50. DISASTER AT BAAL PEOR
With joyful hearts and renewed faith in God, the victorious armies of Israel had returned from Bashan. They had already gained possession of a valuable territory, and they were confident of the immediate conquest of Canaan.
Only the river Jordan lay between them and the Promised Land. Just across the river was a rich plain, covered with verdure, watered with streams from copious fountains, and shaded by luxuriant palm trees.
On the western border of the plain rose the towers and palaces of Jericho, so embosomed in its palm-tree groves that it was called “the city of palm trees.”
This sheltered valley had the climate of the tropics; here flourished the shittim, or acacia, tree, giving to the plain the name, “Vale of Shittim.” It was here that the Israelites encamped, and in the acacia groves by the riverside they found an agreeable retreat.
But amid these attractive surroundings they were to encounter an evil more deadly than mighty hosts of armed men or the wild beasts of the wilderness.
These surroundings exerted a polluting influence upon the Israelites. Their minds became familiar with the vile thoughts constantly suggested; their life of ease and inaction produced its demoralizing effect; and almost unconsciously to themselves they were departing from God and coming into a condition where they would fall an easy prey to temptation.
During the time of their encampment beside Jordan, Moses was preparing for the occupation of Canaan.
In this work the great leader was fully employed; but to the people this time of suspense and expectation was most trying, and before many weeks had elapsed their history was marred by the most frightful departures from virtue and integrity.
At first there was little intercourse between the Israelites and their heathen neighbors, but after a time Midianitish women began to steal into the camp.
It was the object of these women, in their association with the Hebrews, to seduce them into transgression of the law of God, to draw their attention to heathen rites and customs, and lead them into idolatry.
These motives were studiously concealed under the garb of friendship, so that they were not suspected, even by the guardians of the people.
At Balaam’s suggestion, a grand festival in honor of their gods was appointed by the king of Moab, and it was secretly arranged that Balaam should induce the Israelites to attend.
He was regarded by them as a prophet of God, and hence had little difficulty in accomplishing his purpose. Great numbers of the people joined him in witnessing the festivities.
They ventured upon the forbidden ground, and were entangled in the snare of Satan. Beguiled with music and dancing, and allured by the beauty of heathen vestals, they cast off their fealty to Jehovah.
As they united in mirth and feasting, indulgence in wine beclouded their senses and broke down the barriers of self-control.
Passion had full sway; and having defiled their consciences by lewdness, they were persuaded to bow down to idols. They offered sacrifice upon heathen altars and participated in the most degrading rites.
It was not long before the poison had spread, like a deadly infection, through the camp of Israel. Those who would have conquered their enemies in battle were overcome by the wiles of heathen women.
The people seemed to be infatuated. The rulers and the leading men were among the first to transgress, and so many of the people were guilty that the apostasy became national. “Israel joined himself unto Baalpeor.”
When Moses was aroused to perceive the evil, the plots of their enemies had been so successful that not only were the Israelites participating in the licentious worship at Mount Peor, but the heathen rites were coming to be observed in the camp of Israel.
The aged leader was filled with indignation, and the wrath of God was kindled.
Their iniquitous practices did that for Israel which all the enchantments of Balaam could not do; they separated them from God. By swift-coming judgments the people were awakened to the enormity of their sin.
A terrible pestilence broke out in the camp, to which tens of thousands speedily fell a prey. God commanded that the leaders in this apostasy be put to death by the magistrates.
This order was promptly obeyed. The offenders were slain, then their bodies were hung up in sight of all Israel that the congregation, seeing the leaders so severely dealt with, might have a deep sense of God’s abhorrence of their sin and the terror of His wrath against them.
All felt that the punishment was just, and the people hastened to the tabernacle, and with tears and deep humiliation confessed their sin.
While they were thus weeping before God, at the door of the tabernacle, while the plague was still doing its work of death, and the magistrates were executing their terrible commission, Zimri, one of the nobles of Israel, came boldly into the camp, accompanied by a Midianitish harlot, a princess “of a chief house in Midian,” whom he escorted to his tent.
