Wilderness Lessons: 16. The Flesh

Numbers  •  11 min. read  •  grade level: 8
The last properly called wilderness lesson is another instance of the incurable evil of the “flesh.” Israel falls through the seductive wiles of the devil, from whose open enmity God had so graciously and wonderfully protected them. His care for them as seen in His direct and (if we may so say) His personal intervention, to frustrate the purpose of Satan in the matter of Balaam, was no solitary instance of His watchfulness. All through the wilderness they were the objects of the same care not strikingly displayed after such a manner, but as real, as necessary, and as mighty. When Satan acts and stirs up the power of the world against the people of God, then God is there to turn aside the power of the world, and control the power of Satan as will best suit His own glory; but there is no responsibility attaching to the believer. On the other hand, if Satan's attempts against us are made through the flesh (his most successful way), the responsibility and the danger of the Christian are great. There is only one thing greater, and that is the grace that restores when the wiles of the devil have led to the believer's fall. How often during the forty years did the outbursts of “flesh” bring upon Israel the anger of Jehovah; and ever followed by grace which rose above their sin and triumphed over judgment! These blessed interpositions of grace are recorded for our admonition and profit. For us “this world is a wilderness wide” and here are divine lessons, in the shape of warning and deliverance. Have we taken them to heart? Have we seen in them, as in a mirror, a true picture of our own nature? And judging it in this light of the word do we say with. Job, “I abhor myself?” If we have not come to that, there is at least one important lesson not yet learned.
Here, on the border of the land, when there is but one step more, sin breaks out under circumstances which, make it worse than any before. Truly the generation about to enter the land give fall proof that they are the children of their fathers. The patience, the mercy, and the favor of God had constantly followed them; victory was given them over every opposing foe, the promised rest in view: in presence of all this they join themselves to Baal-peor. It is these favors that make their sin with Moab worse than all previous murmurings and rebellions. For every added mercy increases the guilt of every subsequent sin. All departure from the ways of righteousness is measured by the truth revealed. Light is the measure of darkness.
Balaam is again the instrument of Satan. He could not curse, but he can seduce. Here is the cunning of the old Serpent. Before he was as the roaring lion seeking to devour Israel, now he is the wily serpent. When he roars as a lion, the believer naturally turns to God as a refuge and a strong tower; when the cunning Serpent hides his venom, the unwatchful believer is sure to be ensnared. The “flesh” is in affinity with the world and Satan; it may be corrupt or religions flesh, appearances may differ; but it is the same nature, and if not watched and judged, the saint is taken as a bird in the snare of the fowler.
Unable to curse, Satan attacks the people through the lusts of the flesh; as if he would say to God “See what sort of people Thou art blessing.” God knew them well; but His purpose was to bless; not because they were worthy, but the worth of Christ had been (typically) declared, and this not so much for Israel's intelligence as for God's delight in the Redeemer of Israel. For Christ's sake the blessing stood fast. Judgment necessarily followed upon their sin, but God's word of grace once spoken could not be reversed.
While learning the incurable evil of our own nature, we see also the unchangableness of the word of God's grace. Are there any two things more needed for the believer to learn? What is more prevalent among professors than the teaching and consequent endeavor to improve the “flesh”? or, that a believer may “fall from grace” (as it is not uncommonly expressed) and thus lose life, eternal life? These errors are twin sisters; and where one is, the other is not far distant. Are they not complementary?
