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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 1

Parker's The People's BibleParker's The People's Bible

Verse 1

"Handfuls of Purpose"

For All Gleaners

"In the wilderness of Sinai, in the tabernacle of the congregation" Num 1:1

The wonderful conjunction of names and situations in life. Here we have "wilderness" and "tabernacle." We cannot be blind to the "wilderness"; sometimes a teacher is required to point out the "tabernacle." The "tabernacle" is always to be found by the earnest searcher. The wilderness, as to mere space is incomparably larger than the tabernacle, but the tabernacle as to its quality and radiance destroys the unhappiest aspects and influences of the wilderness. The wilderness may represent what nature can do for man; the tabernacle is the peculiar and distinctive work of God, showing how the supernatural subdues and glorifies everything with which it comes in contact. Sometimes the tabernacle is in the man's heart; if indeed its spirit is not there no outside building can supply its place or offer such security as cither reason or feeling can really enjoy. Be afraid of no wilderness in which there is a tabernacle. By setting up his tabernacle God means to make the wilderness blossom as the rose. Life itself may often assume the desolation of a wilderness; this it must do in the absence of supernatural influences; decorate it as we may, scatter upon it all the wild flowers that hands can gather, it is a wilderness still: in such circumstances the traveller must cry out for the living God, and yearn for a dwelling place not made with hands. The tabernacle may be some quickening thought, or sacred memory, or inspiring promise, or the companionship of a kindred soul; the tabernacle of God has a thousand aspects, and is consequently different in its representation according to the circumstances in which every man looks upon it. The tabernacle is never so beautiful as when seen in contrast with the wilderness. As the weary night makes the dawn doubly welcome, so the great wilderness develops in the tabernacle a beauty and a splendour which would be otherwise unrecognised. As in darkness we see the stars, so in the wilderness we ought to see the spiritual glory of the tabernacle.

Verses 1-54

The Census and Its Meaning

Numbers 1:0

How long is it since the Tabernacle was set up? From some points of view it would seem to be years at least. Time is variously estimated: it is long, it is short, it is a flying wing, it is a mountain of lead, according to the circumstances under which we view and reckon it. Just one month has elapsed since the Tabernacle was set up, and during that month the whole ritual of Leviticus has been wrought out. Leviticus was not a manual for a year; it was a ritual for a month. It would wear some of us out; we have lived ourselves into shortening days. What a busy month! Read the whole Book of Leviticus, from the first chapter to the last, and then remember that every word of it was to be carried out in critical detail within the compass of a single month, and when the month was over the ritual was to be begun again. All life was one Sabbath then. In very deed the days were well-filled in with labour pressed down, heaped up, running over. Life meant something then. Poor are our services, poor to begin with, run through perfunctorily, leaving behind not so much a thought as a faint impression not an unconquerable inspiration, but a memory of partial weariness.

