Numbers 1
Pulpit Commentary Homiletics

I. A FEW WORDS ABOUT THE CENSUS which is being taken to-day in every town, every hamlet, every remote habitation of the United Kingdom, from the English Channel to the seas that surge round the Shetland Islands. There are still some people - not many, let us hope - who have a scruple about filling up the census papers. They are haunted with an apprehension that there is something wrong, something dangerous, about the business. "Did not King David transgress in numbering the people? Did he not by so doing bring God's wrath upon his kingdom? Would that which brought guilt and sorrow on David be right or safe for us?" What are we to say to these scrupulous persons? I have not time to go into the questions that have been raised about the real nature of David's sin. One thing is plain: the evil lay not in the taking of a census, but in the intention of that particular census. David was a man of war. In his hands the kingdom was in danger of becoming a despotic and military monarchy, such as the nations of the world have had occasion to know too well. And there can be little doubt that the census he projected was meant to subserve the ends of such a monarchy. It was meant to be just such an instrument of oppression in Israel as William the Conqueror's Domesday Book was in England. The design of the compilation seems to have been, in both cases, very much the same. Anyhow, it is certain that the simple numbering of the people was not forbidden by the law of God. On the contrary, the Bible is dead against such a barbarous and hazardous style of national administration as is inevitable when the national governors are in the dark regarding the statistics of the people. The Israelites dealt largely in statistics; to a surprising degree they anticipated the practice of the nineteenth century in this matter. At all the great turning-points in their history a census was taken. This Book of NUMBERS owes its name to the fact that it records two census-takings, one at the beginning, the other at the close, of the forty years' sojourn in the wilderness. So long as the Bible has a Book of Numbers in it, intelligent Bible readers will see in it an admonition to fill up their census papers with exactness and for conscience sake.

II. MEDITATIONS PROPER TO THE CENSUS DAY. The filling up of a census paper is, in itself, a piece of secular business. Yet I do not envy the man who can perform it without being visited with a touch of holy feeling. The setting down of the names of one's household brings up many tragic memories. The setting down one's own age, after a lapse of ten years - surely it summons us to count our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom. It is not often observed that the law of Moses prescribed a religious service for the occasion of a census-taking (Exodus 30:11-16). This the children of Israel are to perform, "that there be no plague among them when thou numberest them." A measure may be right in itself, and yet may be apt to become to us an occasion of sin. When a nation is reckoning up the number of its sons, it will be apt to harbour proud confidence in their valour; and proud confidence in man God will not bear. When Nebuchadnezzar begins to say, "Is not this great Babylon which I have built for the house of my kingdom?" God's humbling stroke is near. On the census day the Israelites were to bring "every man a ransom for his soul.'" The act was as much as to say, "I am not worthy to be registered among the living in Israel, the holy nation, the kingdom of priests. I am a sinful man, O Lord; but I believe that there is forgiveness with thee. Forgive me, therefore, O Lord reject me not. Remember me with the favour thou bearest unto thy people, that I may rejoice in the gladness of thy nation, and glory with thine inheritance." The ransom money required from every Israelite on the census day was a poll-tax of half a shekel. The rich paid no more, the poor paid no less. The law of Moses did not often impose this sort of tax; for With a show of equality, it is the most unequal of taxes. Ordinarily the law invited princes to bring princely gifts, while it suffered the poor man's pair of turtle-doves to come up with acceptance on the altar. The poll-tax of the census day was altogether exceptional. Nor is it difficult to understand why the exception should have been made on this one occasion. It was very significant. Religion does not abrogate all social inequalities; but the non-recognition of these in the atonement-money admonishes us that the inequalities which find place among men in regard to wealth, station, intellectual gifts, are as nothing in comparison with their essential equality as creatures made in the image of God. It admonishes us also that all who have obtained an inheritance among God's people are on one level with regard to their right to be there. "There is no difference; for all have sinned, and all are justified freely." Yet another reflection. The Lord keeps an exact register of his people. There is a Book of Life in which are inscribed the names of all whom he has chosen, and caused to approach unto him, that they may dwell in his house. How true this is, the whole Scripture bears witness (see Exodus 32:32; Isaiah 4:3; Ezekiel 13:9; Luke 10:20; Philippians 4:3; Hebrews 12:23; Revelation 13:8). We commonly think of this as a book which is shut and sealed. No man on earth can take it into his hand and read out the names inscribed in it. The Lord only knoweth them that are his; we may not sit in judgment on one another's state before God. All this is true. Yet the truth has another side: if the seventy are to rejoice because their names are written in heaven, it must be possible for them to ascertain the fact. A man may ascertain his own acceptance with God. Not only so. If the Apostle was confident regarding certain of the early Christians that their names were in the Book of Life, we also may, without prying into God's secrets, attain to a similar persuasion respecting such of our brethren as bear Christ's image, and abound in his work. Who bear Christ's image, and abound in his work - I use these words advisedly; they express the evidence which avails to prove that a given name is in the Book of Life. The census-table compiled by Moses contained only the names of such as were, by birth or adoption, the sons of Jacob. The Book of Life contains only the names of those whom God has "predestinated to the adoption of sons by Jesus Christ." To make sure that I am a son - that God has brought me home to himself by his Word and Spirit - this is the only way of making sure that my name has a place in the Lamb's Book of Life. - B.

