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Vengeance on Midian

Series: Numbers

Sermon on Mar 5, 2008

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Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Numbers 31
Vengeance on Midian

If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Numbers 31 as we continue our way thru this great Old Testament book in the Law of Moses. When were looking just a few weeks ago at Numbers 29, the focus was on corporate worship and on the worship of the sacrificial system.

When we were looking at Numbers 30, the focus was on vows and we saw a connection between vows and religious worship.

Well, when we come to Numbers 31, the focus is on vengeance, the Lord's vengeance on Midian. The content of this chapter is not pretty. It's yet another reminder that the Bible is not a children's book in the sense of being a story filled with nice bedtime fairy tales. It's a book of utter realism. It gives us the way things are. It spells out stories that aren't nice because we live in a fallen world. And because the world is fallen and because sin always is attached to misery, in a fallen world full of sin there are very hard things that happen.

Well, with that introduction let's look to God in prayer and prepare to hear His Word read and proclaimed. Let's pray.

Heavenly Father, this is your Word. We ask that as we hear hard things described in it that you would open our eyes to fully appreciate your goodness and the truth which you intend us to learn from it. These things we ask you to do in our hearts by your Holy Spirit in Jesus' name. Amen.

Numbers 31, beginning in the very first verse:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Avenge the people of Israel on the Midianites. Afterward you shall be gathered to your people.” So Moses spoke to the people, saying, “Arm men from among you for the war, that they may go against Midian to execute the Lord's vengeance on Midian. You shall send a thousand from each of the tribes of Israel to the war.” So there were provided, out of the thousands of Israel, a thousand from each tribe, twelve thousand armed for war. And Moses sent them to the war, a thousand from each tribe, together with Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, with the vessels of the sanctuary and the trumpets for the alarm in his hand. They warred against Midian, as the Lord commanded Moses, and killed every male. They killed the kings of Midian with the rest of their slain, Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian. And they also killed Balaam the son of Beor with the sword. And the people of Israel took captive the women of Midian and their little ones, and they took as plunder all their cattle, their flocks, and all their goods. All their cities in the places where they lived, and all their encampments, they burned with fire, and took all the spoil and all the plunder, both of man and of beast. Then they brought the captives and the plunder and the spoil to Moses, and to Eleazar the priest, and to the congregation of the people of Israel, at the camp on the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho.
Moses and Eleazar the priest and all the chiefs of the congregation went to meet them outside the camp. And Moses was angry with the officers of the army, the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, who had come from service in the war. Moses said to them, “Have you let all the women live? Behold, these, on Balaam's advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the Lord in the incident of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of the Lord. Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him keep alive for yourselves. Encamp outside the camp seven days. Whoever of you has killed any person and whoever has touched any slain, purify yourselves and your captives on the third day and on the seventh day. You shall purify every garment, every article of skin, all work of goats’ hair, and every article of wood.”
Then Eleazar the priest said to the men in the army who had gone to battle: “This is the statute of the law that the Lord has commanded Moses: only the gold, the silver, the bronze, the iron, the tin, and the lead, everything that can stand the fire, you shall pass through the fire, and it shall be clean. Nevertheless, it shall also be purified with the water for impurity. And whatever cannot stand the fire, you shall pass through the water. You must wash your clothes on the seventh day, and you shall be clean. And afterward you may come into the camp.”
The Lord said to Moses, “Take the count of the plunder that was taken, both of man and of beast, you and Eleazar the priest and the heads of the fathers’ houses of the congregation, and divide the plunder into two parts between the warriors who went out to battle and all the congregation. And levy for the Lord a tribute from the men of war who went out to battle, one out of five hundred, of the people and of the oxen and of the donkeys, and of the flocks. Take it from their half and give it to Eleazar the priest as a contribution to the Lord. And from the people of Israel's half you shall take one drawn out of every fifty, of the people, of the oxen, of the donkeys, and of the flocks, of all the cattle, and give them to the Levites who keep guard over the tabernacle of the Lord.” And Moses and Eleazar the priest did as the Lord commanded Moses.
Now the plunder remaining of the spoil that the army took was 675,000 sheep, 72,000 cattle, 61,000 donkeys, and 32,000 persons in all, women who had not known man by lying with him. And the half, the portion of those who had gone out in the army, numbered 337,500 sheep, and the Lord's tribute of sheep was 675. The cattle were 36,000, of which the Lord's tribute was 72. The donkeys were 30,500, of which the Lord's tribute was 61. The persons were 16,000, of which the Lord's tribute was 32 persons. And Moses gave the tribute, which was the contribution for the Lord, to Eleazar the priest, as the Lord commanded Moses.
From the people of Israel's half, which Moses separated from that of the men who had served in the army―now the congregation's half was 337,500 sheep, 36,000 cattle, and 30,500 donkeys, and 16,000 persons―from the people of Israel's half Moses took one of every 50, both of persons and of beasts, and gave them to the Levites who kept guard over the tabernacle of the Lord, as the Lord commanded Moses.
Then the officers who were over the thousands of the army, the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, came near to Moses and said to Moses, “Your servants have counted the men of war who are under our command, and there is not a man missing from us. And we have brought the Lord's offering, what each man found, articles of gold, armlets and bracelets, signet rings, earrings, and beads, to make atonement for ourselves before the Lord. And Moses and Eleazar the priest received from them the gold, all crafted articles. And all the gold of the contribution that they presented to the Lord, from the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, was 16,750 shekels. (The men in the army had each taken plunder for himself.) And Moses and Eleazar the priest received the gold from the commanders of thousands and of hundreds, and brought it into the tent of meeting, as a memorial for the people of Israel before the Lord.”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of holy, inspired and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truths upon our hearts.

