Excerpts from Calvin's Commentaries

The purpose of this paper is to present a selection of quotations from John Calvin's commentary on Numbers. These excerpts represent exceptional insights either on the text itself or on Christian living. John Calvin was one of the great theologians of the Protestant Reformation. All excerpts are from the Baker edition in 22 volumes and given with no modification.

"And they [Miriam and Aaron] said, Hath Yahweh indeed spoken only by Moses?"
(Num. 12:2)

They pride themselves on their gift of prophecy, which ought rather to have schooled them to humility. But such is the natural depravity of men, not only to abuse the gifts of God unto contempt of their brethren, but so to magnify them by their ungodly and sacrilegious boasting, as to obscure the glory of their Author. Miriam and Aaron had received the spirit of prophecy, in order that the grace of God might shine forth in them; but from thence they raise up clouds to throw darkness upon the light, which was far brighter in Moses. They boast themselves to be prophets; why, then, do they not consider that there was no ground for glorying in this, inasmuch as that, which had been gratuitously bestowed upon them by God, was not their own? Again, why do they not correctly estimate their own insignificance in comparison with the excellency of Moses, so as, by willingly yielding to him, to show that they set at its proper value what God had respectively conferred upon them? Lest, then, the knowledge of those graces which God has entrusted to us, should puff us up with pride and presumption, let us remember that the more each of us has received, the greater obligations are we under to God and our brethren; and let us also reflect how much is wanting in us, and how much, too, God has conferred on others, so as to prefer to ourselves those whom God has designed to honour.

"And all the congregation lifted up their voice" (Num. 14:1)

Here we see how easily, by means of a few incentives, sedition is excited in a great multitude; for the people, unless governed by the counsel of others, is like the sea, exposed to many tempests; and the corruption of human nature produced this amongst innumerable other evils, that lies and impostures prevail over truth. There was, indeed, some pretext for the error of the people, in that they saw ten most choice leaders of their tribes dissuading them from entering the land, and only two advising them to proceed. But that credulity, to which they were too much inclined, is without excuse, because it arose from incredulity; for, if the dignity and reputation of ten men availed so much with them, that they were thus easy of belief, ought they not much rather to have given credit to the word of God, who had promised them the land four hundred years before? For when they cried out beneath the oppressive tyranny of the Egyptians, the memory of the promise given to their fathers was not effaced, since the holy Jacob had carefully provided for its transmission. They had recently heard and embraced its confirmation, and in this confidence had come forth from Egypt. We see, then, that they had already been induced by their own supineness and depravity to recoil from entering the land, because they had thrown aside their confidence in God, so that they might seem to have deliberately laid hold of the opportunity. Still the evil counsellors gave an impulse to them, when they were falling of their accord, and cast them down headlong.

"And Yahweh said unto Aaron, Thou and thy sons and thy father's house with thee
shall bear the iniquity of the sanctuary: and thou and thy sons with thee shall bear
the iniquity of your priesthood" (Num. 18:1)

By this solemn appeal God stirs up the priests to devote themselves to their duty with the greatest fidelity and zeal, for He declares that if anything should be done contrary to the requirements of religion, they should be accounted guilty of it, since those are said to "bear the iniquity of the sanctuary" who sustain the crime and the punishment of all its pollutions. God would have the sanctuary kept clear from every stain and defect; and also the dignity of the priesthood was to be maintained in chastity and pureness; a heavy burden, therefore, was imposed upon the priests when they were set over the holy things as their guardians, on this condition that if anything were done amiss they were to be exposed to punishment, because the blame rested on them; just as if God had said that negligence alone was tantamount to sacrilege. Thus their honour, conjoined as it was with so much difficulty and danger, was by no means to be envied.

In this way did God admonish them that the legal rites were of no trifling importance, since he so severely avenged all profanations of them; for thus it was easily to be gathered that something far more excellent and altogether divine was to be sought for in these earthly elements. This may also be very properly applied spiritually to all pastors, to whom blame is justly imputed, if religion and the holiness of God's worship be corrupted, if purity of doctrine impaired, if the welfare of the people endangered, since the care of all these things is entrusted to them.

