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Bible Commentaries

Arno Gaebelein's Annotated Bible

Numbers 3

Verses 1-51

3. The Levites and their Ministrations

CHAPTER 3

1. The generations of the priests (Numbers 3:1-4)

2. The tribe of Levi and their ministry (Numbers 3:5-10)

3. The Levites substituted for all the first-born (Numbers 3:11-13)

4. The numbering of the Levites ordered (Numbers 3:14-20)

5. Gershon (Numbers 3:21-26)

6. Kohath (Numbers 3:27-32)

7. Merari (Numbers 3:33-37)

8. Moses, Aaron and Aaron’s sons (Numbers 3:38)

9. The numbering completed (Numbers 3:39)

10. The separation of the Levites in place of the first-born (Numbers 3:40-51)

The supremacy of the tribe of Levi shows the sovereignty of God. Divine grace is fully revealed in the selection of this tribe. This tribe could not be chosen on account of a meritorious character. We read in Jacob’s prophecy words concerning Simeon and Levi which reveal their sin. “O my soul, come thou not in their secret; unto their assembly, mine honor, be not thou united, for in their anger they slew a man, and in their self-will they digged down a wall. Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce; and their wrath, for it was cruel: I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel” (Genesis 49:6-7). Yet out of this tribe Jehovah took Moses for the leader of His people, Aaron and his sons for priests, and the whole tribe instead of all the first-born for the special ministry. This is a most blessed illustration of sovereign grace. They were brought into this wonderful place of blessing and privilege by grace. In the eighth chapter we read of the cleansing of the Levites (8:5-7).

The difference between the ministry of the priests and the Levites must be noted. The book of Leviticus acquainted us with the work of Aaron and his sons, but it had nothing to say about the ministry entrusted to the Levites. The priests had given to them the ministry of the sanctuary, where they acted as worshippers and intercessors. The work of the Levites as given in this chapter, and that which follows, was of a more outward nature. They had to guard the tabernacle, to attend to its erection and taking down, to bear the different parts, all of which was ordered in all its details by Jehovah.

Levi means “joined.” The grace of God had joined them to the Lord and His ministry. Christian believers are joined to the Lord and are both priests and Levites, possessing priesthood and ministry. Our priesthood consists in the ministry of the sanctuary, in worship and intercession. Our Levite ministry is many sided. It is given to us from the Lord to be exercised towards men. We bring spiritual sacrifices, the fruit of our lips, the sacrifice of praise unto God. The whole life of a Christian is to have the Levite character of ministry. “For me to live is Christ” is our service as the Levite lived for the tabernacle and its service. All Christian believers are priests and all have a ministry.

The generations of Aaron and Moses are mentioned first in this chapter. While elsewhere we read of Moses and Aaron, Aaron’s name here stands first. His name is put first because he typifies Christ as Priest, upon whose intercession all depends. The Levites were then brought to Aaron to minister unto him and keep his charge. Jehovah claims them for His own instead of all the first-born. “Therefore the Levites shall be mine.” “Mine shall they be, I am Jehovah.” The first-born were sanctified unto the Lord because of deliverance. They knew therefore that they were sanctified unto Jehovah and owned by Him. And this is our blessed knowledge in Christ. We are delivered, sanctified, belong to Him and to keep His charge, rendering the service into which He has called us. May our hearts be led into the enjoyment of all this.

The difference between the numbering of the tribe of Levi and the other tribes must be noted. In the previous chapter those were numbered who were twenty years and over, but the Levites were numbered “every male from a month old and upward.” This difference was because they were in place of the first-born, which were at the tender age of weakness and helplessness either redeemed or given up (Numbers 18:16).

The sons of Levi made prominent as the heads of eight families, are, Gershon, Kohath and Merari.

Gershon (exile) with his sons, Libni and Shimei, were 7,500 souls. Their place was on the west-side of the tabernacle, over against Ephraim. (See diagram in the previous chapter.) They had charge of the tabernacle, the tent, the coverings and the hangings of the door of the tabernacle.

Kohath (assembly) with the Amramites, Izeharites, Hebronites and Uzzielites, were 8,600 souls. Their place was on the south side and they had charge of the ark, the table, the candlestick, the altars, the hanging and all the service thereof.

