August 22, 2007
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Here we see the some of the Levites coming to Moses and basically saying, ‘We want to be priests. We’re Levites, but we want to be priests.’ And they challenge Moses’ and Aaron’s leadership, and they defame them. You be on the lookout for how they do this, both those things — they challenge the leadership and they defame Moses and Aaron.
Let’s hear God’s word.
“Now Korah the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, with 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, two hundred fifty 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?’”
Thus far the reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He add His blessing to it.
I. The charge against Moses.
Now what’s the charge? How did they challenge Aaron’s and Moses’ leadership and defame them? Well, first of all they make two charges. They charge Moses and Aaron with malfeasance, with malpractice: “You’ve gone too far.” And, they charge them with self-appointment. Notice what they say: “Why do you exalt yourselves over the people of Israel?”–as if Moses and Aaron had waked up one morning and said ‘I think I’m going to appoint myself the leader of Israel today. How about you, Aaron? What do you think?’ Is that how it happened? No. So they are challenging the leadership (‘you’ve mis-practiced’) and they are challenging the divine appointment of Moses and Aaron. But remember now, you’ve already been told…who are these? These are sons of Levi. These are Levites, and they want to be priests. And what do they do? They say, ‘The whole congregation’s holy…who are you to say that they can’t minister and serve before the Lord as priests, because we’re all priests.’
One of my professors used to say, “You can never play one of God’s attributes over against another of God’s attributes.” In that sense, he was saying you can’t play God’s holiness over against His love, as if His holiness trumps His love, or His love over against His holiness as if His love trumps His holiness; that in God these things adhere together. They go together perfectly. They’re not in competition. And that’s true about other doctrines of the Bible, too. You can’t play one truth of the Bible against another.
And, yes, it is true that God had called them to be a kingdom of priests, but that is not a contradiction of the fact that God had said, ‘Who comes before Me to represent the whole of the people as priests? The sons of Aaron alone.’ And what was Korah, and what were Dathan and Abiram doing? They were playing one truth of God against another, because they wanted to be priests. Now Moses will spell this out in Technicolor in just a few moments, but that’s what’s happening in verses 1-3. Let’s continue on. There’s the first section.
II. Moses’ response
Second section, verses 4-7:
“When Moses heard it, he fell on his face….”
[Note-to-self: Something big is going on here. When Moses falls on his face it usually means that someone has insulted God, and it’s almost like the act of ducking for cover. You are waiting for the almighty judgment of God to come down, and so he is on his face.]
“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, and 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.’”
[And then listen to what he says.]
“You have gone too far, sons of Levi.”
There’s the second section.
Now you notice first of all what Moses does. What does he do? He takes their words and throws them right back at them. They had said what to Moses? “You’ve gone too far!” And he ends his conversation with them by saying, ‘Oh, no! You have gone too far!’
Moses is stunned by their open and arrogant rejection of the rule of God. Understand that this passage is not fundamentally about a challenge to human leadership. You know this is not the passage that the pastor gets to stand up and say, ‘Now if you ever disagree with me, you just watch out!’ Something much bigger than this is going on, because it is not ultimately Moses and Aaron who are being challenged here: it is God who’s being challenged, because God appointed Moses and Aaron, and God was bringing the children of Israel out of Egypt, and God was the one who appointed the priests (the sons of Aaron) as the ones who would minister before Him. So it’s not ultimately Moses or Aaron or the priests who are being challenged. It’s not ultimately human leadership that’s on the line. It’s God’s leadership that’s on the line here.
And Moses announces that God Himself is going to settle this dispute. ‘You’ve challenged me, you’ve called my leadership into question, you’ve told me that I’m self-appointed. Well, God will settle this dispute.’ And how does Moses do it? He says, ‘Look, you guys want to be priests? Here’s what you do. Go get a censer and fill it with fire, and show up before the Lord.’ Now what’s he telling them to do? ‘You want to be priests, you go get a censer like the priest does, and you go fill it with fire like a priest does, and you stand before the Lord like a priest does, and we’re going to see whether the Lord accepts Aaron and his sons or you. Come back tomorrow.’ Second section….OK. [Again, note to self: Notice that Moses gives them a day to think about it. Just file that one away.]
III. Moses responds to Korah.
Third section, beginning in verse 8:
“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? 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? Therefore it is against the Lord that you and all your company have gathered together. What is Aaron, that you grumble against him?’”
OK, what’s just happened? Moses has just hit the nail on the head. He has just publicly announced what they’re up to. They are Levites who want to be priests.
