Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
I. THE STORY OF THE SEDITION was, in brief, this: - Moses was not the only member of the family of Amram whom the Lord had endowed with eminent gifts. Aaron, his elder brother, was a leading man among the Israelites before Moses received his call at Horeb. Miriam also was a woman of high and various gifts, both natural and gracious. She was a prophetess - the earliest recorded example of a woman endowed with the gift of prophecy - and she excelled also in song (Exodus 15:20; Micah 6:4). The eminent gifts of these two were not passed over. They found such recognition and scope, that next to Moses, Aaron and Miriam were the two most honoured and influential individuals in the camp. But they were not content with this. Moses was set in yet higher place, and this roused their jealousy. They could not bear to see another, one brought up in the same family, a younger brother too, elevated above them. Miriam could not brook the thought of being subject to the younger brother whose infancy she had tended, and whose ark of bulrushes she had been set to watch when their mother committed him to the unfeeling bosom of the Nile. "Hath the Lord indeed spoken only by Moses? hath he not spoken also by us?" Envy is a root tenacious of life in the human heart. When some one whom you have known familiarly as your junior or inferior is raised above you in office or wealth, in gifts or grace, watch and pray, else you will be very apt to fall into Miriam's sin. I say Miriam's sin, for it is plain that the sedition originated with her. Not only is her name put first, but in the Hebrew the beginning of the narrative runs thus: "Then she spake, even Miriam and Aaron, against Moses." When there is envy in the heart, it will soon find occasion to break out. Very characteristically, the occasion in this instance was some misunderstanding about Moses' wife. She was not of the daughters of Israel. Miriam affected to despise her as an unclean person, and persuaded Aaron to do the same. It was an instance of a thing not rare in history, a family quarrel, a fit of ill-feeling between two sisters-in-law, stirring up envy and strife between persons in high office, and troubling the community. There was something very petty in the conduct of Miriam and Aaron, but it was not, therefore, a trifling offence. When they were giving vent to their envy "the Lord heard."
II. THE PUNISHMENT OF THE SEDITION. It does not appear that Moses made any complaint; he was the meekest of men, humble and patient. All the rather does the Highest take the defense of his servant in hand. "Suddenly," i.e., in sharp displeasure, Miriam and the two brothers were commanded to present themselves before the Lord, at the entrance of the tabernacle. Whereupon, -
1. The Lord pronounced a warm eulogy upon, Moses. Observe the terms in which he is described, for there is much more in them than is perceived at first. "My servant Moses," - "servant in all mine house," - "faithful in all mine house."
(1) Moses was "the servant of the Lord," "the man of God," in a sense more ample than any other individual who ever lived excepting only Christ himself; and one can perceive a tone of singular love in the way in which the title is here used: "my servant Moses."
(2) The commission of Moses extended to every part of the Lord's house, and in every department of his service he showed fidelity. As a prophet, he was more extensively employed and more faithful than Miriam; as a priest, he was more honourable and faithful than Aaron; and he was, moreover, king in Jeshurun, the valiant and faithful leader and commander of the people. These were facts, and Moses might well have appealed to them in vindication of himself against the complainers. But he did better to leave the matter in the Lord's own hand (Psalm 37:5, 6).
2. Besides vindicating Moses and rebuking his detract ors, the Lord put a mark of his displeasure on Miriam. The ringleader in the sedition, she bears the brunt of the punishment. She has affected to abhor her sister-in-law as unclean; she is herself smitten with leprosy, a disease loathsome in itself, and which entailed ceremonial defilement in the highest degree. This done, the cloud of the Divine presence rose as suddenly as it had come down. Miriam and Aaron stood before the tabernacle utterly confounded, till Aaron was fain to humble himself before his brother, saying: - We have done foolishly, we have sinned; forgive us, and do not let the sad affair go further; have pity on poor Miriam especially; see how pitiable a sight she is. "Like the dead thing of which the flesh is half consumed when it cometh out of its mother's womb." Moses was not the man to resist so touching an appeal. Miriam was healed; but she was shut out from the camp as an unclean person for the space of a week, as the law prescribed. The lesson lies on the surface. Do not give harbour to envy because of the welfare or honour of your neighbour, rather "rejoice with them that do rejoice." It is not always easy to rejoice when some one younger, or of humbler birth than ourselves, is exalted above us. Nor is the difficulty lessened when the person exalted is of our own kindred. Nevertheless envy must be cast forth. The author of all gifts and honours is God. To envy the receivers is to rebel against him and provoke his displeasure. And God's ordinary method in punishing envious pride is to inflict some peculiarly ignominious stroke. When Miriam swells with pride she is smitten with leprosy. - B.
