28. And they joined themselves to Baal-peor, and ate the sacrifices of the dead. 29. And they provoked God to anger by their works, 1 and the plague broke out among them. 30. And Phinehas stood up, and executed justice: and the plague was stopped. 31. And that deed was imputed to him for righteousness from generation to generation for ever.
"Behold, these women caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor." Numbers 31:16
And as the idolatry here mentioned originated from carnal intrigues, some expositors are of opinion, that on this account the prophet charges the people with the commission of a twofold trespass, in their not only being inveigled by the Midianitish women, but also in binding themselves by another bond to Baal-peor, (Numbers 25) Be that as it may, the prophet exclaims against the perfidy of his own nation, because in forsaking the true worship of God, they had broken that holy union by which they had been betrothed to him. For we know, that as God adopts the Church as his spouse, when she gives herself up to idolatry, she no less shamefully violates her fidelity, than when a wife leaves her husband, and becomes an adulteress. It is well known, that Baal-peor was the idol of the Midianites; but it is not so well known how he received this appellation. The word
"If we would judge ourselves, verily we would not be judged of the Lord."
And surely God confers no small honor upon us, in placing the punishment of our sins within our reach. At the same time, it must be observed, that on that occasion the plague ceased in consequence of the punishment of a single person, because the people then shrunk from the abominable wickedness to which they had been addicted.
But a more difficult question still remains, How that one action could be imputed to Phinehas for righteousness? 6 Paul proves that men are justified by faith alone, because it is written,
"Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness," Romans 4:3
In Genesis 15:6, Moses employs the same word. If the same thing may be said respecting works, the reasoning of Paul will be not only feeble, but frivolous. First of all, let us examine, whether or not Phinehas was justified on account of this deed alone. Verily the law, though it could justify, by no means promises salvation to any one work, but makes justification to consist in the perfect observance of all the commandments. It remains, therefore, that we affirm, that the work of Phinehas was imputed to him for righteousness, in the same way as God imputes the works of the faithful to them for righteousness, not in consequence of any intrinsic merit which they possess, but of his own free and unmerited grace. And as it thus appears, that the perfect observance of the law alone (which is done no where) constitutes righteousness, all men must prostrate themselves with confusion of face before God's judgment-seat. Besides, were our works strictly examined, they would be found to be mingled with much imperfection. We have, therefore, no other source than to flee for refuge to the free unmerited mercy of God. And not only do we receive righteousness by grace through faith, but as the moon borrows her light from the sun, so does the same faith render our works righteous, because our corruptions being mortified, they are reckoned to us for righteousness. In short, faith alone, and not human merit, procures both for persons and for works the character of righteousness. I now return to Paul. And it is not from a single expression, that he argues that we are justified freely, and by faith only, but he assumes higher principles, to which I lately referred, that all men are destitute of righteousness, until God reconcile them to himself by the blood of Christ; and that faith is the means by which pardon and reconciliation are obtained, because justification by works is no where to be obtained. Hence he very properly concludes, that we are justified by faith alone. But righteousness by works is as it were subordinate (as they say) to the righteousness just mentioned, while works possess no value in themselves, excepting, and as far as, out of pure benevolence, God imputes them to us for righteousness.
1 In our English Bible it is "their inventions." "Rather," says Horsley, "'their frolics.'"
2 "Signifie autant comme Maistre ou Patron." -- Fr.
3 Baal was a very common name of the principal male god of the nations of the East, as Ashtaroth was a common one for their chief female deity. The Moabites, Phoenicians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and often the Hebrews, worshipped this idol. Among the Babylonians, he was called Bel or Belus. The sun only might at first be worshipped under that name, as we know that under it the Phoenicians adored that luminary. But at length it came to be applied to many other idols, according to these words of the Apostle, "There be gods many, and baalims, or lords many," 1 Corinthians 8:5. As the idol Jupiter among the Romans had different names and different rites of worship, occasioned sometimes from the different benefits which he was thought to bestow upon men, as Jupiter Pluvius, because he gave rain, Jupiter Lucetius, because he gave light, Jupiter Altitonans, from thundering; and sometimes from different places -- as Jupiter Olympius, from the hill Olympus, Jupiter Capitolinus, from the Capitol hill, Jupiter Latialis, from that part of Italy which is called Latium: so Baal had his distinctive titles, and different rites of worship, occasioned in the same manner. He sometimes received his name from the benefits he was supposed to confer, as Baal-tsephon, (Exodus 14:1) the latter term denoting a watcher, and Baalzebub, (2 Kings 1:2) which signifies the lord of the flies. He was worshipped under this last name by the Cyrenians, but principally by Ekronites, because, whenever they sacrificed to him, they believed that the swarms of flies, which at that time molested the country, would die. At other times he received a distinctive appellation from the places where he was worshipped, as Baal-peor, from the hill Peor, mentioned in Numbers 23:28; and his temple, whither his votaries resorted, standing on the same hill, was called Beth-peor, Deuteronomy 3:29. Possibly, however, the mountain might have taken its name from the god that was there worshipped. The idol named Chemosh, in Jeremiah 48:7, is thought to be the same as Baal-peor. "I take it," says Goodwin, "to be applied to Baal-peor, by way of contempt, as if one should say their blind god, according to that in the psalm, 'They have eyes, and see not;' for the first letter, caph, signifies as it were, or like, and
4 "The dead" appears to be a term of contempt applied to idols. They are so called in opposition to the true and living God. There may also be an allusion to the fact, that many of the heathen idols were men who had been deified after their death.
5 "Lequel outre les limites de sa vocation." -- Fr.
6 And it was counted to him for righteousness. Dr Hammond properly observes, that this expression signifies something more than justifying, as being the opposite of condemning; for thus it would denote no more than acquitting Phinehas, who had certainly committed no offense; on the contrary, by this act an offended God was satisfied. He gives to
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