Numbers 33
Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
Reading through this record, which looks, on the first appearance of it, much like a page from a gazetteer, we are made to feel -

I. HOW LITTLE WE SHOULD KNOW OF THE EXPERIENCES OF ISRAEL IN THEIR WANDERINGS IF WE HAD BEEN TOLD NO MORE THAN THIS. A period of forty years has to be covered; and though by one kind of narration it takes four books, full of solemnity and variety, abounding in matters of stirring interest, and often going into the minutest detail, in order to indicate sufficiently the events of the period, yet by another kind of narration the period can be comprised in forty-nine short verses. All the way through these verses it is assumed that a particular aspect of the course of Israel is being presented, and that a full, edifying, and satisfying narrative is to be sought elsewhere. Consider what great omissions there are. We do indeed see something of the manner of starting, but even here there is hardly anything to explain how Israel came to leave Egypt. It is said that they passed through the midst of the sea, but nothing is said of the wonderful and glorious manner in which the passage was effected. There is nothing of all the law-giving at Sinai; nothing of the tabernacle, the ark, the offerings, and the priestly office; nothing of the great manna mercies; nothing even of the cloud and trumpets, though they had so much to do with the journeys; nothing of the rebellion which was the great cause of this long wandering. If it was a mere record of places we could better understand it, but there are just enough of additional matters introduced to perplex us as to why some are inserted and others omitted. How clear it becomes, in the light of an artless record like this, that we shall err if we allow ourselves to look too constantly on the books of the Old Testament as being the literature, the classic literature, of the Hebrews! That they are literature is of course true, but it is so small a part of the truth concerning them, that if we allow it to become too prominent, it will hide much more important truth. Moses was evidently not a man to care about the niceties and elaborations so dear to fastidious writers. His hands were too full of guiding and governing. If what he wrote was written in a way to glorify God, that was sufficient. We find in the Pentateuch not history, but the rough, yet authentic and unspeakably precious, materials of history. A man with the requisite interest and knowledge may analyze, select, and combine these materials into a history from his own point of view, but thanks be to God that he took a meek, humble, and unselfish Moses, who had no views of his own to assert, and who thought of no monumentum aere perennius, and made him his pen to write something a great deal more important than the history of any nation, namely, the dealings of God with his own typical people, and through them with the world at large.

II. Though this is such a brief and apparently artless record, little more than a copy of names from a map, yet HOW MUCH IT WOULD TELL US, EVEN IF WE HAD BEEN TOLD NO MORE. If this were but the sole surviving fragment of the four books, it would nevertheless indicate the presence of God, and that in very remarkable ways. It would indicate the authority of Jehovah over Israel. Moses and Aaron are spoken of as the leaders of Israel (verse 1), yet only leaders under God; for Moses wrote this very record at the commandment of God (verse 2), and Aaron went up into Mount Hor to die at the commandment of God (verse 38). We should also learn something of the punitive power of God. We should feel ourselves in the presence of some terrible sin, some terrible suffering, and some crowning blow which had come upon Egypt. We should learn that God was able to vindicate his majesty and glory against the arrogance of idolatry (verse 4). We should learn that human life was at the sovereign disposal of God, for he controls the death of the first-born and the death of Aaron. And from what we thus plainly see of God's presence in certain places, we might infer that he was also in the places where we see him not. We might infer that if he was in the midst of the Israelites when they left Egypt, and in their midst forty years after, then he must have been with them all the time between. Thus, though in these forty-nine verses we are told nothing whatever, in a plain, direct way, of human character, we are yet brought face to face with very suggestive intimations concerning the character of God. From the human point of view the record is indeed a very barren one; but this only helps to show how when man becomes scarcely visible, unless as a mere wanderer, the glory of God shines brilliantly as ever.

