George Booker
Biblical Fellowship

22. “The Foundation of God” (Num. 16; Psa. 11; 2 Tim. 2)

The names of Korah the Levite and Dathan and Abiram of Reuben stand high on any list of the troublers of Israel. Much can be learned, however, of a negative nature from these men, for their sins were such as (in lesser degrees, one would hope) are common to most of us. Indeed, it might even be said that their sins — rebellion, pride, and jealousy, leading to a divisive, condemning spirit within God’s people — are among the most prevalent in the latter-day development of the brotherhood.

The jealous feeling entertained by Aaron and Miriam against Moses (Numbers 12) culminated in the punishment of leprosy upon the prophetess. Even this striking lesson does not seem to have quelled the rebellious spirit among several prominent men in the congregation of the Lord. Korah, a leading Levite, and two princes of the tribe of Jacob’s firstborn son, leading a formidable delegation, strode boldly before Moses and his brother. “Wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the congregation of the Lord?” (Num. 16:3). The challenge was the offspring of ambition; these were men who aspired to leadership but did not possess the required qualities. The Truth has suffered much from such as these: men who to gratify their own whims of self-importance rend apart united bodies, blind leaders of blind followers who can in one day destroy the work of years of patient building.

“And when Moses heard it, he fell upon his face” (v. 4). He must have realized, this man of God, what havoc their presumption would work among an impressionable nation. He naturally feared that the catastrophe he had personally averted on the summit of Sinai, when Israel had rebelled against God’s authority, would now break forth afresh and bring to ruin God’s work in the wilderness.

“Tomorrow the Lord will show who are his” (v. 5). There is no suggestion that the man of God knew what would transpire on the following day. But he must have been confident that in some way God’s will would be made known. The test proposed by Moses was an arraying of the rival leaders with their censers on one side, and the meek Moses and his family on the other. It seems that Korah was eager and confident, feeling that in such a show of numbers, headed by his dignified and impressive self, the easily swayed congregation could not help but choose him and his allies as their new rulers.

“It would seem that this apostasy of Korah had already brought into existence a rival system of worship to that centred in the Tabernacle. Two hints in the narrative point to such a conclusion. The leaders of Korah’s company — two hundred and fifty of them — were already each equipped with a censer for the burning of incense, which was the morning and evening duty of the priest only and never of the Levite or the layman. So the organization of another system of worship must already have proceeded to a dangerous extent. There is also repeated reference to ‘the tabernacle of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.’ This is the technical word ‘mishkan’, used of the Tabernacle of the Congregation, and quite distinct from the ordinary word for an ordinary tent (Num. 16:27)” (H. Whittaker, “The Rebellion of Korah”, The Testimony, Vol. 32, No. 381 — Sept. 1962 — p. 306).

After Moses had issued his great challenge, the ground heaved beneath their feet. A great chasm like the mouth of Leviathan opened suddenly and engulfed the partisans of apostasy among the nation as they stood arrogantly at the doors of their tents. Simultaneously God’s wrath burned like fire and consumed Korah and his self-appointed priests. One moment they stood there, an impressive assembly of human pride; the next moment they were but charred and unrecognizable corpses. A stunned silence enveloped the camp as the survivors struggled to grasp the implications of these marvelous Divine judgments.

Even now judgment was not at an end. The children of Israel now turned upon Moses and Aaron as though they personally were to blame. “YE have killed the people of the Lord” (v. 41). So again the glory of the Lord appeared, this time threatening the destruction of all the congregation. Only prompt action by Aaron at Moses’ direction stayed the plague of God before it could finish its gruesome work. Nevertheless, 14,700 died in the plague (v. 16:49). It was a sad day for Israel.

Brother Islip Collyer has written an excellent article, keynoted by the question, “What are your aims, agitator?” Therein he has this rather pointed comment:

“If we were to make a parable out of the rebellion of these ancient Levites — if we were to write of brethren M. and A. as the most prominent members of a little community, and brethren K., D., and A. as disaffected members of the same ecclesia — if we were to put the words of rebellion into modern style, it is to be feared that the circumstances might be recognized in several centres as a sarcastic account of their own local trouble. The parable might even be extended for the benefit of the country as a whole. The man who agitates for the sake of agitation, and changes the nature of his complaints as soon as any attempt is made to pacify him would be recognized by many observers” (“Wayside Letters”, The Christadelphian, Vol. 52, No. 613 — July 1915 — p. 308).

