Numbers 15:32 Commentary - Charles Simeon's Horae Homileticae (Old and New Testaments)
THE SABBATH-BREAKER STONED
Num 15:32-36. And while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man that gathered sticks upon the Sabbath-day. And they that found him gathering sticks brought him unto Moses and Aaron, and unto all the congregation: and they put him in ward, because it was not declared what should be done to him. And the Lord said unto Moses, The man shall be surely put to death: all the congregation shall stone him with stones without the camp. And all the congregation brought him without the camp, and stoned him with stones, and he died; as the Lord commanded Moses.
IN great communities, instances of flagrant transgression will occur; nor can any mercies or judgments from God prevent them. Nothing but divine grace can keep individuals in the path of duty. The presumption of those, who, in opposition to the divine command, had gone up to the hill-top to engage the Canaanites, had been severely punished: and though God had since given instructions respecting the particular offerings which should at a future period be presented for sins of ignorance, he had expressly declared, that presumptuous sins should be punished with death; and that no offering whatever should be accepted for them [Note: ver. 30, 31.]. Yet, behold, scarcely had this declaration been given, before a man was found profaning the Sabbath-day: for which offence he was made a signal monument of divine vengeance.
His crime and punishment, which are specified in the text, lead us to notice the guilt and danger of profaning the Sabbath. Let us consider,
According to the estimate of mankind in general, the profanation of the Sabbath is but a slight offence: but, in fact, it is a very heinous sin. It is,
An unreasonable sin—
[Consider who it is that requires the observation of the Sabbath. It is that God who made us, and endowed us with all our faculties, and upholds us every moment, maintaining our souls in life, and providing every thing for our support and comfort. And is this the Being to whom we grudge that small portion of time which he requires? But further, this gracious God has so loved us as to give his only-begotten Son to die for us — — — and shall we think it hard to consecrate one day in the week to him?
Consider next, what portion of our time it is that he requires. If it had pleased him, he might have given us one day for our bodily concerns, and reserved six for himself: and whatever difficulties such an arrangement had occasioned, it would have been our duty cheerfully to obey his will. But the reverse of this is the proportion that he requires: “Six days,” says he, “shalt thou labour; and the seventh day shalt thou keep holy.” What base ingratitude then is it to grudge him such a portion of our time as this!
But consider further, for whose sake it is that he requires it. He wants it not for himself: he is not benefited by it: he enjoined the observance of the Sabbath purely for our sakes: he knew that without some appointment for periodical returns of sacred rest, we should soon become so immersed in worldly cares, as utterly to forget our eternal interests; and therefore he fixed such a portion of our time as to his unerring wisdom appeared best, in order that we might be compelled to seek our own truest happiness. This is what he himself tells us; “The Sabbath was made for man [Note: Mar 2:27.].” Shall we then, for whose benefit that day was set apart, refuse to consecrate it to the Lord, according to his appointment?
Let but these considerations be weighed, and it will appear a most unreasonable thing to trespass upon that time for temporal pursuits, which God has so mercifully set apart for the concerns of our souls.]
A presumptuous sin—
[It is particularly in this view that the context leads us to consider it. God had enjoined the observance of the Sabbath in an audible voice from Mount Sinai [Note: Exo 20:8-11.]; and had afterwards repeatedly commanded that every person who should profane that day by any kind of earthly employment, even the baking of his food, or the lighting of a fire, should be cut off from among his people [Note: Exo 31:14-15; Exo 35:2-3. See also Exo 16:23; Exo 16:29.]. Now it was in direct opposition to all these commands that the man of whom we are speaking presumed to gather sticks. He might be ready to excuse himself perhaps by saying, that this was but a small breach of the Sabbath, and the sticks were necessary for his comfort: but these were no excuses: his conduct was a decided act of rebellion against God; and it is manifest that both Moses and God himself regarded it in that light: it was therefore a presumptuous sin, and consequently, as the Scripture expresses it, “a reproaching of God himself” as a hard master that was unfit to be obeyed [Note: ver. 30, 31.].
Such is every violation of the Sabbath amongst us. It is clear we are not ignorant of his commands respecting that holy day; and what we do, we do in direct opposition to his will: we “reproach him” for exacting of us what he had no right to demand, and we are under no obligation to grant. Let the profaners of the Sabbath regard their conduct in this view, and they will need nothing further to convince them of their guilt.]
Having noticed the guilt of profaning the Sabbath, let us consider,
[Wherein can this be painted more strongly than in the text? The very sight of this sinful act created instant and universal alarm: and, as Moses did not know in what way it was to be punished, he sought instructions from God himself. Behold now the answer of Almighty God; of him, whose wisdom is unerring, whose justice is most pure, whose mercy is infinite: his answer is, “The man shall surely be put to death: all the congregation shall stone him with stones that he die:” and let this be done “without the camp,” that he may be marked as an accursed sinner, that is separated from me, and shall have no part with my people.
Had the offender been cautioned respecting the consequences of such an act, it is probable that he would have laughed at the idea, or, as the Scripture expresses it, would have “puffed at it.” So it is with men at this day: they will not be convinced that there is any danger in what they are pleased to call light sins: but there is a day coming when they will find to their cost, that no sin is light, and least of all is presumptuous sin to be so accounted.
