A Bible Study in Numbers 16:27-45 delivered on 13th May 2020
v27. “So they gat up from the tabernacle of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, on every side: and Dathan and Abiram came out, and stood in the door of their tents, and their wives, and their sons, and their little children”.
The scene is the Israelite camp in the wilderness. There has just been a tragic mutiny amongst the people against the authority of Moses and Aaron. The congregation has been complaining that Moses has not yet brought them into a land flowing with milk and honey. Korah, a Levite, along with 250 Israelite noblemen and two other leading conspirators – Dathan and Abiram – have tried to usurp the priestly office to themselves, which God has reserved only to Aaron and his sons. They have taken censers, or pans, full of burning coals, have placed incense in them, and have then presented them before the presence of the Lord at the door of the tabernacle, but the Lord will only be approved upon His own terms. To think that they could come into His presence as they thought fit showed how little the rebels really regarded His holy nature. By God’s grace, and following the earnest prayer of Moses, the mass of the people are now brought under conviction of sin, and they obey the command to flee from the wrath to come. They remove from the area around the rebel leaders’ tents, so that they will escape the coming stroke : “they gat up from the tabernacle of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, on every side”.
v28. “And Moses said, Hereby ye shall know that the LORD hath sent me to do all these works; for I have not done them of mine own mind”.
The Reubenites, Dathan, Abiram and On, had attacked Moses’ authority. Let them and those who followed them know that God has chosen and empowered Moses to lead the people to the Promised Land.
v29. “If these men die the common death of all men, or if they be visited after the visitation of all men; then the LORD hath not sent me. v30. But if the LORD make a new thing, and the earth open her mouth, and swallow them up, with all that appertain unto them, and they go down quick into the pit; then ye shall understand that these men have provoked the LORD”.
In order to strengthen the divine vindication of his office, Moses now announces beforehand precisely what form the judgement of God is about to take. If any of these rebels dies by ordinary natural means, then God has not sent me, says Moses. If any of them die in the manner of former judgements executed by God, by what might be termed ‘ordinary’ means of judgement, then indeed believe that I am a usurper, and have taken my authority upon myself. But if the rebels die by a special judgement which none of you has ever seen before, by the earth swallowing them up, then know that I am indeed God’s chosen leader, and that these rebels truly are wicked.
v31. “And it came to pass, as he had made an end of speaking all these words, that the ground clave asunder that was under them: v32. And the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up, and their houses, and all the men that appertained unto Korah, and all their goods. v33. They, and all that appertained to them, went down alive into the pit, and the earth closed upon them: and they perished from among the congregation”.
The Lord now causes a mighty earthquake to occur directly in the area of the rebels’ tents. God has ways of punishing the wicked that they never imagined. The Israelites have not witnessed anything like this before. As these people, who sought to outface God, are swallowed up by the bowels of the earth, Israel is given a unique, dramatic and terrifying earthly demonstration of the reality of hell, the place which the book of Revelation describes as “the bottomless pit” (Rev. 20:3).
v34. “And all Israel that were round about them fled at the cry of them: for they said, Lest the earth swallow us up also”.
What frightening shrieks those under judgement now utter. But they had had many opportunities to repent and had despised them. The rebels have also brought their families under judgement. We can be sure that God’s ways are always just. The children who suffered would either have reached the age of discretion, and so be responsible for supporting the rebellion, or else the very young would have been taken straight into their heavenly Father’s presence, to be in a far better condition than remaining on this sinful, God-rejecting earth.
v35. “There came out a fire from the LORD, and consumed the two hundred and fifty men that offered incense”.
The scene now moves to the other section of the rebels, Korah and the 250 princes. Suddenly, the cloud of God’s presence becomes a fire. The rebels are struck down dead in the wrath of God, whilst Moses and Aaron, standing right by them, remain totally untouched. The judgement is discriminating, and this is recorded for us as a warning to all men today. Many choose to reject the authority of God’s appointed Mediator, the Lord Jesus Christ. Many choose to blame God because their circumstances are not as they wish. Many, in the pride of their hearts, try to make themselves as God, dictating to Him what He should do. The rebellion of Korah, Dathan and Abiram teaches us that “God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29), and that “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31), but we also see God’s mercy to those who see their folly, and quickly repent.
v36. “And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, v37. Speak unto Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest, that he take up the censers out of the burning, and scatter thou the fire yonder; for they are hallowed”.
So there are now, lying upon the ground outside of the tabernacle, the smouldering corpses of 250 men, the incense still burning in their censers. Aaron’s son, Eleazar, who was a properly appointed priest, is now told to collect together the censers held by Korah and the 250 princes and to scatter the burning coals in a distant place beyond the camp, for God will have nothing to do with this unclean offering. The incense is not a pleasant fragrance in His nostrils, but a foul stench. It must be cast away, but the censers themselves have been used to make an approach to the Lord. So they have now become hallowed; they are now sacred objects which can never again be put to common use.
v38. “The censers of these sinners against their own souls, let them make them broad plates for a covering of the altar: for they offered them before the LORD, therefore they are hallowed”.
The rebels had brought about their own immediate deaths, having sinned with such a high hand. God now requires that their censers be burnt in a furnace and that the smelted-down metal be beaten into plates to be used as a covering for the altar in the tabernacle.
v38. “… and they shall be a sign unto the children of Israel”.
