The last chapter closed with Balak and Balaam parting ways. But alas! We meet Balaam again, all too soon. He had tried to turn away Jehovah from His people, and failed; but now he endeavored to turn the people away from Jehovah. If he succeeded in doing this, the consequences to Israel would be exactly what Balak had desired to obtain. In other words, he knew that the only way to weaken Israel’s standing would be to entice them to gross sin – thereby causing them to make themselves abhorred of their God, Who was the ultimate source of their strength. By Balaam’s advice (chapter 31:16; Rev. 2:14), the people of Israel were seduced into idolatry and all of the vile abominations connected with it. In the judgment which ensued, no fewer than 24,000 Israelites perished – until the zeal of Aaron’s grandson, Phinehas, caused the Lord’s plague to cease. As a representative of all the people, Phinehas showed that Israel – as a nation – abhorred idolatry and its associated sins as the greatest crime against Jehovah. But on “the evil men and seducers,” speedy judgment came. By God’s command, the Israelites later took vengeance upon the Midianites (chapter 31); and in that universal slaughter of Midian, Balaam himself also perished.
The friendship of the wicked is more dangerous than their enmity. No enchantment can hurt God’s people – except for the temptations of worldly interests and pleasures. The people of Israel were enticed into sin by the daughters of Moab and Midian, whom Balak (by Balaam’s counsel) sent among them for that very purpose. Our worst enemies are the ones who draw us to transgress against the Lord, for that is the greatest mischief that anyone can do to us. Israel’s sin did the very thing that all of Balaam’s enchantments could not do; it set God against them! The Lord, in His anger, sent some sort of plague among the people; for we read of its cessation in verse 8, as well as the number of those who died from it (verse 9). Moses commanded that the ringleaders in this sin were to be put to death publicly as sacrifices to God’s justice, and also as examples of warning to the rest of the people – giving them an idea of the evil of their sin, and of the terror of the Lord’s wrath against them. Neither Balaam’s curse nor Balak’s sword could hurt Israel, but their own lusts did more injury than both. How much we need to pray for grace to be kept from our own corruptions!
Moses and the people who had kept their integrity were lamenting the national sin at the door of the Tabernacle; but Zimri – a leader in the tribe of Simeon – had arrived at such a degree of impudence in wickedness that he publicly appeared in the sight of everyone, in the company of a Midianite woman. So far from blushing for his sin, he rather prided himself in it, and gloried in his shame. Never was vice more daring than it was in Zimri, but never was virtue more daring than it was in Phinehas! Being aware of this insolent man’s behavior, Phinehas rose up from his prayers with holy indignation, took his javelin, followed the defiant sinners into their tent, and killed them both. It is not at all difficult to justify him in what he did, and the Lord testified His acceptance of his pious zeal in two ways. First, He immediately put a stop to the plague (verse 8); and second, He put a special honor upon Phinehas. It is true that this grandson of Aaron did no more than it was his duty to do as a judge. Yet because he did it with extraordinary zeal against sin and for the honor of God and Israel, when the other judges (out of respect for Zimri’s character as a tribal leader) were afraid to do it, God showed Himself particularly well-pleased with Phinehas. He pronounced him to be his country’s patriot and best friend (verse 11), for he had turned away Divine wrath from the people of Israel. So much does God delight in showing mercy, that He is well-pleased with those who are instrumental in turning away His wrath! This is the best service we can do for others, and we may contribute something towards it by our prayers and endeavors to bring the wickedness of the wicked to an end in the places where God has put us.
The priesthood was entailed, by covenant, upon Phinehas’ family. Since he was the son of Aaron’s son Eleazar, it would have already continued through his family; but now it was confirmed to him as a recompence of his pious zeal. The Lord called it “an everlasting priesthood,” because it would continue to the end of the Old Testament period; and then it would have its perfection and permanence in the unchangeable Priesthood of Jesus, Who is consecrated for evermore. By executing justice, Phinehas had made an atonement for the people of Israel (verse 13); and now he and his family would henceforward be rewarded by being employed in making atonement by sacrifice.
At the end of this chapter, the Lord told Moses that Israel must smite the Midianites because they were a source of temptation to sin. In the same way, we must set ourselves against whatever is an occasion of sin to us (Matt. 5:29, 30).
The Psalmist recorded the memorable and holy zeal of Phinehas many ages after this event; he said that his zealous action was accounted unto him for righteousness unto all generations (Ps. 106:30, 31). But above all, let us observe how his action procured the testimony and approbation of the Lord; and then let us not overlook our Savior, Whom Phinehas represented, and Whose zeal for His Father’s house is said to have consumed Him! (Ps. 69:9; John 2:17)
Lord Jesus, while we behold Phinehas’ zeal amidst the corruption of his people, may we never forget how Your zeal for Your Father caused You to come down from heaven to redeem us from sin and destroy the devil’s works! Amen.
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