Never was vice bolder or more stubborn. Inflamed with wine, Zimri declared his “sin as Sodom,” and gloried in his shame.
The priests and leaders had prostrated themselves in grief and humiliation, weeping “between the porch and the altar,” and entreating the Lord to spare His people.
Phinehas, the son of Eleazar the high priest, rose up from among the congregation, and seizing a javelin, “he went after the man of Israel into the tent,” and slew them both.
Thus the plague was stayed, while the priest who had executed the divine judgment was honored before all Israel, and the priesthood was confirmed to him and to his house forever.
The judgments visited upon Israel for their sin at Shittim, destroyed the survivors of that vast company, who, nearly forty years before, had incurred the sentence, “They shall surely die in the wilderness.” Numbers 26:64, 65
God had sent judgments upon Israel for yielding to the enticements of the Midianites; but the tempters were not to escape the wrath of divine justice.
The Amalekites, who had attacked Israel at Rephidim, falling upon those who were faint and weary behind the host, were not punished till long after; but the Midianites who seduced them into sin were speedily made to feel God’s judgments, as being the more dangerous enemies.
The women also, who had been made captives by the attacking army, were put to death at the command of Moses, as the most guilty and most dangerous of the foes of Israel.
Such was the end of them that devised mischief against God’s people.
When Balaam was called to curse the Hebrews he could not, by all his enchantments, bring evil upon them; for the Lord had not “beheld iniquity in Jacob,” neither had He “seen perverseness in Israel.” Numbers 23:21, 23.
But when through yielding to temptation they transgressed God’s law, their defense departed from them.
If those who profess to be the depositaries of God’s law become transgressors of its precepts, they separate themselves from God, and they will be unable to stand before their enemies.
The Israelites, who could not be overcome by the arms or by the enchantments of Midian, fell a prey to her harlots. Such is the power that woman, enlisted in the service of Satan, has exerted to entrap and destroy souls.
Here David stumbled. And Solomon, the wisest of kings, who had thrice been called the beloved of his God, became a slave of passion, and sacrificed his integrity to the same bewitching power.
“Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come. Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.” 1 Corinthians 10:11, 12.
Satan well knows the material with which he has to deal in the human heart. He knows, for he has studied with fiendish intensity for thousands of years, the points most easily assailed in every character.
All along through the ages there are strewn wrecks of character that have been stranded upon the rocks of sensual indulgence.
As we approach the close of time, as the people of God stand upon the borders of the heavenly Canaan, Satan will, as of old, redouble his efforts to prevent them from entering the goodly land.
He lays his snares for every soul. It is not the ignorant and uncultured merely that need to be guarded; he will prepare his temptations for those in the highest positions, in the most holy office; if he can lead them to pollute their souls, he can through them destroy many.
Sensual indulgence weakens the mind and debases the soul. The moral and intellectual powers are benumbed and paralyzed by the gratification of the animal propensities.
Goodness, purity, and truth, reverence for God, and love for sacred things-all those holy affections and noble desires that link men with the heavenly world-are consumed in the fires of lust.
The soul becomes a blackened and desolate waste, the habitation of the evil spirits, and the “cage of every unclean and hateful bird.” Beings formed in the image of God are dragged down to a level with the brutes.
It was by associating with idolaters and joining in their festivities that the Hebrews were led to transgress God’s law and bring His judgments upon the nation.
So now it is by leading the followers of Christ to associate with the ungodly and unite in their amusements that Satan is most successful in alluring them into sin.
“Come out from among them, and be ye separate, says the Lord, and touch not the unclean.” 2 Corinthians 6:17.
The followers of Christ are to separate themselves from sinners, choosing their society only when there is opportunity to do them good.
We cannot be too decided in shunning the company of those who exert an influence to draw us away from God. While we pray, “Lead us not into temptation,” we are to shun temptation, so far as possible.
It was when the Israelites were in a condition of outward ease and security that they were led into sin. They failed to keep God ever before them, they neglected prayer and cherished a spirit of self-confidence.
