Numbers 19
Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
This law respecting, the purification of one who has contracted uncleanness by contact with the dead must have been familiar to every Israelite. Death with impartial foot visits every house. No one can long remain a stranger to it. There is evidence, moreover, that this law did not fail to impress devout hearts, deepening in them the feeling' of impurity before God and unfitness for his presence, and at the same time awakening the hope that there is in the grace of God a remedy for uncleanness. Hence David's prayer, "Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean." The law gives direction regarding -


1. It was water, pure spring water (verse 17). A most natural symbol, much used in the Levitical lustrations, and which is still in use in the Christian Church. At the door of the sanctuary there is still a laver. In the sacrament of baptism Christ says to every candidate for admission into his house, "If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me."

2. In the present instance the ashes of a sin offering were mingled with the water. A heifer was procured at the expense of the congregation, - red, unblemished, on which never yoke had come, - and it was slain as a sacrifice. The red heifer was a true sin offering. It is so named in verses 9, 17 (Hebrew). But in several respects it differed remarkably from all the other sin offerings. Although the priest was to see it slain, and with his own finger sprinkled its blood toward the holy place, he was forbidden to slay it himself; it was slain not at the altar, but outside the camp, and the carcass was wholly consumed without being either flayed, or cleaned, or divided, or laid out in order. Besides, every one who took part in the sacrificial act was thereby rendered unclean; for which reason Eleazar, not Aaron, was to do the priest's part - the high priest might not defile himself for any cause. The ashes of this singular offering were carefully preserved to be used to communicate purifying virtue to the water required for lustration from time to time. None of these details is without meaning, if we could only get at it. The points of chief importance are these: -

(1) The sin offering prefigured Christ in his offering himself without spot to God (Hebrews 9:14). The singular rule which forbade the slaying of the red heifer within the precinct of the camp, who does not see in it a prophecy of the fact that the Just One suffered the reproachful death of a malefactor without the gate of Jerusalem? (Hebrews 13:12, 13).

(2) Without prior expiation there could be no purification, and, conversely, expiation being made, the way was open for purification. So when Christ had once offered himself without spot to God, provision was thereby made for purging our consciences. There is a cleansing virtue in the blood of Christ. The man who believes in Christ is not only pardoned, but is so purified in his conscience that he no longer shrinks in shame from the eye of God, but draws near with holy confidence.

II. THE PURIFYING RITE (verses 17-19). Nothing could be more simple. A few particles of the ashes of the sin offering were put into a vessel of spring water; this was sprinkled with a bunch of hyssop on the unclean person on the third day and. again on the seventh, an act which any clean person could perform in any town; by this act the uncleanness was removed. A simple rite, but not, therefore, optional. Willful neglect was a presumptuous sin. General lessons: -

1. There is something in sin which unfits for the society of God. One of the chief lessons of the ceremonial law. When the grace of God touches the heart, one of its first effects is to open the heart to feel this. "Lord, I am vile." As habits of personal cleanliness make a man loathe himself when he has been touched with filth, so the grace of God makes a man loathe himself for sin.

2. There is provision in Christ for making men clean. His blood purges the conscience from dead works to serve the living God.

3. Of this provision we must not omit to avail ourselves. Willful neglect of the blood of sprinkling is presumptuous sin. - B.

The extreme difficulty of applying the details of this chapter to the spiritual truths of which they were a shadow forbids us attempting more than a general application of the narrative.

I. GREAT CARE WAS NEEDED IN PROVIDING THIS SIN OFFERING (for so it is called in verses 9, 17). There were precepts as to the victim's sex, age, colour, freedom from blemish, and from compulsory labour. There were further minute requirements as to the method of killing and burning. The animal, first killed as a sacrifice, was to be utterly consumed. No ordinary pure water, but water impregnated with ashes, might serve as a medium of purification. These typical facts are applicable to the means of purification provided in the gospel. Christ was no ordinary sacrifice, but "without blemish," "separate from sinners," voluntary (John 10:18), appointed to death in a particular manner (John 12:32, 33); a complete sacrifice, vicarious, for all the congregation (1 Timothy 2:6; 1 John 2:2), in order that God might thus provide the means of complete purification (Hebrews 9:13, 14).