I. THE PLACE AND TIME OF THE COMMAND. God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai. Many wildernesses, though uncultivated, were fertile and well watered, but the wilderness of Sinai was a desolate place. Moses calls it "the great and terrible wilderness, wherein were fiery serpents and scorpions and drought, where there was no water;" and, again, "a desert land, a waste howling wilderness" (see Stanley's 'Sinai and Palestine'). Very different from the riches of Egypt left behind, and the riches of Canaan lying before. But though a wilderness, the tabernacle of the congregation was there, made by God's appointment and direction, even down to its minutest arrangements and furniture. As long as the tabernacle in their midst was honoured, the people could dwell safely even in the wilderness.

II. THE PURPOSE OF THE NUMBERING. To ascertain the strength of the people for war. Canaan, towards which they were advancing, was in the possession of enemies, who appreciated all its riches, and would not relinquish them without a severe struggle. At the time of the census the Israelites had not brought on themselves the penalty of the forty years' wandering. The census was meant to be one preparation for immediate conquest, as the mission of the spies was another. There was everything to give them courage and strength of mind when they remembered that there were more than 600,000 fighting men amongst them. And as they counted up their resources for war, so we may be sure Christ would ever have his militant Church on earth to do the same. The tone of the New Testament is not less warlike than of the Old, our Canaanites being principalities and powers, the rulers of the darkness of this world, and spiritual wickedness in high places.

III. THE METHOD OF THE NUMBERING. The method was determined by the purpose. Note, first, the exclusions. The women and the children were left out. In counting the Levites the children were not left out. Every male from a month old was numbered, for theirs was a constant service, and even the youngest was looked on as in training for it. But when war is imminent we can only count on such as can be ready at once, those from twenty years old and upward. The Church of Christ still divisible in the same way - those who can fight, and those who cannot; the men who are strong, because of the solid food they take, and the babes who are still hanging on milk and spoon meat. The Levites also were left out. A numerical loss may yet be a real gain. The Israelites were strong in their 600,000 only as long as they served God, according to his statutes and commandments. For the Levites to go to battle meant that all would go to neglect and disorder in the tabernacle. God obeyed and honoured is God on our side, and who then can be against us? The man who keeps his fifty-two sabbaths every year for God has not lost them, and the weekly contribution set aside for God's cause is not wasted. Secondly, the order observed in the numbering. By each tribe and family the result would be more speedily and correctly arrived at. Nature, even under the curse of sin, has its order, and will help us, if we are observant of it, to do the work of grace in an orderly way. Though there is a limit at the one end of life, there is none mentioned at the other. A man is never too old to fight for God, directing and inspiring the stronger arm of younger men. There is room for a Nestor as well as an Achilles, and Venice loved to keep the fame of

"Blind old Dandolo,
Th' octogenarian chief,
Byzantium's conquering foe." Thirdly, with all the information gained, there was much unknown. Those fit for fight by age could be counted up; but what of disposition? who could sift out the Korahs, Dathans, and Abirams, and the people whose hearts lingered after the fleshpots of Egypt? - Y.

