THE WORK OF ATONEMENT AND PROPITIATION BELONG ONLY TO THE DIVINELY APPOINTED HIGH PRIEST AND MEDIATOR —
ONE TRUE MEDIATOR BETWEEN GOD AND MEN
As we study this passage we must keep in focus the parallels to the ministry of Jesus Christ as our great High Priest and the only Mediator between God and men. He is the one who has shed His blood and stood in the gap between life and death to save us from our sins. He is the one who has accomplished our Atonement and is the Propitiation for our sins. He is the one who has Reconciled us to a holy God. He is the one who currently makes Intercession for us before the throne of the Father. We need to identify the false mediators that are crying out for our loyalty and affections. We need to guard against usurpers of the role that only Jesus Christ can play in our lives.
Dennis Cole: In the English Bible this passage is the natural conclusion of the Korah rebellion, and hence chap. 16 continues, whereas in the Hebrew Bible 17:1 (= 16:36 English) begins a new chapter that includes the making of the hammered bronze covering for the altar from the material of the 250 censers and the final test to confirm the Aaronic priesthood. In both cases there is continuity in the narrative ample to warrant either division. Both the Hebrew and the English chapters commence with the familiar introductory phrase of divine speech, wayĕdabbēr YHWH ʾel-mōšeh lēʾmōr, one of the key phrases for the organization and the theology of the entire biblical book. Divinely ordained instruction is given to the priestly leadership through the prophetic servant Moses, whose position and authority have just been vindicated. Now the time has come for the full confirmation of the Aaronic priesthood.
Timothy Ashley: The second story in the section grows immediately out of the previous one and draws a lesson from it. It breaks down into two constituent scenes (16:36–40, 41–50). The first scene answers the question of what happened to the two hundred fifty censers used by Korah and his congregation. The assumption might be made that they were destroyed by fire (16:35), but the text explains that they were holy and hence a holy priest needed to dispose of them. These vessels are made into a bronze cover for the alter of incense. This cover is to function as a “sign” (’ôṯ) and a “reminder” (zikkārôn) that only Aaronic priests may offer incense. Those who violate this prescription risk suffering like Korah. Therefore, the primary lesson of the whole of 16:1–35 is drawn here.
A further aftermath is found in (16:41–50). This subsection plays on two common themes: the disobedience or rebellion of the Israelites and the intercession of the leaders for the people. . . These two scenes function together as a demonstration of the sole sufficiency of the Aaronic priesthood to deal with God for the people.
Matthew Henry: Observe especially, that Aaron was a type of Christ. There is an infection of sin in the world, which only the cross and intercession of Jesus Christ can stay and remove. He enters the defiled and dying camp. He stands between the dead and the living; between the eternal Judge and the souls under condemnation. We must have redemption through His blood, even the remission of sins. We admire the ready devotion of Aaron: shall we not bless and praise the unspeakable grace and love which filled the Saviour’s heart, when he placed himself in our stead, and bought us with his life? Greatly indeed hath God commended his love towards us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
Warren Wiersbe: In his farewell message to the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:28-31), Paul warned about proud people who would seek to seize authority in the local church and promote themselves. It’s likely that more churches have been divided because of arrogant leadership than because of false doctrine.
I. (:36-40) FALSE MEDIATORS LEAD US DOWN THE PATHWAY TO EXPERIENCING THE WRATH OF GOD –
THE SIGN CREATED FROM THE CENSERS OF THE DEAD USURPERS TO HIGHLIGHT HOLINESS
A. (:36-38) Reclaim the Censers for God’s Holy Purpose
1. (:36-37) Noteworthy Aspect of the Censers = Holy to God
“Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 37 ‘Say to Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, that he shall take up the censers out of the midst of the blaze, for they are holy; and you scatter the burning coals abroad.’”
Roy Gane: The incineration of the 250 chieftains (Num. 16:35), “who sinned at the cost of their lives” (16:38), created a problem. While the men were perishable, their censers were not. These objects were consecrated by the same divine fire that consumed those who wielded them. Therefore they had to stay at the sanctuary, but what could be done with them?
