Thus they provoked him to anger with their inventions, And the Plague brake in upon them. Then stood up Phinehas and executed judgment, and so The Plague was stayed.
There is mention of a Plague, of a great Plague, for there died of it, 'four and twenty thousand.' And we complain of a Plague at this time. The same axe is laid to the root of our trees. Or rather, because an axe is long in cutting down of one tree, the 'razor is hired' for us, that sweeps away a great number of hairs at once--as Esay calleth it--or a scythe that mows down grass, a great deal at once.
But here is not only mention of the breaking in of the Plague in the twenty-ninth verse, but of the staying or ceasing of the Plague in the thirtieth.
Now 'whatsoever things were written aforetime, were written for our learning;' and so was this text. Under one to teach us how the Plague comes, and how it may be stayed.
[223/224] The Plague is a disease. In every disease we consider the cause and the cure: both which are here set forth unto us in these two verses. In the former the cause, how it comes. In the latter the cure, how it may be stayed. To know the cause is expedient, for if we know it not our cure will be but palliative, as not going to the right. And if knowing the cause we add not the cure when we are taught it, who will pity us? For none is then to blame but ourselves.
I. Of the cause first, and then of the cure. The cause is set down to be twofold; 1. God's anger, and 2. Their inventions. God's anger by the which, and their inventions for the which, 'the Plague brake in among them.'
II. The cure is likewise set down; and it is twofold, out of two significantions of one word, the word palal in the verse. 'Phinehas prayed,' some read it; 'Phinehas executed judgment,' some other; and the word bear both. Two then, 1. Phinehas's prayer, one; 2. Phinehas' executing judgment,' some other; by both which 'the Plague ceased.' His prayer referring to God's anger, his executing judgment to their inventions. God's wrath was appeased by his prayer: prayer refers to that. Their inventions were removed by his executing of judgment: the execution of judgment refers to that. If His anger provoked do send the Plague, His anger appeased will stay it. If our inventions provoke His anger, the punishing of our inventions will appease it. The one worketh upon God, pacifieth Him; the other worketh upon our soul, and cures it. For there is a cure of the soul no less than of the body, as apeareth by the Psalm, 'Heal my soul, for I have sinned against Thee.'
We are to begin with the cause of the Plague in the first verse, and so to come to the cure in the second.
Of the cause. 1. First, that there is a cause; 2. And secondly, what that cause may be.
1. That there is a cause, that is, that the Plague is a thing causal, not casual; comes not merely by chance but hath somewhat, some cause that procureth it.
Sure if a sparrow 'fall not to the ground' without the providence of God, of which 'two are sold for a farthing,' much less doth any man or woman, which are 'more worth than many sparrows.'
[224/225] And if any one man comes not to his end as we call it by casualty, but it is God that delivers him so to die, how much more then when not one but many thousands are swept away at once? The Philistines, in their Plague, put the matter upon trial of both these ways: 1. Whether it were God's hand, 2. Or whether it were but a chance. And the event shewed it was no casualty, but the very handy-work of God upon them.
And indeed the very name of the Plague doth tell us as much. For deber in Hebrew sheweth there is a reason, there is a cause why it cometh. And the English word Plague, coming from the Latin word plaga, which is properly 'a stroke,' necessarily inferreth a cause. For where there is a stroke there must be one that striketh. And in that both it and other evil things that come upon us are usually in Scripture called God's judgments, if they be judgments it followeth there is a judge they come from. They come not by adventure, by chance they come not. Chance and judgment are utterly opposite. Not casually then, but judicially. Judged we are 'for when we are chastened, we are judged of the Lord.'
There is a cause: now, what that cause is. Concerning which if you ask the physician, he will say the cause is in the air. The air is infected; the humours corrupted; the contagion of the sick, coming to and conversing with the sound. And thet be all true causes.
The air. For so we see by casting ashes of the furnace towards heaven in the air the air became infected, and the Plague of botches and blains was so brought forth in Egypt.
The humours. For to that doth King David ascribe the cause of his disease; that is, that his 'moisture' in him was corrupt, dried up, 'turned into the drought of summer.'
