Here is, I. The insolence of Dathan and Abiram, and their treasonable remonstrance. Moses had heard what Korah had to say, and had answered it; now he summons Dathan and Abiram to bring in their complaints (Num. 16:12); but they would not obey his summons, either because they could not for shame say that to his face which they were resolved to say, and then it is an instance of some remains of modesty in them; or, rather, because they would not so far own his authority, and then it is an instance of the highest degree of impudence. They spoke the language of Pharaoh himself, who set Moses at defiance, but they forgot how dearly he paid for it. Had not their heads been wretchedly heated, and their hearts hardened, they might have considered that, if they regarded not these messengers, Moses could soon in God’s name send messengers of death for them. But thus the God of this world blinds the minds of those that believe not. But by the same messengers they send their articles of impeachment against Moses; and the charge runs very high. 1. They charge him with having done them a great deal of wrong in bringing them out of Egypt, invidiously calling that a land flowing with milk and honey, Num. 16:13. Onions, and garlick, and fish, they had indeed plenty of in Egypt, but it never pretended to milk and honey; only they would thus banter the promise of Canaan. Ungrateful wretches, to represent that as an injury to them which was really the greatest favour that ever was bestowed upon any people! 2. They charge him with a design upon their lives, that he intended to kill them in the wilderness, though they were so well provided for. And, if they were sentenced to die in the wilderness, they must thank themselves. Moses would have healed them, and they would not be healed. 3. They charge him with a design upon their liberties, that he meant to enslave them, by making himself a prince over them. A prince over them! Was he not a tender father to them? nay, their devoted servant for the Lord’s sake? Had they not their properties secured, their order preserved, and justice impartially administered? Did they not live in ease and honour? And yet they complain as if Moses’s yoke were heavier than Pharaoh’s. And did Moses make himself a prince? Far from it. How gladly would he have declined the office at first! How gladly would he have resigned it many a time since! And yet he is thus put under the blackest characters of a tyrant and a usurper. 4. They charge him with cheating them, raising their expectations of a good land, and then defeating them (Num. 16:14): Thou hast not brought us, as thou promisedst us, into a land that floweth with milk and honey; and pray whose fault was that? He had brought them to the borders of it, and was just ready, under God, to put them in possession of it; but they thrust it away from them, and shut the door against themselves; so that it was purely their own fault that they were not now in Canaan, and yet Moses must bear the blame. Thus when the foolishness of man perverteth his way his heart fretteth against the Lord, Prov. 19:3. 5. They charge him in the general with unfair dealing, that he put out the eyes of these men, and then meant to lead them blindfold as he pleased. The design of all he did for them was to open their eyes, and yet they insinuate that he intended to put out their eyes, that they might not see themselves imposed upon. Note, The wisest and best cannot please every body, nor gain the good word of all. Those often fall under the heaviest censures who have merited the highest applause. Many a good work Moses had shown them from the Father, and for which of these do they reproach him?
II. Moses’s just resentment of their insolence, Num. 16:15. Moses, though the meekest man, yet, finding God reproached in him, was very wroth; he could not bear to see a people ruining themselves for whose salvation he had done so much. In this discomposure,
1. He appeals to God concerning his own integrity; whereas they basely reflected upon him as ambitious, covetous, and oppressive, in making himself a prince over them, God was his witness, (1.) That he never got any thing by them: I have not taken one ass from them, not only not by way of bribery and extortion, but not by way of recompence or gratuity for all the good offices he had done them; he never took the pay of a general, or the salary of a judge, much less the tribute of a prince. He got more in his estate when he kept Jethro’s flock than when he came to be king in Jeshurun. (2.) That they never lost any thing by him: Neither have I hurt any one of them, no, not the least, no, not the worst, no, not those that had been most peevish and provoking to him: he never abused his power to the support of wrong. Note, Those that have never blemished themselves need not fear being slurred by others: when men condemn us we may be easy, if our own hearts condemn us not.
2. He begs of God to plead his cause, and clear him, by showing his displeasure at the incense which Korah and his company were to offer, with whom Dathan and Abiram were in confederacy. Lord, says he, Respect not thou their offering. Herein he seems to refer to the history of Cain, lately written by his own hand, of whom it is said that to him and his offering God had not respect, Gen. 4:5. These that followed the gainsaying of Korah walked in the way of Cain (these are put together, Jude 1:11), and therefore he prays that they might be frowned upon as Cain was, and put to the same confusion.
