Rebels Without a Cause

15 And Moses was very angry and said to the Lord, “Do not respect their offering. I have not taken one donkey from them, and I have not harmed one of them.”

16 And Moses said to Korah, “Be present, you and all your company, before the Lord, you and they, and Aaron, tomorrow. 17 And let every one of you take his censer and put incense on it, and every one of you bring before the Lord his censer, 250 censers; you also, and Aaron, each his censer.” 18 So every man took his censer and put fire in them and laid incense on them and stood at the entrance of the tent of meeting with Moses and Aaron. 19 Then Korah assembled all the congregation against them at the entrance of the tent of meeting. And the glory of the Lord appeared to all the congregation.

20 And the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, 21 “Separate yourselves from among this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment.” 22 And they fell on their faces and said, “O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin, and will you be angry with all the congregation?” 23 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 24 “Say to the congregation, Get away from the dwelling of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.”

25 Then Moses rose and went to Dathan and Abiram, and the elders of Israel followed him. 26 And he spoke to the congregation, saying, “Depart, please, from the tents of these wicked men, and touch nothing of theirs, lest you be swept away with all their sins.” 27 So they got away from the dwelling of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. And Dathan and Abiram came out and stood at the door of their tents, together with their wives, their sons, and their little ones. 28 And Moses said, “Hereby you shall know that the Lord has sent me to do all these works, and that it has not been of my own accord. 29 If these men die as all men die, or if they are visited by the fate of all mankind, then the Lord has not sent me. 30 But if the Lord creates something new, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, then you shall know that these men have despised the Lord.”

31 And as soon as he had finished speaking all these words, the ground under them split apart. 32 And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the people who belonged to Korah and all their goods. 33 So they and all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol, and the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly. 34 And all Israel who were around them fled at their cry, for they said, “Lest the earth swallow us up!” 35 And fire came out from the Lord and consumed the 250 men offering the incense. Numbers 16:15-35 ESV

Moses displays a range of emotions in this story. First, he was shocked by the accusations of Korah and his companions. After their initial confrontation Moses literally “fell on his face” (Numbers 16:4) in dismay. But then, he rallied and challenged their audacity to question his leadership and questioned their misguided refusal to accept God’s will for their lives. They were unwilling to remain in their God-ordained roles and demanded more. And their attitude floored Moses.

But he rallied and proposed a test. He told the malcontents to gather at the tabernacle and bring incense to burn before the Lord. But they refused.

“We will not come up. Is it a small thing that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, that you must also make yourself a prince over us?” – Numbers 16:12-13 ESV

Once again, these prideful men attacked Moses and accused him of leadership malpractice. They declared their unwillingness to obey his commands because he had failed to do what he had promised to do. He had been unsuccessful in gaining them entrance into the land of promise. According to them, their wilderness wanderings were all his fault.

“…you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor given us inheritance of fields and vineyards. Will you put out the eyes of these men? We will not come up.” – Numbers 16:14 ESV

This time, Moses responded in anger and voiced his feelings to God. He declared his innocence and pleaded for God to refuse their sacrifices. He had done nothing to deserve their harsh treatment and offended that these men would treat him with such ingratitude and distrust. But Moses rallied yet again. One more time, he challenged Korah and his wanna-be priests to come to the tabernacle with their incense burners.

“You and all your followers must come here tomorrow and present yourselves before the Lord. Aaron will also be here. You and each of your 250 followers must prepare an incense burner and put incense on it, so you can all present them before the Lord. Aaron will also bring his incense burner.” – Numbers 16:16-17 NLT

This time, Korah and his 250 co-conspirators agreed to the challenge and showed up at the tabernacle with their incense burners and fire in hand. It was intended to be a showdown, and the odds were not in Moses’ favor. It was Korah and his 250 followers standing against Aaron. And Moses had made it clear that this was going to be a test to determine who was right and who was wrong.

“Tomorrow morning the Lord will show us who belongs to him and who is holy. The Lord will allow only those whom he selects to enter his own presence.” – Numbers 16:5 NLT

And God showed up, only to find that Korah had turned the entire congregation against Moses and Aaron. He had spent the evening spreading rumors and riling up the rest of the community.

Meanwhile, Korah had stirred up the entire community against Moses and Aaron, and they all gathered at the Tabernacle entrance. – Numbers 16:19 NLT

So, when the Almighty appeared and saw the host standing before the tabernacle, He told Moses and Aaron to separate themselves from the entire congregation because He was going to destroy them all. He was furious and expressed His intentions to wipe out Korah and everyone who had dared to side with him.

“Get away from all these people so that I may instantly destroy them!” – Numbers 16:21 NLT

But amazingly, Moses and Aaron stepped in and pleaded with God to show mercy.

“O God,” they pleaded, “you are the God who gives breath to all creatures. Must you be angry with all the people when only one man sins?” – Numbers 16:22 NLT

They blamed the whole affair on one person: Korah. He alone was responsible for fomenting unrest among the other leaders and the congregation. And they begged God not to punish the many for the sins of a few.

As a result of the intercession of Moses and Aaron, God instructed them to separate the people from the rest of the rebels. And Moses did as God commanded.

“Quick!” he told the people. “Get away from the tents of these wicked men, and don’t touch anything that belongs to them. If you do, you will be destroyed for their sins.” So all the people stood back from the tents of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. – Numbers 16:26-27 NLT

As the people stood back and watched. Moses declared the conditions of the test that was about to take place. God was going to determine who was in the right.

“This is how you will know that the Lord has sent me to do all these things that I have done—for I have not done them on my own. If these men die a natural death, or if nothing unusual happens, then the Lord has not sent me. But if the Lord does something entirely new and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them and all their belongings, and they go down alive into the grave, then you will know that these men have shown contempt for the Lord.” – Numbers 16:28-30 NLT

Imagine the scene as Korah, Dathan, and Abiram stood with their burning censers in hand and their families gathered around them. Then the judgment of God fell. In a miraculous display of His power and righteous indignation, God caused the ground to open up and swallow alive every single one of the guilty individuals who had dared to question His wisdom and challenge Moses’ leadership.

The earth closed over them, and they all vanished from among the people of Israel. – Numbers 16:33 NLT

It was a shocking and disturbing scene. And, amazingly, the 250 leaders who had aligned themselves with Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, were forced to witness the whole affair. They stood there with their censers in hand as their former leaders disappeared from sight. And as the rest of the congregation fled the scene in fear, a fire descended from heaven and consumed the 250. The small fires of their incense burners were no match for the purging fire of God. Their offerings of incense were anything but a sweet aroma to the Lord. He had judged their hearts, declared them guilty of sedition, and punished them accordingly.

God had cleansed the camp. He had purged His people of the sin that had begun to spread throughout their midst. And, in doing so, He had clearly restated His unwavering approval of Moses and Aaron as His appointed leaders. There was to no longer be any question as to who was in charge. And the people had been given a stark reminder that rebellion of any kind was ultimately an attack on God’s sovereignty. Moses and Aaron acted on His behalf. Any attempt to question or overthrow their rule was a direct attack on the will of God. These men were His representatives and they were to be obeyed – at all costs.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Danger With Discontentment

1 Now Korah the son of Izhar, son of Kohath, son of Levi, and Dathan and Abiram the sons of Eliab, and On the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took men. And they rose up before Moses, with a number of the people of Israel, 250 chiefs of the congregation, chosen from the assembly, well-known men. They assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” When Moses heard it, he fell on his face, and he said to Korah and all his company, “In the morning the Lord will show who is his, and who is holy, and will bring him near to him. The one whom he chooses he will bring near to him. Do this: take censers, Korah and all his company; put fire in them and put incense on them before the Lord tomorrow, and the man whom the Lord chooses shall be the holy one. You have gone too far, sons of Levi!” And Moses said to Korah, “Hear now, you sons of Levi: is it too small a thing for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to himself, to do service in the tabernacle of the Lord and to stand before the congregation to minister to them, 10 and that he has brought you near him, and all your brothers the sons of Levi with you? And would you seek the priesthood also? 11 Therefore it is against the Lord that you and all your company have gathered together. What is Aaron that you grumble against him?”

12 And Moses sent to call Dathan and Abiram the sons of Eliab, and they said, “We will not come up. 13 Is it a small thing that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, that you must also make yourself a prince over us? 14 Moreover, you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor given us inheritance of fields and vineyards. Will you put out the eyes of these men? We will not come up.” Numbers 16:1-14 ESV

The story of the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness is a fascinating one, filled with plenty of twists and turns, plot changes and story lines. It is easy to read this chronicle of the lives of the people of God and wonder how they could be so slow to learn. How could they refuse to obey God after all He had done for them? Why would they continue to whine, complain, and moan about their lot in life when the God of the universe was leading them, providing for them, and revealing Himself to them day after day? But the truth is, as believers, we have the Spirit of God living within us and the Word of God made available to us and yet we still struggle with obedience and belief. So, we probably shouldn’t be too quick to harshly judge the Israelites.

Yet in today’s story from chapter 16 we have another occurrence of jealousy and rebellion. It seems that Korah, a grandson of Kohath, and a member of the tribe of Levi, decided that he wanted to be free to take part in the priestly responsibilities. As a Kohathite, he was part of the clan responsible for the transportation and care of all the vessels and utensils of the Tabernacle. They had been assigned that role by God.

“The duties of the Kohathites at the Tabernacle will relate to the most sacred objects.” – Numbers 4:4 NLT

According to God’s instructions, the Kohathites had a very specific role to play. And in order for them to do that job, Aaron, the high priest, and his sons had to prepare all the sacred objects for transport.