What’s going on? The sin of pride, the sin of jealousy, the sin of selfish ambition, and Moses is calling them on the carpet for it. He is publicly saying ‘Now let me tell you exactly what’s going on in your hearts. You’re prideful. You don’t think Levite is good enough for you. You want a higher rank. You’re jealous…you’re jealous of the role that God has given to the priests, and you’ve got selfish ambition.’ So he hits the nail on the head in this third section, from verses 8-11.
IV. The complainers refuse to obey Moses.
And then in verses 12-14, we see the fourth section:
“And Moses sent to call Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and they said, ‘We will not come up. Is it a small thing that you have brought us up out of the land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the wilderness, that you must also make yourself a prince over us? 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!’”
Now notice, Moses had said to the sons of Levi, “Is it a small thing that the Lord made you a Levite to serve before Him in the congregation, that now you want to be a priest?” And what do they say? “Is it a small thing that you led us out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” They mock Moses. They throw his words back at him. And basically, they say the same thing that who had said? That the people who had grumbled from Numbers 11 to Numbers 14 had said: ‘You’ve brought us out of Egypt to die in the wilderness.’ They say the exact same thing that had already–what? That had already brought the judgment of God against Israel. They complain about Moses’ bringing them out of Egypt to die in the wilderness.
Now what’s going on in that fourth section? This is what’s going on. Moses’ diagnosis in verses 8-11 is being confirmed to you by the actions of Dathan and Abiram. When Moses says ‘Now I’m summoning you to appear before me, I want to talk to you,’ and they say, ‘We’re not coming!’ by their refusal to even appear at Moses’ summons and by their crass and disrespectful words towards him, they are proving that he was exactly right in the diagnosis that he spoke in verses 8-11. That’s the fourth section.
V. Moses complains to God about his accusers.
The fifth section is real short — one verse, verse 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.’
In the fifth section, Moses lifts up a prayer of complaint to God, because once again what’s really going on here is not a rebellion against Moses and Aaron. What’s going on here is unbelief towards God, disrespect towards God, and disobedience towards God, and therefore Moses prays against them: ‘Lord, don’t respect their offering. Don’t receive their offering. Don’t accept their priestly ministrations.’ And then he declaims that he has done anything wrong to them, since they have accused him of wrongdoing.
VI. God commands the complainers to appear before Him.
The sixth section you see in verses 16-17. The test is reiterated:
“And Moses said to Korah, ‘Be present, you and all your company, before the Lord, you and they and Aaron tomorrow, 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, two hundred fifty censers; you also, and Aaron, each his censer.’”
So Moses in verses 16-17, the sixth section of the chapter, reiterates the test. They’re going to all show up tomorrow with their censers before the Lord, and the Lord is going to display which one of these two groups, the sons of Aaron or the sons of Korah and Levi, which one of them will serve Him.
VII. Moses intercedes for the complainers.
Seventh section, look at verses 18-22:
“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. Then Korah assembled all the congregation against them at the entrance of the tent of meeting.”
[And Somebody else showed up.]
“And the glory of the Lord appeared to all the congregation.
“And the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, ‘Separate yourselves from among this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment.’ 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?’”
Here they all are, the sons of Korah, the sons of Aaron, the whole congregation gathered before the Lord. God shows up and He says, ‘Moses and Aaron, back up; because I am getting ready to wipe the whole kit and caboodle of them out.’ God’s judgment is pronounced; the Lord speaks to Moses; He announces His judgment; and then what happened? Moses and Aaron say, ‘Lord, don’t wipe them all out just because of what Korah is doing.’ Sounds like Abraham, doesn’t it? ‘Lord, will You destroy that whole city if there are fifty righteous people in it? Forty? Thirty? Twenty?’ You remember the intercession! ‘Lord, You’re going to wipe them all out because of these 250? Lord, don’t do it!’ There’s the seventh section.
VIII. God pronounces judgment on the complainers.
The eighth section, verses 23-35:
“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Say to the congregation, ‘Get away from the dwelling of Korah, Dathan and Abiram.’
“And then Moses rose and went to Dathan and Abiram, and the elders of Israel followed him. 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.’ So they got away from the dwellings 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. 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. 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. 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.’
“And as soon as he finished speaking all these words, the ground under them split apart; 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. 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. And all Israel who were around them fled at their cry, for they said, ‘Lest the earth swallow us up!’ And fire came down from the Lord and consumed the two hundred and fifty men offering the incense.”
In this section, God’s judgment is pronounced on those who were in rebellion and carried out on all of them.
