Here is, I. An account of the rebels, who and what they were, not, as formerly, the mixed multitude and the dregs of the people, who are therefore never named, but men of distinction and quality, that made a figure. Korah was the ring-leader: he formed and headed the faction; therefore it is called the gainsaying of Korah, Jude 1:11. He was cousin-german to Moses, they were brothers’ children, yet the nearness of the relation could not restrain him from being insolent and rude to Moses. Think it not strange if a man’s foes be those of his own house. With him joined Dathan and Abiram, chief men of the tribe of Reuben, the eldest son of Jacob. Probably Korah was disgusted both at the preferment of Aaron to the priesthood and the constituting of Elizaphan to the head of the Kohathites (Num. 3:30); and perhaps the Reubenites were angry that the tribe of Judah had the first post of honour in the camp. On is mentioned (Num. 16:1) as one of the heads of the faction, but never after in the whole story, either because, as some think, he repented and left them, or because he did not make himself so remarkable as Dathan and Abiram did. The Kohathites encamped on the same side of the tabernacle that the Reubenites did, which perhaps gave Korah an opportunity of drawing them in, whence the Jews say, Woe to the wicked man, and woe to his neighbour, who is in danger of being infected by him. And, these being themselves men of renown, they seduced into the conspiracy two hundred and fifty princes of the assembly (Num. 16:2); probably they were first-born, or at least heads of families, who, before the elevation of Aaron, had themselves ministered in holy things. Note, The pride, ambition, and emulation, of great men, have always been the occasion of a great deal of mischief both in churches and states. God by his grace make great men humble, and so give peace in our time, O Lord! Famous men, and men of renown, as these are described to be, were the great sinners of the old world, Gen. 6:4. The fame and renown which they had did not content them; they were high, but would be higher, and thus the famous men became infamous.
II. The rebels’ remonstrance, Num. 16:3. That which they quarrel with is the settlement of the priesthood upon Aaron and his family, which they think an honour too great for Moses to give and Aaron to accept, and so they are both charged with usurpation: You take too much upon you; or, “Let it suffice you to have domineered thus long, and now think of resigning your places to those who have as good a title to them and are as well able to manage them.” 1. They proudly boast of the holiness of the congregation, and the presence of God in it. “They are holy, every one of them, and as fit to be employed in offering sacrifice as Aaron is, and as masters of families formerly were, and the Lord is among them, to direct and own them.” Small reason they had to boast of the people’s purity, or of God’s favour, as the people had been so frequently and so lately polluted with sin, and were now under the marks of God’s displeasure, which should have made them thankful for priests to mediate between them and God; but, instead of that, they envy them. 2. They unjustly charge Moses and Aaron with taking the honour they had to themselves, whereas it was evident, beyond contradiction, that they were called of God to it, Heb. 5:4. So that they would either have no priests at all, nor any government, none to preside either in civil or sacred things, none over the congregation, none above it, or they would not acquiesce in that constitution of the government which God had appointed. See here, (1.) What spirit levellers are of, and those that despise dominions, and resist the powers that God has set over them; they are proud, envious, ambitious, turbulent, wicked, and unreasonable men. (2.) What usage even the best and most useful men may expect, even from those they have been serviceable to. If those be represented as usurpers that have the best titles, and those as tyrants that govern best, let them recollect that Moses and Aaron were thus abused.
III. Moses’s conduct when their remonstrance was published against him. How did he take it?
1. He fell on his face (Num. 16:4), as before, Num. 14:5. Thus he showed how willing he would have been to yield to them, and how gladly he would have resigned his government, if it would have consisted with his duty to God and his fidelity to the trust reposed in him. Thus also he applied to God, by prayer, for direction what to say and to do upon this sad occasion. He would not speak to them till he had thus humbled and composed his own spirit (which could not but begin to be heated), and had received instruction from God. The heart of the wise in such a case studies to answer, and asks counsel at God’s mouth.
2. He agrees to refer the case to God, and leave it to him to decide it, as one well assured of the goodness of his title, and yet well content to resign, if God thought fit, to gratify this discontented people with another nomination. An honest cause fears not a speedy trial; even to-morrow let it be brought on, Num. 16:5-7. Let Korah and his partisans bring their censers, and offer incense before the Lord, and, if he testify his acceptance of them, well and good; Moses is now as willing that all the Lord’s people should be priests, if God so pleased, as before that they should all be prophets, Num. 11:29. But if God, upon an appeal to him, determine (as no doubt he would) for Aaron, they would find it highly dangerous to make the experiment: and therefore he puts it off till to-morrow, to try whether, when they had slept upon it, they would desist, and let fall their pretensions.
