Here’s a passage for you! This is probably not a passage of Scripture that you hear a lot of preacher’s talk about! However, I did hear a minister preach on this passage on Valentine’s Day once. He was preaching through the book of Numbers and it just so happened that the day that he was to preach on this passage was Valentine’s Day.
But when he started his message he made a good point: This passage was a great passage for Valentine’s Day. That’s because it is all about marriage. If anything this passage is about true love and whole-hearted devotion. By the end of this message I believe that you will see a lot about God’s love and our love for each other.
What I want to do is work our way through this passage step by step. I want to make a few observations on the text and help us to understand what is going on. I just want to unfold and explain some things as we go. And by doing this I think we will learn a number of lessons regarding this thing called love.
The first thing I want to talk about is something of the nature of the act. This whole test seems incredibly bizarre.
I. The Nature of the trial: A bizarre thing
For people separated by 3000 years of time and culture it is a bizarre act. So let me take a moment to explain it a little. We who are living in 2010 America need to have some of this clarified so that we do not criticize the practice as ugly or obscene.
Yes, some upon reading this would quickly condemn this practice as chauvinistic or primitive. But let’s not be too hasty. Let’s take a moment to understand what is going on here.What we have here is commonly called “a trial by ordeal.” This is a test to determine whether or not someone is guilty, even though we don’t have any witnesses or convincing evidence. The people here are relying upon God to be the judge in the case because his all seeing eye is the only one who can determine whether or not a person is innocent or guilty.
Now this is something completely foreign to us. But in the ancient world, it was a common practice. The Israelites were surrounded by nations that practiced this sort of thing. You have to understand the difference though between Israel and the other nations: what we have going on here was quite tame by comparison.
PCA pastor Ligon Duncan points out that most of the trials by ordeal in those days were hardly fair for the accused. If a man suspected his wife of being unfaithful, he could bring her in for trial. She would then have to grab hold of a red hot iron bar. Or maybe she would have to place her hand in a pot of boiling water. If her hand was not scalded, well then, she was innocent!
You have to remember too that in a lot of cases, even in places around the world today, a man’s wife may just disappear. If he wasn’t happy with her, she would just vanish and no one would ask any questions.
So you see that this practice was a lot different! All she does is drink a glass of dusty water. (we all know htat most children eat more dirt by the time they are 5 than most cattle do all their lives!) Certainly you can see the love of God in that. This is nothing that is in anyway harmful to the innocent party. If any harm would ensue, it would come from God; not the elements. He would be the one who inflicted the pain, not the drink that was used in the trial.
You also see that the woman is given opportunity to repent if indeed she has done any wrong. Most likely the man would plead with her to confess long before he would have gone to this extreme. You shouldn’t see here a man trying to get rid of his wife. You have here a man who really does love his wife and just wants to get to the bottom of this. I mean, his suspicion has to be quite strong to make her take this test, doesn’t it? Think about it, what happens if she’s innocent? Where do you think you’re going to be sleeping for the next few months?
At first what is going on here might sound bizarre. But we shouldn’t dismiss it as primitive or chauvinistic. Far from it. It was not in the least bit harmful to the (innocent) woman. And most of all it would have been carried out by an honorable man.
Now that we have considered some of the nature of the act. Let’s consider the necessity of the act. It may have been a bizarre act, but it was necessary because it helped to preserve the larger society.
II. The necessity of the act: A pure society
That’s another thing that we glean from this passage: God requires purity in society.
Remember the context. In verses 1-10 we read about how God was concerned with the purity of the camp. In verses 1-4 we read about the diseased had to be removed from the camp. Why? Because you don’t want a plague to ravage the people. And in the following verses God was again concerned about the purity of society. People who had done wrong had to rectify those wrongs by paying a fine that would cover the wrong.
As we move into this passage we see the same sort of thing. God wishes to purge society of domestic wrongs too. In other words, We must understand that marital infidelity is just as destructive to society as crime or disease.
Sexual immorality can (and does) reak havoc on a society. It is a cause for divorce among a lot of people. It can lead a woman to become pregnant, and seek an abortion. It can lead to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. It can cause all kinds of problems.
One thing in particular stands out to me. After a government official is found to have an affair, we often can see that it is downplayed. They tell us that his sexual life has no bearing on his political life. Don’t believe that for a moment. It most certainly does. For one, it reveals his true character. But other problems can arise too. For one, he could be blackmailed and put our nation in jeopardy.
But think also about other results of sexual sin. Statistics say that 36% of children that are born today are born without a father in the house (and that does not include fathers that leave the house after the child is born). Another statistic said that 1 out of every 3 women have (or will have) an abortion. An incredible amount of children are being killed before they even have a chance to breath on their own.
What happens to a society that has so many children lacking a father figure? What happens to a society where so many children are exterminated? I’ll tell you what happens: that culture begins to crumble.
Believe me my friends: Sexual infidelity is an attack on society. That is because it is an attack on the basic building block of society: the family. And when the foundations crumble, what can the righteous do?
God required the Israelites to maintain purity in the camp. He wanted a society that replicated heaven to a great degree. That required that the marriage bed be kept pure. So too in our day we must fight to keep society together. And we do that by fighting marital infidelity.
It used to be that states had laws on the books that dealt with adultery cases. We find that such things are laughed at now. But those laws were placed there because those government officials once knew how destructive adultery is. If we are going to save our culture, we need to return to that mentality. Moreover, we need to do whatever we can do within our own power to protect the marriage covenant.
There is a huge attack today on traditional marriage. I’m not just talking about marriage between one man and one woman either. Some have already begun to talk about how it is about time we legalize prostitution (as if that is a virtue of a higher evolved nation). Be assured that we will see more of such talk. And as you go to he polls to elect your officials, be thinking about how they view the marriage covenant and how seriously they take sexual sins. We need to strive to maintain a pure society, like those Israelites were to do in this passage.