God’s solution is to have Eleazar, son of Aaron, retrieve the censers from the charred human remains and have them hammered out as a supplementary plating to overlay the outer altar. This plating will serve as a warning to any inclined to freelance priestly activities (16:36–40). Eleazar is in charge of the Levites responsible for guarding the sanctuary (3:32). The Lord has done the dirty work of executing encroachers for him (cf. 3:10, 38), but Eleazar still has to clean up the mess afterward.
Ronald Allen: Perhaps the most chilling incident in the narrative is the description of the true priests taking the censers of the 250 deceased impostors from their charred remains and employing these holy instruments in hammered bronze sheets for the altar (v. 38). Can you imagine the scene? True priests are picking among the bodies, charred flesh, stench, smoke, smoldering embers, and twisted parts. . .
Even with the death of the false priests, the holy things had to be treated as holy things. This is amazing! The men were wicked and had to be destroyed; the implements were holy and needed to be preserved! From that time on the sheet of bronze over the altar would be a memorial of the utter folly of the self-proclaimed priest of the most holy God (v. 40).
MacArthur: The censers were holy to the Lord since they had been used in the tabernacle.
2. (:38) New Application for the Bronze Metal = Sign of God’s Holiness
“As for the censers of these men who have sinned at the cost of their lives, let them be made into hammered sheets for a plating of the altar, since they did present them before the LORD and they are holy; and they shall be for a sign to the sons of Israel.”
Dennis Cole: The outer casing would serve as a reminder of the sanctity of the tabernacle, the supremacy of the Aaronic priesthood, and the seriousness of encroaching upon the holy sanctuary. Any attempt at profaning the holiness of the sanctuary, whether by unrighteous acts (Nadab and Abihu) or by unqualified personnel would be judged severely. How this covering fit in relation to the original bronze covering (Exod 27:2; 38:2) remains unexplained. But the object lesson is self-evident, as are others in the Book of Numbers: tassels on garments were a reminder to be obedient to the commandments of God (Num 15:37–41), Aaron’s rod was a sign not to grumble against the Lord and his anointed (Num 17:10), and the bronze serpent was a sign for deliverance from snakebite (21:4–9).
The coals from the collected censers were scattered outside the camp so as to not render others impure by contact with the remnants of the dead. In chap. 19 purification from ritual uncleanness brought about by contact or proximity to the dead is addressed. Many Israelites in the aftermath of this judgment would need ceremonial cleansing to be able to come before the Lord.
B. (:39-40) Remind the Sons of Israel to Approach God Only on His Terms
“So Eleazar the priest took the bronze censers which the men who were burned had offered; and they hammered them out as a plating for the altar, 40 as a reminder to the sons of Israel that no layman who is not of the descendants of Aaron should come near to burn incense before the LORD; that he might not become like Korah and his company– just as the LORD had spoken to him through Moses.”
Gordon Wenham: The importance of visual aids to prevent men sinning is an important theme in this section of Numbers. The tassels on garments (15:38–41) and Aaron’s rod (17:10) also serve the same purpose (cf. Exod. 13:9; 31:13, 17; Deut. 6:8; 11:18; Josh. 4:7).
II. (:41-50) ONLY THE TRUE MEDIATOR CAN SAVE US FROM GOD’S WRATH –
THE EFFICACY OF THE CENSER IN THE HAND OF THE TRUE PRIEST
A. (:41) The Congregation: Accusing God’s Appointed Leaders Falsely
1. Slow Learners – had not learned their lesson
“But on the next day”
Warren Wiersbe: “But what experience and history teach us is this, that peoples and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.” So wrote the German philosopher Hegel in the introduction to his Philosophy of History, and he was right. The one thing we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history, and that includes church history.
2 Safety in Numbers?? NO!
“all the congregation of the sons of Israel”
3. Still Grumbling Against God’s Appointed Leaders
“grumbled against Moses and Aaron,”
4. Shifting Blame
“saying, ‘You are the ones who have caused the death of the LORD’s people.’”