How evident the hand of Satan! Why should Balak seek intercourse with Israel whom we saw he hated and feared? Was it a human way of overcoming and causing their destruction? Nay, it was the wisdom of the serpent. Balaam, the emissary of the devil, instructed Moab in the art of seducing the people who were known as Jehovah's people; and he found in Israel fit material to work upon. For they were familiar with idolatry. Delivered from the land of the grossest idolatry, they carried the love of it in their hearts, and thus went back into Egypt (Num. 14:33And wherefore hath the Lord brought us unto this land, to fall by the sword, that our wives and our children should be a prey? were it not better for us to return into Egypt? (Numbers 14:3); Acts 7:3939To whom our fathers would not obey, but thrust him from them, and in their hearts turned back again into Egypt, (Acts 7:39)). Now they join themselves to Baal-peor and sink lower in their idolatrous orgies than when they worshipped the golden calf at Horeb. The ignorant Moabites knew not the power behind the scenes—knew not the aim of Satan to ruin Israel? Did not Balaam know? This wretched man had gone back to his enchantments, and, after his experience of the controlling hand of God, had a more fatal knowledge of Satan's power and aim, and, in confirmed enmity against God and His people, surrendered himself a willing captive to the great enemy. He counseled Balak, and Israel fell before the seductive power of their enemy.
The daughters of Moab (Num. 25:11And Israel abode in Shittim, and the people began to commit whoredom with the daughters of Moab. (Numbers 25:1)) drew the people to sacrifices of the idols of Moab, and so “Israel was joined to Baal-peor.” In the 17th verse Jehovah said unto Moses, “Vex the Midianites, and smite them; for they vex you with their wiles wherewith they have beguiled you in the matter of Peor, and in the matter of Cozbi the daughter of a prince of Midian, their sister, which was slain in the day of the plague for Peor's sake.” The Midianites seem to have been more prominent in the sin of Israel as this chapter shows. Balaam no doubt was a Midianite, and there was intimate connection between the Moabites and the Midianites. At the first Balak consulted the elders of Midian, and the elders of both Moth and Midian went together to seek the aid of Balaam and his sorceries. Midian may have been the larger section, as in this matter the more prominent. But Balak was king of both. Be this as it may, the judgment of Jehovah is here upon the Midianites. Moses says (ch. 31: 15) after the slaughter of Midian, “Have ye saved all the women alive? behold these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against Jehovah in the matter of Peor.” But the daughters of Moab were also in the sin (25: 1). Again, we hear the command, “Avenge the children of Israel of the Midianites.” Why not of the Moabites? Then the destruction of Moab would, as that of Midian, have been complete. But God had said that Israel should not molest Moab (Deut. 2: 9); and therefore judgment here does not fall upon Moab proper, but does fall unsparingly upon Midian. Is not this an instance of the discriminating judgment of God, Who will have mercy upon whom He will? And since Balaam, the Midianite, counseled the Moabite king, was not the judgment upon them most just?
But let us mark well that before Jehovah said, “Avenge the children of Israel of the Midianites,” He had avenged Himself of the children of Israel. By His command Moses said to the judges, “Slay ye every one his men that were joined to Baal-peor.” And this was righteously done, and Moses afterward referred to this as a warning to Israel. “Your eyes have seen what Jehovah did because of Baal-peor; for all the men that followed Baal-peor, Jehovah thy God hath destroyed them from among you. But ye that did cleave unto Jehovah your God are alive every one of you this day” (Deut. 4:3, 43Your eyes have seen what the Lord did because of Baal-peor: for all the men that followed Baal-peor, the Lord thy God hath destroyed them from among you. 4But ye that did cleave unto the Lord your God are alive every one of you this day. (Deuteronomy 4:3‑4)). It is said in the New Testament that judgment must begin at the house of God (see 1 Peter 4:1717For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God? (1 Peter 4:17)). And so God began with Israel. To begin at home is the true and right way. It is a divine principle, and as it marks God's way here, so does it mark His true servant, whether for closer communion with Him, for greater zeal in active service, or, as in Israel's case, for vengeance upon God's enemies. So Jacob would have his tent cleansed from idols, before he went to Bethel (Gen. 35). See another instance in king Josiah, who by his personal piety stayed the judgment of God upon Jerusalem for a brief period; he was four years seeking after the God of his father David before he began to purge Judah and Jerusalem (2 Chron. 34:33For in the eighth year of his reign, while he was yet young, he began to seek after the God of David his father: and in the twelfth year he began to purge Judah and Jerusalem from the high places, and the groves, and the carved images, and the molten images. (2 Chronicles 34:3)). This same holy principle of beginning with self before attempting to correct others is seen in the Lord's word to take the beam out of our own eye before seeking for the mote in the eye of the other (Matt. 7:33And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? (Matthew 7:3); see also Rom. 2:1, 211Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things. (Romans 2:1)
21Thou therefore which teachest another, teachest thou not thyself? thou that preachest a man should not steal, dost thou steal? (Romans 2:21)
). So here, first Israel and then the Midianites. Thus the power of God is with them, and taking vengeance upon the enemy was in fact pronouncing judgment upon themselves, the condemnation of their own sin, but also in conscious restoration.
