit of the nixed multitude then. Or what shall Paul do, intrepid enough against avowed enemies, when his friends at Caesarea assail him in a way to break his heart (Acts 21:12, 13). There is a subtle, unconscious, unintended way in which the prophecy may be carried out that a man's foes shall be they of his own household. The mixed multitude may have been dangerous most of all in this, that it did not mean to be dangerous at all.

III. How TO GUARD AGAINST THE DANGER. There is but one way, and that to live more and more in pursuit of heavenly objects. The mixed multitude will not alter in the objects of its love; when any of its number cease to do so, it is because they have passed over to join the true Israel. The change then must be in us - more of ardour and aspiration. Note Paul's counsel to Timothy: "Flee also youthful lusts: but follow (διώκε) righteousness, faith, charity, peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart" (2 Timothy 2:22). The fleeing is not a mere fleeing; it is a pursuing; a fleeing because it is a pursuing. Many temptations will pant in vain after the ardour and simplicity in Christ Jesus of such a man as Paul (2 Corinthians 4:18; 2 Corinthians 5:14-17; Ephesians 4:17-24; Philippians 1:21-23; Philippians 3:7-14). And even the subtlest temptations of the mixed multitude are turned gently aside, as by Jesus himself, when his mother and brethren desired to speak with him (Matthew 12:46-50). We must not only say, but feel it, that the Father's business is the main thing. From the very depths of our hearts must rise the cry, almost a groaning that cannot be uttered, "Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven." Thy will, not the wishes of corrupted human affections, however strong and entangling the affections may be (1 Corinthians 5:9, 10; 1 Corinthians 7:10-16). - Y.

This eleventh of Numbers is a chapter of complainings. First, at Taberah, vague murmurings are heard throughout the camp. Then at Kibroth-hattaavah, a stage further on, the vague murmurings take shape in bitter complaint because of the fare to which the congregation was now confined. Manna I nothing but manna! While the people were harping on this grievance Moses also lifted up his voice in complaint. "Why has the Lord dealt so hardly with him as to lay on him the burden of so great a company? Better kill him out of hand, and not let him see his wretchedness!" Consider this scene at Kibroth-hattaavah. It is not pleasant to look at, especially when one becomes aware that it is a glass in which are to be seen passages in one's own history which one would gladly forget. Scenes not pleasant may nevertheless be profitable.


1. Where the sin began. It was among "the mixed multitude." A great crowd of foreigners who had been neighbours to the Israelites in Egypt, came forth with them at the Exodus, moved some by one motive and some by another (Exodus 12:38). It is instructive to observe that these were the first to break out into rebellious murmurs; equally instructive to observe that the evil generated amongst them spread from them into the body of the people. Every community has its mixed multitude, its pariahs, its residuum. To the existence of this class men have been too willing to shut their eyes. I know no better sign of the present age than its wide-spread desire to take note of these masses, and if possible bring them to God. Were there no higher motive, self-preservation might well plead with men to labour in this work. When destitution and filth are suffered to generate typhus among the poor, the deadly infection will make its way into the palaces of the rich. So when sin is suffered to become rampant in one class the other classes will not long escape the contagion.

2. The matter of complaint was little to the credit of the complainers. So long as the congregation lay en-camped in Horeb, the fare would be occasionally diversified with herbs and the like. In the wilderness of Paran there is only the manna. Certainly no just ground of complaint. The daily miracle ought rather to have moved to daily thanksgiving. But even of manna the people wearied. They craved greater variety.

3. How the complaint is answered (verses 18-21, 31-33). The people demand flesh, and flesh is given them beyond their utmost thought. They get their desire, but not God's blessing with it. So it becomes to them a curse in the end. Such a plague followed the "shower of flesh" that the place has ever since borne the ghastly name of Kibroth-hattaavah, the graves of lust. It is an admonition to us not to give way to impatience on account of real or imagined hardships in our lot; above all, not to let our impatience hurry us into rebellious demands for a change. Many a time such demands are granted to the confusion of those who made them. Before leaving this story of the people's sin at Kibroth-hattaavah, let me caution you against supposing that it is a mere parable, a late fiction, not the history of a real transaction. It is at present the fashion in some quarters to get rid of the miracles of the Exodus and of the forty years in the wilderness, by denying the historical truth of the Pentateuch, and interpreting it as at best an allegory or parable. But the Spirit of God has been careful to leave on the narrative indubitable marks of historical verity to confound such interpretations. For example, in this narrative

(1) observe the terms in which the people utter their complaint. "We remember the fish... cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, garlic." Egypt all over I These are precisely the articles of food which were distinctively Egyptian. No one writing in Judah or Ephraim would ever have thought of putting such a bill of fare into the mouths of the complainers.

(2) Observe the nature of the miracle by which the people were fed. A shower of quails. This is as characteristic of the Sinaitic peninsula as the bill of fare was of Egypt. It was spring when the congregation arrived at Kibroth-hattaavah; at this season the quails "are annually in the habit of crossing the desert in countless myriads, flying very low, and often in the morning so utterly exhausted by their night's flight that they are slaughtered by the thousand" (Tristram). This chapter is history, not fable.

