This is an abridgment of the history of Israel’s provocations in the wilderness, and of the wrath of God against them for those provocations: and this abridgment is abridged by the apostle, with application to us Christians (1 Cor. 10:5); for these things were written for our admonition, that we sin not like them, lest we suffer like them.
I. The cause of their sin was disregard to the works and word of God, Ps. 106:13. 1. They minded not what he had done for them: They soon forgot his works, and lost the impressions they had made upon them. Those that do not improve God’s mercies to them, nor endeavour in some measure to render according to the benefit done unto them, do indeed forget them. This people soon forgot them (God took notice of this, Exod. 32:8; They have turned aside quickly): They made haste, they forgot his works (so it is in the margin), which some make to be two separate instances of their sin. They made haste; their expectations anticipated God’s promises; they expected to be in Canaan shortly, and because they were not they questioned whether they should ever be there and quarrelled with all the difficulties they met with in their way; whereas he that believeth does not make haste, Isa. 28:16. And, withal, they forgot his works, which were the undeniable evidences of his wisdom, power, and goodness, and denied the conclusion as confidently as if they had never seen the premises proved. This is mentioned again (Ps. 106:21, 22): They forgot God their Saviour; that is, they forgot that he had been their Saviour. Those that forget the works of God forget God himself, who makes himself known by his works. They forgot what was done but a few days before, which we may suppose they could not but talk of, even then, when, because they did not make a good use of it, they are said to forget it: it was what God did for them in Egypt, in the land of Ham, and by the Red Sea, things which we at this distance cannot, or should not, be unmindful of. They are called great things (for, though the great God does nothing mean, yet he does some things that are in a special manner great), wondrous works, out of the common road of Providence, therefore observable, therefore memorable, and terrible things, awful to them, and dreadful to their enemies, and yet soon forgotten. Even miracles that were seen passed away with them as tales that are told. 2. They minded not what God had said to them nor would they depend upon it: They waited not for his counsel, did not attend his word, though they had Moses to be his mouth to them; they took up resolves about which they did not consult him and made demands without calling upon him. They would be in Canaan directly, and had not patience to tarry God’s time. The delay was intolerable, and therefore the difficulties were looked upon as insuperable. This is explained (Ps. 106:24): They believed not his word, his promise that he would make them masters of Canaan; and (Ps. 106:25), They hearkened not to the voice of the Lord, who gave them counsel which they would not wait for, not only by Moses and Aaron, but by Caleb and Joshua, Num. 14:6, 7 Those that will not wait for God’s counsel shall justly be given up to their own hearts’ lusts, to walk in their own counsels.
II. Many of their sins are here mentioned, together with the tokens of God’s displeasure which they fell under for those sins.
1. They would have flesh, and yet would not believe that God could give it to them (Ps. 106:14): They lusted a lust (so the word is) in the wilderness; there, where they had bread enough and to spare, yet nothing would serve them but they must have flesh to eat. They were now purely at God’s finding, being supported entirely by miracles, so that this was a reflection upon the wisdom and goodness of their Creator. They were also, in all probability, within a step of Canaan, yet had not patience to stay for dainties till they came thither. They had flocks and herds of their own, but they will not kill them; God must give them flesh as he gave them bread, or they will never give him credit, or their good word. They did not only wish for flesh, but they lusted exceedingly after it. A desire, even of lawful things, when it is inordinate and violent, becomes sinful; and therefore this is called lusting after evil things (1 Cor. 10:6), though the quails, as God’s gift, were good things, and were so spoken of, Ps. 105:40. Yet this was not all: They tempted God in the desert, where they had had such experience of his goodness and power, and questioned whether he could and would gratify them herein. See Ps. 78:19, 20. Now how did God show his displeasure against them for this. We are told how (Ps. 106:15): He gave them their request, but gave it them in anger, and with a curse, for he sent leanness into their soul; he filled them with uneasiness of mind, and terror of conscience, and a self-reproach, occasioned by their bodies being sick with the surfeit, such as sometimes drunkards experience after a great debauch. Or this is put for that great plague with which the Lord smote them, while the flesh was yet between their teeth, as we read, Num. 11:33. It was the consumption of the life. Note, (1.) What is asked in passion is often given in wrath. (2.) Many that fare deliciously every day, and whose bodies are healthful and fat, have, at the same time, leanness in their souls, no love to God, no thankfulness, no appetite to the bread of life, and then the soul must needs be lean. Those wretchedly forget themselves that feast their bodies and starve their souls. Then God gives the good things of this life in love, when with them he gives grace to glorify him in the use of them; for then the soul delights itself in fatness, Isa. 55:2.