I. AN UNJUST INSINUATION. Neither Moses' marriage nor his conduct to his relatives (verse 3) had given fair cause of provocation. If his wife had done so, the charge Aaron and Miriam brought against the man who chose her was utterly irrelevant (verse 2). "The wife of Moses is mentioned, his superiority is shot at" (Bp. Hall). No wonder if the most conscientious and cautious are calumniated since false charges were brought against Moses, Job, Jeremiah, and Jesus Christ. The assault was aggravated because -
1. It came from his nearest kindred (Psalm 65:12-14; Jeremiah 12:6). Miriam apparently began it, perhaps through a misunderstanding between the sisters-in-law, and drew Aaron into the plot (1 Timothy 2:14).
II. A TRIUMPHANT VINDICATION. Moses apparently had taken no notice of the charge; perhaps acting on Agricola's rule, "omnia scire, non omnia exsequi" (cf. Psalm 38:12-15; John 8:50). But the Lord heard it and interposed.
1. The three are summoned before an impartial judge, but with what different feelings.
2. The calumniated servant of God is distinguished by special honours (verses 6-8).
3. The murmurers are rebuked, and a humiliating punishment is inflicted on the chief offender. The punishment of Aaron, the accomplice, only less severe (through sympathy with his sister) than that of Miriam (Job 12:16).
4. They are indebted for deliverance to the intercession of the man they have wronged. Illustration) Jeroboam (1 Kings 13:6; Job's friends, Job 42:7-10). Thus God will vindicate all his calumniated servants (Psalm 37:5, 6). Protection (Psalm 31:20); peace (Proverbs 16:7); honour (Isaiah 60:14; Revelation 3:9); and final reward (Psalm 91:14-16; and Romans 8:31). Such are the privileges of the faithful but maligned servants of God. - P.
transgressor. Aaron simply and easily followed where she led. Let us fix our attention on the hideous revelation of her pride.
I. It was A PRIDE THAT OVERWHELMED NATURAL AFFECTION. To whom in all Israel might Moses have more confidently looked for sympathy than his own sister? Especially if it were she who stood afar off, and watched the ark of bulrushes (Exodus 2:4). It was an unworthy thing of a sister to hinder one on whom God had laid such great and anxious duties. But when self-esteem is once hurt, the wound soon inflames beyond all control; and even those on whom we are most dependent, and to whom we owe the most, are made to feel the grievous irritation of our spirits.
II. It was A PRIDE THAT MADE MIRIAM FORGET THE OBLIGATIONS OF HER OWN HONOURABLE OFFICE. She was a prophetess, even as Moses was a prophet. She does, indeed, in one sense recollect her office. "Hath the Lord not spoken also by us?" True; and this was the very reason why she should have been specially careful of what she said, even when the Lord was not speaking by her. A prophet's tongue should be doubly guarded at all times. Those who speak for God ought never to say anything out of their own thoughts incongruous with the Divine message. If Miriam and Aaron had ever been obliged to deal with Moses as once Paul had to deal with Peter, and withstand him to the face because he was to be blamed, then the prophet element in them would have been more glorious than ever. But here Miriam stoops from her high rank to give effect to a mean personal grudge.
III. It was PRIDE THAT PUT ON A PRETENCE OF BEING BADLY TREATED. It is very easy for the proud to persuade themselves that they have been badly treated. They are so much in their own thoughts that it becomes easy for them to believe that they are much in the thoughts of other people; and from this they can soon advance to the suspicion that there may be elaborate designs against them. Men will go step by step to great villainies, justifying themselves all the way. The scribes who sat in Moses' seat no doubt made their conspiracy against Jesus look very laudable to their own eyes. Miriam does not speak here with the arrogance of a straightforward, brutal, "I wish it, and it must be so." The iniquity of her heart sought to veil itself in a plausible plea for justice.