By this census all the young men of Israel were urged to the consideration of a possible claim upon them. It is to the young men that a country looks when her integrity and liberties are in danger. Young men are wanted still to take a brave and intelligent part in the strife of the Church militant. "I have written unto you young men because ye are strong, and the word of God abideth in you, and ye have overcome the wicked one." So Paul to Timothy: "Endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ." God's people have to deal with the Canaanites, Amorites, and all the rest of the hostile nations. Many iniquities are in possession of the earth. Old men, who have struggled against them and done something to diminish them, ask who will take up the sword and shield and go forth against the mighty. The word comes to us. "You are fit to fight. Will you fight?" Young men dazzled with the visions of military glory, here is a campaign where not men are slaughtered, but the evils that ruin men. Our Lord, the Captain of our salvation, will richly equip us with weapons mighty for the pulling down of strongholds, the armour of righteousness on the right hand and the left. - Y.

I. THEY ARE MERE NAMES TO US. Were we asked who Eliab was, we should say the eldest, envious, angry brother of David, not the census-taker for Zebulun; or Gamaliel, he who stood up in the council, not the census-taker for Manasseh. High as they may have been once, their position in human history is little better than oblivion.

"The long, proud tale of swelling fame
Dried to a brief and barren name."

II. Yet though mere names now, they WERE ONCE WELL KNOWN. Every child of Zebulun would be taught to look up to Eliab.

III. Though mere names to us, THEY DID A USEFUL WORK IN THEIR TIME. It would be no small satisfaction to them, if they looked at the thing rightly, to consider that they had been able to undertake for Moses such an important work as making sure of the fighting strength of each tribe.

IV. There was doubtless some appreciation of their services AT THE TIME, both by Moses and the sober-minded of the people.

V. But in any case GOD HAS MARKED WHAT THEY DID. He has the record of all the faithful and the holy who have only their names in human history, and the far greater part of them not even that. - Y.

The Bible abounds in statistics. The historical books, in particular, bristle with genealogies and census-tables. "Numbers" gets its name from the circumstance that it contains the tabulated results of two distinct numberings. The statistical chapters are commonly passed over in the consecutive reading of the Scripture, in the family, and in the Church. The wine of the kingdom does not flow from them freely; all the rather ought care to be taken to read and expound them occasionally. All Scripture is profitable; and the statistical chapters, hard and barren as they look, are no exception.

I. For one thing, these chapters serve admirably to ANCHOR THE RELIGION OF THE BIBLE ON THE FIRM GROUND OF HISTORY. The Lord Jesus was not a mythical character, not a mere play of glorious colour on a bank of unsubstantial vapour. He was the son of a daughter of David's house. His genealogy is extant; and a long chain of family registers, imbedded in the historical books of the Old Testament, afford the means of verifying it. The sacred writers are never afraid to descend from the region of moral and religious disquisition into the region of exact numbers, which can be sifted and weighed in the light of our modern statistical science. The importance of all this can hardly be exaggerated, especially for an age like the present, which so confidently calls in question the historical verity of the Scriptures. To come to these census chapters in Numbers. The critics laugh at the idea that a nation of two millions and more were led out of Egypt by Moses and sojourned in the wilderness for forty years. Objections formidable enough are brought forward; but the objectors have to face the fact that the history, besides giving the round numbers, explain how they were made up. What is more; the details are found, on examination by men expert in statistics, to have such an air of reality that the ablest commentator (Knobel) of the Critical School, can think of no more feasible explanation than to suggest that some Levite must have laid his hands on the report of some real census, taken in a later age, and inserted it here in the Pentateuch. How writings so dishonestly compiled should have reached the high moral elevation of the Pentateuch, the critic has omitted to explain. He is certainly right in taking the chapters in Numbers for veritable census-tables.

II. NOR IS IT ONLY IN THIS GENERAL VIEW OF THEM THAT THESE STATISTICAL CHAPTERS ARE INSTRUCTIVE, The facts recorded (like all the authentic facts of God's providential government of men) are very suggestive.

1. Observe how unequally the several tribes have multiplied. Compare Judah and his 74,600 with Benjamin and his 35,400. All family histories and national histories are full of similar inequalities. There are great nations (France, Spain) in which the population is stationary or receding; others, similarly situated, in which there is steady increase (Germany, Russia). In the course of two or three centuries, facts like these must powerfully affect the history of the world. What hopes with regard to the future are excited by observing that, as a rule, it is the Protestant nations that are multiplying, and replenishing the earth, and subduing it!