II. DEFILEMENT WAS INCURRED IN THE PURIFYING PROCESS. This was shown in various ways. The heifer was not killed before the altar, but outside the camp. The high priest was to have nothing to do with it, nor was even Eleazar to kill it himself. The blood was not brought into the tabernacle, but sprinkled at a distance, in the direction of it. The priest that sprinkled the blood and burnt the cedar wood was defiled. The man that burned the carcass was defiled. The man, ceremonially clean, who collected the ashes became unclean. Even the "clean" man who sprinkled the unclean with the purifying water became himself unclean. Thus God seeks by type and symbol, "line upon line," to impress on us the truth that sin is "exceeding sinful." And we are reminded that even our sinless Priest and Sacrifice needed to be "made sin" for us in order that we might be cleansed from all unrighteousness and made "the righteousness of God in him."

III. THE PURIFICATION PROVIDED WAS IN PERPETUAL DEMAND. "Deaths oft" compelled frequent contact with the dead. A corpse, even a bone or a grave, was sufficient to cause defilement. As death is the penalty of sin, in this way too God taught the defiling effect of sin, and therefore the need of perpetual purifications (Hebrews 10:1, 2). These are still needed even by Christians who have been justified and have exercised "repentance from dead works" (John 13:10; Hebrews 6:1). Thus we learn -

1. The fearfully polluting character of sin. Its contagion spreads to all who are susceptible. It exerts its baneful effects on that part of the creation incapable of guilt (Romans 8:20-22), and even on the sinless Son of God when he comes into contact with it as a Saviour (Isaiah 53:5, 6; 1 Peter 2:24, &c.).

2. The mysterious method of purification. Some of these ceremonies are "hard to be understood," and we have some difficulty in knowing exactly how to apply them to the truths respecting spiritual purification in the gospel. Just so in "the mystery of godliness" itself there are "secret things which belong unto the Lord our God." But we may be satisfied because the way of salvation is "the gospel of God," the Lamb slain is "the Lamb of God," the atonement is God's atonement. In the purification of our consciences "from dead works" we have the best proof of "the mystery of the gospel" (Ephesians 1:8, 9; Ephesians 6:19) being "the power of God," &c. (Romans 1:16).

3. Our entire dependence on this purification. The thoughtless touching of a dead man's bone defiled, and the man who neglected the water of purifying was "cut off." So with sinners, who should not dare to plead forgetfulness (Psalm 19:12), but who may be cleansed from every sin. But without this cleansing they too will be "cut off" (1 John 1:7-10). - P.

In the laws given to the Israelites there is much said concerning uncleanness. The ceremonial difference between the unclean and the clean sets forth the real difference between the sinful and the sinless. This difference was therefore as important in its way, and as much requiring attention, as that between the holy and the profane. In the Book of Leviticus a large section (chapters 11-15) is exclusively occupied with regulations on the subject, pointing out how uncleanness was caused, and how to be removed - oftentimes very easily caused, but never easy, and often very tedious, to remove. It was a charge brought against the priests long after (Ezekiel 22:26) that they showed no difference between the unclean and the clean. Already in this Book of Numbers one kind of defilement, that contracted by contact with the dead, has been referred to thrice (Numbers 5:2; Numbers 6:6-12; Numbers 9:6-8). In the second of these instances the defilement came as a hindrance to the Nazarite in fulfilling his vow, and the manner of his cleansing was carefully indicated. Here in chapter 19 we come to a very elaborate provision for defilement by the dead in general. The immediate occasion of this provision may have been the sudden and simultaneous death of nearly 15,000 of the people, by which many were of necessity defiled, and placed in great difficulties as to their extrication from defilement. But whatever the occasion, the contents of this chapter show very impressively and suggestively the way in which God looks on death.