IX. God’s instructions about the censers — only God appoints priests.
The ninth section contains God’s instruction to Moses about what to do with those censers — the censers that had been brought before Him to make an offering:
“Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Tell Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, to take up the censers out of the blaze, and then scatter their fire far and wide, for they have become holy. As for the censers of these men who have sinned at the cost of their lives, let them be made into hammered plates as a covering for the altar, for they offered them before the Lord and they…’” [that is, the censers, not the men]… “‘… and they became holy. Thus they shall be assigned to the people of Israel.’ So Eleazar the priest took the bronze censers which those who were burned had offered, and they were hammered out as a covering for the altar, to be a reminder to the people of Israel so that no outsider who is not of the descendants of Aaron should draw near to burn incense before the Lord, lest he become like Korah and his company–as the Lord said to him through Moses.”
Every time the children of Israel from thenceforth and forevermore approached through the priest the altar, they were to be reminded, ‘Nobody comes to Me but by the priest that I appoint. You don’t pick your own priests. I appoint the priest. You come to Me in the way that I have revealed, on the terms that I have made, in the way that I alone make possible,’ God says to the children of Israel. And so the censers serve as an illustration and warning every time the children of Israel meet.
X. The people complain, God judges them, and Moses intercedes as mediator for the people.
Finally, in verses 41-50–what are you waiting for? Just like in chapter 14, you’re waiting for revival to break out. I mean, how clear can all this be? And what happens? You see an astonishing display of dullness of heart and the judgment of God:
“On the next day all the congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and against Aaron, saying, ‘You have killed the people of the Lord.’ And when the congregation had assembled against Moses and against Aaron, they turned toward the tent of meeting, and behold, the cloud covered it and the glory of the Lord appeared. And Moses and Aaron came to the front of the tent of meeting, and the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Get away from the midst of this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment.’ And they fell on their faces. And Moses said to Aaron, ‘Take your censer and put fire on it from the altar, and lay incense on it; then carry it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them, for wrath has gone out from the Lord, the plague has begun!’ And so Aaron took it as Moses had said, and ran into the midst of the assembly, and behold, the plague had already begun among the people. And he put on the incense and made atonement for the people. He stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was stopped.”
[There’s another sermon series on what the minister of God is called to do: to stand between the dead and the living, so that the plague may be stopped. But we don’t have time for that.]
“And now those who died in the plague were 14,700, besides those who had died in the affair of Korah. And Aaron returned to Moses at the entrance of the tent of meeting, when the plague was stopped.”
And now three quick things. What do we learn about God in this passage?
We learn something about His character. God is patient. You know, Moses says, ‘Come back tomorrow.’ They could have been judged right there, right then on the spot, but for twenty-four more hours, they had a chance to think about it. ‘Is this really what we want to do, or do we want to repent?’ God is patient.
God is forgiving. Twice in this passage God is ready to bring deserved judgment upon the whole congregation of Israel and twice, as He has given them a mediator, He spares the total judgment that they deserve.
God is forgiving, but God is holy. It is an awesome sight, is it not, to see the whole families of those in rebellion swallowed up in the earth, and have fire rain down upon them. And 14,700 die by the plague. This chapter is a picture of the character of God: He’s patient; He’s forgiving; but, He’s holy.
Second, we learn in this passage how vital it is that we trust and obey. Fundamentally, in their pride the sons of Korah here are refusing to trust in God (it’s the sin of unbelief); and, they’re refusing to obey God (it’s the sin of disobedience).
“Trust and obey,
For there’s no other way
To be happy in Jesus,
But to trust and obey.”
What a biblical truth that is.
And third and finally–and I wish I could elaborate on this–don’t we learn something about the indispensability of a God-appointed mediator here? This picture of Aaron running through Israel, swinging this censer around and saying, ‘Lord God! Don’t wipe them all out!’ They’ve just tried to reject God’s appointed mediator, and now he is standing between the living and the dead, and he is the one thing between them and the wrath of God. And it’s the picture of Christ standing in between the dead and the living, that the plague might be spared…except He bears the plague.
This whole passage is a glorious meditation on Christ’s mediation. Perhaps some other time….
Heavenly Father, thank You for this revelation of the indispensability of Your divinely appointed Mediator. May we ever praise and love and wonder at the mediation of Your Son, standing between the living and the dead, that the plague might not come upon us. Hear our prayers, O God. Change our hearts. Make us awake and not dull to Your truth. For Christ’s sake. Amen.
[Congregation: The Doxology]