Contagion. Which is clear by the Law, where the leprous person for fear of contagion from him was ordered to cry that nobody should come near him; to dwell apart from other men; the clothing he had worn to be washed, and in some case to be burnt; the house walls he had dwelt into be scraped, and in some case the house itself to be pulled down.
In all which three respects, Solomon saith, 'A wise man feareth the Plague and departeth from it, and fools run on and be careless.' A wise man doth it, and a good man too. For King David himself durst not go to the altar of God at [225/226] Gibeon, to enquire of God there, because the Angel that smote the people with the Plague, stood between him and it; that is, because he was to pass through infected places thither.
But as we acknowledge these to be true, that in all diseases and even in this also there is a natural cause, so we say there is somewhat more, something divine and above nature. As somewhat which the physician is to look unto in the Plague, so likewise something for Phinehas to do--and Phinehas was a priest. And so some work for the priest as well as for the physician, and more then it may be.
It was King Asa's fault. He in his sickness looked all to physicians, and looked not after God at all. That is noted physicians, and looked not after God at all. That is noted as his fault. It seems his conceit was, there was nothing in a disease but natural, nothing but bodily, there is 'a spirit of infirmity' we find, Luke the thirteenth chapter, and eleventh verse. And something spiritual there is in all infirmities, something in the soul to be healed. In all, but especially in this, wherein that we might know it to be spiritual, we find it oft times to be executed by spirits. We see an Angel, a destroying Angel, in the Plague of Egypt; another in the Plague at Jerusalem under David; a fourth pouring 'his vial upon earth, and there fell a noisome Plague upon man and beast.' So that no man looketh deeply enough into the cause of this sickness, unless he acknowledge the finger of God in it, over and above any causes natural.
God then hath His part. God? But how affected? God 'provoked to anger;' so it is in the text. His anger, His wrath it is, that bringeth the Plague among us. The verse is plain: 'They provoked Him to anger, and the Plague brake in among them.'
Generally, there is no evil, saith Job, but it is a spark of God's wrath. And of all evils, 'the Plague' by name. 'There is wrath gone out from the Lord, and the Plague is begun,' saith Moses, Numbers the sixteenth chapter, and forty-sixth verse. So it is said God was displeased with David, and 'He smote Israel' with the Plague. So that if there be a Plague God is angry, and if there be a great Plague God is very angry. Thus much for, By what? For the anger of God, by which the Plague is sent. Now, For what?
[226/227] There is a cause in God, that He is angry. And there is a cause for which He is angry. For He is not angry without a cause. And what is that cause? For what is God angry? What, is God angry with the waters when He sends a tempest? It is Habakkuk's question. Or is God angry with the earth when He sends barrenness? Or with the air when He makes it contagious? No indeed, His anger is not against the elements, they provoke Him not. Against them it is that provoke Him to anger. Against men it is, and against their sins, and 'for them cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience.'
And this is the very cause indeed. As there is putredo humorum, so there is also putredo morum. And putredo morum is more a cause than putredo humorum. The corruption of the soul, the corruption of our ways, more than the sore that is seen in the body. The cause of death, that is, sin, the same is the cause of this kind of death, of the Plague of mortality. And as 'the balm of Gilead,' and the 'physician there,' may yield us help when God's wrath is removed; so, if it be not, no balm, no medicine will serve. Let us with the woman in the Gospel spend all upon physicians, we shall be never the better till we come to come to Christ, and He cure us of our sins Who is the only Physician of the diseases of the soul.
And with Christ the cure begins ever within. First, 'Son, thy sins be forgiven thee;' and then after, 'take up thy bed and walk.' His sins be first, and his limbs after. As likewise when we are once well Christ's counsel is, 'Sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee.' As if sin would certainly bring a relapse into a sickness.
But shall we say, the wrath of God for sins indefinitely? That were somewhat too general: may we not specify them, or set them down in particular? Yes, I will point you at three or four.
First, this Plague here, as appeareth by the twenty-eighth verse, the verse next before, came for the sin of Peor, that is for fornication, as you may read. And not every fornication, but fornication past shame, as was that of Zimri there with a daughter of Moab. And indeed if we mark it well, it fits [227/228] well. For that kind of sin, fornication doth end in ulcers and sores, and those as infectious as the Plague itself: a proper punishment, such sore for such evil.
