Numbers 31
Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
In two of his prophecies Balaam had been compelled to speak of Israel as the lion (Numbers 23:24; Numbers 24:9). We now behold, in the destruction of Midian, the rousing of the lion-spirit. Something of it had been seen already in the conduct of Phinehas (chapter 25), and now there is a manifestation on a larger scale in the achievement of these 12,000 men.

I. THE COMPLETENESS OF THE DESTRUCTION. All the males of Midian were slain, and the five kings are particularly mentioned as being among them. The women and their little ones were taken captive. The whole of their property was turned into spoil, and how large that spoil was we learn from the latter part of the chapter. Their cities and goodly castles were all burnt. And might not this seem destruction enough? Apparently not; for we read that Moses was wroth because the women had been spared, and they, as well as all the males of the little ones, had to be added to the slain. Thus the impression left upon us, and evidently intended to be left, is that of utter and merciless extermination. None were left to continue the race of Midian.

II. THE INSPIRATION OF THIS DREADFUL BLOW WAS EVIDENTLY FROM GOD. It was undertaken at his command, and not only so, but laid on Moses as his last great service before his departure.

"Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done." Midian did not lie in the way of advancing Israel, as did the hosts of Sihon and Og. In one sense Israel had to turn out of its way in order to inflict this blow. We need to keep distinctly before our minds that God gave special command and made special preparation for it. The motive of this act is not to be found in the vindictive spirit of a half-savage people. The wrongs which, by natural disposition, they would have burned to avenge were not such as those inflicted by Midian. In truth there is no occasion either for blame anywhere, or for attempt at palliation. We must read this dreadful record in a spirit of humble submission to the authority of God, who sees need for temporal destruction where we may fail to see it.

III. That this blow came from God is made still clearer as we consider how HIS POWER GAVE THE BLOW ITS EFFICACY. Observe how small a part of the whole army was required - about a fiftieth, There is no mention of a selected company to engage against Sihon and Og, but now this small force is enough to crush the whole of Midian. If Israel had gone forth of its own accord, it would have made the result as sure as possible by taking a far larger force than actually went. But where God is not present he can turn mere numbers into loss rather than gain. It was an occasion for the excellency of the Divine power to be manifested. No actual leader is mentioned. Moses sent them forth, and on their return he went out to meet them, but they evidently lacked what inspiration his presence and counsel might give them in the field. Phinehas went with them, but he was in charge of the holy instruments and trumpets. We are made to feel that the invisible Jehovah himself was leader, not only directing the attack, but also providing sufficient defense; for when the officers came to count up the army on its return, they were able to say, "There lacketh not one man of us."

IV. THE REASON FOR THIS DREADFUL DESTRUCTION IS FOUND IN THE PECULIAR INJURY WHICH MIDIAN HAD DONE TO ISRAEL (Numbers 25:16-18). It must needs be that offences come, but woe to the Midianites through whom they come! Although they were not a very difficult people to defeat and destroy in battle, they had been very powerful to tempt Israel into idolatry. A thing which is comparatively easy to deal with in one way is impossible to deal with in another. Israel could annihilate Midian, and do something in that way to secure safety, but there was no chance of safety in having friendly intercourse with Midian. It had to be dealt with as a people saturated with the infecting corruptions of idolatry. Everything had to bend to the interests of Israel, as both typifying and cradling the Church of the future. For the sake of Israel God plagued and spoiled the tyrannous Egyptians; for the sake of Israel he made one whole generation of its own people to perish in the wilderness. What wonder then that for the sake of Israel he utterly destroyed the Midianite tempters! When a fire is extending it may be necessary to pull down other buildings to stop it - many buildings perhaps, as Evelyn tells us was the case in arresting the great fire of London. There is something very significant in the following sentence from his diary: - "This some stout seamen proposed early enough to have saved nearly the whole city, but this some tenacious and avaricious men, aldermen, &c., would not permit, because their houses must have been of the first." There may have to be a great deal of temporal destruction to make sure of eternal salvation. - Y.

