Numbers 9
Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
We learn from this narrative certain lessons which may illustrate the relation of the letter to the spirit of Divine precepts on other subjects beside the passover.

I. THE LETTER OF THE LAW WAS STRINGENT. The observance of the feast was binding, even under inconvenient circumstances (verse 5), at fixed times (verse 3), and with prescribed rites (verse 3). No trifling allowed (verse 13). Neglect of any one law may be fatal (James 2:10). Yet this stringent law could be modified. It was flexible, because God was a paternal King, and not a despotic martinet. But God alone could modify the law (verse 8), or condone for its literal non-observance (e.g., 2 Chronicles 30:15-20). Provision was made for disabilities arising from

(1) uncleanness, contracted unavoidably, or in the path of duty (cf. Psalm 103:14); or

(2) absence from home, for such journeys were not prohibited because the passover was near. To meet such cases -

II. THE SPIRIT OF THE LAW WAS BENEFICENT. Neglect was not sanctioned; it never is. Great care needed lest, while claiming liberty to set aside the letter of the law in favour of the spirit, we neglect the spirit also (apply, e.g., to the sanctification of the Lord's day). But God provided a substitute for the literal observance (verses 9-12). Learn -

1. The laws of Christ are not "grievous," but may not be trifled with. A difficulty in the way of observing some law may arise from circumstances, or character. Illustrate, the Lord's Supper. In the early history of some of the Polynesian missions, where no bread or "fruit of the vine" was to be had, the service was not neglected on account of these circumstances, but bread fruit and water, or other beverage, was used. If the hindrance to our observance should arise from any "uncleanness," we need not wait for a lengthened process of purification, but may apply to our cleansing High Priest at once (John 13:1-10).

2. Precepts that are called "positive" must not be neglected because moral precepts are observed. Illustrate from Matthew 5:23, 24 (cf. Matthew 23:23; Deuteronomy 4:2; Psalm 119:128). Christ having redeemed us unto God by his blood, his law extends to every department of our life. - P.

When Jehovah ordered Moses to prepare the Israelites against the visit in which he smote the firstborn, he also said the day was to be kept as a feast through all their generations by an ordinance for ever. And now it was nearly twelve months since the great deliverance by which in haste and pressure Israel departed out of Egypt. The instructions (Exodus 12) are plain enough; but God deemed it needful, as the anniversary time drew near, to give his people a special reminder. Why was it needed?

1. Because much had happened in the interval. At the time, many of the Israelites would say, "Surely we shall never forget this wonderful and terrible night!" But since then there had been the crossing of the Red Sea, and all the impressive dealings of God with his people at Sinai. One event retreats as another comes on. Men march forward into the future, and great events are soon lost to view, even as great mountains are upon a journey.

2. Because the trials of the wilderness made many long for the comforts of Egypt. They soon forgot the hardships of bondage. Less than two months was enough to make them wish they had died in Egypt, by the flesh-pots, where they had bread to the full (Exodus 16). What then of forgetting might not happen in twelve months? Thus, by all the details of the memorial celebration, God would have them bring back to mind distinctly the extraordinary mercy of that night in which they left Egypt.

3. Because an emphatic reminder helped to distinguish the passover from other great events. The smiting of the firstborn was the decisive blow to Pharaoh. It liberated the Israelites from their thraldom. All previous chastisements led up to it, and the wonders of the Red Sea were the inevitable sequence. Above all, there was the great typical import of the passover. Christ our passover is slain for us (1 Corinthians 5:7). What the passover was to the Israelites, the atoning death of Jesus is to us, an event which there is a solemn obligation on us to recollect and commemorate in a peculiar way.

4. Because there was need of preparation and care in the celebration. It was on the fourteenth day of the month at even that it was to be kept. It was in the first month of the second year that the Lord spoke to Moses. Hence we may suppose that he saw no signs of preparation, nothing to indicate that the people were being stirred by the thought of the glorious deliverance. This admonition of the Lord to Moses may be applied to such as, admitting the permanent obligation of the Lord's Supper, yet are negligent and irregular in practicing the obligation. If the passover and the sprinkled blood of the lamb demanded a yearly memorial from Israel, even more does the sprinkled blood of Christ demand a regular commemoration. He seems to have provided for our naturally forgetful ways in saying, "Do this in remembrance of me." - Y.