“When the camp moves, Aaron and his sons must enter the Tabernacle first to take down the inner curtain and cover the Ark of the Covenant with it. Then they must cover the inner curtain with fine goatskin leather and spread over that a single piece of blue cloth. Finally, they must put the carrying poles of the Ark in place.” – Numbers 4:5-6 NLT

Every item had to be carefully prepared according to God’s painstaking instructions. If Aaron and his sons failed to do everything just as God had commanded, it would have devastating consequences for Korah and the rest of his clan.

“The camp will be ready to move when Aaron and his sons have finished covering the sanctuary and all the sacred articles. The Kohathites will come and carry these things to the next destination. But they must not touch the sacred objects, or they will die.” – Numbers 4:15 NLT

“Do not let the Kohathite clans be destroyed from among the Levites! This is what you must do so they will live and not die when they approach the most sacred objects. Aaron and his sons must always go in with them and assign a specific duty or load to each person. The Kohathites must never enter the sanctuary to look at the sacred objects for even a moment, or they will die.” – Numbers 4:18-20 NLT

All the holy objects were to be covered with cloths to prevent the Kohathites from inadvertently touching them. And the larger items had poles inserted into the specially crafted rings that allowed them to be carried safely and securely without risk of death. It should have been considered an honor to carry these priceless objects that were essential for the worship of Yahweh. Yet, we learn that Korah was not content with the God-ordained role he and his clan had been assigned. He wanted more.

Driven by jealousy and a desire for greater prominence, he enlisted the support of others and, together, they incited a rebellion against Moses, along with 250 other leaders of the community, all prominent members of the assembly” (Numbers 4:2 NLT). It was a coup.

Korah appealed to other men in the camp to join him in his rebellion. He stirred up men from the tribe of Reuben by getting them to see that Moses had taken away the right of the firstborn of every tribe to serve God by replacing them with the sons of Levi. His argument was that every single Israelite was holy; not just Moses, Aaron, and the Levites.

He accused Moses of exalting himself above everyone else. He and his compatriots went to Moses and said, “You have gone too far! Everyone in Israel has been set apart by the LORD, and he is with all of us. What right do you have to act as though you are greater than anyone else among all these people of the LORD?” (Numbers 16:3 NLT).

Although Korah was from the tribe of Levi, he and his clan were not allowed to serve as priests, and he found this slight to be unacceptable. He viewed their role as “moving men” to be less-than-acceptable and more than a bit demeaning.

In his defense, Korah was basing his argument on a statement given by God when the people of Israel were still in Egypt.

“Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” – Exodus 19:5-6 NLT

But what Korah failed to remember was that the entire nation had done irreparable damage to their holy status when they had been encamped at Mount Sinai. While Moses had been up on the mountaintop receiving the Ten Commandments from God, the people had decided to turn their back on God and worship a newly constructed golden calf (Exodus 32). And as punishment for their sin, God had given Moses orders to execute all those who had taken part in the idolatrous festivities.

So he stood at the entrance to the camp and shouted, “All of you who are on the Lord’s side, come here and join me.” And all the Levites gathered around him.

Moses told them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Each of you, take your swords and go back and forth from one end of the camp to the other. Kill everyone—even your brothers, friends, and neighbors.” The Levites obeyed Moses’ command, and about 3,000 people died that day. – Exodus 32:26-28 NLT

It had been the Levites who stood by Moses’ side and carried out God’s orders. As a result, Moses rewarded them for their show of faithfulness and obedience.

“Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of the Lord, for you obeyed him even though it meant killing your own sons and brothers. Today you have earned a blessing.” – Exodus 32:29 NLT

But Korah wasn’t satisfied with God’s will. He demanded that a new plan be put in place. Yet, Moses attempted to reason with his disgruntled kinsman.

“Does it seem insignificant to you that the God of Israel has chosen you from among all the community of Israel to be near him so you can serve in the Lord’s Tabernacle and stand before the people to minister to them? Korah, he has already given this special ministry to you and your fellow Levites. Are you now demanding the priesthood as well?” – Numbers 16:9-10 NLT

Moses couldn’t understand why Korah considered himself and his clansmen as second-class citizens. Why was he unable to view their God-ordained role as vital and worthy of their best efforts? And Moses tried to warn them that their complaint was really with God, not himself or Aaron.

The Lord is the one you and your followers are really revolting against! For who is Aaron that you are complaining about him?” – Numbers 16:11 NLT

Korah was walking on thin ice. He was venturing into uncharted waters that would not bring him to a far-from-pleasant destination. And Moses attempted to reason with Korah’s compatriots, but they refused to listen to what he had to say.

“We refuse to come before you! Isn’t it enough that you brought us out of Egypt, a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us here in this wilderness, and that you now treat us like your subjects? What’s more, you haven’t brought us into another land flowing with milk and honey. You haven’t given us a new homeland with fields and vineyards. Are you trying to fool these men? We will not come.” – Numbers 16:12-14 NLT

The stage was set. The lines were drawn. Korah and his disenchanted companions stood their ground and refused to heed the warnings of Moses. They were done taking orders from Moses and Aaron. As far as they were concerned, it was their time to shine and they would not be satisfied until they were the ones calling the shots.

But they failed to recognize that their complaints had reached the ears of God. He had been listening to their arrogant demands and knew that their discontentment was ultimately directed at Him. And it’s interesting to note that the very people who were responsible for transporting the holy objects from the tabernacle were carrying resentment for the very one for whom the tabernacle had been constructed.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

 

Mistakes Will Happen

22 “But if you sin unintentionally, and do not observe all these commandments that the Lord has spoken to Moses, 23 all that the Lord has commanded you by Moses, from the day that the Lord gave commandment, and onward throughout your generations, 24 then if it was done unintentionally without the knowledge of the congregation, all the congregation shall offer one bull from the herd for a burnt offering, a pleasing aroma to the Lord, with its grain offering and its drink offering, according to the rule, and one male goat for a sin offering. 25 And the priest shall make atonement for all the congregation of the people of Israel, and they shall be forgiven, because it was a mistake, and they have brought their offering, a food offering to the Lord, and their sin offering before the Lord for their mistake. 26 And all the congregation of the people of Israel shall be forgiven, and the stranger who sojourns among them, because the whole population was involved in the mistake.

27 “If one person sins unintentionally, he shall offer a female goat a year old for a sin offering. 28 And the priest shall make atonement before the Lord for the person who makes a mistake, when he sins unintentionally, to make atonement for him, and he shall be forgiven. 29 You shall have one law for him who does anything unintentionally, for him who is native among the people of Israel and for the stranger who sojourns among them. 30 But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the Lord, and that person shall be cut off from among his people. 31 Because he has despised the word of the Lord and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be on him.” 

32 While the people of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. 33 And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation. 34 They put him in custody, because it had not been made clear what should be done to him. 35 And the Lord said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” 36 And all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death with stones, as the Lord commanded Moses. Numbers 15:22-36 ESV

The people of Israel were guilty of having committed the sin of rebellion. They had purposefully rejected His command to enter the land of Canaan, because they doubted His ability to give them victory over its current occupants. According to the assessment of the ten spies, the pagan nations that populated the promised land were too powerful and the odds of failure were insurmountable. There was no way a rag-tag militia comprised of former slaves, shepherds, and farmers were going to defeat the well-armed and highly-trained armies of the Canaanites, Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites. So, they had decided to disobey God’s will, dismiss His appointed leaders, and return to Egypt.

But rather than reining down judgment and wiping them off the face of the earth, God sentenced them to a lifetime of meaningless wandering in the wilderness – until the last of that generation had died off. They would pay for their sin by experiencing a permanent ban from entering the land of promise or ever enjoying the promise of God’s rest.

Their sin had been deliberate and premeditated. They had intentionally rejected God’s will and would have to suffer the consequences. But in verses 22-26, God graciously made provision for unintentional sin. He knew there would be occasions when His children sinned “by mistake.” In other words, they would accidentally or unintentionally violate His commands without knowing they had done so. And God made provision for those inevitable occasions.

God provided Moses with a hypothetical, “what-if” scenario that was designed to eliminate the guilt that came from inadvertently violating His commands. He made a provision for man’s built-in propensity for committing sin. And this special dispensation was to be a long-standing and applicable to every successive generation.

And suppose your descendants in the future fail to do everything the Lord has commanded through Moses. If the mistake was made unintentionally, and the community was unaware of it, the whole community must present a young bull for a burnt offering as a pleasing aroma to the Lord.” – Numbers 15:23-24 NLT

The kind of sacrifices referred to in these verses were meant to cover sins of commission as well as omission. Whether the guilty party simply forgot to keep a command (omission) or unknowingly violated a command (commission), as long as they had done so by mistake, they could receive forgiveness. But it was to be a community-wide affair. Once they discovered the presence of sin in the camp, the entire nation was to take a part in making atonement for the  offense.

“…the whole community must present a young bull for a burnt offering as a pleasing aroma to the Lord. It must be offered along with its prescribed grain offering and liquid offering and with one male goat for a sin offering.” – Numbers 15:24 NLT

Sin is sin, and its impact is universal. No one sins alone. The nature of sin is that it is highly contagious and infectious. It can spread like yeast in a lump of dough or like cancer cells in the human body. And it doesn’t matter whether the sin was committed intentionally or not. Any violation of God’s law requires confession and restitution. The sin must be atoned for and that atonement required a sacrifice.

And God knew that anyone was capable of committing unintentional sin, including the high priest.

