Numbers 32
Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
This common proverb, so limited in the scope of its application, and so liable to be misused by timid and selfish people, is clearly illustrated in the conduct of these two tribes. Doubtless it is a sound principle to hold a small certainty rather than run the bare chance of a large possibility. But principles are nothing unless we rightly apply them, and the children of Reuben and Gad were forsaking the most certain and enduring of all precious things, and leaning to their own frail understanding. It is a poor exchange to leave the path of Divine providence for that of purblind human prudence. CONSIDER HERE THE MISTAKEN PRACTICAL NOTIONS BY WHICH REUBEN AND GAD WERE LED INTO THIS REQUEST.

1. An exaggerated estimate of the importance of temporal possessions. Reuben and Gad had a great multitude of cattle; the lands of Jazer and Gilead were places for cattle; and so the way is straight to the conclusion that these lands were the proper habitation of these tribes. It is the man of the world's view that the place which is good for one's property must be good for oneself, seeing that a man's abundance is in the things he possesses. The thought of the cattle so filled the minds of the two tribes that they could give no weight whatever to any other consideration. How hardly shall they that have riches enter the kingdom of heaven! That faith which is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen finds no room to grow in a heart choked up with the care of this world and the deceitfulness of riches. At this time, indeed, Reuben and Gad had many cattle, but it by no means followed that they would always have cattle. Job had many cattle, but in a few hours Sabeans and Chaldeans swept them all away. Consider well the thoughts that filled the mind of Lot (Genesis 13:10), as illustrating the foolish, partial, and short-sighted views of the children of Reuben and Gad. The Dead Sea was no great distance from these very lands of Jazer and Gilead.

2. They acted on the presumption that a man is himself the best judge of his own interests. They did not stop to consider that if God had meant this territory for them, he would have indicated his meaning in unmistakable fashion. He had made no sign, and this was in itself a proof that he judged their true home to be on the Canaan side of Jordan. It is the highest wisdom of man to wait, in simplicity and humility, on the indispensable directions of the All-Wise; even as the mariner finds his position by looking heavenward, and by the aid of the compass confidently finds his path across pathless waters. In an unfamiliar place you can gain no knowledge of the points of the compass by the minutest consideration of terrestrial circumstances, but get a glimpse of the sun and know the time of day, and the information is yours at once. The heavens declare the glory of God in this, that they never mislead us; and the God who made them is like them in ministering to the needs of our spirits. We cannot do without him. Instinct, so kind, so all-helpful to the brute, does little or nothing for us. God made us so that he might guide us with his eye. The great bulk of men act as these children of Reuben and Gad acted. The way of God, with all its real advantages, is yet so unpromising to the carnal eye that few there be who find it.

3. Especially they had forgotten that the purposes of God were to be the great rule of life to them. The great multitude of cattle was not theirs, but his. If they had made this proposition with a sense of stewardship in their minds, the proposition might have been not only excusable, but laudable. But the sense of stewardship was the very furthest of all feelings from their hearts. It is a late, a hard, and perhaps always an imperfect discovery, that a man only gains his right position when he manifests the glory of God. The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof. These people had not risen to the thought of Canaan as being the very best land simply because it was God's choice. Their minds were not full of Canaan, but of their own cattle. A great deal depends on our conception of heaven. If we think of it as the place and state where God is all in all, where law and life exactly correspond, and Christ is glorified in the perfection of all his people, then heaven is begun already. Caleb and Joshua had been waiting forty years for the promised land, yet in a certain sense it had been theirs all the time. It was not simple habitation that made Canaan a promised land, else the Canaanites would have been as blessed as the true Israel. Rightful possession, honest spiritual inheritance, these constituted the full and abiding enjoyment of Canaan. - Y.

I. MOSES APPEALS TO THE SENSE OF SHAME. They had been one nation until now. The suffering of one tribe had been the suffering of all. They had marched in company and fought in company; but now, when Reuben and Gad see what seems the main chance, they say, "We have found what we want, we need go no further." Often the only way of treating selfishness is to make it thoroughly ashamed of itself. If there is no loving sympathy in the heart to be appealed to, we must do our best by appealing to a sense of decency; we must ask the selfish, if they have nothing else to think of, to think a little of their own reputation. It was a very humiliating thing, if only Reuben and Gad had been able to see it, that Moses here made no appeal to high motives. He did not say, "Consider well, for your own sakes, what you propose to do; consider whether you are not seeking a mere present, external, paltry gain, and paving the way for a tremendous loss hereafter." He might so have spoken, but what would the answer have been? "We are ready to take the risk of that." And so he leaves unasked and undetermined the whole question of what Reuben and Gad's own interest might be. That came up again in due time, as it was bound to do (Joshua 22.). But there was a question bearing on the welfare of Israel which could not be postponed, and Moses sets it before the two tribes in a very direct way, neither repressing his just indignation nor softening his language. If men persist in taking a course which is hurtful to the real welfare of others, they must be whipped out of it by the readiest available means. There are only too many in the world who will do anything they can get others submissively to tolerate. Seemingly having no conscience of their own to speak of, they are dependent on the indignant, unsparing remonstrances of others. These remonstrances have to supply the place of conscience as best they can.