Secondly, David's Plague of 'seventy thousand' (which we mention in our prayer) that came for pride plainly; his heart was lifted up to number the people. And that seems somewhat kindly too, and to agree with this disease. That pride which swells itself should end in a tumour or swelling, as for the most part this disease doth.
Thirdly, Sennacherib's Plague, it is plain, came from Rabshakeh's blasphemy; blasphemy able to infect the air, it was so foul. In which regard Aaron's act might be justified, in putting odours into his censer to purify the air from such corruption.
And last, the Apostle sets down the cause of the Plague at Corinth: 'For this cause,' saith he, that is, for neglect of the Sacrament, either in not caring to come to it, or in coming to it we care not how; 'For this cause is there a mortality among you, and many are sick, and many are weak, and many are fallen asleep.' And this is no new thing. Moses himself, his neglect of the Sacrament made him be stricken of God, that it was like to have cost him his life. And he saith plainly to Pharaoh, if they neglected their sacrifice, God would 'fall upon them with the pestilence;'' which appeareth by this, that the Sacrament of the Passover, and the blood of it, was the means to save them from the Plague of the destroying Angel in Egypt.
A little now of the phrase, that their sins are here called by the name of 'their inventions.' And so, sure, they are; as no ways taught us by God, but of our own imagining or finding out. For indeed our inventions are the cause of all sins. And if we look well into it, we shall find our inventions are so. By God's injunction we should all live, and His injunction is, 'You shall not do every man what seems good in his own eyes' (or finds out in his own brains) but whatsoever I command you, that only shall you do. But we setting light by that charge of His, out of the old disease of our father Adam (Eritis sicut Dei, scientes bonum et malum) think it a goodly matter to be witty, and to find out things ourselves to make to ourselves, to be authors and inventors of somewhat, [228/229] that so many we may seem to be as wise as God, if not wiser; and to know what is for our turns as well as He, if not better. It was Saul's fault. God bade destroy Amalek all, and he would invent a better way, to save some forsooth for sacrifice, which God could not think of. And it was St. Peter's fault, when he persuaded Christ from His passion, and found out a better way as he thought than Christ could devise.
This is the proud invention which will not be kept in, but makes men even not to forbear in things pertaining to God's worship; but there to be still devising new tricks, opinions and fashions, fresh and newly taken up, which their fathers never knew of. And this is that which makes men that have itching ears to 'heap to themselves teachers according to their own lusts,' which may fill their heads full with new inventions.
And this is that that even out of religion, in the common life, spoils all. The wanton invention in finding out new meats in diet, in inventing new fashions in apparel, which men so dote one--as the Psalm saith at the thirty-ninth verse--as they even 'go a whoring' with them, 'with their inventions,' and care not what they spend on them. And know no end of them: but as fast as they are weary of one, a new invention is found out; which whatsoever it cost, how much soever it take from our alms or good deeds, must be had, till all come to nought. That the Psalmist hath chosen a very fit word, that for our 'inventions' the Plague breaks in among us; for them, as for the primary or first moving cause of all. Indeed for them, as much and more than for any thing else.
We see then, 1. first, that a cause there is; 2. that that cause is not only natural, but that God Himself hath a hand in it; 3. God, as being provoked to anger; 4. to anger for our sins in general--and for what sins in special--for our sins proceeding from nothing but our inventions. Which cause if it continue, and yet we turn not to the Lord, as Amos the fourth, 'then will not His anger be turned away, but His hand will be stretched out still,' as Esay the ninth. And no way to avoid the one but by appeasing the other.
For the cure now. One contrary is ever cured by another. If then it be anger which is the cause in God, anger would be appeased. If it be inventions which is the cause in us of [229/230] the anger of God, they would be punished and removed. That so the cause being taken away, the effect may cease. Take away our inventions, God's anger will cease. Takes away God's anger, the Plague will cease.
Two readings, we said, there were: 1. 'Phinehas prayed,' or 2. 'Phinehas executed judgment.' Palal, the Hebrew word, will bear both. And both are good; and so we will take them both in.