2. How the blessing delivered by Jacob bears fruit after he has gone; in Genesis 49, two sons - Judah and Joseph - are honoured above the rest.

(a) To Judah is assigned the primacy of honour and power forfeited by Reuben, the firstborn (verses 8-12). How the fulfillment of this comes to light in the census at Sinai! His tribe outnumbers all the others save one; his tents occupy the place of honour in the camp, being pitched towards the rising of the sun; his standard (the lion of the tribe of Judah) leads the van in the march; in the captain of his best, Nahshon, the son of Amminadab, we recognize the ancestor of our Lord.

(b) Joseph, the best-beloved of the twelve, was to be a fruitful vine, a fruitful bough by a well, whose branches run over the wall. His two sons were to become each a several tribe, "as Reuben and Simeon they shall be mine" (Genesis 48:5, 6; Genesis 49:22-26). This also is exactly accomplished; not only are Ephraim and Manasseh reckoned as two tribes, but each takes rank with the other tribes in respect both to honour and numbers. Contemplating these facts in the light of Jacob's blessing, we can perceive a moral purpose in them; Joseph and Judah were the two who excelled in godliness and magnanimity. The faithful God keepeth covenant to a thousand generations (comp. Psalm 103:17).

3. How a family, which at one time promised well; may catch a blight and fade away. Mark the story of Simeon; at Sinai he was one of the most populous of the tribes; thirty-eight years later he is much the smallest. From nearly 60,000 he has shriveled into about 22,000 (comp. 1 Chronicles 4:27). This downward course went on after the conquest. Simeon's allotted inheritance was next to that of the tribe of Judah; and ere many generations passed he seems to have been absorbed by his more energetic and prosperous brother. The statistics of the Bible, being the digested statement of facts in the Divine government of families and nations, are mines where those who choose to dig find much silver. "The works of the Lord are great, sought out of all them that have pleasure therein." - B.

The different departments of service appointed to the host of Israel and to the Levites remind us of similar diversities in national and Church life at present.




1. The apparent strength of the Israelites was according to the number of its soldiers. So with a nation and its bread-winners, or with a Church and its active workers. The "mixed multitude" (representing hangers-on, idlers, grumblers; Numbers 11:4), not reckoned or "mustered": only true Israelites can be relied on.

2. Their aggregation by tribes illustrates the value of natural affinities in Christian work (verses 18, 20, 22, etc.). This truth may be applied -

(1) To Christian nationalities, whether of a European or Asiatic type: e.g., Chinese Churches should not be cast in English moulds.

(2) To Christian denominations, which may work best as separate, yet allied denominations, each having its own methods and rallying round the standard of some special truth. We are reminded also of -

3. The value of noble Church traditions. "The house of their fathers" had a special honour in the eyes of every patriotic Israelite. So with British Christians: e.g., attachment of Episcopalians to the Church of the Protestant martyrs, and of other Christians to the Churches of Puritan, Covenanting, Nonconforming, or Methodist ancestors (Psalm 22:4, 5; Psalm 34:4).

II. The Levites were not mustered as soldiers, but were active in another department of service. The ark and its ministries were symbols of the source of the nation's strength. Their valuable services are described as a "warfare" (Numbers 4:23, marg.). Just as in a nation, it is not the hand-workers only that are a source of strength and wealth, but thinkers, writers, lecturers, preachers also, so in a Church the least prominent may not be the least useful (Cf. 1 Corinthians 12:12-28). The Levites pitched nearest the tabernacle (verses 52, 53), "that there be no wrath," etc. Simeons and Annas in the temple, invalids "dwelling in the secret place of the Most High," may not be "numbered" among the workers of the Church, but may have power with God and prevail as intercessors for their brethren. - P.

