Numbers xvi.32-35. And the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up, and their houses, and all the men that appertained unto Korah, and all their goods. They, and all that appertained to them, went down alive into the pit, and the earth closed upon them: and they perished from among the congregation. And all Israel that were round about them fled at the cry of them: for they said, Lest the earth swallow us up also. And there came out a fire from the Lord, and consumed the two hundred and fifty men that offered incense.
I will begin by saying that there are several things in this chapter which I do not understand, and cannot explain to you. Be it so. That is no reason why we should not look at the parts of the chapter which we can understand and can explain.
There are matters without end in the world round us, and in our own hearts, and in the life of every one, which we cannot explain; and therefore we need not be surprised to find things which we cannot explain in the life and history of the most remarkable nation upon earth -- the nation whose business it has been to teach all other nations the knowledge of the true God, and who was specially and curiously trained for that work.
But the one broad common-sense lesson of this chapter, it seems to me, is one which is on the very surface of it; one which every true Englishman at least will see, and see to be true, when he hears the chapter read; and that is, the necessity of DISCIPLINE.
God has brought the Israelites out of Egypt, and set them free. One of the first lessons which they have to learn is, that freedom does not mean license and discord -- does not mean every one doing that which is right in the sight of his own eyes. From that springs self-will, division, quarrels, revolt, civil war, weakness, profligacy, and ruin to the whole people. Without order, discipline, obedience to law, there can be no true and lasting freedom; and, therefore, order must be kept at all risks, the law obeyed, and rebellion punished.
Now rebellion may be and ought to be punished far more severely in some cases than in others. If men rebel here, in Great Britain or Ireland, we smile at them, and let them off with a slight imprisonment, because we are not afraid of them. They can do no harm.
But there are cases in which rebellion must be punished with a swift and sharp hand. On board a ship at sea, for instance, where the safety of the whole ship, the lives of the whole crew, depend on instant obedience, mutiny may be punished by death on the spot. Many a commander has ere now, and rightly too, struck down the rebel without trial or argument, and ended him and his mutiny on the spot; by the sound rule that it is expedient that one man die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.
And so it was with the Israelites in the desert. All depended on their obedience. God had given them a law -- a constitution, as we should say now -- perfectly fitted, no doubt, for them. If they once began to rebel and mutiny against that law, all was over with them. That great, foolish, ignorant multitude would have broken up, probably fought among themselves -- certainly parted company, and either starved in the desert, or have been destroyed piecemeal by the wild warlike tribes, Midianites, Moabites, Amalekites -- who were ready enough for slaughter and plunder. They would never have reached Canaan. They would never have become a great nation. So they had to be, by necessity, under martial law. The word must be, Obey or die. As for any cruelty in putting Korah, Dathan, and Abiram to death, it was worth the death of a hundred such -- or a thousand -- to preserve the great and glorious nation of the Jews to be the teachers of the world.
Now this Korah, Dathan, and Abiram rebel. They rebel against Moses about a question of the priesthood. It really matters little to us what that question was -- it was a question of Moses' law, which, of course, is now done away. Only remember this, that these men were princes -- great feudal noblemen, as we should say; and that they rebelled on the strength of their rank and their rights as noblemen to make laws for themselves and for the people; and that the mob of their dependents seem to have been inclined to support them.
Surely if Moses had executed martial law on them with his own hand, he would have been as perfectly justified as a captain of a ship of war or a general of an army would be now.
But he did not do so. And why? Because MOSES did not bring the people out of Egypt. Moses was not their king. GOD brought them out of Egypt. God was their king. That was the lesson which they had to learn, and to teach other nations also. They have rebelled, not against Moses, but against God; and not Moses, but God must punish, and show that he is not a dead God, but a living God, one who can defend himself, and enforce his own laws, and execute judgment -- and, if need be, vengeance -- without needing any man to fight his battles for him.
And God does so. The powers of Nature -- the earthquake and the nether fire -- shall punish these rebels; and so they do.