How do you make sense of a passage like this? This is violence and brutality on an epic scale by anyone's measure. If this occurred in our own day and time, the news media rightly would characterize it as genocide, ethnic cleansing; the violent removal of an entire people from its land and the extermination of their persons by another ethnic group taking over their land. How do you make sense of this?

Well, let me suggest four things as we begin to wrestle with this passage. When you come to a passage like this in Scripture in which your first reaction is adverse, your sensibilities are offended, you must discipline yourself to set aside your adverse judgment or you will never learn the message of the passage.

Have you ever found this out when you were talking with someone who didn't like — say the doctrine of predestination and they came upon a passage that spoke about predestination? And they so didn't like predestination that they were not prepared to listen to what the passage was saying because they had a prejudice against predestination which caused them to refuse to hear what the passage had to say to them.

Also, when you come to a passage like this where your sensibilities may be initially offended by what you perceive to be some sort of a moral act of injustice. You need to set aside your adverse judgment or you’ll never get around to understanding what the passage is saying to you.

I'm not suggesting that it's OK for God to act immorally. He never does.

I'm not suggesting that we have to give a free pass to the actions of Israel. Very often that is precisely not what the Bible wants us to do with relation to Israel.

I'm not saying that moral judgment has to be suspended and in frozen animation indefinitely. But we must set aside our adverse judgment if we want to understand what the passage is about.

Second: we have to ask ourselves the question, “Why is this event recorded and why did God command this? Why was this event recorded and why did God command this?” Obviously because Paul tells me that all Scripture is given by inspiration and is profitable for my reproof, correction, and training in righteousness that the man of God may be equipped for every good work. He has a lesson for me to learn. He has a lesson for you to learn. And I have to ask the question, “Why is this recorded and what is it that God commanded this for and what does He want me to learn?”

Third — as we come to a passage like this it is absolutely essential that we remember that the Lord has already proved Himself to be marvelously good and impeccably upright in His dealings with us and all humanity. And that means that He deserves, at the very least, the benefit of our doubts until we can understand what it is that He's doing, why He has recorded this, and why He commanded it and what we are to learn.

So we are to set aside adverse judgment in order to understand the passage. We’re to seek to understand why it is recorded and why it is commanded and we are to remember that the Lord himself has proved Himself marvelously good and impeccably upright. And therefore, He deserves at the very least, the benefit of our doubts.

I well remember having a conversation with one of the brightest young women that I ever had the privilege to teach and disciple in the context of my youth group in St. Louis. And she had come from a liberal church background and had come to faith in Christ in the context of the Bible-believing evangelical church at which I was serving, flourishing under the pulpit ministry of our pastor, who was a faithful expositor of Scripture. All the members of her family had come to faith in Christ as well except for her father, and he later came to faith in Christ. But because of her liberal church background she struggled with a whole range of Bible doctrines, not the least of which was hell.

She came to me one night after a Wednesday night Bible study at the church, and she was deeply troubled to the point of tears, over the doctrine of hell. One reason she was struggling with it was because she knew at that time that her father did not trust in Christ. And she knew enough of the Bible's teaching that those who do not trust in Christ face the vast and eternal punishment and sentence of hell. As she spoke to me, I was rebuked, first of all, because she showed a greater sensitivity to the horrors of hell than I think I'd ever experienced. The very tears in her eyes as we discussed the topic said to me that this was not some sort of an abstract, academic subject for this young woman. This was a very pious inquiry by a young believer wrestling with an awful reality — eternal condemnation.