This is the first of a series of passages in which the law regarding the Levites is delivered. These all occur in Numbers, excepting a very few which are found in Deuteronomy; and they must be read together if you would get a connected and complete view of the statutes relating to the sacred tribe. Read together, the several texts will be found to dovetail one into another. The first is quite general, merely intimating that the Levites were to be numbered and marshaled as a host by themselves, being wholly dedicated to the service of the sanctuary. The second, entitled "The generations" of the Levites, their Family Book, gives particulars regarding their divisions and several offices (chapters 3, 4). The third describes how they were set apart to office by a solemn purification (Numbers 8:5). Subsequent passages contain (fourthly) the tragic story of Korah and his company (chapter 16), and (fifthly) the provision made for the Levites' honourable maintenance (chapters 18, 35). One who reads this series of passages with care will make a discovery of some value regarding the structure of these books of the Pentateuch. Because the several laws relating to one subject are not set down in one place, as they would be in our books, and are not arranged according to our ideas of order, it is confidently affirmed that they are set down without any order, and indeed that the Mosaic law is a somewhat random collection of documents diverse in date and character. This is certainly an error. The beautiful order discoverable in the ordinances regarding the Levites will be found to prevail in the ordinances - scattered as they may seem - on many other subjects.

I. This, being the earliest notice of the Levites as a separate and sacred tribe, invites us to review THE STORY OF THEIR CALLING. The first step was taken when the Lord, ordaining in Israel a hereditary priesthood, nominated "Aaron the Levite" and his sons. Still, though Aaron the Levite was called, nothing was said regarding the rest of the tribe. But it was plain that one man and his two sons (the whole number of the Aaronites after the death of Nadab and Abihu) could not execute the priests' office for a great nation. Helpers they must have. Who more fit than their brethren of their own tribe? They were much the smallest of the tribes, so that their maintenance would not be too burdensome; and they had already distinguished themselves by their zeal for the Lord to such a degree as amounted to a virtual consecration to his service (see Exodus 32:29). Accordingly, when the order was given to number and marshal the congregation, an exception was made in relation to the Levites. They were numbered by themselves, as a separated and sacred tribe. Recall the fact just noticed, that the Levites were fitted for their office before they were called to it. Their fitness was made manifest before a word was spoken regarding the honourable office in which it was to be exercised. The whole history of the Church is full of similar facts. When some great exigency arises calling for the services of men possessing special qualities of character or attainment, it is generally found that the Head of the Church has anticipated the occasion by raising up the men required. See for an illustrious example, Galatians 1:15, 16.

II. THE WORK APPOINTED TO THE LEVITES. It was "to keep the charge of the tabernacle" (verse 53). They carried it; guarded it; did all the work of it except offering sacrifice, burning incense, and blessing the people. In a word, they, under the hand and oversight of the priests, attended to the "outward business of the house of God" (Nehemiah 11:16). One cannot read this account of the Levites' work without being touched with a sense of the superiority of the Christian Church and its services over the tabernacle and the Levitical ministrations. To thoughtful and spiritually-minded men the Levitical ministrations must have been an intolerable burden. Barnabas the Levite would, without doubt, say Amen when he heard Peter's description of them as "a yoke which neither we nor our fathers were able to bear" (Acts 15:10). It is right to remember that, as time passed, the yoke was much mitigated. If the Pentateuch gives no express commandment to the Levites except about the external business of the tabernacle, that simply confirms the antiquity of the Pentateuch. By King David they were invited to higher service as singers and even as psalmists. Jehoshaphat employed them largely as public teachers of the law throughout the cities of Judah (2 Chronicles 17:8, 9). Moreover, the Levitical services as prescribed by Moses, although burdensome and unprofitable when compared with those of the New Testament Church, had a great purpose to serve both in prefiguring the truth to be afterwards revealed, and as an educational institute by which the people of God were prepared for the better time. It is a good thing to have a charge to keep in connection with Christ's Church, in any capacity, however humble. Better be a Levite to keep the door of the house of God than live without God in a palace. - B.

And the children of Israel shall pitch their tents, every man by his own camp, and every man by his own standard, throughout their hosts.