“If the high priest sins, bringing guilt upon the entire community, he must give a sin offering for the sin he has committed. – Leviticus 4:3 NLT

And the price for his atonement was an unblemished young bull. And if the entire community happened to commit corporate sin without realizing it, they were also required a young bull. If one of the nation’s leaders committed an unintentional sin, he was required to offer an unblemished goat as payment. And in all three cases the blood of the sacrificed animal was to be placed on the horns of the altar within the tabernacle. The Leviticus passage makes it clear that even sins committed by mistake would render the individual, leader, or community as guilty before God. And, unless atonement was made, that guilt would lead to condemnation.

Yet, when the sin was exposed, the guilt was admitted, and the proper sacrifice was made, the individual could expect to receive the forgiveness of God.

“With it the priest will purify the whole community of Israel, making them right with the Lord, and they will be forgiven.” – Numbers 15:25 NLT

But what about those who knowingly and deliberately violated one of God’s commands? What hope did they have of receiving God’s forgiveness?

But those who brazenly violate the Lord’s will, whether native-born Israelites or foreigners, have blasphemed the Lord, and they must be cut off from the community.” – Numbers 15:30 NLT

The language suggests that this individual has boldly and unapologetically chosen to disobey the revealed will of God. There is no sense of remorse or regret. No confession is forthcoming and no repentance is displayed. Even when the sin is exposed, this individual persists in justifying and continuing his rebellions ways – with impunity. And the result is drastic: “they must be cut off from the community.”

This is not suggesting their dismissal from the camp or some kind of public ostracization. No, this is a reference to death. The guilty party is to be cut off by virtue of their public execution. What God seems to have in mind here are sins that are committed against Him. This would include the worship of false gods, the fabricating of idols, taking His name in vain, or failing to honor the Sabbath. These violations would incur God’s wrath and demand the death of the perpetrator.

The book of Leviticus indicates that willful sins committed against another individual were to be treated differently. While all violations of God’s laws are ultimately sins against Him, He made special provisions for sins committed against a neighbor.

“Suppose one of you sins against your associate and is unfaithful to the Lord. Suppose you cheat in a deal involving a security deposit, or you steal or commit fraud, or you find lost property and lie about it, or you lie while swearing to tell the truth, or you commit any other such sin. If you have sinned in any of these ways, you are guilty. – Leviticus 6:2-4 NLT

Repentance and restitution were required. Amends must be made. But not only that, a guilt offering was demanded to restore the sinner’s relationship with God.

“As a guilt offering to the Lord, you must bring to the priest your own ram with no defects, or you may buy one of equal value. Through this process, the priest will purify you before the Lord, making you right with him, and you will be forgiven for any of these sins you have committed.” – Leviticus 6:6-7 NLT

And, as if to give a concrete example of a non-repentant and brazenly defiant sin against God, Moses includes the story of a Sabbath breaker. The man was discovered collecting firewood on the Sabbath, in direct violation of the fourth commandment. Evidently, he knew exactly what he was doing and was defiant in doing so. And the penalty for his blatant display of disobedience was death.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man must be put to death! The whole community must stone him outside the camp.” So the whole community took the man outside the camp and stoned him to death, just as the Lord had commanded Moses. – Numbers 15:35-36 NLT

Mistakes were inevitable and unavoidable. Everyone would sin at some point. They important distinction was whether that sin was intentional or not. Secondly, it was important to differentiate between horizontal and vertical sin. A sin committed against a brother could be atoned for and forgiven. But any willful and unrepentant violation of one of the first four commandments would bring down the full wrath of God. Mistakes would happen and were redeemable through God’s grace. But brazen sins against God were unforgivable and deserving of His righteous indignation and full justice.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

 

No Rest for the Wicked

26 And the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, 27 “How long shall this wicked congregation grumble against me? I have heard the grumblings of the people of Israel, which they grumble against me. 28 Say to them, ‘As I live, declares the Lord, what you have said in my hearing I will do to you: 29 your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness, and of all your number, listed in the census from twenty years old and upward, who have grumbled against me, 30 not one shall come into the land where I swore that I would make you dwell, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun. 31 But your little ones, who you said would become a prey, I will bring in, and they shall know the land that you have rejected. 32 But as for you, your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness. 33 And your children shall be shepherds in the wilderness forty years and shall suffer for your faithlessness, until the last of your dead bodies lies in the wilderness. 34 According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, a year for each day, you shall bear your iniquity forty years, and you shall know my displeasure.’ 35 I, the Lord, have spoken. Surely this will I do to all this wicked congregation who are gathered together against me: in this wilderness they shall come to a full end, and there they shall die.”

36 And the men whom Moses sent to spy out the land, who returned and made all the congregation grumble against him by bringing up a bad report about the land— 37 the men who brought up a bad report of the land—died by plague before the Lord. 38 Of those men who went to spy out the land, only Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephunneh remained alive.

39 When Moses told these words to all the people of Israel, the people mourned greatly. 40 And they rose early in the morning and went up to the heights of the hill country, saying, “Here we are. We will go up to the place that the Lord has promised, for we have sinned.” 41 But Moses said, “Why now are you transgressing the command of the Lord, when that will not succeed? 42 Do not go up, for the Lord is not among you, lest you be struck down before your enemies. 43 For there the Amalekites and the Canaanites are facing you, and you shall fall by the sword. Because you have turned back from following the Lord, the Lord will not be with you.” 44 But they presumed to go up to the heights of the hill country, although neither the ark of the covenant of the Lord nor Moses departed out of the camp. 45 Then the Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived in that hill country came down and defeated them and pursued them, even to Hormah.  Numbers 14:26-45 ESV

God essentially told the Israelites that the worse-case-scenario they had conjured up in their minds was going to take place. Their greatest fears were going to become reality. In an attempt to rationalize their rebellion against Moses’ leadership, they had predicted a foreboding future if they stayed where they were.

“Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. – Numbers 14:2-3 ESV

And God let them know that their projections of doom and gloom would come true.

“As surely as I live, declares the Lord, I will do to you the very things I heard you say. You will all drop dead in this wilderness! Because you complained against me, every one of you who is twenty years old or older and was included in the registration will die. You will not enter and occupy the land I swore to give you. – Numbers 14:28-30 NLT

As punishment for their rebellion, God revealed their fate. They would not be returning to Egypt and they would never enter the land of Canaan. Instead, they could die in the wilderness. They wouldn’t have to worry about dying in battle because they would never make it to the promised land. No, their deaths would be from old age as they spent the next 40 years wandering in the wilderness; a year for every day the spies had spent in Canaan.

There would be no supernatural cosmological display of fire and brimstone to consume the wicked. The ground wouldn’t open up and swallow all those who were guilty. In fact, for the next 40 years, God would continue to provide for their physical needs; providing them with manna, quail, and fresh drinking water. They would continue to live, raise their children, and live out their days in relative peace and security. But they would never enter the land that God had promised as their inheritance.

“Not one of you from this wicked generation will live to see the good land I swore to give your ancestors.” – Deuteronomy 1:25 NLT

Canaan was to have been their final destination. It was a rich and fertile land, just as the spies had discovered. And even before God had leveled a single plague against Egypt, He had promised to lead the descendants of Jacob to their new homeland.

“I have promised to rescue you from your oppression in Egypt. I will lead you to a land flowing with milk and honey—the land where the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites now live.” – Exodus 3:17 NLT

But as a result of their stubborn refusal to trust God, they would spend 40 years wandering on the wrong side of the border of Canaan. In time, one by one, they would succumb to old age and die, and their bodies would be buried in the wilderness. And the author of Hebrews uses their rebellion and punishment as a warning to a new generation of Jews who had been offered another promise of future inheritance by God.

“Today when you hear his voice,
    don’t harden your hearts
as Israel did when they rebelled,
    when they tested me in the wilderness.
There your ancestors tested and tried my patience,
    even though they saw my miracles for forty years.
So I was angry with them, and I said,
‘Their hearts always turn away from me.
    They refuse to do what I tell them.’
So in my anger I took an oath:
    ‘They will never enter my place of rest.’” – Hebrews 3:7-11 NLT

Canaan was to have been their place of rest. That doesn’t mean Canaan was going to be a stress-free environment, devoid of difficulties. There actually were enemies in the land and the Israelites would have to do battle with each of them in order to make the land their own. But God had promised them victory. He was going to use them to purge the land of all the wickedness, immorality, and godlessness that had filled it since their departure more than 430 years earlier.

Yet, rather than obeying God and doing battle with those who opposed Him and had desecrated the land He had given them, the Israelites ended up having God for an enemy.

“Because your men explored the land for forty days, you must wander in the wilderness for forty years—a year for each day, suffering the consequences of your sins. Then you will discover what it is like to have me for an enemy.” – Numbers 14:34 NLT

What makes this story so painful and impactful is that it involved the people of God. These were His chosen ones. He had redeemed them out of slavery in Egypt. He had graciously offered them freedom and a permament home of their own where they could enjoy His presence, power, and provision. Yet, because the conquest of the land appeared to be more difficult than they had imagined, they turned their back on God’s gracious offer. And the author of Hebrews emphasizes the disbelieving nature of God’s chosen people.

And who was it who rebelled against God, even though they heard his voice? Wasn’t it the people Moses led out of Egypt? And who made God angry for forty years? Wasn’t it the people who sinned, whose corpses lay in the wilderness? And to whom was God speaking when he took an oath that they would never enter his rest? Wasn’t it the people who disobeyed him? So we see that because of their unbelief they were not able to enter his rest. – Hebrews 3:16-19 NLT

And he warns his fellow Jews to learn from their ancestors’ mistakes.