But let’s think about what causes this case. Why is the woman brought to trial? It is because she has a suspicious husband.
III. The cause of the act: A suspicious husband
That’s exactly what we find in the first few verses of this passage. Verse 14 in particular talks about “the spirit of jealousy” that comes over the man. She may or may not have committed the act, but for some reason he comes to suspect that she has been unfaithful to him.
Now, I admit, some men are out of control. It doesn’t take much to make them suspect their wife of being unfaithful. But some men have every right to be suspect of their wife (and that goes for women too, of course).
What I mean is that there are some acts that are inappropriate for married people. A man can become suspect of his wife if she is being flirtatious with other guys. She may not have any intention of going off with this guy, but she is giving the impression that she is willing.
You see, a person usually doesn’t just wake up one morning and say, “Hey, I’m going to go commit adultery today.” It starts with a little compromise, maybe a look or a little flirtatious nudge. You see a big explosive is started by a small spark. A stick of dynamite is detonated when the wick is ignited by a little match.
The same is true for sexual immorality. It all starts small, but it builds until finally it happens.
Matthew Henry makes a very good point on this passage. He is talking to women, but it applies to men just as well. He says, “Let all wives be admonished not to give any the least occasion for the suspicion of their chastity. It is not enough that they abstain from the evil of uncleanness, but they must abstain also from all appearance of it, from everything that looks like it, or leads to it.”
May I even add here how important it is to keep purity in our humor. When we make a joke about such things, we begin the breakdown. The sin is no longer a somber and serious thing. It is not gross anymore. All of a sudden it is funny. It is light and it doesn’t have the same gravity. So the door is opened to take the next step. So we need to protect ourselves (and others) by the way we talk about such things.
And ladies remember how you must protect your marriage. We always blame the men in adultery cases. But we must remember that a man’s desires can be turned on quite easily. In the book of Proverbs we see that the guy is led away like a brute beast by the seductive woman.
Ladies, God has given you so many talents and gifts. But those charms and magnetic characteristics need to be watched. Your devotion must be for your husband and you should not arouse his suspicion. Those words about the Proverbs 31 woman should be true of you “the heart of her husband does safely trust in her.” And if his heart cannot safely trust in you, then the marriage vows have already been broken.
All of this applies to you guys as well. I don’t want you to think that you are excluded. You too must have a whole hearted devotion to your wife and not give her any reason to become suspicious. But we have to move on now.
So far I’ve tried to explain this bizarre act a little or at least give some context for it. I’ve talked about why God instituted this trial (i.e. God wants us to preserve purity in society). And I’ve made some comments about what gives rise to the trial, that being a suspicious husband. But let’s talk about the trial proper. The thing that is most intriguing about this passage is the bitter cup.
IV. The Elements contained in the Trial
Now what is it that makes this cup so bitter? Well, in one sense it is the wrath that accompanies it. But in terms of actual taste it is the dust that is mixed with the water. You probably are asking, “What’s the deal with the dust?” That’s a good question. Let’s think about what else we find in the Bible in this regard. Let’s go back to the very first few chapters of the Bible. When God cursed the serpent, after it tempted Eve, what did he do? He told him he would crawl on his belly and what? “on your belly you shall go and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.”
And remember that the golden calf incident would still be quite fresh in the minds of the wilderness people. What did God have Moses do with that golden calf? He ground it up into dust and made the people drink it.
Dust was a symbol of God’s curse. The cup of dust would remind the people that they were drinking the cup of God’s wrath.
Later on in the Bible, in the book of Psalms, we find the Psalmist drawing on this imagery. In Psalm 75:8 we read, “For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed, and he pours out from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs.”
Here this woman, after taking an oath would drink the cup. If the waters came down into her belly and mixed with a lie, then she would face God’s wrath. Her thigh and belly would waste away and she would be barren. She would incur God’s wrath and her life (and ability to make life) would be destroyed.
The cup here reminds each and every one of us how our sins ought to be dealt with; not just adultery either. That is just one sin among many. Remember: The Lord our God is a Jealous God. He visits the iniquity of the fathers unto the third and fourth generation of those hate him. When we go forth a whoring after other gods he becomes jealous. When we set up idols, God becomes inflamed with anger. When our lusts for the things of this world are aroused, God is filled with jealousy and must come to terms with our sin. As a result we have to drink the bitter cup of his anger. We must drain it down to the dregs and become drunk with his wrath. He’ll make us stagger and sway. We’ll fall down sick by this drink.
That of course will only happen if we have not looked to Christ for our salvation. Remember that on the last night of his life he was in the garden. He prayed that the cup would be taken from him. But he said, “Not my will, but thy will be done.” And when he mounted the cross he drank it down to the dregs. Not one drop was remaining. He opened his mouth wide and received the bitterness in his belly, and in his hands, and in his head, and on his back, and in his feet and side.
Christ drank the cup on behalf of his bride. He would not bear to let her be destroyed. He loved her so much that he was willing to drink it in your place that you might have what you did not deserve: the chance to live eternally.
And now, when you gather around the communion table, you remember that. When we raise the communion cup to our lips, we are to do it “in remembrance of him.” What we are doing there is remembering that Christ has drank the bitter cup of God’s wrath and he has given us the cup of life and joy.
Life and liberty comes to us because Jesus has swallowed up all the bitter wrath of God on our behalf.
Yes, my friends, this passage is all about love. Most of all it is about the incredible love Christ has for his bride. Though we be people who are not afraid to turn from him and go a whoring, he loves us so much that he died in our place. May we then learn the lesson of love and give our hearts wholly to him.
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Matt is blessed to be a husband, father, and pastor in Ashland, Ohio.