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God’s Word for You

Numbers 11:1-3 The fiery wrath of God

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Fire From the Lord
11 The people were complaining about their hardships so that the LORD heard it. When the LORD heard it, his anger burned. So the LORD’s fire burned among them and consumed some of the outskirts of the camp. 2 The people cried out to Moses, and Moses prayed to the LORD. So the fire died down. 3 They named that place Taberah, because the LORD’s fire burned among them.

In verse 4, the “foreign rabble” with the Israelites complain. Here it is the people in general, even if they were spurred on by outsiders. They had amazing blessings from the Lord, even here on the high rocky plateau of the et-Tih or Wilderness of Paran. They had protection, guidance, room enough to camp, an abundance of supplies, clothes and shoes which, if they cared to notice, were not wearing out (Deuteronomy 29:5). They had water where there was none, bread where there was no grain, and meat from the sky so that they did not need to start cutting or culling from their own herds. Their flocks were fed and watered (when a man needs a pint of water, a cow needs a gallon, especially an ox that’s pulling a wagon). They had a guide. They had rules from the Lord and a place of worship that moved with them. They had evidence of God’s presence with them constantly, towering thousands of feet into the sky; a vast billowing pillar of cloud by day that lit up with the fires of lightning and the divine presence of God himself at night. And yet there were grumblings; complaints.

Psalm 78 describes this in poetic words: “When the Lord heard them, he was very angry; his fire broke out against Jacob, and his wrath rose against Israel; for they did not believe God or trust in his providence” (Psalm 78:22-23). This group was, “against the most important precept, committing the offense of impatience, doubt, and unbelief in the works of God” (Chytraeus p. 125). They had seen the miracles God had done for them, but now they were saying with their doubt, “He did it once, but we bet he can’t do it again!”

Like mildew, their complaining would only spread if it was not killed immediately, and just as the Lord commanded mildew to be burned with fire (Leviticus 13:57), so also his wrath leapt out in this case and burned the edge of the camp. This was an actual fire (Luther, “a real fire,” LW 11:62), like the fire that came and burned some of Job’s servants and flocks (Job 1:16). The text doesn’t tell us whether this was caused by a destroying angel (Revelation 8:6, 16:8), or by some other means. It might even have been something as common as lightning, which is not common when directed to its spot by the hand of God: “He fills his hands with lightning and commands it to strike its mark” (Job 36:32).

The people called the place Taberah, “It burned.” But this wasn’t a name for the whole camp, just the edge of the camp where the fire happened. So it isn’t listed with the long list of their stopping places. It may have been the same as “The Graves of the Greedy” we will soon read about.

The fire burned one part of the camp. Certainly this would have involved one or more of the four combustible things that were present on the limestone plateau: (1) the vegetation, shrubs and things, that provided fodder for their animals (Revelation 8:7), (2) the tents of the people on the fringe of the camp of whichever side was afflicted (“fire will consume what is left in his tent,” Job 20:26), (3) their animals, as happened when fires would rage unchecked after a battle and “fire devours their wealth” (Job 22:20), or (4) some of the people themselves, as had happened recently with Aaron’s sons (Leviticus 10:2, 10:5). It might even have been that the fire burned and afflicted people but not tents, animals, or grasses at all, as when locusts were commanded “not to harm the grass of the earth or any plant or tree, but only those people who did not have the seal of God” (Revelation 9:4).

God was chastising the people, showing them his displeasure and anger, so that they would understand the boundaries. If they trusted in him he would care for them and provide for all their needs. If they did not trust in him, their needs would not be met and they would be punished. God is not neutral with people. Paul’s gospel shout, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31) can be turned around: “If God is against us, who can possibly be for us?” When a man doubts God, he is left with no protector, no one to answer his questions, and no one to guide him. “If I walk to the east, he is not there. If I go back to the west, I find no sign of him. When he is at work in the north, I do not detect him. When he turns to the south, I do not see him” (Job 23:8-9). Yet what does the believer say? “If I go up to heaven, you are there. If I make my bed in hell—there you are! I rise on the wings of dawn. I settle on the far side of the sea. Even there your hand guides me” (Psalm 139:8-10). The unbeliever has no access to God at all. The believer has God with him at all times and in all places.

In the liturgy of the Common Service, the Pax (“The Lord be with you,” etc.) is followed by a short prayer known as the Preface. It begins like this: “It is truly good and right that we should at all times and in all places give you thanks, O Lord, holy Father, almighty and everlasting God, through Jesus Christ our Lord…,” and this is followed by something to do with the season of the year. In the summertime we say, “... who promised that wherever two or three come together in his name, there he is with them to shepherd his flock until he comes again in glory.” This is entirely from Scripture, reminding God’s people of various important passages of God’s Word (in this case, Psalm 75:1; 1 Thessalonians 5:18; Nehemiah 9:5; Matthew 18:20; Isaiah 40:11; John 10:16; Matthew 25:31 and other passages). When we are reminded of what God has done, it helps to keep us from grumbling and complaining about our lives. We remember, at least some of the time, that God loves us, that God provides for us, and that God knows our needs. Christ our Lord keeps God’s wrath from burning out against us. He loves us, and his mercy endures forever.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith

About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.


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