The law here laid down is supplementary to the law of the passover set forth at large in Exodus 12. The supplement, beside being of some interest in itself, is specially important on account of certain general principles relative to God's worship which come into view in it.

I. THE OCCASION WHICH LED TO THIS SUPPLEMENTARY DIRECTION. From Exodus 12:25 and Exodus 13:5 it may be inferred that the passover was not intended to be statedly observed till the tribes should have received their inheritance in Canaan; and the inference is confirmed by the circumstance that there seems to have been no celebration of the passover during the thirty-eight years between the departure from Sinai and the crossing of the Jordan. For reasons not difficult to understand, the first anniversary of the night of deliverance, since it found the people still encamped at Sinai, was commanded to be observed. Hence the charge verses 1-5. This, since it was, in some sense, the first of all the regular passovers, was ordained to be kept with great solemnity. All the greater was the chagrin felt by certain men of Israel who, on account of a mischance which had befallen them, were disabled from taking part in the general solemnity. A relative or neighbour had died on the eve of the feast. They had not shirked the duty of laying out and burying the dead. Thus they were ceremonially unclean, and might not eat the passover. It seemed hard to be debarred from the joyous rite, especially since no blame attached to themselves in the matter. Was there no remedy? They brought the matter before Moses and Aaron; Moses brought it before the Lord, with the result to be presently described.


1. The person disabled by uncleanness at the full moon of the first month might keep the feast at the full moon of the second. This was not a perfect remedy. The passover was a national solemnity. It was a witness to the religious unity of the tribes. It was designed at once to express and to foster the communion of the whole people in the faith and worship of the God of Abraham. These very attractive aspects of the ordinance failed to come into view when the passover was observed only by a few individuals, and on another than the appointed day. However, there were other and more private aspects of the ordinance to which this did not apply, so that the permission to keep the passover in the second month was a valuable concession.

2. The concession was extended not only to persons defiled by the dead, but to all who might be defiled from any cause beyond their own control For example, if a man happened unavoidably to be on a distant journey on the fourteenth day of the first month, he might keep the passover at the next full moon.

3. The concession was expressly extended to the foreigner as well as to the born Israelite. It ought never to be forgotten that, although the passover was so emphatically a national feast, provision was carefully made, from the first, for the admission of foreigners to it (Exodus 12:48, 49). Let the foreigner accept circumcision, "he and all his," and he is entitled to sit down at the paschal table, as a communicant in the Hebrew Church, just as if he had been born in the land. The Old Testament Church was not a missionary Church. It was not enjoined to preach to the Gentiles and compel them to come in. But if a Gentile desired to come in, he was to be made welcome. The law before us, besides presupposing the right of the proselyte to be admitted, emphatically declares the parity of right which was to be accorded him on his admission.

4. Care was to be taken not to abuse the concession. Liberty is one thing; license is another and very different thing; yet history and daily experience bear witness that the two are apt to be confounded. Many, when they hear liberty proclaimed, think that license is to reign. See how carefully this is guarded against in the present instance. In two ways: -

(1) Willful neglect to observe the passover in its appointed season was still to be deemed presumptuous sift (verse 13) - a warning which the habitual neglecters of the Lord's Supper would do well to lay to heart. We, as evangelical Protestants, believe that participation in the Lord's Supper is not the indispensable means of communion in the body and blood of the Lord; nevertheless, we hold that no man can habitually withdraw himself from the Lord's Supper without sin and loss.

(2) The supplementary passover was not, because supplementary, to be a passover of maimed rites (verses 11, 12). It was to be observed with all the rites ordained for the great festival of the first month. With this law compare the history of Hezekiah's passover in 2 Chronicles 30.