Brother Collyer in this article leaves any conscientious reader with this unsettling thought: Many of those things for or against which he has agitated were, after all, not nearly so important as they first seemed, and the total effect of the turmoil was more bad than good. Many agitators in fact have had as their predominant aim, though perhaps only subconsciously, the satisfaction of self. A gardener finds that he must once in a while turn over the soil and remove the weeds from his little plot. But if he is always “stirring”, the plants will not grow at all. If we find such a gardener in exasperation one day pulling up plants right and left because they are disappointing to him, we might well ask, “What is your aim in so doing?” And he would, no doubt, reply, “To make this the best garden in the community.” “But how does this particular destructive work accomplish that worthy goal?” And if the gardener is true to himself he will have to admit that his fit of temper has accomplished no good, but only left a mess to clean up. Let us weigh our motives carefully before we agitate the vineyard of the Lord, as did Korah and his followers.

* * * * *

“One of the most serious threats to the unity of the nation... was the affair of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. It arose directly because a purely fleshly reasoning caused the men concerned to press their personal importance to the detriment of the good of the nation as a whole. They fell into the error of ‘not holding fast the Head, from whom all the body, being supplied and knit together through the joints and bands, increaseth with the increase of God’ (Col. 2:19). Their action was based upon premises that seemed sound enough: ‘All the congregation is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them’ (Num. 16:3). These were the words on the lips of the ‘250 princes of the assembly, famous in the congregation, men of renown’, men who according to the record, Korah, Dathan, and Abiram ‘took’. Much lies concealed behind those words! One can imagine the secret meetings, the passing on of information from mouth to mouth, the fomenting of trouble, the sowing of discord, and all because Korah, being a son of Levi, desired to play the part assigned to others of his tribe, and Dathan and Abiram thought their tribe, the tribe of Reuben, deserving of greater pre-eminence than that to which God had called them!

“What is the relation of all this to ourselves as a community?... Our heritage is no less [than that of Israel], for the same God is working towards unity in Christ in the Ecclesia, which is both a body and a commonwealth....The people of Israel had a history of fragmentation and division which began in the wilderness and for which there are two principal reasons: Firstly, they had no sense of devotion to the Lord, whose Name was revealed in His mighty acts of power and compassion on their behalf....Their loss of the vision of the Divine glory caused them to yearn for Egypt, and ultimately to refuse to believe that they were the people whom God would bring into the land of His promise. They fragmented because they had no faith in the purpose of their calling.

“The other reason for their disunity was their failure to keep in mind, much less to comprehend the concept of the unity of their people, or to realize that the purpose of God was not with individuals or with tribes as such, but with ‘all Israel’, to whose wellbeing individuals and tribes contributed by playing each their several and necessary parts. Any fellowship other than that which acknowledges that one is our Head and all we are brethren is still, as it has always proved to be, a fellowship of opposition which leads to further fragmentation within the dissident group itself. As far as we can tell from a survey of our own history and that of Israel, there is no exception to this principle” (A. Nicholls, “The Whole Family Which I Brought Up From the Land of Egypt”, The Christadelphian, Vol. 115, No. 1364 — Feb. 1978 — pp. 42,43).

* * * * *

The fugitive David was beset both by persecutions from without and trials from within. The less-than-spiritual advice that he must often have received from such as Joab is the subject of Psalm 11. This psalm opens with a profound “statement of faith”, as it were: “In the Lord put I my trust.” For David there was no other repository of trust; king and council had turned against him who was the anointed of the Lord. Those whom he sought for succor were caught within the spell of destruction. Eighty-five of the Lord’s holy priests, with their wives and children, lay dead at the hand of a blasphemous Edomite because he, David, had asked for bread. From pillar to post he fled, scarcely able to find a place to lay his head, as the cruel and vengeful Saul breathed down his neck.

But now, worst of all, his friends were working against him — advocating a plan of action that would cause him to abdicate his trust in God. “How say ye this to my soul?” he asks — and then follow the words of David’s counselors, which he quotes back to them:

‘Flee as a bird, David; go to the mountains. Leave this ‘land of promise’ behind you. All it promises you is a criminal’s death. The wicked — like Saul and Doeg — have their bows and arrows primed for action. They’ll kill you and us and say they are doing God service. If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?’

Such words have always been the sound of retreat for those among God’s people who found the going rougher than they expected. We have all heard such cries of despair in the brotherhood. ‘The foundations of the Truth have been undermined. Let us flee to the “mountains”. Only there can we be safe. There is nothing left in which we can trust.’ It is to David’s everlasting credit that he holds such cowardly advice up to the contempt that it deserves. His courageous words give life and meaning to the statement which opened the psalm: The Lord was indeed his only trust, so much so that external situations could not undermine that faith.

