Numbers — With God in the Wilderness:
“The Zeal of Phinehas”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Please open your Bibles to Numbers 25. The last time we were in Numbers together, we were finishing the story of Balaam. And the last we heard of Balaam (or so we thought) was in these words in Numbers 24:25 —
“Then Balaam rose and went back to his place.”
And all of us all along had been a bit puzzled about this Balaam character because, for instance, in Numbers 24 he gives astounding prophecy that includes a prophecy of the coming Messiah, the star that will rise up out of Jacob — a prophecy that’s fulfilled in Matthew 2 when the wise men come to pay a visit to the Lord Jesus, having seen His star in the east, and they worship Him. It boggles our minds: how can this person make this prophecy, make these declarations about the blessedness of Israel, and yet not be a believer…not believe…not be one who has been won out of his pagan belief into the belief in the one true God?
Well, we actually learn about that tonight, because we’re told in Numbers 31:16 (and we’ll look there later) that after Balaam had finally convinced Balak that sorcery and supernatural curses were not going to work on Israel, he left Balak with a little advice, and we’re going to find out the advice that he left Balak tonight.
Let’s pray before we read God’s word.
Heavenly Father, we thank You for Your word. And as sobering as the story is that we’re going to read now, we know that You mean it for our instruction. The Apostle Paul told us that these things had been written so that we might not sin in the way Israel did in the wilderness; and yet the temptations that we’re going to behold in this passage tonight are temptations that we are all too familiar with. So open our hearts to hear You speak; open our eyes, open our ears to hear the word of the Lord. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
This is God’s word, beginning in Numbers 25:1.
“While Israel lived in Shittim, the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Take all the chiefs of the people and hang them in the sun before the Lord, that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel.’ And Moses said to the judges of Israel, ‘Each of you kill those of his men who have joined themselves to Baal of Peor.’
“And behold, one of the people of Israel came and brought a Midianite woman to his family, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the people of Israel, while they were weeping in the entrance of the tent of meeting. When Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose and left the congregation and took a spear in his hand and went after the man of Israel into the chamber and pierced both of them, the man of Israel and the woman through her belly. Thus the plague on the people of Israel was stopped. Nevertheless, those who died by the plague were twenty-four thousand.
“And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy. Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace, and it shall be to him and to his descendants after him the covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the people of Israel.’’
“The name of the slain man of Israel, who was killed with the Midianite woman, was Zimri the son of Salu, chief of a father’s house belonging to the Simeonites. And the name of the Midianite woman who was killed was Cozbi the daughter of Zur, who was the tribal head of a father’s house in Midian.
“And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Harass the Midianites and strike them down, for they have harassed you with their wiles, with which they beguiled you in the matter of Peor, and in the matter of Cozbi, the daughter of the chief of Midian, their sister, who was killed on the day of the plague on account of Peor.’”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
Balaam had failed to conquer Israel through supernatural curses. Balaam had failed to undermine the advance of Israel through sorcery. Balak’s design to get the famous seer, Balaam, to come and to place a curse on Israel had utterly failed. Israel was unfazed, and in fact Balaam had pronounced that Israel was blessed of God. But before he left, he suggested one idea to Balak: ‘Balak, let me suggest that you send some ritual prostitutes into Israel and approach the men of Israel, and invite them to come and feast with you at your feast for the Baal of Peor, and by that corrupt Israel to apostasy.’ [Now you say, ‘I don’t see that here! It doesn’t say that in chapter 24, verse 25, and it doesn’t say that in chapter 25, verse 1. You’re right. But it does say that…in fact, Moses tells you that in Numbers 31:16. That’s the small print that’s not recorded here in this passage.] Balaam’s wickedness is seen by this suggestion that he makes to the Moabites and Midianites for the undoing of Israel.
So tonight I want to look at seven things with you in this chapter as we study it together. I want you to see the scenario of Israel’s sin; I want you to see the sentence of the Lord on Israel’s sin; I want you to see the shocking defiance of the Lord by at least one Israelite, even in the face of God’s judgment; I want you to see the stunning response of one zealous priest; I want you to see the sovereign verdict of God on the whole episode; I want you to see the slain sinners identified publicly as an example; and, I want you to see the strike-down order from God. [How’s that for S’s? I worked a while this afternoon to get those S’s together for you!] I want you to see those seven things.
This whole passage stands as a grand warning, but also as a display of God’s just judgment and the meaning of the atonement. I want you to see here what sin deserves and what idolatry entails, and what punishment God required.