II. HE POINTS OUT A PROBABLE PERIL TO THE NATION. When an army is advancing to the attack, it is a serious thing if a sixth part of the whole shows signs of desertion and of want of interest in the desired victory. From patriots Reuben and Gad had sunk all at once into mere mercenaries. They had gone with the nation only as long as it seemed their interest to go. They could, without the slightest compunction, leave a great gap in the order of the camp round the tabernacle. They did not stop to consider how their desertion would affect the arrangements of the whole camp. Lukewarm, unspiritual, and self-indulgent Christians - if the name may be allowed where such qualities prevail - little think of the continual hindrances and discouragements they bring to struggling brethren. The Christian life is hard enough when there is the outside world to contend with, but how peculiar and how difficult to surmount are the perils that come from false brethren! Note how Moses bases his fear of this peril on an actual experience. If the words of the ten craven-hearted spies drove the whole of Israel into rebellion, and doomed a whole generation to die in the wilderness, then how great a danger was to be feared from the desertion of two whole tribes!

III. HE PLAINLY FIXES THE RISK OF THIS PERIL AND THE RESPONSIBILITY FOR IT UPON REUBEN AND GAD. It was not open to them to say, "All these gloomy chances that you foreshadow depend on the other tribes. They need not be discouraged. Canaan is just as attractive now as it was before. Our staying here can really make no difference." It is both cowardly and unavailing to try and escape responsibility by insisting on the personal responsibility of others. It is of no use to say that we do not wish others to look on us as leaders. We know that men wilt do it whether we wish it or not, and the very fact of this knowledge fixes on us a responsibility which we cannot escape. God makes use of this very disposition to follow which is: found in human nature for his own gracious purposes. Jesus says, "Follow me." And those who follow him find that some at least become followers of them. If the way in which we are going is a way into which others may be drawn to their ruin, then the way is at once condemned. No amount of individual prosperity, pleasure, and ease can compensate the destruction of others who have perished in a path which they never would have entered but for us. Offences must needs come, but the caution and the appeal remain: "Woe be to him through whom the offence comes." Better for every beast in the herds to perish in Jordan than for the obscurest in all Israel to be prevented from getting into Canaan. - Y.

I. REUBEN AND GAD DO NOT RESENT THE LANGUAGE OF MOSES. This is all the more noticeable because the language is so strong and humiliating. They seem to admit that his reproaches, his warnings, and his predictions had been only too clearly justified by their conduct. Learn from this that when there is occasion to express righteous anger, one must not begin to take counsel with the shallow maxims of worldly prudence. There is need in the service of God for great common sense, for far more of it than usually finds exercise, but there is no common sense where courage, straightforwardness, and the manly assertion of all Christian principles are absent. It is a very foolish thing to use strong language just by way of liberating the effervescence of the soul. But when strong language is deserved and the occasion demands the utterance of it, then do not spare. Moses might have said to himself, "This is a very ticklish state of affairs; if I do not humour these people they will certainly act according to their desire, whether I consent or not." Some leaders and so-called skilful managers and tacticians would have humoured Reuben and Gad at such a crisis as this. But it was not for Moses to humour anybody, or trifle with men who were trifling with God. And he had his immediate reward. "They came near unto him" (verse 16). You can see them almost cringing before Moses, fawning upon him in their eagerness to get their requests. His eye has pierced into their mean hearts, and they know it. They have not one word of defense to offer, not one protest against being so hardly dealt with. Learn then from the example of Moses here, and of Paul on more than one occasion, how to speak out when silence, or, what is worse, delicate picking and choosing of words, involves unfaithfulness to God. We must never be coarse, vindictive, abusive, or spiteful; but if we have a genuine concern for the good of men and the glory of God, he will put as it were his own word into our lips, so controlling language, tone, and features that it will be what his word always is, a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.

