And if you have erred, and not observed all these commandments, which the LORD has spoken to Moses,…
Some sins are more heinous in the sight of God than others; more heinous in their own nature, or by reason of aggravating circumstances. The distinction is familiar to all. Murder is a sin more heinous in the sight of God and man than petty theft. Armed rebellion against just authority is a greater sin than heedless omission to pay due honour and courtesy to a superior in office. Yet old and familiar as the distinction is, it is one in connexion with which men have often fallen into mischievous error. Hence the value of texts like this in Numbers, which throw light upon it.
I. Observe How THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN GREATER AND LESSER SINS IS HERE STATED.
1. Some sins are described as sins of ignorance. The reference is to faults that are due to error or inadvertence. We all know, to our cost, how liable we are to these. Never a day passes but we omit duty and commit faults, either because we knew no better, or because we were "off our guard" and stumbled before we were aware. These are sins of infirmity, such as cleave to the best of men in the present life.
2. Other sins are done presumptuously. (Literally, "with a high hand.") The matter is one about which there is no dubiety; the person knows well what is right and what is wrong; knowing this, he deliberately and purposely does the wrong. He offends against light, conviction, conscience. This is presumptuous sin. I have said that the distinction between greater and lesser sins is old and familiar. Turning to any Roman Catholic book of devotion, you will find tables in which are enumerated respectively the "mortal sins" and the "venial sins." That is one way of describing the two classes. I very much prefer the terms employed here in God's word. And the superior wisdom of God is to be seen not only in the fitter terms employed, but also in the absence of any attempt, here or elsewhere in the Bible, to give a tabular enumeration of the sins belonging to either class. For one thing, a correct distribution is impossible. The same act which, in ordinary circumstances, one might deem trivial, may in other circumstances be a most heinous crime; whereas what seems a heinous crime may be found to have been committed in circumstances so extenuating, that you hesitate to pronounce it a crime at all. Besides, the distribution, if it were possible to be made, could only do mischief. It is not good for men to be trying to find out how near they may go to the line which separates sins of infirmity from presumptuous sins, without actually passing over. The Bible refuses to give help in that sort of study. It indicates the quality which aggravates offences, so that we may learn to fear it and keep as far off from it as we can.
II. Observe THE LAW WHICH IS LAID DOWN WITH REFERENCE TO THE TWO KINDS OF SIN.
1. When the party - whether it be the congregation or an individual Israelite - who has sinned inadvertently becomes aware of the sin, a sin-offering is to be presented with the accustomed rites, and the sin will be forgiven (verses 24, 25, 27, 28). The point to be noted here is, that however much the sin may have been due to mere ignorance or inadvertence, the law demanded satisfaction; that is to say, Transgression of God's law is transgression still, though done through mere heedlessness or error. Ignorance and heedlessness may extenuate, but they do not justify; nor do they exempt from suffering the consequences of evil doing. Nor ought this to be deemed strange or harsh. The same principle prevails in human governments. A transgressor does not escape the penalties annexed to his acts because he did not know they were forbidden, or because he acted recklessly. It is a mischievous abuse of the distinction between sins, if occasion is taken from it to make light of any sin. Remember that all sin is, in its own nature, mortal. Paul persecuted "ignorantly and in unbelief;" yet, for having persecuted, he reckoned himself the chief of sinners.
2. As for the presumptuous transgressor, the law holds out to him no hope (verses 30, 31). The reference, no doubt, is, in the first instance, to deliberate violations of the Mosaic constitution - the refusal to accept circumcision, or celebrate the Passover, or observe the Sabbatic rest. For such offences no sacrifice was provided. The person forfeited his place in the covenant society. But this part of the law, like the former part, has an ultimate reference to offences considered as strictly moral. It suggests lessons regarding all deliberate and presumptuous sins. It is a most striking and significant fact, that for such sins the law of Moses provided no sacrifice. What are we to make of this?
(1) It may remind us that there is such a thing as "a sin unto death," and for which "there remaineth no more sacrifice" (Hebrews 10:26, 27; 1 John 5:16). We believe, indeed, that no penitent, however heinous his sin, will be turned away from God's door unforgiven; but there are dark admonitory texts of Scripture, of which this in Numbers is one, which distinctly warn us that God's mercy will not be trifled with; that there is a point to which, if men go, in resisting the testimony of God's word and Spirit in their consciences, the Spirit will withdraw and give them over to hardness and impenitence.
(2) But there is a brighter side of the matter. "By Christ all that believe are justified from all things, from which they could not be justified by the law of Moses" (Acts 13:39). David's great crime was a "presumptuous sin." The law prescribed no sacrifice for it. The law could suggest to him no hope. What then? He remembered the name of the Lord which was enshrined in the Pentateuch side by side with the law (Exodus 34:6). He confessed and was forgiven. - In Psalm 19 there occur a remarkable succession of meditations and prayers which, to all appearance, were suggested originally by this law in Numbers, and which may be taken as expressing the thoughts and exercises to which the study of it gave birth in the soul of David. At all events, they so perfectly indicate the practical use to be made of the law that they cannot be too earnestly commended to your consideration. "Who can understand his errors? (Who can make sure that he has noted, or can remember and confess his sins in this kind?) Cleanse thou me from secret faults." "Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me: then shall I be upright, and I shall be innocent from the great transgression." - B.
Parallel VersesKJV: And if ye have erred, and not observed all these commandments, which the LORD hath spoken unto Moses,