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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 1

Preacher's Complete Homiletical CommentaryPreacher's Homiletical

Verses 1-54


(Numbers 1:1-3)

“The object of the encampment at Sinai,” says Perowne, “has been accomplished. The Covenant has been made, the Law given, the Sanctuary set up, the Priests consecrated, the service of God appointed, and Jehovah dwells in the midst of His chosen people. It is now time to depart in order that the object may be achieved for which Israel has been sanctified. That object is the occupation of the Promised Land. But this is not to be accomplished by peaceable means, but by the forcible expulsion of its present inhabitants; for ‘the iniquity of the Amorites is full,’ they are ripe for judgment, and this judgment Israel is to execute. Therefore Israel must be organised as Jehovah’s army; and to this end a mustering of all who are capable of bearing arms is necessary. Hence the book opens with the numbering of the people.”

Thrice were the people numbered in the wilderness. Nine months previous they were numbered for the purpose of collecting atonement-money from every male of twenty years old and upward (Comp. Exodus 30:11-16 with Exodus 38:25-26). On this occasion they were numbered with a view to war. And thirty-eight years afterwards, in the plains of Moab, they were again numbered, for the division of the Promised Land among the tribes, according to the number of their families (Comp. 26 and Numbers 33:54).

Our text sets forth:—

I. The Authority for this Numbering.

It was commanded by God. “The Lord spake unto Moses … Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel.” Contrast this with the numbering of the people by David (1 Samuel 24:0, and 1 Chronicles 21:0). This was expressly commanded by the Lord: that was utterly devoid of Divine authority. This was done for wise and worthy reasons (as we shall see); that, from pride and vain reliance. Moses numbered the people to see the number of God’s subjects able to fight in the Lord’s battles. David seems to have desired to know the number of the people as his own subjects, and to display the extent of his own dominion and power. As the result of David’s sin, the Lord, by pestilence, slew seventy thousand men. It is of the utmost importance that the leaders of men should be well assured of two things in the movements which they inaugurate:—

1. That they have the Divine approval of their undertakings. The movement which is approved by God, and well prosecuted, shall advance to splendid triumph. But that which He approves not must end in failure and disaster. Apply this test to our undertakings.

2. That they are actuated by worthy motives in their undertakings. A sinful, selfish, or mean motive will vitiate our enterprises and mar our works. “The Lord looketh at the heart.” Let us scrutinize our motives.

II. The Place of this Numbering.

“In the wilderness of Sinai.”

1. In a desert. The wilderness suggests

(1) the ideas of a life of Privation. Little or no food grows in the desert. There are no homes in the desert. Pleasant streams and refreshing shades are seldom found there.

(2) Peril. This would arise from the scorching heat of the sun; from the furious violence of the storm, and from the fierce attacks of savage beasts.

(3) Perplexity. The desert has no well-defined roads made through it. The traveller is very liable to lose his track, grow bewildered, and sink into utter perplexity. We have in this an illustration of the life of the good in this world. The world cannot supply the soul’s needs. We have needs and yearnings that the best things of this world are utterly inadequate to satisfy. We cannot find a home for the soul in anything here. This is not our rest. There are perils many and great in this present life and world. We, too, are “in the desert.”

2. In a desert where the tabernacle of God was. “In the wilderness of Sinai, in the tabernacle of the congregation.” They were in the desert; but the Lord also was there. His presence was a guarantee of

(1) Provision. He fed them with bread from heaven. His presence and power transformed the desert into a banquet hall. In obedience to His will the solid rock became a fountain, and the desert rejoiced in pleasant streams. In Him the homeless wanderers found a home and rest.

(2) Protection. He guarded them from the scorching heat of the sun by day by the pillar of cloud, and from the attacks of savage beasts by night by the pillar of fire. In the day of battle He was their shield and fortress.