I. UNITY WITHOUT UNIFORMITY. Reading the history of the Israelites, we are made to feel they were assuredly one nation, and yet just as assuredly twelve tribes. Everything was done to keep each tribe separate and yet all the tribes together. So, ever and anon, some new regulation came out to manifest afresh the unity, yet diversity, of Israel. Every man traced his genealogy back to a son of Jacob, and this itself showed him to be of the seed of Abraham. Jacob had a blessing for each of his children separately, a blessing meant to rest upon each tribe down through all its increase and vicissitudes. So here each tribe was numbered as well as the sum of the congregation. Each tribe had its place in resting and in marching; whether honourable or not was scarcely the question, seeing it was by express appointment of Jehovah. And as if to emphasize this separation, it was provided for in Canaan as well as in the wilderness.

II. THE TYPICAL SIGNIFICANCE OF THIS WITH RESPECT TO THE CHURCH. There are diversities in the Church. There is one Saviour and one gospel; but there were twelve apostles, each directly chosen of the Saviour. Consider the epistles: the individuality of the writers is as clear as their inspiration. So there is one Church, but many sects; and one might almost say God has ordered there should be many sects. There is probably no sect in evangelical Christendom but what, if it were possible to interrogate its founders, they would say, "We could do no other." God has honoured all the sects in turn. Princes in Israel and captains in the war against sin have sprung from all of them. We see in part and we prophesy in part; and we do not all see the same parts, and thus our prophecies differ. Must be faithful, each of us, to what we see of truth, keeping clear of all that is censorious with respect to those who, though they differ, are still our brethren. Diversity must belong to the imperfections of mankind. Imperfections in the regenerate even more manifest than in the unregenerate. In all the diversity there is unity. Tribe does not infringe on tribe; each man has his own camp, his own standard. But with all these separating regulations, there was a central power to unite. The tribes lay eastward, southward, westward, northward; but eastward, etc. of what? The tabernacle. Immediately around it were Aaron and the Levites in special charge, but the whole of Israel was also around it. So in all our diversities we are related to Christ. We cannot separate from one another as long as each is true to him. In all our divisions, even in our sometimes acrimonious disputings, it remains true - one Lord, one faith, one baptism. A family none the less a family though there be many differences among its members. The spirit of Christ is one that first of all produces life, and then leads us into all the truth. As all the tribes compose one nation, so all the sects one Church. We have all one God and Father, and the features of our celestial parentage will be revealed in each, however much there may be for a time to obscure. This diversity as well as unity may extend to the heavenly state. It may belong to heaven as well as earth. Diversity may belong to the perfection of the believer as well as his imperfection. The highest perfection may be that of harmony. This diversity is significantly hinted at in Revelation 7, where twelve thousand are sealed from each tribe. The twelve foundations in the New Jerusalem had each of them its own order of precious stones. Cherish both variety and unity as essential elements in the kingdom of God. - Y.

And the children of Israel did according to all that the Lord commanded Moses, so did they. We have here a remarkable obedience - very remarkable, as being found in a book marked with records of murmuring, disobedience, and rebellion. Whence the possibility of such a statement here?

I. THE OBEDIENCE WAS IN AN OUTWARD THING. If inward disposition had been demanded as well as outward action, we should hardly have heard such complete obedience spoken of. It is easier to make a pilgrimage to Rome or Jerusalem than to live for one hour in complete surrender to God.

II. THE OBEDIENCE WAS MADE AS EASY AS POSSIBLE. Jehovah told them not only the thing to be done, but the way in which to do it. Besides, something of the same kind had been done a little while before.

III. THERE WERE CERTAIN ENDS TO BE ATTAINED WHICH MADE THE WORK ATTRACTIVE. A certain carnal satisfaction in counting up the full warlike strength of the nation; also a sense of rivalry between tribe and tribe to see which was most numerous. Some commands of God, so far as the letter is concerned, may jump with our own inclination. It is further to be noticed that this remarkable obedience did not prevent an early and extensive disobedience in other ways. A command to number the people was not a sufficient test of obedience. Recollect one who said to Christ with respect to the commandments, "All these have I kept from my youth." He little knew a searching test was close at hand. It is possible to render outward service, and that in many ways, and for a long time, with an unchanged heart. The spirit that underlies every ordinance of God may. be repugnant to our natural disposition (Matthew 7:21-23). The practical warning is, that we should labour to make the outward things the fruit and manifestation of the inward. "These things ought ye to have done," - the numbering, etc., - "and not left the other undone" - the loving of the Lord with all the heart and soul and might. - Y.

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