I. The scenario of Israel’s sin.
The first thing we’re going to look at is the scenario. Israel, having been spared from the supernatural endeavors of this famous pagan prophet, now willfully participates in sexual immorality and in idolatry. You see that in verses 1-3. Balaam, Moses tells us later in Numbers 31:16, Balaam suggests to Balak one more idea: ‘If they can’t be destroyed by my sorcery, if they can’t be destroyed by a supernatural curse, perhaps they will destroy themselves by apostasy. Perhaps they will destroy themselves through immorality and through idolatry. So here’s an idea. Take some of your Moabite women — in fact, take some of the prostitutes that are all around those temples of Baal, and have them invite some of those Israeli soldier boys to a feast. Israel has been in the wilderness a long time, and they’ve been eating the same thing over and over and over again. And you tell them about all the wonderful Midianite/Moabite food that it going to be at this feast, and you let them see some of those beautiful women, and you invite them to come to that great feast. And of course, when you feast it entails you bowing down to your gods. And so when this happens, when they come to your feast, bring them some of your prominent, attractive daughters, and have those daughters seduce them and invite them to worship your god. And then, by doing this you will assimilate them into your culture rather than experience them conquering you.’ It’s a pretty good plan. And unlike all of Balaam’s other efforts, it worked.
It could go without saying that God was displeased with this, but Moses does not forego saying God was displeased with this. He tells you at the end of verse 3 exactly what God thought:
“The anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel.”
God was furious with Israel, and at this moment a plague began to break out in Israel.
You see, these Canaanite fertility shrines were everywhere, and not only did they involve sexual immorality and idolatry and even child-sacrifice, what was going on here was that Israel was defecting from their loyalty and allegiance to the God who had saved them out of bondage in Egypt, and they were going after other gods because of their physical and sexual appetites. They were being utterly disloyal and unfaithful to the living God, and God’s anger was kindled. That’s the scenario of Israel’s sin.
II. The sentence of God on Israel’s sin.
What’s the sentence of the Lord? Well, that’s the second thing we’re going to look at. You see it in verses 4-5. The sentence is death…death on all the participants in this sinful activity. Notice what God says to Moses (verse 4):
“Take all the chiefs of the people and hang them in the sun before the Lord.”
You see, a plague is spreading through the camp. We’re told that in verse 9. And it was going to consume the whole nation unless punishment was meted out, unless atonement was made. And so in verse 4 the Lord commands that all the chiefs of the people who had participated in this idolatry and defection should be executed and publicly displayed as signs of His judgment and as atonement, so that Israel would be spared as a whole. And Moses, as you can see in verse 5, immediately gives commands that the Lord’s instruction would be enacted without delay: ‘Go out and kill all of those men who have yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor,’ Moses said. And so God’s sentence on the sin is death…death on all participants. And if that death is not meted out, then all Israel will be consumed because of this sin.
III. One Israelite defies God.
Well, it gets worse, doesn’t it? Because there’s not only the scenario of Israel’s sin and the sentence of the Lord, but there is this shocking behavior on the part of a very prominent son of one of the Simeonite chieftains.
In the middle of the children of Israel who were faithful — the loyal children of Israel who are gathered around the tent of meeting, and they’re weeping because of Israel’s sin…they’re having a congregational meeting, and they are praying and they are weeping, and they are begging for God’s forgiveness — while this is going on, strolling down the middle of the street in the camp of Israel comes this prominent son of the Simeonite chief, and he’s got a beautiful Midianite chieftain’s daughter on his arm. And he walks right down in broad daylight in front of the tent of meeting, and he walks her right over to the family tent, introduces her to Mom and Dad, and then goes into the bedroom. It is shocking, it is brazen, it is a public defiance of God. It is sin in the face of repentance. While Moses and the leaders of Israel who had not been involved in this sin are tearing their clothes and pulling on their hair, and pleading with God, begging God to spare His people and to forgive them for their sins, this man is publicly saying ‘I’m going to do this anyway. I don’t care what Moses says. I don’t care about the leaders of Israel. I don’t care what the priests say.’ Even while the godly of Israel are weeping at the tent of meeting over this grave sin, one of the leading sons of Israel brings one of the leading daughters of Moab and takes her into his tent.
IV. One Israelite responds to the public defiance of God.
And what happens next is absolutely stunning. It’s the last thing that you would ever expect a preacher-boy to do! But there’s a grandson of Aaron who is at this meeting. He’s the son of Aaron’s son Eleazar.. This is one of Aaron’s grandsons, and he watches this, and he is absolutely enraged. And that’s the fourth scene that we see. You see it in verses 7-9. It is a stunning, priestly, zealous response. He takes it upon himself to mete out immediate judgment and justice on the wickedness that he has seen in Israel. There’s no trial; there’s no warning; there’s no court; there’s no jury; there’s no permission; there’s no arrest warrant. There is just immediate death. Phinehas kills this Israelite chieftain’s son and this Midianite chieftain’s daughter in the very act of their consummating a multiple immorality. They’re not only involved in sexual immorality, they’re involved in spiritual immorality. It’s not just fornication that’s going on here: it’s idolatry; it’s apostasy. It’s turning the back on the God of Israel, the God who saves. And Phinehas kills them both right on the spot.