IV. It was the WORST OF ALL PRIDE, SPIRITUAL PRIDE. Pride of birth, of beauty, of wealth, of learning, all these are bad, often ridiculous; but spiritual pride is such a contradiction, such an amazing example of blindness, that we may well give it a pre-eminence among the evil fruits of the corrupt heart. It is the chief of all pride, most dangerous to the subject of it, and most insulting to God. Contrast Miriam with Mary, the mother of Jesus: the one all chafed and swelling within, who thinks the people should attend her as much as her brother; the other having the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, humbly submissive to Gabriel's word, nothing doubting, yet prostrate in amazement that she should have been chosen as the mother of Messiah, sending forth her Magnificat like a lark soaring from its humble bed, singing its song, and straightway returning to the earth again. Or contrast her with Paul, saying, because he truly felt, that he was less than the least of all saints an earthen vessel, the chief of sinners. Amid our greatest privileges we are still in the greatest danger if without a sense, habitually cherished, of our natural unworthiness. The more God sees fit to make of us, the more we should wonder that he is able to make so much out of so little. - Y.
Malachi 3:16). We are thus reminded that God listens not only to take note of our sinful words, but to record every loving, faithful word, spoken of him or for him. What a proof of the omnipotence of God! Wonderful that he should attend to every prayer addressed to him. Still more so that he should listen to every word spoken not to him but to others. But at the same moment he can hear the brooks murmuring over their rocky beds, the trees clapping their hands, the floods lifting up their voice, the birds singing in the branches, the young lions roaring for their prey, and every sound of joy or cry of pain, every hymn of praise or word of falsehood issuing from human lips (Psalm 139:3, 4, 6). Without speaking of direct prayers we may seek illustrations of the truth that God listens to everything we say to one another, records it, passes his judgment on it, and lays it up in store as one of the materials of his future verdict on our lives. We may regard this truth -
I. AS AN ENCOURAGEMENT. As illustrations -
1. Turn to the scene described in Malachi 3:16. A few godly persons are trying to keep alive the flame of piety in a godless age (verses 13-15). Apply to social means of grace for mutual edification.
2. See that Christian man on a lonely walk, courteously conversing with a stranger, and seeking to recommend Christ to him. The stranger may go away to pray or to scoff, but that is not all. God hears and records the words as one of the good deeds done in the body (2 Corinthians 5:10).
3. A godly mother in the midst of daily duties, not only praying but soliloquizing, as in Psalm 62:1, 2, 5-7. Whether or not she may say Psalm 5:1, God does "give ear," and the words are "acceptable" (Psalm 19:14).
II. AS A WARNING. The truth has its shady as well as its sunny side. We may apply to -
1. The swearer's prayer, not intended for the ear of God, but reaching it.
2. Calumnies and backbitings, e.g., against Moses (verses 1, 2), or other servants of God (cf. Zephaniah 2:8); perhaps disliked because their lives are a rebuke to others (cf. Psalm 94:4, 7, 8, 9; John 15:18).
3. Impure words. The youth would be ashamed all day if his mother accidentally heard. But God heard.
4. Solitary words of repining or rebellion. Spoken in haste, they are soon regretted, and you say, "Well, at any rate nobody heard them." Stop and think again (Numbers 11:1; Psalm 139:7). The ear of God, like his eye, is in every place." Therefore Matthew 12:37. This truth leads us by a single step to the heart of the gospel (Acts 20:21). And if we say Psalm 17:3, God will hear that too, and give us strength to serve him with "righteous lips" and "joyful lips" (Psalm 19:14). - P.
the emphatic way in which it is set forth. "Meek above all the men which were upon the face of the earth." We talk of Moses as the meekest of men and Solomon as the wisest of men to indicate that the one was very meek indeed and the other very wise. Let us look then in the life and character of Moses to see how that eminent virtue was shown which ought also to be in all of us.
