The Worst Sort of Grumbling: A Sermon from Numbers 16
Numbers 16:41–50 serves as a warning to myself and those who would be tempted to cast off God’s commands and chart their own path.
Our text today is a big one and I want to get you up to speed, so this is how I intend, Lord willing, to lead us through this passage. First, I will introduce you to the general setting of our text this morning. It’s a rebellion in a long line of rebellions. Then, I hope to introduce you to our main characters Korah and Moses. Moses, of course, needs no introduction, but for many of us this morning, Korah might. Then, we’ll slow down when we get to verse 42. So, if you feel like we are going fast in the beginning, just know that we’re doing a 30,000 feet pass over the Grand Canyon—it’s a lot to take in, yes, but you’ll get the gist pretty quick (It’s just a big hole in the ground). We’ll close by seeing ourselves in the story and finding how this is such an instructive and also reflective passage.
I believe that studying the Old Testament has great value and not simply because of the incredible people that you and I can encounter in our reading. Among many other things, the Old Testament introduces us to the 1) severity of sin and 2) the arch of redemptive history. Our brother Paul also teaches us that the Old Testament serves as a teacher to warn us not to fall into the same sins that Israel fell. I do hope by grace we can avoid the pitfalls we’ll see today in Numbers 16:41-50.
In case you are not familiar with the book of Numbers, I’d like to take a few moments and catch you up to speed on where we are at in our narrative.
The book of Numbers, despite the title, is not primarily a collection of lists. Instead, it is a follow up to the book of Leviticus and shows how the people of God are living out the Mosaic law. It takes its name from the census, but it tends to get a bad rap because people don’t like lists.
And yet, the lists show us, the readers, how faithful God has been to keep his covenant with Abraham. When the house of Jacob entered Egypt, Moses tells us in Gen 46:27, there were seventy people total. By the time the people are leaving Mt. Sinai to enter the promised land, the census showed over 600,000 fighting-age men—not including the women and children. That is incredible. Brothers and sisters, don’t despise censuses. They show us concretely how God is good to keep his promises.
Not only that but as they travel to the promised land, God’s glory rests over the tabernacle a cloud in the day and a pillar at night—physical manifestations of the presence of God in their midst.
But the people of God, we all, have short memories. They get hungry and miss the cucumber and watermelons they ate in slavery. They grumble and complain. Moses intercedes, and God stays his wrath.
Moses faces even the betrayal of Aaron and Miriam, his brother and sister, on account of his wife. They doubted that God spoke through Moses alone. God judges them, but Moses intercedes for his brother and sister.
God brings them to the edge of the promised land, but the people revolt because they believe that the Lord brought them into the wilderness to die. The Lord’s anger is kindled against them. How could they not remember how he parted the Red Sea and swallowed up Pharaoh’s army. What were Canaanites to the Lord God? Short memories. Yet Moses interceded, and the Lord stayed His wrath.
God indicts the people for rebelling ten times since coming out of Egypt. (Num 14:22—24) Now we arrive at our text today at yet another rebellion, but this one comes at the heels of a direct commandment.
God’s Law Provokes Rebellion in Sinful Hearts
We find ourselves in the wilderness, it’s hot and the people of God have just received a severe judgment—no one over the age of twenty can see the promised land. Imagine with me now why they might have license to grumble. It’s the Sinai Peninsula—the desert. They’ve been eating manna and quail for weeks upon weeks and the people are irritated. They’ve just seen a man executed for violating the Sabbath and Moses (Can you believe this guy?!) is telling them that God has told them to wear blue tassels on the corner of their garment.
If you think their grumbling is bad, I get irritated when I have to park two spaces further than I wanted to at a grocery store where every imaginable food is available to me.
Korah, Moses’s cousin, organized a rebellion against Moses. The assembly claims that Moses has gone “too far” and that “everyone in the congregation is holy.” (v. 3) They then demand to know why Moses thinks he’s more important than everyone else.
It’s at this point when I think we need to pause for a moment and consider what is really taking place here. On the face of it, things appear as though Korah’s rebellion, as this is known and perhaps you might see in your Bible’s headline, is against Moses.
Let’s do a bit of theological triage here to see what the root issue is working in Korah, Abiram, and On. Their response reveals a lack of humility and a lack of teachableness. Worse, their misguided frustration is not directed at Moses; it reveals that they either 1) Don’t believe that God is speaking through Moses, or 2) Don’t want to obey the word of the Lord.
This is a worship issue. Why do I say this?