So in future, whenever the priests and Levites approach the altar of burnt offering, there will be a reminder in front of them of how they must never take lightly the task in which they are engaged, or be presumptuous in the manner in which they approach the holy God.
v39. “And Eleazar the priest took the brasen censers, wherewith they that were burnt had offered; and they were made broad plates for a covering of the altar”.
So, whenever the priests and Levites approach the altar, there, always in front of them, will be copper plating made out of the censers of the rebels whom God slew in His wrath. What a vivid reminder of disregarding the holiness of God and of the dangers of setting aside the authority of His word.
v40. “To be a memorial unto the children of Israel, that no stranger, which is not of the seed of Aaron, come near to offer incense before the LORD; that he be not as Korah, and as his company: as the LORD said to him by the hand of Moses”.
The plating on top of the altar is to be a reminder, not only to the priests and Levites, but to all Israel. Let none ever forget what God did to Korah and the 250 princes. Let none ever again dare to bypass God’sappointed priesthood. He alone determines how He will be approached. Even Aaron and his sons, the rightful priests, had to go through the most rigorous ceremonies of purification, before they could presume to approach the altar. They had to wash their bodies, and offer up sacrifices to atone for sin, and they then had to put on special garments. All this was in order to teach Israel the absolute holiness of God.
“I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me” (Leviticus 10:3).
God is too holy for any sinner to enter in to His presence in his own right. Only a designated priest devoid of any taint of sin can approach God as the mediator on behalf of the people. There is no one who can approach Him with, as it were, his own censer in his hand. The holy God can only be approached through His appointed priest. In New Testament Times, however, there are no God-appointed priests living on the earth. The office of priest became defunct in AD70, when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. The task of the priests was to offer up sacrifices and burn incense, but there is no altar and temple today, and so the office of earthly priest has been abolished. When Paul in his epistles sets down the officers of the New Testament church, there is no mention of priests at all. He refers to evangelists, elders, pastors and teachers, but not to priests. So if there is no way to God except through God’s priesthood, and if there are no earthly priests in the church, how are men to approach God? The answer is that God has provided a new priesthood, for we read in Hebrews 7:12, “The priesthood is changed”. There is now a new priestly order. No longer is it the temporary priesthood of the sons of Aaron, but it is now the eternal priesthood of the Lord Jesus Christ.
“There is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5).
So God has decreed that He may now only be approached through the priestly mediation of His Son.
“This man, because he continueth ever, hath an unchangeable priesthood. Wherefore he is able also to save to the uttermost them that come unto God by him” (Hebrews 7:24-25).
So Christ is the eternal priest through whom today all must approach God in order to be saved.
v41. “But on the morrow all the congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron, saying, Ye have killed the people of the LORD”.
How hard-hearted this people must be that they so quickly forget the lesson of the dreadful events of the previous day, the earth swallowing up Korah and his family and fire from heavens devouring the 250 princes. Despite such tokens of God’s anger, the people still persist in their rebellion against God’s appointed leaders Moses and Aaron. They even use religious language to justify their rebellion : “Ye have killed the people of the Lord”, they claim, arguing that the death of Korah and the rebel princes was the fault of Moses. These same people had witnessed the parting of the Red Sea, but still they had not humbled themselves in true repentance. Their continuing hostility to Moses and Aaron, therefore, demonstrates the utter perversity and darkness in the heart of unregenerate man.
This shows us that people can witness miracles, and even be terrified by God’s control of His creation, but still remain un-humbled and rejecting of God’s truth. People can engage in outwardly religious forms and ceremonies, but still have no real love for God in their hearts. Such is the wickedness of the heart of man that even mighty manifestations of God’s power do not move him to set aside the pride of his heart. The people here blame Moses for the deaths of the rebels, whereas it was Moses, by his urgent pleadings with the Lord, who had already prevented the deaths of all the rest of them.
v42. “And it came to pass, when the congregation was gathered against Moses and against Aaron, that they looked toward the tabernacle of the congregation: and, behold, the cloud covered it, and the glory of the LORD appeared”.
The cloud representing God’s presence was permanently above the tabernacle during the wilderness encampments, but now there is a special manifestation of God’s glory, because in gathering against Moses and Aaron, the people are gathering against God Himself. Even though they and just witnessed an earthquake swallow up the rebel leaders, yet they carry on in their rejection of the God who had been gracious to them in sparing them thus far.
v43. “And Moses and Aaron came before the tabernacle of the congregation. v44. And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, v45. Get you up from among this congregation, that I may consume them as in a moment. And they fell upon their faces”.
The Lord is now coming down against this people in His holy and righteous anger. He is full of mercy and compassion, but there comes a point where wickedness becomes so unrestrained that justice is more fitting than mercy. With God, mercy is never an obligation, but justice always is. Let not the unrepentant think that they can carry on with impunity in their defiance of God, for there will come a day when the door of God’s mercy will be firmly and irreversibly shut. We are told here in verse 45 that Moses and Aaron fell upon their faces to intercede on behalf of the people. In this they are again enacting a priestly role, and are thus prophetically foreshadowing the priesthood of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore the gospel calls upon men to separate themselves from those who rebel against God, to stop all their complaints against God, and to turn to the only One who can bring them into God’s presence, God’s appointed Mediator, our great High Priest, the Lord Jesus Christ. If men try some other means of access to God than that which He has appointed, they will inevitably fail. The priesthood of Christ is the only way that sinful men can ever be reconciled to the holy God.