I. The meekness included A CONSCIOUSNESS OF NATURAL UNFITNESS FOR THE WORK TO WHICH GOD HAD CALLED HIM. A consciousness we may well believe to have been profound, abiding, and oftentimes oppressive. God meant it to be so. We know not what Moses was physically. He was a goodly child (Exodus 2:2), but a mother's partiality may have had something to do with this judgment. In after years that may have been true of Moses which Paul pathetically observes was the opinion of some concerning himself - that in bodily presence he was weak and in speech contemptible. It may have been a wonder to many, as well as to himself, that God had chosen him. In that memorable interview with God at Horeb (Exodus 3), the first word of Moses is, "Here am I;" but the second, "Who am I, that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt?" There was no jumping at eminence, no vainglorious grasping at the chance of fame. He had to be constrained along the path of God's appointment, not because of a disobedient spirit, but because of a low estimate of himself. He abounded in patriotism and sympathy for his oppressed brethren, but the work of deliverance seemed one for stronger hands than his. Perhaps there is nothing in the natural man more precious in the sight of God for the possibilities that come out of it than this consciousness of weakness. The work to be done is so great, and the man who is called to do it, even when he has stretched himself to his fullest extent, looks so small.
II. THIS SENSE OF WEAKNESS WOULD APPEAR IN ALL HIS INTERCOURSE WITH MEN. He was exposed continually to the risk of insult and reproach. The people vented their spleen arid carnal irritation upon him, yet he did not make their words a matter of personal insult, as some leaders would undoubtedly have done. He felt only too keenly his own insufficiency, and how far short he fell of the high requirements of God. Although the particular hard things which men said about him might not be just, yet he felt that many hard things might justly be said, and so there was no inclination to fume and fret and stand upon his dignity when fault-finders began to speak. Even when Miriam joins the traducing herd he seems to bear it in silence. The dying Caesar said, "Et tu, Brute;" but Moses, in this hour of his loneliness, when even his kindred forsake him, does not say, "And thou, Miriam." Each succeeding revelation of God made him humbler in his own spirit, and seemed to increase the distance between his created and corrupted life and the glory of the great I AM. If God were so gracious, forgiving, and bountiful to him (chapter 11), why should not he be long-suffering and meekly tolerant with Miriam? (Matthew 18:23-35). We shall not blow ourselves out and strut before men if we only constantly recollect how defiled we are in the sight of God.
III. This meekness is especially to be noticed because of ITS CONNECTION WITH CERTAIN OTHER QUALITIES WHICH GOD LOVES. The more conscious Moses became of his natural weakness, the more God esteemed him. If meekness springs from the sense of weakness, yet it grows and becomes useful in association with the strength of God. Though Moses was meek, he was not a pliable man. Though meek, he none the less went right onward in the way of God's appointment. This meekness of his went along with obedience to God. He quietly listened to all his enemies said in the way of invective and slander, and still went on his way, with eye and ear and heart open to the will of God. He was like a tree, which, though it may bend and yield a little to the howling blast, yet keeps its hold firm on the soil. There was also a never-failing sense of right. Moses was one of those men - would that there were more of them in the world! - who had a deep feeling of sympathy with the weak and the oppressed. Meek as he was by nature, he slew the Egyptian who smote his Hebrew brother. There was also courage along with the meekness - courage of the highest sort, moral courage, daring to be laughed at, and to stand alone. These are the brave men who can do this, planting alone, if need be, the standard of some great cause; meek and humble, but dauntless in their meekness, confiding in him whose righteousness is like the great mountains. Look at the bravery of meek women for Christ. Then there was persistency. Is not this great part of the secret of the fulfilling of that beatitude, "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth?" The violent, the unjust, the greedy, may grasp the earth for a time, but it is the meek, the gentle, never irritating, yet never withdrawing, persistent, generation after generation, in the practice and application of spiritual truth, it is they who in the fullness of time will truly inherit the earth. - Y.
bear these words in the silent composure of his magnanimity and meekness, it nevertheless became God to justify his servant, as God alone could effectually and signally justify. God notes all unjust and slanderous doings with respect to his people. He hears, even though the reviled ones themselves be ignorant. God then proceeds by one course of action to produce a double result - to humble Miriam and Aaron, Miriam in particular, and to exalt Moses. In what he did, notice that with all his anger and severity he yet mingled much consideration for the transgressors. We need not suppose that their words had been spoken to any considerable audience. More likely they were confined to the limits of the domestic circle. And so the Lord spake suddenly to the three persons concerned. Probably none but themselves knew why they were summoned. There was no reason for exposing a family quarrel to the gossip of the whole camp. The sin of Miriam need not be published abroad, though it was necessary, in order to teach her a lesson, that it should be condignly punished. So they were called to the door of the tabernacle, and there God addressed them from the pillar of cloud, with all its solemn associations. This word suddenly also suggests that when God does not visit immediately the iniquity of the transgressor upon him, it is from considerations of what we may call Divine expediency. He can come at once or later, but, at whatever time, he certainly will come. Consider now -
