Let’s remember that it’s the fortieth year since the Israelites left Egypt; and it’s the final year of their wilderness wanderings. They’re very near the end of their journey; and soon they’ll be crossing over the River Jordan to enter the Promised Land. But still there are obstacles in the way.
Last week, we read how Balak, the king of the Moabites, hired Balaam, that pagan prophet, to curse them. He wanted Balaan to curse them, so that they would be too weak to stand up to Balak and his army, because Balak wanted to drive them out of the land. But the Lord would not let Balaam curse the people, because they were his people and he was determined to bless them.
And do you remember? Through this pagan prophet, the Lord announced the good news of the gospel, because when Balaam spoke of a star coming out of Jacob and of a sceptre rising out of Israel, who will crush his enemies, he was announcing the coming of Christ the King, who was coming to the world to deliver his people from our sin and misery in this present evil age, so that we might live in peace and safety on God’s holy mountain in the new heaven and earth, where there will be no one and nothing to hurt us or to destroy our peace in the presence of the Lord. Balak wanted to destroy God’s people, but the Lord was determined to bless them; and through them to bless his people around the world with the forgiveness of sins and everlasting life in his presence.
Balak’s plan to curse Israel failed. But look what happened in today’s chapter. The people faced disaster and destruction, because of their own sinfulness. They turned from the Lord and joined their pagan neighbours in worshipping false gods. And so, the Lord sent a plague on them. But, before it was too late, this priest, Phinehas, who was filled with zeal for God’s honour, managed to make atonement for the sins of the people, so that the Lord turned from his fierce wrath. And, of course, Phinehas points us to Christ, our Great High Priest, who offered himself as the once-for-all sacrifice to atone for our sins and to give us peace with God.
The chapter can be divided into three parts. Verses 1 to 9 tell us about the sin of the people and its consequences. Verses 10 to 15 tell us about Phinehas and how the Lord rewarded him. And verses 16 to 18 tell us about God’s judgment on the Midianites.
Verses 1 to 9
Verses 1 to 9 tell us about the sin of the people and its consequences. According to the opening verses, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. And the people ate and bowed down before these gods.
So, there are really three ingredients in this unholy mixture. First of all, they indulged in sexuality immorality. Well, do you remember 1 Thessalonians 4:3 where Paul made clear that God’s will for his people is that we should be sanctified: and therefore we should avoid sexual immorality. That is true for God’s people in every generation: it was true for the Israelites in Moses’s day; it was true for the Thessalonians in Paul’s day; and it’s true for believers in our day.
And not only did the Israelites indulge in sexual immorality, but they did so with pagan women. And these pagan women invited them to their pagan feasts. And that’s the second ingredient in this unholy mix. Imagine how tempting their food must have seemed to the Israelites, who were living mostly on manna. But now these women were inviting them to eat the meat from their pagan sacrifices. So, they were being offered forbidden sex and forbidden food.
But the third ingredient in this unholy mixture is idolatry. Not only did they indulge in sexual immorality and eat the meat that had been sacrificed to idols, but they joined the women in bowing down before their false gods and in worshipping the Baal of Peor.
Forbidden sex and forbidden food led to forbidden worship. It’s for this reason that Christian people have always been warned not to get involved in close relationships with unbelievers, because Christians can be led astray so very easily, just as the Israelites were.
And, on this occasion, it led to disaster, didn’t it? We read that the Lord’s anger burned against them. That’s what we read in verse 3. And in verse 8 it mentions a plague. So, it seems that the Lord sent a plague against them, because he was angry with them. Since that’s the case, we should perhaps understand the Lord’s instructions in verse 4 about killing and exposing the leaders of the people as being the way to satisfy the wrath of God, so that the plague will stop. Although the NIV translates the Lord’s words as ‘kill them and expose them’, a better translation is that he was to hang them or even impale them before the Lord. So, they were to be killed and then hung up. And since we read elsewhere that all who are hung on a tree are under God’s curse, it suggests to us that the leaders of the people were to die under God’s curse as a way of removing God’s curse from the rest of the people.
However, in verse 5, Moses seems not to follow the Lord’s instructions, because in this verse Moses commands the judges to put to death, not the leaders of the people, but only those who worshipped the Baal. One commentator has suggested that the word for ‘leader’ in verse 4 can also be translated as ‘head’, which can either be used figuratively to refer to the head of a group of people; or literally to refer to the head of your body. And so, it’s possible that what the Lord meant in verse 4 is that the literal heads of the guilty ones should be hung up or impaled before him.
However, it’s not easy to make complete sense of what the Lord and Moses meant. What happened next is not entirely clear either. Moses tells us that an Israelite man — and later we discover that he was the leader of a Simeonite family — brought to his family a Midianite women — and later we discover that she was the daughter of a tribal chief in Midian. He did this right before the eyes of Moses and the whole Israelites assembly, who had gathered to weep and mourn before the Lord, because of the plague. Some interpreters understand this passage to mean that he brought the women to his tent to sleep with her. Others suggest that he brought this woman to introduce her to his family as his new bride. So, instead of marrying an Israelite woman, he wanted to marry a pagan woman.