Be careful then, dear brothers and sisters. Make sure that your own hearts are not evil and unbelieving, turning you away from the living God. – Hebrews 3:12 NLT

For if we are faithful to the end, trusting God just as firmly as when we first believed, we will share in all that belongs to Christ. – Hebrews 3:14 NLT

God’s promise of rest required obedience. The land was theirs, but they were going to have to do battle in order to take full possession of it. They would have to cleanse the land from all its impurities, and that would require hard work and faith. Any effort they put forth would have to be based on their faith that God would go before them and provide them with victory. But for the Israelites, a long march back to Egypt and the promise of certain enslavement were more appealing than doing the will of God. And, as a result, they would never enter His rest.

And, as for the ten spies, they would face a more immediate and unpleasant end for their leadership in the rebellion.

The ten men Moses had sent to explore the land—the ones who incited rebellion against the Lord with their bad report—were struck dead with a plague before the Lord. – Numbers 14:36-37 NLT

God had not changed His mind. His promise of providing an inheritance for the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob remained just as firm as ever. But there would be some who would never get to enjoy it. They had forfeited that right.

But when the people heard the news of God’s judgment against them, they were grieved and attempted to repent for their rebellion.

“We realize that we have sinned, but now we are ready to enter the land the Lord has promised us.” – Numbers 14:40 NLT

But it was too little, too late. Moses even warned them that they were only making matters worse by attempting to escape God’s judgment through further rebellion. They were suggesting immediate entrance into the land, even though that is not what God had ordered. They thought a show of enthusiasm might temper God’s anger. But Moses warned them against making such a dangerous and ill-fated decision.

“Why are you now disobeying the Lord’s orders to return to the wilderness? It won’t work. Do not go up into the land now. You will only be crushed by your enemies because the Lord is not with you. When you face the Amalekites and Canaanites in battle, you will be slaughtered. The Lord will abandon you because you have abandoned the Lord.” – Numbers 14:41-43 NLT

But stubborn as always, the people rejected Moses’ counsel and attempted to enter Canaan – without God’s approval or help – and they failed miserably. They had forfeited their right to the inheritance. The land would never be theirs and they would never enjoy the rest that God had promised. And the apostle Paul provides a powerful application of this story for those who long to enter the eternal rest that comes through faith in Christ.

I don’t want you to forget, dear brothers and sisters, about our ancestors in the wilderness long ago. All of them were guided by a cloud that moved ahead of them, and all of them walked through the sea on dry ground. In the cloud and in the sea, all of them were baptized as followers of Moses. All of them ate the same spiritual food, and all of them drank the same spiritual water. For they drank from the spiritual rock that traveled with them, and that rock was Christ. Yet God was not pleased with most of them, and their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.

These things happened as a warning to us, so that we would not crave evil things as they did, or worship idols as some of them did. – 1 Corinthians 10:1-7 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

I’ve Got Good News and Bad News

25 At the end of forty days they returned from spying out the land. 26 And they came to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation of the people of Israel in the wilderness of Paran, at Kadesh. They brought back word to them and to all the congregation, and showed them the fruit of the land. 27 And they told him, “We came to the land to which you sent us. It flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. 28 However, the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large. And besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there. 29 The Amalekites dwell in the land of the Negeb. The Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites dwell in the hill country. And the Canaanites dwell by the sea, and along the Jordan.”

30 But Caleb quieted the people before Moses and said, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.” 31 Then the men who had gone up with him said, “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are.” 32 So they brought to the people of Israel a bad report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. 33 And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.”

Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to one another, “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.” Numbers 13:25-14:4 ESV

For 40 days, the people of Israel anxiously awaited the return of the 12 men who had been sent to reconnoiter the land of Canaan. And each passing day must have fueled their growing doubts and concerns. The longer the delay, the more they must have wondered whether the spies had met an untimely demise at the hands of the land’s current occupants. Had they been captured and enslaved? Worse yet, had they been tortured and forced to disclose the location of Israel’s camp in the wilderness of Paran? Was a heavily armed force headed their way with plans to annihilate the rest of the Israelites before they could cross the Jordan River?

But much to the relief of the Israelites, the spies eventually returned, bearing news and “the fruit they had taken from the land” (Numbers 13:26 NLT). Rumors of their return spread quickly through the camp and soon everyone had gathered to hear their long-anticipated report. And as the people stood in breathless silence, they heard the spies deliver their findings.

“We entered the land you sent us to explore, and it is indeed a bountiful country—a land flowing with milk and honey. Here is the kind of fruit it produces. – Numbers 13:27 NLT

The spies had not returned empty handed. According to verse 23, they had gathered tangible evidence of the land’s fruitfulness and now used these props as a kind of show-and-tell.

When they came to the valley of Eshcol, they cut down a branch with a single cluster of grapes so large that it took two of them to carry it on a pole between them! They also brought back samples of the pomegranates and figs. – Numbers 13:23 NLT

It was as if the spies knew that their words would not be enough. Any attempts they made to describe the land’s abundance would fall short and be met with skeptical ears. So, they brought proof. And it was like nothing the Israelites had ever seen before. A single cluster of grapes had to be carried on a pole between two men. This land was super-abundant and more than adequate for meeting the physical needs of the Israelites. It’s interesting to remember that, just recently, the Israelites had been reminiscing about the wonderful cuisine they had enjoyed in Egypt.

“We remember the fish we used to eat for free in Egypt. And we had all the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic we wanted. But now our appetites are gone. All we ever see is this manna!” – Numbers 11:5-6 NLT

While their memories of the food they enjoyed in Egypt were probably a bit cloudy and far-from-accurate, they couldn’t argue with the evidence right before their eyes. Canaan was a virtual cornucopia of culinary delights. And it was just across the river Jordan.

But before the Israelites had time to take in the wonderful news about the fruitful land of Canaan, the spies poured a bit of cold water on their enthusiasm. They delivered the bad news.

“But the people living there are powerful, and their towns are large and fortified. We even saw giants there, the descendants of Anak! The Amalekites live in the Negev, and the Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites live in the hill country. The Canaanites live along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea and along the Jordan Valley.” – Numbers 13:28-29 NLT

If the size of the grapes had been enough to make their mouths water, this news must have made them sick to their stomachs. It was the last thing they wanted to hear. After all, what good was a fruitful and abundant land if it was filled with frightful and dominant enemies?

As soon as the Israelites heard the downside of the spies’ report, they went into a panic. And Caleb, one of the 12 men who had seen the land with his own eyes, tried to calm them down. He didn’t attempt to dismiss or discredit the presence of enemies in the land. He didn’t refute their existence or diminish the report of their superior power. Instead, he simply encouraged the people to do what God had commanded them to do.

“Let’s go at once to take the land,” he said. “We can certainly conquer it!” – Numbers 13:30 NLT

The spies had done exactly what Moses had instructed them to do.

“Go north through the Negev into the hill country. See what the land is like, and find out whether the people living there are strong or weak, few or many. See what kind of land they live in. Is it good or bad? Do their towns have walls, or are they unprotected like open camps? Is the soil fertile or poor? Are there many trees? Do your best to bring back samples of the crops you see.” (It happened to be the season for harvesting the first ripe grapes.) – Numbers 13:18-20 NLT

They had returned with a report and samples. But at no point were their findings intended to play a role in whether or not the Israelites entered the land. Their mission had been a fact-finding one. And when their report turned out to be a combination of good news and bad news, it should have had no bearing on God’s plans for Israel. It provided proof that the land was fruitful. But it was also provided evidence that the land was already occupied. While the first fact was encouraging, the second was disheartening. But both were intended to remind the people that God was their provider. Not only had He given them a land, but He would also give them victory over its more formidable occupants.

But for ten of the spies, the thought of the Israelites defeating the Canaanites was a pipe dream. There was no way a rag-tag army of former shepherds and slaves was going to conquer a land filled with “giants.” The Israelites would find themselves up against Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites, and Canaanites. They would be out-numbered and under-equipped for the task. And the ten spies made their views plainly known.

“We can’t go up against them! They are stronger than we are!” – Numbers 13:31 NLT

These men were more than scared. They were absolutely petrified and determined to convince the people to disobey God’s command to enter the land of Canaan.

“The land we traveled through and explored will devour anyone who goes to live there. All the people we saw were huge. We even saw giants there, the descendants of Anak. Next to them we felt like grasshoppers, and that’s what they thought, too!” – Numbers 13:32-33 NLT

Notice how they conveniently leave God out of the picture. It was all “us-versus-them.” It was giants against grasshoppers, the powerful against the weak. The odds were completely lopsided and any hope of victory was wishful thinking.

And their words had the desired effect. The people were devastated and demoralized. They wept and mourned. They regretted ever having left Egypt. And any encouragement they may have received from the sight of oversized fruit was crushed by the prospect of annihilation at the hands of their enemies.

Fueled by the disheartening rhetoric of the ten spies, the people railed against Moses and Aaron, questioning why they had ever left the land of Egypt in the first place.

“If only we had died in Egypt, or even here in the wilderness!” they complained. “Why is the Lord taking us to this country only to have us die in battle? Our wives and our little ones will be carried off as plunder! Wouldn’t it be better for us to return to Egypt?” – Numbers 14:2-3 NLT

They had regrets. And they suffered from a severe case of good-old-days syndrome. When confronted with the less-than-ideal option of entering the land of Canaan, they began to long for their days back in Egypt. They preferred slavery to possible slaughter at the hands of the Canaanites. Their view of the promised land was anything but promising. Filled with pessimism and fueled by fear, they lashed out at Moses and Aaron. And then, anxious to derail any plans these two men may have had to lead them into Canaan, the people began to plot their overthrow.