2. They quarrelled with the government which God had set over them both in church and state (Ps. 106:16): They envied Moses his authority in the camp, as generalissimo of the armies of Israel and chief justice in all their courts; they envied Aaron his power, as saint of the Lord, consecrated to the office of high priest, and Korah would needs put in for the pontificate, while Dathan and Abiram, as princes of the tribe of Reuben, Jacob’s eldest son, would claim to be chief magistrates, by the so-much-admired right of primogeniture. Note, Those are preparing ruin for themselves who envy those whom God has put honour upon and usurp the dignities they were never designed for. And justly will contempt be poured upon those who put contempt upon any of the saints of the Lord. How did God show his displeasure for this? We are told how, and it is enough to make us tremble (Ps. 106:17, 18); we have the story, Num. 16:32, 35. (1.) Those that flew in the face of the civil authority were punished by the earth, which opened and swallowed them up, as not fit to go upon God’s ground, because they would not submit to God’s government. (2.) Those that would usurp the ecclesiastical authority in things pertaining to God suffered the vengeance of heaven, for fire came out from the Lord and consumed them, and the pretending sacrificers were themselves sacrificed to divine justice. The flame burnt up the wicked; for though they vied with Aaron, the saint of the Lord, for holiness (Num. 16:3, 5), yet God adjudged them wicked, and as such cut them off, as in due time he will destroy the man of sin, that wicked one, notwithstanding his proud pretensions to holiness.
3. They made and worshipped the golden calf, and this in Horeb, where the law was given, and where God had expressly said, Thou shalt 6575 neither make any graven image nor bow down to it; they did both: They made a calf and worshipped it, Ps. 106:19.
(1.) Herein they bade defiance to, and put an affront upon, the two great lights which God has made to rule the moral world:—[1.] That of human reason; for they changed their glory, their God, at least the manifestation of him, which always had been in a cloud (either a dark cloud or a bright one), without any manner of visible similitude, into the similitude of Apis, one of the Egyptian idols, an ox that eateth grass, than which nothing could be more grossly and scandalously absurd, Ps. 106:20. Idolaters are perfectly besotted, and put the greatest disparagement possible both upon God, in representing him by the image of a beast, and upon themselves, in worshipping it when they have so done. That which is here said to be the changing of their glory is explained by St. Paul (Rom. 1:23) to be the changing of the glory of the incorruptible God. [2.] That of divine revelation, which was afforded to them, not only in the words God spoke to them, but in the works he wrought for them, wondrous works, which declared aloud that the Lord Jehovah is the only true and living God and is alone to be worshipped, Ps. 106:21, 22.
(2.) For this God showed his displeasure by declaring the decree that he would cut them off from being a people, as they had, as far as lay in their power, in effect cut him off from being a God; he spoke of destroying them (Ps. 106:23), and certainly he would have done it if Moses, his chosen, had not stood before him in the breach (Ps. 106:23), if he had not seasonably interposed to deal with God as an advocate about the breach or ruin God was about to devote them to and wonderfully prevailed to turn away his wrath. See here the mercy of God, and how easily his anger is turned away, even from a provoking people. See the power of prayer, and the interest which God’s chosen have in heaven. See a type of Christ, God’s chosen, his elect, in whom his soul delights, who stood before him in the breach to turn away his wrath from a provoking world, and ever lives, for this end, making intercession.
