Numbers 3
Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
Numbers 3
The third and fourth chapters of Numbers form a section by themselves, and of this section the opening verse is the descriptive title: THE GENERATIONS OF AARON AND MOSES. According to the idiom of the Bible, this means that the two chapters which follow constitute the Book of the Families of Levi (compare the titles of the several sections of Genesis, viz., Numbers 2:4; Numbers 5:1; Numbers 6:9; Numbers 10:1; Numbers 11:27, etc.; also Matthew 1:1). The design of the book is to note the principal divisions of the tribe and allot to each its place and duties. Observe how the names of Aaron and Moses stand where we should have expected to find Levi's. The patriarch's fame has been quite eclipsed by that of his illustrious descendants, insomuch that here the tribe takes its title from them rather than from him. The book of the Levites is entitled the Book of Aaron and Moses.

I. IN THIS FAMILY BOOK THE PRE-EMINENCE IS GIVEN TO AARON. The name of Moses is inscribed in the title, but his family is otherwise of no note. The noble self-denial of Moses in this matter has been much commended, and with reason. He was superior to the ambition which seeks to build up a family at whatever cost to the nation. There is some reason to think that his sons were unworthy. Their mother was a Midianite, and seems to have had little sympathy with her husband's faith. It was otherwise with Aaron. His wife was a daughter of Amminadab, the prince of Judah and ancestor of our Lord (Exodus 6:23). Her name was Elisheba ("a worshipper of God"); and as the name became a favourite one among the daughters of the priestly house (Luke 1:5), it may be presumed that she was worthy of the name, the first of all the saintly Elisabeths. The sons of Aaron and Elisabeth, being the heirs of the priesthood, took precedence of the other families of Levi, and occupied the place of honour in the camp. They, with Moses, pitched their tents in front of the tabernacle, towards the east (verse 38). Note in passing how, at this early date, the two families which were to be pre-eminent for fifteen hundred years in respect of force of character, variety of services, and public honours are already marked out by the hand of God. On the march the prince of Judah leads the van (Numbers 1:7; Numbers 2:3, 9); in the encampment Aaron and his sons occupy the place of honour. In the family book of Levi the sons of Aaron and Elisabeth take precedence of all their brethren. Yet not so as to give any foothold in Israel to that sacerdotal pride which made the Brahmins of India and the priests of Egypt a sacred caste, and taught the people to bow before them as demigods. If Aaron and Elisabeth ever read this family register, their hearts did not swell with pride. The first sentences recall the tragedy of their house. Aaron's two eldest sons, with the oil of their consecration yet fresh upon them, sinned presumptuously, were smitten, and their names perished from Israel. Not even in the house of the godliest pair is grace hereditary. Aaron, the saint of God, and his saintly Elisabeth mourn over sons whom God has cut off in their sin. God will endure no rival in his house. His most honoured servants must be content to be only his servants, and the servants of all men for his sake. The Bible tolerates no hero worship. It tells the truth about the best of men, lovingly indeed, but without extenuation. In our family registers we are not bound by the same rule. We do not occupy the throne of judgment, and may bury domestic tragedies out of sight. But God is Judge, and his book, as it cannot err in its judgments, must speak without reserve, although the effect should be to "stain the pride of all glory" (Isaiah 23:9).

II. THE GREATER PART OF THIS FAMILY BOOK IS OCCUPIED WITH THE CENSUS OF THE LEVITICAL CLANS AND THE ALLOTMENT TO EACH OF ITS PLACE AND DUTIES. The particulars falling under this head do not call for special notice here. They concur with those related in the earlier chapters of this book in showing that the march of the tribes was performed with the most perfect order. Never was any great multitude more unlike a mob than the congregation in the wilderness. Moses in Egypt bad shown himself a man "mighty in deeds" (Acts 7:22). The tradition which makes him to have led victorious armies in his youth is probably true. Certainly the order laid down in Numbers for the march and the camp, for the nation in general and for the Levites in particular, shows everywhere the hand of the general accustomed to handle great bodies of men. - Care is taken to put on record the reason for the separation of the Levites to the service of the tabernacle. By primitive custom a certain sanctity was attributed to the first-born. The act of God in passing over the first-born of Israel in Egypt established an additional claim upon the first-born thenceforward (cf. Exodus 13, also Numbers 22:29, etc.). To have required the personal service of the eldest son of every house would have been inconvenient. Better let the tribe of Levi be substituted, and let them minister to Aaron their brother; an arrangement facilitated by the circumstance that the Levites were nearly the same in number as the first-born. (The equation is not without its difficulties. But there is great doubt as to who exactly were meant by the "first-born." Till that is settled it is too soon to charge the narrative with error.) It was needful to state very distinctly the reason for the separation of a whole tribe to sacred service. The tribe thus separated had to be supported by their brethren, besides being disabled for doing their share of military and other public service. The Israelites would be unlike the rest of mankind if they did not, by and by, grudge such a great expenditure. They are to be reminded that the separation of the Levites was in liquidation of a prior claim, and took place by way of accommodation to their convenience. When money or service is asked for religious or charitable objects there are sure to be grumblers, and it is very expedient to fortify the demand with a clear statement of the reasons. - B.

