Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
I. THE CHURCH IS AN ARMY. The enumeration at Sinai was not an ordinary census. It took note only of such as were fit to bear arms. These opening chapters of Numbers are a muster-roll. The Church in this world is the Church militant. Christ is a Man of war (Psalm 45:3-5). Every true follower of Christ is called to be a soldier, and to fight a good fight. There is no place in Christ's host either for neutrals or non-combatants (Matthew 12:30).
II. THE CHURCH IS AN ARMY ON THE MARCH.
1. Not settled in permanent quarters. The wilderness was not a place to build cities in or to plant vineyards. As little is the world a continuing city to Christ's saints. Compare "this tabernacle," 2 Corinthians 5:1; 2 Peter 1:14. We are passing travelers here.
2. Marching to an appointed place. In some sense all men - believers and unbelievers alike - are on the march. Compare the Anglo-Saxon prince's comparison of human life to the flight of the bird out of the dark night, through the lighted hall, and out by the opposite door into the darkness again. God's people are not only passers-by, but "strangers" here, who have in view a country beyond. Their back is toward Egypt, their face toward Canaan, and they are on the move from the one to the other.
"We nightly pitch our moving tent
III. THE CHURCH IS AN ARMY WITH BANNERS. Not a mob, but a marshaled host. Observe the order prescribed in this chapter for the encampment and for the march. This idea of the Church has often been abused to the support of ecclesiastical systems for which there is no warrant in the New Testament. The sort of organized unity proper to the Hebrew Church cannot be transferred to the Church Catholic. Still the idea is true and valuable. God is a God of order, and not of confusion. We believe in the communion of saints. Christians are not to fight every one for his own hand, or march every one by himself. It is a good and pleasant thing for brethren to come together and keep together.
IV. THE CHURCH IS AN ARMY OF WHICH GOD KEEPS A PERFECT ROLL. A good general would like to know, and Christ does know, every one of his men by name, and they are written in his book. When a soul is born again - born in Zion - the Lord registers the fact (Psalm 87:6); and lye continually remembers the person's name. "I am poor and needy, yet the Lord thinketh upon me."
V. THE CHURCH IS AN ARMY WHICH HAS THE LORD FOR ITS EVER-PRESENT LEADER AND COMMANDER. The ark of the covenant led the van on the march, and rested in the midst of the congregation when it encamped. "Go ye into all the world;... and, lo, I am with you alway." - B.
I. AS THE SOURCE OF ORDER. Israel formed an armed encampment, not a mob. The place of each tribe was assigned by God, and thus was not a matter of caprice or partiality on the part of Moses (verse Numbers 2:34). They were grouped according to their tribes and families. A post in the rearguard was as honourable as one in the van, because a matter of Divine appointment. Yet all "afar off," as a sign of the reverence due to their God. Apply this truth to the tribes, i.e., the visible Churches and denominations of the Israel of God. This may be illustrated from apostolic days, or from modern Church history. Each has a position, historical, geographical, social, assigned by the providence of God. Each tribe had some peculiarities (cf. Genesis 49), as each section of the Church has. And as there were, no doubt, reasons for the position allotted to every family, so the God of "order" and "peace" (1 Corinthians 14) designed that every Church should fill its appointed place ("by its own standard," etc.), and, as part of the militant host, stand in orderly relations to himself and to the brotherhood. The same truth extends to individuals, the bounds of their habitation and the sphere of their service having been fixed by God.