"Make thee a fiery serpent" (Num. 21:8)

Nothing would, at first sight, appear more unreasonable than that a brazen serpent should be made, the sight of which should extirpate the deadly poison; but this apparent absurdity was far better suited to render the grace of God conspicuous than as if there had been anything natural in the remedy. If the serpents had been immediately removed, they would have deemed it to be an accidental occurrence, and that the evil had vanished by natural means. If, in the aid afforded, anything had been applied, bearing an affinity to fit and appropriate remedies, then also the power and goodness of God would have been thrown into the shade. In order, therefore, that they might perceive themselves to be rescued from death by the mere grace of God alone, a mode of preservation was chosen so discordant with human reason, as to be almost a subject for laughter. At the same time it had the effect of trying the obedience of the people, to prescribe a mode of seeking preservation, which brought all their senses into subjection and captivity. It was a foolish thing to turn the eyes to a serpent of brass, to prevent the ill effects of a poisonous bite; for what, according to man's judgment, could a lifeless statue, lifted up on high, profit? But it is the peculiar virtue of faith, that we should willingly be fools, in order that we may learn to be wise only from the mouth of God. This afterwards more clearly appeared in the substance of this type: for, when Christ compares Himself to this serpent which Moses lifted up in the wilderness, (John iii. 14,) it was not a mere common similitude which He employs, but He teaches us, that what had been shown forth in this dark shadow, was completed in Himself. And, surely, unless the brazen serpent had been a symbol of spiritual grace, it would not have been laid up like a precious treasure, and diligently preserved for many ages in God's sanctuary. The analogy, also, is very perfect; since Christ, in order to rescue us from death, put on our flesh, not indeed, subject to sin, but representing "the likeness of sinful flesh," as Paul says. (Rom. viii. 3.) Hence follows, what I have above adverted to, that since "the world by wisdom knew not God," He was manifested in the foolishness of the cross. (1 Cor. 1. 21.) If, then, we desire to obtain salvation, let us not be ashamed to seek it from the curse of Christ, which was typified in the image of the serpent.

"And Yahweh opened the mouth of the ass" (Num. 22:28)

Sceptical persons criticize this passage, and ridicule it, as if Moses related an incredible fable. And, indeed, their scoff appears to be plausible, when they object that there is a great difference between the bray of an ass and an articulate voice; but, however, they may now indulge in such wanton observations, they will at length be made to feel how seriously and reverently we ought to speak of the marvelous works of God, by their jokes and trifling about which they seek to appear facetious. Now, since their chattering is unworthy of a lengthened refutation, let us be satisfied by the contempt into which it is thrown by a single expression of Moses, when he says that God "opened the mouth of the ass." For whence would men possess the faculty of speech, unless God had opened their mouth at the first creation of the world? Whence comes it that magpies and parrots imitate the human voice, unless it were the will of God to manifest in them a specimen of a certain extraordinary power. Who is there, then, who shall now impose a law upon the Maker of the world, to prevent Him from adapting the mouth of a beast to the utterance of words? Unless perhaps they would suppose Him to be bound irrevocably, because He has once appointed a certain order in nature, to abstain from displaying His power by miracles. If the ass had been changed into a man, we should have been bound to reverence this proof of God's incomprehensible power; now, when we are told that merely a few words were drawn from it without intelligence or judgment, as if a sound of any kind were diffused through the air, shall the miracle be regarded as a fable? Moreover, if unclean spirits utter words in spectral illusions, why shall God be unable to endow mute tongues with the faculty of speech? Let us, then, learn to reverence with becoming humility the sentence which God executed on the false prophet. He might have chastised him directly by the words of the Angel; but, because the reproof would not have been sufficiently severe if unattended by gross ignominy, He ordained that a beast should instruct him. The voice of the Angel was, indeed, added afterwards; but, since he had been so unteachable, he is treated according to his desert, when, after having made some proficiency in the school of the ass, he begins to listen to God. And, further, the ass convicts him of being dull, and deluded in mind in this respect, that he was not aroused by this unusual circumstance. For she says that she had never before been refractory. If, therefore, there had been any spark of apprehension in the wretched man, he ought to have reflected as to what was the meaning of this novel proceeding and sudden change. Thus was he awakened from his lethargy, in order that he might listen more attentively to what the Angel afterwards spoke.

"And when Phinehas . . . saw it, he rose up from among the congregation and took
a javelin in his hand . . . and thrust both of them through" (Num. 25:7,8)

The courage of Phinehas is celebrated, who, whilst the rest were hesitating, inflamed with holy zeal, hastens forward to inflict punishment. . . . If any object that he transgressed the limits of his calling, when he laid hold of the sword with which God had not armed him, to inflict capital punishment, the reply is obvious, that our calling is not always confined to its ordinary office, inasmuch as God sometimes requires new and unusual acts of His servants. As a priest, it was not the office of Phinehas to punish crime, but he was called by the special inspiration of God, so that, in his private capacity, he had the Holy Spirit as his guide. These circumstances, indeed, ought not to be regarded as an example, so that a general rule may be laid down from them; though, at the same time, God preserves His free right to appoint His servants by privilege to act in His behalf as He shall see fit. God's judgment of this case may be certainly inferred from its approval, so that we may correctly argue that Phinehas was under His own guidance, since He immediately afterwards declared that He was pleased with the act, as is also stated in Psalm cvi. 30,31.

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