Merari (bitter) with the family of Mahlites and Mushites were 6,200 souls and their place was on the north-side, over against Dan. Their service consisted in handling the boards of the tabernacle, pillars, sockets, pins and cords. Each had his specific work given. There could be no misunderstanding about it. How strange it would have been if these 22,000 Levites had formed committees and sub-committees to divide the work and direct in it! All this would have brought in disorder. All they needed to do was to do the work into which the Lord had called them. All the instructions were given; obedience to these instructions, and faithfulness in the discharge of it were the essential things. The same is true in connection with the church. Every member in the body of Christ has a service to render. Each member is put into place by the Lord Himself and He gives to each the service, as He gave to these sons of Levi and their families their specific work in and around the tabernacle. “Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of ministries, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God, that worketh all things in all” (1 Corinthians 12:4-6). How little this truth is recognized! Much of what is called Christian service is service in self will and therefore lacks power and blessing. As these Levites knew their work, because the Lord had spoken and called them into it, so every member of the body of Christ is to know his calling and his service.

“We, as Christians, are very apt to jostle one another, indeed, we are sure to do so if we do not each one pursue his own divinely appointed line of work. We say “divinely appointed,” and would press the word; we have no right to choose our own work. If the Lord has made one man an evangelist, another a teacher, another a pastor, and another an exhorter, how is the work to go on? Surely, it is not by the evangelist trying to teach, and the teacher to exhort, or one who is not fitted for either trying to do both. No, it is by each one exercising his own divinely imparted gift. No doubt, it may please the Lord to endow one individual with a variety of gifts; but this does not, in the smallest degree, touch the principle on which we are dwelling, which is simply this, every one of us is responsible to know his own special line and pursue it. If this be lost sight of, we shall get into hopeless confusion. God has His quarry-men, His stone-squarers, and His masons. The work progresses by each man attending diligently to his own work. If all were quarry-men, where were the stone-squarers? if all were stone-squarers, where were the masons? The greatest possible damage is done to the cause of Christ, and to God’s work in the world, by one man aiming at another’s line of things, or seeking to imitate another’s gift. It is a grievous mistake, against which we would solemnly warn the reader. Nothing can be more senseless. God never repeats Himself. There are not two faces alike, not two leaves in the forest alike, not two blades of grass alike. Why, then, should any one aim at another’s line of work, or affect to possess another’s gift? Let each one be satisfied to be just what his Master has made him. This is the secret of real peace and progress.” (C.H. Mackintosh, Notes on Numbers.)

Worship holds the first and highest place. This is for us His people most clearly stated in the New Testament. Devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ in our life is the highest form of service and all other service must flow, and will flow, from faithfulness to the Person of our Lord.

Gershon and his sons had charge of the coverings and the fine linen. Gershon means exile, a stranger. The fine linen is typical of righteousness. The coverings, hangings, which divided off and separated the different parts of the tabernacle, must have the meaning of separation. His service points us to the fact that we are separated ones and strangers in the world. This separation must be witnessed to by practical righteousness.

Merari had charge with his sons of the boards, the sockets, pins and cords. These held the building together. We stated in the annotations on Exodus (chapter 26) that Christ and His people are typified in the boards of shittim wood, resting in the sockets of silver. The framework of the tabernacle, with the bars of shittim wood uniting the boards, is a type of that building of which we read in Ephesians, “a building fitly framed together,” the church. The work of Merari suggests the thought of union.

It is interesting to compare this wilderness service as outlined above with the exhortation in Ephesians 4:1-3. Knowing God’s calling, in possession of God’s highest and best, as revealed in that Epistle, passing through the wilderness, we are to walk worthy of that calling.

1. In all lowliness and meekness; manifesting Christ: Kohath-service.

2. With longsuffering, etc.; practical righteousness:Gershon-service.

3. Keeping the unity of the Spirit; united in the one body: Merari-service.

And if we walk thus we shall make known the excellencies of Him, who hath called us from darkness to His marvellous light and exercise in obedience the special gift He has given to us as members of His body.

The numbering then proceeded. The number of those fit for service was 8,580.



But how many among God’s people are unfit for service, being out of conscious fellowship with God and conformed to this present evil age? May it please the Spirit of God to awaken such to see anew their calling and their blessed privileges as priests and Levites unto God.

But while it is impossible to restore the house, that is the professing church, so sadly divided and broken in pieces, it is not impossible for the individual believer to live and serve according to the divine ideal.

In verse 38 we find the place given where Moses, Aaron and the priests were to encamp. It was before the tabernacle, that is, on the east side. The number of the Levites is given as 22,000. If we add the number of the Gershonites, Kohathites and Merarites, 7,500, 8,600 and 6,200, we get 22,300. Here is a difficulty which seems to remain unsolved. The total number in verse 39 must be correct, for in verse 46 we read that the number of the first-born exceeded the total number of the Levites by 273.

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Bibliographical Information
Gaebelein, Arno Clemens. "Commentary on Numbers 3". "Gaebelein's Annotated Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/gab/numbers-3.html. 1913-1922.