And when the people complained, it displeased the LORD: and the LORD heard it; and his anger was kindled…
The people complained — and the Lord set fire to them! That seems rough judgment, for what is man's speech as set against the Divine fire? Who can defend the procedure? Who can so subordinate his reason and his sense of right as to commend the justice of this tremendous punishment? So they might say who begin their Bible reading at the eleventh chapter of Numbers. Read the Book of Exodus, notably the fourteenth and following chapters up to the time of the giving of the law, and you will find complaint following complaint; and what was the Divine answer in that succession of reproaches? Was there fire? Did the Lord shake down the clouds upon the people and utterly overwhelm them with tokens of indignation? No. The Lord is full of tenderness and compassion — yea, infinite in piteousness and love is He; but there is a point when His Spirit can no longer strive with us, and when He must displace the persuasions of love by the anger and the judgment of fire. But this is not the whole case. The people were not complaining only. The word complaint may he so construed as to have everything taken out of it except the feeblest protest and the feeblest utterance of some personal desire. But this is not the historical meaning of the word complaint as it is found here. What happened between the instances we have quoted and the instance which is immediately before us? Until that question is answered the whole case is not before the mind for opinion or criticism. What, then, had taken place? The most momentous of all incidents. God had said through Moses to the people of Israel — Will you obey the law? And they stood to their feet, as it were, and answered in one unanimous voice — We will. So the people were wedded to their Lord at that great mountain altar: words of fealty and kinship and Godhood had been exchanged, and now these people that had oft complained and had then promised obedience, and had then sworn that they would have none other gods beside Jehovah, complained — went back to their evil ways; and the Lord, who takes out His sword last and only calls upon His fire in extremity, smote them — burned them. And this will He do to us if we trifle with our oaths, if we practise bad faith towards the altar, if we are guilty of malfeasance in the very sanctuary of God. Were the people content with complaining? They passed from complaining to lusting, saying, "Who shall give us flesh to eat? We remember the fish which we did eat in Egypt," &c. There is a philosophy here. You cannot stop short with complaining. Wickedness never plays a negative game. The man who first complains will next erect his appetite as a hostile force against the will of God. A marvellous thing is this, to recollect our lives through the medium of our appetites, to have old relishes return to the mouth, to have the palate stimulated by remembered sensations. The devil has many ways into the soul. The recollection of evil may prompt a desire for its repetition.
(J. Parker, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And when the people complained, it displeased the LORD: and the LORD heard it; and his anger was kindled; and the fire of the LORD burnt among them, and consumed them that were in the uttermost parts of the camp.