II. Moses, TOO, WAS A COMPLAINER AT KIBROTH-HATTAAVAH (read verses 11-15). His words are sufficiently bitter and impatient There is in them no little sin; yet they are not resented as the people's were. Moses is not taken at his word and smitten with a plague. On the contrary, the Lord comforts him with cheering words, and grants him a council of elders to alleviate the burden. This is the more worthy of notice, because it is by no means singular (see 1 Kings 19:4). Do you ask, What can be the reason of this? Why deal so gently with the complaints of Moses and Elijah, when the complaints of the congregation are so sharply punished? The difference can be explained. Observe where and to whom Moses expressed the grief and weariness of his heart. It was not to the Egyptians from whom they had come out; nor was it to the congregation of Israel. It was in the ear of God himself; he complains not of the Lord, but to the Lord - two very different sorts of complaint. A dutiful son may remonstrate with his father when the two are alone, but he will not cry out against his father to strangers. When the child of God has a complaint to make, it is to God he carries it. And complaints carried to God, even although there should be much impatience and unbelief at the root of them, will be listened to very graciously. The Lord, so great is his condescending love, would rather that we should pour out the griefs - even the unreasonable griefs - of our hearts, than that we should let them rankle in our bosoms. - B.

Discontent springs from distrust. Distrust is a root-sin from which different kindred evils spring, such as discontent, dissatisfaction, disgust, disobedience, and other disagreeable states of mind. But "those that know thy name," &c. (Psalm 9:10; Lamentations 3:24). From these strange cairns in the wilderness, "the graves of lust," we hear a voice (1 Corinthians 10:6).




1. Its disgraceful origin: "the mixed multitude," "hangers-on," "rift-raft." The chosen people of God listened and sympathized with them rather than with Moses and God. Apply to worldlings grumbling about weather, homes, situations, incomes, &c. (Proverbs 1:10; Romans 12:2; 2 Corinthians 6:14).

2. The gross ingratitude of it. They were dissatisfied with the manna, which was wholesome, abundant, and adapted to various uses (verses 7-9), as though Hindoos should quarrel with their rice or the English with their wheat (1 Timothy 6:8). They recollect certain casual sensual advantages of past bondage, but forget its cruelties and degradation (verses 4-6). Why not remember the whips and fetters and infanticide? They think of suppers more than sufferings, of full stomachs rather than of famished souls. Let Christians beware of hankering after the indulgences of their old life (Proverbs 23:3; 1 John 2:15). And they complain of temporary deprivations, though hastening to a home of permanent and abundant good. They were passing through "that great and terrible wilderness" (Paran) because it was the direct route to the promised land (Deuteronomy 1:19; cf. 1 Peter 1:13; 1 Peter 2:11).

3. The aggravations of it. For they had seen God's power already (Exodus 16:13; Psalm 78:19, 20). And have not we? (cf. Psalm 22:4, 5, 9, 10). And they overlooked recent chastisement (verse 1). God forbid that Isaiah 26:11 should be true of us, lest Proverbs 29, I should be also.

II. The disastrous results of their sin.

1. They angered Jehovah. Discontent in the guests of his bounty dishonours their generous host, as though Reuben bad complained because Joseph gave more to Benjamin (Genesis 43:34).

2. They grieved Moses, and even infected him with their own desponding spirit (verses 11-15; see sketch below). Note how sin may become epidemic, spreading from the mixed multitude to the Israelites, and thence to Moses, like a disease introduced by foreign sailors spreading to our homes and palaces. Beware of carrying infection (Illustration, Asaph, Psalm 73:11-15).

3. They got what they desired, but are ruined thereby. Moses' prayer for help is answered in mercy (verses 16, 17); theirs for flesh, in judgment (verses 18-20). They probably added gluttony to lust, and perished in the sight of plenty and at the moment of gratification (cf. Job 20:22, 23; Psalm 78:30, 31). Learn -

1. Prayers of discontent may bring answers of destruction. E.g., Rachel demanding children, and the Israelites a king. Greater wealth but worse health (Ecclesiastes 6:1, 2); worldly prosperity, but leanness of soul (Psalm 106:15; 1 Timothy 6:9; James 4:4).

2. The blessedness of a contented trust (Philippians 4:11-13; Hebrews 13:5). - P.

Jehovah and his servant Moses are very differently affected by this universal complaint of the Israelites. "The anger of the Lord was kindled greatly ;" how it was expressed, we see later on. At present we have to consider the displeasure of Moses. God was made angry by the unbelief and ingratitude of the people, but Moses is chiefly concerned because of the great straits into which he himself is being brought. Hence his expostulation.

I. IT CONTAINS A CLEAR RECOGNITION OF DUTY. Duty may be perfectly clear, even when there is much perplexity as to how it is to be performed. Moses had no manner of doubt that God had put him in his present position. Intolerable was the burden and keen the pain, but they had not come through any ambition of his own, and this in itself made a great deal of difference. If Moses had led the Israelites into the wilderness for his own purposes, he could not have spoken in the way he did. From the intolerable burden there were two ways of escape, flight and death - death did suggest itself, but flight never. Moses even in his very complaining is nobler than Jonah running away. As we see him thus suffering this great pressure for the sins of the people, we cannot help thinking of Jesus in the garden, praying that, it possible, the cup might pass from him. So Paul tells us that, in addition to things from without, the care (μέριμνα) of all the Churches came upon him (2 Corinthians 11:28). It may be our duty, in the name of God, and at his clear command, to attempt what the world, following out its own order of thinking, calls impossible.