I. We gather from this chapter sow UTTERLY OBNOXIOUS DEATH IS TO GOD. The person who has come in contact with it, however lightly or casually, - it may have been unconsciously, - is thereby unclean. Unlike the leper, he may feel no difference in himself, but he is unclean. Notice further why death is so obnoxious to God. It is the great and crowning consequence of sin in this world. Sin not only spoils life while it lasts, but brings it to a melancholy, painful, and in most cases premature end. Consider how much of human life, that might be so glorifying to God, so useful to man, and so happy in the experience of it, is nipped in the earliest bud. Doubtless God sees in death abominations of which we have hardly any sense at all. It is obnoxious to us as interfering with our plans, robbing us of our joys, and taking away the only thing that nature gives us, temporal life. We look at death too much as a cause. God would have us well to understand that its great power as a cause comes from what it is as an effect. In one sense we may say the uncleanness of leprosy was less offensive than that of death, for the power of sin was less evident in a disease of the living person than when life was altogether gone. Every instance of death is a fresh defiance, and apparently a successful one, of the ever-living God. Death seems to wait on every new-born child, saying, "Thou art mine."

II. WE SHOULD SO CORRECT OUR THOUGHTS THAT DEATH MAY BECOME OBNOXIOUS TO US IN THE SAME WAY AS IT IS TO GOD. Do not be contented to talk of death as coming through disease, accident, or old age. Behind all instruments look for the wielding hand of sin. Ask yourself if egress from this world would not be a very different sort of thing if man bad continued unfallen. To a sinless nature, how. gentle, painless, glorious, and exultant might be the process of exchanging the service of earth for the service of a still higher state! Death in its pain and gloom and disturbing consequences to survivors is something quite foreign to the original constitution of human nature. Only by learning to look on death as God by his own example would have us look, shall we find the true remedy against it, both in its actual power and in the terrors which the anticipation of it so often inspires.

III. OCCASION IS GIVEN FOR MUCH HUMILITY AND SELF-ABHORRENCE AS WE CONSIDER THE HOLD WHICH SIN HAS ON OUR MORTAL BODIES. The agonizing appeal of sin-burdened humanity is, "O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" Every consideration should be welcomed which will make us feel more deeply and abidingly the dreadful power of sin, the impossibility of getting rid of all its consequences until we are passed out of the present life. Does not a fair consideration of this ceremonial uncleanness for the dead body go far to settle the oft-debated point as to the possibility of complete holiness in this world? How can there be complete holiness when this supreme effect of sin, temporal death, remains undestroyed? What a thought for a devout Israelite, a man of the spirit of the Psalmist, that, solicitous as he might be all through life to keep in the way of God's commandments, nevertheless, when life had left the body, he would inevitably be the means of defilement to others!

IV. THERE IS POINTED OUT TO US THE TRUE MODE OF TRIUMPH OVER DEATH. Death can be conquered only in one way, by conquering sin. He who destroys the power of sin in a human life destroys the power of death. The raising of Lazarus was not so much a triumph over death as a humiliation of him who has the power of death, an intimation that the secret of his power was known and vulnerable. Lazarus was raised, but died again in the course of mortal nature, and only as he believed in Jesus to the attainment of eternal life did he gain the real triumph over death. If then by any means our life here is becoming more and more free from sin, more abundant in holy service, then in the same proportion the hellish glory of' death is dimmed. The physical circumstances of death are not the chief thing to be considered, but what sort of future lies beyond. If it is to be a continuance, improvement, and perfecting of the spiritual life of Christ's people here, then where is the triumph of death? To have been transformed by the renewing of our minds, and to have found our chief occupation and delight in the affairs of the kingdom of heaven, may not indeed take away the terrors of death, but they do effectually destroy its power.

V. The very fact of death being so obnoxious to God SHOULD FILL US WITH HOPE FOR ITS REMOVAL. Is it not a great deal to know that what is peculiarly dreaded by us is peculiarly hateful to him? Is there not a sort of assurance that God's wisdom and power will be steadily directed to the removal of what is so hateful? - Y. We have now to notice the way in which this defilement was removed - by sprinkling over the defiled person running water mingled with the ashes, prepared in a peculiar way, of a slain heifer.