III. We have thus tried to imagine this passage as being the sole surviving fragment of the four books which deal with the wanderings. But we know in reality that it is only a sort of appendix to the record of notable and solemn proceedings already given. It may even seem as if it would not have been much missed if it had been left out. As we think over it, however, we become conscious that A DISTINCT AND PECULIAR IMPRESSION IS BEING PRODUCED ON OUR MINDS. Reading through the Book of Numbers, we wander with Israel from the day they leave Sinai down to the day they enter the plains of Moab by Jordan; and now in this passage we are all at once lifted as it were into an exceeding high mountain, and get a bird's-eye view of the wandering, shifting life of Israel during these forty years. It is well to be brought face to face with something that will remind us of the shifting character of human life, Even the lives that seem most stationary, as far as local circumstances are concerned, are full of change. It is not because a man is born, lives, and dies in one locality, perhaps even in one house, that his life is to be reckoned a settled one. Wherever we are, however rooted and grounded in appearance, we see one generation going and another coming, ourselves being' a part of what we see. Here, in the record of these journeyings, was something true for all Israel; Moses and Aaron were brought down to the same level with the humblest of their followers. There are certain necessary outlines of change in the course of every human being who lives to the allotted term - birth, unconscious infancy, the common influences of childhood, the time to choose a temporal occupation, the day when father dies and when mother dies, the dropping away of kindred, companions, and friends, and so on till death comes at last. There is so much of life lived and so much of biography written under the fascinating glamour of mere mundane interests, that it is a good thing to go where, along with God himself, we may look down on the changing scenes of earth from the dwarfing and humbling heights of eternity. There is a time to listen to the botanist and the expert in vegetable physiology, while they discourse to us on the wonders of the leaf; there is a time to see what the painter can do with it, and what the poet; but from all these we must turn at last to God's own Isaiah, and hear him drawing out the great final lesson, "We all do fade as a leaf." - Y.

It is assumed here that Israel will conquer the Canaanites; probably by this time the people had grown to somewhat of confidence, by reason of their recent successes over Sihon, Og, and Midian. But it was a thing of the first importance, when the victory was gained, to follow it up in the right way. Victories have been gained, and then worse than lost by want of wisdom to use them aright. Here we have a plain, strict, and severe command concerning the very first thing to be done upon the defeat of the Canaanites. They themselves were to be driven from the land, and all the instruments of idolatry utterly destroyed. The need of this command will be clearly seen if we consider -

I. THE GREAT OBJECT WHICH WAS BEFORE THE MIND OF GOD IN GIVING THE COMMAND. This is alluded to in verse 54. Canaan was ever under the eye of God as being the destined inheritance of Israel; it had been counted as such even from the time of Abraham. The sadness of the threat against Israel in the day of its apostasy lay in this, that it was a threat of disinheriting (Numbers 14:12). And that which had been so long preparing for Israel, which even while the Canaanites were dwelling in it had been under the peculiar supervision of God, was become at last an inheritance of great value. It was to be cultivated to the full, and would then richly repay for all the cultivation. Such interest did God show in giving this land to the Israelites in all its fullness, that he was about to portion it by lot. Each tribe in particular was to feel that the place of its habitation had been chosen by God. Hence the need of leaving no precaution unemployed to make this favoured land secure. It must be guarded from every kind of danger, however remote, improbable, and practically innocuous it may seem. If Israel lost this inheritance, there was no other place for it, no other possession on which it could advance with the certainty of conquest and, what was even more important, with the consciousness of being engaged in a righteous cause. In Canaan, as long as it kept its allegiance to God, Israel was the rightful possessor; but everywhere else it was a lawless, unblessed invader. That which is of inestimable value, and which once gone cannot be replaced, must first of all be founded in security and surrounded with the same. "If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?" (Psalm 11:3). The security of the people was threatened by all that threatened the honour of God. And it was a distinct dishonour to his name to allow idolaters to remain in the land openly to practice their vicious and degrading rites. Moreover, there was every chance that the people themselves would be subtly and gradually drawn to idolatry. Recollect all these perils, and then you will see good reason why God made a stringent demand for such a sweeping treatment of the Canaanites. The cause of a world's redemption was bound up with the safety of Israel's inheritance. And we also have an inheritance (Matthew 19:29; Matthew 25:34; Acts 20:32; Acts 26:18; Romans 8:17: Galatians 3:29; Ephesians 1:11, 14; Ephesians 3:6; 1 Peter 1:4) far transcending that Canaan which was so much in the eyes of the Israelites. If it is worth anything at all, it is worth everything; worth all the self-denial, perseverance, complete submission to God, and patient waiting which are necessary for the attaining of it. We must not leave unexpelled from our life or undestroyed from our circumstances anything that may imperil the inheritance. Walk with no companion, engage in no business, cultivate no taste or recreation, if there be in them the slightest chance of peril to the inheritance. It is a glorious thing to conquer temptation in actual conflict, but it is better still so to watch and pray as not to enter into temptation at all.

