Numbers — With God in the Wilderness:
“The Zeal of Phinehas”
Dr. J. Ligon
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
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’
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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’
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]
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