I. How CLEAR IT IS MADE THAT BALAAM DID NOT DIE THE DEATH OF THE RIGHTEOUS! He was slain among those who were slain by the vengeance of God. He might, of course, have died in circumstances more peaceful and less indicative of his wickedness, and yet died the death of the wicked all the same. But now the manner of his end is left in no doubt. He had not only suffered himself to be drawn into opposition to the people of God, he had not only been disobedient to God himself, but it seems that he had been the chief provoking agent in bringing destruction on a portion of the present generation of Israel. Moreover, the very people whom he thought to help he had unconsciously led to their own ruin. He certainly could not have done all this if he had not found the materials ready to hand - actual idolatry in Midian, and the spirit of lust and idolatry in Israel. But it was he who saw with a sort of Satanic quickness all that could be done with the material. A man cannot cause an explosion unless he has explosive substances to deal with, but we reckon him responsible who applies the exploding agent. One sinner not only destroyeth much good, but, as we see here, produceth much evil Wicked men should learn from the history of Balaam that they may do a great deal more harm than they are conscious of. How much better it is to be on the other side, striving to draw men, even though it be with few apparent results, into the paths of purity, self-denial, and love!

II. FROM THE CHARACTER OF BALAAM WE SEE HOW REAL AND DESPERATE SPIRITUAL INSENSIBILITY MAY BE. Rightly considered, the whole conduct of Balaam is a great deal more perplexing than is the speaking of his ass. There we have to do just with the momentary occupation of the vocal organs of a brute by the speech of a human being. For a moment or two the ass was honoured beyond its natural faculties. But here is a man, raised above other men in many respects, acting in a way most humiliating to humanity. Favoured again and again with light which came to him in different ways, he remained in gross darkness with respect to the character of God as a whole. He saw not the folly, the absurdity, of the path in which he was treading. The conduct of Balaam in the essential principles of it /ms often been repeated, and is being repeated still. We are all spiritually blind unless God be pleased to open our eyes. Seeing the things of God by the light of nature, and judging of them by natural reason, we come to some strange and impotent conclusions. Balaam's indifference to the interferences of God is not one whit more marvelous than the unmoved, matter-of-fact way in which we can bear to have truths presented to our minds which, if they concern us to any extent, concern us more than all outward circumstances taken together. It is easy to say as one reads of Balaam, "What a fool! what an enigma! what a bundle of contradictions! what a mixture in his life of unwilling obedience to God and most obstinate persistence in his own path!" Take care lest it be said to one thus speaking, "Thou art the man." There is not a man of the world living in a land of open Bibles but whose conduct might be so described as to appear quite as perplexing as that of Balaam here.

III. A MAN MAY ENJOY GREAT PRIVILEGES, AND YET BE RUINED AT LAST. A seeing man may be quite safe in a dangerous path, and on the darkest night, with a little lamp, if it is enough to show him where his feet are to be placed. But a blind man will fall into the pit by noonday. A firmament radiant with a score of suns would avail nothing to such a one. A man may live in a land of Bibles, churches, and every conceivable variety of gospel ministrations, and yet die, after a long contact with all these, knowing nothing of his own state as a sinner, or of the power of Christ as a Saviour. Another man, in the midst of Africa, with no more than a torn leaf of the New Testament, might come to know the one thing needful, and be effectually led to repentance, faith, salvation, and eternal life. Privileges, as we call them, are nothing in themselves; all depends on how they are received. It was the same seed that was sown in the four different kinds of ground. One seed sown in the good ground will bring forth more than a cartload scattered by the wayside.