II. IT INDICATES A TOO FAVOURABLE ESTIMATE OF HUMAN NATURE, AS HAVING BEEN ENTERTAINED BY MOSES. He must have thought better of his followers and fellow-countrymen than they deserved. Not that he who had seen so much of them could possibly be blind to their faults; but we may well suppose that he expected too great a change from the influences of the sojourn near Sinai. He gave them credit, probably, for something of his own feeling, full of expectation and of joy in the abiding favour and protection of God. And now, when the reality appears in all its hideousness, there is a corresponding reaction. Unregenerate human nature must always be regarded with very moderate expectations. At its best it is a reed easily broken. How much higher than Moses is Jesus! He knew what was in man (Matthew 7:13, 14; Matthew 13:13-15; Matthew 18:21-22; Matthew 26:31-35; Mark 14:18-20). And what light he gave to his apostles on this subject, e.g., to Paul, who saw and declared so distinctly the weakness of law to do anything save expose and condemn. It is not possible for us to make too much allowance for the corruption and degradation of human nature through sin. Only thus shall we appreciate the change to be effected before men are what God would have them to be.

III. THE REACTION FROM THIS TOO FAVOURABLE ESTIMATE SHOWS ITSELF IN THE DESPAIRING LANGUAGE OF MOSES. He goes from one extreme to the other. Having thought too well of Israel he now speaks of them below the truth. They are but sucking children. The many thousands of Israel have been thrown like helpless infants on his bands. We see presently that seventy men out of this very multitude are found fit to assist him, but in his confusion and despair he cannot stop to think of anything but death. He saw only the cloud and not the silver lining. Life henceforth meant nothing but wretchedness, and God's greatest boon would be to take it away. He wanted to be in that refuge which Job sought after his calamities, where the wicked cease from troubling, and the weary are at rest (Job 3, the whole chapter). It is worth while again contrasting Moses under the law with the apostles ruder the gospel. When Moses feels the heavily-pressing burden, he loses his presence of mind and begins to talk of death. When the apostles have the murmurers coming to them, they at once in a calm and orderly way prepare to get assistance (Acts 6:1-6). - Y.

Moses is infected by the people's sin of discontent, though in the milder form of despondency. The signs and effects of it are as follows: -

I. MOSES FORGETS THAT THE BURDENS OF RESPONSIBILITY AND THE AFFLICTIONS THEY BRING WITH THEM, INSTEAD OF BEING A SIGN THAT HE HAS "NOT FOUND FAVOUR" IN GOD'S SIGHT, ARE A PROOF OF THE HONOUR PUT UPON HIM. Illustration: a diplomatist or a general (e.g., Sir Garnet Wolseley) selected out of all the Queen's servants for some arduous enterprise. Christian wife honoured by God with the responsibilities and burdens of motherhood.

II. HE FORGETS THAT OUR DUTIES ARE NOT LIMITED BY OUR NATURAL RELATIONSHIPS (verse 12). We are all "members of one another" (Romans 14:7; Philippians 2:4). All are in danger of a selfish disregard of those afar oft (savage Caffres, idolatrous Hindoos), or even of those at our doors, not our own kindred, respecting whose spiritual welfare we may be selfishly indifferent or despondent.

III. HE SPEAKS AS THOUGH THE BURDEN WAS THROWN ENTIRELY ON HIMSELF. The questions in verses 12, 13 are very unworthy of him. The cold fog of despondency chills him and obscures the light of God's presence which was promised to him (Exodus 33:14).

IV. HIS DESPONDENCY LEADS TO UNWORTHY REFLECTIONS ON GOD AND EXAGGERATED STATEMENTS ABOUT HIMSELF (verses 13, 14). A smaller burden would have been too great for him "alone;" a heavier not too great with God (cf. John 15:5; Philippians 4:13).

V. IT PROMPTS HIM TO A SINFUL PRAYER (verse 15). Imagine that the prayer had been answered, and Moses had died on the spot; what a humiliating end! (cf. 1 Kings 19:4). Let us learn the lesson Psalm 56:3, and thus climb to the level of a still higher experience: "I will trust, and not be afraid" (Isaiah 12:2; Isaiah 26:3). - P.

1. He does not openly and directly reprove the reckless language of his servant. Both Moses and the people had sinned, but with such a difference that while God visits the people with immediate and condign punishment he stretches forth his hand to Moses, even as Jesus did to Peter sinking in the sea. God treated Moses here very much as he treated the complaining Elijah (1 Kings 19). Moses was just the sort of man who might be trusted to rebuke himself, and bitterly repent all the unjust and unbelieving thoughts, which, upon this sudden temptation, had come into his mind.

