The incident recorded in this chapter is of a painful character. Petty jealousies discovered themselves in the most distinguished family of Israel. Through the robes of the anointed and sacred High Priest the throbbings of a heart stirred with evil passion were discernible. Aaron and Miriam could not bear that even their own brother should occupy a Position of exceptional dignity, and with ignorant pretentiousness aspired to equality with him. It is to the punishment of this sin that our attention is here called. This punishment fell directly on Miriam, possibly because the person of the High Priest was sacred, and had he been incapacitated all Israel would have suffered in their representative; possibly because the sin, as it shows traces of a peculiarly feminine jealousy, was primarily the sin of Miriam; and partly because, in her punishment, Aaron suffered a sympathetic shame, as is apparent from his, impassioned appeal to Moses in her behalf.
The noteworthy feature of the incident and its most impressive lesson are found in the fact that, although the healing and forgiveness sought for Miriam were not refused, God is represented as resenting the speedy oblivion of the offence on account of which the leprosy had been sent and of the Divine displeasure incurred. There was cause to apprehend that the whole matter might be too quickly wiped out and forgotten, and that the sinners, reinstated in their old positions, should think too lightly of their offence. This detrimental suddenness God takes measures to prevent. Had an earthly father manifested his displeasure as emphatically as God had now shown His, Miriam could not for a time have held up her head. God desires that the shame which results from a sense of His displeasure should last at least as long. He therefore enjoins something like a penance; He removes His stroke, but provides for the moral effects of it being sufficiently impressed on the spirit to be permanent.
Three points are involved in the words:
1. We are much more sensitive to the displeasure of man than to that of God. Men have several methods of expressing their opinion of us and their feeling toward us; and these methods are quite effectual for their purpose. There is an instinctive and exact correspondence between our feelings and every slightest hint of disapprobation on the part of our acquaintances; and so readily and completely does the mere carriage of any person convey to us his estimate of our conduct that explicit denunciation is seldom required. The mode of expressing opinion which is cited in the text is the most forcible Eastern mode of expressing contempt. When one man spits in the face of another, no one, and least of all the suffering party, can have the slightest doubt of the esteem in which the one holds the other. If an insolent enemy were to spit in the face of a slain foe, the dead man might almost be expected to blush or to rise and avenge the insult. But comparing His methods with such a method as this, God awards the palm to His own for explicitness and emphasis. He speaks of the most emphatic and unambiguous of human methods with a "but," as if it could scarcely be compared with His expressions of displeasure. "If her father had but spit in her face" -- if that were all -- but something immensely more expressive than that has happened to her.
God, therefore, would have us ponder the punishments of sin, and find in them the emphatic expressions of His judgment of our conduct and of ourselves. He resents our shamelessness, and desires that we consider His judgments till our callousness is removed. The case stands thus: God. is long-suffering, slow to anger, not of a fault-finding, everchiding nature, but most loving and most just; and this God has recorded against us the strongest possible condemnation. This God, who cannot do what is not most just, and who cannot make mistakes, this unfurious and holy God, whose opinion of us represents the very truth, has pronounced us to be wicked and worthless; and we seem scarcely at all impressed by the declaration. God's judgment of us is not only absolutely true, but it must also take effect; so that what He has pronounced against us will be seen written in the facts bearing upon and entering into our life. But, although we know this, we are for the most part as unmoved as if in hearing God's judgment pronounced against us we had heard but the sighing of the wind or any other inarticulate, unintelligible sound. There is a climax of ignominy in having excited in the Divine mind feelings of displeasure against us. One might suppose a man would die of shame, and could not bear to live conscious of having merited the condemnation and punishment of such a Being; one might suppose that the breath of God's disapproval would blast every blessing to us, and that so long as we know ourselves displeasing to Him His sweetest gifts must be bitter to us; but the coldness of a friend gives us more thought, and the contempt of men as contemptible as ourselves affects us with a more genuine confusion.