“Let’s choose a new leader and go back to Egypt!” – Numbers 14:4 NLT

Little did they know that they were thumbing their noses in the face of God Almighty. They were rejecting the gift of an inheritance that He had promised to Abraham. The land was theirs by right. But now, they were declaring their intention to return to slavery rather than obey the word of their gracious deliverer. They were rejecting the will of the One who had redeemed them from captivity and refusing to believe that He could provide them with victory over their enemies. And they were about to learn just how deadly their decision would be.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Heaviness of Holiness

1 These are the generations of Aaron and Moses at the time when the Lord spoke with Moses on Mount Sinai. These are the names of the sons of Aaron: Nadab the firstborn, and Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. These are the names of the sons of Aaron, the anointed priests, whom he ordained to serve as priests. But Nadab and Abihu died before the Lord when they offered unauthorized fire before the Lord in the wilderness of Sinai, and they had no children. So Eleazar and Ithamar served as priests in the lifetime of Aaron their father.

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Bring the tribe of Levi near, and set them before Aaron the priest, that they may minister to him. They shall keep guard over him and over the whole congregation before the tent of meeting, as they minister at the tabernacle. They shall guard all the furnishings of the tent of meeting, and keep guard over the people of Israel as they minister at the tabernacle. And you shall give the Levites to Aaron and his sons; they are wholly given to him from among the people of Israel. 10 And you shall appoint Aaron and his sons, and they shall guard their priesthood. But if any outsider comes near, he shall be put to death.”

11 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 12 “Behold, I have taken the Levites from among the people of Israel instead of every firstborn who opens the womb among the people of Israel. The Levites shall be mine, 13 for all the firstborn are mine. On the day that I struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I consecrated for my own all the firstborn in Israel, both of man and of beast. They shall be mine: I am the Lord.” Numbers 3:1-13 ESV

God set apart the entire tribe of Levi to assist Aaron and his four sons, whom He had anointed to serve as priests. All adult males were exempt from military service but were expected to care for the maintenance and transportation of the tabernacle.

“Call forward the tribe of Levi, and present them to Aaron the priest to serve as his assistants. They will serve Aaron and the whole community, performing their sacred duties in and around the Tabernacle. They will also maintain all the furnishings of the sacred tent, serving in the Tabernacle on behalf of all the Israelites. – Numbers 3:6-8 NLT

While some of the Levites served as priests alongside Aaron and his sons, many were assigned the important task of caring for the tabernacle. They were divided into specific units with instructions to maintain the various elements that comprised the tabernacle and made the worship of Yahweh possible. The entire tabernacle was designed to be portable so that it could be transported from one place to another as the Israelites made their way to the land of promise. When it came time to move, the various clans of the tribe of Levi were assigned different sections of the tabernacle to disassemble and carry to the next location. Once there, they were responsible for the reconstruction of the tabernacle and for the maintenance of the items under their care.

Service in the priesthood was a high honor and was not to be taken lightly. It came with great responsibilities and God held all those who served as priests to an exacting standard.

They must be set apart as holy to their God and must never bring shame on the name of God. They must be holy, for they are the ones who present the special gifts to the Lord, gifts of food for their God. – Leviticus 21:6 NLT

One of the greatest responsibilities given to Aaron and his sons was that of providing the offering of atonement for the people of Israel. These men were expected to keep themselves morally and ceremonially pure so that they might intercede before God on behalf of the people. Moses instructed Aaron:

“Come to the altar and sacrifice your sin offering and your burnt offering to purify yourself and the people. Then present the offerings of the people to purify them, making them right with the Lord, just as he has commanded.” – Leviticus 9:7 NLT

For Aaron and his four sons to effectively mediate between God and the Israelite people, they had to maintain a holy lifestyle. Leviticus 22 outlines just how careful they had to be in order to keep from offending a holy God through personal impurity or disobedience to His commands.

“Tell Aaron and his sons to be very careful with the sacred gifts that the Israelites set apart for me, so they do not bring shame on my holy name. I am the Lord. – Leviticus 22:2 NLT

“The priests must follow my instructions carefully. Otherwise they will be punished for their sin and will die for violating my instructions. I am the Lord who makes them holy. – Leviticus 22:9 NLT

They were expected to take their role seriously, knowing that God would hold them accountable for any indiscretion or hint of physical or spiritual impurity. And Moses reveals that two of Aaron’s sons had been put to death for disobeying the commands of God.

Nadab and Abihu died in the Lord’s presence in the wilderness of Sinai when they burned before the Lord the wrong kind of fire, different than he had commanded. – Numbers 3:4 NLT

Leviticus 10 records what happened to Aaron’s two eldest sons.

Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu put coals of fire in their incense burners and sprinkled incense over them. In this way, they disobeyed the Lord by burning before him the wrong kind of fire, different than he had commanded. So fire blazed forth from the Lord’s presence and burned them up, and they died there before the Lord. – Leviticus 10: 1-2 NLT

The text doesn’t explain the exact nature of their sin but it makes it clear that they had violated the command of God. They had failed to take seriously God’s holiness and their own call to moral purity. Their offer of “strange fire” was outside the will of God. They had chosen to make an offering that was unsanctioned by God and, therefore, unacceptable. And Moses explained to Aaron that his sons’ unacceptable sacrifice had failed to bring glory to God.

Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord meant when he said,

‘I will display my holiness
    through those who come near me.
I will display my glory
    before all the people.’”

And Aaron was silent. – Leviticus 10:3 NLT

It seems apparent that these two men had tried to glorify themselves. They had chosen to do God’s will their own way and their punishment was death. It’s interesting to note that Nadab and Abihu were executed by the very same heavenly fire that had consumed the offering that Aaron had offered up to God on behalf of the people.

After that, Aaron raised his hands toward the people and blessed them. Then, after presenting the sin offering, the burnt offering, and the peace offering, he stepped down from the altar. Then Moses and Aaron went into the Tabernacle, and when they came back out, they blessed the people again, and the glory of the Lord appeared to the whole community. Fire blazed forth from the Lord’s presence and consumed the burnt offering and the fat on the altar. When the people saw this, they shouted with joy and fell face down on the ground. – Leviticus 9:22-24 NLT

It seems that Nadab and Abihu had seen the reaction of the people to their father’s sacrifice and now desired to elicit a similar response by offering up their own unsolicited offering to God. But rather than the people falling on their faces before them, the fire of God fell from heaven and consumed them.

So fire blazed forth from the Lord’s presence and burned them up, and they died there before the Lord. – Leviticus 10:2 NLT

According to Leviticus 21:8, God considered each and every priest to be holy and they were to be treated as such. They belonged to Him and He expected their actions to reflect their status as His chosen servants.

“You must treat them as holy because they offer up food to your God. You must consider them holy because I, the Lord, am holy, and I make you holy.” – Leviticus 21:8 NLT

And even the Levites were expected to take seriously their status as God’s chosen tribe. They had been set apart by God for His use and they were to treat their role with a healthy dose of reverence and respect.

“Look, I have chosen the Levites from among the Israelites to serve as substitutes for all the firstborn sons of the people of Israel. The Levites belong to me…” – Numbers 3:12 NLT

And just so they understood the gravity of their position and the danger of taking it lightly, Moses warned them, “any unauthorized person who goes too near the sanctuary must be put to death” (Numbers 3:10 NLT). Their set-apart status would put them in close proximity to the tabernacle, but they were not to take that privilege lightly. Unlike Nadab and Abihu, there were to treat God with honor and reverence at all times. Their behavior mattered. The manner in which they treated His tabernacle was important. They had their God-given role to play and they were to honor Him through their obedience and faithfulness.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Just Do It

Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil. 2 Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few. For a dream comes with much business, and a fool’s voice with many words.

When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow. It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. Let not your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands? For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear. Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 ESV

Up to this point, Solomon has provided us with a somewhat autobiographical and deeply personal look at life. He has revealed a perspective on life as seen from his unique vantage point as an aging monarch whose reflections are filled with regret and remorse. Yet, he sees himself as a preacher or teacher, whose responsibility as a leader of his people is to share his mistakes and the insights he has gleaned from them.

In this section, Solomon’s writing style becomes less autobiographical and more proverbial, similar to that of the book of Proverbs, which he wrote and edited. Proverbs are succinct, simple statements designed to teach powerful truths using few words, but in a memorable and impactful manner. Typically, proverbs are gathered in collections, with what appears to be little or no rhyme or reason as to their order or flow. They appear as isolated and seemingly unrelated thoughts, with each operating as a stand-alone truth claim.

In chapter five, we have a series of these proverbs, and the first few all have something to do with making vows before God. As has been the case before, Solomon appears to be writing from personal experience. These are not simply words of wisdom he has run across and deemed worthy of inclusion in his book. They are practical life lessons that he has experienced firsthand. And the very first one he shares has to do with the attitudes one should bring into the house of God. They concern one’s worship of God.

When entering into the presence of God, attitude and actions should not be separated. He warns against offering sacrifices to God in a flippant and disrespectful manner. For Solomon, it was a dangerous thing to go through the motions of worship while showing no reverence or fear for God. He describes a form of worship that is self-motivated and manipulative, offering sacrifices and making rash vows to God in order to get something from Him. He recommends listening over sacrificing.

Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil. – Ecclesiastes 5:1 ESV

The Hebrew word translated as “listening” is shama` and it carries with it the ideas of hearing and obeying. Solomon knew that there was a real risk of showing up at the temple to offer the required sacrifices and failing to hear what God might be trying to say. You could end up going through the motions of worship while ignoring the very one to whom you were offering the sacrifice. There is little doubt that Solomon was very familiar with the words that the prophet Samuel spoke to Saul, the first king of Israel.

“What is more pleasing to the LORD: your burnt offerings and sacrifices or your obedience to his voice? Listen! Obedience is better than sacrifice, and submission is better than offering the fat of rams.” – 1 Samuel 15:22 NLT

Solomon’s own father, David, had discovered this same truth.

