Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
I. ISRAEL, FULLY AWARE OF SOME DANGERS, IS EQUALLY REGARDLESS OF MUCH GREATER ONES. Israel having been refused passage through Edom, and having also had to fight its way through the strong opposing forces of Sihon and Og, came at last into the plains of Moab, doubtless expecting a similar conflict with Balak. While he was looking for Israel to attack him, Israel would be wondering why he left it unmolested. And while Balak is waiting for the expected curse, Moab puts on a peaceful, harmless appearance. What was more natural than that Israel should enter into neighbourly intercourse? The nearness of the two peoples gave every facility for this. There must also have been a great charm in seeing fresh faces and hearing unaccustomed voices. As day followed day without any signs of hostility, Israelite and Moabite would mingle more freely together. If Balak had followed the example of Sihon and Og, it would have been far better for Israel. The worst enemies are those who, on their first approach, put on the smiling face and give the salutation of peace. We know what to do with the open enemy, who bears his hostility in his countenance; but what shall we do with him who comes insidiously, to degrade, corrupt, and utterly pervert the life within; and this by a very slow process, of which the victim at the beginning must not be conscious at all, and indeed as little conscious as possible until it is too late for escape? Puritanism, so much condemned, laughed at, and satirized, is really the only safety of God's people. Go with the courage which he inspires into any den of lions, into any physical peril whatsoever, remembering what Jesus has said: "Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it" (Luke 17:33); but refrain with equal courage from everything that is mere pleasure, mere comfort of the flesh, for in doing so you may keep clear from some temptations in a world which is crowded with them. Remember that to go in the way of one temptation is to go in the way of more than one, perhaps of many. Israel got conversing with the daughters of Moab, and this led to whoredom, which assuredly was bad enough; but worse remained, for whoredom led on to idolatry, and idolatry to the manifested wrath of God. The devil was delighted when he saw the sons of Israel, God's own chosen and beloved race, of whom such glorious things had been spoken in prophecy, in abominable intercourse with the daughters of Moab; still more delighted when he saw the bowings to Moab's gods; and his delight was crowned when 24,000 died in the plague. One cannot enter a grocer's shop now-a-days without noticing how many things are hermetically sealed, in order to be kept free from taint. The very smallest crevice would be fatal. We cannot indeed be hermetically sealed - that would be to go out of the world, arid Christ's prayer is, not that we should be taken from the world, but kept from the wicked one. But surely we shall not be slow in seconding Christ's prayer and effort with our prayer and effort. We must live in this world as knowing how corruptible we are, and that ceaseless vigilance is the price of spiritual safety.
II. BALAK, FULLY PERSUADED OF THE POWER OF ONE WEAPON, IS UTTERLY UNCONSCIOUS OF THE GREATER POWER OF ANOTHER. Balak, sending all this long way for Balaam, was utterly ignorant of a resource lying close at hand, which probably began to operate even while his negotiations with Balaam were in progress. The world is not conscious of its greatest resources against the Church; it does its greatest damage unwittingly. Balaam certainly seems to have had something to do with bringing out to its full extent this power of the daughters of Moab (Numbers 31:16), but it must have been already in action, revealing to him something of the disposition of the Israelites, before he guessed what could be done with it towards utterly destroying them. The world inflicts much spiritual mischief simply by doing its own things in its own way - pursuing, with energy and vivacity, its godless, mammon-worshipping, pleasure-loving path, and thus drawing towards it God's people, never sufficiently heedful of their steps, never sufficiently looking away from the world to Jesus. It is in the resources which the world does not consider that we are to look for the greatest dangers. Balak was simply counting the fighting men of Moab; the women he considered of no consequence. The world, it would seem, is given to despise its own weak ones as much as it despises the weak ones of the Church. God takes weak ones to do his work, but he takes them consciously, deliberately, and with well-ascertained ends, serviceable to the good of his people and the glory of his name. The world also has weak ones to do its work, but it knows not all they do or can do. The lustful daughters of Moab were more dangerous than a corps of Amazons, for they led Israel into idolatry, and that was even worse than if Israel's prime and strength had been stretched dead on some bloody field. Women have done untold and peculiar service in the Church; and what they have done is but a small part of their possible service, if they would only all waken to their powers and opportunities, and if they were only allowed to make full proof of them. The ill that these daughters of Moab did is the measure of the great good that truly Christian women may accomplish. Notice that all the daughters of Moab were not as these mentioned here. There was one daughter of Moab, not so many generations after, of a very different spirit - Ruth, the great-grandmother of David. - Y.