Now we read that, and you’re waiting to see what God’s estimation of it is going to be. And God doesn’t normally give priests the job of killing their sheep, killing members of the congregation. And you’re wondering whether God is going to rebuke or even bring judgment on Phinehas for taking the law into his own hand.
V. God vindicates Phinehas.
But the fifth thing we see in this passage is the sovereign Lord’s judgment of Phinehas, and that judgment is God vindicates him, and even rewards him for what he does. You see it in verses 10-13. God adjudges Phinehas’s action to be upright. In fact, listen to this extraordinary language (verses 11):
“Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel…”
God credits the actions of Phinehas with stopping the plague and quitting His wrath, and then He says:
“…in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy.”
In other words, God is saying, ‘Phinehas did exactly as I would have done. He acted like Me, and therefore he turned away My wrath from Israel.’ Phinehas is the kind of priest God wants around Israel — one jealous for His honor. And so in this passage He makes Phinehas a promise:
‘In your line there will always be priests in Israel serving Me, because I want priests like you around.’
But it doesn’t stop there, does it?
VI. God makes a public example of those who defy Him.
In verses 15-16, we see a sixth thing in this passage: the slain sinners are publicly identified. God makes them an example. It’s not enough that the name of this young man would be named once in the passage, but he is named again. And the daughter of this Midianite chief is named in verses 16-18 and in verses 14-15. The names of these two brazen sinners are recorded for all time.
Have you ever done something that you just hoped everybody would forget? But for a long, long time, every time you look into somebody’s eyes you’re wondering whether they remember that you did that? I was reading a fascinating article this last week about Linda Tripp. Does that name ring a bell? In all of the Monica Lewinsky scandals of a decade ago, she was one of the chief informers in all of this. Her life was so altered and interrupted and interfered with by the fallout of that scandal and the hateful attention that she was given. You will remember that she had dramatic plastic surgery, she changed her name, and she moved away from Washington. And this article was about an investigative reporter that went to try and find her, and she would not even admit who she was to this reporter. And understandably so. If you had experienced that kind of interference and that kind of intrusive and abusive response of the public, you’d want to be anonymous! Well, I’m sure these families didn’t want the names of these children remembered in this way, and certainly not the Israelite father of this son. And yet the name is written down, recorded for all time as an example of brazen sin.
You know, it’s a picture of hell, isn’t it? Because in hell there will be no covering up all of the things that we have done. They will be for all to see repeatedly and continuously, for eternity.
VII. God’s judgment on unrepentant sin.
But there’s a seventh thing that we see here. It’s a strike-down order. The Lord commands Moses to wipe out the Midianites. You see it in verses 16-18. God commands Moses to wage war against the Midianites, to collectively follow Phinehas’ example. You know, it’s so interesting. God tells Moses to harass the Midianites and to strike them down. It will be the last thing that Moses does before he dies, to hunt them down and destroy them.
What do we learn from this passage? We learn a lot.
We learn that there is no deliverance so bright, there is no victory that God wins on our behalf so glorious that it cannot be followed by the darkest of our sins.
After the victory of the Red Sea, there was the golden calf. After David was given a covenant promise by God in II Samuel 7, five chapters later there was his sin with Bathsheba. There is no deliverance so bright that it cannot be followed by the darkest of sins. That’s one thing we learn.
And really, that leads us to be ever vigilant. There’s no mountaintop so glorious, there’s no victory so great in our life that we can then let down our guards because Satan, the Bible says, is prowling around like a lion, waiting to devour whom he would.
There’s another thing we learn, too. Sorcery couldn’t get Israel here, but sex and idolatry did. If your guard is up in one place and you rebuff the temptations of Satan there, don’t think that he can’t come back and take another tack. He will, and he did here. Satan will use any temptation at his disposal to ruin us, and if we manfully resist temptation in one area, we must not expect not to face temptation in another. And many a believer has resisted faithfully in one area, and yet fallen in another. That’s why the Apostle Paul and the Apostle Peter and the Apostle John will plead with us, ‘Flee from idolatry; it will destroy you.’
But of all the great lessons in this passage, I don’t want you to miss this one: When we see Phinehas slay a man, and God spare Israel because of that atonement…that is judgment has been brought on a brazen sinner — just judgment…and thus Israel is spared, we are seeing a picture of how God works in the atoning work of Jesus Christ. What was it the Apostle Paul said in II Corinthians 5:21?
“He made Him who knew no sin to be sin, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”
You see what Paul is saying. He caused on that one man, God’s own Son, Christ Jesus, to fall all the guilt and all the punishment for all our brazen sin, that we might be forgiven and accepted and adopted in him. Hallelujah! What a Savior!
Our Lord and our God, we thank You for the book of Numbers, and we pray that You would grant us spiritual wisdom to see, hear, mark, learn, and heed the warnings and the promises of Your word. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Would you stand for God’s blessing.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
[Congregation sings The Doxology]