2. The first word of God tends to bring Moses to a calmer mind. It sets before him something practical and not very difficult. Left to himself, he knows not how to begin dealing with this anarchy, especially with his own mind in such a distressed state. But it was a task quite within his reach, to pick out from a limited and probably well-known circle, seventy elders, official and experienced men. As he went through this work, he would be brought to feel, and not without a sense of shame, that he had been overtaken by panic. He has talked about sucking children; he now hears that there are at least seventy elders upon whose experience and influence he can lean. We soon find out, if we only listen to God, that temporal troubles are never so bad as they seem.

3. The way in which this help was made as effectual as possible. As God had given a certain spirit to Moses, so he would give it also to these seventy assistant elders. This was a reminder that he had not afflicted his servant and frowned upon him, as he so recklessly said (verse 11). We often murmur and complain against Providence for neglecting us, when the real neglect is with ourselves in making a bad use of gifts bestowed. God never tells his people to do things beyond natural strength, without first assuring a sufficiency of power for the thing commanded. "I can do all things, through Christ who inwardly strengthens me," said Paul There is further encouragement in God's promise here, as being an illustration of how the spirit is given without measure. There was not a certain limited manifestation to Moses, so that if others shared the spirit with him, he must have less. Neither his power nor his honour were one whir diminished. The question always is, What is the need of men in the sight of God? Then, according to that need, and never coming short of it, are the communications of his Holy Spirit. Moses, instead of being poorer, was really richer, for the spirit was working in a mind to which a precious experience had been added.

4. In the sight of these directions we are reminded how Moses spoke out of a comparative inexperience of the burden. Moses said there was nothing left for him but to die. The history tells us that so far from dying, he had yet in him nearly forty years of honourable mediatorship between God and men. His proper word was, "I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord" (Psalm 118:17). It is marvelous to think what some men have gone through in the way of difficulties, losses, and trials. Even the natural man has greater strength in the hour of trouble than at first he is conscious of - a great deal of trouble, when it is once fairly over, comes in the course of time to look a very small thing - and if we have God's strength, then we shall not merely endure tribulation, but glory in it. Front these words of Moses and the practical gentle reply of God, learn one great lesson - how easy it is to exaggerate our difficulties and underrate our resources. - Y.

The murmuring of the people so soon after setting out on the march from Horeb reminded Moses again, very painfully, what a heavy burden had been laid upon him in the leadership of so great a multitude of people newly escaped from slavery. He complained to the Lord. His complaint was graciously heard. He was directed to gather around him a company of seventy elders, who might aid him with their counsel, and share his burden.

I. Regarding THE STATUS AND FUNCTIONS OF THIS COMPANY OF SEVENTY there have been many debates. Some have identified them with the Sanhedrim or Council of Seventy whom we meet with so often in the Gospels and the Acts. Passing by these questions, let us note the facts recorded in the text itself. What was wanted was not the appointment of ordinary rulers or judges. Every tribe had already a prince, a body of elders and officers, and rulers of tens and fifties and hundreds and thousands, who judged between man and man. What was wanted was a council to aid Moses with their advice and assistance in the administration of the national affairs. (Compare the Governors and Council in a British dependency.)


1. No one was appointed who was not in public office already. "Gather unto me seventy men, whom thou knowest to be the elders of the people, and officers over them;" i.e., they were not to be raw, inexperienced, untried men. Only those were eligible who had given proof of ability and faithfulness in the public service, either as elders or as officers (i.e., writers or scriveners - this is the literal meaning of the Hebrew shoterim. The reference is to professional scribes, the assessors of non-professional magistrates, such as the Hebrew elders were). This rule was a good one. No man should be raised at one bound to high office, either in Church or State.

2. They were nominated by Moses. In this respect the procedure was exceptional. There was far less of centralization in the government of Israel than a modern and Western reader of the Bible is apt to think. To be sure, there were no representative bodies such as we are familiar with. Nevertheless, the government was truly popular. Even in Egypt the people were ruled, in the first instance, by their own elders - the beads of families and tribes; and this primitive system was continued in a more perfect form in Palestine. But although local government could be best administered by local magistrates, it was otherwise with the supreme and central government with which Moses was charged. A council such as he required could only be had by freely calling forth men of outstanding ability and approved wisdom.

3. They were invested with office in the face of the congregation, and before the Lord. In the face of the congregation, to remind them that they were to act for the public good, and not in pursuance of any private interest. Before the Lord, to remind them that "there is no power but of God;" their authority is from God, and is to be used as they shall answer to him.

4. They were endowed from above with new gifts to qualify them for their new office. When Moses gathered them before the tabernacle, "the Lord came down in a cloud, and spoke unto him, and took of the spirit that was upon him, and gave it unto the seventy elders." This has been interpreted to mean that there was abstracted from Moses some part of the spirit by which he had hitherto been sustained. But that is certainly a perverse misinterpretation. Twenty lamps may be lighted from one lamp without diminishing its brightness (cf. 2 Kings 2:9). God sendeth no man to warfare at his own charges. When he calls any man to public service, whether in Church or State, the man so called may, without doubting, ask and expect the wisdom, strength, courage which the service requires (James 1:5-8).