I. ZEAL FOR GOD.
1. The occasion on which it was shown. The people were passing through great suffering, as is evident from the mention of the weeping crowd before the tabernacle, and the great number who perished in the plague (verse 9) - a number much exceeding that in the great visitation of wrath after the rebellion of Korah. God himself had sentenced the leaders of the people to a peculiar and shameful death. The people had sinned, it would seem, even beyond their usual transgressions, and now they are being smitten in a way utterly to terrify and abase them. Yet Zimri, a man of high rank in Israel, and Cozbi, a woman of corresponding rank among her own people, choose this moment to commit a most audacious and shameless act in the presence of weeping Israel.
2. The person who showed this zeal. Phinehas, son of Eleazar the priest, and the man who in due time would become priest himself. He might have said, "Is it laid on me more than on any one else to become executioner of Heaven's wrath on this daring couple?" or, "Doubtless the Lord will signify his will concerning them." But holy indignation becomes his guide, and he rightly judges that this is an instance of presumptuous sin deserving immediate and terrible retribution. He shows here the true spirit of the servant of God in an office such as that for which he was in training. Those who had to do with the tabernacle as closely as the Aaronic family thereby professed to be nearer God than others. And if their service was anything more than a hollow form, then when the honour of Jehovah was peculiarly in question it was to be expected that his true servants would be correspondingly indignant. What would be thought of an ambassador who should listen cool, unmoved, and unresenting to the greatest insults upon the nation from which he had come? The act of Phinehas was not that of a common Israelite; there was not merely indignation because of Zimri's callous indifference to the sufferings and sorrows of his brethren; he was zealous for the Lord. It was daring, shameless sin which provoked his wrath; it was as if he looked to heaven in going forth and said, "Against thee, thee only have they sinned." To be easily tolerant in the presence of great sins shows a heart far from right towards God. Mere cynical observations on the frailties and eccentricities of fallen human nature do not fall with good grace from the lips of the Christian, however much they may consist with the conduct of a man of the world.
3. The way in which the zeal was shown. A violent and extreme measure certainly, but we are not allowed to judge it. God has taken judgment out of our hands by unmistakably indicating his approval. We must. distinguish between the spirit of the act and the outward mode of its commission. If the spirit and essence of the act be right, then the mode is a secondary matter. The mode largely depends on the times. Criminals were punished in England only a few centuries ago in ways which would not be tolerated now. What is wanted is that we should emulate the zeal of Phinehas without imitating the expression of it. One might almost say, better run a javelin through sinners than have that easy-going toleration for sins which some show who call themselves godly. If God is worth serving at all, he is worth serving with zeal. Zeal according to knowledge must be as free from mock-charity and humility on the one hand as from bigotry on the other. The more men there are in the Church of the stamp of Phinehas the better. There are even harder things to be done now-a-days than to thrust javelins through shameless fornicators. It needs a pure and fervent zeal to take one's stand with the few, or even alone, against all sorts of worldly principles and practices prevailing in what ought to be God's kingdom through Christ Jesus. When Paul withstood Peter to the face because he was to be blamed, he did something quite as hard as if he had run a javelin through him.
II. THE RESULT. The plague was stayed. A strange difference in method, is it not, from that adopted on the occasion when Moses commanded Aaron to take the censer and stand in the midst of the congregation, making atonement for them? (Numbers 16:46). Why was not something of this sort done now? Did Moses feel that it would be of no use, or was his tongue mysteriously stayed from the command? It is plain that Jehovah felt his honour was seriously in question. The people had actually bowed before idols. The chosen race is disintegrating within sight of the promised land. The patriotism of the theocracy is dead. The shout of a king (Numbers 23:21) is not met by the answering shout of confiding and grateful subjects. They have utterly forgotten that God is a jealous God (Exodus 20:5). Stay I there is one man at least, and he, be it marked, in the priestly succession, who does show an adequate jealousy against these idols, so suddenly and ungratefully exalted over against Jehovah. It is the act of only one man; but the act of one man rightly moved, full of holy indignation, energy, and heroism, is enough to stem Jehovah's wrath. Mark, it is not said that Phinehas did this in order to stop the plague. The narrative is evidently intended to convey the impression that what he did was in holy indignation at the slight put upon Jehovah. But a righteous action is never wanting in good results. The zeal of Phinehas for Jehovah stood as an atonement for the monstrous disobedience of Israel.