I. THE PREPARATION WAS VERY ELABORATE. It needed great care in its details, and was, therefore, very easily spoiled. There has been much discussion, with little agreement, over the significance of many of the details, the truth being that there is not sufficient information for us to discern reasons which may have been clear enough to those who had to obey the command, though even to them the purpose of many details was doubtless utterly obscure, and even intentionally so. What room is there for faith if we are to know the why and wherefore at every step? One thing is certain, that if any detail had been neglected, the whole symbolic action would have failed. The water would be sprinkled in vain. God would intimate in no doubtful way that the defiled person remained defiled still. So when we turn from the shadow to the substance, from the cleansing of the death-defiled body to that of the death-defiled person to whom the body belonged, we find Christ complying in the strictest manner with the minutest matters of detail; and doing so, this indicated his equal compliance inwardly with every requirement of the law of God considered as having to do with the spirit. Thrice we know did God intimate his satisfaction with his Son, as one who in all things was carrying out his purposes - twice in express terms (Matthew 3:17; Matthew 17:5), and the third time implying the same thing not less significantly (John 12:28). Then also we are called to notice how many prophecies as to matters of detail, such as places, circumstances, &c., had to be fulfilled. As in the preparing of the heifer the commands of God had to be accomplished, so in the preparing of Jesus for his great cleansing work the prophecies of God had to be accomplished.

II. THE DEVOTED ANIMAL WAS IN A TYPICAL SENSE VERY PECULIAR. There is the selection of one kind of animal, one sex in that kind, one colour, all absence of blemish, and complete freedom from the yoke. May we not say that to find all these marks in one animal was indication of some special provision from on high? "It must be a red heifer, because of the rarity of the colour, that it might be the more remarkable. The Jews say, if but two hairs were black or white, it was unlawful." Whether this were so or not. we have in this remarkable typical animal a suggestion of him who in his person, works, claims, and influence is totally unlike any one else who has ever taken part in human affairs. As the heifer was without spot or blemish, so far as human eye could discern, so Jesus was faultless in the presence of God's glory. And just as the combination in the heifer of all that God required was a great help to the people in believing in the cleansing efficacy of the ashes, so we, regarding Jesus in all the peculiarities which center and unite in him, may well apply ourselves with fresh confidence and gratitude to the blood that cleanseth from all sin.

III. THE ASHES WERE RESERVED FOR PERMANENT USE (verse 9). It is of course an exaggeration to say that the ashes of this first heifer served for the cleansings of a thousand years, but doubtless they served a long time, thus sufficiently indicating the cleansing power that flows from him who died once for all. We stand in the succession to many generations who have applied themselves to the one fountain opened for sin and uncleanness. Where the earliest believers stood, submitting the impurity of their hearts to Jesus, we also stand, and the evident result to them, as seen in the record of their experience, may well give joy and assurance to us.

IV. Only, WE MUST MAKE LIKE CLOSENESS AND FIDELITY OF APPLICATION. Consider what was required from these death-defiled ones. For seven days they were unclean, and on the third day as well as the seventh they were to be sprinkled. To prepare the sprinkling agent was no light or easy matter, so that its virtue might be sure. But even when prepared it required repeated applications. Thus to be cleansed from sin requires a searching process, indicated in the New Testament by the baptism of the Holy Ghost and of fire. There must be a discerning of the thoughts and intents of the heart, and a rigorous, uncompromising dealing with them. Let none apply himself to the cleansing which Christ provides unless he is ready for a thorough examination of his nature, a disclosure of many deep-seated abominations, and a tearing away from his life of much that he has cherished and for a time may sadly miss.

V. THERE IS NO CLEANSING EXCEPT IN STRICT OBEDIENCE TO GOD'S APPOINTMENT. The defiled one could not invent a purification of his own, nor could he go on as if defilement were a harmless, evanescent trifle. He might indeed say, "What the worse am I for touching the dead?" judging by his own present feelings and ignorance of consequences. Nor might any immediate obvious difference appear between the defiled and the cleansed; nevertheless, there was a difference which God himself would make very plain and bitter in the event of persevering disobedience. So between the conscious and confessing sinner who, humbly believing, is being washed in the blood of Christ, and the careless, defiant sinner who neglects it as a mere imagination, there may seem little or nothing of difference. But the difference is that between heaven and bell, and God will make it clear in due time. Note the connection of the following passage with the whole chapter: - "If the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?" (Hebrews 9:13, 14). - Y.