III. THE PRINCIPLE WHICH LIES AT THE BOOT OF THIS LAW is this, namely, that rigid exactness in points of external order ought to be waived when adherence to it would hinder the edification of souls. The same principle was laid down by our Lord in reference to the observance of the day of rest when he said, "The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath." The principle must, of course, be used with discretion. It was dutiful and expedient that the passover should be observed, not by every man when he pleased, but on the anniversary of the exodus, and by the whole congregation at once. Nevertheless, this good rule was not to defraud of the passover those disabled from keeping it on the right day. If this principle was so carefully recognized under the comparatively servile dispensation, much more ought it to prevail under the dispensation of evangelical liberty. Points of external order are not to be despised, especially when they are such as have express warrant of Holy Scripture. The willful contempt of them may amount to presumptuous sin. Nevertheless, the edification of souls must ever be treated as the paramount consideration to which all else must yield. - B.

I. THE DIFFICULTY STATED. Certain men, ceremonially unclean, could not partake of the passover (Numbers 5:1-4). One ceremonial observance, therefore, might clash with another. No one could with certainty be clean at the passover time. Hence we see how all ceremonial is purely subordinate to higher considerations. If one ceremonial obligation could interfere with another, how clear that the claims of justice, mercy, and necessity, rise above ceremony altogether (Matthew 12:1-8; Matthew 15:1-6). The very existence of such a difficulty showed that rites and ceremonies were only for a time. The distinction of clean and unclean is gone now. There is no more uncleanness in the leper, in the mother with her newborn offspring, in the attendant on the dead. We have to guard against a deeper than ceremonial uncleanness. "Let a man examine himself, and so Jet him eat of that bread and drink of that cup" (Matthew 15:18-20; 1 Corinthians 11:28; 2 Corinthians 7:1).

II. HOW THE DIFFICULTY WAS REMOVED. Moses is consulted, and he consults God. The example of Moses in this matter needs our study and imitation. God will leave none of his servants in doubt if they only truly seek to him, and lean not to their own understanding. In God's answer notice -

1. His appreciation of the difficulty. Ceremonial uncleanness was a very serious thing, as being the type of the unclean heart. To keep these men back from the passover was not the act of ecclesiastical martinets, God himself being witness.

2. The duty that cannot be done today may be done tomorrow. We should take care that what has to be deferred is only deferred. Just because the passover was too sacred to be touched by unclean hands, it was too sacred to be passed over altogether.

3. The removal of one difficulty gives an opportunity for removing another. Ceremonial observances were regulated with regard to the claims of ordinary life. "If a man be in a journey afar off." He did not say that every man was bound to be home that day, at whatever cost. God makes allowance for the urgency of a man's private affairs.

4. God's consideration for these real difficulties made the observance all the more important where such difficulties did not exist. God listens to reasons; he will see them, even when they are not expressed; but mere excuses, in which men's lips are so fruitful, he cannot tolerate. If we are prevented from joining' the assembly for worship, or approaching the Lord's table, let us be quite sure that our reason is sound, based in conscience and not in self-will, not a mere pretext for indolence and unspirituality. Where the heart is right towards God, and an obedient spirit towards all his commandments, he will take every difficulty away. - Y.

Judaism, according to the "law given by Moses," was not the exclusive and repulsive system that many have imagined. The gate into Judaism, through circumcision, etc., may seem strait to us; but a thorough separation from the corrupt heathen world was a necessity and a blessing, just as the utter renunciation of Hinduism by breaking caste is now. Laws relating to strangers occupy no inconsiderable place in the legislation of Moses. These laws have a most beneficent aspect, which may suggest lessons regarding our duties as Christians towards aliens, whether of blood or creed. We find precepts recognizing for the strangers -

I. EQUALITY BEFORE THE LAW. This is taught in our text and in several other passages (Exodus 12:49; Leviticus 24:22; Numbers 15:15, 16, 29). This is especially noticeable in regard to the laws of the sabbath (Exodus 20:10; Exodus 23:12; Deuteronomy 5:14), and of the cities of refuge (Numbers 35:15). Hence the Israelites were repeatedly warned against oppressing the stranger (Exodus 22:21; Exodus 23:9), though he might be a hired servant, at the mercy of his employer (Deuteronomy 24:14, 15), or an Egyptian (Deuteronomy 23:7). In administering these laws strict impartiality is demanded of the judges (Deuteronomy 1:16; Deuteronomy 24:17). Such equality is recognized under the laws of Christian England, but needs to be most carefully guarded. E.g., in our treatment of coolies or other coloured people in our colonies, foreign sailors in our ports, etc. Oppression of strangers one great crime before the fail of the Jewish monarchy (Ezekiel 22:7, 29). Ill-treatment of non-Christian races outside its borders one of England's national crimes (Chinese opium traffic; some of our colonial wars, etc.).