God's demand, then, is reasonable. He would have us feel before Him as much shame as we feel before men, the same kind of shame -- shame with the same blush and burning in it, not shame of any sublimated, fictitious kind. He desires us individually to take thought, and to say to ourselves: "Suppose a man had proved against me even a small part of what is proved against me by God: Suppose some wise, just, and honourable man had said of me and believed such things as God has said: suppose he had said, and said truly, that I had robbed him, betrayed trust, and was unworthy of his friendship, would the shame be no more poignant than that which I feel when God denounces me?" How trifling are the causes which make us blush before our fellows: a little awkwardness, the slightest accident which makes us appear blundering, some scarcely perceptible incongruity of dress, an infinitesimal error in manner or in accent -- anything is enough to make us uneasy in the company of those we esteem. It is God's reasonable demand that for those gross iniquities and bold transgressions of which we are conscious we should manifest some heartfelt shame -- a shame that does not wholly lack the poignancy and agitation of the confusion we feel in presence of human judgment.
2. The consequent possibility of accepting the pardon of sin with too light a heart. To ask for pardon Without real shame is to treat sin lightly; and to treat sin lightly is to treat God lightly. Nothing more effectually deadens the moral sense than: the habit of asking pardon without a due sense of the evil of sin. We ask God to forgive us our debts, and we do so in so inconsiderate a spirit that we go straightway and contract heavier debts. The friend who repays the ten pounds we had lent him and asks for a new loan of twenty, does not commend himself to our approval. He is no better who accepts pardon as if it cost God nothing.
3. The means of preventing a too light-hearted acceptance of pardon. Under the ceremonial prescriptions enjoined on Miriam lay some moral efficacy. A person left for a full week without the camp must, in separation from accustomed companionship, intercourse, and occupations, have been thrown upon his or her own thoughts. No doubt it is often while engaged in our ordinary occupations that the strongest light is flashed upon our true spiritual condition. It is while in the company of other people that we catch hints which seem to interpret to us our past and reveal to us our present state. But these glimpses and hints often pass without result, because we do not find leisure to follow them up. There must be some kind of separation from the camp if we are to know ourselves, some leisure gained for quiet reflection. It is due to God that we be at some pains to ascertain with precision our actual relation to His will.
The very feeling of being outcast, unworthy to mingle with former associates and friends, must have been humbling and instructive. Miriam had been the foremost woman in Israel; now she would gladly have changed places with the least known and be lost among the throng from the eye of wonder, pity, contempt or cruel triumph. All sin makes us unworthy of fellowship with the people of God. And the feeling that we are thus unworthy, instead of being lightly and callously dismissed, should be allowed to penetrate and stir the conscience.
If the leprosy departed from Miriam as soon as Moses prayed, yet the shock to her physical system, and the revulsion of feeling consequent on being afflicted with so loathsome a disease, would tell upon her throughout the week. All consequences of sin, which are prolonged after pardon, have their proper effect and use in begetting shame. We are not to evade what conscience tells us of the connection between our sin and many of the difficulties of our life. We are not to turn away from this as a morbid view of providence; still less are we to turn away because in this light sin seems so real and so hideous. Miriam must have thought, "If this disgusting condition of my body, this lassitude and nervous trembling, this fear and shame to face my fellows, be the just consequence of my envy and pride, how abominable must these sins be." And we are summoned to similar thoughts. If this pursuing evil, this heavy clog that drags me down, this insuperable difficulty, this disease, or this spiritual and moral weakness be the fair natural consequence of my sin, if these things are in the natural world what my sin is in the spiritual, then my sin must be a much greater evil than I was taking it to be.
But especially are we rebuked for all light-heartedness in our estimate of sin by remembering Him who went without the camp bearing our reproach. It is when we see Christ rejected of men, and outcast for us and for our sin, that we feel true shame. To find one who so loves me and enters into my position that He feels more keenly than myself the shame I have incurred; to find one who so understands God's holiness and is Himself so pure that my sin affects Him with the profoundest shame -- this is what pierces my heart with an altogether new compunction, with an arrow that cannot be shaken out. And this connection of Christ with our sin is actual. If Paul felt himself so bound up with his fellow-Christians that he blushed for them when they erred, and could say with truth, "Who is weak and I am not weak, who is offended and I turn not?" much more truly may Christ say, Who sins and I am not ashamed? And if He thus enters into a living sympathy with us, shall not we enter into sympathy with Him, and go without the camp bearing His reproach, which, indeed, is ours; striving, though it cost us much shame and self-denial, to enter heartily into His feelings at our sins, and not letting our union to Him be a mere name or an inoperative tie which effects no real assimilation in spirit between us and Him.