Punishment and Reward
(28) Then they joined themselves to Baal of Peor and ate sacrifices (offered to) the dead. (29) They provoked him (Yahweh) to anger with their deeds, and a plague broke out among them. (30) Then Phinehas stood up and intervened, and the plague was checked, (31) and that was accounted to him as righteousness from generation to generation forever. (32) They angered him (Yahweh) at the waters of Meribah so that it went badly for Moses on their account, (33) for they made his spirit rebellious, and he spoke rashly with his lips.
Two words are repeated in this segment: “plague” (vss. 29 & 30) and “anger” (vss. 29 & 32). Both words figure in the first of two episodes that took place during Israel’s forty years of wandering in the wilderness as recounted in these verses. First, the psalmist describes the tragedy at Shittim, recorded in Numbers 25 (vss. 28-31). There, some of the Israelites were enticed by the Moabites to worship the idolatrous Baal of Peor. God sent a plague in judgment, and even as Israelites were dying, one of the idolaters, Zimri of the Simeonites, had the audacity to bring a Midianite woman into the assembly of Israel. Phinehas, one of the priests, was singled out for his zeal in carrying out Moses’ command to execute those who had so offended God by their disobedience. Because of his actions, the plague God had sent to punish them was stopped. In all, some 24,000 Israelites died because of this rebellion.
The second episode is set forth in Numbers 20:1-13 (vss. 32 & 33). At Meribah Moses disobeyed God by striking rather than speaking to the rock so that Israel might receive the water about which they were complaining. Because of this failure of leadership, God would not allow Moses to enter the Promised Land when the time came for Israel to cross over Jordan.
I. While Israel rebelled in worshiping Baal of Peor and was judged with a plague, Phinehas was rewarded because of his zeal for God. (28-31)
II. Moses, because of Israel’s obstinacy, struck the rock at Meribah and was punished for his failure of leadership. (32 & 33)
God punishes those who sin against him but rewards those who are zealous for his honor.
God’s refusing to allow Moses to enter the Promised Land after leading the nation for forty years because of his failure at Meribah has always seemed excessive. It seems that all Moses did was strike the rock in his frustration with the Israelites because of their constant complaining and ingratitude for the Lord’s provision and protection. Or was this really all that happened?
This psalm indicates that behind Moses’ anger lurked a proud, rebellious spirit (vs. 33). For a brief moment, Moses became just like the sinful nation he was supposed to be leading and for whom he was supposed to provide a model of submission to Yahweh. His anger on that occasion was actually anger with Yahweh. In striking the rock, he was striking out at Yahweh. In using the first person plural in the words he spoke, "Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock,” Moses took to himself some of the glory which was Yahweh’s alone for providing the nation with water (Num. 20:10).
When we probe Moses’ momentary lapse, we realize that this was not just a fit of pique but a serious violation of his relationship with God. Look more closely at the rebuke God gave Moses and Aaron: “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them” (Num. 20:12). We can identify at least three serious sins Moses committed as we study God’s words of reproach:
- A failure of faith: “you did not trust me enough”
- A betrayal of relationship: “to honor me as holy”
- A failure to provide exemplary leadership: “in the sight of the Israelites”
Moses was forced to face the consequences of his sin. God’s choice of punishment, refusal to allow him to enter the Promised Land, was severe enough to let everyone know, especially Moses, that he had been guilty of serious rebellion against Yahweh. Moses’ sin did not immediately disqualify him from his position of leadership. Because of his repentant spirit, God allowed Moses to carry on with his responsibilities. We can find no other occasion when Moses rebelled in his relationship with Yahweh while he continued to lead the nation. He had learned a painful and difficult lesson.