Prayer is good against the Plague, as appeareth not only in this Plague in the text, wherein all the congregation were 'weeping' and praying 'before the door of the tabernacle,' but in King David's Plague also, where we see what his prayer was, and the very words of it.
And in Hezekiaah's Plague, who 'turned his face to the wall, and prayed unto God'--and his prayer is set down: God heard his prayer, and healed him. And, for a general rule, if there be in the land any pestilent disease; whatsoever Plague, whatsoever sickness it be, the 'prayer and supplication' in the temple made by the people, 'every man knowing the plague of his own heart,' God in heaven will hear it, and remove His hand from afflicting them any further.
And it standeth with good reason. For as the air is infected with noisome scents or smells, so the infection is removed by sweet odours or incense; which Aaron did in the Plague, 'put sweet odours or incense; and went between the living and the dead.' Now there is a fit resemblance between incense and prayers: 'Let my Prayer come before Thy presence as the incense.' And when the priest was within, burning incense, 'the people were without at their prayers.' And it is expressly said, that 'the sweet odours' were nothing else but 'the prayers of the Saints.'
Prayer is good, and that, Phinehas' prayer. Phinehas was a priest, the son of Eleazar, the nephew of Aaron. So as there is virtue, as in the prayer, so in the person that did pray, in Phinehas himself.
As we know, the office of a sergeant being to arrest, the office of a notary to make acts, the act that is done by one of them is much more authentical than that which is done by any common person. So 'every priest being taken from among men, and ordained for men, in things pertaining to God,' that [230/231] he may offer prayers; the prayers he offereth, he offereth out of his office, and so even in that respect there is, cæteriis paribus, a more force and energy in them, as coming from him whose calling it is to offer them, than in those that come from another whose calling it is to offer them, than in those that come from another whose calling it is not so to do.
To this end God saith to Abimelech: 'Abraham is a prophet, and he shall pray for thee and thou shalt live.' So that the prayer of a prophet, in that he is a prophet, is more effectual.
And in the Law, you shall find it all along; when men come to bring their sacrifice for their sins it is said, 'The priest shall make an atonement for them before the Lord, and their sins shall be forgiven them.'
And in the Prophets, we see plainly, in time of distress, Hezekiah sent unto the Prophet Esay, to entreat him 'too lift up his prayer for the remnant that were left:' and so he did, and was heard by God.
And in the New Testament, St. James' advice is in time of sickness to 'call for the priests,' and they to 'pray over' the party, and that prayer shall work his health; 'and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.' For where the grace of prayer is, and the calling both, they cannot but avail more than where no calling is but the grace alone.
The prayer of Phinehas, and of Phinehas standing. What need there be any mention of Phinehas standing? Was it not enough to say, Phinehas prayed? It skills not whether he sat or stood, for praying itself was enough.
No; we must not think the Holy Ghost sets down any thing that is superfluous. Somewhat there is in that he stood. Of Moses it is said before in this Psalm, that he 'stood in the gap to turn away the wrath of God.' In Jeremy it is said, 'Though Moses and Samuel stood before Me:' so there is mention made of standing also. And the Prophet himself puts God in mind, that he 'stood before Him to speak good for the people' and to turn away His wrath from them, that is, put God in mind of the very site of His body.
For though 'God be a Spirit,' and so 'in spirit to be worshipped,' yet inasmuch as He hath given us a body, with that also are we to worship Him, and 'to glorify Him in our body and spirit, which both are God's;' and to 'present,' or offer, 'our [231/232] bodies' to God 'as a holy and acceptable sacrifice,' in the 'reasonable service' of Him.
And to present them 'decently.' For that also is required in the service of God. Now 'judge in yourselves,' is it comely to speak unto our betters, sitting? Sedentum orare extra disciplinam est, saith Tertullian, To pray sitting or sit praying is against the order of the Church. The Church of God never had, nor hath any such fashion.
All tendeth to this, as Cyprian's advice is, Etiam habitu corporis placere Deo, 'even by our very gesture and the carriage of our body to behave ourselves so as with it we may please God.' Unreverent, careless, undevout behaviour, pleaseth Him not.
