The narrative found in Numbers 16 is probably not one that you have heard many sermons preached on (and if you’re like me you can probably count the sermons you have heard in Numbers on one hand). This chapter holds several important implications for our lives including how God expects to be approached, what unseen dangers can threaten us from within, and why characteristics of mercy and wrath are necessary aspects of God’s holiness and contribute to our purity and healing.
Numbers 16 outlines the rebellion of Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and 250 of their allies. The Bible says that these men “assembled together against Moses and Aaron” to lodge a complaint and to make their grumblings known. Their complaint against God’s chosen leaders was that Moses and Aaron had become too lofty and exalted above the people. Interestingly, Korah and his gang used the holiness of the congregation as their excuse for challenging Moses and Aaron.
As an initial response to Korah, Moses “fell on his face” (16:4). Some commentaries suggest that this refers to Moses’ countenance becoming fallen, as if he were angry or upset. Another understanding is that this is a literal understanding of Moses prostrating himself before God in prayer (Numbers 20:6). From reading what follows, I believe the second interpretation is most likely. In his response to Korah’s accusations, Moses did not claim to speak for God nor did he seek to defend himself. He simply pointed to God as the ultimate arbiter of justice and submitted himself to the same judgment that Korah would be subjugated (Numbers 16:5-7).
After deferring to God, Moses points out Korah’s hypocrisy and selfishness. Korah was born of the tribe of Levi and thus held a unique position among the nation of Israel. In verse 9, Moses points out that as a Levite, Korah was uniquely distinguished from the rest of the kinsmen. The tribe of Levi was considered a special possession of the Lord (Numbers 3:6, 9; Deuteronomy 10:8), was set apart to serve the Lord in His Tabernacle and was privileged to minister to the rest of the tribes as a representative of God. Unfortunately, Korah had rejected each of the blessings that his status as a Levite afforded him because of his selfish ambition. Moses asked of Korah, “And are you seeking for the priesthood also?” (Numbers 16:10). This refers to the fact that only the sons of Aaron (of which Korah was not) were to fill the top roles in the priestly hierarchy. In this one statement, Moses identified the motivation behind Korah’s rebellion. He was not satisfied with the hierarchy that God had previously established for the priesthood (cf. Numbers 3-4). The striking truth that Moses concludes his response with is that Korah’s uprising against Moses and Aaron was actually directed at God (Numbers 16:11).
The narrative ends in a day of judgment. Korah and the rebels on one side, and Moses and Aaron on the other. These two groups were to approach the doorway to the tent of meeting, the place where God revealed His glory and His will to the people, each man with his own censer (Numbers 16:18). This imagery is significant and should not be lost on us. The censer, or firepan, was used in priestly worship to burn fire and incense (Numbers 14:4). As the sweet aroma of the incense wafted in the air, it served as a visual representation of both the people’s prayers lifted toward God and God’s holy presence (Leviticus 16:12-13). It is important to note that it wasn’t just Korah and Moses holding representative censures, but every man involved in this affair held their own. This suggests personal responsibility in the midst of corporate sin. All of this to say, the presence of these utensils marked this occasion as related to solemn worship of a holy God.
The importance behind these tools of worship were not lost on the rebels, and most certainly not lost on Korah. This should have been a clear designation for all involved to approach God with humility. This, however, was not the spirit in which Korah arrived to meet with God. Moses recalls, “Thus Korah assembled all the congregation against them [Moses and Aaron] at the doorway of the tent of meeting. And the glory of the Lord appeared to all the congregation” (16:19). Up to the last moment, Korah continued to stir rebellion among the people against God’s chosen servants. Korah’s pride, arrogance, and foolishness is starkly contrasted with God’s holiness, righteousness, and purity. The rebels’ actions proved Moses’ earlier statement, that Korah’s complaint and restlessness was aimed not at two men, but toward God.
So, how did God respond to this act of pride? He responded in two ways that are consistent with His character. Initially, God was prepared to destroy the entire congregation, but Moses and Aaron prostrated themselves and advocated for the congregation. They pleaded, “O God, God of the spirits of all flesh, when one man sins, will You be angry with the entire congregation?” (Numbers 16:22). Now don’t forget that these people in the congregation were rightfully guilty. They had allowed Korah and his band of rebels to stir their hearts toward dissatisfaction and distrust of God’s leaders, and thus God Himself. Regardless, God heard the intercessory prayers of His servants, and He responded with mercy and forgiveness. However, this does not mark the end of the story. Due to God’s justice, sinful rebellion cannot go unpunished. In one act of terrible wrath and judgment God both punishes the guilty and firmly establishes His servants. Moses stated,
“By this you shall know that the Lord has sent me to do all these deeds; for this is not my doing. If these men die the death of all men or if they suffer the fate of all men, then the Lord has not sent me. But if the Lord bring about an entirely new things and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that is theirs, and they descend alive into Sheol, then you will understand that these men have spurned the Lord” (16:28-30)
At this point, Korah, Dathan, Abiram, along with all of their possessions and families are swallowed by the earth. In addition, the 250 men offering incense who had joined the rebellion were consumed by fire from God (Numbers 16:35-38). This gruesome judgment was public for a reason. It served as a warning to the people that God did not tolerate a haughty spirit, a complaining tongue, and irreverent worship (Numbers 16:40; 26:9-10; Jude 1:11).
As we consider the narrative in Numbers 16, there are at least three points of application that we can bring to bear in our ministry to others.
Discontentment breeds spiritual unrest, ingratitude, and arrogance. When we take our eyes off of Christ and settle them on speculations, fears, and fleshly desires, we open ourselves to a spirit of discontentment which is the opposite of the trusting and resting in God (Colossians 3:1-11; 2 Corinthians 10:3-5). Suddenly His peace is not as accessible as it once was, His presence seems distant, and ultimately our service to Him becomes compromised. Korah’s greed did not accomplish a closer fellowship between God and His people. Instead of fostering intimacy, the sins of discontentment and pride only served to drive a wedge between them. The good news is that through Christ, God has provided to us peace that surpassing understanding, intimacy that brings us sweet fellowship, and power to grow in righteousness.
Grumbling and complaining are never harmless. The deception of sins like these is that they seem harmless. If we are honest, many of us have even grown comfortable with sins like these in our own lives. However, like all sin, these snares always produce the fruit of active rebellion against God and often breed unrest in the hearts of those around us (James 1:14-15). Korah enlisted the help of his friends and incited many who came up against God’s chosen leaders. We must remember that God will not be mocked, if we choose to foster discontent in our own hearts and sow it in those around us, we will indeed be held responsible for our sin, but others may also suffer the consequences as well (Galatians 6:7).
Pride leads to spiritual blindness and a rejection of truth. This should go without saying, but the pride of life is not from God nor does it honor Him as God (1 John 2:15-17). However, pride often takes forms that are not as recognizable as the brazen pride that we may picture. In many instances, pride can be disguised by seemingly honorable reasons. Korah’s complaint against Moses and Aaron was grounded on his belief that since the entire nation of Israel was considered holy then no one should be seen as more exalted than anyone else. They even go as far as using God’s very name and presence to support their grievances (16:3). However, Korah’s pretense was soon revealed as selfish ambition. Prideful and arrogant living results in twisting God’s Word for our benefit, thus rejecting our need of God and placing the crown on our own heads. There is no blessing in prideful living, God blesses the humble and rejects the arrogant (James 4:6; Proverbs 3:34).