|Matthew Henry's Concise Commentary|
25:16-18 We read not that any Midianites died of the plague; God punished them with the sword of an enemy, not with the rod of a father. We must set ourselves against whatever is an occasion of sin to us, Mt 5:29,30. Whatever draws us to sin, should be a vexation to us, as a thorn in the flesh. And none will be more surely and severely punished than those who, after Satan's example, and with his subtlety, tempt others to sin.
Verse 17. - Vex the Midianites. The Moabites, although the evil began with them, were passed over; perhaps because they were still protected by the Divine injunction (Deuteronomy 2:9) not to meddle with them; more probably because their sin had not the same studied and deliberate character as the sin of the Midianites. We may think of the women of Moab as merely indulging their individual passions after their wonted manner, but of the women of Midian as employed by their rulers, on the advice of Balsam, in a deliberate plot to entangle the Israelites in heathen rites and heathen sins which would alienate from them the favour of God. NOTE ON THE ZEAL OF PHINEHAS. The act of Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, in slaying Zimri and Cozbi is one of the most memorable in the Old Testament; not so much, however, in itself, as in the commendation bestowed upon it by God. It is unquestionably surprising at first sight that an act of unauthorized zeal, which might so readily be made (as indeed it was made) the excuse for deeds of murderous fanaticism, should be commended in the strongest terms by the Almighty; that an act of summary vengeance, which we find it somewhat hard to justify on moral grounds, should be made in a peculiar sense and in a special degree the pattern of the great atonement wrought by the Saviour of mankind; but this aspect of the deed in the eyes of God by its very unexpectedness draws our attention to it, and obliges us to consider wherein its distinctive religious character and excellence lay. It is necessary in the first place to point out that the act of Phinehas did really receive stronger testimony from God than any other act done proprio motu in the Old Testament. What he did was not done officially (for he held no office), nor was it clone by command (for the offenders were not under his jurisdiction as judge), nor in fulfillment of any revealed law or duty (for no blame would have attached to him if he had let it alone), and yet it had the same effect in staying the plague as the act of Aaron when he stood between the living and the dead with the hallowed fire in his hand (see on Numbers 16:46-48). Of both it is said that "he made an atonement for the people," and so far they both appear as having power with God to turn away his wrath and stay his avenging hand. But the atonement made by Aaron was official, for he was the anointed high priest, and, being made with incense from the sanctuary, it was mate in accordance with and upon the strength of a ceremonial law laid down by God whereby he had bound himself to exercise his Divine right of pardon. The act of Phinehas, on the contrary, had no legal or ritual value; there is no power of atonement in the blood of sinners, nor had the death of 24,000 guilty people had any effect in turning away the wrath of God from them that survived. It remains, therefore, a startling truth that the deed of Phinehas is the only act neither official nor commanded, but originating in the impulses of the actor himself, to which the power of atoning for sin is ascribed in the Old Testament: for although in 2 Samuel 21:3 David speaks of making an atonement by giving up seven of Saul's sons, it is evident from the context that the "atonement" was made to the Gibeonites, and not directly to the Lord. Again, the act of Phinehas merited the highest reward from God, a reward which was promised to him in the most absolute terms. Because he had clone this thing he should have God's covenant of peace, he and his seed after him, even the covenant of an everlasting priesthood. This promise must mean that he and his seed should have power with God for ever to make peace between heaven and earth, and to make reconciliation for the sins of the people; and, meaning this, it is a republication in favour of Phinehas, and in more absolute terms, of the covenant made with Levi as represented by Aaron (see on Malachi 2:4, 5). Nor is this all. In Psalm 106:31 it is said of his deed that "it was counted unto him for righteousness unto all generations forevermore." This word "counted" or "imputed" is the same (חָשַׁב) which is used of Abraham in Genesis 15:6, and the very words of the Septuagint here (ἐλογίσθη αὐτῷ εἰς δικαιοσύνην) are applied to the obedience of Abraham in James 2:23. It appears then that righteousness was imputed to Phinehas, as to the father of the faithful, with this distinction, that to Phinehas it was imputed as an everlasting righteousness, which is not said of Abraham. Now if we compare the two, it must be evident that the act of Phinehas was not, like Abraham's, an act of self-sacrificing obedience, nor in any special sense an act of faith. While both acted under the sense of duty, the following of duty in Abraham's case put the greatest possible strain upon all the natural impulses of mind and heart; in the case of Phinehas it altogether coincided with the impulses of his own will. If faith was imputed to Abraham for righteousness, it is clear that zeal was imputed to Phinehas for righteousness for evermore. This being so, it is necessary in the second place to point out that the act in question (like that of Abraham in sacrificing his son) was distinctly one of moral virtue according to the standard then Divinely allowed. An act which was in itself wrong, or of doubtful rectitude, could not form the ground for such praise and promise, even supposing that they really looked far beyond the act itself. Now it is clear
(1) that under no circumstances would a similar act be justifiable now;
(2) that no precedent could be established by it then.
The Jews indeed feigned a "zealot-right," examples of which they saw (amongst others) in the act of Samuel slaying Agag (1 Samuel 15:33), of Mattathias slaying the idolatrous Jew and the king's commissioner (1 Macc. 2:24-26), of the Sanhedrim slaying St. Stephen. But the last-mentioned case is evidence enough that in the absence of distinct Divine guidance zeal is sure to degenerate into fanaticism, or rather that it is impossible to distinguish zeal from fanaticism. Every such act must of necessity stand upon its own merits, for it can only be justified by the coexistence of two conditions which are alike beyond human certainty:
(1) that the deed is itself in accordance with the will of God;
(2) that the doing of it is inspired by motives, absolutely pure.