II. BUT THOUGH THEY DO NOT RESENT THE REBUKE OF MOSES, THEY HOLD TO THEIR ORIGINAL PURPOSE. So confident are they that they call this much-coveted ]and their inheritance. They cannot but feel the probing force of what Moses has said, but they are also quick to notice what he has omitted to say. If they had put their thoughts into speech they would have run somewhat like this: "He has been a shepherd himself, a practical man in flocks and herds, and of course he knows nicely that these lands for which we ask are just the place for our cattle. We shall hold to our choice, though it may involve a little more trouble and delay than we could have wished." Even when men are made to smart under a just, unanswerable rebuke they keep to their darling projects. They do not believe in their hearts, even though Christ says it, that one cannot serve God and mammon. Reuben and Gad mean to try the experiment of living east of Jordan, and yet keeping their place in the unity and the privileges of Israel.

III. THEY PROPOSE A RASH AND DIFFICULT COMPROMISE. The more we consider what they undertook to do, the more also we see their short-sighted policy. Mark their overweening self-confidence. They cannot risk the chance - which was indeed no chance at all, but a Divine certainty - of finding suitable pastures in Canaan, but they are quite willing to risk their families and flocks in fenced cities of the land they had chosen. Yet on their own admission fenced cities were no adequate security. The fighting men among them were going across Jordan to help in conquering a ]and where, as had been reported to their fathers, the cities were walled and very great (Numbers 13:28). There appears in their resolution a curious mixture of reasonable faith and rash self-confidence. They have learned enough to assure them that Canaan will be conquered, and they are quite ready to believe that in some unaccountable way their own dearest possessions will also be safe. Yet they did not really know how long they were to be absent. It seems to have been several years before they were allowed to return, and when they did return it was not with the unmingled self-congratulations which might have been expected. He who would ]earn how disastrous their choice turned out in the end must carefully consider Joshua 22. Most assuredly, whatever Reuben and Gad gained in pastures they more than lost in their permanent isolation from their brethren. - Y.

These words, though ultimately true of every sin, are spoken of actions which, going forth from us, perform their mischievous errands, but will come home again, bringing retribution with them. The Eastern proverb is true of crimes as well as curses: "Curses, like chickens, always come home to roost." God urges this truth as one out of many motives for strengthening us against allurements to sin. Sinners indulge vague hopes of impunity; they act as though they said, "The Lord shall not see," &c. (Psalm 94:7). But they cannot escape from sin. Lapse of time will not annihilate sin; careful concealment will not hide it up; mere repentance will not avert all its consequences. Nor will death screen from detection. We cannot escape from our sins -

I. BY LAPSE OF TIME. "Sin is the transgression of the law." It is a disturbing element, like a poison in the blood, or an error in a calculation as to the course of a ship. It is useless to say, "Let bygones be bygones" (cf. Psalm 50:21, 22 and Ecclesiastes 8:11). There is no "statute of limitations" in regard to the debt of sin. Illustrations: - Lot going to live in Sodom, and reaping domestic ruin years afterwards; Adoni-bezek (Judges 1:5-7); Saul's "bloody house" (2 Samuel 21:1).

II. CAREFUL CONCEALMENT. A sin may appear to be safely buried (like a murdered corpse), and grass may grow on the grave; but a resurrection awaits it. No immunity, because no concealment from God. In the law of Moses certain secret sins are mentioned which, through the ignorance or connivance of the judges, might escape punishment (Leviticus 17:10; Leviticus 20:1-6, &c.); but God himself threatens to be the executioner. Conscience may at last make further concealment impossible. (Confessions of murderers.) A sinner should stand in awe of himself and dread the spy within him. Or a strange combination of circumstances may bring the sin to light when detection seemed almost impossible. Illustration: - Dr. Doune finding a nail in a skull dug up in his churchyard. Apply Ecclesiastes 10:20 to the greater danger of sinning against God (Job 20:27; Ecclesiastes 12:14).

III. BY REPENTANCE. The penitent who trusts in Christ is forgiven; but a sin when committed may have put in motion a series of temporal results from which no subsequent repentance may be able wholly to deliver us; e.g., habits of dissipation, or single acts of passion or of falsehood. Illustrations: - Jacob's receiving in the course of his life ,6 the fruit of his doings" after having' wronged Esau and deceived Isaac; David, pardoned, yet followed by the consequences of his sin (2 Samuel 12:10-14). Thus God would make us wary of sin, as of a mad dog, or a poison that may lurk long in the system (Matthew 7:2). God's caution signals against sin.

