God’s Word for You
Numbers 16:36-40 Plates of rebellion
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Tuesday, September 28, 2021
36 The LORD spoke to Moses: 37 “Tell Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest to remove the censers from the burning debris and scatter the fire far away, for the censers are holy. 38 Make the censers belonging to those who sinned at the cost of their own lives into hammered sheets for plating the altar, because they presented them before the LORD, and the censers are holy. They will serve as a sign to the Israelites.”
Aaron’s older remaining son, the heir to the high priesthood, was selected by God to walk through the dead bodies of the two hundred fifty rebels who had been burned to death and do four things. First, he was to gather up all of the incense censers. Second, he was to take whatever coals and incense that were still burning and take it outside the camp and scatter it. The censers were holy, but the fire in them had to be disposed of. Third, the censers were to be hammered into sheets, plates to cover the bronze altar. Finally, the bronze sheets were to be hammered into place on the altar. It doesn’t require much mathematical skill to note that if each censer weighed about a pound (this is a light and quite a conservative estimate), then the altar would have become heavier by 250 pounds on that day.
Eleazar was chosen because this was a task for a priest, but Aaron, as the current high priest, could not approach the dead. God had commanded: “He must not enter a place where there is a dead body. He must not make himself unclean, even for his father or mother, nor desecrate the sanctuary of God” (Leviticus 21:11,12).
God declared that the censers were holy, because they had been presented before the Lord. This is in keeping with the command in Leviticus 27:10, that once an offering was presented (the verse describes an animal), another could not be substituted. If this were attempted, then both the original offering and the substitute became holy and belonged to the Lord. So these censers belonged to God, and he chose to make them into a warning.
39 Eleazar the priest took the bronze censers, which had been presented by those who had been burned up by fire. They hammered them into plating for the altar 40 as a reminder to the Israelites that no unauthorized person, who is not from the descendants of Aaron, should come near to burn incense before the LORD and become like Korah and his followers. Eleazar the priest did just as the LORD said to him through Moses.
I wonder whether Eleazar hammered the censers smooth, or whether he allowed some of them to retain the look, as it were, of a censer, so that the message and the memorial would be driven home more directly to everyone who saw them. A little boy might well ask his father as they brought a goat for a sacrifice, “What are those shapes on the altar? They look like the censers the priests use, papa.” “Yes, son, they belonged to the people who rebelled with wicked Korah. They remind us that only the priests who are descended from Aaron may serve at the Lord’s altar.” This was a lesson that was forgotten when the tabernacle was replaced by Solomon’s temple. The old altar with the censer-plating was a couple of miles west of Jerusalem in Gibeon (2 Chronicles 1:5-6), but the new altar, when it was made, did not have the warning plates upon it. When one of Solomon’s builders was given the northern kingdom by God, he forgot this warning, and when he decided to build new altars in the north, he also appointed “all sorts of people” as priests, “even though they were not Levites” (1 Kings 12:31). “Anyone who wanted to” could become a priest (1 Kings 13:33). This, we are told, “was the sin of the house of Jeroboam that led to its downfall and to its destruction from the face of the earth” (1 Kings 13:34).
Luther sadly said that “almost every conscience has been seduced by human teachings into a false trust in its own righteousness and works, and learning about faith in God and trust in God has nearly ceased” (LW 39:28). The Scriptures always point our faith to God, and especially to Christ. Psalm 25:11 says, “For the sake of your name, O Lord, forgive my iniquity, though it is great.” Paul says: “Righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Romans 3:22). And John summarizes the law in its two tables this way: “Believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another as he commanded us” (1 John 3:23). So this grim passage with its burned corpses and gruesome hammered bronze plating is a powerful sermon of law: Do not rebel against the Lord your God or take his matters into your own hands. “It is God who judges” (Psalm 75:7) and it is God who has mercy on us (Psalm 57:1). When I consider my sins, and the way God has forgiven me for Jesus’ sake, and I see (in my mind’s eye) the hammered bronze plates of Korah’s rebellion, I am in awe that God would forgive me, and I am grateful that he did forgive me, and I want to live today and tomorrow in that gratitude, thanking him with my life and according to his will. “Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love,” we pray (Psalm 143:8), “for I have put my trust in you. Show me the way I should go, for to you I lift my soul.”
Pastor Timothy Smith