We have here the determining of the controversy with Dathan and Abiram, who rebelled against Moses, as in the next paragraph the determining of the controversy with Korah and his company, who would be rivals with Aaron. It should seem that Dathan and Abiram had set up a spacious tabernacle in the midst of the tents of their families, where they kept court, met in council, and hung out their flag of defiance against Moses; it is here called the tabernacle of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, Num. 16:24; 27. There, as in the place of rendezvous, Dathan and Abiram staid, when Korah and his friends went up to the tabernacle of the Lord, waiting the issue of their trial; but here we are told how they had their business done, before that trial was over. For God will take what method he pleases in his judgments.
I. Public warning is given to the congregation to withdraw immediately from the tents of the rebels. 1. God bids Moses speak to this purport, Num. 16:24. This was in answer to Moses’s prayer. He had begged that God would not destroy the whole congregation. “Well,” says God, “I will not, provided they be so wise as to shift for their own safety, and get out of the way of danger. If they will quit the rebels, well and good, they shall not perish with them; otherwise, let them take what follows.” Note, We cannot expect to reap benefit by the prayers of our friends for our salvation, unless we ourselves be diligent and faithful in making use of the means of salvation; for God never promised to save by miracles those that would not save themselves by means. Moses that had prayed for them must preach this to them, and warn them to flee from this wrath to come. 2. Moses accordingly repairs to the head-quarters of the rebels, leaving Aaron at the door of the tabernacle, Num. 16:25. Dathan and Abiram had contumaciously refused to come up to him (Num. 16:12), yet he humbly condescends to go down to them, to try if he could yet convince and reclaim them. Ministers must thus with meekness instruct those that oppose themselves, and not think it below them to stoop to those that are most stubborn, for their good. Christ himself stretches out his hand to a rebellious and gainsaying people. The seventy elders of Israel attend Moses and his guard, to secure him from the insolence of the rabble, and by their presence to put an honour upon him, and if possible to strike an awe upon the rebels. It is our duty to contribute all we can to the countenance and support of injured innocency and honour. 3. Proclamation is made that all manner of persons, as they tendered their own safety, should forthwith depart from the tents of these wicked men (Num. 16:26), and thus should signify that they deserted their cause and interest, detested their crimes and counsels, and dreaded the punishment coming upon them. Note, Those that would not perish with sinners must come out from among them, and be separate. In vain do we pray, Gather not our souls with sinners, if we save not ourselves from the untoward generation. God’s people are called out of Babylon, lest they share both in her sins and in her plagues, Rev. 18:4.
II. The congregation takes the warning, but the rebels themselves continue obstinate, Num. 16:27. 1. God, in mercy, inclined the people to forsake the rebels: They got up from the tabernacle of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, both those whose lot it was to pitch near them (who doubtless with themselves removed their families, and all their effects) and those also who had come from all parts of their camp to see the issue. It was in answer to the prayer of Moses that God thus stirred up the hearts of the congregation to shift for their own preservation. Note, To those whom God will save he gives repentance, that they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil. Grace to separate from evil doers is one of the things that accompany salvation. 2. God, in justice, left the rebels to the obstinacy and hardness of their own hearts. Though they saw themselves abandoned by all their neighbours, and set up as a mark to the arrows of God’s justice, yet instead of falling down and humbling themselves before God and Moses, owning their crime and begging pardon, instead of fleeing and dispersing themselves to seek for shelter in the crowd, they impudently stood in the doors of their tents, as if they would out-face God himself, and dare him to his worst. Thus were their hearts hardened to their own destruction, and they were fearless when their case was most fearful. But what a pity was it that their little children, who were not capable of guilt or fear, should by the presumption of their parents be put in this audacious posture! Happy they who are taught betimes to bow before God, and not as those unhappy little ones to stand it out against him!