II. A CLAIM ON BENEVOLENCE. Strangers were not only guarded from oppression, but commended to the love of the Israelites. -See precepts in Leviticus 19:33, 34; Deuteronomy 10:18, 19; Leviticus 25:35, blossoming into the beautiful flower, "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself," which our Lord plucks from its hiding-place in Leviticus and exhibits and enforces on the whole world. Hence follow the precepts requiring that gleanings be left for the strangers (Leviticus 19:10; Leviticus 23:22), and that they should be allowed to share "in every good thing" God bestowed on Israel (Deuteronomy 14:29; Deuteronomy 16:11, 14; Deuteronomy 26:11). God be praised for all the philanthropic agencies of England on behalf of foreigners. Let us see that our personal beneficence is not limited by race or creed (Isaiah 58:6-11, etc.).

III. INVITATIONS TO NATIONAL AND PERSONAL BLESSINGS, Gentiles were welcomed to all privileges of Judaism through conformity to its laws. They could enter into the covenant (Deuteronomy 29:10-13), offer sacrifices (Leviticus 22:18), and keep the passover (Exodus 12:43-49; Numbers 9:14). And it was required that they be instructed in the law of God (Deuteronomy 31:10-13, read in the light of Joshua 8:33-35). Having all these privileges, they were liable to the same punishments as the Israelites (Leviticus 17:8, 12, 15; Leviticus 24:16, etc.). We need not wonder that the adhesion and conversion of strangers was anticipated (1 Kings 8:41-43; Isaiah 56:3, etc.). Apply to the missionary work of the Church, which can speak to strangers of "a better covenant," "Christ our passover," "grace and truth by Jesus Christ." - P.

This pillar served more purposes than one; but without doubt the purpose noted here by Moses himself was that principally intended. It was the signal by which the Lord guided the march of the tribes (Nehemiah 9:12, 19; Psalm 78:14). Some such signal was absolutely necessary. To direct the march of a nation through the wilderness was no easy matter. When Alexander the Great led his army across the wide levels of Babylonia he caused a grating filled with a blazing fire to be borne aloft on a long pole, that its smoke might guide the march by day, and its fire by night. A similar device is constantly made use of by the caravans which make the pilgrimage to Mecca. The march of the tribes from Egypt had the Lord himself for its Guide, and the cloud of his presence showed the way. No feature of the long march has more deeply impressed itself on the imagination of the Church than this guiding pillar. It has been instinctively accepted as a sign in which we too may claim an interest. For are not we also, as truly as the Church in the wilderness, making the journey from the land of bondage to the promised rest? Is not our life a wilderness journey; a march along a path we never trod before? The forty years' wanderings being thus a parable of our life on earth, may we not warrantably see in the pillar of the cloud a token of certain happy conditions of the journey which it is the business of faith to apprehend?

I. Observe that the children of Israel had THEIR ROUTE DETERMINED FOR THEM. It was the hand of God which chalked out the strangely circuitous line of their march; which measured the several stages; which fixed upon the halting-places; and determined the length of the stay at each. "At the commandment of the Lord they rested, and at the commandment of the Lord they journeyed." No doubt there still remained large scope for the exercise of judgment on the part of leaders so familiar with the desert as Moses and Hobab. There were a thousand details to care for. But the general fact remains, and is noted with extreme care in the history, that - so far as regards the line of march and the successive stages - the ordering of the journey from first to last was by the Lord. It would not be difficult to prove that our route also is determined for us. God has determined our appointed times, and the bounds of our habitation (Acts 17:26). The mapping out of our lives is his doing. This, I say, is capable of proof. Yet I should imagine that, to such as have been reasonably careful to observe their own course, no formal array of evidence will be needed. They know how often their own plans and those of friends have been upset, and the whole circumstances of their lives arranged quite otherwise than they ever contemplated, and yet with a most wise and considerate regard for their good. What then?