It is noted of the very Angels, that they were standing before God. If them it becomes, if Phinehas, if Moses, if Samuel, and Jeremy, it may well become us to learn our gesture of them.
Prayer is available to appease God's wrath, and so consequently to remove the Plague: but not prayer alone. For though it abate the anger of God (which is the first) yet it goeth not high enough, takes not away the second cause, that is, our inventions, which are the cause of God's anger. We see it plain in Numbers the twenty-fifth chapter and sixth verse; they were all at prayers, and Phinehas among them, he and the rest. But yet the Plague ceased not for all that; till in the verse following Phinehas took his javelin, wherewith in the very act of fornication 'he thrust them both through,' Zimri and his woman, 'and then the Plague was stayed from the children of Israel.' For as prayer referreth properly to anger, so doth executing judgment to sin or to our inventions, the cause of it.
Prayer then doth well; but prayer and doing justice, both these together, jointly, will do it indeed. And if you disjoin or separate them, nothing will be done. If we 'draw near to God with our mouths, and honour Him with our lips,' it will not avail us if judgment be turned back, or justice stand afar off.
There are two persons. Both of them were in Phinehas. For as he was a priest, so he was a prince of his tribe. So then both these must join together, as well the devotion of the [232/233] priest in prayer, which is his office, as the zeal of the magistrate in executing judgment, which is his. For Phinehas the priest must not only stand up and pray, but Moses the magistrate also must stand in the gap, to turn away the wrath of God, that he destroy not the people. No less he, than Aaron with his golden censer, to run into the midst of the congregation, to make atonement for them when the Plague is begun.
Moses, he gave in charge for the executing of them 'that were joined to Baal-Peor;' Phinehas, he executed the charge. Moses stood in the gap, when he gave the sentence: Phinehas stood up, when he did the execution. And these two are a blessed conjunction. One of them without the other may miss, but both together never fail. For when Zimrii was slain, and so when Rabshakeh perished, and so when the incestuous Corinthian was excommunicated, in all three the Plague ceased.
But what, if Moses give no charge; what, if Phinehas do no execution, as oft it falleth out? How then? In that case every private man is to be Phinehas to himself; is not only to pray to God, but to be wreaked, do judgment, chasten his own body, and so judge himself that he may not be judged of the Lord. For every one, for his part, is a cause of the judgments of God sent down; and so may be, and is to be, a cause of the removing them. Somewhile the King, as David by the pride of his heart. Otherwhile the people, by their murmuring against Moses and Aaron. So that King and people both must judge themselves; every private offender, himself. Zimri, if he had judged himself, Phinehas should not have judged him. The incestuous Corinthian, if he had judged himself, St. Paul had not judged him. For either by ourselves, or by the magistrate; or if by neither of both, by God Himself. For one way or other sin must be judged. Zimri by his repentance, Phinehas by his prayer or doing justice, or God by the Plague sent among them.
Now then these two, 1. 'Phinehas stood up and prayed,' 2. And 'Phinehas stood up and executed judgment,' if they might be coupled together, I durst undertake the conclusion would be, 'and the Plague ceased.' But either of them wanting, I dare promise nothing.
To conclude then. 1. The Plague comes not by chance, [233/234] but hath a cause. 2. That cause is not altogether natural and pertains to physic, but hath something supernatural in it, and pertains to divinity. 3. That supernatural cause is the wrath of God. 4. Which yet is not the first cause; for the wrath of God would not rise, but that He is provoked by our sins--and the certain sins that provoke it have been set down. 5. And the cause of them our own inventions. So our inventions beget sin, sin provokes the wrath of God, the wrath of God sends the Plague among us. To stay the Plague, God's wrath must be stayed; to stay it, there must be a ceasing from sin; that sin may cease, we must be out of love with our inventions, and not go a whoring after them. Prayer, that assuageth anger; to execute justice, that abateth sin; to execute justice, either publicly as doth the magistrate, or privately as every man doth or may do upon himself. Which joined with prayer, and prayer with it, will soon rid us of that we complain; and otherwise, 'His anger will not be turned away, but His hand stretched out still.'