'And Moses said, Hereby ye shall know that the Lord hath sent me to do all these works; for I have not done them of mine own mind. If these men die the common death of all men, or if they be visited after the visitation of all men; then the Lord hath not sent me. But if the Lord make a new thing, and the earth open her mouth and swallow them up, with all that appertain to them and they go down quick into the pit; then ye shall understand that these men have provoked the Lord.'
Men have thought differently of the story; but I call it a righteous story, and a noble story, and one which agrees with my conscience, and my reason, and my notion of what ought to be, and my experience also of what is -- of the way in which God's world is governed unto this day.
What then are we to think of the earth opening and swallowing them up? What are we to think of a fire coming out from the Lord, and consuming two hundred and fifty men that offered incense?
This first. That discipline and order are so absolutely necessary for the well-being of a nation that they must be kept at all risks, and enforced by the most terrible punishments.
It seems to me (to speak with all reverence) as if God had said to the Jews, 'I have set you free. I will make of you a great nation; I will lead you into a good land and large. But if you are to be a great nation, if you are to conquer that good land and large, you must obey: and you shall obey. The earthquake and the fire shall teach you to obey, and make you an example to the rest of the Israelites, and to all nations after you.' But how hard, some may think, that the wives and the children should suffer for their parents' sins.
My friends, we do not know that a single woman or child died then for whom it was not better that he or she should die. That is one of the deep things which we must leave to the perfect justice and mercy of God.
And next -- what is it after all, but what we see going on round us all the day long? God does visit the sins of the fathers on the children. There is no denying it. Wives do suffer for their husbands' sins; children and children's children for whole generations after generations suffer for their parents' sins, and become unhealthy, or superstitious, or profligate, or poor, or slavish, because their parents sinned, and dragged down their children with them in their fall. It is a law of the world; and therefore it is a law of God. And it is reasonable to be believed that God might choose to teach the Israelites, once and for all, that it WAS a law of his world. For by swallowing up those women and children with the men, God said to the Israelites, it seems to me in a way which could not be mistaken, 'This is the consequence of lawlessness and disorder -- that you not only injure yourselves, but your children after you, and involve your families in the same ruin as yourselves.'
But there was another lesson, and a deep lesson, in the earthquake and in the fire. And what was this? that the earthquake and the fire came out from the Lord.
Earthquakes have swallowed up not hundreds merely, but many thousands, in many countries, and at many times.
Fire has come forth, and still comes forth from the ground, from the clouds, from the consequences of man's own carelessness, and destroys beast and man, and the works of man's hands. Then men ask in terror and doubt, 'Who sends the earthquake and the fire? Do they come from the devil -- the destroyer? Do they come by chance, from some brute and blind powers of nature?'
This chapter answers, 'No. They come from the Lord, from whom all good things do come; from the Lord who delivered the Israelites out of Egypt; who so loved the world that he spared not his only begotten Son, but freely gave him for us.'
Now I say that is a gospel, and good news, which we want now as much as ever men did; which the children of Israel wanted then, though not one whit more than we.
Many hundreds of years had these Israelites been in Egypt. Storm, lightning, earthquake, the fires of the burning mountains, were things unknown to them. They were going into Canaan -- a good land and fruitful, but a land of storms and thunders; a land, too, of earthquakes and subterranean fires. The deepest earthquake-crack in the world is the valley of the Jordan, ending in the Dead Sea -- a long valley, through which at different points the nether fires of the earth even now burst up at times. In Abraham's time they had destroyed the five cities of the plain. The prophets mention them, especially Isaiah and Micah, as breaking out again in their own times; and in our own lifetime earthquake and fire have done fearful destruction in the north part of the Holy Land.
Now what was to prevent the Israelites worshipping the earthquake and the fire as gods?
Nothing. Conceive the terror and horror of the Jews coming out of that quiet land of Egypt, the first time they felt the ground rocking and rolling; the first time they heard the roar of the earthquake beneath their feet; the first time they saw, in the magnificent words of Micah, the mountains molten and the valleys cleft as wax before the fire, like water poured down a steep place; and discovered that beneath their very feet was Tophet, the pit of fire and brimstone, ready to burst up and overwhelm them they knew not when.