The law of Moses was a yoke which neither the fathers of the nation nor their descendants were able to bear. It would be difficult to name any part of the law in regard to which Peter's saying was more applicable than it is to the regulations here laid down regarding defilement by the dead. They must have been not only irksome in a high degree, but trying to some of the purest and most tender of the natural affections.


1. Contact with a dead body rendered the person unclean, and so disabled him from enjoying the privileges of the sanctuary. Many an Israelite would, like Jacob, desire that a beloved son should be with him when he died, to hear his last words and put his hand upon his eyes. Many a Joseph would covet the honour of paying this last tribute of filial affection. Yet the son who closed his father's eyes found himself branded by the law as unclean, so that if it happened to be the passover time, he could not keep the feast. The same unwelcome disability befell any one who, walking in the field, came upon a dead body and did his duty by it as a good citizen. When a company of neighbours assembled to comfort some Martha or Mary whose brother had died, and to bear the mortal remains to the burial-place, this act of neighbourly kindness rendered every one of them unclean. Our Lord, when he entered the chamber of death in Jairus' house, and when he touched the bier at the gate of Nain, thereby took upon himself legal defilement and its consequences. Not only so; if a man happened to touch a grave or a human bone, he contracted defilement, and would have been chargeable with presumptuous sin, as a defiler of the sanctuary, if he had ventured thereafter to set foot within the house of the Lord.

2. The defilement consequent on contact with the dead was defilement of the graver sort. Many forms of defilement only disabled till sunset, and were removed by simply washing the person with water. Defilement by the dead lasted a whole week, and could be removed only by the sprinkling of the water of purification on the third and the seventh days: an irksome rule.

3. Hence all specially devoted persons in Israel were forbidden to pay the last offices of kindness to deceased friends. A priest might not defile himself for any except his nearest blood relations: his father, or mother, or brother, or unmarried sister. As for the high priest, he was forbidden to defile himself even for these. And the same stringent prohibition applied to the Nazarite also.


1. According to some it was simply a sanitary regulation. The suggestion is not to be wholly set aside. So long as this law was in force extramural interment must have been the rule. No city in Israel contained a crowded burial-ground, diffusing pestilence within its walls, nor was any synagogue made a place of interment. Much less did the Israelites ever revert to the Egyptian custom of giving a place within their houses to the embalmed; bodies of deceased friends. In these respects the provisions of the Mosaic law anticipated by 3000 years the teaching of our modern sanitary science. However, this intention of the law was certainly not the principal one.

2. Another view of it is suggested by Hebrews 9:14: "The blood of Christ shall purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God." Dead works are works which have in them no breath of spiritual life. Transgressions of God's law are dead works; so also are "duties" not animated with a loving regard for the glory of God. Such works are dead, and, being dead, defile the conscience, so that it needs to be purified by the blood of Christ.

3. But the chief reason of the law is, without doubt, to be sought in the principle that death is the wages of sin. This principle, taught so plainly in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15, was not unknown to the Old Testament Church. It is taught in the story of the Fall, and is implied in Psalm 90, "the prayer of Moses." The habit of making light of death - as if it were no evil at all, but rather the welcome riddance of the soul from a burdensome and unfit companion - was not learned from the word of God. The Bible teaches us to regard the body as the fitting dwelling-place of the soul, and necessary to the completeness of our nature. That separation of body and soul which takes place in death, it teaches us to regard as penal. Death, accordingly, is the awful effect and memorial of sin, and contact with the dead causes defilement. Blessed be God, the gospel invites us to look on a brighter scene. If the law admonished men that the wages of sin is death, the gospel bears witness that God in Christ offers to us a gift of eternal life. To say this is not to disparage the law. Bright objects show best on a dark ground. The gospel is appreciated rightly by those only who have laid to heart the teachings of the law. Still it is not the dark ground that we are invited to gaze upon so much as the bright object to whose beauty it serves for a foil. The relation between the law we have been considering and the grace of Christ is strikingly seen in the story of the raising of Jairus's daughter, and of the widow's son at Nain. In both instances Christ was careful to touch the dead body; and in both instances the effect immediately wrought proclaimed the intention of the act. From the dead there went out no real defiling influence on the Lord. On the contrary, from him there went forth power to raise the dead. In Christ grace reigns through righteousness unto life; he is the Conqueror of death. - B.

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