1 - 3 Leaders Rise up Before Moses
1 Now Korah the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, with Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took [action], 2 and they rose up before Moses, together with some of the sons of Israel, two hundred and fifty leaders of the congregation, chosen in the assembly, men of renown. 3 They assembled together against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, “You have gone far enough, for all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is in their midst; so why do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?”
This chapter is a low point in the history of Israel’s wilderness journey. Can it be worse after what we have seen in the previous chapters: the longing for Egypt again, the contempt for the manna and the refusal to enter the promised land? Yes, we see that in this chapter.
Probably this uprising takes place towards the end of the wilderness journey. If we apply this to the end of the Christian dispensation, the time in which we live now, we can learn two lessons. The first is that after all the unfaithfulness and decay that have occurred in the Christian testimony, the worst is yet to come. The complete apostasy of what is called “Christian” will overshadow everything that has already become manifest in wickedness in Christianity. The low point is the denial of the Father and the Son (1Jn 2:22).
The second lesson is that if a people do enter the land, heaven, this is not based on the faithfulness of that people, but on the faithfulness of the high priest. The value of the high priesthood of the Lord Jesus is indicated at the end of this chapter and in the following chapters. The blossoming staff of Aaron that we see in the next chapter (Numbers 17) is a telling symbol of this.
The evidence that this history refers to the end time of Christianity can be found in letter of Jude. Dathan and Abiram we recognize in persons who reject the authority (in Moses) (Jude 1:8). In Jude three phases on the way to apostacy can be distinguished (Jude 1:11). It starts with “the way of Cain”. This represents the principle of man who wants to build up his own righteousness before God, someone who wants to be accepted by God on the basis of his own works.
Then Judas speaks of “the error of Balaam”. In this we see the principle of a man who thinks he can serve God and at the same time serve the mammon. In the Christian church, that comes down to bringing in the teachings of people for money and power. This can be recognized in the ecumenical movement and the charismatic movement. The doctrines of demons have been introduced. It should not surprise us, for this is foretold by the Spirit: “But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron” (1Tim 4:1-2).
The way of Cain and the error of Balaam are the preparers for what Judas mentions as third in his letter, “the rebellion of Korah” or the overt, direct rebellion against God. Where Dathan and Abiram reach out to the leadership of Moses, Korah reaches out to the priesthood of Aaron. Korah is a Kohathite. The Kohathites have the most wonderful task in connection with the tabernacle. They may carry the holy objects. But that is not enough for Korah. He wants the position of Aaron.
What Korah actually wants is a position that elevates him above the people, so that he becomes a mediator between the people and God. This sin, the sin of a separate priest class, has become common in Christianity. It is to take the place that only the Lord Jesus is entitled to. He who desires, falls into the rebellion of Korah and will perish. That is strongly seen in the pope. The papacy is the terrible premise of being the substitute of Christ on earth. A separate priest class is completely alien to biblical Christendom.
Korah, Dathan and Abiram are joined by two hundred and fifty men of renown. It is difficult to remain humble when you are someone “of renown”. Pride and ambition are lurking to let that name speak. Often “men of renown” are not content to be well-known, but want more. There is no place for God and His Word in the lives of such men. They have filled the earth with their violence in ancient times and are the reason for the flood (Gen 6:4-7).
The rebels first flatter the people by saying that they are holy as a whole. To be holy, however, is not on the basis of a declaration by people, but on the basis of keeping the commandments of the LORD. Such a declaration is accepted by the people. Democracy is seen as a great gain. No one in the church wants to be deprived of that. Not a few men at the top, but everyone should be allowed to have their say. What people are blind to is that power lies with a few authoritarian figures among the people.
Korah wants to draw power to himself. If he can be a mediator, he has the whole people in his grip. The power of the spiritual class is enormous. Man likes to submit to leaders who caress their religious feelings (2Tim 4:3). Moses sees through what Korah wants (verse 10). We will be preserved from these deceivers and their flattering, seductive language when we listen to ‘Moses’ (cf. Lk 16:29), that is, when we listen to what God says to us in His Word.