What could they do, but what the Canaanites did who dwelt already in that land? What but to say, 'The fire is king. The fire is the great and dreadful God, and to him we must pray, lest he devour us up.' For so did the Canaanites. They called the fire Moloch, which means simply the king; and they worshipped this fire-king, and made idols of him, and offered human sacrifices to him. They had idols of metal, before which an everlasting fire burned; and on the arms of the idol the priests laid the children who were to be sacrificed, that they might roll down into the fire and be burnt alive. That is actual fact. In one case, which we know of well, hundreds of years after Moses' time, the Carthaginians offered two hundred boys of their best families to Moloch in one day. This is that making the children pass through the fire to Moloch -- burning them in the fire to Moloch -- of which we read several times in the Old Testament; as ugly and accursed a superstition as men ever invented.
What deliverance was there for them from these abominable superstitions, except to know that the fire-kingdom was God's kingdom, and not Moloch's at all; to know with Micah and with David that the hills were molten like wax BEFORE THE PRESENCE OF THE LORD; that it was the blast of his breath which discovered the foundations of the world; that it was HE who made the sea flee and drove back the Jordan stream; that it was before HIM that the mountains skipped like rams and the little hills like young sheep; that the battles of shaking were God's battles, with which he could fight for his people; that it was he who ordained Tophet, and whose spirit kindled it. That it was he -- and that too in mercy as well as anger -- who visited the land in Isaiah's time with thunder and earthquake, and great noise, and storm and tempest, and the flame of devouring fire. That the earth opened and swallowed up those whom God chose, and no others. That if fire came forth, it came forth from the Lord, and burned where and what God chose, and nothing else. Yes. If you will only understand, once and for all, that the history of the Jews is the history of the Lord's turning a people from the cowardly, slavish worship of sun and stars, of earthquakes and burning mountains, and all the brute powers of nature which the heathen worshipped, and teaching them to trust and obey him, the living God, the Lord and Master of all, then the Old Testament will be clear to you throughout; but if not, then not.
You cannot read your Bibles without seeing how that great lesson was stamped into the very hearts of the Hebrew prophets; how they are continually speaking of the fire and the earthquake, and yet continually declaring that they too obey God and do God's will, and that the man who fears God need not fear them -- that God was their hope and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore would they not fear, though the earth was moved, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea.
And we, too, need the same lesson in these scientific days. We too need to fix it in our hearts, that the powers of nature are the powers of God; that he orders them by his providence to do what he will, and when and where he will; that, as the Psalmist says, the winds are his messengers and the flames of fire his ministers. And this we shall learn from the Bible, and from no other book whatsoever.
God taught the Jews this, by a strange and miraculous education, that they might teach it in their turn to all mankind. And they have taught it. For the Bible bids us -- as no other book does -- not to be afraid of the world on which we live; not to be afraid of earthquake or tempest, or any of the powers of nature which seem to us terrible and cruel, and destroying; for they are the powers of the good and just and loving God. They obey our Father in heaven, without whom not a sparrow falls to the ground, and our Lord Jesus Christ, who came not to destroy men's lives, but to save them. And therefore we need not fear them, or look on them with any blind superstition, as things too awful for us to search into. We may search into their causes; find out, if we can, the laws which they obey, because those laws are given them by God our Father; try, by using those laws, to escape them, as we are learning now to escape tempests; or to prevent them, as we are learning now to prevent pestilences: and where we cannot do that, face them manfully, saying, 'It is my Father's will. These terrible events must be doing God's work. They may be punishing the guilty; they may be taking the righteous away from the evil to come; they may be teaching wise men lessons which will enable them years hence to save lives without number; they may be preparing the face of the earth for the use of generations yet unborn. Whatever they are doing they are and must be doing good; for they are doing the will of the living Father, who willeth that none should perish, and hateth nothing that he hath made.'
This, my friends, is the lesson which the Bible teaches; and because it teaches that lesson it is the Book of books, and the inspired word or message, not of men concerning God, but of God himself, concerning himself, his kingdom over this world and over all worlds, and his good will to men.