IV. BY DEATH. After death, in the fullest sense, sin must find the transgressor out. There is a fearful contrast suggested by the benediction in Revelation 14:13: "Cursed are the dead that die in their sins; for they have no rest from their transgressions, but their guilt follows them." Think of being found out in that world where the prospect is of "eternal sin" (Mark 3:29). The only true salvation is from sin itself, assured to us through repentance and faith (Matthew 1:21; Titus 2:14). - P.

Be sure your sin will find you out.

I. THESE WORDS IMPLY THE POSSIBILITY OF SIN BEING COMMITTED. The particular danger in this instance was of breaking a promise. These words of Moses certainly imply a humiliating estimate of the persons addressed, but it must be admitted that the estimate was justified by past experience. Moses cannot quickly accept the promise, for he knows well how hastily and recklessly it is made. There was no occasion to cast any doubt on the sincerity of their words, or to attribute to them a deliberate purpose of deception. But there was everything in impending circumstances to lead them into a broken promise. The promise itself was hastily made. It was made not for its own sake, but under a kind of compulsion, in order to get hold of a much-coveted possession. The fulfillment of it was beset, as Moses well knew, with difficult conditions, ever tending to increase in difficulty. Moses himself would not be with them across the Jordan, and when he had vanished from the scene, who else was to enforce with equal energy and authority the promise he had extolled? Moreover, the promise had been made on behalf of a heterogeneous crowd. Some of the better sort might be inclined to persevere in keeping it; others might only too readily make it an excuse that their leaders had promised without sufficiently consulting them. The great bulk had already shown themselves to he steeped in selfishness; were they likely then to stick at desertion, if only it could be managed with safety? It is a needful thing, even though it be a painful and humiliating one, to assert, as Moses did here, the weakness of human nature. When we form purposes which in themselves show the corruption and depravity of the human heart, we must not complain if we are dealt with in a humiliating fashion. And in our expectations from others we must ever make ready to meet with broken promises. Recollecting our own infirmities, we shall not be surprised at the many and sad consequences which come from the infirmities of our brethren. We should never fee] insulted when any one gives us a word of caution against effusive and extravagant promises. He is the wisest Christian who, while he promises least in the hearing of his fellow-men, is ever striving to carry out in practice, and to its fullest extent, all that his heart would lead him to perform.

II. THESE WORDS ALSO AFFIRM THE CERTAINTY THAT IF SIN IS COMMITTED THE SINNER WILL AT LAST BE MADE FULLY CONSCIOUS OF HIS SIN. There was much, as we have seen, to lead Reuben and Gad to break their promise. In addition to what has already been mentioned, there was this as a possible consideration - that they might be able to break the promise with impunity. Indeed, from this solemn warning of Moses we may infer that he looked upon some such thought as likely to gain dominion in their minds. When the time of difficulty and sore temptation came they might argue thus: "If we do return, who is to mark our return or hinder it? The other tribes (perhaps hard beset in their conflict with the Canaanites) can do nothing against us. Moses is gone." They may have had it in their thoughts, after making the promise, that it would be enough to cross the river, wish their brethren God-speed, and then return. "They will understand our position, and not be so hard on us as Moses is. If they are willing that we should just go across, and then return, what can there be to make complaint about?" But Moses evidently meant them to keep their promise to the full. To break it was not only unbrotherly and ungrateful to the other tribes who had done so much for them; it was, he says with great emphasis, a sin against God, and in due time it would come back to them revealed as such, with all its dreadful consequences.

1. We have a timely warning to those who are entering the paths of sin. As it is true that God would have those who in their young enthusiasm and devotion propose to enter his service to consider well what it is that he asks, so it is equally true that he would have those who are beginning a life of sin to consider well what the end will be. These are the words of an old and long-observant man, one who had lived unusually near to God. They are spoken out of the fullness of his experience, lie had seen sin revealed in all its enormity, and punished with the utmost severity. There must needs be in this world thousands of undetected crimes, thousands of accused persons acquitted not because they are innocent, but for lack of legal evidence. These failures come from the infirmities of men; but be sure of this, that they are failures only so far as men are concerned; not one evil-doer can escape God, though he may enjoy the pleasures and immunities of sin for a season. Sin may seem not to find men out while they are here, but it will be time enough by and by. Men must not despise the goodness and forbearance and long-suffering of God as if he were heedless of all their doings. The dresser of the vineyard who begged another year's reprieve for the fruitless fig-tree had marked its fruitlessness and anticipated its doom just as much as the man who owned the vineyard. We cannot too often recollect that the eye of God is on every unprofitable tree. The axe is laid to its roots, ready for use, if the use be compelled.