Nehemiah 3

I. THAT THE CHURCH IS ENGAGED IN REPAIRING MORAL RUIN. "And next unto them repaired Meremoth" (ver. 4). Jerusalem was once a strong and beautiful city; now it is in ruins. Society has not always been a ruin. Man has not always been a wreck.

1. The desolation was extensive. The entire city was waste; not a wall or gate remained intact. And man's entire intellectual and moral nature is laid waste by sin; he has no unfallen faculty.

2. The desolation was varied. The sheep gate, the doors, the beams, the locks had all been destroyed; and so all the manifold capabilities of man have been injured by sin.

3. The desolation was pitiable. It was sad to see Jerusalem in ruins; but much more so to see the ruin of the human soul.

4. The desolation was visible. Travellers saw the ruined city; the fallen condition of man is evident to all.


1. There must be good official leadership. "Then Eliashib the high priest rose up" (ver. 1).

2. There must be a wise use of individual talent. "Goldsmiths," "apothecaries" (ver. 8).

3. There must be pursued a common purpose through a variety of tasks.

4. There must be a recognition of the power of the domestic affections (ver. 29).

5. There must be a strict attention to the minute detail of the work. "And set up the doors thereof, and the locks thereof, and the bars thereof" (ver. 6).

6. There are always those in the Church who refuse to aid in its enterprise. - E.

Nehemiah 3
Under Nehemiah's direction, and inspired with his own earnestness, the children of Israel gave themselves to the good work of encircling the city of God with walls. The account of their building in this chapter reminds us -

I. THAT ALL WORK WE DO FOR GOD IS CONSIDERED IMPORTANT AND IS RECORDED BY HIM. We should hardly have expected, judging antecedently, that all these names would have appeared in the sacred Scriptures with the posts assigned them. We should have thought that the space thus taken would have been better occupied with more of the miracles or parables of our Lord, or of the acts of the apostles. The fact that these names are inserted in this book, which is to go over all the world and down all the ages, is evidence that God counts of importance all work done for him, and that he records it. Other books of remembrance he has (Malachi 3:16. Cf. Psalm 40:7; Psalm 56:8; Psalm 139:16; Revelation 20:12) in which the endurances and the actions of his people are written. All is recorded there - the work in building the city wall, the offering the cup of cold water, the kind word of encouragement or sympathy. Our record is on high. The notable and famous deeds of wickedness will be forgotten when humblest actions of devout usefulness are immortalised in one or other of the books of God.

II. THAT IF DONE RAPIDLY, GOD'S WORK SHOULD BE DONE REGULARLY AND DISCERNINGLY. They proceeded with all speed, losing no time, but everything was done in order. There was no hurry. Every man had his proper post, and took it without interrupting his neighbour. The priests "builded the sheep gate" (ver. 1). "Next came the men of Jericho" (ver. 2);... "but the fish gate did the sons of Hassenaah build" (ver. 3), etc. Certain priests and other individual workmen had assigned to them the wall "over against their house" (vers. 10, 23, 28-30), where they would least interfere with others, and in which they would naturally take the greatest interest. So also the Levites had for their share the part nearest the temple (ver. 17), where they would work with the greatest zeal.

III. THAT IT SHOULD BE DONE RELIGIOUSLY. It is only too possible and too common to do religious work in an unreligious, if not positively irreligious, spirit - mechanically and thoughtlessly, if not sullenly and selfishly. Three things in this record point to religious earnestness.

(a) The ministers of God took the lead. "The high priest rose up with his brethren the priests" (ver. 1). When the leaders of religion take the front posts of danger, difficulty, and toil, there is a guarantee of some spiritual zest in the work.

(b) They stopped to dedicate the work they had done. "They sanctified it" (ver. 1).

(c) Of one of them we read, that "Baruch earnestly repaired," etc. He was conspicuous for the zest with which he laboured, outstripping and inciting the others. Workmen in the vineyard of Christ should often remind themselves why it is they labour, what it is they aim to do, for whom they are employed.


(1) priests (vers. 1, 22),

(2) Levites (ver. 17),

(3) Nethinims (ver. 26),

(4) outsiders (vers. 2, 5, 7),

(5) rulers (vers. 16, 17, 19),

(6) tradesmen (vers. 31, 32),

(7) women - "he and his daughters" (ver. 12).

All can lend service; what one cannot do another may. No sincere helper is to be despised. In crises, especially such as this, when great things depend on the success of a few days' labour, all distinctions should be laid aside. By those who have the kingdom of Christ at heart they will be laid aside, and all will join hands, not only consentingly, but enthusiastically.

V. THAT NEGLIGENCE IS NOTED AND RECORDED BY THE DIVINE MASTER. "Their nobles (of Tekoah) put not their necks to the work of their Lord." Whether it was from indolence or pride, whether they were unwilling to task themselves with unusual labour, or whether they shrank from associating with their social inferiors, we cannot tell. We know, however, that both indolence and pride do keep many from the work of the Lord, and we know that such refusal of help is both unwise and guilty. It is to withhold the hand from that which is worthiest and most enduring; it is to stand outside the blessing of those whom God most honours. It is to invite the curse of Meroz (Judges 5:23), the condemnation of the Son of man at the day of judgment (Matthew 5:45). - C.