After the spies return from the Promised Land and decide that the Lord is not great enough to give them victory over the Canaanites, the faithless die in a plague. Those remaining decide that wandering for forty years sounds like a pretty bad deal and they run into battle without God’s help, and they get annihilated. Number 14:44 say they “presumed.” I’m learning and being taught that it is an awful thing to presume the will of the Lord.
Graciously, the Lord instructs the people on how he will give them the promised land in his time. He says, “When you come into the land you are to inhabit.” He gives instructions for worshiping him, and very clearly, the Lord identifies Moses as his mouthpiece.
“But if you sin unintentionally, and do not observe all these commandments that the Lord has spoken to Moses, all that the Lord has commanded you by (through) Moses, from the day that the Lord gave commandment, and onward throughout your generations” (Num 15:22–23).
The people are given a tangible reminder to keep the commandments, their tassels. These are to remind the people not to look after their own heart and their own eyes, but remember and do the commandments of God—to be holy unto the Lord.
Korah and company have violated all of those tender warnings of the Lord. To the Lord’s command to not look after his own heart and eyes, Korah decides in himself that Moses has gone too far. To the Lord’s command to be holy to the Lord alone, Korah decides that everyone is holy. This is not a rebellion against Moses, this a revolt against God’s direct command.
Our flesh is unsettled by God’s law because it reveals our sin. Our brother Paul elucidates this in Romans 7:8,11: “But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. . . For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.”
Korah’s sin will lead to his death and all of us as well.
This Rebellion Spreads Despite God’s Judgement
If you’d have been reading Numbers up to this point, you’d know what happens next. Moses, being the most humble man on Earth falls to his face.
We could learn a lot from his reaction here: Korah needs a revolution to air his grievances. Moses begins to pray. Why does Moses begin to pray? For the same reason, he has during every other rebellion in the past few weeks. None of this is about him. The people’s hearts are hardened against Moses and God will judge them for this.
Moses asks Korah if he was unhappy with what God had already done for him.
“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” (Nu 16:9).
Korah is simply ungrateful. It isn’t enough for him that the Lord God saved him out of Egypt.
It isn’t enough for Korah that the Lord God fed him miraculously in the wilderness.
It isn’t enough for Korah that the Lord God walks with him night and day in the wilderness.
It isn’t enough for Korah that the Lord God had given him a position of service among the people of God.
It isn’t enough for Korah that the Lord God brought Korah near to him.
No, none of that is enough for Korah because he is unsatisfied with the Lord.
They want to go back to Egypt, which they call the land of milk and honey, (v. 13-14) therein despising the land the Lord has given them. The Lord judges them for this. The ground opens and the whole company is swallowed up.
And as soon as he had 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 out from the LORD and consumed the 250 men offering the incense” (Nu 16:31-35).
Grumbling Leads to Rebellion
Now, why would I say that grumbling leads to rebellion. I’ll remind you of something that we’ve already touched on. Old Testament narratives are not only history—even as they are not less than that— they are to teach us something about our own sin.
Despite God’s judgement against the wicked Korahites, the people grumble against Moses and Aaron. See with me here in vs. 41:
“But 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” (Nu 16:41–42).
Their grumbling reveals that they A) Don’t have a grip on reality and B) Plan on following in Korah’s footsteps. Why do I say that they don’t have a grip on reality? They saw the ground open up and swallow Korah and a supernatural fire descend and consume 250 men offering unauthorized incense. Moses didn’t do that, that man was eighty plus a few months old.
And, as we saw with Korah, their plans to assemble against Moses and Aaron are really an assembly against God Himself. In so doing, they have declared the rebellious company innocent. God will not have this.
Rebellion Leads to Judgement
God is so committed to holiness among the people of God that he will not tolerate insurrection against His holy command. Notice, Moses and Aaron do not take up arms against the people of God. Instead, they turn to the tent of meeting—the tabernacle—trusting God to vindicate them as he has since they were before Pharaoh. God intends on consuming the whole company.
Why? Our brother, the Apostle Jude, helps us here by interpreting the rebellion of Korah and the congregation as blasphemous and a rejection of authority. That makes this the worst sort of grumbling. This isn’t just mere grumbling—this is blasphemy. To Jude’s readers who needed to be reminded to stand for the faith he wrote:
“Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe. . .Yet in like manner these people also, relying on their dreams, defile the flesh, reject authority, and blaspheme the glorious ones. . . Woe to them! For they walked in the way of Cain and abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error and perished in Korah’s rebellion” (Jud 5, 8, 11).
The Lord will not —indeed it is against his very nature—to tolerate rebellion against His Word and command. As we’ve seen before in the book of Numbers, insurrection against Moses is insurrection against the Lord.