That Christ came to save men's lives, and that God would have all men to repent, has made for us the primary condition impossible, and therefore the act of Phinehas would be immoral now. No one may take life unless he has the mandate of the State for doing' so. But it was not so then; God was the King of Israel, and the foes of Israel were the foes of God, with whom there could be no peace or amity as long as they threatened the very existence of God's people and worship. The Israelite who indulged in sinful intercourse with a heathen was a rebel against his King and a traitor to his country; he became ipso facto an "outlaw," to slay whom was the bounden duty of every true patriot. If it be said that this view of things belongs to an inferior code of morality, which ignored the universal brotherhood of men and Fatherhood of God, that is admitted at once. The elder revelation founded itself plainly and avowedly upon the moral law as then universally held (and by no means supplanted yet by the higher law of Christ), that men were to love their brethren and hate their enemies. To complain that the act of Phinehas was moral in a Jewish and not in a Christian sense is only to find fault with God for suffering a confessedly imperfect and preparatory morality to do its work until the fullness of time was come. While, therefore, we recognize the act of Phinehas as one determined, in its outward form, by the imperfect morality of the dispensation under which he lived, it is necessary to look below the act to the spirit which animated it for its permanent value and significance. That spirit is clearly defined by the testimony of God - "while he was zealous with my zeal." The excellence of Phinehas was, that he was filled with a zeal which was itself Divine against sin, and that he acted fearlessly and promptly (whilst others apparently hesitated even when commanded) under the impulse of that zeal; in other words, what pleased God so greatly was to see his own hatred of sin, and his own desire to make it to cease, reflected in the mind and expressed in the deed of one who acted upon righteous impulse, not under any command or constraint. It is impossible, in the third place, not to see that this record throws a flood of light upon the doctrine of the atonement; for the act of Phinehas stands, in some respects, upon a higher level than all the types and shadows of the cross which had gone before; being neither an act of submission to a definite command, like the sacrifice of Isaac, nor a piece of ordered ritual, like the sending forth of the goat for Azazel; but a spontaneous deed, having a moral value of its own. Partly at least for the sake of what it was, not merely what it showed in a figure, it was accepted as an atonement for the sin of Israel (which was very gross), and was imputed to its author for an everlasting righteousness. Phinehas, therefore, in one very important sense, would seem to bear a stronger resemblance to our Lord in his atoning work than any other person in the Old Testament. It may therefore be submitted that we must seek the truest ground of the atonement wrought by Christ not in the simple fact of the passion and death of the God-man, nor in the greatness or value of his sufferings as such; but in that zeal for God, that Divine indignation against sin as the opposite of God, that consuming desire to cause it to cease, which first animated the life of the Redeemer, and then informed his death. Phinehas in his measure, and according to his lights, was governed by the same Spirit, and surrendered himself to the prompting of the same Spirit, by which Christ offered himself without spot unto God. And that Spirit was the Spirit of a consuming zeal, wherein our Lord hastened with an entire eagerness of purpose (Luke 12:50; John 2:17; John 12:27, 28, &c.) to "condemn sin in the flesh" and so to glorify God, and to accomplish the object of his mission (Romans 8:3), not by the summary execution of individual sinners, but after an infinitely higher fashion, by the sacrifice of himself as the representative of the whole sinful race. Lastly, it must be noted that as the act of Phinehas enables us, almost more than anything else, to enter into the nature of our Lord's atonement, so it is only in the light of that atonement that we can justify to ourselves either the strength of the Divine commendation accorded to Phinehas, or the vastness of the promises made to him. For the deed was after all an act of violence, and a dangerous precedent, humanly speaking; and, on the other hand, the covenant of peace given to him and to his seed, even the covenant of an everlasting priesthood, failed to give any peace at all, save in a very broken and partial manner, and did not even continue in the keeping of his family. As the house of Eleazar was the elder of the two descended from Aaron, it would have been only natural that the high priestly dignity should remain with its members; as a fact, however, it passed to the house of Ithamar from the days of Eli until Solomon, for political reasons, deposed Abiathar in favour of Zadok; and it was lost for ever with the final fall of Jerusalem. As in so many cases, therefore, we have to acknowledge that the act of Phinehas was accepted as an atonement for the sake of that truer atonement which (in a remarkable sense) it anticipated; and that the promises given to Phinehas were only partially intended and partially fulfilled for him, while the true and eternal fulfillment was reserved for him of whom Phinehas was a figure. To Christ, in whom was combined an entire zeal against sin and an entire love for the sinner, was indeed given God's covenant of peace and an everlasting priesthood.
Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible
Vex the Midianites, and smite them. Go to war with them, and smite them with the sword; not the Moabites, but the Midianites, though they were both confederates against Israel; but God had given a charge not to contend in battle with Moab, Deuteronomy 2:9, they were spared for the sake of Lot, from whom they sprang; and, as Jarchi says, for the sake of Ruth, who was to come from them; and so in the Talmud (l); though they did not entirely escape the divine resentment, as appears from Deuteronomy 23:3 but the Midianites were the first that advised to send for Balaam, and with them he stayed and was entertained, after he had been dismissed by Balak; and it seems as if it was to them he gave the wicked counsel, to draw Israel into fornication, and so into idolatry, and thereby bring the curse of God upon them; which advice they communicated to the Moabites, and both were concerned in putting it into execution; see Numbers 22:4.
(l) T. Bab. Bava Kama, fol. 38. 2.
Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary
17. Vex the Midianites, and smite them—They seem to have been the most guilty parties. (Compare Nu 22:4; 31:8).
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