In Numbers 23-24 we see how God thinks about His people: as objects of His grace and care. Numbers 25 is therewith in great contrast. We often see this great contrast in our lives. On the one hand we may know that God looks at us in Christ. On the other hand, we often let the flesh work in our daily lives.
In the previous chapters Balaam did not succeed in letting God become unfaithful to His people. God has remained faithful to His view of the people. Now the enemy tries to do it on the side of the people. Balaam knows how to distract the people from God by a trick, to let them become unfaithful to God (Num 31:1616Behold, these caused the sons of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the LORD in the matter of Peor, so the plague was among the congregation of the LORD.). He succeeds in this with a people who have all the experience of the wilderness journey behind them. They got to know themselves and they got to know God’s faithfulness. Here we learn that there will never be a time in our lives when we can say that the enemy can no longer get a grip on us.
The people “remained” in Shittim, while they had previously camped in the plains of Moab (Num 22:11Then the sons of Israel journeyed, and camped in the plains of Moab beyond the Jordan [opposite] Jericho.). ‘To camp’ is done with a view to immediately moving on, while ‘to remain’ has a more permanent character. Could it mean that Israel is beginning to lose sight of the purpose of the journey and that they are moving towards a more permanent stay in Shittim? In any case, it is significant that the enemy manages to connect with them there. If we lose sight of the fact that we are pilgrims, on our journey to our final destination, and start focusing on our stay on earth, we are open to wrong connections.
The people are invited to come and eat from the sacrifices that are brought to the idols. It seems like a friendly invitation. So people from the world can invite us to come and eat with them and that can be considered. It does not need to be rejected (1Cor 10:2727If one of the unbelievers invites you and you want to go, eat anything that is set before you without asking questions for conscience’ sake.). However, in such cases it may also be friendships of the world that are more to fear than its enmity.
In this case it does not stop with eating. The people also bow down before the idols of the Moabites. Although they have already had an idol in the golden calf (Exo 32:1-61Now when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people assembled about Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who will go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”2Aaron said to them, “Tear off the gold rings which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring [them] to me.”3Then all the people tore off the gold rings which were in their ears and brought [them] to Aaron.4He took [this] from their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool and made it into a molten calf; and they said, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.”5Now when Aaron saw [this], he built an altar before it; and Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow [shall be] a feast to the LORD.”6So the next day they rose early and offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play.), we find a new aspect here in the people’s unfaithfulness against God. They have grumbled about food and drink and also about the leadership of Moses. They have always revolted against God and Moses and Aaron. Now they go one step further. In this idolatry they not only put the LORD aside, but replace Him by an idol. The persistence of this evil will be evident in the history of Israel. It will be one of God’s main indictments against the people.
The application of this history for us is in Revelation 2 (Rev 2:1414But I have a few things against you, because you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit [acts of] immorality.). There we read about the teachings of Balaam, not about his deceit. The deceit he uses here has become a doctrine. The mixing of the people of God with the world is not rejected, but encouraged. This turns the people’s gaze from the Lord to the world. He is no longer in the first place, but the world is.
It says of the church in Pergamum that it “dwells where Satan’s throne is” (Rev 2:1313‘I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is; and you hold fast My name, and did not deny My faith even in the days of Antipas, My witness, My faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells.). Satan is the prince of the world. ‘Dwell’ means feeling at home there. The church lives in the heart of the world, where the government is exercised. The teaching is that Christians should not be separated from the world. The world council of churches is an example of this. Christians are called upon to connect with the world and to exert their influence in order to move towards a better world.
But the Lord says: “I have a few things against you” (Rev 2:1414But I have a few things against you, because you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit [acts of] immorality.) Then He speaks of the teaching of Balaam and its effect on the people of God. The attitude that fits with this teaching is not a soft resistance. The Lord Jesus stands opposite this church with “the sharp, two-edged sword” (Rev 2:1212“And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: The One who has the sharp two-edged sword says this:). The use of the sword can be seen here in the next verses with Phinehas.
God was angry against Israel, because His people have joined themselves to Baal of Peor. The word ‘joined’ has the power of ‘going together under one yoke with’. Israel moves under one yoke with a pagan people in the worship of the idols (2Cor 6:14-1514Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness?15Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever?). Baal of Peor, or lord of Peor, is the local god worshipped on Mount Peor (Num 23:2828So Balak took Balaam to the top of Peor which overlooks the wasteland.). There a plague and a judgment come. God punishes what bears His Name, that His people may not alienate themselves from Him. For that purpose, the fierce anger of God has also struck Christianity many times.
The most responsible persons have taken the lead in this infidelity. They should therefore be judged. The seriousness of sin requires a special punishment: “Execute them in broad daylight before the LORD.” They must be hung in public before the LORD. The people must see it and fear, for the judgment is executed because of the LORD’s charge. God’s wrath of sin must deter man from committing sin. And the wrath of God over sin is the proof of His righteousness. Thus He wants evil to be punished.
The people are unfaithful in all the points God has mentioned in blessing on His people:
1. It is a people that dwells alone (Num 23:99“As I see him from the top of the rocks,
And I look at him from the hills;
Behold, a people [who] dwells apart,
And will not be reckoned among the nations.
), but here they mix with the nations.
2. It is a people in which God sees no iniquity (Num 23:2121“He has not observed misfortune in Jacob;
Nor has He seen trouble in Israel;
The LORD his God is with him,
And the shout of a king is among them.
), but here they commit iniquity.
3. It is a people in which He sees beauty (Num 24:55How fair are your tents, O Jacob,
Your dwellings, O Israel!
), but here they commit fornication in their tents.
4. It is a people that will subdue their enemies (Num 24:1919“One from Jacob shall have dominion,
And will destroy the remnant from the city.”
), but here they subdue themselves to their enemies.
Here we find no Moses who intercedes for the people. That says something about the seriousness of sin. There is no intercession here, but judgment. The memory of this sin is strongly kept alive throughout the history of Israel (Jos 22:1717Is not the iniquity of Peor enough for us, from which we have not cleansed ourselves to this day, although a plague came on the congregation of the LORD,; Psa 106:28-3128They joined themselves also to Baal-peor,
And ate sacrifices offered to the dead.
29Thus they provoked [Him] to anger with their deeds,
And the plague broke out among them.
30Then Phinehas stood up and interposed,
And so the plague was stayed.
31And it was reckoned to him for righteousness,
To all generations forever.
; Hos 9:1010I found Israel like grapes in the wilderness;
I saw your forefathers as the earliest fruit on the fig tree in its first [season].
[But] they came to Baal-peor and devoted themselves to shame,
And they became as detestable as that which they loved.