“You take no delight in sacrifices or offerings.
    Now that you have made me listen, I finally understand—
    you don’t require burnt offerings or sin offerings.
Then I said, “Look, I have come.
    As is written about me in the Scriptures:
I take joy in doing your will, my God,
    for your instructions are written on my heart.” – Psalm 40:6-8 NLT

And after the Pharisees accused the disciples of breaking the law by harvesting grain on the sabbath, Jesus responded, “I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices” (Matthew 12:7 NLT).

Jesus was condemning these men for placing a higher priority on the sacrificial system than on the God to whom the sacrifices were being offered. And Solomon warns his readers: “Don’t make rash promises, and don’t be hasty in bringing matters before God. After all, God is in heaven, and you are here on earth. So let your words be few.” (Ecclesiastes 5:3 NLT).

Solomon is not simply spouting a clever-sounding maxim, but revealing a painful, yet valuable lesson learned from real life. He reminds us that God is transcendent. He is in heaven and we are on earth, and there is a great gulf that separates us, both literally and figuratively. God is holy and we are not. God is sinless and completely righteous in all He does. We are just the opposite. And we cannot afford to enter into His presence with a sense of dishonor or disrespect.

And one of the areas in which we can get ourselves into trouble with God is through the making of vows or commitments to Him. Vows were commonplace in Solomon’s day. They were verbal commitments made to God. A vow was a solemn promise to do something for God or to offer a sacrifice to God in the hopes of receiving blessings from Him in return. And Solomon warns, “When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow” (Ecclesiastes 5:4 ESV).

There is little doubt that Solomon had made many rash vows to God, promising to do something for God in return for His blessings. But Solomon knew the truth. He had failed to keep his side of the bargain, and he had learned the valuable lesson that God does not suffer fools lightly. The kind of vows to which Solomon refers could have been free-will offerings that were not part of the normal sacrificial requirements. When going through a time of difficulty or trial, it would be easy to promise to offer God a free-will offering in return for His rescue or relief. But it’s nothing more than a form of bargaining with God., and the book of Judges records just such a rash vow.

And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the Lord‘s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” – Judges 11:30-31 ESV

And the story goes on to record that God gave Jephthah victory over the Ammonites, but it also reveals the tragic outcome of Jephthah’s rash vow.

Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah. And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his only child; besides her he had neither son nor daughter. And as soon as he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.” – Judges 11:34-35 ESV

Solomon wants his readers to know that God takes vows seriously, which is why he states, “It is better to say nothing than to make a promise and not keep it” (Ecclesiastes 5:5 NLT). Keep your mouth shut. Don’t be hasty. Treat God as holy and don’t be too quick to make promises you have no intention of keeping. Because God will hold you to your word. Again, Solomon seems to speak from experience when he writes:

Don’t let your mouth make you sin. And don’t defend yourself by telling the Temple messenger that the promise you made was a mistake. That would make God angry, and he might wipe out everything you have achieved. – Ecclesiastes 5:6 NLT

And it would seem from this verse, that Solomon has widened the application to include vows or promises made to other individuals. If you make a commitment to someone, keep it. You can’t get out of it by stating your original promise was a mistake.

In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had some serious things to say about the matter of vows.

“You have also heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not break your vows; you must carry out the vows you make to the Lord.’ But I say, do not make any vows! Do not say, ‘By heaven!’ because heaven is God’s throne. And do not say, ‘By the earth!’ because the earth is his footstool. And do not say, ‘By Jerusalem!’ for Jerusalem is the city of the great King. Do not even say, ‘By my head!’ for you can’t turn one hair white or black. Just say a simple, ‘Yes, I will,’ or ‘No, I won’t.’ Anything beyond this is from the evil one.” – Matthew 5:33-36 NLT

Don’t miss what Jesus is saying. The prevalent perspective in His day was to keep any and all vows made to God. But Jesus warns not to make any vows at all. His reason for this was that the Jewish religious leaders had developed a variety of loopholes and workarounds that would allow people to make vows without having to keep them. And Jesus lists just a few. They had developed a system by which you could make a vow that was legally breakable because you made it based on something that was non-binding. Through clever use of words, you could make a vow that sounded binding but wasn’t. It gave the impression that you would follow through on your commitment, but with no intention to do so. These kinds of vows were little more than lies, and Jesus warned His followers not to make them. Instead, they were to say “Yes, I will!” or “No, I won’t!”

Solomon wraps up this short section with a somewhat enigmatic verse.

For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear. – Ecclesiastes 5:7 ESV

The New Living Translation sheds some light on what Solomon may have been trying to say. “Talk is cheap, like daydreams and other useless activities. Fear God instead.” Someone who experiences an abundance of dreams ends up struggling with whether what they have dreamed has true significance or meaning. What are they to believe? The same is true when we use too many words and make too many vows. No one knows whether what we are saying is true or to be believed. Dreams mean nothing unless they are put into action. And words are of little value if they are not accompanied by follow-through. Remember what Solomon said: Let your words be few. Verbosity is no substitute for integrity. Why waste your time making promises? Just do it.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Danger of Making Wisdom Our God

13 Blessed is the one who finds wisdom,
    and the one who gets understanding,
14 for the gain from her is better than gain from silver
    and her profit better than gold.
15 She is more precious than jewels,
    and nothing you desire can compare with her.
16 Long life is in her right hand;
    in her left hand are riches and honor.
17 Her ways are ways of pleasantness,
    and all her paths are peace.
18 She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her;
    those who hold her fast are called blessed.

19 The Lord by wisdom founded the earth;
    by understanding he established the heavens;
20 by his knowledge the deeps broke open,
    and the clouds drop down the dew.

21 My son, do not lose sight of these—
    keep sound wisdom and discretion,
22 and they will be life for your soul
    and adornment for your neck.
23 Then you will walk on your way securely,
    and your foot will not stumble.
24 If you lie down, you will not be afraid;
    when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet.
25 Do not be afraid of sudden terror
    or of the ruin of the wicked, when it comes,
26 for the Lord will be your confidence
    and will keep your foot from being caught. Proverbs 3:13-26 ESV

Wisdom brings blessing. It’s more profitable than silver or gold. Its long-term value is greater than that of precious jewels. Wisdom is incomparable, offering those who avail themselves of it the blessings of a long life, riches, and honor. The path of wisdom leads to a life filled with pleasantness and peace. It is a tree whose fruit provides a long and prosperous life.

Those are some rather bold claims and they seem to contradict the words that Solomon wrote in the opening chapter of his book of Ecclesiastes.

I, the Teacher, was king of Israel, and I lived in Jerusalem. I devoted myself to search for understanding and to explore by wisdom everything being done under heaven. I soon discovered that God has dealt a tragic existence to the human race. I observed everything going on under the sun, and really, it is all meaningless—like chasing the wind.

What is wrong cannot be made right.
    What is missing cannot be recovered.

I said to myself, “Look, I am wiser than any of the kings who ruled in Jerusalem before me. I have greater wisdom and knowledge than any of them.” So I set out to learn everything from wisdom to madness and folly. But I learned firsthand that pursuing all this is like chasing the wind.

The greater my wisdom, the greater my grief.
    To increase knowledge only increases sorrow. – Ecclesiastes 1:12-18 NLT

Well, which is it? Is wisdom the key to long life and happiness or a pathway to futility and sorrow? Solomon was the wisest man who ever lived. Not only that, he was blessed with great wealth, power, and prestige. He had it all. And yet, at some point in his life, he seems to have struggled with an overwhelming sense of despondency and despair.

So I decided to compare wisdom with foolishness and madness (for who can do this better than I, the king?). I thought, “Wisdom is better than foolishness, just as light is better than darkness. For the wise can see where they are going, but fools walk in the dark.” Yet I saw that the wise and the foolish share the same fate. Both will die. So I said to myself, “Since I will end up the same as the fool, what’s the value of all my wisdom? This is all so meaningless!” For the wise and the foolish both die. The wise will not be remembered any longer than the fool. In the days to come, both will be forgotten.

So I came to hate life because everything done here under the sun is so troubling. Everything is meaningless—like chasing the wind. – Ecclesiastes 3:12-17 NLT

It seems that Solomon had turned the pursuit of wisdom into an academic endeavor. Rather than growing in his knowledge of God, he simply filled his mind with facts, figures, data, and details. He was obsessed with knowing and the pursuit of knowledge. But information alone does not make one wise. The possession of an encyclopedic intelligence will not necessarily result in wise decision-making. Some of the most intelligent people in the world can make foolish decisions.

Somewhere along the way, Solomon lost the point of his life-long pursuit of wisdom. He took his eyes off of God and made it all about himself. Wisdom became a means to a self-centered and constantly elusive end.

I have always tried my best to let wisdom guide my thoughts and actions. I said to myself, “I am determined to be wise.” But it didn’t work. Wisdom is always distant and difficult to find. I searched everywhere, determined to find wisdom and to understand the reason for things. I was determined to prove to myself that wickedness is stupid and that foolishness is madness. – Ecclesiastes 7:23-25 NLT

His sad conclusion was, “I discovered this after looking at the matter from every possible angle. Though I have searched repeatedly, I have not found what I was looking for” (Ecclesiastes 7:27-27 NLT).

So, what should we conclude? Which version of Solomon’s counsel should we listen to? The key is found in verses 19-20 of Proverbs 3. Here, Solomon provides the often overlooked ingredient to man’s pursuit of wisdom and knowledge: God.

By wisdom the Lord founded the earth;
    by understanding he created the heavens.
By his knowledge the deep fountains of the earth burst forth,
    and the dew settles beneath the night sky. – Proverbs 3:19-20 NLT

Wisdom and knowledge can only be found in and received from God. They are not isolated and independent commodities to be sought for like hidden treasure. Without a relationship with God, wisdom is meaningless and virtually useless. As Solomon discovered later in life, wisdom alone was not enough. A head full of knowledge without a heart for God was not only unhelpful, but it produces a life of futility and fruitlessness.