Whichever it was, it was an offence in the eyes of the Lord. And so, Phinehas, this priest, saw what was happening; and he got up and left the assembly; and he took a spear in his hand; and he followed them into the tent; and he drove the spear through both of them. Again, some commentators think he killed them while they were engaged in sex. Others say that’s not the case. In any case, what Phinehas did stopped the plague, because he had — in a sense — impaled them with his spear, according to the word of the Lord. Nevertheless, 24,000 of the Israelites had already died, because of the plague which the Lord sent on them, because of their immorality and idolatry.
Verses 10 to 15
Verses 10 to 15 tell us about Phinehas and how the Lord rewarded him. The Lord said to Moses that Phinehas has turned God’s anger away from the Israelites. And he was able to turn God’s anger away, because Phinehas was as zealous for God’s honour as God himself is. The word zealous can also be translated ‘jealous’, which often has negative connotations. But the Lord is jealous for his name, in the sense that he does not want anyone to dishonour his name in any way or to give the honour that belong to him alone to someone else. It offends him when he sees someone doing something that dishonours his holy name. And it offended Phinehas as well, which is why he got up and killed this man Zimri and the woman Cozbi. And because of Phinehas’s zeal for God’s glory, God was going to reward him by making a covenant of peace with him and a covenant of a lasting priesthood with him and his descendants. So, one of his descendants would always serve as a priest before the Lord.
And the final thing the Lord said about Phinehas is that he had made atonement for the Israelites. And remember, there are two ideas behind the word atonement. The first idea is of a ransom, paid to release guilty sinners from the condemnation we deserve. The second idea is of washing, because God promises to wash away the guilt of our sins. By killing Zimri and Cozbi, Phinehas the priest paid the ransom to deliver the people from condemnation and he washed away the guilt of their sins.
Verses 16 to 18
Verses 16 to 18 tell us about God’s judgment on the Midianites. The Lord told Moses to treat the Midianites as enemies and kill them. Now, this is a little puzzling. You see, while Cozbi was a Midianite, the other women who led the Israelites astray were Moabites. However, the commentators explain that the Midianites and the Moabites were often associated with one another; and they could almost be treated as one and the same. And the Israelites went on to obey the Lord’s command, because in chapter 31 we read how they took vengeance on the Midianites and defeated them in battle.
Notice though that the Lord went on to refer to a deception. Do you see that in verse 18? The Midianites deceived the Israelites. Or they beguiled them. You see, in chapter 31 we discover that Balaam was behind what happened in this chapter. Balak had offered him a great deal of money to curse the Israelites. However, the Lord would not let him curse his people. And so, according to verse 16 of chapter 31 Balaam advised the Midianites on another way they could get the better of the Israelites. It seems he suggested to the Moabites that if they could turn the Israelites away from the Lord, then the Lord would turn on them in his anger. If they could turn the Israelites away from the Lord, then the Lord himself would destroy them. And that’s what Balak wanted: he wanted the Israelites to be destroyed, one way or another. And so, it seems that the Midianites deliberately sent the Moabite women to the Israelites to entice them away from the Lord. And, of course, they succeeded.
And we have the Devil to contend with, who tries to deceive us. Just as he deceived Eve in the garden, so that she disregarded the word of the Lord and relied on what made sense to her, so he deceives us, so that we disregard the word of the Lord and rely on what makes sense to us. ‘What’s the harm in sleeping with these women?’, the Israelites must have said to themselves. ‘What’s the harm in eating their food?’ ‘What’s the harm in bowing down to their gods?’ ‘What’s the harm?’ we say to ourselves when we’re tempted to do evil.
And yet, when we disregard the word of the Lord, when we rely on ourselves and not on him, when we put other things before him, we dishonour his holy name, because he’s the one to whom we ought to listen; he’s the one on whom we should rely; he’s the one who should be first in our lives. And everyday we dishonour him when we’re deceived by Satan and end us desiring and doing things which are contrary to God’s word. And therefore we deserve to be cut off, as Zimri and Cozbi were; and to be destroyed by a plague as the Israelites were.
However, let’s finish with the good news, because Phinehas points us to Christ, who was filled with zeal for God, and who loved his Father in heaven above all other things.
And just as Phinehas made atonement for the Israelites, so the Lord Jesus made atonement for us once and for all. But, of course, there’s a massive difference, isn’t there? Phinehas made atonement for the Israelites by killed Zimri and Cozbi. But the Lord Jesus made atonement for us, not by killing anyone, but by being killed. He was hung up on a cross and his side was pierced with a spear; and by dying in that way, he bore the curse that we deserve for our sins. And so, he turned the wrath of God away from us and onto himself, so that all who believe in him are set free from the condemnation we deserve for our sins; and we’re cleansed from all our guilt.
And then, just as Phinehas received an everlasting priesthood, so the Lord Jesus has received an everlasting priesthood, because though he died, he was raised, and he now lives forever to intercede for his people at God’s right hand. And indeed, he has made us priests, hasn’t he? So that we’re able to come before God to intercede for others; and we’re able to offer ourselves to God as living sacrifices, to love and serve him always.
And so, as we read about Phinehas, it should turn our thoughts up to heaven, and to Jesus Christ our Great High Priest, who has reconciled us to God by his death on the cross so that we have peace with God forever.