(1) Do not forget to give God the glory. Acknowledge his overruling hand (Psalm 107:43). Many forget to do this; and accordingly they learn nothing of his mind, even when his providence speaks most plainly. A thing dishonouring to God and entailing great less to them.

(2) Thankfully commit your way to him for the time to come.

II. The Lord not only determined the route of the tribes but gave them A VISIBLE SIGN of his guidance. Here, it may be supposed, the parallel fails, and we must resign ourselves to a more uncertain and precarious guidance than the tribes enjoyed. But it is not so. For the guiding pillar in the wilderness was meant for the comfort of the Church in all times. Remember the principle laid down by the apostle in 1 Corinthians 10:11. The moving cloud was an "ensample" or type which did not cease to speak when it disappeared from view as the tribes entered the land. To faith it continues still to attest the Lord's presence and guiding wisdom. The Divine guidance was not more patent in the desert to the sight of the tribes than it is this day to the faith of the Church. "Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me." Patent to faith! That saying lays bare the difficulty of which we complain. A visible guide - every one can appreciate that. An invisible guide, discerned only by the mind, or rather by faith alone - that is too shadowy, intangible, precarious. So men are apt to judge. But without reason. Arduous our faith certainly is. But precarious, barren, impotent to sustain and comfort, it certainly is not. God's presence visible to the eye availed to guide and cheer the tribes in the wilderness; but God's presence seen by faith has availed much more to guide and cheer the Church of Christ these nineteen centuries. To walk by faith is the achievement of the Church's maturity. To walk by sight belonged to the Church's childhood. And we can trace all through the Scripture a gradual weaning of the Church from the one, and a gradual training of it to the other. In the wilderness the Church's weakness was comforted with the pillar of cloud and fire towering high in the sight of the whole camp: during the time of the first temple the cloud was seen only within the holy place: during the period of the second temple it was quite withdrawn. Yet Ezra and his company made the journey as safely as Moses and the tribes; and the glory of the latter house was greater than of the former. "He hath said, I will never leave thee; so that we may boldly say, I will not fear." - B.

There is a fuller account of the rearing of the tabernacle and the descent of the cloud upon it in Exodus 40. Note -

I. THE CONNECTION OF THIS CLOUD WITH PAST EXPERIENCES. It is spoken of as "the cloud" - something, therefore, already known. It was known as associated with the glorious doings of Jehovah in the midst of the people. A remembrancer of the perilous march, with the Red Sea before and the Egyptians behind, when he who made his presence known by the pillar of cloud so gloriously delivered his people and overwhelmed their enemies (Exodus 14:19). A remembrancer of the provided manna, when, after God had promised it, the people looked toward the wilderness, and behold, the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud (Exodus 16:10). A remembrancer, again, of the solemn waiting upon Jehovah's will at Sinai (Exodus 19:9; Exodus 24:15-18). Compare with these experiences under the law the great and abiding experience under the gospel. "The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father) full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). He who afterwards tabernacled in the flesh, made his glory to rest on the tabernacle in the wilderness. When Jesus came, God showed his favour resting not only on the Israelites, but on all mankind.

II. THE CONNECTION OF THIS CLOUD WITH OBEYED COMMANDMENTS. The cloud that had hitherto rested on Sinai now came down on the tabernacle. This showed Jehovah's approval of the tabernacle. All had been fashioned according to the pattern in the mount. The tabernacle and the holy place, themselves made of perishable materials, were nevertheless typically perfect. They were not inspired by the invention of men, but by the revelation of God. God will give indubitable signs of approval when we are doing things according to his will. This tabernacle and its contents were the types of the truths, duties, and privileges of the gospel, and only as we receive the truths, practice the duties, and employ the privileges, shall we have the glory of God resting upon us. Until that time we come short of the glory of God. We may talk as we like about the glorious achievements of human thought, making our little clouds and fires about the earth, and calling them immortal and imperishable, but God will approve no man until his life is ordered in all things by the requirements of the gospel.