4. They gave credit to the report of the evil spies concerning the land of Canaan, in contradiction to the promise of God (Ps. 106:24): They despised the pleasant land. Canaan was a pleasant land, Deut. 8:7. They undervalued it when they thought it not worth venturing for, no, not under the guidance of God himself, and therefore were for making a captain and returning to Egypt again. They believed not God’s word concerning it, but murmured in their tents, basely charging God with a design upon them in bringing them thither that they might become a prey to the Canaanites, Num. 14:2, 3. And, when they were reminded of God’s power and promise, they were so far from hearkening to that voice of the Lord that they attempted to stone those who spoke to them, Num. 14:10. The heavenly Canaan is a pleasant land. A promise is left us of entering into it; but there are many that despise it, that neglect and refuse the offer of it, that prefer the wealth and pleasure of this world before it, and grudge the pains and hazards of this life to obtain that. This also was so displeasing to God that he lifted up his hand against them, in a way of threatening, to destroy them in the wilderness; nay, in a way of swearing, for he swore in his wrath that they should not enter into his rest (Ps. 95:11; Num. 14:28); nay, and he threatened that their children also should be overthrown and scattered (Ps. 106:26, 27), and the whole nation dispersed and disinherited; but Moses prevailed for mercy for their seed, that they might enter Canaan. Note, Those who despise God’s favours, and particularly the pleasant land, forfeit his favours, and will be shut out for ever from the pleasant land.
5. They were guilty of a great sin in the matter of Peor; and this was the sin of the new generation, when they were within a step of Canaan (Ps. 106:28): They joined themselves to Baal-peor, and so were entangled both in idolatry and in adultery, in corporeal and in spiritual whoredom, Num. 25:1-3. Those that did often partake of the altar of the living God now ate the sacrifices of the dead, of the idols of Moab (that were dead images, or dead men canonized or deified), or sacrifices to the infernal deities on the behalf of their dead friends. Thus they provoked God to anger with their inventions (Ps. 106:29), in contempt of him and his institutions, his commands, and his threatenings. The iniquity of Peor was so great that, long after, it is said, They were not cleansed from it, Josh. 22:17. God testified his displeasure at this, (1.) By sending a plague among them, which in a little time swept away 24,000 of those impudent sinners. (2.) By stirring up Phinehas to use his power as a magistrate for the suppressing of the sin and checking the contagion of it. He stood up in his zeal for the Lord of hosts, and executed judgment upon Zimri and Cozbi, sinners of the first rank, genteel sinners; he put the law in execution upon them, and this was a service so pleasing to God that upon it the plague was stayed, Ps. 106:30. By this, and some other similar acts of public justice on that occasion (Num. 25:4, 5), the guilt ceased to be national, and the general controversy was let fall. When the proper officers did their duty God left it to them, and did not any longer keep the work in his own hands by the plague. Note, National justice prevents national judgments. But, Phinehas herein signalizing himself, a special mark of honour was put upon him, for what he did was counted to him for righteousness to all generations (Ps. 106:31), and, in recompence of it, the priesthood was entailed on his family. He shall make an atonement by offering up the sacrifices, who had so bravely made an atonement (so some read it, Ps. 106:30) by offering up the sinners. Note, It is the honour of saints to be zealous against sin.
6. They continued their murmurings to the very last of their wanderings; for in the fortieth year they angered God at the waters of strife (Ps. 106:32), which refers to that story, Num. 20:3-5. And that which aggravated it now was that it went ill with Moses for their sakes; for, though he was the meekest of all the men in the earth, yet their clamours at that time were so peevish and provoking that they put him into a passion, and, having now grown very old and off his guard, he spoke unadvisedly with his lips (Ps. 106:33), and not as became him on that occasion; for he said in a heat, Hear now, you rebels, must we fetch water out of this rock for you? This was Moses’s infirmity, and is written for our admonition, that we may learn, when we are in the midst of provocation, to keep our mouth as with a bridle (Ps. 39:1-3), and to take heed to our spirits, that they admit not resentments too much; for, when the spirit is provoked, it is much ado, even for those that have a great deal of wisdom and grace, not to speak unadvisedly. But it is charged upon the people as their sin: They provoked his spirit with that with which they angered God himself. Note, We must answer not only for our own passions, but for the provocation which by them we give to the passions of others, especially of those who, if not greatly provoked, would be meek and quiet. God shows his displeasure against this sin of theirs by shutting Moses and Aaron out of Canaan for their misconduct upon this occasion, by which, (1.) God discovered his resentment of all such intemperate heats, even in the dearest of his servants. If he deals thus severely with Moses for one unadvised word, what does their sin deserve who have spoken so many presumptuous wicked words? If this was done in the green tree, what shall be done in the dry? (2.) God deprived them of the blessing of Moses’s guidance and government at a time when they most needed it, so that his death was more a punishment to them than to himself. It is just with God to remove those relations from us that are blessings to us, when we are peevish and provoking to them and grieve their spirits.