II. THE GREAT TEMPTATION ON THE PART OF ISRAEL TO REST SATISFIED WITH AN IMPERFECT CONQUEST. Not of course that Israel thought it imperfect. Israel was anxious in its own way to have the conquest and possession complete. But God alone had the requisite wisdom and foresight to direct the people into real security. There were many temptations to what he knew was a premature cessation of hostilities. The Canaanites would in due time make attempts at compromises and partial surrenders, even as Pharaoh had made like attempts when his people were smitten by the plagues. There was the temptation that came from the weariness of long waiting. A complete expulsion involved much delay. We are tempted even in the affairs of this life to premature conclusions through sheer impatience. We want to pluck the fruit long before it is ripe. Moreover, the Israelites, many of them at least, would wish to make slaves of the Canaanites. They were not entering Canaan with the steward-feeling in their hearts. The promise was sufficiently fulfilled in their estimate when they got the land to do as they liked with it. The tribes crossing Jordan had the same carnal views concerning their possession as Reuben and Gad concerning the land which they had chosen. There was the temptation coming from self-confidence; that of supposing an enemy enfeebled to be practically the same as an enemy destroyed. There might be the temptation also to show a human, ignorant, undiscerning pity, as contrasted with a Divinely wise severity. Such utter expulsion as God demanded could easily be made to look unreasonable, and indeed nothing better than sheer tyranny. It takes much patient inquiry to discover that what may be kind on the surface is cruel underneath; kind at the present, cruel in the future; kind to the few, cruel to the many; kind for time, utterly ruinous for eternity. There was no reasonable pity in leaving those who were utterly corrupt to become the plentiful sources of idolatrous infection to the people of Jehovah. There was also the temptation that came from a very imperfect sympathy with the purposes of God. During their wanderings the Israelites had shown again and again their lack of apprehension and appreciation with respect to Jehovah. What then of hearty aversion from idolatry could be expected when its subtle perils came upon them? Only those who were filled with an abiding sense of the holiness and majesty of God could estimate the dangers of idolatry and take the precautions needful to guard against them.


1. The earlier result (verse 55). These Canaanites, however fairly they speak, and with whatever leniency they be treated, will turn out pricks and thorns in the end. "Those which ye let remain of them." One, even though he be a child, and seem easily moulded to other ends, may be the cause of measureless mischief. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. Behold how great a mass of matter a tiny flame will kindle. A Canaanite, a real Canaanite, worshipping his idols, must be a bad man. Just as a true, believing connection with God leads into all purity and virtue, so a groveling before idols makes a man vicious; and not only vicious, but the viciousness is upon a sort of principle and rule. Those who change the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things, change at the same time much besides. It is one of the unspeakable miseries of idolatry that it changes vices into virtues, and idolaters do the most wicked things for conscience' sake. Hence the Canaanite could not but hurt the Israelite; it was his very nature so to do. He might undertake allegiance and amity, but by the very necessity of the case he must prove in the end a prick in the eye and a thorn in the side. Therefore let Israel uproot with a timely and unsparing severity all that would end in pricks and thorns. Study the nature of things in their germs. Stop evil if you can at the very beginning. Consider, in connection with this expulsion of the Canaanites and the dangers of idolatry, the whole of the first chapter of Romans.