III. THE CLOUD SO APPEARING WAS A PROOF OF GOD'S FAVOUR, VISIBLE TO ALL AND APPRECIABLE BY THEM. All Israel could see the tabernacle and the cloud. God had told his people they were not to make any graven image, or likeness of any created thing, but they found the first and second commandments very hard to obey. They hankered after something they could see. The idolatries of Egypt had infected them, and even within sight of Sinai they made a golden calf, for which gross transgression the Lord terribly plagued them. Nevertheless, though there is no material or shape on earth fit to indicate Jehovah, he will minister to human weakness, remembering that we are dust, and he gives the glory-cloud for all to see. What a help to faith! What a warning to unbelief! What mercy amid severity! So God, whom no man hath seen or can see, becomes God manifest in the flesh. He who has seen the Son has seen the Father.

IV. THE CLOUD SO APPEARING, VARIED IN ITS APPEARANCE, ACCORDING TO HUMAN NECESSITY. There was a cloud by day, and the appearance of fire by night. We need not suppose any change in the cloud itself as day slipped into night, and night back again into day. As darkness fell upon the scene the fiery element in the cloud became more noticeable and valuable. So there is encouragement for wandering and bewildered souls. The darker life becomes, and the more perplexing our path, the more manifest becomes the presence of God. During the days of a man's content with natural possessions and resources, when the sunshine of nature is falling on his life, then the cloud of God's providence appears, but let the night of spiritual distress, the great difficulties of sin, and death, and eternity darken the soul, then the bright, conspicuous fires of grace at once appear.

V. THE CLOUD BY ITS MOVEMENTS BECAME AN INFALLIBLE GUIDE. Thus Jehovah showed that he, the invisible one, was the leader of the people. The resting and the moving cloud meant the resting and the moving people. It was ever with them to point the way. God's goodness does not pass away as the morning cloud and the early dew. The cloud said plainly, "Follow me." So Jesus says, "Follow me," reiterating, emphasizing, and illustrating the command. If we are ever to reach the rest that remaineth for the people of God, it must be by acting towards Jesus as the Israelites did towards the cloud in the wilderness (Deuteronomy 32:10-12; 2 Chronicles 5:13; Psalm 43:3; Isaiah 4:5; Isaiah 49:10). - Y.

God's presence with Israel was perpetual (Exodus 3:12; Exodus 13:17-18). The sign of it in the cloud was given as soon, and was continued as long, as it was needed (Exodus 13:21, 22; Exodus 40:38). God's active, providential presence was -


II. A GROUND OF FAITH; and therefore,


I. The cloud

(1) led them the safest way (Exodus 13:17).

(2) Ensured protection from foes when near at hand (Exodus 14:19, 20, 24).

(3) Gave light on the camp in moonless nights (Nehemiah 9:19).

(4) Was a pledge of safety to sinners, as it rested on the mercy-seat (Leviticus 16:2). This visible cloud a symbol of protection by an invisible God (Isaiah 4:5). Illustrations, bird and young (Ruth 2:12; Psalm 17:8; Psalm 91:4). Father carrying his child by day (Deuteronomy 1:31), and watching by him at night (Psalm 121). There is safety for sinners not away from God but in God (Psalm 143:2, 9).

II. God showed himself in the cloud for the very purpose of guiding. He took the responsibility out of the hands of the people and Moses that they might have the privilege of trusting (Exodus 33:9-17; Deuteronomy 1:33). Such a guiding presence we may enjoy by the aid of God's written counsels, providential acts, and inward monitions (Psalm 25:4, 5, 9, 14). See how these three are combined in the narrative (Acts 8:26-35).

III. Verse 23 is very emphatic. They obeyed even if at times the journey was very arduous (Numbers 21:4), or the halt very tedious (verse 22), or the start was sudden, as when a midnight alarm of the trumpets was a sign that the cloud had begun to move (verse 21). Hence we learn

(1) not to take for granted that any place is our rest (Job 29:18; Micah 2:10).

(2) To be willing to go to the wilderness with God, rather than to stay in the choicest paradise without God.

(3) To be willing to endure, at God's bidding, protracted toil or enforced inactivity.

(4) To be ready at any time to strike our tent and go home. Thus waiting on God and waiting for God, we arc safely led, and have the rest of trustful obedience (Psalm 5:11, 12; Psalm 48:14; Psalm 84:11, 12). - P.

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