III. Sentence is solemnly pronounced upon them by Moses in the name of the Lord, and the decision of the controversy is put upon the execution of that sentence by the almighty power of God. Moses, by divine instinct and direction, when the eyes of all Israel were fastened upon him, waiting the event, moved with a just and holy indignation at the impudence of the rebels, boldly puts the whole matter to a surprising issue, Num. 16:28-30. 1. If the rebels die a common death, he will be content to be called and counted an impostor; not only if they die a natural death, but if they die by any sort of judgment that has formerly been executed on other malefactors. “If they die by the plague, or by fire from heaven, or by the sword, then say, God has disowned Moses;” but, 2. “If the earth open and swallow them up” (a punishment without precedent), “then let all the house of Israel know assuredly that I am God’s servant, sent by him, and employed for him, and that those that fight against me fight against him.” The judgment itself would have been proof enough of God’s displeasure against the rebels, and would have given all men to understand that they had provoked the Lord; but when it was thus solemnly foretold and appealed to by Moses beforehand, when there was not the least previous indication of it from without, the convincing evidence of it was much the stronger, and it was put beyond dispute that he was not only a servant but a favourite of Heaven, who was so intimately acquainted with the divine counsels, and could obtain such extraordinary appearances of the divine power in his vindication.
IV. Execution is immediately done. It appeared that God and his servant Moses understood one another very well; for, as soon as ever Moses had spoken the word, God did the work, the earth clave asunder (Num. 16:31), opened her mouth, and swallowed them all up, them and theirs (Num. 16:32), and then closed upon them, Num. 16:33. This judgment was, 1. Unparalleled. God, in it, created a new thing, did what he never did before; for he has many arrows in his quiver; and there are diversities of operations in wrath as well as mercy. Dathan and Abiram thought themselves safe because they were at a distance from the shechinah, whence the fire of the Lord had sometimes issued, qui procul à Jove (they say) procul à fulmine—he who is far from Jove is far from the thunderbolt. But God made them to know that he was not tied up to one way of punishing; the earth, when he pleases, shall serve his justice as effectually as the fire. 2. It was very terrible to the sinners themselves to go down alive into their own graves, to be dead and buried in an instant, to go down thus to the bars of the pit when they were in their full strength wholly at ease and quiet. 3. It was severe upon their poor children, who, for the greater terror of the judgment, and fuller indication of the divine wrath, perished as parts of their parents, in which, though we cannot particularly tell how bad they might be to deserve it or how good God might be otherwise to them to compensate it, yet of this we are sure in the general, that Infinite Justice did them no wrong. Far be it from God that he should do iniquity. 4. It was altogether miraculous. The cleaving of the earth was as wonderful, and as much above the power of nature, as the cleaving of the sea, and the closing of the earth again more so than the closing of the waters. God has all the creatures at his command, and can make any of them, when he pleases, instruments of his justice; nor will any of them be our friends if he be our enemy. God now confirmed to Israel what Moses had lately taught them in that prayer of his, Ps. 90:11; Who knows the power of thy anger? He has, when he pleases, strange punishments for the workers of iniquity, Job 31:3. Let us therefore conclude, Who is able to stand before this holy Lord God? 5. It was very significant. They set their mouths against the heavens, and their throat was an open sepulchre; justly therefore does the earth open her mouth upon them and swallow them up. They made a rent in the congregation; justly therefore is the earth rent under them. Presumptuous sinners, that hate to be reformed, are a burden to the earth, the whole creation groans under them, which here was signified by this, that the earth sunk under these rebels, as weary of bearing them and being under them. And, considering how the earth is still in like manner loaded with the weight of iniquity, we have reason to wonder that this was the only time it ever sunk under its load. 6. It was typical of the eternal ruin of sinners who die impenitent, who, perhaps in allusion to this, are said to sink down into the pit (Ps. 9:15) and to go down quickly into hell, Ps. 55:15. But David, even when he sinks in deep mire, yet prays in faith, Let not the pit shut her mouth upon me, as it does on the damned, between whom and life there is a gulf fixed, Ps. 69:2-15. His case was bad, but not, like this, desperate.
V. All Israel is alarmed at the judgment: They fled at the cry of them, Num. 16:34. They cried for help when it was too late. Their doleful shrieks, instead of fetching their neighbours in to their relief, drove them so much the further off; for knowing their own guilt, and one another’s, they hastened one another, saying, Lest the earth swallow us up also. Note, Others’ ruins should be our warnings. Could we by faith hear the outcries of those that have gone down to the bottomless pit, we should give more diligence than we do to escape for our lives, lest we also come into that condemnation.