"And the Lord spake ." He was always speaking in the olden times; he never speaks now. How foolish is such reasoning! how vicious and degrading such a sophism! We first misinterpret the terms, and then declare the conditions are never repeated. We bar out good things from ourselves not only by sin but by impious ignorance, by narrow-mindedness, by superstition meant for veneration. God is always speaking wherever he can find a Moses. Surely, he will not speak to stocks and stones, and deaf men and callous hearts: he will call up a child at midnight to whisper in his ear. It is the hearer that is wanting, not the speaker. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear what the Spirit saith. "And there came a voice out of the cloud, saying ." It is our consciousness that is dull afflicted, indeed, with incurable stupidity; it is our will that is ironed in unholy obstinacy; otherwise, we should write down in plain ink, in open letters, in our mother tongue, "The Lord spake unto me, saying ." We have to fight the ghost of superstition; we have lost spiritual health; we are in a diseased condition of mind and heart To set up the Lord in ancient history, or exalt him into the inaccessible heavens, is mistaken for veneration. How suddenly the subject is changed! We have been reading about the tabernacle, the ark of the covenant, the shedding of blood, the consecration of priests; and our whole mind has, so to say, been steeped in religious thought and sacred phraseology, and now, by the overturning of one page, we come upon the divinely-appointed and divinely-directed census of Israel: Number the people: mark them out in their families and tribes: arrange them according to a plan, and let us know the sum-total of the war force of Israel. We have been thinking, if not talking, of prayer, suddenly the word battle is put into the history. Thus the chapter of life changes; the Author is the same, the writing continuous, with the same noble fluency, the same intellectual dignity, the same imaginative vividness, the same marvellous dramatic change of point and colour; but the subject is organisation for battle, a call for soldiers, words that might have been spoken through a trumpet; yet the speaking God, the hearing Moses, the obedient Israel, are the unchanged quantities of the story. The Lord could have counted the people himself: why did he set others to do the numbering? It is part of his providence. He could do everything himself; but he trains us by criticism, by the use of our faculties, by the discharge of manifold duties and responsibilities. We need not pray to God as the mere necessity of informing him of our wants, because he knows every one of them better than the suppliant can know his own necessities; but this is educational: our prayer is part of our schooling; to project our heart's necessity into words is a marvellous thing to keep the tongue in balance of the heart, so that the speech shall not run out the need, or the argument be in excess of the conviction; so God cleanses the tongue and subdues it, bringing it into harmony with the whole movement of his own purpose and will. Reluctant, lying tongue! double-speaking tongue! how canst thou be turned and chastened into noble service but by being charged with prayer? This is God's wise way. How was the numbering to proceed? Every man was of consequence. We think we honour God by speaking of him only as the Lord of Creation, the God of Hosts, the Ruler of incalculable armies stretching over spaces infinite; it is our poverty of thought that so strains itself as to lay hold of what to us are great numbers; God rather seeks to glorify himself in counting men one by one. "The very hairs of your head are all numbered." Looking round his banqueting-table, he says, Yet there is room. He seems to notice the vacancies as certainly and as clearly as he notices the occupations. To us, numbers are alone of consequence; to our Father, the one child is of great importance: saith he, One is wanting: go fetch him; call more loudly for him: the next appeal may strike his ear and elicit the response of his heart; go out again, and again, and rather blame the darkness of the night than the unwillingness of the child; give him one more opportunity. This is the philosophy: that the little is always striving to make up for its littleness by conceptions of infinite numbers; and the great the divinely and essentially great shows its quality by lighting a candle and sweeping the house diligently till it finds the piece that was lost. We owe ourselves to God's condescension. The men were to be registered for battle according to "the number of their names... from twenty years old and upward." Do we begin life at twenty? Are the nineteen years gone, forgotten, unreckoned? "Twenty years old" is the harvest time of preparatory education. At twenty a man should be able to give some account of himself; he ought to have read some books; he ought to know the figure of the world, and to have acquired, at least, a general outline of the little scheme of things within which he lives a little fluttering wing of a world just one little tuft of smoke whirled by infinite rapidity into an earth, a school-house, a preparation-place; yea, "the great globe itself" is but a handful of smoke whirled into rotundity and made use of, until we become "twenty years old and upward." Let us have no frivolity even in the nineteen preparatory years. Every man is getting ready for war; every boy at school is a soldier in possibility. The children will be greater than we were: otherwise, they will have lost their foot-hold upon the line of progress, and have dropped out of the noble traditions of their species. Some men are long in beginning; they are not wholly to be blamed: men ripen in various degrees of rapidity; "Soon ripe, soon rot," is the old proverb, not wanting in wisdom. Others come to maturity slowly, but having reached maturity no wind can shake their deep roots.