And as for the “foundations” being destroyed, no, never! Perhaps if men trusted in human institutions to perpetuate righteousness, to glorify God’s Name, perhaps then it might be said that in Saul’s Israel the foundations were no more. But, no, neither the judges nor the laws nor even the Tabernacle itself was the “foundation” of Israel. God is the foundation of the upright; He cannot be destroyed — even if all those in authority lose sight of Him and His demands. The tangible manifestations of God’s rule may crumble and fall, or be pulled down by evil men, for they are temporal; but that which is not seen is eternal. The Lord is in His holy temple, the Lord’s throne is in heaven; His eyes behold and try the children of men (Psa. 11:4). Nothing escapes His notice. At the proper time, in God’s own way, He will deal with any threatening situation. In this simple promise men must put their trust, waiting upon the Lord.

* * * * *

Many centuries have elapsed since the rebellion of Korah and the tyranny of Saul, and we find the imprisoned Paul concerned for Timothy his beloved son in the faith. How should he discharge his responsible duties in the household? Already men like Hymeneus and Philetus were undermining the doctrine of the resurrection and destroying the faith of some (2 Tim. 2:17,18). It seemed as though the foundations of the truth were crumbling all around. Was it time to give up hope, to flee like a hireling from the wolves of rebellion and pride and error? No, the answer of the old apostle was clear:

Nevertheless [i.e. despite all the difficulties and problems you see on every side]... nevertheless the foundation of God stands sure” (v. 19).

How do we know this, Paul?

‘You have this seal — this guarantee: Men may attempt to subvert, to destroy, and to corrupt God’s Truth, but they cannot succeed. The Lord knoweth them that are His! In the proper time the others will be dispensed with.’

Paul’s words echoed those of Moses — “In the morning the Lord will show who are his, and who is holy” (Num. 16:3) — and David — “His countenance doth behold the upright” (Psa. 11:7).

“If we can bring ourselves to realize that all is at all times in the unerring and almighty hand of God, and that we are but a small cog in a vast machine, we shall not be trapped into that self-important anxiety that leads to hastiness and harshness.

“When we see worldliness gaining ground in an ecclesia; when we see modern customs making a mockery of Scriptural ordinances...when we see attendance gradually diminishing and worldly things interfering even on Sunday morning; when we see... that shallow and self-important little minds introduce new crotchets and speculations — we are apt to become despondent and panicky.

But why should we? Did Paul? No! He says:

‘The foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal: The Lord knoweth them that are his.’

“And the apostle, far from despondency, sounded out from his prison-cell inspiring words of courage, and patience, and glorious hope. Without bitterness, but with terrible significance, he points out (2:20) that in a great house there are not only vessels of honor, but also vessels of dishonor. If a man will purify himself, he shall be among the vessels of honor.

“This may seem a strange way to give encouragement, but it would help Timothy to realize that ecclesial disappointments and difficulties do not necessarily mean an abandonment by God, but are rather a part of the divine wisdom of trial and probation” (G.V. Growcott, “No Man Stood With Me”, The Berean Christadelphian, Vol. 57, No. 4 — April 1969 — p. 114).

The apostle continues his exhortation to Timothy: “Flee also youthful lusts” (v. 22) — but do not flee the ecclesia! “Avoid foolish and unlearned questions” (v. 23) — but do not avoid the foolish and unlearned brethren who need your counsel now more than ever. Be patient and meek; do not despair. It may be that by your longsuffering instruction some will be brought to repentance who would otherwise have perished in a general apostasy.

In Christadelphian circles, there will probably always be some who agitate for division and subdivision by an appeal for precise interpretations upon “words” and “phrases” that are far beyond the grasp of the average brother or sister. In their hands the gospel is in danger of becoming the province of “experts”, while the ordinary believer must in his confusion choose which of the “expert” disputants to follow. (In that case, however, how can such disputes — even if it be presumed one side is right and the other wrong — be matters of foundation truth, relevant to fellowship, when the ordinary majority can hardly make heads or tails of the arguments?) Such men as these will accuse others of slackness and toleration when they decline to go to the same lengths in denouncing and excommunicating “error”. Paul says, in effect: ‘Never mind such criticism. God knows the feelings that motivate your actions. God knows who are truly His, and He will reveal them in due time.’

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