III. Issue joined between Moses and his accusers. 1. Moses challenges them to appear with Aaron next morning, at the time of offering up the morning incense, and refer the matter to God’s judgment, Num. 16:16; 17. Since he could not convince them by his calm and affectionate reasoning, he is ready to enter into bonds to stand God’s award, not doubting but that God would appear, to decide the controversy. This reference he had agreed to before (Num. 16:6; 7), and here adds only one clause, which bespeaks his great condescension to the plaintiffs, that Aaron, against whose advancement they excepted, though now advanced by the divine institution to the honour of burning incense within the tabernacle, yet, upon this trial, should put himself into the place of a probationer, and stand upon the level with Korah, at the door of the tabernacle; nay, and Moses himself would stand with them, so that the complainant shall have all the fair dealing he can desire; and thus every mouth shall be stopped. 2. Korah accepts the challenge, and makes his appearance with Moses and Aaron at the door of the tabernacle, to make good his pretensions, Num. 16:18; 19. If he had not had a very great stock of impudence, he could not have carried on the matter thus far. Had not he lately seen Nadab and Abihu, the consecrated priests, struck dead for daring to offer incense with unhallowed fire? and could he and his accomplices expect to fare any better in offering incense with unhallowed hands? Yet, to confront Moses and Aaron, in the height of his pride he thus bids defiance to Heaven, and pretends to demand the divine acceptance without a divine warrant; thus wretchedly is the heart hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. They took every man his censer. Perhaps these were some of the censers which these heads of families had made use of at their family-altars, before this part of religious service was confined to the priesthood and the altar in the tabernacle (and they would bring them into use and reputation again); or they might be common chafing-dishes, which were for their ordinary use. Now to attend the solemn trial, and to be witness of the issue, one would have thought Moses should have gathered the congregation against the rebels, but it seems Korah gathered them against Moses (Num. 16:19), which intimates that a great part of the congregation sided with Korah, were at his beck, and wished him success, and that Korah’s hopes were very high of carrying the point against Aaron; for, had he suspected the event, he would not have coveted to make the trial thus public: but little did he think that he was now calling the congregation together to be the witnesses of his own confusion! Note, Proud and ambitious men, while they are projecting their own advancement, often prove to have been hurrying on their own shameful fall.
IV. The judgment set, and the Judge taking the tribunal, and threatening to give sentence against the whole congregation. 1. The glory of the Lord appeared, Num. 16:19. The same glory that appeared to instal Aaron in his office at first (Lev. 9:23) now appeared to confirm him in it, and to confound those that oppose him, and set up themselves in competition with him. The Shechinah, or divine Majesty, the glory of the eternal Word, which ordinarily dwelt between the cherubim within the veil, now was publicly seen over the door of the tabernacle, to the terror of the whole congregation; for, though they saw no manner of similitude, yet 8000 probably the appearances of the light and fire were such as plainly showed God to be angry with them; as when he appeared, Num. 14:10. Nothing is more terrible to those who are conscious of guilt than the appearances of divine glory; for such a glorious Being must needs be a formidable enemy. 2. God threatened to consume them all in a moment, and, in order to that, bade Moses and Aaron stand from among them, Num. 16:21. God thus showed what their sin deserved, and how very provoking it was to him. See what a dangerous thing it is to have fellowship with sinners, and in the least to partake with them. Many of the congregation, it is likely, came only for company, following the crowd, or for curiosity, to see the issue, yet not coming, as they ought to have done, to bear their testimony against the rebels, and openly to declare for God and Moses, they had like to have been all consumed in a moment. If we follow the herd into which the devil has entered, it is at our peril.
V. The humble intercession of Moses and Aaron for the congregation, Num. 16:22. 1. Their posture was importuning: they fell on their faces, prostrating themselves before God, as supplicants in good earnest, that they might prevail for sparing mercy. Though the people had treacherously deserted them, and struck in with those that were in arms against them, yet they approved themselves faithful to the trusts reposed in them, as shepherds of Israel, who were to stand in the breach when they saw the flock in danger. Note, If others fail in their duty to us, this does not discharge us from our duty to them, nor take off the obligations we lie under to seek their welfare. 2. Their prayer was a pleading prayer, and it proved a prevailing one. Now God would have destroyed them if Moses had not turned away his wrath (Ps. 106:23); yet far be it from us to imagine that Moses was more considerate or more compassionate than God in such a case as this: but God saw fit to show his just displeasure against the sin of sinners by the sentence, and at the same time to show his gracious condescension to the prayers of the saints, by the revocation of the sentence at the intercession of Moses. Observe in the prayer, (1.) The title they give to God: The God of the spirits of all flesh. See what man is; he is a spirit in flesh, a soul embodied, a creature wonderfully compounded of heaven and earth. See what God is; he is the God of the spirits of all mankind. He forms the spirit, Zech. 12:1. He fathers it, Heb. 12:9. He has an ability to fashion it (Ps. 33:15), and authority to dispose of it, for he has said, All souls are mine, Ezek. 18:4. They insinuate hereby that though, as the God of the spirits of all flesh, he might in sovereignty consume this congregation in a moment, yet it was to be hoped that he would in mercy spare them, not only because they were the work of his own hands, and he had a propriety in them, but because, being the God of spirits, he knew their frame, and could distinguish between the leaders and the led, between those who sinned maliciously and those who were drawn in by their wiles, and would make a difference accordingly in his judgments. (2.) The argument they insist on; it is much the same with that which Abraham urged in his intercession for Sodom (Gen. 18:23): Wilt thou destroy the righteous with the wicked? Such is the plea here: Shall one man sin and wilt thou be wroth with all the congregation? Not but that it was the sin of them all to join in this matter, but the great transgression was his that first hatched the treason. Note, Whatever God may do in sovereignty and strict justice, we have reason to hope that he will not destroy a congregation for the sin of one, but that, righteousness and peace having kissed each other in the undertaking of the Redeemer, mercy shall rejoice against judgment. Moses knew that all the congregation must perish in the wilderness by degrees, yet he is thus earnest in prayer that they might not be consumed at once, and would reckon it a favour to obtain a reprieve. Lord, let it alone this year.