32. And they provoked him to anger at the waters of strife 1, and it turned out ill to Moses on their account: 33. For they grieved his spirit, 2 so that he spake with his lips. 34. They did not destroy the nations whom Jehovah had commanded them: 35. But were mingled with 3 the heathen, and learned their works. 36. And served their idols: which were the occasion of their overthrow. 37. And sacrificed their sons and daughters unto devils, 38. And they shed innocent blood, the blood of their sons and their daughters whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan; and the land was defiled with blood. 39. And they were polluted with their own works, and went a whoring after their own inventions. 4
32. And they provoked him. The prophet mentions another offense of which they were guilty, in that, they contended with God at the waters of strife, from which circumstance that place derived its name. The clamor was, it is true, raised directly against Moses, but if we examine the matter properly, we will find that they virtually murmured against God himself. And to point out the aggravation of their offense, he says that Moses was hardly dealt with on their account. From this it may be inferred that their transgression was very heinous, in that God did not spare even his own servant, whom he had chosen in preference to all others. We do not deny that Moses deserved that punishment; but if we search for the origin of the trespass, we will find that it was the sin of the people that was visited upon him. If Moses was prevented from entering the land of Canaan, because through the influence of the sin of others, and in opposition to the convictions of his own mind, he had been hurried on to the commission of iniquity, how much more inexcusable is the impiety of that people who deliberately strove with God, and by their folly and fretfulness, brought in Moses for a share of their guilt?
33. For they grieved his spirit. The verb hrm, marah, properly signifies to vex or irritate, but as it is here put in what the Hebrews call the Hiphil conjugation, some are of opinion that it is to be understood passively, to denote that it was the people who were the occasion of the rebellion; which interpretation does not appear to me to be very objectionable. I cannot, however, agree with those who would have the particle ta, eth, to be a sign of what is denominated the dative case, as if Moses might be said to have rebelled against the Spirit of God. Had he done so, then assuredly the prophet would not have spoken so severely of the sin and folly into which he had inadvertently fallen. The meaning which I have already given answers very well, That the prime movers of the rebellion must have committed a very heinous offense, seeing that Moses, who had been pushed on by the impetuosity of the people to sin, was so severely dealt with by God. But while the prophet informs us that Moses was punished on the people's account, he is not to be understood as saying that he was altogether blameless. For even admitting that his spirit was ruffled in consequence of the tumult of the people, this ought to have made him the more careful to continue steadfast in his adherence to the Law of God. He adds, that he spoke with his lips; and this I take to refer to Moses, there being no ground for the conjecture that it refers to the punishment which God expressly denounced against Moses. It is more likely that these words were intended by the prophet to express how greatly the spirit of Moses was agitated when he openly murmured against God. The prophet, therefore, informs us that the submissive and gentle spirit of Moses was fanned, as it were, into a breeze by the perverseness of the people, so that even he spake un-advisedly, saying, "Can God give you water out of the rock?" (Numbers 20:10) For such was the indignation which he felt burning within him, that he could not calmly wait for the commandment of God to smite the rock.
34. They did not destroy the nations. It appears to me that those persons are mistaken who think that the prophet is here simply giving a relation of the punishment which was inflicted upon the Jews, as if he were imputing to them the entire blame of not exterminating the nations, in consequence of their not deserving the honor of obtaining any more victories over them. But he rather prefers another charge against them, that they had been remiss in driving out the heathen, or more probably that they had not obeyed the Divine command to root them out of the land. Now that the cup of the iniquity of the Amorites was full, it was the purpose of God that they should be exterminated, lest their society might prove injurious to the holy people. For God, having chosen that land for a habitation to himself, intended that it should be holy and purified from all defilement. In refusing, therefore, to execute the vengeance enjoined upon them, the people showed their willingness to associate with the uncircumcised inhabitants of Canaan. In manifesting such indifference about God's command respecting the driving out these nations, they gave just cause for his anger waxing hot against them. Behold, saith he, I have commanded all these nations to be cut off by the sword; and now, because ye have not obeyed my voice,
"they shall be pricks in your eyes, and thorns in your sides, and shall vex you in the land wherein ye dwell," Numbers 33:55
The not destroying all these nations, but permitting some of them to remain, might appear to be an act of mercy; but in thus acting, the people were guilty of neglecting to execute God's righteous vengeance upon them, and of leaving the land liable to be polluted with their abominations. From these things it ought to be noticed, that there are two extremes in which men are apt to indulge, either in being unnecessarily over rigorous, or in defeating the ends of justice by too great lenity. We must, therefore, adhere strictly to God's command, if we would desire to shun both extremes. For if the Israelites are condemned for sparing some of these nations wholly, what are we to think of those judges who, from a timid and apathetic attention to the responsible duties of their office, exercise too much lenity to a few persons, thus weakening the restraints of the inlets to vice, to the great detriment of the public weal?