It is important to recall that, upon his ascension to the throne of Israel, Solomon had asked God for wisdom. God had given Solomon a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ask for whatever his heart desires. “What do you want? Ask, and I will give it to you!” (1 Kings 3:5 NLT). And Solomon had responded, “Give me an understanding heart so that I can govern your people well and know the difference between right and wrong. For who by himself is able to govern this great people of yours?” (1 Kings 3:9 NLT).

And God was pleased to fulfill Solomon’s request.

“Because you have asked for wisdom in governing my people with justice and have not asked for a long life or wealth or the death of your enemies—I will give you what you asked for! I will give you a wise and understanding heart such as no one else has had or ever will have! And I will also give you what you did not ask for—riches and fame! No other king in all the world will be compared to you for the rest of your life! And if you follow me and obey my decrees and my commands as your father, David, did, I will give you a long life.” – 1 Kings 3:11-14 NLT

Notice the conditional nature of God’s statement. He agreed to give Solomon wisdom and threw in riches and fame for good measure. But it was all tied to Solomon’s obedience. God was giving Solomon the power to know right from wrong. In other words, he would have the mind of God, the ability to discern what God deemed holy, righteous, and good. But to know what is right does not guarantee that one will do what is right. To know the will of God does not always result in obedience to the will of God. Remember how Solomon opened up his book of Proverbs.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge – Proverbs 1:7 ESV

This brings to mind the fall, that fateful occasion when Adam and Eve were tempted by Satan and chose the wisdom of God over a relationship with God. He had placed them in the garden and provided them with the fruit from a variety of trees from which to eat, including the tree of life. But God had declared one tree to be off-limits: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He had told them, “You may freely eat the fruit of every tree in the garden—except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If you eat its fruit, you are sure to die” (Genesis 2:16-17 NLT).

But one day, while the first couple strolled in the garden together, they were confronted by the serpent, who tempted Eve to eat some of the forbidden fruit. When she recited God’s warning that to do so would result in death, the serpent refuted God’s word.

“You won’t die!” the serpent replied to the woman. “God knows that your eyes will be opened as soon as you eat it, and you will be like God, knowing both good and evil.”

The woman was convinced. She saw that the tree was beautiful and its fruit looked delicious, and she wanted the wisdom it would give her. So she took some of the fruit and ate it. Then she gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it, too. At that moment their eyes were opened, and they suddenly felt shame at their nakedness. – Genesis 3:4-7 NLT

Their eyes were opened. Much to Eve’s surprise, she didn’t die, but instead, she became enlightened. She became autonomous, with the ability to determine good and evil for herself. She had discovered the intoxicating, yet toxic power to become the master of her own fate. She shared some of the tantalizing and tasty fruit with her husband, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Satan had successfully marketed the fruit as a replacement for God. It was the fruit that would make one wise, and Eve “wanted the wisdom it would give her” (Genesis 3:6 NLT). She got what she wanted: Wisdom apart from God. And, in a sense, Solomon ended up feasting on the same dangerous and deadly fruit. His lifelong pursuit of wisdom became a godless endeavor designed to satisfy his ceaseless longing for more.

Yet Solomon was able to tell his son, “do not lose sight of these—keep sound wisdom and discretion, and they will be life for your soul and adornment for your neck” (Proverbs 3:21-22 ESV). He promises that they will provide security and a lack of fear. But notice how Solomon qualifies his promise.

…for the Lord will be your confidence
    and will keep your foot from being caught. – Proverbs 3:26 ESV

Wisdom and discretion were not to be the goal. They were simply the outcome. Solomon wanted his son to pursue the Lord. He wanted God to be his son’s greatest desire. If he would put God first, the rest would come as an added and welcome benefit. But Eve had made the possession of wisdom of more value than her personal relationship with the God of wisdom. Knowing what God knows was more important to her than simply knowing God. Becoming her own god with the power to decide what she deemed right and wrong led her to disobey and deny God. She became wise and, at the same time, discovered that she was a fool.

At that moment their eyes were opened, and they suddenly felt shame at their nakedness. – Genesis 3:7 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

 

Leadership Is a Privilege, Not a Right

1 “And now, O priests, this command is for you. If you will not listen, if you will not take it to heart to give honor to my name, says the Lord of hosts, then I will send the curse upon you and I will curse your blessings. Indeed, I have already cursed them, because you do not lay it to heart. Behold, I will rebuke your offspring, and spread dung on your faces, the dung of your offerings, and you shall be taken away with it. So shall you know that I have sent this command to you, that my covenant with Levi may stand, says the Lord of hosts. My covenant with him was one of life and peace, and I gave them to him. It was a covenant of fear, and he feared me. He stood in awe of my name. True instruction was in his mouth, and no wrong was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and he turned many from iniquity. For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. But you have turned aside from the way. You have caused many to stumble by your instruction. You have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the Lord of hosts, and so I make you despised and abased before all the people, inasmuch as you do not keep my ways but show partiality in your instruction.” – Malachi 2:1-9 ESV

The tribe of Levi had been given the special privilege of serving God with the responsibility of overseeing the tabernacle and everything associated with it.

Then the Lord said to Aaron: “You, your sons, and your relatives from the tribe of Levi will be held responsible for any offenses related to the sanctuary. But you and your sons alone will be held responsible for violations connected with the priesthood.

“Bring your relatives of the tribe of Levi—your ancestral tribe—to assist you and your sons as you perform the sacred duties in front of the Tabernacle of the Covenant.

“You yourselves must perform the sacred duties inside the sanctuary and at the altar. If you follow these instructions, the Lord’s anger will never again blaze against the people of Israel. I myself have chosen your fellow Levites from among the Israelites to be your special assistants. They are a gift to you, dedicated to the Lord for service in the Tabernacle.” – Numbers 18:1-2, 5-6 NLT

But at the time Malachi penned his prophetic pronouncement, the Levitical priesthood was guilty of neglecting its duties and treating its priestly responsibilities as a burden and not a blessing. The men given the responsibility of caring for God’s house found their duties to be a drudgery, not a delight. They even claimed, “It’s too hard to serve the Lord” (Malachi 1:13 NLT) and rejected God’s commands as too difficult and burdensome. In a real sense, their hearts were not in their work, and that is exactly what God has to say about their behavior.

“If you will not listen, if you will not take it to heart to give honor to my name, says the Lord of hosts, then I will send the curse upon you and I will curse your blessings. Indeed, I have already cursed them, because you do not lay it to heart.” – Malachi 2:2 ESV

God expected heartfelt obedience to His commands, and His emphasis on the condition of their hearts was meant to reveal the true nature of their problem. This wasn’t a case of simple neglect or poor planning. Their failure to follow through on their commitment wasn’t due to overwork or lack of resources. They simply didn’t have the heart for it because their hearts were far from God.

“The word ‘heart’ (leb/lebab) denotes in Hebrew what may be called the command center of a person’s life, where knowledge is collected and considered and where decisions and plans are made that determine the direction of one’s life.” – Footnote 173: H. W. Wolff, Anthropology of the Old Testament, p. 40.

These men were supposed to be the spiritual leaders of Israel but instead, they were setting a dangerous precedent for those under their care. If the restored remnant of Israel was going to survive their return to Judah and enjoy the blessings God had in store for them, it would only happen if the priests faithfully fulfilled their God-given responsibilities. But God’s priests were guilty of the very same sin that had led to Israel’s banishment from Judah in the first place.

“These people draw near to Me with their mouths and honor Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me. Their worship of Me is but rules taught by men. – Isaiah 29:13 BSB

God holds spiritual leaders to a higher standard because, as His shepherds, they are responsible for the care of His flock. They serve as His undershepherds and must give an account for the way they have nurtured those under their care. And as for the Levitical priests, they were also responsible for the sacrificial system God had decreed.

“Tell Aaron and his sons to be very careful with the sacred gifts that the Israelites set apart for me, so they do not bring shame on my holy name. I am the Lord.

“The priests must follow my instructions carefully. Otherwise they will be punished for their sin and will die for violating my instructions. I am the Lord who makes them holy. – Leviticus 22:2, 9 NLT

Malachi delivers God’s stinging rebuke to these heartless and faithless priests, warning them that they were about to be cursed for their infidelity.

“I will punish your descendants and splatter your faces with the manure from your festival sacrifices, and I will throw you on the manure pile.” – Malachi 2:3 NLT

“The disgusting picture is of God taking the internal waste of the sacrificial animals and smearing it on the priests’ faces. Consequently both sacrifices and priests would have to be taken outside for disposal. This play on words communicates a double curse.” – Thomas L. Constable, Notes of Malachi

God was threatening to use their defiled sacrifices to defile them. He would no longer allow them to defame His name by their failure to execute their priestly responsibilities with integrity and honor. In a sense, God was warning that He was about to clean house. He remained committed to His covenant with the tribe of Levi.

“They shall teach Jacob your rules
    and Israel your law;
they shall put incense before you
    and whole burnt offerings on your altar.” – Deuteronomy 33:10 ESV

But these particular men had forfeited their right to serve as God’s priests. And when God’s curse fell on them, they would finally understand the gravity of their sin and the sacredness of the priestly role they had once held. And God provides them with a much-needed reminder of how their forefathers had faithfully lived up to their job description, bringing God’s blessings upon the people.