III. The most picturesque feature in the narrative is that which remains yet to be noticed - THE STRIKING SIGN BY WHICH NOTIFICATION WAS GIVEN THAT THE SEVENTY ELDERS HAD TRULY BEEN CALLED BY GOD AND WOULD BE COUNTENANCED BY HIM. "When the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied, and added no more" (such is the rendering now preferred by all the best translators). "They prophesied," that is, they spoke as men who were for the time lifted above themselves - as men under the influence of an irresistible power external to themselves. We may presume that what they did say would be of such a kind as to make it plain that the power acting upon them was Divine and heavenly. This prophesying was intended to signalize the inward gifts with which the newly-appointed elders were now being endowed. This is plain from the parallel case related in 1 Samuel 10. The Lord in appointing Saul be king over Israel promised "to be with him; to give him another heart," so that he should "be turned into another man." With the kingly office he was to get from the Lord the kingly mind. In token of this, the Spirit came upon him, and he prophesied (cf. Acts 2:3, 4; Acts 10:44-47). The impulse was only a transient one. "They prophesied, and added no more." The miracle, having served its purpose, ceased; but the spiritual endowment of which it was the token remained. This prophesying, if you consider it well, will be seen to be more than a token. Besides notifying the Lord's approval of the elders, and assuring them of help, it suggested much instruction regarding the principles which should regulate their administration. The tongues of fire and the rapturous speaking with tongues on the day of Pentecost, we know what that miracle meant. It admonished the disciples that the warfare of Christ's kingdom is to be accomplished not with the sword, but with the tongue; not with violence and bloodshed, but by the earnest and living manifestation of the truth. It was a lesson of the same kind which the Lord suggested by the miracle wrought on the seventy elders in front of the tabernacle. They were admonished that in their administration of affairs they ought to make use rather of wise and persuasive speech than of brute force. And is not this a lesson for us also? The time is not come yet - perhaps will never come in the present state - for rulers to lay aside the sword altogether. Violent men, if they will not listen to reason, must be restrained with violence. Nevertheless, even for civil rulers, the employment of force is the less honourable function of their office. Better to restrain and guide and govern men with wise, firm, persuasive words than with the sword. - B.

The endowment of the elders for official duties was -

1. A Divine gift imparted by God himself (1 Corinthians 12:4-6; James 1:17).

2. Yet mediate, through Moses, who was the first to enjoy it, but was thankful to share it with men in sympathy with himself (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:21, 22; 1 Corinthians 4:6, 7).

3. A means of relief to Moses and of blessing to the people. The communication did not impoverish Moses, but enriched him. He was like a lamp from which seventy other lamps were lit. The communication of the gift. like mercy, was twice blessed - to him that gives and him that takes. It relieved Moses and enriched the elders, yet not for their own advantage, but as a means of discharging their new and solemn trust. All "gifts," however received, are to be looked on as talents and trusts. The law of the stewardship is found in Romans 12:3-8; 1 Peter 4:10, 11. Learn -

1. The value of every spiritual gift. Men should not envy the possessor of it, but thank God for him, since the gift is communicable. If there had been no inspired Moses, there would have been no inspired elders. An Elisha is the heir of an Elijah (2 Kings 2:9, 10); a Timothy is the son of a Paul (2 Timothy 1:2, 6).

2. The privilege of being the medium of communicating a spiritual gift (Romans 1:11; Philippians 1:6).

3. The importance of "coveting the best gifts" which God can bestow, without human intervention, through his beloved Son. - P.

I. GOD'S TREATMENT OF SELF-WILL. This is always to be well considered where instances of it are found in the Scriptures, because one of the great ends of God's dealings with us is to establish his holy, wise, and righteous will in place of our low, jealous, ignorant self-will. The way of parents dealing with children is to curb and restrain them at once; but children grow to be men, and what then? We cannot deal effectually with one another, for self-will is in all of us, and so far as temporal circumstances are concerned, it not unfrequently gets much of its own way. When we come to the discipline of the whole man, God only can effectually deal with self-will. He might curb him in at once, but such would not be discipline fit for a man. It might break the spirit, but it would do nothing to enlighten and change; we see here that God's treatment is to let people walk awhile in their own way. Self-will breaks out in complaints against the manna: self-will then shall have its desire, and what satisfaction it can get from the flesh for which it craves. Its mouth waters at the thought of the fish of Egypt; it shall have quails, which we may presume were an even greater delicacy. So when, in later years, Israel, in envy of surrounding nations, clamoured for a king, forgetting that the King of kings was theirs, God gave them their wish. The bulk of men will only learn by experience. The prodigal son must know the end of riotous living for himself. It is better to take God's word at the beginning and not sow to the flesh; but men shall have the opportunity if they choose. So God causes his wind to blow and the quails come, an exceeding great multitude (Psalm 68:23-29).