There are some remarkable things about the census: for example, what high titles we find here! Following the first list of names, we read in the sixteenth verse: "These were the renowned of the congregation, princes of the tribes of their fathers, heads of thousands in Israel." So Egyptian bondage did not stamp out Israelitish pedigree and claim upon the past. Our bondage need not destroy our manhood. Israel recovered its noblest memories and reclaimed divine purposes and covenants which had fallen into desuetude and into the formality of a dead letter. We may go back over the period of our banishment and humiliating captivity and claim to bear the image and likeness of God; we, who went astray, may return unto the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls, and may become kings and priests unto God and the Father. Why should the mind plunge itself into the despair of guilt, rather than avail itself of God's ministry and mediation in Christ to project itself to earlier times and original policies and begin with the purpose and intent of God? There are, too, some singular fulfilments of prophecy in the numbering of the tribes. Judah had the most to set in array. Was this a mere accident? Not according to Genesis 49:8 : "Judah, thou art he whom thy brethren shall praise." So we find, in the numbering, Judah stood first the largest of the host. We find, too, that Ephraim had a number larger than Manasseh. Was this a mere incident, hardly to be accounted for? There are no such incidents in life: everything is accounted for, or to be accounted for, by those who search into roots, beginnings, motives, and divine intentions. In Genesis 48:20 , we find how Israel blessed the sons of Joseph, "And he blessed them that day, saying,... God make thee as Ephraim and as Manasseh: and he set Ephraim before Manasseh," Joseph said, No; but the old father said, Yes! Manasseh "also shall become a people, and he also shall be great: but truly his younger brother shall be greater than he," and now that the census is taken Ephraim stands at the head of Manasseh! The details are given critically from verse to verse: "the tribe of Reuben were, forty and six thousand and five hundred"; "the tribe of Simeon were, fifty and nine thousand and three hundred"; "the tribe of Gad were, forty and five thousand six hundred and fifty"; "the tribe of Judah were, three-score and fourteen thousand and six hundred." These are petty details, what is the sum-total? "... all they that were numbered were six hundred thousand and three thousand and five hundred and fifty"! That is what we wanted to ascertain! The tribes might exchange friendly challenges and criticisms as to their varying numbers as between and amongst themselves, a little boasting might be permitted, a little religious pride; but leaving the details as amongst the tribes themselves we come to the broad and grand truth that in relation to any enemy, rise where he might, there were six hundred thousand men ready to dispute the ground with him inch by inch. To-day the Christian denominations are talking to one another about their various thousands: they take a melancholy pride in saying that one denomination has made five per cent. more progress than some other denomination. This is what they have to suggest in place of love and in place of prayer! Simeon takes his census, and Gad reports his figures, and Issachar reminds the other denominations that he has fifty-four thousand enrolled under his banner, and Zebulun tells Issachar that his fifty-four are not equal to Zebulun's fifty-seven. These figures are interesting up to a certain degree and within given boundaries; but how many men can Christ put on the field against the devil and his angels? Do not be chaffering to one another and boasting as between fifty-four thousand and fifty-seven thousand; but stand together, shoulder to shoulder, and say: All for Christ; the enemy must not fight one tribe, but the consolidated hosts of God. It was but detailed and vexatious reading up to the forty-fifth and forty-sixth verses. we longed to know the sum-total of the strength on which Christ could reckon; that is what we want to know to-day. A little friendly emulation, as between the various Christian communions, may relieve the monotony and inactivity of our modern piety; but what Christ would know is on what military strength he can reckon when he is challenged to the battle of Armageddon. These men whose names and tribes are given were men qualified to be sent forth to war. At that period of history war was an unhappy necessity: it was the school in which men were trained. We must read history in its own light and grow with its growth, if we would understand its philosophy and its purpose. If we deny the writing that is before us as an inspiration, we have still to confront the fact that social classes are precisely divided to-day as they were distributed in the pages of the Bible; when we have denied the inspiration, we have still to deal with the fact. What is the distribution of society to-day? Military, commercial, educational; these classes could not be interchanged. The true soldier can be nothing but a soldier: to bind him down to anything else is to invert his destiny. Men have the call of God in them. No man is at liberty to say what he is going to be and going to do. He has nothing "to do" but to obey. It may please him to talk about his "freedom," but it is the freedom of a cage. "Train up a child in the way he should go," in the way of God's purpose, according to the predestination of his life, "and when he is old, he will not depart from it" he will know at the end that all his life-pulses have been throbbing in harmony with the infinite music of the divine purpose. The true merchant could never be a soldier: he must buy and sell, he must make a little profit if he would sleep well at night; it is in his blood; he cannot retire to rest until he has bartered, discounted, added up, and given and taken receipts in full. If you suggested to him to go out to battle you would but distress his timid soul; men of his temperature of blood were meant to buy and sell and to live in the awful tumult of a controversy across the counter. The scholar could never be a merchant; he must inquire and he must communicate; a book is a treasure to him; a new thought drives him well-nigh mad, it may be true: if true, it would set back the horizon, heighten the dome of heaven, and make all things new; he does not want to buy and sell, but to peruse, to examine, to criticise, to compare, to amass information, and to communicate his intelligence to others; he is a philosopher and a teacher, not a bagman or a banker. There is the fact. Why quarrel with the Book of Numbers and raise a noisy discussion as to whether Moses wrote it? The Book of Numbers is being written to-day: a million hands are doing the clerical work; we are standing yet in this grand organisation and distribution of labour.

But some were not permitted to go to battle; who were they? They were the Levites: "... the Levites after the tribe of their fathers were not numbered" among the warriors. They were appointed to be near "the tabernacle of testimony," and were set "over all the vessels thereof, and over all things that belong to it"; they were to "bear the tabernacle, and all the vessels thereof"; and they were to "minister unto it," and to "encamp round about the tabernacle"; and when the tabernacle was set forth, the Levites were to "take it down"; and when the tabernacle was to be pitched in a new place, the Levites were to "set it up"; "and the children of Israel" were to "pitch their tents, every man by his own camp, and every man by his own standard, throughout their hosts." Then the Levites were not soldiers? Not in the narrow construction of the term; but all truly religious men are soldiers. "The weapons of our warfare are not carnal." The Sunday-school teachers of the land are its most powerful constabulary; the truly Christian ministry is the very spirit of militancy not urged against flesh and blood, visible substances, and nameable human enemies; but against the whole spirit of perdition and against the whole genius of darkness. "Soldiers of Christ, arise, and put your armour on!" That is the heroic call, may every man stand up and say, Here am I: send me!