I. THE HUMBLING OF THE PROUD. This was done in two ways.
1. By the plain distinction which God made between them and Moses. It was perfectly true that, as they claimed, God had spoken by them, but he calls attention to the fact that it was his custom to speak to prophets by vision and by dream. There was no mouth to mouth conversation, no beholding of the similitude of the Lord. God can use all sorts of agencies for his communications to men. It needs not even a Miriam; i.e., can speak warning from the mouth of an ass. But Moses was more than a prophet; prophet was only the part of which steward and general, visible representative of God, was the whole. What a humbling hour for this proud woman to find that Jehovah himself had taken up the cause of her despised brother! It is probable that Moses himself had mentioned little of the details of his experiences of God; they were not things to talk much about; perhaps he could not have found the fit audience, even though few. Upon Miriam it would come like a thunderbolt to know how God esteemed the man whom she had allowed herself to scorn. So God will ever abase the proud by glorifying his own pious children whom they despise. Satan despises Job, says he is a mere lip worshipper, a man whose professions will not bear trial; he gets him down into the dust of bereavement, poverty, and disease; but in the end he has to see him a holier man, a more trustful and prosperous one than before. Miriam meant the downfall of Moses; she only helped to establish him more firmly on the rock.
2. By the personal visitation, on Miriam. She became a leper. As her pride was hideous in the manifestation of it, so her punishment was hideous - a leprosy, loathsome and frightful beyond the common. We might expect this. A malignant outbreak in her bodily life corresponded with the malignity of the defilement in her spirit. As to Aaron, we may presume that his sacred office, and to some extent the fact that he was a tool, secured him from leprosy, but the visitation on his sister was punishment in itself. He felt the wind of the blow which struck her down. Proud souls, take warning by Miriam; you will at last become abhorrent to yourselves. Remember Herod (Acts 12:21-23).
II. THE EXALTATION OF THE MEEK. This is a more inward and spiritual thing, and therefore not conspicuous in the same way as the humbling. It is something to be appreciated by spiritual discernment rather than natural. Besides, the full exaltation of the meek is not yet come. The resurrection and ascension of the Lord Jesus himself were arranged very quietly. But we cannot help noticing that from this sharp and trying scene Moses emerges with his character shining more beautifully than ever. He does nothing to forfeit the reputation with which he was credited, and everything to increase it. He acted like a man who had beheld the similitude of the Lord. Notice particularly the way in which he joins in with Aaron, interceding for his afflicted sister. This is the true exaltation: to be better and better in oneself, shining more because there is more light within to cast its mild radiance, as God would have it cast, alike upon the evil and the good, the just and the unjust (Psalm 25:9; Psalm 59:12; Proverbs 13:10; Proverbs 16:18; Proverbs 29:23; Daniel 4:37; Matthew 23:12; Galatians 6:1-5; 2 Timothy 2:24-26; 1 Peter 3:4; 1 Peter 5:6). - Y.
Hebrews 3:1-6). The Hebrews are reminded that of all the servants whom the Lord raised up to minister in the ancient Church, there was not one who approached Moses, in respect either to the greatness and variety of the services performed by him, or the greatness of the honours bestowed upon him. Moses was set over all God's house, and in this eminent station he was conspicuously faithful. In these respects Moses was the most perfect figure of Christ. Christ's priesthood was foreshadowed by Melchisedec, his royalty by David and Solomon, his prophetical office by Samuel and the goodly company of prophets who followed him. But in Moses all the three offices were foreshadowed at once. Of these two men, Moses and Christ, and of no other since the world began, could it be affirmed that they were "faithful in all the Lord's house." No doubt there was disparity as well as a resemblance. Both were servants. But Moses was a servant in a house which belonged to another, in a household of which he was only a member, whereas Christ is such a servant as is also a son, and serves in a household of which he is the Maker and Heir. This is true. Nevertheless it is profitable to forget occasionally the disparity of the two great mediators, and to fix attention on the resemblance between them, the points in which the honour of Christ the Great Prophet was prefigured by the singular honour of Moses. Hence the interest and value of this text in Numbers.
