God had taken vengeance on the Israelites for yielding to the Midianites’ temptations to idolatry and immorality; but now the time had come for the Midianites, who gave the temptation, to be reckoned with. Although judgment begins at the house of God, it shall not end there (1 Pet. 4:17). There is a day coming when vengeance will be taken on those who have introduced corruptions into the Church; and the devil, who deceived men, will be cast into the lake of fire.
A detachment of 12,000 Israelite men of war was drawn out for battle against Midian – 1,000 men out of every tribe. This was probably a small number in comparison with the size of the army of the enemy that they were sent against. But herein God was teaching them that it is all the same to Him to save by many or by few (1 Sam. 14:6).
The Israelites attacked the Midianites with fire and sword, and with all the pious fury with which their zeal for God and their people inspired them. They slew all the men whom they met with; they put them all to the sword, and gave no mercy. But we know for certain that they did not slay all the men of the entire nation, for we find that the Midianites were a powerful and formidable enemy to Israel in the days of Gideon. The Israelites slew the kings of Midian (the same men who were called “elders” in chapter 22:4); five of these princes are here named, and one of them was Zur – probably the same Zur whose daughter was Cosbi (chapter 25:15). They also killed Balaam himself – a just punishment for the harm he had done to God’s people by advising Balak to send heathen women among them to tempt them to sin. The Israelites took all the women and children captives, they burned their cities, and they plundered all of their cattle and valuable goods; and thus they returned to the camp of Israel, loaded with a very rich booty.
When the 12,000 Israelite warriors returned in triumph, they were met with great respect – for even Moses himself went out to meet them and congratulate them on their victory. But Moses also severely reproved them for saving the Midianite women alive. Since this attack was Divinely commanded as justice for the Midianites’ crime in drawing the Israelites into immorality and idolatry, not even the women were to be spared – especially considering the fact that it was chiefly through these very same wicked women that the Israelites had been led into these sins (verses 15, 16). Orders were given that only the female children were to be spared among the captives, and the rest were to be slain. It would have been dangerous to let them live; for they would have continued to be a temptation to God’s people, and their captives would have ultimately become their conquerors and thus their destroyers – for the second time. However, the female children – being now brought up among the people of God, and thus taught how to worship Him – would not become a source of this kind of temptation. It is in this same manner that we are to handle the sins that beset us. By the grace of God and the influence of the Holy Spirit, they must be put away from us and mortified so that they do not become masters over us.
Since the warriors could not have helped touching dead bodies in this battle, they were obliged to purify themselves with the water mixed with the ashes of the red heifer (chapter 19:11-22); and they were to stay outside the camp for seven days, until this purification was accomplished. They must likewise purify the spoil which they had taken – both the captives (verse 19) and all the goods (vers-es 21-23) – so that they would be sanctified to the service of the Lord’s people and to the honor of their holy God.
Moses and Eleazar did according to God’s directions about the spoils; they were ordered to be divided into two parts – one for the 12,000 men who physically labored in executing the war, and the other to be shared among all the rest of the people. The spoil that was divided seems to have only been the captives and the cattle. As for the jewelry and other goods, every man kept what he took (verses 50-53). God was to have a tribute out of the spoils, as an acknowledgment of His sovereignty over them in general – and particularly as an acknowledgement of His hand which had given them success in this war. Out of the 12,000 soldier’s share, the Lord required only one part out of 500 (0.2%); but out of the people’s share, He required one part out of 50 (2%) – for the rest of the people got theirs easily, without any of the perils or fatigues of battle. The tribute out of the soldiers’ portion of the spoils was given to the priests (verse 29), but the tribute out of the people’s half was given to the Levites (verse 30).
In the closing verses of this chapter, we read of the pious and grateful reflections of the officers in Israel’s army, after their triumph over their enemies. They did not ascribe the victory to their own sword, but they saw the hand of the Lord in it (Ps. 44:1-8). And they took notice of the peculiar mercy of God in the preservation of themselves and their men from all danger; for when they mustered up the soldiers, there was not a single man missing! This first battle in the conquest of the Promised Land, in which not a soul was lost, was a picture of Jesus’ conquest of the eternal Canaan – concerning which, He Himself remarked, “Of them which thou hast given me have I lost none” (John 18:9).
The officers’ offering of the officers to the Lord – about 837½ pounds of gold, worth over $24.6 million* – is a delightful testimony of the One Whom they considered to be the source of their victory; and to Whom, therefore, ought to be returned the tribute of praise. What a sweet and precious example this is!
Lord Jesus, go forth as the great Captain of our salvation; and drive out all our spiritual enemies before us, until they are utterly consumed! Amen.
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*based on the current value of gold on May 21, 2022