The Lord reigneth, let the earth rejoice. To us there is but one God Thy will be done on earth as it is done in heaven; not our will but thine be done. Thou hast wrought in us this grace. We own thy power; thy law to us is liberty. We have no will: thy will be done is the cry of the heart made right. It is well. Thou knowest all things; thou seest the end from the beginning. We cannot tell what a day may bring forth; we have no ground of evidence or argument, or reckoning; we are shut up in the darkness. Thou knowest all eternity. Thy will be done. This is the Lord's prayer; this is the prayer he taught us in the time of his bloody sweat, in the agony intolerable. We would hear the prayer; we would adore the suppliant; we would endeavour to repeat the glorious utterance; but thy Spirit alone can enable us to do this; we want our heart to say it our whole spirit without keeping back one feeling, one word, one reserve. This would be the sacrifice preceding resurrection, triumph, heaven. Thy will be done. Thou dost raise up men from the dung-hill, and set them among princes. It is the Lord's doing; it is marvellous in our eyes. Thou dost make the first last and the last first, and fix the places at the banquet-table without consulting any guest; thy will be done. One dieth in his full strength, being wholly at ease and quiet; another in the bitterness of his soul, who never eateth with pleasure, whose days are nights and whose nights are wildernesses; it is the Lord: let him do what seemeth good in his sight. Thou dost permit the old man to live until he becomes a burden unto himself; thou dost pluck the young blossom when it is the chief beauty of the garden: the Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord. We would stand in the assurance that the Judge of all the earth will do right; that the very hairs of our head are all numbered; that the steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord, and though he fall he shall rise again. Herein is peace; herein is eternal Sabbath day. Give us this confidence in larger measure until it shall consummate itself in heaven's own peace. Thou knowest our impatience, our wildness of impulse, the difficulty we have in stopping to reason well the Lord pity us! This is the pressure of the time which is so very short: we see the descending sun, and we want to do so much before the twilight of evening. We know not what we do; we are poor at the richest, weak at the strongest, ignorant in our utmost knowledge. We will rest in the Christ of God; labouring and heavy laden, we will come to him, and he will give us rest; his peace he will give unto us: not as the world giveth will he give, but otherwise an eternal and infinite donation. Keep us in the love of God, always seeking for truth, welcoming wider knowledge, enjoying the enlargement of our liberty; but knowing always that Christ is first and last and midst, the dawn and the day, the star of the evening, the hope of the midnight; on the Cross, on the throne; suffering, praying, teaching, reigning; the Son of God, the Saviour of the world. O, Lord Christ Jesus, take us closely to thyself, and speak to us words which will make us live! Amen.

Verse 3

"Handfuls of Purpose"

For All Gleaners

"Able to go forth to war." Num 1:3

Then there are difference's amongst men; some being able, and others unable to go forth to war. Forgetfulness of these differences leads to indiscriminate and cruel criticism. There is always a war in life. Sometimes a real battle is only known to the man himself. In all solitary conflicts the man himself is of course alone responsible. Even in such conflicts the warrior needs inspiration and encouragement from without. There is a solitude that leads to despair, and in the darkness of that solitude the war goes against the soul. The words of the text refer to open or public battle, in which every man is expected to appear in the fulness of his strength. The statistics of the army are kept in heaven. The spirit of this text forbids every man to look only at his weakness. Every man is called upon to make the most of himself in the presence of the enemy. Sometimes the very going forth to war develops the power of battle. Let every man take a hopeful view of his capacity. The wars to which men are called in this day may be of the nature of controversy, testimony under difficult circumstances, consistency in the midst of subtle and persistent temptation; because we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, it does not follow that we have no conflict with principalities and powers and innumerable enemies out of sight. The spirit of Christianity is a spirit of war. The Christian is at war with every form and action of evil. There can be no doubt as to the side which the Christian will take in every moral conflict. The suggestion of the text is that some men are not called upon to engage in public strife. They may be soldiers, nevertheless, suffering heroically, illustrating the majesty of patience, and proving by joyful resignation how possible it is to wait without complaining, and to sing in the darkness and weariness of night. Cowardice is nowhere commended in the Bible. The distinguishing feature of Christianity in relation to all the forces of life is heroism. Let imagination picture the scene; the Christian is not afraid to go forth where ignorance is densest, where rebellion is most violent, where cruelty is most desperate, and even where infection is most contagious; the picture is always vivid with heroic colour, and expressive of consecration, which can neither be daunted or discouraged. "The Son of God goes forth to war." It is too commonly supposed that Christianity is a bed of roses, a new variety of luxury, a sentiment which, while it excuses, also aggravates the natural selfishness of the heart. Every man should put to himself the question, Why am I not at the war? Every wound that testifies to honourable battle is a sign of true soldiership. Do not be ashame of wounds and scars that tell o suffering only see that they are on the breast, and thereby indicate fearlessness, and not on the back, and thereby prove fear and faithlessness.

Bibliographical Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Numbers 1". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jpb/numbers-1.html. 1885-95.
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