But in that course of conversation, I said to her (after discussing for 30 minutes to no avail), “Nancy, let me see if I've got this right. You are concerned that God might be doing something wrong and send someone to hell.”

She said, “Well, I mean, that's a blunt way of putting it, but I guess that is what I'm struggling with — that I think this might be wrong of God to send someone to hell.”

And I said, “Nancy, are you a sinner?”

“O, yes, I'm a sinner!”

“And did God save you because you deserved it or because of His mercy?”

“O, because of God's mercy. I deserved to be condemned for my sin. It was only of God's mercy that I've been saved.”

“Nancy, has God ever done anything wrong to you?”
“No, no. He's never done anything wrong to me.”

“So let me get this straight. You sin and God's never done anything wrong to you and He doesn't sin and He's good and just and upright and merciful, but, you, Nancy, a sinner, are worried that he might do something wrong?”

“O, I see your point”, she said. “That's a little bit ridiculous, isn't it, that I, a sinner, do deserve judgment might worry that God, who is righteous and upright and impeccable and just, might do something wrong?”

“It really is, Nancy.”

It was a wonderful conversation that night, but that's precisely what we have to do when we come to passages like this.

But there's one more thing. Remember, I said four. There's one more thing that we need to take in to account four things that Moses tells you about this passage.

Now, this is still all the introduction, you understand. These are not my four main points. There are going to be four main points in this message if I can get there. But I think that this important for us to work through because this is a hard passage and there are many more like it in the scriptures.

We need to take into account four things that Moses has told us in the passage.

First, Moses goes out of our way to make it clear that this is an action commanded by God. It is not an action initiated by Israel.

In other words, this is not sinful, greedy Israel wanting to kill everybody in Midian and take all their stuff. This is God who has commanded this to be done.

This is made clear not only in this passage in the very first verses of God's words to Moses, but it's made clear all the way back in Numbers 25:16-18. Do you remember that after the sin of Peor, when Balaam told the Midianites, “Look, I can't curse Israel with magic, but here's what you could do. You could send some of your women over to them and have them commit adultery with those men and thus inter-mingle your tribes and thus be spared the onslaught of these Israelites.”

And do you remember that after that happened, and after God brought judgment on Israel that God told Moses that the very last thing that he would do was what? Bring judgment upon the Midianites for the action of Balaam and for the action of the Midianite leaders in attempting to bring ruin to Israel.

And so Moses is making it clear to you that this is not an immoral action on the part Israel, but this is something which is done at the behest of God. God has commanded it.

Secondly, Moses tells you in this passage that this is an act of justice not an act of immoral revenge. It is an act of justice not an act of immoral revenge. In fact, all throughout Moses’ law there is every check put on the sinful tendency to immoral revenge, while at the same time God's just vengeance is displayed. The action here is justified as an act of God's judgment. A righteous verdict has been passed upon the Midianites. The Midianites wanted, and worked for, the destruction of all of God's people.

This military action commanded by God against the Midianites is simply the just sentence of God against the Midianites. This is a judicial act of the righteous judge giving them the sentence that they deserve. This is not done at the behest of ravenous, immoral Israelites, but at the command of a just God.

Third — think about it, my friends, if these Midianites are not dealt with, two tribes of Israel, which will dwell on their side of the Jordan, will be left literally in mortal danger both physically and spiritually. The Midianites have already tried to wipe out all the Israelites. What do you think they’re going to do when they only have two tribes of Israel to deal with on their side of the river? Two tribes of Israel would literally be left in mortal danger, physically and spiritually, if the Midianites are not dealt with.

And fourth, I want you to remember that the Lord was no less severe in dealing with His own people's sins as He is here with the Midianites. Do you realize that after the sin with the Midianites that the Lord sent a plague that took the lives of 24,000 Israelites? And there would have been more if it were not for the zeal of Phinehas.

No, God's justice is impartial. And as He has brought here judgment on the Midianites, so also he brought judgment on His own people.

So what are we to learn from a passage like this? Four things.

I. God hates sin.

And the first thing is obvious, isn't it? God hates sin! He absolutely hates sin. He is not indifferent to adultery. He is not indifferent to idolatry. He is not indifferent to the spiritual adultery of Israel. And their physical adultery and their spiritual adultery with Midian and Midian's conspiring to destroy the people of Israel through physical and spiritual adultery is something which is detested in the eyes of God. And as sin always deserves death that is exactly what is served up in this passage.

The Midianites, by adultery, physical adultery, sought to lure Israel away from God spiritually and thus destroy them. And God hates sin and so He visited death on His people and He visited death on the Midianites.