I. AS A FOIL TO BRING OUT THE SINGULAR HONOUR OF MOSES, THE LORD PUTS ALONGSIDE OF IT THE HONOUR BESTOWED ON OTHER PROPHETS. a Consider the prophets that have been or yet are among you. How has my will been made known to them?" Two ways are specified.
1. "In a vision." There was a memorable example of this in the case of Abraham (Genesis 15). Visions continued to be the vehicles of revelation during the whole course of the Old Testament history. Isaiah (6, 13, &c.), Jeremiah (50, &e.), Ezekiel and Daniel (everywhere). Peter's vision at Joppa is a familiar example of the same kind under the New Testament.
2. "In a dream." This was a lower way of revelation. The stories of Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar remind us that the dreams (I do not say the interpretations of them) were not seldom vouchsafed to men who were strangers to God. We shall see immediately that these ways of making himself known to men through the prophets, were inferior to the ways in which the Lord was wont to reveal himself through Moses. But let us not so fix our attention on the points of difference as to lose sight of or forget the bright and glorious feature which they have in common. "I, the Lord, do make myself known in a vision, and do speak in a dream." For reasons we can only guess at, the Lord was pleased to suffer the nations to walk in their own ways. But in Israel he revealed himself. At sundry times and in divers manners he was pleased to speak to the fathers by the prophets. The Scriptures of the Old Testament are oracular. In them we inherit the most precious part of the patrimony of the ancient Church. For this was the chief advantage which the Jews had above the Gentiles, that "unto them were committed the oracles of God." It is our own fault if, in reading the Old Testament, we fail to hear everywhere the voice of God.
II. OVER AGAINST THE HONOUR VOUCHSAFED TO ALL THE PROPHETS, THE LORD SETS FORTH THE SINGULAR HONOUR OF MOSES. It is denoted by the loving title by which the Lord here and elsewhere names him: "My servant Moses." "Were ye not afraid to speak against my servant Moses? "(verses 7, 8; cf. Joshua 1:2; also Deuteronomy 34:5). The word here translated "servant" is a word of honourable import; and in the singular and emphatic way in which it is applied by the Lord to Moses, it is applied by him to no other till we come to Christ himself (see Isaiah 52:13; Isaiah 53:11, &c.). The singular honour of Moses is indicated, moreover, by this, that he was called and enabled to do faithful service "in all God's house." Aaron served as a priest, Miriam as a prophetess, Joshua as a commander, each being intrusted with one department of service; Moses was employed in all. More particularly, Moses was singularly honoured in regard to the manner of the Divine communications granted to him. With him the Lord spoke "mouth to mouth," even apparently, i.e., visibly, and not in dark speeches, and he beheld the similitude of the Lord.
1. When prophets received communications in dreams and visions they were very much in a passive state, simply beholding and hearing, often unable to make out the meaning of what they saw and heard. Moses, on the contrary, was admitted as it were into the audience chamber, and the Lord spoke to him as a man speaks with his friend (cf. Numbers 7:89).
2. A few of the prophets, specially honoured, had visions of the Divine glory (Isaiah 6, &c. ). But in this respect Moses was honoured above all the rest (Exodus 33, 34). In these respects he prefigured the great Prophet, the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, knows the Father even as the Father knows him, and has fully declared him. It has seemed to some learned men a thing unlikely, a thing incredible, that the vast body of doctrine and law and divinely-inspired history contained in the last four books of the Pentateuch should have been delivered to the Church within one age, and chiefly by one man. But the thing will not seem strange to one who believes and duly considers the singular honour of Moses as described in this text, especially if it is read in connection with the similar testimony borne elsewhere to Christ. Moses, and the Prophet like unto Moses, stand by themselves in the history of Divine revelation in this respect, that each served "in all God's house;" each was commissioned to introduce the Church into a new dispensation, to deliver to the Church a system of doctrine and institutions. In harmony with this is the patent fact that, as at the bringing in of the gospel dispensation the stream of Holy Scripture expands into the four gospels, even so at the bringing in of the ancient dispensation the stream of Holy Scripture originated in the Books of the Law. - B.