2. The later result (verse 56). Leave the Canaanites unexpelled, and the end will be the expulsion of Israel. "To him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin" (James 4:17). In the light of this threatening, how clearly it is seen that what made the Canaanites so offensive in the sight of God was their idolatry! For centuries they had been pursuing their hideous practices in that very land where a holy and righteous God had revealed himself to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And if the Israelites by a disobedient leniency fell into idolatry, their state would be even sadder and more dishonourable than that of Canaan, because the fall would be from such privileges. Note that God placed this expulsion of the Canaanites as a work of obedience for the people to perform. If they failed in obedience he would not by some miracle expel the Canaanites himself. "As I thought to do unto them." The land in itself was no more than any other land on the face of the earth. It was the people - the holy people of God - who sanctified the land, and not the land the people. And if they disobeyed God in the presence of all these idols, with their associated abominations, then the holy became unholy, and the Canaanites might as well stay there as remove anywhere else (Proverbs 8:20, 21; Proverbs 20:21; Ecclesiastes 7:11; Revelation 21:7). - Y.

I. THE COMMAND GIVEN. The Israelites were to he delivered from complicity with the immoral idolatry of Canaan by such extreme measures as these.

1. The idolaters were to be utterly driven out, and in some cases exterminated. On no account were covenants to be made with them (Exodus 34:12-17).

2. The idols were to be broken to pieces; even the precious metals on them were not to be spared (Exodus 23:24, 30-33; Deuteronomy 7:25, 26).

3. The high places, groves, altars, pillars, &c. were to be destroyed (Exodus 34:13; Deuteronomy 12:2, 3).

4. Works of art, "pictures," &c., were doomed if tainted by idolatry.

5. The very names of the idols were to he consigned to oblivion, and all curious antiquarian inquiries as to the idolatries of the land were discouraged (Deuteronomy 12:3, 30, 31). Our missionaries have had to urge similar precepts on converts from heathenism; e.g., in Polynesia. And these precepts suggest applications to all Christians who have "escaped the pollutions of the world" and its spiritual idolatries, but who are still surrounded by them. No "covenants" are to be made with men of the world which would compromise the servants of Christ, or mar their testimony against the evil deeds of the would (2 Corinthians 6:14; Ephesians 5:11). Apply to marriages with the ungodly, and to other close alliances of interest. Illustrate from Jehoshaphat's history (2 Kings 8:18: 2 Chronicles 18:1; 2 Chronicles 19:2). Even things lawful in themselves may have to be abandoned; whether money, in order to conquer "covetousness, which is idolatry" (illustrate Mark 10:21), or pleasures which may have associations of evil clinging to them (1 Corinthians 6:12), or even past helps to devotion - e.g., 2 Kings 18:4, Popish images, &c. To look back with strong desire even towards things elegant and attractive in themselves, but infected to us by the spirit of worldliness, may be fatal (Luke 17:32; 2 Corinthians 6:17). The Church of God has the duty of possessing the whole land, "the world" (1 Corinthians 3:22); but to do this they must "dispossess the inhabitants," i.e., they must make no compromise with the spirit of the men of the world. Worldliness is a spirit rather than a course of outward conduct. We must "use the world as not abusing it."


1. The peril of perpetual unrest (verse 55). Just so if Christians seek to make compromises with the sins and idolatries of the world they are called to overcome (1 John 5:4), and become subject to its maxims and fashions, there can be no true rest. The joy of entire obedience can never be known (Psalm 19:11). Compromise is perpetual conflict, with the conviction of being on the losing side. We are wounded in the tenderest part ("pricks in our eyes") and vexed in the secret chamber of conscience ("thorns in our sides").

2. The peril of being regarded as "conformed to the world," and therefore treated as "enemies of God" (verse 56; Psalm 106:34-42; Romans 12:2, Philippians 3:18, 19 James 4:4; 2 Peter 2:20-22). From such guilty compromises we may be delivered through Christ - through his atonement (Galatians 1:4), intercession (John 17:15), example (ibid. 16:33; 17:16), and Spirit (Romans 8:2; 1 Corinthians 2:12). - P.

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