Often had Israel put the patience of Moses to the test; and none so meek as he. Once he failed, which hindered his passing through the Jordan—a perpetual grief to him. How great his indignation in this matter of Baal-peor Jehovah puts honor upon him and commands him to vindicate His name in Israel, and then upon the Midianites: “afterward shalt thou be gathered to thy people.” Jehovah, Whose great servant he was, gave him the joy of purging the worshippers of the one God, assailed by the gods of Moab, by judgment upon the guilty. Was not this sweeter to him than even entering the good land? It was surely more to the glory of Jehovah. This was his last great act. What a privilege, what grace to one who had not on a former occasion sanctified God before Israel! Many a time he had stood almost alone against the whole congregation for Jehovah's honor, but no former occasion like this, for Jehovah is avenged upon Israel in the presence of the enemy. Such a judgment could not be hidden from them; they were witnesses of God's jealousy for His name; and it was a testimony against them and their idolatry. Moses passes away from the earthly scene, gathered to his people, as vindicator of Jehovah against the unfaithful people and over the foes.
Balaam was slain fighting against God. He had at one time a good desire—as men say. “Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his;” but there it ended. Further light, even seeing the vision of the Almighty, produced no change in him, save to confirm him in sin—the sure result where truth is resisted. Nor is he unconscious of his condition and doom. “I shall see Him but not nigh.” It is the history of many a lost soul. Resistance to the truth, not ignorance of it, is the sin that characterizes the present day. To go in the way of error for the sake of reward is always accompanied with resistance of the truth, and Christendom bears this stamp of Balaam (Jude 1111Woe unto them! for they have gone in the way of Cain, and ran greedily after the error of Balaam for reward, and perished in the gainsaying of Core. (Jude 11)). Alas! the day of “many stripes” is near.
I now close these papers with one more remark. Of all the lessons unfolded to us by the Holy Spirit in this eventful journey, this last is most important and practical. We learn not only how prone to evil is nature, but the believer has before him. God's way of dealing with it. Has it broken out? Then first submit to the discipline of the Father. Avenge God upon yourselves. The zeal of the faithful Israelite in the day of Baal-peor has its counterpart in the godly sorrow of the Corinthians, “For behold this self-same thing, that ye sorrowed after a godly sort, what carefulness it wrought in you, yea what zeal, yea what revenge. In all things ye have approved yourselves to be clear in this matter? (2 Cor. 7:1111For behold this selfsame thing, that ye sorrowed after a godly sort, what carefulness it wrought in you, yea, what clearing of yourselves, yea, what indignation, yea, what fear, yea, what vehement desire, yea, what zeal, yea, what revenge! In all things ye have approved yourselves to be clear in this matter. (2 Corinthians 7:11)). When God is vindicated in our own souls, then are we able to appear as His witnesses against evil in the world. The weapons of Israel's warfare were carnal, they contended with flesh and blood; our foes are spiritual foes, and how contend with such? how are we to avenge God upon these spiritual Midianites? Our weapons are not carnal, but spiritual. Watch and pray, judging the thoughts of the heart, and watching for His appearing. These and the word are our weapons. We avenge God upon the evil that surrounds by judging it, living separate from it, and showing how by faith we overcome the world.
Beloved brethren, let us beware of the daughters of Moab. We shall only be beyond the reach of flesh and the world's allurements when with the Lord.
R. B.