II. GOD'S TEST OF SELF-CONTROL. He gives the quails, not for one day's luxury, but to be the food of a month. As nothing is said to the contrary, we must presume the manna was still continued. Indeed we can easily see the reason for its continuance. God in giving the quails, adds an express and solemn warning. They are to be taken with all their consequences. Sweet at first, they shall turn to objects of bitter loathing. They were given, not in complacency, but in anger, hence they had in them the efficacy of a test. Surely the whole of Israel was not rebellious and murmuring. There must have been men of the Nazarite spirit even then, and the question for them is: "Shall we go out after our wont and gather the manna (Exodus 16), or shall we, like the rest, gratify our appetites with these delicious quails?" Who can doubt that God was watching his own faithful ones, the Israelites indeed in whom there was no guile? There are doubtless many things in the world, the chief use of which is to test the disposition of man to obey God (Genesis 2:16, 17). These quails were given, but there was no obligation to eat them. Every Israelite was free to refuse. A timely repentance, and another wind would have blown away the quails as rapidly as they came. There was a lesson if the people would learn it, from the submissive birds to the rebellious human beings.

III. GOD'S PENALTY FOR SELF-INDULGENCE. There is a seeming contradiction between verses 19, 20, and verse 33, but it is only seeming. God hastened his judgment and thereby really showed his mercy. As David chose the brief pestilence, and to fall into the hand of the Lord (2 Samuel 24.), so here God comes with an immediate and sweeping visitation. Besides, it is possible the people neglected the command to sanctify themselves, and thus further provoked the anger already stirred up; when people get lust into their hearts all sense of law is apt to vanish. It was well the people should see clearly the close connection between disobedience and retribution. Thus did God show, even in these quails, the spirit of a good and perfect gift, Nothing in creation is a blessing in itself; God must make it so, and he can easily in his anger turn it to a curse. God, in making the effect of eating the quails so conspicuous and sudden, still further illustrated by contrast the glory of the manna, for this manna was a beautiful type of the true bread that cometh from heaven. The people had never gathered the manna with such greed and application as they had gathered the quails. When a man breaks the law he is at once guilty, and the punishment, if it be deferred, is so as a matter of expediency, not of right. The lapse of time only makes the connection between sin and punishment less obvious, not at all less certain (Psalm 106:15; Galatians 6:7-9). - Y.


1. As to God's purpose. He had spoken in holy anger, promising flesh, but threatening retribution along with it. The threat is quite as emphatic's the promise, but somehow Moses does not heed. At Sinai, when the people made the golden calf, he was so oppressed with the sense of their great sin, and so solicitous for their pardon, as to beg if the pardon were not granted that he might himself be blotted out of God's book. Where was this anxiety now? His great concern is, not how God may be propitiated and the people spared, but how the people may be propitiated and he himself spared. Contrast Moses here with Christ at all times. Think of the Son's never-failing remembrance of the Father's glory. The Son saw and appreciated all things the Father showed him; hence the confidence with which we look to Christ for a revelation of all God's purposes concerning us, so far as it is right for us to know them. Jesus could ever go out and declare in fitting words and with proper emphasis all the will of God, for he had a perfect appreciation of that will himself. But how was Moses to go out and speak properly to the people when he himself had only half-heard, as it were, what God had said to him? Doubtless he repeated the message of God in the very same words; but one fears that while he made it quite clear to the people they should have flesh, he made it not quite so clear that God was sending it in anger. Let us ever get to the spirit of God's messages to us; never content till their fullness of meaning has passed into our heart, so that something like the fullness of service may pass out of it again.

2. As to God's power. History repeats itself. Unbelief, natural ignorance of God, slowness of heart to take in what he has spoken, - these repeat themselves in their manner of receiving God's promises. Moses talks here as the disciples did at the feeding of the five thousand (Matthew 14:15). And yet, after all his wonderful experiences, there should not have been the slightest difficulty in receiving what God had said. Of all possible convictions, this should have rested on solid ground - that what God had promised he assuredly had power to perform. Is not this one of the great differences between God and men? Men promise and forget, or fall short; God is always better than his promises, for they have to be spoken in defective human words, while they are fulfilled in complete Divine actions.

II. THE CAUSE OF THIS IMPERFECT APPRECIATION. Can we not detect, and especially in the light of his subsequent language, something like doubt, something like leaning upon creature supports instead of God, in the invitation which he gave to Hobab? If this be so, we wonder little at his language of bitter complaint and despair (verses 11-15); and we wonder less that he so soon showed himself out of sympathy with the Divine purposes. The eye of faith had become dim; self-preservation, escape from an intolerable burden, occupied his thoughts. Was it astonishing that, unbelief having found a temporary lodgment in the heart of the leader, the followers should have failed to take in all the purport of God's message? Learn from this how carefully spirituality of mind needs to be guarded. We must not be seduced into leaning upon men instead of trusting in God. Men may solace and encourage us as companions; they are never to take the place of Providence. So neither are we to be terrified and paralyzed by sudden and stupendous revelations of human wickedness. In the midst of them all we hear the one voice speaking, "Be still, and know that I am God." - Y.

The brevity of the narrative prevents us forming an adverse judgment of the conduct of Eldad and Medad, for we do net know their motive for remaining in the camp. It may have been ignorance of the call, or shrinking through timidity from a duty which, nevertheless, God would not allow them to escape. But the narrative is not too brief to enable us to see in Moses' words a fine illustration of largeness of heart. Note -

I. JOSHUA'S APPEAL. His love of order may have been offended. He feared lest the unity of the camp under the leadership of Moses should be disturbed. He was anxious for the honour of his master, and desired that political and ecclesiastical discipline should be not only really, but ostensibly, in his hands. The call of the seventy elders with prophetic powers was a new departure in the history of the theocracy, and now the prophesying of Eldad and Medad, apart, threatened still further apparently to derogate from the honours of Moses. Thus now narrow minds or small hearts may be fearful of that which is novel, and envious of those who take a course independent of established authorities and Church traditions, even though they "seem to have the Spirit of God." They may forbid, or at least "despise, prophesyings" which are not according to rule.