So now the horror begins. Unlike the ground opening up or all-consuming, precise-Tomahawk-missile-precise column of fire, the Lord’s judgement is in the form of a plague. Plagues are terrible and up to this point in the Bible, they’ve been a judgement reserved for the Egyptians.
God, however, is a merciful God as well. His justice against sin is match only by his covenant love. Even as the plague is unfolding, there is, with in the Law, a mechanism by which atonement can be made. Numbers 8:19 tells us that the Lord gave priests “to do the service for the people of Israel at the tent of meeting and to make atonement for the people of Israel, that there may be no plague among the people of Israel when the people of Israel come near the sanctuary.”
The plague ripped through the camp, killing all its wake.
That language seems distant to us this morning. I mean, we just had donuts and we are sitting in an air-conditioned room on comfy pews. It’s a nice Sunday morning and I’m talking about plagues annihilating camps. Please don’t lose your sense of mortality here.
The residents of Hawaii learned something of their mortality last week. You know what I’m talking about. An alert went out from the state’s emergency office that a ballistic missile strike was imminent. For Hawaiians it was the first time in the American conscience since perhaps the Cold War that we were afraid of a nuclear blast. I read one text that a mother sent to her sons: “We just got an inbound ballistic missile threat to Hawaii…should it be real…love you guys intensely and be faithful and I’ll see you in heaven.” Can you imagine? What a threat. After an agonizing 38 minutes, the state office sent a correction: False Alarm. There is no missile threat.
Yet, there is a threat: so many people live under the constant threat of facing God’s wrath independent from His Son, who made a wrath-absorbing sacrifice available to all who shelter in Him.
A threat now consumes the camp in the wilderness and it’s time for Moses and Aaron to get to work. Because Moses is righteous, he knows God’s word. Numbers 8:19 says God had given Aaron and the priests “to make atonement for the people of Israel, that there may be no plague among the people of Israel when the people of Israel come near the sanctuary.” Nu 8:19. He instructs Aaron to make atonement for the people “for the wrath has gone out from the Lord” (v 46). To say that the situation is dangerous is an understatement. God has made it clear that he plans on consuming the entire company.
I can imagine Moses directing Aaron here with sober-minded confidence. “Take your censer and put fire on it from off the altar and lay incense on it and carry it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them, for wrath has gone out from the Lord; the plague has begun.” Nu 16:46.
Moses loves these people. No spite in his voice. No desire for recompense. He wants to see them saved from utter destruction. And Aaron does as he’s told.
A Priest Can Stay Judgement
If someone ever gave me a Hollywood budget to make a movie, I think this is a scene I’d like to recreate. The awesome power of God bearing down and one man sprinting into the middle of the pestilence carrying the censor of incense.
What is a censor? Leviticus 16 tells us this is a vessel in which Aaron would place incense as part of the sin offering. Aaron acts in his full high priestly function to stay the judgement of God. This isn’t Aaron or Moses’s concoction in hopes that they will stay judgement. They are acting in accordance with God’s law to make atonement for sin. I want to stress that. God Himself is directing the atonement of His own people through the operations of the the priest Aaron.
Aaron stood between the dead and the living. Judgement was so swift, however, that 14,700 people perished before Aaron got in their midst. But those who were hid behind Aaron were spared.
God was just to judge those who had rebelled, and He was merciful to save those whom He saved. He vindicated Himself and Moses and Aaron through this act.
We need a priest too
And yet, Aaron, for as great of a high priest as he still needed to make sin offerings for himself. There is, indeed, a priest higher and greater than even Aaron. And he is ever interceding and pleasing for you, saint.
But some of you are under the illusion that there is no ground opening, fire, or plague waiting for you. Oh, be warned. There is worse. God’s silence towards you may be his judgement. Claiming to be wise, you scoff at the idea of God’s judgement against sin, you assemble against God’s word, and you suppress the knowledge of God. If you feel nothing today, pray that the Lord will not give you up to your futility or dishonorable passions.
That is a worship issue and we should not ever take God’s patience against our sin for granted. 1 Peter 3:9 warns “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”
The same word that provoke rebellion in Korah’s heart discerns the secret thoughts and intentions of all of our hearts. We are not hidden from God’s sight and we will have to give an account.
Just like the assembly needed Aaron to stand between the dead and the living, you and I need Christ, a great sympathetic High Priest, who offered a once and final sacrifice for sin, mediating it perfectly, guaranteeing a greater covenant. As the author of Hebrews says, “Draw near with true heart in full assurance of faith (in whom? Christ) with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Heb 10:22).