Dathan and Abiram are Reubenites. Reuben is the eldest son of Jacob. As a member of his descendants, Dathan and Abiram claim the most important place among the people. Their behavior reveals their true nature. They refuse to obey Moses and accuse him of ruling over them. But Moses and Aaron do not assume their position among the people of God. God has given them that position (Heb 5:4). To acknowledge that is true wisdom. Whoever consciously opposes this by claiming gifts for himself without looking at what God has given, is nothing else but asking God to judge him. Dathan and Abiram want a place based on natural qualities.
This is how it happens in Christianity. We see that when people with a good mind and a quick talk claim or are given a prominent place.
4 - 7 Moses Lets the LORD Decide
4 When Moses heard [this], he fell on his face; 5 and he spoke to Korah and all his company, saying, “Tomorrow morning the LORD will show who is His, and who is holy, and will bring [him] near to Himself; even the one whom He will choose, He will bring near to Himself. 6 Do this: take censers for yourselves, Korah and all your company, 7 and put fire in them, and lay incense upon them in the presence of the LORD tomorrow; and the man whom the LORD chooses [shall be] the one who is holy. You have gone far enough, you sons of Levi!”
Moses falls on his face, he does not defend himself against criticism. He defers the case until tomorrow. This gives his opponents time to think. He himself has full confidence that the LORD will make everything clear. He puts the decision with Him, at ease about the outcome.
For the decision censers with fire and incense will be used. Maybe this means is used because the most sacred act of the priest, which brings the priest closest to God, is the bringing of incense. In connection with this the LORD has already shown once to the whole congregation of Israel how He by judgment has shown Himself to be the Holy One to those who have approached to Him with incense (Lev 10:1-3).
8 - 11 The Indictment
8 Then Moses said to Korah, “Hear now, you sons of Levi, 9 is it not enough for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the [rest of] the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to Himself, to do the service of the tabernacle of the LORD, and to stand before the congregation to minister to them; 10 and that He has brought you near, [Korah], and all your brothers, sons of Levi, with you? And are you seeking for the priesthood also? 11 Therefore you and all your company are gathered together against the LORD; but as for Aaron, who is he that you grumble against him?”
Moses reminds Korah of his privileged position and task. Whoever becomes proud of what he has received from the Lord, exalts himself above others. The exercise of a ministry in the church should never be a reason for assuming a special function as mediator, which only the Lord Jesus has.
12 - 15 Dathan and Abiram Refuse to Come Up
12 Then Moses sent a summons to Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab; but they said, “We will not come up. 13 Is it not enough that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness, but you would also lord it over us? 14 Indeed, you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor have you given us an inheritance of fields and vineyards. Would you put out the eyes of these men? We will not come up!” 15 Then Moses became very angry and said to the LORD, “Do not regard their offering! I have not taken a single donkey from them, nor have I done harm to any of them.”
Dathan and Abiram reject Moses as leader. They accuse him of being an incompetent leader. He has not brought them into a land flowing with milk and honey. On the contrary, they say that he has taken them out of a land flowing with milk and honey. They also accuse Moses of blinding the eyes of the people with beautiful promises, but nothing has come true. But it is exactly the other way around: people who have Egypt in their mind as a land that is flowing with milk and honey, are totally blind to God’s plan and are also totally blind to their own failures. They blind the eyes of others with their false talk.
Here Moses loses his patience. However, he does not express himself against his opponents but against the LORD. He does not take the law into his own hands. He leaves justice to the LORD. He asks the LORD not to look at their offering. With this he aligns them with Cain who came with a selfish offering and whose offering was not accepted by the LORD either (Gen 4:3,5a).
He also pleads with God about the selflessness of his conduct. He has never enriched himself at their expense. And he never has done harm to them. He has never behaved like a ruler who demands of his subjects and oppresses them. Samuel and Nehemiah acted in the same way as Moses (1Sam 12:3-5; Neh 5:17-18).