35. But were mingled. He describes what was the result of this foolish humanity; namely, that they were defiled with the pollutions of the nations whom they had spared. Had they exclusively inhabited the land of Canaan, they would have more easily retained the pure worship of God. Allured by the influence of such neighbors, it is not wonderful that they soon degenerated from the footsteps of their fathers, for we are more inclined to follow the example of the bad than of the good. And now he speaks of the descendants of those who had so frequently provoked God's anger in the wilderness, and declares, that as the same unbelief, rebellion, and ingratitude, were rampant in the succeeding race, they were no better than their fathers.
In mingling with the heathens they openly rejected the distinguishing loving-kindness of God, who adopted them as his children, under the express condition that they should be separated from these profane nations. Therefore, in associating with them indiscriminately, they render this holy covenant of no effect. When he adds, that they learned their works, he warns us, that nothing is more dangerous than associating with the ungodly; because, being more prone to follow vice than virtue, it cannot but be, that the more conversant we are with corruption, the more widely will it spread. In such circumstances, the utmost care and caution are requisite, lest the wicked, with whom we come into contact, infect us by their vitiated morals; and particularly where there is danger of relapsing into idolatry, to which we are all naturally prone. What, then, will be the effect produced upon us when instigated by others to commit sin, but to add sin to sin? 5 The prophet, therefore, declares that the Jews were already so much under the tuition of the heathen as to abandon themselves to the practice of their idolatrous rites. In employing the word to serve, he confutes the contemptible evasion of the Papists, who pretend that they do not give to images the worship that is due to God alone, but only a sort of honorary adoration. 6 But if the worshipping of images be lawful, the prophet had no sufficient cause to condemn his own nation for serving strange gods. Despicable, therefore, is the distinction, that Divine homage is to be paid to God alone, and that a kind of honorary adoration is to be given to images. He adds, that this issued in their overthrow, in order that their obstinate attachment to their follies, and their despising the chastisements of God, may more palpably appear.
37. And they sacrificed. The prophet here mentions one species of superstition which demonstrates the awful blindness of the people; their not hesitating to sacrifice their sons and daughters to devils. 7In applying such an abominable designation to the sin of the people, he means to exhibit it in more hateful colors. From this we learn that inconsiderate zeal is a flimsy pretext in favor of any act of devotion. For by how much the Jews were under the influence of burning zeal, by so much does the prophet convict them with being guilty of greater wickedness; because their madness carried them away to such a pitch of enthusiasm, that they did not spare even their own offspring. Were good intentions meritorious, as idolaters suppose, then indeed the laying aside of all natural affection in sacrificing their own children was a deed deserving of the highest praise. But when men act under the impulse of their own capricious humor, the more they occupy themselves with acts of external worship, the more do they increase their guilt. For what difference was there between Abraham and those persons of whom the prophet makes mention, but that the former, under the influence of faith, was ready to offer up his son, while the latter, carried away by the impulse of intemperate zeal, cast off all natural affection, and imbrued their hands in the blood of their own offspring.
38. And they shed. He inveighs with still greater indignation against that religious phrensy which led them to sacrifice their own children, and thus to pollute the land by the shedding of innocent blood. Should any one object that Abraham is praised, because he did not withhold his only son, the answer is plain, That he did it in obedience to God's command, so that every vestige of inhumanity was effaced by means of the purity of faith. For if obedience is better than sacrifice, (1 Samuel 15:22) it is the best rule both for morality and religion. It is an awful manifestation of God's vindictive wrath, when the superstitious heathens, left to their own inventions, become hardened in deeds of horrid cruelty. As often as the martyrs put their life in jeopardy in defense of the truth, the incense of such a sacrifice is pleasing to God. But when the two Romans, by name Decii, 8 in an execrable manner devoted themselves unto death, that was an act of atrocious impiety. It is not without just cause, therefore, that the prophet enhances the guilt of the people by this consideration, that to the perverse mode of worshipping God, they had added excessive cruelty. Nor is there less cause for charging them with having polluted that land out of which God had commanded them to expel the ancient inhabitants, in order that he might render it the peculiar scene where he was to be worshipped. The Israelites then were doubly wicked, who, by not only defiling the land with their idolatry, but also by cruelly butchering their children, robbed God of his due, and in a manner frustrated his designs.
39. And they were polluted with their own works. He now concludes by stating generally, that the Jews, in adopting the abominable practices of the heathen, were become wholly filthy; because in all the devices of men there is nothing else than impurity. He denominates as the works of men all the false worship which they devise without the Divine sanction; as if he should say, that the holiness, which is truly connected with the worship of God, comes from his word, and that all human inventions and admixtures in religion are profane, and tend to corrupt the service of God. Doubtless it was the intention of the Israelites to serve God, but the Holy Spirit declares that all the fruit of their burning zeal was their becoming more abominable in God's sight by their lewd inventions. For a strict adherence to the word of God constitutes spiritual chastity.