God’s Word for You
Numbers 16:23-27 Unrepentance
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Friday, September 24, 2021
23 The LORD spoke to Moses: 24 “Tell the assembly, ‘Move away from the dwelling of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram!’” 25 So Moses got up and went to Dathan and Abiram. The elders of Israel followed him. 26 He told the assembly, “Move back from the tents of these wicked men. Do not touch anything that belongs to them, or you will be swept away because of all their sins!” 27 So from every side, they moved away from the dwelling of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. Dathan and Abiram came out and stood at the entrance to their tents with their wives, children, and little ones.
I am struck by five things in this passage. I’m sure that there are more items for us to pay attention to, such as the elders of Israel walking along with Moses, and the noteworthy omission of On, who was originally listed with the rebels but now has shrunk back into the community. But let’s examine these points:
1, The warning not even to touch anything belonging to the rebels.
This teaches us not to preserve things belonging to heretics and opponents of the gospel. Sometimes historians, steeped so deeply in their thirst to learn from the past, lament the fact that those who are victorious in wars and theological debates do not preserve the culture or all of the theology of those who are defeated. But when historians criticize the church for failing to give a full examination of the doctrines of ancient heretics, they are stepping on a hypocritical line; would they fully preserve every doctrine of our church if we were suddenly destroyed?
When God wants his enemies to be completely wiped out, he is especially concerned with their teachings and heresy, even more so than that every man, woman and dog be put to death or that every shack and outhouse be burned to the ground. That’s because the teachings, the heresy, is the dangerous part, along with those heretics who are the teachers. Here at Korah’s tent, the message was one of complete separation of fellowship: Korah and the others had separated themselves from God’s appointed leaders, and so the nation was to separate themselves completely from Korah.
2, The Israelites obeyed the warning and moved away.
Moses tells us that the people “from every side” moved away. They had seen what God could do in his anger. The livestock of the Egyptians were decimated by the Fifth Plague (Exodus 9:5-7). The firstborn of Egypt were dead, struck down by God in the Tenth Plague at midnight on the first Passover (Exodus 12:27). The chariots of Pharaoh and their horses and men still lay at the bottom of the Red Sea (Exodus 14:28). The bodies of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, were buried in the desert near Mount Sinai (Leviticus 10:4-5). The edge of the camp had been burned at Taberah because of their complaining (Numbers 11:1,3). The bodies of many complaining Israelites lay buried in the sand at Kibroth Hattaavah with quail meat “still between their teeth” (Numbers 11:32-34). Furthermore, ten of the twelve spies were dead, struck down by God for spreading their bad report (Numbers 14:37). Now God told them to move away from Korah. “A wise man fears the Lord and shuns evil” (Proverbs 14:16), and this is a perfect illustration.
3, In defiance, Dathan and Abiram brought out their wives and children to stand with them.
While the people moved away, Dathan and Abiram came out. This is so contrary to both religion and reason that it can only be an act of defiant unbelief. What kind of a madman would make his family stand with him when threatened by Almighty God? They must have fallen totally and utterly into unbelief. Repentance was not even considered, even though the Lord’s hand was already upraised and about to strike. This is what Isaiah described:
“Therefore, as the flames of a fire devour stubble,
and as dry grass sinks down into the flames,
in the same way their roots will rot,
and their blossoms will dry up like dust,
because they have rejected the law of the Lord of Armies,
and they have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.
Therefore, the Lord’s anger burns against his people,
and he has stretched out his hand against them and has struck them.
The mountains tremble,
and their dead bodies will lie like garbage in the middle of the streets.
In spite of all this, his anger is not turned away,
and his hand is still stretched out, ready to strike” (Isaiah 5:24-25)
4, Mysteriously, Korah’s sons, or some of them, did not stand with their father, but moved away with the others.
This is the gospel proclaimed to everyone who is terrified by the law and by God’s anger over sin. When is it time to repent? The time is always right now, this second. Repent in dust and ashes while you have breath in your body, because in another moment, your last breath might be spent. “Each man’s life is but a breath” (Psalm 39:5).
Moses says later in the book: “The line of Korah did not die out” (Numbers 26:11). Luther says: “The sons of Korah received extraordinary grace in that they were preserved when their father was swallowed up by the earth with his companions” (LW 12:201). We encounter a group known as “the Son of Korah” in the headings of the Psalms: See the first verses of Psalms 42, 44-49, 84, 85, 87 and 88. They write very clearly about Christ and the atonement for our sins: “You forgave the iniquity of your people and covered all their sins” (Psalm 85:2). I think this is because, as a family, they understood more than most just how close they came to being condemned forever in hell, but their line was preserved just by a hair’s breadth. They could write: “I am counted among those who will go down to the pit….But I cry to you for help, O Lord” (Psalm 88:4,13). And again: “Within your temple, O God, we meditate on your unfailing love” (Psalm 48:9).
Very few of the names of these sons (or descendants) of Korah are preserved for us, but one name stands out nearly as tall and bold as that of Moses himself. This descendant of Korah is traced with the temple musicians in 1 Chronicles 6:33-38. His name? The prophet Samuel.
5, Despite all of this, Korah, Dathan, and Abiram did not repent.
Unrepentance is hard to understand. It stems from one of two errors. The first is not believing that a sin one is accused of, is a sin at all. This is a sin of hardening, a persistent sin of habit. The second is even more severe: not believing in sin whatsoever. I’m not certain which of these Korah and the others were guilty of. Perhaps in their lust for power and fame they had moved from the first error toward the second. The second unrepentant sin is also called the sin against the Holy Spirit. This is the unforgivable sin. Why? It is unforgivable because it throws up a barrier or wall against the gospel. The Holy Spirit has no opportunity to create faith because that person will not let the gospel be heard at all.
Sometimes Christians who don’t understand this doctrine (Mark 3:29) become frightened that they might commit such a sin. But anyone who loves Jesus, who listens to Jesus, and who is nervous or afraid about their sins, is receptive to the gospel. There is no danger of them committing this terrible sin. Korah just didn’t care about forgiveness. Dathan and Abiram grabbed their families and marched out to face the consequences. Until the moment of judgment, which was falling fast—just seconds away—any of those wives or children could have fallen to their knees to beg for mercy, and wouldn’t God have listened to them even then? We have an answer here: Where was On? Where were the sons of Korah? They were spared because they turned away from their sin and they separated themselves from those men who were rebelling against Moses and Aaron, and finally against God.
“Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling” (Psalm 2:10-11). When the Lord points out your sin in his word, in the Catechism, or in the preaching from your pulpit, acknowledge your sin. Ask for God’s help when that temptation catches you leaning toward it. Tell God how sorry you are for your sins, and remember that his forgiveness covers your guilt. “Save me,” we pray, “because of your unfailing love” (Psalm 6:4). His love, his mercy, his compassion, and his forgiveness endure forever.
Pastor Timothy Smith