IV. BALAAM KNEW JUST ENOUGH OF THE TRUTH TO MISLEAD HIM, NOT ENOUGH TO LEAD HIM RIGHT. He apprehended the real power of Jehovah without apprehending his character as a whole. He had made the discovery that if Israel fell away into the worship of any other god, it would be very severely dealt with. Doubtless he had found his way into some intercourse with the Israelites, and been made acquainted with their past history, particularly with the commandment of God at Sinai against idolatry, and the sufferings which came upon the people because of the golden calf. But he did not know that in the midst of the most faithless and apostate of generations there would still be preserved a faithful seed; he did not reckon on the energetic and efficacious zeal of a Phinehas. And thus the great mischief to many arises not so much from total indifference to God as from misleading conceptions of him. It is only too easy for us to miss the full view which a sinner ought to have of God, and remain all our lifetime with erroneous and most limited conceptions. Some make too much of God's anger with sin, forgetting his love, his mercy, his patience, his revelation of himself as a Father; others make too much of his mercy, forgetting his unyielding righteousness, and the need of a radical change in man - a change in his motives, purposes, sympathies, and delights. Nothing is more perilous than to see so much of one side of the Divine character as not to see the rest. We must see it as it is revealed in Scripture. There the living God moves before us in his actions. We see his actions, and they cannot be understood unless as the harmonious outflow of all his character. - Y.

I. GOD TAKES THE DISTRIBUTION INTO HIS OWN HANDS. The victory was his, and it was for him to arrange the spoils as might best serve his own purposes. It was the only effectual way of blighting in the bud all discord and jealousy. It was also the means of teaching important lessons to all in the community who were willing to learn. It helped to manifest afresh the unity of Israel. Those who had gone to the war had gone as representatives of the whole of Israel, hence it was for the whole of Israel to share in the spoil. While part was away, avenging the Lord of Midian, another part stayed at home, also serving God in its own way, and looking after the interests of those who were absent. We must not get into the way of looking at one part of the community as more necessary than another. It was not for the army to say, "What would Israel have done in taking vengeance on Midian but for us?" seeing that God had made it plain how he was working in and through the army. Nor was it for the people who stayed at home to say, "What right have twelve thousand men to half the spoils?" The twelve thousand were not looked at in themselves; they stood for Israel militant. All Israel gained a real blessing by this expedition, and the chief gain to them was in so far as they were effectually warned against the perils of idolatry. Whatever there might be in the way of improved perception of truth and duty and the Divine character was far more than all the spoil. God did not send them against Midian for the sake of the spoil, but for the sake of vengeance.

II. THE SPECIAL TRIBUTE TO THE LEVITES. It was very appropriate that this should be strictly exacted, after all the service which Phinehas had rendered. The tribe of Levi had done its part in a way which could not be mistaken. Upon this great occasion, when so much had to be distributed, God taught the lesson that distribution should be made according to the needs of men. The Levites had need not only to be supported, but well supported. The work they had to do, in the reality, the extent, the continuity, and the minuteness of it, had been lately indicated in more ways than one. Consider all the Levitical service that was involved in the offerings mentioned in chapters 28 and 29. It was becoming more and more clear that Levi must be set apart and properly maintained; for thus only could there be regularity and efficiency in the service of God.

III. BALAAM'S ASS WAS PROBABLY AMONG THE ASSES THAT WERE TAKEN (verse 34). It is pleasant to imagine that it may have found its way into the Lord's tribute, and that the animal which had so long borne a wicked man faithfully, would now with equal faithfulness be able to bear perhaps Eleazar himself. We need much of the spirit of obedience to God to use rightly that vast multitude of the brute creation which God has put under our control. How pitiable to see the horse carefully trained for war, and, as one might almost think, taught to cherish feelings which by nature are alien to it! May we not well wish for the day when not only the sword of the dragoon shall be turned to the ploughshare, but the horse on which he tides shall draw that share along? Think how the horse and other animals are degraded by the occasions for gambling which they furnish. Think of all the cruel field-sports in which man finds such pleasure. When be leaves the pleasures which are appropriate to his nature, what a tyrannous and hideous monster he may become! Man in all his life should be drawing nearer to God, and, rising higher himself, should raise all creation with him. Whereas he is drawn downward, and in his willing descent he degrades even the lower creation. - Y.

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