II. AS A CENTER OF ATTRACTION. The doors of the tents probably faced the tabernacle. It was a center of attraction -
1. For guidance, through the high priest, and Moses, and the symbolic cloud (cf. Psalm 25:4, 5, 9, 15).
III. AS A PLEDGE OF SAFETY, both when encamped (verse 2) or on the march (verse Numbers 2:17). So "God is in the midst" "of the tabernacles of the Most High," the homes of his people (cf. Deuteronomy 4:7, and Romans 8:31). He is in our midst as "a lion" to terrify our foes (Hosea 11:10; see Acts 5:17-42), as a fire to enlighten and to protect (Isaiah 4:5), as "a man of war" to fight for us (Isaiah 49:25, 26; Numbers 23:21). This presence of God in our midst should inspire
(1) confidence (Deuteronomy 33:29),
(2) reverence (Psalm 89:7),
Numbers 2size of God's army, so the second discovers the discipline of it. Number is nothing without order and discipline. A handful of cavalry can scatter a mob. Discipline also prevents rivalries. If those about our Lord, in spite of all his teaching, asked, "Who shall be greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" then we may be sure there were many ambitious souls asking in the wilderness, "Who shall be greatest in Israel?" The discipline set before us in this chapter was particularly related to the tabernacle. In this connection the discipline may be regarded as intended to secure three things.
I. REVERENCE FOR THE SANCTUARY. They were to pitch the camp far off about the tabernacle. There was plenty of a superstitious and idolatrous spirit among the Israelites, but the reverence was wanting that comes from intelligent appreciation. But for a special injunction to the contrary, they would very likely have crowded round the tabernacle, as feeling nothing peculiar about the ark. This lesson of reverence had to be sharply taught again and again, e.g., to the Philistines and the men of Bethshemesh (1 Samuel 5 and 6), and to Uzzah (2 Samuel 6). The fear of God is not only the beginning of wisdom, but also of security and spiritual conquests. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. The Israelites carried about with them something as awful as the mount that burned with fire. So in the Church of Christ there should be a deep habitual reverence for the Almighty. The death of Ananias and Sapphira is a lesson for all ages as to the danger of forgetting that God is strict to mark iniquity. Confidence is necessary, but in our boldest approaches there must be the deepest humility. If we waged our spiritual warfare with real reverence for the great Trinity above, there would be more success.
II. DEFENSE OF THE SANCTUARY. It was in the midst, alike in resting and in marching. Travelers in savage countries circle themselves with fire at night, to keep off the wild beasts. So the circling tribes were to be a defense to the tabernacle. The company of Judah marched in front, and Dan brought up the rear. Judah went from honour to honour among the tribes, until the honour culminated in the inn at Bethlehem. Reuben, though the eldest, was not put first. "Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel." He could do something, leaning on Judah; not last, yet not competent to be first. But exactly all the reasons why the tribes were arranged thus, and not otherwise, we cannot tell. Jehovah had the sovereign disposal of the matter; not therefore arbitrary, or without cause. A commander does not give reasons for his strategy, though some of them may be afterwards discoverable. God has given his people to defend the sanctuary still, to contend earnestly for the faith once for all delivered to the saints; against the paganism of the old world, and all sorts of corruption in Christendom itself; against the pride of science transgressing its borders. We have to fight for an open Bible, free to every one caring to read it; a full Bible, its truths not minimized or attenuated to suit the fancies of men; a pure Bible, interpreted in its own light, and not confused with the distortions of later traditions. The Scriptures are our tabernacle, and we must defend them as something solemnly put in our charge.
III. PROTECTION FROM THE SANCTUARY. That which we defend protects us. Peter, before the Council, asserted and acted his right to preach the gospel. "We must obey God rather than men." Defending what was committed to his charge, he also was defended when God delivered him from Herod's prison. The unfaithful are the insecure. When we are searching the Bible to defend it against the attacks of its enemies, we are multiplying comforts and defenses for our own souls. How many looking for arguments have also found balm and security! The Lord would have Israel to understand that it was not because they were 600,000, but because he was their Leader, they were strong. Let our protection come from God. Protections of human device are like the experiments in modern naval construction. A defense may be announced perfect, but some new weapon will make it worthless. The shield of faith alone will quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one, Compare 1 Corinthians 14 with this chapter, as showing the need both for order and discipline. - Y.