There are various kinds of fire used in the service of God which, if not as hateful in his sight as that offered by Nadab and Abihu, are "strange." There is a fire which is appropriate and acceptable, because kindled by God; all others are "strange fire, which he commanded not" (Leviticus 10:1). E.g. -

I. ILLEGITIMATE ZEAL, as seen in every kind of persecution (see Luke 9:51-56). Yet a writer on the origin of the Inquisition quotes the passage in justification of the burning of heretics: "Lo! fire the punishment of heretics, for the Samaritans were the heretics of those times" (Prescott's 'Ferdinand and Isabella,' 1:319, n.). See Galatians 4:18. But let the zeal run in the path marked out for it by Christ towards enemies (Matthew 5:44), backsliders (Galatians 6:1), or heretics (James 5:19, 20).

II. UNAUTHORISED SERVICES; whether offered by unauthorized persons, as Korah, who yet had the true fire (chapter 16:17, 18), or Saul (1 Samuel 13:9-14), or Uzziah (2 Chronicles 26.); or by God's servants, but in ways alien to his mind (Illus., Uzzah, 1 Chronicles 13:9, 10; 1 Chronicles 15:13). Such are the "voluntary humility" and "neglecting of the body" condemned in Colossians 2:18-23, and all similar austerities. The fire God approves must be presented by accepted worshippers in an appointed way.

III. SUPERSTITIOUS DEVOTIONS. These may be presented through Christ "the way," and yet marred by ignorant fears of God, or unworthy fancies, or errors intertwined with God's truth in the many ways known to ancient or modern superstition (1 John 4:18; 1 John 5:13-15).

IV. ARTIFICIAL EMOTION. We need never dread the emotion caused by God's own truth, used in legitimate ways. Truth is like solid fuel that ought to keep up a glowing heat, whether of alarm (Acts 2:37; Acts 24:25) or of joy (Acts 2:41). But emotion excited apart from the communication of appropriate truth may be disastrous; or at best like a blaze of straw, soon leaving only blackness and ashes. All such "strange fire" tends to the injury, or even the destruction, of the offerers (John 4:24). To worship God in truth we must ourselves be "accepted in the beloved," enlightened by the Holy Spirit, and must present spiritual sacrifices kindled by his own celestial fire of love. - P.

And Nadab and Abihu died before the Lord, &c.

I. WHO THEY WERE THAT COMMITTED THIS SIN. Sons of Aaron; elder sons: in whom, therefore, a greater sense of thoughtfulness and responsibility might have been expected. They had also been duly anointed and consecrated. They could hardly plead ignorance and inexperience in the things of God. They had nothing else to do than attend to the tabernacle. They knew, or ought to have considered, that Jehovah had laid down instructions, even to the minutest points, as to what the priests were to do. It is a warning then to all who stand among peculiar privileges and enjoy greater light, e.g., those who live in a household where there is piety at the head, arid a continual regard in all things for the will of God (Matthew 11:20-24).

II. THE SIN THEY COMMITTED. They offered strange fire before the Lord. The fire to be used was the holy fire ever burning upon the altar (Leviticus 6:13). To offer incense was to symbolize thanksgiving and supplication, and this, of all things, requires to be done in most careful conformity with Divine appointments. All offerings to God, to be worth anything, must be voluntary; yet even a voluntary offering may be an abomination before him when it is a random and reckless exercise of our own freedom. The highest of human actions is to do God's will with all our will, as seeing clearly that it is the right thing to do.

III. The TERRIBLE CONSEQUENCE. It was truly a mortal sin, a sin which on the very commission of it was followed by death, like the taking of some swift-working poison. It was as dangerous for a careless priest to take up the tabernacle services as for a man to take naked lights about a powder magazine. The fire of the Lord was a hidden thing, yet in a moment its full energy might be revealed, either to bless or destroy (cf. Leviticus 9:24 with Leviticus 10:2). But though the sin was a mortal sin, it was not in itself worse than other offences against which sentence is not executed speedily. All sin is mortal, though the deadly result be spread over long periods. This sin was punished promptly and terribly, as were some other sins in Israel, not because they were worse, but because the people, and particularly the Levites, needed a lesson in the most impressive way in which it could be given. The fire of the Lord went out against the priests here, but soon after it went out against the people (Numbers 11:1). "Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish." Lessons: - A worthy office may have an unworthy occupant. There are a Nadab and Abihu here; there were a Hophni and Phinehas afterwards, and a Judas among the apostles. Anointing, consecration, imposition of hands may have official value, but God only can give the faculty of true inward service. We may bring strange fire before God when we bring zeal not according to knowledge. There may be great fire and intensity and activity with nothing of the baptism of the Holy Ghost and of fire. Consider the lamentations of Paul over his persecuting days. There is here another instance of the letter killing. In the Old Testament punishment predominated over reward, because disobedience predominated over obedience. - Y.

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