16 - 18 Firepan and Incense
16 Moses said to Korah, “You and all your company be present before the LORD tomorrow, both you and they along with Aaron. 17 Each of you take his firepan and put incense on it, and each of you bring his censer before the LORD, two hundred and fifty firepans; also you and Aaron [shall] each [bring] his firepan.” 18 So they each took his [own] censer and put fire on it, and laid incense on it; and they stood at the doorway of the tent of meeting, with Moses and Aaron.
The LORD will make it clear who may approach Him by the hand of the incense. The place where this happens is at the doorway of the tent of meeting.
19 - 22 The Glory of the LORD Appears
19 Thus Korah assembled all the congregation against them at the doorway of the tent of meeting. And the glory of the LORD appeared to all the congregation. 20 Then the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, 21 “Separate yourselves from among this congregation, that I may consume them instantly.” 22 But they fell on their faces and said, “O God, God of the spirits of all flesh, when one man sins, will You be angry with the entire congregation?”
The next day they all come to the doorway of the tent of meeting. Again God speaks of His desire to exterminate the whole people. But again the true shepherd reveals himself, to whom the people of God is dear. Moses does not take the opportunity to rid himself of his opponents. That is a great contrast with Korah, Dathan and Abiram. They have no heart for the people, for they drag it with them into destruction. By the intercession of Moses God saves the people (Psa 106:23).
God is called here the “God of the spirits of all flesh”. This name is also found in Numbers 27 (Num 27:16). This name indicates that God is omniscient, that He comprehends man’s heart, mind and will.
23 - 35 Korah and His Followers Judged
23 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 24 “Speak to the congregation, saying, ‘Get back from around the dwellings of Korah, Dathan and Abiram.’” 25 Then Moses arose and went to Dathan and Abiram, with the elders of Israel following him, 26 and he spoke to the congregation, saying, “Depart now from the tents of these wicked men, and touch nothing that belongs to them, or you will be swept away in all their sin.” 27 So they got back from around the dwellings of Korah, Dathan and Abiram; and Dathan and Abiram came out [and] stood at the doorway of their tents, along with their wives and their sons and their little ones. 28 Moses said, “By this you shall know that the LORD has sent me to do all these deeds; for this is not my doing. 29 If these men die the death of all men or if they suffer the fate of all men, [then] the LORD has not sent me. 30 But if the LORD brings about an entirely new thing and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that is theirs, and they descend alive into Sheol, then you will understand that these men have spurned the LORD.” 31 As he finished speaking all these words, the ground that was under them split open; 32 and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, and their households, and all the men who belonged to Korah with [their] possessions. 33 So they and all that belonged to them went down alive to Sheol; and the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly. 34 All Israel who [were] around them fled at their outcry, for they said, “The earth may swallow us up!” 35 Fire also came forth from the LORD and consumed the two hundred and fifty men who were offering the incense.
The sin of these men is a sin to death. In the course of this chapter we see a picture of the developments in Christianity. There is talk of three days. The first day is the day of the uprising. We see this in the early days of Christianity, when a priesthood class is created. The second day is the day of intercession by Moses. On this basis God gives a way to escape judgment. That way is the way of separation from evil (Rev 18:4; 2Tim 2:19b).
After all these centuries of unfaithfulness of the church, God has not destroyed the church, but has given it a new principle. That is the principle of separation from the evil of all human institutions. In church history we see that this mainly happens in the beginning of the nineteenth century. In the sabbath violator (Num 15:32-36) we see the picture that evil is being removed from the church. In this history we see that if evil is not removed from the church, the faithful themselves will have to depart.
Never before has it happened that people entered the realm of the dead, alive (Psa 55:15). It is the dishonor of the beast and the false prophet to be the first living beings to be cast into hell (Rev 19:20). What will happen to the beast and the false prophet is yet another clear indication that this history refers to the end time of the Christian testimony on earth.