II. MOSES' REPLY. The only question with Moses is one not of place or method, but of reality. Are the prophesyings and the spirit "of God"? Largeness of heart cannot exempt us from this duty (1 Thessalonians 5:21; 1 John 4:1-3). Moses could not recognize the falsehoods uttered in the tabernacle of Korah, though he rejoiced in the prophesyings of Eldad. Spurious charity is traitorous to truth; true charity can only rejoice "in the truth" (1 Corinthians 13:6). The lesson taught us is illustrated by various incidents in the New Testament. A large-hearted Christian will not be offended -

1. If those who are clearly working in the name of Christ, and with the seal of his approval, do not follow with him (Mark 9:38-40).

2. If their success seems to imperil the prosperity of his party or denomination (John 3:26, &c.).

3. He will rejoice in the work, though unofficial and obscure men have originated it (Acts 11:19-24).

4. He will not "envy," but delight, in the proclamation of the gospel, even if the motives of the preachers are marred by "envy and strife" (Philippians 1:15-18). Large-heartedness will "covet earnestly the best gifts" for others, whatever the consequences may be to ourselves. - P.

God fulfils his promise, and gives to these seventy men a spirit which doubtless brings them into more active sympathy with Moses, and takes away the carnal and selfish views which had prevailed in their minds. The difference between their present and former state was probably much like that between the state of the apostles after and before the day of Pentecost. They had a perspicacity, a power, a courage, a zeal, which did not belong to them before. As they prophesied, may we not suppose that Moses beard from them expressions quite new to his ears as coming from Israelite lips? And to make the occasion more memorable and significant, two of the seventy, who for some unexplained reason remained in the camp, nevertheless prophesied, as did those in the tabernacle. The intelligence was very quickly brought to Moses. Some of the Israelites would be greatly shocked by such an irregular proceeding, though perhaps they had seen nothing very censurable in the general cry of the people for flesh. Punctiliousness in ceremony and etiquette is often joined with laxity in things of moment (Matthew 23:23). The reception of the news is followed by -

I. THE FOOLISH ADVICE Or JOSHUA. Foolish, although given by a devoted friend. Joshua would probably have died for Moses, but he could not, therefore, give him good counsel. Attachment itself has not unfrequently a blinding effect on the judgment. A stranger might advise more wisely. It is the right of friendship to offer advice, but it is often the height of friendship, the very bloom and delicacy of it, to refrain. We find similar instances (Matthew 16:21-23; Acts 21:12, 13). Foolish, because evidently given without consideration. The circumstances were quite novel to Joshua. The grounds on which he dashed out his advice were mere matters of hearsay. There was enough to have made him cautious. Eldad and Medad were among the chosen ones; those present had been gifted with the spirit; what more likely then upon consideration, what more worthy of reverent acceptance, than that the absentees should have been similarly visited? Advice, when it is given with full knowledge of circumstances and full consideration of thefts, may be indeed precious, the very salvation and security of a perplexed mind. Otherwise, the greater the ignorance the greater the mischief. Advice should mostly come in response to a request for it. Foolish, because it concerned the status of Moses rather than the glory of God. Much of the advice of friendship is vitiated, through shutting out all save personal considerations. One friend advises another as a counsel does his client, not that justice may be done, but that his client may gain his end. Joshua was considering how the reputation and influence of "his lord Moses" would be affected. Foolish because it was given to a man who was in no doubt. Moses was rejoicing in escape from a heavy burden, and the visitation upon Eldad and Medad was the very thing still further to comfort him. The folly of the advice is crowned, as we observe that it recommended an impossibility. "Forbid them." Forbid what? That they should prophesy! As well forbid the branches not to sway with a strong wind as forbid men to prophesy when the Spirit comes upon them. Even Balaam could not help uttering the Lord's prophecies and blessing Israel from the very mouth that would fain, in its greed of filthy lucre, have uttered a curse.


1. As to the substance of the rejection. Possibly if Moses had been a different kind of man, he might have said to himself, "There is something in what Joshua says." But he was not one of the aut Caesar ant nullus order. Joshua, in his impetuous word, was concerned for his master's honour; the master himself was concerned about his grievous burden. Not even Joshua understood the bitter experiences through which Moses had lately passed. "Would that all the Lord's people were prophets!" Our measure before God does not depend on our standing among men. Moses would not have been one whit less esteemed in heaven if every other Israelite had been as spiritually-minded as himself. Joshua had been speaking to a man who, like Christian, had been toiling on with a weary weight on his back. He has just got rid of it, and "Forbid them" really meant, "Take the burden up again."

