Here is, I. The people’s sin. They complained, Num. 11:1. They were, as it were, complainers. So it is in the margin. There were some secret grudgings and discontents among them, which as yet did not break out in an open mutiny. But how great a matter did this little fire kindle! They had received from God excellent laws and ordinances, and yet no sooner had they departed from the mount of the Lord than they began to quarrel with God himself. See in this, 1. The sinfulness of sin, which takes occasion from the commandment to be the more provoking. 2. The weakness of the law through the flesh, Rom. 8:3. The law discovered sin, but could not destroy it; checked it, but could not conquer it. They complained. Interpreters enquire what they complained of; and truly, when they were furnished with so much matter for thanksgiving, one may justly wonder where they found any matter for complaint; it is probable that those who complained did not all agree in the cause. Some perhaps complained that they were removed from Mount Sinai, where they had been at rest so long, others that they did not remove sooner: some complained of the weather, others of the ways: some perhaps thought three days’ journey was too long a march, others thought it not long enough, because it did not bring them into Canaan. When we consider how their camp was guided, guarded, graced, what good victuals they had and good company, and what care was taken of them in their marches that their feet should not swell nor their clothes wear (Deut. 8:4), we may ask, “What could have been done more for a people to make them easy?” And yet they complained. Note, Those that are of a fretful discontented spirit will always find something or other to quarrel with, though the circumstances of their outward condition be ever so favourable.
II. God’s just resentment of the affront given to him by this sin: The Lord heard it, though it does not appear that Moses did. Note, God is acquainted with the secret frettings and murmurings of the heart, though they are industriously concealed from men. What he took notice of his was much displeased with, and his anger was kindled. Note, Though God graciously gives us leave to complain to him when there is cause (Ps. 142:2), yet he is justly provoked, and takes it very ill, if we complain of him when there is no cause: such conduct in our inferiors provokes us.
III. The judgment wherewith God chastised them for this sin: The fire of the Lord burnt among them, such flashes of fire from the cloud as had consumed Nadab and Abihu. The fire of their wrath against God burned in their minds (Ps. 39:3), and justly does the fire of God’s wrath fasten upon their bodies. We read of their murmurings several times, when they came first out of Egypt, Exod. 15:1-17:16. But we do not read of any plagues inflicted on them for their murmurings, as there were now; for now they had had great experience of God’s care of them, and therefore now to distrust him was so much the more inexcusable. Now a fire was kindled against Jacob (Ps. 78:21), but, to show how unwilling God was to contend with them, it fastened on those only that were in the uttermost parts of the camp. Thus God’s judgments came upon them gradually, that they might take warning.
IV. Their cry to Moses, who was their tried intercessor, Num. 11:2. When he slew them, then they sought him, and made their application to Moses to stand their friend. Note, 1. When we complain without cause, it is just with God to give us cause to complain. 2. Those that slight God’s friends when they are in prosperity would be glad to make them their friends when they are in distress. Father Abraham, send Lazarus.
V. The prevalency of Moses’s intercession for them: When Moses prayed unto the Lord (he was always ready to stand in the gap to turn away the wrath of God) God had respect to him and his offering, and the fire was quenched. By this it appears that God delights not in punishing, for, when he has begun his controversy, he is soon prevailed with to let it fall. Moses was one of those worthies who by faith quenched the violence of fire.
VI. A new name given hereupon to the place, to perpetuate the shame of a murmuring people and the honour of a righteous God; the place was called Taberah, a burning (Num. 11:3), that others might hear, and fear, and take warning not to sin as they did, lest they should smart as they did, 1 Cor. 10:10.