If any thing more were needful to evince the danger of violating the Sabbath, we might mention, that this sin is particularly specified, as a very principal occasion of bringing down all those judgments, with which the Jews were visited at the time of their captivity in Babylon. Nehemiah, after the return of the Jews from Babylon, found, that the Sabbath was still shamefully profaned amongst them. To remedy this evil, he exerted all his authority, and expostulated with them in the most energetic manner: “Then I contended with the nobles of Judah, and said unto them, What evil thing is this that ye do, and profane the Sabbath-day? Did not your fathers thus, and did not our God bring all this evil upon us and upon our city? Yet ye bring more wrath upon Israel by profaning the Sabbath [Note: Neh 13:17-18.].”
Surely then, if such was the issue to the individual that led the way, and such the consequence to the whole nation, when it had followed the example, it will be madness in us to make light of this offence. We may, it is true, escape the judgments of God in this world; (though it is surprising how often they overtake the profaners of the Sabbath;) but we shall certainly not escape them in the world to come.]
Let me then propose this subject to you as an occasion,
For deep humiliation—
[We are apt to think highly of our nation in comparison of the Jewish people: but, if we compare ourselves with them at the period when the events mentioned in our text occurred, we shall see no great reason to boast. Among the Jews there was found but one person in the whole nation that dared to profane the Sabbath: amongst us there is scarcely one in a hundred that does not profane it. Amongst them it was profaned only by gathering a few sticks: amongst us, in every way that can be conceived: it is a day of business or of pleasure to all ranks and orders of men [Note: Shops open, &c. &c.] — — — Amongst them, this solitary instance created universal indignation: the spectators instantly communicated the matter to the magistrates, and the magistrates instantly set themselves to stop the evil. But amongst us, with the exception of a few who sigh and mourn in secret, scarcely any regard the evil as of any consequence: the very name of an informer is deemed odious, so that no one chooses to incur the obloquy attached to it; and, if any were zealous and courageous enough to inform, there are but few magistrates who would not shrink back from the task of exercising the power with which they are armed. Such is the state of this nation; such the state of almost every town and village in it Who then does not see that this national evil calls for national humiliation?
But let us bring home the matter personally to ourselves. How many Sabbaths have we enjoyed, and yet how few have we kept in the way that God has required! A person that has attained to seventy years of age, has had no less than ten years of Sabbaths. What a time is this for securing the interests of the soul! And what a load of guilt has been contracted in all that time, merely from the one single offence of profaning the Sabbath-day! Brethren, we need indeed to lie low before God in dust and ashes. We have need to be thankful too that God’s wrath has not broken forth against us, and cut us off in the midst of our transgressions. Let us know how to estimate the forbearance we have experienced; and let “the goodness of our God lead us to repentance.”]
For holy vigilance—
[The ceremonial part of the Sabbath is done away; so that there certainly is a greater latitude allowed to us than was given to the Jews. We acknowledge also that works of necessity and of mercy supersede even those duties which are yet in force on that day. Our Lord himself has taught us to interpret in this view those memorable words of the prophet, “I will have mercy, and not sacrifice.” But the moral part is as strongly in force as ever. To have the mind exercised on spiritual subjects, and occupied in advancing the interests of our souls, is our bounden duty. It was the work of the Sabbath even in Paradise; and therefore must continue to be our duty still. If it existed two thousand years before the ceremonial law was given, it can never be vacated by the abrogation of that law. Would we know distinctly the duties of the Sabbath, the prophet Isaiah has, negatively at least, informed us: “Thou shalt call the Sabbath a Delight: thou shalt delight thyself in the Lord, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words [Note: Isa 58:13-14.].” We are to lay aside all the cares and pleasures of the world, and to seek all our happiness in God, and in his immediate service. Even common conversation should as much as possible be put aside, that the mind may be wholly occupied in the service of our God. Now this requires much care and vigilance. The more decent amongst us are ready to think, that, if they attend the house of God once or twice, they have done all that is required of them: from a regard to the prejudices of mankind they abstain from some particular amusements; but they are not at all solicitous to make a due improvement of their time. But this by no means comes up to the injunctions of the prophet; nor will it ever be regarded by God as a just observation of the Sabbath. The instructing of our families, the teaching of poor children, the visiting of the sick, and many other exercises of benevolence, may find place on this day: but in a peculiar manner we are called to secret meditation and prayer: we should study the Holy Scriptures, and examine our own hearts, and endeavour to keep ourselves in readiness to give up our account to God. Let the consideration of the guilt which we contract by spending our Sabbaths in another way, put us upon this: and let every Sabbath that shall be continued to us be so improved, that it may advance our spiritual state, and help forward our preparation for our eternal rest.]
Consult other comments:
Charles Simeon's Horae Homileticae (Old and New Testaments)
Charles Simeon (1759 - 1836) was an English evangelical Anglican cleric.
Horae Homileticae reflects the rich source of Biblical understanding of Simeon, a towering figure in the history of evangelical theology.