2. We have here a great comfort and stay to the people of God. The foolish, wicked man, making his proud and careless advances, says, "Doth God see?" Our answer, made not so much to him as to our own hearts, is, "God does see." lie sees every sinner in his course, his doom, and the opening of his eyes at last. How many there are in the world whom we feel sure to be wrong! We cannot, try as we may, feel anything else; we cannot but believe them to be villains at heart, veneered and varnished up with a show of religion and goodness to impose on the simpleminded. But to give free utterance to our thoughts would be counted uncharitable and censorious, and assuming to be better than other men. What a comfort then to feel that what we cannot do God will do at last! The wolf will be utterly stripped of all his sheep's clothing, after all his gormandizing and the warm, snug life he has lived so long; he will stand revealed in his true character, and become a gaunt, starving creature with all his opportunities of rapacity gone. "Found out at last" will be written on all those vain pretenders to a good and honourable life who at present fume and bluster and look unspeakably grieved when any of their actions are questioned in the slightest degree. And this, recollect, will be the crown of all other discoveries, that the sin of sinners will be made clear and unquestionable in their own eyes.

3. The practical lesson for you, O sinner, is, that instead of waiting for sin to find you out, you should try with all energy and expedition to find sin out. You know that though the Scriptures are full of references to it, there are, nevertheless, the greatest misapprehensions with respect to it. What a terrible thing it is to mock God by an outward and conventional confession of sin, and then go away to sin as much as before! It is one thing to join the customary crowd in saying, "We have sinned;" quite another to have an individual, searching, agonizing experience such as we find in Psalm 51. Find out what sin is, its reality, its magnitude, and how it stands behind all secondary causes of misery, almost as a great first cause. Find it out as dwelling deep-seated in your own heart, baneful beyond all imagination, spoiling the present life, and threatening the life to come. Before passing from the consideration of this request from these two tribes, it is very noticeable that they kept their promise. When the time came for them to return to Jazer and Gilead, Joshua spoke to them in a very complimentary way (Joshua 22). Did this fulfillment show that the word of Moses had been constantly in their minds? Possibly his word had weight with some, but in all probability the miraculous discovery of Achan's guilt, and his terrible doom, had much more connection with the persistence of Reuben and Gad in keeping their promise. They doubtless saw very clearly that steady and patient obedience was the only way of escaping something like Achan's fate. - Y.

This proceeding on the part of Nobah suggests a good deal of speculation as to the character, purposes, and actual achievements of the man. Concerning the children of Reuben, we are simply told in general terms that they gave names to the cities they builded (verse 38). Jair, the son of Manasseh, gave to the small towns of Gilead the name of Havoth-Jair, which seems to be a general indication of them as being the property of Jair. Then in the last verse of the chapter we come to a kind of climax as we read that Nobah boldly called by his own name the district he had gained. What did he mean by this? Perhaps it was for the sake of a fancied security. The rigorous, inexorable demands of Moses were going to take him away, he knew not how long, and he may have reckoned that giving' his name to his property before he went would be an excellent plan to guard himself against covetous and unscrupulous neighbours. How suspicious of one another selfish people are! When we busy ourselves laying up treasures on earth instead of in heaven, we have to use all sorts of schemes and devices in order to gain a security which in the end proves to be no security at all. Or Nobah may have been a man full of personal ambition. David tells us, in strains half-pitying, half-despising, of those infatuated, purse-proud grandees who call their lands after their own names (Psalm 49:11). From this we may infer that Nobah was not alone in his folly. Very possibly the name took root and lasted for generations; but even supposing it did, who in after days would trouble himself concerning the man Nobah? Calling a town or a street after a man will do nothing to preserve his memory if the man himself has been nothing more than a plutocrat. But if the man himself, by deeds and character, becomes memorable and glorious, then his birth-place and dwelling-place, however mean they otherwise may be, share in the glory of the man. How many obscure hamlets have thus become dignified in history, and chief among them stand Bethlehem, the little one among the thousands of Judah, and Nazareth, the mean, secluded village in the highlands of Galilee. "This place, dearest to the Christian heart of all on earth except Jerusalem, is not mentioned in the Old Testament, nor even by Josephus, who was himself on every side of it, and names the villages all about it, but seems yet totally ignorant of its existence." - Y.

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