Verse 32. "Forgive their sin-; and if not, blot me - out of thy book" - It is probable that one part of Moses' work during the forty days of his residence on the mount with God, was his regulating the muster-roll of all the tribes and families of Israel, in reference to the parts they were respectively to act in the different transactions in the wilderness, promised land, &c.; and this, being done under the immediate direction of God, is termed God's book which he had written, (such muster-rolls, or registers, called also genealogies, the Jews have had from the remotest period of their history;) and it is probable that God had told him, that those who should break the covenant which he had then made with them should be blotted out of that list, and never enter into the promised land. All this Moses appears to have particularly in view, and, without entering into any detail, immediately comes to the point which he knew was fixed when this list or muster-roll was made, namely, that those who should break the covenant should be blotted out, and never have any inheritance in the promised land: therefore he says, This people have sinned a great sin, and have made them gods of gold; thus they had broken the covenant, (see the first and second commandments,) and by this had forfeited their right to Canaan. Yet now, he adds, if thou wilt forgive their sin, that they may yet attain the promised inheritance -; and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written - if thou wilt blot out their names from this register, and never suffer them to enter Canaan, blot me out also; for I cannot bear the thought of enjoying that blessedness, while my people and their posterity shall be for ever excluded. And God, in kindness to Moses, spared him the mortification of going into Canaan without taking the people with him. They had forfeited their lives, and were sentenced to die in the wilderness; and Moses' prayer was answered in mercy to him, while the people suffered under the hand of justice. But the promise of God did not fail; for, although those who sinned were blotted out of the book, yet their posterity enjoyed the inheritance.
This seems to be the simple and pure light in which this place should be viewed; and in this sense St. Paul is to be understood, Rom. ix. 3, where he says: For I could wish that myself were ACCURSED from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh; who are ISRAELITES, to whom pertaineth the ADOPTION, and the GLORY, and the COVENANTS. Moses could not survive the destruction of his people by the neighbouring nations, nor their exclusion from the promised land; and St. Paul, seeing the Jews about to be cut off by the Roman sword for their rejection of the Gospel, was willing to be deprived of every earthly blessing, and even to become a sacrifice for them, if this might contribute to the preservation and salvation of the Jewish state. Both those eminent men, engaged in the same work, influenced by a spirit of unparalleled patriotism, were willing to forfeit every blessing of a secular kind, even die for the welfare of the people. But certainly, neither of them could wish to go to eternal perdition, to save their countrymen from being cut off, the one by the sword of the Philistines, the other by that of the Romans. Even the supposition is monstrous.
On this mode of interpretation we may at once see what is implied in the book of life, and being written in or blotted out of such a book. In the public registers, all that were born of a particular tribe were entered in the list of their respective families under that tribe. This was the book of life; but when any of those died, his name might be considered as blotted out from this list. Our baptismal registers, which record the births of all the inhabitants of a particular parish or district, and which are properly our books of life; and our bills of mortality, which are properly our books of death, or the lists of those who are thus blotted out from our baptismal registers or books of life; are very significant and illustrative remains of the ancient registers, or books of life and death among the Jews, the Greeks, the Romans, and most ancient nations. It is worthy of remark, that in China the names of the persons who have been tried on criminal processes are written in two distinct books, which are called the book of life and the book of death: those who have been acquitted, or who have not been capitally convicted, are written in the former; those who have been found guilty, in the latter. These two books are presented to the emperor by his ministers, who, as sovereign, has a right to erase any name from either: to place the living among the dead, that he may die; or the dead, that is, the person condemned to death, among the living, that he may be preserved.
Thus he blots out of the book of life or the book of death according to his sovereign pleasure, on the representation of his ministers, or the intercession of friends, &c. An ancient and extremely rich picture, in my own possession, representing this circumstance, painted in China, was thus interpreted to me by a native Chinese.
Verse 33. "Whosoever hath sinned against me, him will I blot out" - As if the Divine Being had said: "All my conduct is regulated by infinite justice and righteousness: in no case shall the innocent ever suffer for the guilty.
That no man may transgress through ignorance, I have given you my law, and thus published my covenant; the people themselves have acknowledged its justice and equity, and have voluntarily ratified it. He then that sins against me, (for sin is the transgression of the law, 1 John iii. 4, and the law must be published and known that it may be binding,) him will I blot out of my book." And is it not remarkable that to these conditions of the covenant God strictly adhered, so that not one soul of these transgressors ever entered into the promised rest! Here was justice.
And yet, though they deserved death, they were spared! Here was mercy.
Thus, as far as justice would permit, mercy extended; and as far as mercy would permit, justice proceeded. Behold, O reader, the GOODNESS and SEVERITY of GOD! MERCY saves all that JUSTICE can spare; and JUSTICE destroys all that MERCY should not save.
Verse 34. "Lead the people unto the place" - The word place is not in the text, and is with great propriety omitted. For Moses never led this people into that place, they all died in the wilderness except Joshua and Caleb; but Moses led them towards the place, and thus the particle la el here should be understood, unless we suppose that God designed to lead them to the borders of the land, but not to take them into it.
"I will visit their sin" - I will not destroy them, but they shall not enter into the promised land. They shall wander in the wilderness till the present generation become extinct.
Verse 35. "The Lord plagued the people" - Every time they transgressed afterwards Divine justice seems to have remembered this transgression against them. The Jews have a metaphorical saying, apparently founded on this text: "No affliction has ever happened to Israel in which there was not some particle of the dust of the golden calf." 1. THE attentive reader has seen enough in this chapter to induce him to exclaim, How soon a clear sky may be overcast! How soon may the brightest prospects be obscured! Israel had just ratified its covenant with Jehovah, and had received the most encouraging and unequivocal pledges of his protection and love. But they sinned, and provoked the Lord to depart from them, and to destroy the work of his hands. A little more faith, patience, and perseverance, and they should have been safely brought into the promised land. For want of a little more dependence upon God, how often does an excellent beginning come to an unhappy conclusion! Many who were just on the borders of the promised land, and about to cross Jordan, have, through an act of unfaithfulness, been turned back to wander many a dreary year in the wilderness. Reader, be on thy guard. Trust in Christ, and watch unto prayer.
2. Many people have been greatly distressed on losing their baptismal register, and have been reduced in consequence to great political inconvenience. But still they had their lives, and should a living man complain? But a man may so sin as to provoke God to cut him off; or, like a fruitless tree, be cut down, because he encumbers the ground. Or he may have sinned a sin unto death, 1 John v. 16, 17, that is, a sin which God will punish with temporal death, while he extends mercy to the soul.
3. With respect to the blotting out of God's book, on which there has been so much controversy, Is it not evident that a soul could not be blotted out of a book in which it had never been written? And is it not farther evident from ver. 32, 33, that, although a man be written in God's book, if he sins he may be blotted out? Let him that readeth understand; and let him that standeth take heed lest he fall. Reader, be not high-minded, but fear. See note on "ver. 32", and See note on "ver. 33".