36 - 40 The Bronze Censers
36 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 37 “Say to Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, that he shall take up the censers out of the midst of the blaze, for they are holy; and you scatter the burning coals abroad. 38 As for the censers of these men who have sinned at the cost of their lives, let them be made into hammered sheets for a plating of the altar, since they did present them before the LORD and they are holy; and they shall be for a sign to the sons of Israel.” 39 So Eleazar the priest took the bronze censers which the men who were burned had offered, and they hammered them out as a plating for the altar, 40 as a reminder to the sons of Israel that no layman who is not of the descendants of Aaron should come near to burn incense before the LORD; so that he will not become like Korah and his company—just as the LORD had spoken to him through Moses.
Here begins a special part of the book of Numbers. In this part, the priesthood in its glory is shown as the foundation for the entry of the people into the land. That a new section begins here, can be seen in some Bible translations. Those translations begin here with Numbers 17:1.
Eleazar is the third son of Aaron. The number three speaks of the resurrection. He is the son of the new life, he will become the high priest after Aaron’s death. He is ordered to remove the bronze censers from the fire and use them as a plating for the altar.
The bronze is not consumed by the fire. We can therefore say that the bronze speaks of the righteousness that can withstand the power of judgment. Herein we see a picture of the Lord Jesus, Who is not consumed by God’s judgment. Whoever sees the bronze altar is reminded of the judgment of the bands and of what is resistant to the judgment. It is an enduring testimony, as is the sprouting staff, of the priesthood.
41 - 50 Judgment and Reconciliation
41 But on the next day all the congregation of the sons of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron, saying, “You are the ones who have caused the death of the LORD’s people.” 42 It came about, however, when the congregation had assembled against Moses and Aaron, that they turned toward the tent of meeting, and behold, the cloud covered it and the glory of the LORD appeared. 43 Then Moses and Aaron came to the front of the tent of meeting, 44 and the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 45 “Get away from among this congregation, that I may consume them instantly.” Then they fell on their faces. 46 Moses said to Aaron, “Take your censer and put in it fire from the altar, and lay incense [on it]; then bring it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them, for wrath has gone forth from the LORD, the plague has begun!” 47 Then Aaron took [it] as Moses had spoken, and ran into the midst of the assembly, for behold, the plague had begun among the people. So he put [on] the incense and made atonement for the people. 48 He took his stand between the dead and the living, so that the plague was checked. 49 But those who died by the plague were 14,700, besides those who died on account of Korah. 50 Then Aaron returned to Moses at the doorway of the tent of meeting, for the plague had been checked.
On the third day the people assemble again against Moses and Aaron. Yesterday the leaders were judged. The people have not yet been judged. Yesterday the people fled, but what happened did not change their minds. Now the evil of the people is revealed. They speak of the rebels as “the LORD’s people” and blame Moses and Aaron for their death! And this while Moses has prayed for the people that the LORD will spare them (verse 22). They have not allowed themselves to be warned by the judgment they have seen.
Because of this attitude, God judges immediately. Moses sees how the crowd starts to fall. And again we see Moses’ love for his people and even more how much he knows what is in God’s heart of the plans He has with his people. He orders Aaron to take his censer with which he enters the sanctuary on the Atonement Day. The incense in it speaks of the Lord Jesus. If God smells this, it is for Him the reason to stop the plague. When God is reminded of the Lord Jesus, He can prove mercy.
Atonement here is done by incense and not by blood. That is exceptional. Moses has insight into the heart of God. The Lord Jesus once on the cross brought about atonement by pouring His blood. If we as believers sin, we must confess our sins and there is the “Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1Jn 2:1-2). Incense represents prayer (Psa 141:2; Rev 5:8; 8:3-4). Because of the intercession of the Lord Jesus not all the people are killed. He can point out to God what He has done on the cross and to Whom He is in the perfection of His Person.
We have arrived in the history of Christianity on the third day. The hallmark of that day is that the whole people are carried away by new teachings, ecumenism and charismatic movement, following what the leaders proclaim. Around us, people in large numbers fall prey to all these doctrines and practices. In order to remain standing, we need the Advocacy, Whom we see in the midst of the church of God. Seeing Him and His loveliness to God is the only thing that preserves us from grumbling and rebellion.