3. He argues the case fairly with them, to still the mutiny with fair reasoning, if possible, before the appeal came to God’s tribunal, for then he knew it would end in the confusion of the complainants.
(1.) He calls them the sons of Levi, Num. 16:7; and again Num. 16:8. They were of his own tribe, nay, they were of God’s tribe; it was therefore the worse in them thus to mutiny both against God and against him. It was not long since the sons of Levi had bravely appeared on God’s side, in the matter of the golden calf, and got immortal honour by it; and shall those that were then the only innocents now be the leading criminals, and lose all the honour they had won? Could there be such chaff on God’s floor? Levites, and yet rebels?
(2.) He retorts their charge upon themselves. They had unjustly charged Moses and Aaron with taking too much upon them, though they had done no more than what God put upon them; nay, says Moses, You take too much upon you, you sons of Levi. Note, Those that take upon them to control and contradict God’s appointment take too much upon them. It is enough for us to submit; it is too much to prescribe.
(3.) He shows them the privilege they had as Levites, which was sufficient for them, they needed not to aspire to the honour of the priesthood, Num. 16:9; 10. He reminds them how great the honour was to which they were preferred, as Levites. [1.] They were separated from the congregation of Israel, distinguished from them, dignified above them; instead of complaining that Aaron’s family was advanced above theirs, they ought to have been thankful that their tribe was advanced above the rest of the tribes, though they had been in all respects upon the level with them. Note, It will help to keep us from envying those that are above us duly to consider how many there are below us. Instead of fretting that any are preferred before us in honour, power, estate, or interest, in gifts, graces, or usefulness, we have reason to bless God if we, who are less than the least, are not put among the very last. Many perhaps who deserve better are not preferred so well. [2.] They were separated to very great and valuable honours, First, To draw near to God, nearer than the common Israelites, though they also were a people near unto him; the nearer any are to God the greater is their honour. Secondly, To do the service of the tabernacle. It is honour enough to bear the vessels of the sanctuary, and to be employed in any part of the service of the tabernacle. God’s service is not only perfect freedom, but high preferment. Thirdly, To stand before the congregation to minister unto them. Note, Those are truly great that serve the public, and it is the honour of God’s ministers to be the church’s ministers; nay, which adds to the dignity put upon them, [3.] It was the God of Israel himself that separated them. It was his act and deed to put them into their place, and therefore they ought not to have been discontented: and he it was likewise that put Aaron into his place, and therefore they ought not to have envied him.
(4.) He convicts them of the sin of undervaluing those privileges: Seemeth it a small thing unto you? As if he had said, “It ill becomes you of all men to grudge Aaron the priesthood, when at the same time that he was advanced to that honour you were designed for another honour dependent upon it, and shine with rays borrowed from him.” Note, [1.] The privilege of drawing near to the God of Israel is not a small thing in itself, and therefore must not appear small to us. To those who neglect opportunities of drawing near to God, who are careless and formal in it, to whom it is a task and not a pleasure, we may properly put this question: “Seemeth it a small thing to you that God has made you a people near unto him?” [2.] Those who aspire after and usurp the honours forbidden them put a great contempt upon the honours allowed them. We have each of us as good a share of reputation as God sees fit for us, and sees us fit for, and much better than we deserve; and we ought to rest satisfied with it, and not, as these, exercise ourselves in things too high for us: Seek you the priesthood also? They would not own that they sought it, but Moses saw that they had this in their eye; the law had provided very well for those that served at the altar, and therefore they would put in for the office.
(5.) He interprets their mutiny to be a rebellion against God (Num. 16:11); while they pretended to assert the holiness and liberty of the Israel of God, they really took up arms against the God of Israel: You are gathered together against the Lord. Note, Those that strive against God’s ordinances and providences, whatever they pretend, and whether they are aware of it or no, do indeed strive with their Maker. Those resist the prince who resist those that are commissioned by him: for, alas! says Moses, What is Aaron, that you murmur against him? If murmurers and complainers would consider that the instruments they quarrel with are but instruments whom God employs, and that they are but what he makes them, and neither more nor less, better nor worse, they would not be so bold and free in their censures and reproaches as they are. Those that found the priesthood, as it was settled, a blessing, must give all the praise to God; but if any found it a burden they must not therefore quarrel with Aaron, who is but what he is made, and does but as he is bidden. Thus he interested God in the cause, and so might be sure of speeding well in his appeal.