“The purpose of my covenant with the Levites was to bring life and peace, and that is what I gave them. This required reverence from them, and they greatly revered me and stood in awe of my name. They passed on to the people the truth of the instructions they received from me. They did not lie or cheat; they walked with me, living good and righteous lives, and they turned many from lives of sin. – Malachi 2:5-6 NLT

God had kept His word and restored a remnant of His disobedient people to the land of Judah. Seventy years after Judah had fallen to the Babylonians, God had sovereignly arranged for King Cyrus to issue a decree that allowed a small band of exiled to make the long journey home and begin the restoration of Jerusalem. Under the leadership of such men as Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah, the walls had been rebuilt, the gates rehung, and the temple had risen majestically from the rubble. And the priests had been given the opportunity to renew their role as the spiritual leaders of Israel, providing instruction in the law and overseeing the recently reinstituted sacrificial system. Yet, despite all the blessings God had poured out on the nation of Israel, the priests had dropped the ball.

“But you priests have left God’s paths. Your instructions have caused many to stumble into sin. You have corrupted the covenant I made with the Levites…” – Malachi 2:8 NLT

It’s essential to understand the serious nature of their sin. These men had not just led poorly, they had purposefully misled and misguided the people. Their teaching of the law had been inaccurate and confusing. They were guilty of misinterpreting and misrepresenting God’s commands, causing the people to unknowingly violate the will of God. Their propensity to offer unacceptable sacrifices meant that the peoples’ sins were never really atoned for. Unlike their forefathers, these men were liars and cheats, living unrighteous lives and causing the people to follow their example. And God was unwilling to allow their devastating actions to continue any longer.

“So I have made you despised and humiliated in the eyes of all the people. For you have not obeyed me but have shown favoritism in the way you carry out my instructions.” – Malachi 2:9 NLT

According to Numbers 18:32, their penalty should have been death, but God had chosen to punish them by diminishing their stature in the eyes of the people. Their fall from God’s good grace would be painful and swift. They had been set apart by God and given the responsibility of leading and feeding His flock. But they had ended up treating both their position and God’s flock with disdain. After 70 years in exile, the people of God desperately needed solid biblical instruction, godly leadership, and a sacrificial system that provided true atonement from sin. But these men provided none of the above. They twisted God’s words, misled His flock, and defiled the very sacrifices that should have brought atonement to God’s people.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

Learning to Recognize God’s Love

“I have loved you,” says the Lord. But you say, “How have you loved us?” “Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the Lord. “Yet I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated. I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert.” If Edom says, “We are shattered but we will rebuild the ruins,” the Lord of hosts says, “They may build, but I will tear down, and they will be called ‘the wicked country,’ and ‘the people with whom the Lord is angry forever.’” Your own eyes shall see this, and you shall say, “Great is the Lord beyond the border of Israel!” – Malachi 1:2-5 ESV

Whether we can accurately determine Malachi’s identity or not is irrelevant. What is important is that the author more than lives up to his God-given title of “my messenger.” Every word he has recorded is a message from Yahweh to His covenant people, the nation of Israel. For generations, these descendants of Abraham had enjoyed a unique, one-of-a-kind relationship with God that had made them the beneficiaries of His love and blessings. God had set them apart and declared them to be His prized possession, among all the nations of the earth. When He had successfully freed them from their 400-year captivity in Egypt, God had led them to Mount Sinai, where He spoke to Moses and delivered give the following message:

“Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.” – Exodus 19:5-6 ESV

And the people had eagerly responded, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do” (Exodus 19:8 ESV). Even before God had communicated the terms of the covenant, they had agreed to keep it. They liked the idea of being God’s treasured possession, so they wholeheartedly declared their intentions to keep whatever conditions He set forth. But it was three days later that God called Moses up to the top of Mount Sinai and delivered the content of the covenant agreement to which they had already pledged their allegiance.

When Moses returned from the mountaintop, he shared with the people all that God had told him.

Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the rules. And all the people answered with one voice and said, “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.” And Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord. He rose early in the morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel. And he sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen to the Lord. And Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he threw against the altar. Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people. And they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.” – Exodus 24:3-8 ESV

Moses revealed to the nation of Israel the Ten Commandments and all the associated laws that were intended to regulate their behavior as God’s chosen people. This God-ordained code of conduct was a non-negotiable regulatory document that would distinguish the nation of Israel from all the other nations of the earth. As long as they remained obedient to the covenant, they would be blessed. But should they choose to disobey, they would find themselves suffering severe and inescapable consequences.

But the history of the people of Israel reveals their epic failure at keeping their word. Once God had successfully planted them in Canaan, the land He had promised as their inheritance, they began to reveal their propensity for disobedience and unfaithfulness. They repeatedly violated the terms of the covenant and, despite constant warnings from God, they refused to repent and return to Him. Generation after generation carried on a dangerous love affair with the world and its many false gods, choosing the snub their noses in the face of the one true God. And eventually, God was forced to fulfill His warnings of retribution and destruction. That is why they had spent 70 years living as captives in the land of Babylon. God had warned them time and time again that He would remove them from the land of promise if they continued to violate His covenant and, in 587 B.C., the Babylonians had overrun the city of Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, and taken thousands of its citizens back to Babylon as slaves.

At the time Malachi wrote his message from God, a remnant of the exiles had been living back in Judah for years. The walls of Jerusalem had been rebuilt, the temple had been restored, and the sacrificial system had been renewed, but the people remained just as rebellious and disobedient as ever. So, through His “messenger,” God delivered a powerful reminder of His unrequited love and patience with his stubborn people.

Through Malachi, God declared the reality of His steadfast, unwavering love. Despite all they had suffered over the last 70 years, He had never fallen out of love with them. “I have always loved you,” He reminded them. And even their time in exile had been an expression of His affection because “the LORD reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights” (Proverbs 3:12 ESV).

But the people had a difficult time viewing the destruction of their city and their seven-decade-long internment in Babylon as evidence of God’s love, so they asked, “Really? How have you loved us?” (Malachi 1:2 NLT). From their perspective, it appeared as if God was angry with them and, even now, they suffered constant threats from their enemies and lived in a city that was little more than a shadow of its former glory. They had no king, no standing army, and little hope of ever seeing their fate reversed. As a result, they were distrustful of God, questioning His goodness and doubting His word concerning their wellbeing.

So, God reminded them of how they came to be His chosen people in the first place. He took them back to the births of Esau and Jacob, the twin boys born to Isaac and Rebekah. Malachi’s audience knew the story well. Before the boys were born, God had told Rebekah that the infants inside her womb represented two separate nations.

“Two nations are in your womb,
    and two peoples from within you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
    the older shall serve the younger.” – Genesis 25:23 ESV

God informed Rebekah that the younger of the two boys would become the greater nation. According to tradition, the elder son should have been the recipient of the father’s inheritance and the one to bear the blessing of the firstborn. But, through a series of somewhat underhanded, but clearly God-ordained events, Jacob, the younger of the two siblings, would become the next in line to receive the inheritance that had been passed down through Abraham to Isaac. Jacob had been “loved” by God.

“When He said here that He hated Esau, He meant that He did not choose to bestow His favor on Esau to the extent that He did on Jacob (cf. Psalm 139:21). He made this choice even before they were born…” – Thomas L. Constable, Notes of Malachi

God had chosen to break precedence and set apart Jacob rather than Esau, and it had nothing to do with either boy’s value or worthiness. In fact, the apostle Paul points out the undeserving nature of either child and explains the sovereign nature of God’s will concerning His decision.

…before they were born, before they had done anything good or bad, she received a message from God. (This message shows that God chooses people according to his own purposes; he calls people, but not according to their good or bad works.) She was told, “Your older son will serve your younger son.” In the words of the Scriptures, “I loved Jacob, but I rejected Esau.” – Romans 9:11-13 NLT

From a human perspective, it appears as if God showed greater favor to one son while disfavoring the other. But God did not completely abandon Esau. He simply chose to make His covenant commitment to the descendants of Jacob. God eventually gave Esau the land of the hill country, located around Moun Seir in Edom. In a sense, God blessed Esau by providing him with land as an inheritance, but Esau would prove to be unfaithful and idolatrous. His descendants, the Edomites, would be a constant thorn in the side of the Israelites. And when the Babylonians invaded the region, the Edomite cities and towns were also destroyed.

And when the Edomites declared their intent to reclaim and rebuild their devastated homeland, God warned them that he would prevent them from doing so.

“They may try to rebuild, but I will demolish them again. Their country will be known as ‘The Land of Wickedness,’ and their people will be called ‘The People with Whom the Lord Is Forever Angry.’ – Malachi 1:4 NLT

The Edomites would become an illustration of the futility and hopelessness that faces all those who are not in a covenant relationship with God. The only reason the Israelites had been able to return to the land and rebuild their former capital was that God had ordained it. The decree set forth by King Cyrus of Persia that had allowed a remnant to return to Jerusalem had been God’s doing. He had orchestrated it all. And, in doing so, He had proved His love for His chosen people yet again.

As the Israelites looked around them, they would soon realize that none of the neighboring nations that had fallen to the Babylonians would experience the same degree of revitalization as they had. Not even the Edomites, the descendants of Isaac, would ever rebuild their cities or reestablish their hold on the land. And this should have caused the Israelites to declare, “Truly, the Lord’s greatness reaches far beyond Israel’s borders!” (Malachi 1:5 NLT).

Both the Israelites and the Edomites were descendants of Abraham and Isaac, and both had suffered the judgment of God, having been destroyed by the Babylonians in the sixth century. Yet only Israel had enjoyed restoration after judgment. Despite what appeared to be their less-than-ideal circumstances, the Israelites were experiencing the love of God in the form of His covenant commitment. He had restored them just as He said He would do and He was not yet done blessing them. But, as the following verses will reveal, God did expect to see significant changes among His people.

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