Here is a remarkable contest between wickedness and righteousness, which shall be most bold and resolute; and righteousness carries the day, as no doubt it will at last.
I. Never was vice more daring than it was in Zimri, a prince of a chief house in the tribe of Simeon. Such a degree of impudence in wickedness had he arrived at that he publicly appeared leading a Midianitish harlot (and a harlot of quality too like himself, a daughter of a chief house in Midian) in the sight of Moses, and all the good people of Israel. He did not think it enough to go out with his harlot to worship the gods of Moab, but, when he had done that, he brought her with him to dishonour the God of Israel. He not only owned her publicly as his friend, and higher in his favour then any of the daughters of Israel, but openly went with her into the tent, Num. 25:8. The word signifies such a booth or place of retirement as was designed and fitted up for lewdness. Thus he declared his sin as Sodom, as was so far from blushing for it that he rather prided himself in it, and gloried in his shame. All the circumstances concurred to make it exceedingly sinful, exceedingly shameful. 1. It was an affront to the justice of the nation, and bade defiance to that. The judges were ordered to put the criminals to death, but he thought himself too great for them to meddle with, and, in effect, bade them touch him if they durst. He had certainly cast off all fear of God who stood in no awe of the powers which he had ordained to be a terror to evil-doers. 2. It was an affront to the religion of the nation, and put a contempt upon that. Moses, and the main body of the congregation, who kept their integrity, were weeping at the door of the tabernacle, lamenting the sin committed and deprecating the plague begun; they were sanctifying a fast in a solemn assembly, weeping between the porch and the altar, to turn away the wrath of God from the congregation. Then comes Zimri among them, with his harlot in his hand, to banter them, and, in effect, to tell them that he was resolved to fill the measure of sin as fast as they emptied it.
II. Never was virtue more daring than it was in Phinehas. Being aware of the insolence of Zimri, which it is probable, all the congregation took notice of, in a holy indignation at the offenders he rises up from his prayers, takes his sword or half-pike, follows those impudent sinners into their tent, and stabs them both, Num. 25:7; 8. It is not at all difficult to justify Phinehas in what he did; for, being now heir-apparent to the high-priesthood, no doubt he was one of those judges of Israel whom Moses had ordered, by the divine appointment, to slay all those whom they knew to have joined themselves to Baal-peor, so that this gives no countenance at all to private persons, under pretence of zeal against sin, to put offenders to death, who ought to be prosecuted by due course of law. The civil magistrate is the avenger, to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil, and no private person may take his work out of his hand. Two ways God testified his acceptance of the pious zeal of Phinehas:—1. He immediately put a stop to the plague, Num. 25:8. Their weeping and praying prevailed not till this piece of necessary justice was done. If magistrates do not take care to punish sin, God will; but their justice will be the best prevention of his judgment, as in the case of Achan, Josh. 7:13. 2. He put an honour upon Phinehas. Though he did no more than it was his duty to do as a judge, yet because he did it with extraordinary zeal against sin, and for the honour of God and Israel, and did it when the other judges, out of respect to Zimri’s character as a prince, were afraid, and declined doing it, therefore God showed himself particularly well pleased with him, and it was counted to him for righteousness, Ps. 106:31. There is nothing lost by venturing for God. If Zimri’s relations bore him a grudge for it, and his friends might censure him as indiscreet in this violent and hasty execution, what needed he care, while God accepted him? In a good thing we should be zealously affected. (1.) Phinehas, upon this occasion, though a young man, is pronounced his country’s patriot and best friend, Num. 25:11. He has turned away my wrath from the children of Israel. So much does God delight in showing mercy that he is well pleased with those that are instrumental in turning away his wrath. This is the best service we can do to our people; and we may contribute something towards it by our prayers, and by our endeavours in our places to bring the wickedness of the wicked to an end. (2.) The priesthood is entailed by covenant upon his family. It was designed him before, but now it was confirmed to him, and, which added much to the comfort and honour of it, it was made the recompence of his pious zeal, Num. 25:12; 13. It is here called an everlasting priesthood, because it should continue to the period of the Old-Testament dispensation, and should then have its perfection and perpetuity in the unchangeable priesthood of Christ, who is consecrated for evermore. By the covenant of peace given him, some understand in general a promise of long life and prosperity, and all good; it seems rather to be meant particularly of the covenant of priesthood, for that is called the covenant of life and peace (Mal. 2:5), and was made for the preservation of peace between God and his people. Observe how the reward answered the service. By executing justice he had made an atonement for the children of Israel (Num. 25:13), and therefore he and his shall henceforward be employed in making atonement by sacrifice. He was zealous for his God, and therefore he shall have the covenant of an everlasting priesthood. Note, It is requisite that ministers should be not only for God, but zealous for God. It is required of them that they do more than others for the support and advancement of the interests of God’s kingdom among men.