III. THE REWARD. The result was in itself a reward. To a man of the stamp of Phinehas it must surely have been no small joy to see the plague stayed. May we not presume that even the leaders escaped their doom, as in a most comprehensive amnesty? But there is a specified reward beside. Phinehas has shown his fitness to wear Aaron's robes; nay, in a sense he has worn them, seeing he has made atonement. The real reward for every one faithful to his present opportunity is to enlarge his opportunity and give him more and higher service. He who has the joy of faithfulness in present and perhaps humble duties cannot have a greater joy than that of faithfulness in all of larger and more conspicuous service that may come before him. Our Lord himself, being zealous for his Father on earth (which the formal and professed custodians of the Divine honour were not), cleansing his Father's house from profane and even unrighteous uses, was advanced to still higher service in the glorious opportunities belonging to a place at God's right hand. Among men there is lamentable waste, humiliating and ridiculous failure, because men are so seldom proportioned to the offices they fill. The fit man in the great multitude of instances does not seem to get his chance. But in God's service every one really gets his chance. Phinehas got his chance here. Everything depended on himself. The act was the outcome of his honest, fiery, devoted, godly heart. He had not to go to his father or to Moses, saying, "Think you I should do this thing?" If there is zeal in us, occasion will not be lacking. Phinehas had been required to show the zeal of the destroyer, and it proved to be also the zeal of the preserver. We have to be zealous for a God who is not only righteous and holy, and jealous of rivalry from any other god whatsoever, but also loving, and who desires not the death of a sinner. The zeal that can do nothing but protest, denounce, and destroy, God will never approve or reward. The becoming, fruitful, and praiseworthy zeal under the gospel is that which, following in the train of Paul, is all things to all men in order to save some. - Y.
I. THE NATION WHICH GOD HAD BLESSED, CURSED THROUGH ITS OWN SINS. The Israelites, impregnable against the curses of Balaam, succumb to his wiles. We discover parts of a plot. In the foreground are women (true daughters of Eve the tempter), alluring feasts, flatteries, idolatries. In the background we discern the malignant face of the covetous Balaam (Numbers 31:16; Revelation 2:14), and behind him his master the devil. Learn to discriminate the seen and unseen agents of temptation (Ephesians 6:12), and to guard against the devices of our diabolical foe (2 Corinthians 2:11; 2 Corinthians 11:14, 15). Sin did what Balaam could not do. The wrath of God, the plague on the thousands of Israelites, the execution of the ringleaders, follow in quick succession. Note the destructiveness of sin. Of every sinner it may be said as of Achan, "That man perished not alone in his iniquity." The guilt of the nation reached its climax in the shamelessness and audacity of the sin of Zimri. While shame, one of the precious relies of paradise, survives, there is more hope of restoration, but when shame is gone, sin is ripe for judgment (Jeremiah 5:7-9; Jeremiah 6:15). If God's wrath had continued to burn, the whole nation must have perished.
II. THE WRATH REMOVED BY A TERRIBLE ATONEMENT.
1. The essence of it was not an outward act, but a state of heart. It was Phinehas' zeal for God which made the act possible and acceptable. Just so in the atonement, of a very different character, made by the Lord Jesus Christ, the essence of it was the zeal for the will of God which prompted the obedience unto death, the offering of the body of Christ once for all (Hebrews 10:5-10).
2. The form of the atonement was a terrible manifestation of the righteousness of God in the prompt punishment of the two audacious transgressors. They expiated their crime by their lives. Phinehas' conduct, being inspired by godly zeal, is justified by God himself. Instead of being treated as a crime, it is regarded as a covering over of the nation's sin. Where that sin reached its climax, there it received such sudden retribution as to stamp it as an abominable thing which God hates. Zimri and his paramour are branded with eternal infamy, while Phinehas is rewarded by "the covenant of an everlasting priesthood." We learn thus that there is more than one way of making an atonement to God. In both cases it is by the manifestation of the righteousness of God (Romans 3:21, 25), but in different ways.
1. By his holy wrath flaming forth against sin, whether immediately (e.g., Joshua 7:11, 12) or through the zeal of a man of God. The weeping of the people was not an atonement, for it did not manifest the righteousness of God as the act of Phinehas did.
2. By his righteous grace allowing another to interpose on behalf of sinners, to do or to suffer whatever God sees needful for a manifestation of his righteousness in the covering over of sin. Thus Moses (Exodus 32:30-33) and Paul (Romans 9:3) were willing to have made atonement, if possible. Thus the sinless Son of God did atone (Romans 3:21-26), and sin is covered not by the destruction of the sinner, but by the righteous pardon of penitents trusting the atonement of Christ. - P.