II. Syncretism is perilous.

Secondly, we learn in this passage that syncretism is perilous. Syncretism is perilous. Spiritual compromise with the worship of any other person or thing than the one true God is perilous and even if it promises delight it will only bring death. Sin always brings death, not delight.

In this instance, isn't it interesting that the children of Israel had born up and been protected as supernatural magic had been waged against them, as the black arts had been thrown against them. But when sexual indulgence was used as the temptation and Israel took the hook with the bait and committed spiritual adultery, anticipating the taste of illicit pleasures, the result was not blessing, but divine judgment. The result was not delight, but death.

And this passage reminds us that sin always brings with it death, not delight. And yet, repeatedly when temptation comes to us, what does sin always offer to us? Some kind of advantage. Lie on your resume. It will advance your career until it's discovered the day after the press conference when you've gotten the head coaching position at a prestigious national university and you’re fired.

Spread gossip to tear down your adversary. It will advance your own condition until you are discovered to be the source of the slanderous information that has been spread abroad about an innocent individual, and it's not that individual, but you who bears the responsibility and the consequence.

Take delight in someone you’re not married to. In all the wrong ways, it will be good. You’ll get all the things, all the emotional and marital attention that you’re not getting in your present relationship. Sin always promises delight, but it brings death.

Just as the Israelite men anticipated delight in this immoral union with the Midianites back in Numbers 25, and only experienced God's judgment, so also for us today any compromise in our worship of the one true God brings judgment and death.

III. Vengeance belongs to God.

Third — this passage interestingly reminds us that vengeance belongs to God. As I said before, the whole Law of Moses is designed to restrict, to confine, and to outlaw acts of personal retribution apart from the law against others.

In other words, it's designed to restrict the ability of Israelites to engage in acts of vengeance. And here, it's made so clear that Israel is not doing this on its own. God is commanding this to be done as an act of judgment. And that very fact that the raid on the Midianites is commanded by God reminds us that vengeance belongs to God.

In fact, this raid on the Midianites is a picture of the final judgment. You know, when we look at the extent of this, men and women and children and animals and everything, and when we hear that refrain “all the sheep and all the cattle and on and on and on. All, all fall under the what? The judgment, the sentence of Almighty God because vengeance does belong to God. And I want to say that on the day of final judgment Numbers 31 will seem like small business. So terrible will be the great day of the Lord of his righteous judgment against all who have rejected him and turned their back on his mercy.

Over and over the refrain is given to us in Deuteronomy 32:35, Romans 12:19, Hebrews 10:30 — “Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord. “I will repay.” That tells us that it is not our job in this world to exact vengeance, but it does not mean that vengeance will not be exacted. It means that God Himself will bring to bear His sentence in the final judgment and all that deserves to be repaid will be repaid.

IV. We must be ruthless in dealing with our own sin.

One last thing that we learn from this passage and it's this — the pursuit of holiness involves a ruthless dealing with the source and the occasion of sin.

In this instance, it's the sin of adultery with the Midianites and so both the Midianites as the source and the occasion of the sin and the sinful in Israel are exterminated. They are literally cut off. We say, “Yes, but that's the Old Testament.”

Really? Turn with me to Matthew 5. Here's Jesus talking about adultery.

Matthew 5:27

“You have heard it that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks on a woman to lust for her has committed adultery with her already in his heart. And if your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you. For it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you. For it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish than for your whole body go into hell.”

What is Jesus talking about there? Ruthless dealing with the source and occasion of sin.

Numbers 31 is just a picture of precisely what Jesus is describing in Matthew 5 — that everything that is a source and an occasion of our sin requires ruthless dealing in the pursuit of holiness.

And there's so many other things to learn from this great passage, but I leave these with you tonight. May the Lord bless his Word.

Let's pray.

Our Heavenly Father, this is a hard word, but it is Your Word and we see how You mean it for our edification and for our good. We acknowledge that You are the just and righteous God and that You never bring reckless, irresponsible, unrighteous judgment upon anyone, that Your judgment is always right. And that as the Midianites sought to destroy your people and to undermine your promise, they were the instruments of the evil one. And this judgment that You brought against them, You foreshadowed the judgment that You will bring against all of the wicked one day.

Grant, O God, that by faith we will not be numbered among them, but among those, who though equally sinners, have been ransomed by the shed blood of Christ, who Himself bore Your vengeance on the tree in our place.

We pray this in Jesus' name. Amen.

Would you stand for God's blessing?

Grace, mercy, and peace to from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

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