Ease and self-indulgence left the citadel of the soul unguarded, and debasing thoughts found entrance. It was the traitors within the walls that overthrew the strongholds of principle and betrayed Israel into the power of Satan.
A long preparatory process, unknown to the world, goes on in the heart before the Christian commits open sin.
The mind does not come down at once from purity and holiness to depravity, corruption, and crime. It takes time to degrade those formed in the image of God to the brutal or the satanic.
By beholding we become changed. By the indulgence of impure thoughts man can so educate his mind that sin which he once loathed will become pleasant to him.
Satan is using every means to make crime and debasing vice popular. We cannot walk the streets of our cities without encountering flaring notices of crime presented in some novel, or to be acted at some theater.
The mind is educated to familiarity with sin. The course pursued by the base and vile is kept before the people in the periodicals of the day, and everything that can excite passion is brought before them in exciting stories.
They hear and read so much of debasing crime that the once tender conscience, which would have recoiled with horror from such scenes, becomes hardened, and they dwell upon these things with greedy interest.
Many of the amusements popular in the world today, even with those who claim to be Christians, tend to the same end as did those of the heathen. Through the drama he has worked for ages to excite passion and glorify vice.
The opera, with its fascinating display and bewildering music, the masquerade, the dance, the card table, Satan employs to break down the barriers of principle and open the door to sensual indulgence.
In every gathering for pleasure where pride is fostered or appetite indulged, where one is led to forget God and lose sight of eternal interests, there Satan is binding his chains about the soul.
“Keep thy heart with all diligence,” is the counsel of the wise man; “for out of it are the issues of life.” Proverbs 4:23. As man “thinketh in his heart, so is he.” Proverbs 23:7.
The heart must be renewed by divine grace, or it will be in vain to seek for purity of life. He who attempts to build up a noble, virtuous character independent of the grace of Christ is building his house upon the shifting sand.
In the fierce storms of temptation it will surely be overthrown. David’s prayer should be the petition of every soul: “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.” Psalm 51:10.
And having become partakers of the heavenly gift, we are to go on unto perfection, being “kept by the power of God through faith.” 1 Peter 1:5.
Yet we have a work to do to resist temptation. Those who would not fall a prey to Satan’s devices must guard well the avenues of the soul; they must avoid reading, seeing, or hearing that which will suggest impure thoughts.
The mind should not be left to wander at random upon every subject that the adversary of souls may suggest. “Girding up the loins of your mind,” says the apostle Peter, “Be sober, . . . not fashioning yourselves according to your former lusts in . . . your ignorance: but like as He which called you is holy, be ye yourselves also holy in all manner of living.” 1 Peter 1:13-15, R.V.
Says Paul, “Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” Philippians 4:8.
This will require earnest prayer and unceasing watchfulness. We must be aided by the abiding influence of the Holy Spirit, which will attract the mind upward, and habituate it to dwell on pure and holy things.
And we must give diligent study to the word of God. “Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? by taking heed thereto according to Thy word.” “Thy word,” says the psalmist, “have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against Thee.” Psalm 119:9, 11.
Israel’s sin at Beth-peor brought the judgments of God upon the nation, and though the same sins may not now be punished as speedily, they will as surely meet retribution.
“If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy.” 1 Corinthians 3:17. Nature has affixed terrible penalties to these crimes; penalties which, sooner or later, will be inflicted upon every transgressor.
It is these sins more than any other that have caused the fearful degeneracy of our race, and the weight of disease and misery with which the world is cursed.
Men may succeed in concealing their transgression from their fellow men, but they will no less surely reap the result, in suffering, disease, imbecility, or death.
And beyond this life stands the tribunal of the judgment, with its award of eternal penalties. “They which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God,” but with Satan and evil angels shall have their part in that “lake of fire” which “is the second death.” Galatians 5:21; Revelation 20:14
“The lips of a strange woman drop as an honeycomb, and her mouth is smoother than oil: but her end is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword.” Proverbs 5:3, 4.
After the break we will continue the story of ancient Israel.
May God help us to learn from their mistakes and be saved at last.