************ Sermon on Numbers 25 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on January 15, 2006
I Attempts to Destroy God's People
A God was bringing His people from the bondage and slavery of Egypt to the freedom of Canaan. Everybody and his brother in the Middle East knew this. Exodus 15 tells us the reactions of the various nations while Israel was still at the shores of the Red Sea:
(Ex 15:14-16) The nations will hear and tremble; anguish will grip the people of Philistia. (15) The chiefs of Edom will be terrified, the leaders of Moab will be seized with trembling, the people of Canaan will melt away; (16) terror and dread will fall upon them. By the power of your arm they will be as still as a stone--until your people pass by, O LORD, until the people you bought pass by.Rahab, the prostitute, affirms that this is the reaction when she says to the two spies in Jericho:
(Josh 2:9-11) "I know that the LORD has given this land to you and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. (10) We have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. (11) When we heard of it, our hearts melted and everyone's courage failed because of you, for the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.
Every inhabitant of Canaan was shaking with fear. It was Moab, however, that especially dreaded the uncounted mass of Israelites camped on the plains before its doorstep. There was something terrifying about Israel and her God. Why, they even won a total victory over the might of the Amorites and Og. No weapon or army seemed strong enough to preserve Moabite land, life, and possessions. So in their fear and desperation the Moabites frantically tried to figure out any way to stop Israel.
B Their first attempt was with black-magic. They attempted to use the forces of darkness, of spirits and demons, of curses and spells to stop Israel. You know the story.
Moab, under King Balak and with the help of the Midianites, tried to buy the services of the best witch doctor around. They contracted for the services of Balaam. He was hired to put a curse on Israel.
God, however, had other plans. He opened the mouth of Balaam, the witch doctor, just like he opened the mouth of the donkey, and caused him to pronounce beautiful and unutterable blessings upon the people of God. The Bible indicates that Balaam said these blessings both against his own will and against the will of Balak, King of Moab. The Moabites, of course, were very upset with Balaam and did not pay his fee.
Moab failed, then, in its first plan to destroy the people of God.
C It wasn't only Moab that was defeated and humiliated by this first attempt. Balaam was too. So, it was Balaam who came up with plan number two (cf Numbers 31:16). If military might does not work, if black magic is not successful, let's try seducing Israel away from her God and His might with the sexual immorality and sin of Baal worship.
Why did Balaam pick this? Balaam somehow knew that God was a jealous God, that He tolerated no rivals, that He loved holiness, that He hated sin and punished evil. So, if Israel fell, Balaam had every expectation that the Lord God would do what Moab, and Og, and Balaam himself were unable to do. Balaam had every expectation that God would bring upon His people the same destruction He brought on the Amorites and the Egyptians.
II A Successful Plan
A The first plan failed. How did this one work? The plan was enormously successful. Balaam knew the weakness of the flesh and how to best exploit it.
The leaders of Moab sent young and pretty women – heathen women who did not know or serve Jehovah – to the camp of Israel. These pretty young women got the attention of the Israelite men and slept with them. They invited the Israelites to the sacrifices to their gods; actually these worship services held in honor of their heathen gods involved not only sacrifice but also group-sex-orgies. This happened in the shadows of the cliff Peor, on the holy hill of Baal, in the same place where Balaam had spoken the four blessings from God. So the Israelites broke not only the seventh commandment (You shall not commit adultery.) but also the first and second (You shall have no other gods. You shall not bow down to or worship an idol.)
B Not only did the Israelites fall, but the Lord Himself reacted as expected. He burned with anger and commanded the death penalty for all the leaders of the people. The leaders were to be killed because they failed to stop the people in their sins and because through their office as judge and leader they represented the people in their guilt.
Now, to make matters even worse, Israel hesitated to carry out this command. They did not want to kill those over them. They did not want to submit to God's justice. They did not want to preserve God's honor. They did not want to purify God's people. So God responded with a plague in which 24,000 Israelites died.