2. As to the spirit of the rejection. Moses shows here the meekness and gentleness with which he is so emphatically credited in the next chapter. Advice, when it cannot be taken, even when it is most foolish and meddlesome, should be pushed gently away; and if the spirit in which it has been given is evidently kind and generous, let the refusal be mingled with gratefulness. Joshua loved Moses, and Moses loved Joshua. "Enviest thou for my sake?" Thus Moses recognizes the devotion and bona fides of his friend. - Y.

This narrative brings up a subject which is at once of great practical importance and of great delicacy, on which men have been apt to run to extremes on the one side or the other. It will be our wisdom, therefore, to begin by weighing carefully the facts as they are set forth in the sacred narrative.

I. THE FACTS are, shortly, these: - Moses having complained that the leadership of the nation was a burden greater than he could bear, the Lord gave direction that a Council of Seventy should be associated with him in it. This was done. From among the acting elders and officers of the congregation Moses called out seventy and they were solemnly set apart to the new office, before the Lord and the congregation. This consecration-service (as it may be called) did not pass without a palpable token of the Divine approval, a palpable token that appropriate gifts would be forthcoming to the new rulers as they had been to Moses. When the Seventy were being set apart, the Spirit fell upon them, and they prophesied. While this was going on at the tent of meeting, a young man came running with the tidings that two men were prophesying in the camp. On inquiry it turned out that these were two of the seventy whom Moses had nominated for the council. For some reason or other they had not come forward with the rest to the tent of meeting. Notwithstanding of this, the Spirit had come on them in the camp exactly as he had come on their brethren, and they were prophesying. Clearly there was in this a breach of due order. Eldad and Medad ought to have presented themselves along with the rest. They were chargeable with an irregularity. Accordingly, Joshua, who is already the trusted "minister of Moses," suggests that they should be silenced. "My lord Moses, forbid them." But Moses is of another mind. Is it certain that Eldad and Medad are prophesying? If so, the hand of the Lord, we may presume, is in the matter. Spiritual gifts are not such cheap and common things that we can afford to throw them away. Possibly enough these prophets in the camp have failed to make due acknowledgment of me as the Divinely-appointed leader of the congregation. But let no man look with an evil eye on them for my sake. Would that the Spirit were put on all the people! I should rejoice to see my light outshone in such a general brightness!

II. WHAT HAVE THESE FACTS TO SAY TO US? What lesson do they teach?

1. At first sight it might seem as if they taught us to make light of office, solemn ordination to office, official service, and to attach importance only to the possession and exercise of gifts. But that certainly is not intended. The new council was not to consist of men simply obeying an internal call. No one was admissible without prior experience in office, and without election by Moses. And it was by Divine command that the sixty-eight were solemnly set apart before the Lord and the congregation. I need not prove that in the State it is the will of God that there should be magistrates, laws, and strict enforcement of the laws. In the Church there is: no doubt, a difference; for the Church has no coercive power. Its weapons are the truth and the tongue of fire, not the sword. Nevertheless, order is quite as necessary in the Church as in the State. "In all churches of the saints God is the author of peace, not of confusion," and all things are to be "done decently and in order" (1 Corinthians 14:33-40).

2. The narrative admonishes us that office and order and official service, necessary as they may be, are not everything. They are not everything, even in the State, much less are they everything in the Church. The salvation and edification of souls will not go forward unless there is a continual ministration of the Spirit in gifts and in grace. That is a general lesson the facts teach. More particularly they admonish us that we need not be surprised if it should occasionally happen that men who are walking irregularly give evidence of having been richly endowed with spiritual gifts. I will not discuss the question, How such a thing can be; how the God of order can, without contradicting himself, bestow his valuable gifts on men who do not quite conform to the good order of his house. For the fact is plain. Whether we can account for it or no, the fact is indubitable. Has not Christ raised up men like Pascal within the Romish communion? Yet every Protestant believes that the Church of Rome has grievously erred both in respect to Church order, and in the weightiest points of faith and holiness. Do not suppose that these and similar facts are to be accounted for by alleging that Christendom has for a long while fallen away into anarchy. For facts of the same kind found place in connection with the personal ministry of Christ himself. The Twelve were Christ's apostles, and it was the duty of all disciples to follow with them. Did, therefore, Christ withhold his gifts from all save those in the apostles' company? On the contrary, there was found an individual now and then who, though he followed not with the apostles, nevertheless both spoke in Christ's name, and spoke to such good purpose that devils were cast forth (cf. Mark 9:38-40).

3. What, then, is the conclusion to which we are led? "Quench not the Spirit: despise not prophesying." I do not say that it was the duty of Moses, or is our duty in similar circumstances, to go forth to Eldad and Medad, and identify ourselves with them in their work. That will depend on circumstances. Sometimes one cannot take part with the irregular prophets without concurring in what would for us be sin. Christ's command was not, Go and join yourselves to the man who is casting out devils in my name, irregularly. But it was, Forbid him not. Is a man really prophesying? Is he casting out devils? Is he setting forth the truth and doing-good? Then do not forbid him. Bring him, if you can, to a fuller knowledge of the truth, and to more regular courses, but do not look on him with jealous eyes, or try to put him down. If Christ is preached, whether it be in pretence or in truth, I therein do rejoice, yea, and will rejoice (Philippians 1:14-28). - B.

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