B. (:42-45) The Lord: Addressing Moses with the Urgent Warning of Imminent Judgment
1. (:42) God Shows Up
“It came about, however, when the congregation had assembled against Moses and Aaron, that they turned toward the tent of meeting, and behold, the cloud covered it and the glory of the LORD appeared.”
Dennis Cole: This second complaint of the people brought a second theophany as they gathered at the entrance to the tabernacle. The glory of the Lord descended upon the sanctuary for the second successive day. Milgrom suggests that the pillar of fire within the cloud, which continually covered the sanctuary when it was stationary, intensified so as to be seen in its brilliance during the daytime, since the fire was normally visible during the night. The cloud that had directed them thus far through the desert, giving hope for the future, now became an ominous sign of what was about to occur.
2. (:43-45) God Warns Moses and Aaron
a. Servants of God Addressed
“Then Moses and Aaron came to the front of the tent of meeting,”
b. Wrath of God Impending
“and the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Get away from among this congregation, that I may consume them instantly.’”
Dennis Cole: As Moses and Aaron went to the entrance to the tabernacle, the Lord instructed Moses to get away (lit. “rise up from the midst”) from the vicinity of the defiant crowd so that he could annihilate them. Yet as before (16:20–21), Moses instead fell upon his face in subservience and prayer before the Lord, always a true servant of the people. By this action he also was putting himself at risk of judgment, but God is continually mindful and willing to respond to the submissive hearts of his faithful servants.
c. Fear of God Displayed / Intercessory Appeal
“Then they fell on their faces.”
Roy Gane: Moses and Aaron fall on their faces (16:45b). They have been doing that a lot lately (see 14:5; 16:4, 22). But now there is no time even for a short prayer of intercession. Moses perceives that the Lord’s cup of retributive justice has already overflowed, even though he and Aaron have not gotten out of the way. Only Aaron’s rapidly mobile mediation with incense saves the community from extermination (16:46–48).
C. (:46-50) Aaron (Instructed by Moses): Arresting the Plague by Making Atonement
1. (:46) Proper Use of Censer by Genuine Priest
“And Moses said to Aaron, ‘Take your censer and put in it fire from the altar, and lay incense on it; then bring it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them, for wrath has gone forth from the LORD, the plague has begun!’”
Incense was symbolic of prayer.
Dennis Cole: While in this posture Moses directed Aaron to take (qaḥ) the censer and place fiery coals from the altar in it and add incense so as to make atonement (kappēr) for the sinful murmuring of the people, thus attempting to avert the imminent destruction of all of those assembled. Here the term kpr clearly means “propitiation” or “appeasement of the wrath of God.” In the cultic contexts of the ancient Near East, incense often was offered to pacify or appease the wrath of gods and goddesses and soothe their spirits. Incense enhanced the sweet smelling aroma of burning sacrifices that ascended into the heavens, symbolically entering into the nostrils of God (or the gods).
2. (:47) Urgent Need to Make Atonement for the People
“Then Aaron took it as Moses had spoken, and ran into the midst of the assembly, for behold, the plague had begun among the people. So he put on the incense and made atonement for the people.”
Roy Gane: Numbers 16:46–48 indicates that ritual incense could also have an expiatory function. Aaron carried incense in a censer outside the tabernacle to expiate for (kipper ʿal) the Israelites so that a lethal outbreak of divine wrath would halt. This case suggests the possibility that regularly sweetening the atmosphere inside the tabernacle may also have had some kind of expiatory function, mitigating the invasive “stench” of Israel’s pollution to the Lord, who dwelt with his people “in the midst of their uncleanness” (Lev. 16:16).
3. (:48) Arresting the Plague
“And he took his stand between the dead and the living,
so that the plague was checked.”
4. (:49) Death Toll
“But those who died by the plague were 14,700,
besides those who died on account of Korah.”
5. (:50) Completion of the Priestly Intervention
“Then Aaron returned to Moses at the doorway of the tent of meeting,
for the plague had been checked.”
Ronald Allen: Verse 50 is a salutary vindication of the role that God had given to these two men. Despite repeated attempts by powerful persons to wrest away from them their special place in the work of God, there they stand, two old men, blessed of the Lord.