C Imagine the scene. A plague was raging through the camp. The Israelites were feeling first-hand the anger of God against their sin. Many of them were standing before the Tabernacle weeping in sorrow because of sin and the death of loved ones.
While this was going on an Israelite man came into the camp with a Midianite woman. He saw and heard what was going on. He knew the Lord was angry. Yet, right in front of God and Moses and all the people, he took the heathen woman into his tent to sleep with her.
This shows us how far Israel fell. This shows us the great success of Balaam's plan! In Israel sin was no longer sin; guilt was no longer felt; shame was an unknown emotion.
III A Broken Covenant
A It is the prophet Hosea who explains the incident in front of us from God's point-of-view. He says:
(Hosea 9:10) "When I found Israel, it was like finding grapes in the desert; when I saw your fathers, it was like seeing the early fruit on the fig tree. But when they came to Baal Peor, they consecrated themselves to that shameful idol and became as vile as the thing they loved.
Hosea, as you all know, uses the image of marriage to describe the covenant relationship between Israel and her God. To use this image, we would have to say Israel was an unfaithful bride to her husband at Baal Peor. Under the guidance of Balaam, Moab seduced Israel into breaking her marriage vows. Because of Balaam's plan, Israel broke the covenant relationship.
Up to this point in time Israel and God had been on a honeymoon. Israel was released from her bondage in Egypt and given a glorious freedom. Ever since He took her from Egypt, and even before, God had protected Israel like a groom protects his bride or like a hen protects her chicks. Every morning Israel was served a breakfast of manna in bed. God was as happy with Israel as a bridegroom is happy with his bride. Time and again God had sung the old love songs that were still new because the love itself was still new. From the mouth of Balaam himself God had said to His people:
(Num 23:9) I see a people who live apart and do not consider themselves one of the nations.
(Num 23:21) "No misfortune is seen in Jacob, no misery observed in Israel. The LORD their God is with them; the shout of the King is among them.
(Num 24:9) "May those who bless you be blessed and those who curse you be cursed!"
But now, now the honeymoon was over. Israel had broken her marriage vows. She had committed adultery against God.
B Before we condemn the Israelites and pat ourselves on the back we need to take a close look at ourselves. Who among us can say they have never chased after another god like Israel chased after the women of Moab? Who among us can say they have always been one hundred percent faithful to the Lord Jesus? Who among us can say they have never loved another? Who among us can say they have not bowed down before the idol of self or money or sex or pleasure or glory?
If we are honest, we have to say that we too have broken our marriage vows, we too have broken the covenant God has established with us.
IV Four Lessons
A There are four lessons for us in this story. First of all, we learn that covenant breaking is a very serious matter. All covenant breaking is always worthy of death and damnation. In Israel some 24,000 died as a result of the plague. As for the man who sinned while Israel wept, he also died for his sin.
In the New Testament covenant breaking is still worthy of death and damnation. All of us are guilty. All of us deserve the worst. But it is Christ Who suffers for us. What the leaders of Israel were not willing to do for the people Christ does for us: He takes on the death and damnation that we deserve.
B Second, we learn that the enemies of God and His people will one day be destroyed. The LORD said to Moses,
(Num 25:16-17) "Treat the Midianites as enemies and kill them, (18) because they treated you as enemies when they deceived you in the affair of Peor ..."We read about this destruction in Numbers 31:
(Num 31:7-12) They fought against Midian, as the LORD commanded Moses, and killed every man. (8) Among their victims were ... the five kings of Midian. They also killed Balaam son of Beor with the sword. (9) The Israelites captured the Midianite women and children and took all the Midianite herds, flocks and goods as plunder. (10) They burned all the towns where the Midianites had settled, as well as all their camps. (11) They took all the plunder and spoils, including the people and animals, (12) and brought the captives, spoils and plunder to Moses and Eleazar the priest and the Israelite assembly at their camp on the plains of Moab, by the Jordan across from Jericho.
What God did to those who hate Him and His people in the Old Testament He also does to those who hate Him and His people in the New Testament. All His enemies and mine He will condemn to an everlasting punishment (H.C., Q&A52).
C Third, the story in front of us reminds us that God's people are called to be a holy people, a separate people, a different people. We are not to conform to the ways of the world.
There is a reason for this separation. God sets His people apart to be a light to the nations, a lamp to those in darkness. But light, as you well know, sticks out only in darkness. A lamp that has gone out is good for nothing and gives light to no one.
D Fourth, we learn that God wants His people, like Phinehas, to be filled with a holy jealousy for the Lord.
You know what Phinehas did. When he saw the man of Israel enter the camp with a Midianite woman while everyone was weeping, he could not restrain himself. This holy man of God had seen enough and heard enough to last a lifetime. He was filled with a holy, passionate jealousy for the Lord. He was cut to the heart by the people's unfaithfulness. So he grabbed a spear and killed both the Israelite and the Midianite woman as they lay together.
The Lord praised this zeal, this jealousy. In fact, God says the zeal of Phinehas "made atonement for the Israelites." What Phinehas did in shedding blood for sin stopped God from destroying the people.
Today, my brothers and sisters, we still need people like Phinehas to be filled with the jealousy of God. We need people who can no longer remain quiet about sin and evil. We need people who are willing to take a stand for the sake of God and His honor.
Anne Hendershott, a professor of sociology at the University of San Diego, boldly uses in the title of her latest book, a word that many no longer speak. The book's name: "The Politics of Deviance." The word she dares to use, of course, is "deviance."Many behaviors that in the past were viewed as disruptive, eccentric or simply bad are now being relabeled and/or medicated. A surfer in San Diego recently claimed "surf rage" when he was arrested for nearly beating a fellow surfer to death for invading his "surf space." In Conyers, Georgia, a large number of very young teenagers were engaging in promiscuous sexual behaviors – some with more than 100 partners. The behavior led to a syphilis epidemic. While shocking, the response from some women's groups and sociologists was even more shocking when they suggested that girls are entitled to their own sexual desire or pleasure and that those who don't are depriving themselves of a full life.
She says, "We have become reluctant to label behaviors 'deviant.' Drug abuse, promiscuity, abortion, and even homosexual acts are all behaviors that in the past were viewed as deviant. Today, in many cases, these behaviors have been normalized."
"The power to label deviant behavior has moved away from the religious realm and been seized by influential interest or advocacy groups. Women's groups and gay-rights organizations, for instance, now have the ability to silence speech by those with whom they disagree. Health-care professionals and advocates have succeeded in medicalizing drug abuse and other behaviors.
What is especially sad is that some religious leaders have become reluctant to speak publicly of morals at all. The other side, of course, has no such hesitancy and they stand ready, willing, and able to redefine deviance for us.
You and I, like Phinehas, are called to be a hedge, a wall, a barrier against these sins.
But are we? I am reminded of what Ezekiel says. There was evil in the land then. And God says,
(Ezek 22:30) "I looked for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found none.
Isn't that sad?! In the days of Ezekiel God found no one willing to be like Phinehas. God found no one willing to be jealous for the Lord's sake.
Is it any better today?
One last thing I have not mentioned. Standing behind Balaam and his plan to destroy the covenant was Satan. And, Satan tries to do the same thing today that he did with Israel. Satan, in other words, still lures and tempts and entices and seduces with the sins of the flesh. Satan still tries to destroy the people of God.
But, we don't have to fear. We don't have to fear because we have someone stronger and better than Phinehas. That someone is the Lord Jesus. In shedding His own blood He made atonement once for all times for all sins.
You can e-mail our pastor at: Pastor, Trinity United Reformed Church
Back to Index of Sermons Page