(3) Direction. He “led His people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.” He “guided them in the wilderness like a flock.” “He led them forth by the right way, that they might go to a city of habitation.” It matters not that this world is like a desert to the godly soul, if God be with us here. His presence will afford the most adequate and delightful supplies, the divinest satisfaction, the most impregnable defence, and the most infallible guidance.

“Though in a bare and rugged way,
Through devious, lonely wilds I stray,
Thy presence shall my pains beguile;
The barren wilderness shall smile,
With sudden green and herbage crowned,
And streams shall murmur all around.”


III. The Time of this Numbering.

“On the first of the second month, in the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt.” That is, exactly one month after the setting up of the tabernacle (Exodus 40:2; Exodus 40:17) and about eleven months from the time of their arrival in the desert of Sinai. The people abode in this desert nearly a whole year (Comp. Exodus 19:1, with Numbers 1:1; Numbers 10:11). What was the reason of this protracted halt? With so great and inspiriting a destiny before them as the taking possession of the Promised Land, why did they not advance at once with eager resolution to their task? The design of this long stay was, that they might be instructed in their relations to God and to each other; that they might learn lessons of duty and worship; that they might be taught to reverence and obey God. The pause was for the purpose of promoting progress. There are times and circumstances in which standing still is the truest and speediest advance. It is well that the declaration of war should not be made until plans of operation are formed, equipments prepared, soldiers drilled and disciplined, etc. What a terrible reminder of this truth France received in her recent war with Prussia! It was well that the Apostles, with the commission to the most glorious task, and the world sorely needing their message, should, notwithstanding, tarry at Jerusalem in silence, until they were baptized with the Holy Ghost.

Let us learn the wisdom of waiting until circumstances, events, and agents are ripe for action; and while we wait, make diligent preparation, etc. (a)

IV. The Manner of this Numbering.

“Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, after their families, by the house of their fathers, with the number of their names, every male by their polls, from twenty years old and upward, all that are able to go forth to war in Israel.” They were to take account of—

1. Only the males. All females were excluded from the reckoning.

2. Only the males above twenty years old. Those who were under that age were not taken into the account, being regarded as too young to endure the strain of military service.

3. Only the males above twenty ears old who were in vigorous health,—“able to go forth to war.” The sick, the aged, the infirm, the maimed were exempted from this census, as unfit for war.

4. They were to be numbered “after their families,” that it might be known of what tribe, and of what particular house every able man was.

5. The numbering was to be individual, and by name. “With the number of their names, every male by their polls.” The census was particular and minute. From these directions as to the numbering we learn:—

First: That the Lord chooses fit instruments for the accomplishment of His purposes. He here selects for war not women, or boys, or old men, or the infirm; but able men. He can use any instrumentality, even the feeblest, for the most arduous tasks. But such is not His method. He employs means adapted to the ends to be attained. Illustrations of this abound. Joseph, Moses, Joshua, David, Paul.

Second: That the Lord is perfectly acquainted with every one who is fitted for His work. He knows the tribe, the family, the name of every one who is “able to go forth to war” against ignorance, sin and misery. Ponder this ye able men who are at ease in Zion.

V. The Design of this Numbering.

1. The primary design was, the organization of the army. God had promised to give them the land of Canaan. He will certainly bestow it upon them; but not without their effort. Innumerable foes must be vanquished before they enter upon the land. They must do battle with the heathen nations that are now in possession, and conquer them. And to do this, they must organise an army, employing the fittest men for soldiers, making the wisest arrangements for marching, encamping, etc. Where ordinary means are adequate to accomplish the desired end, God never uses extraordinary. What man can do for himself, God never does for him. God has promised to us the victory over our spiritual foes, the possession of the inheritance of spiritual perfection and privileges, and heaven as the goal of our earthly pilgrimage. He will not fail to fulfil His promise. But we, too, must use the means. If we would enter into the restful activities of heaven, we must live the life of faith and of Divine service on earth. If we would gain the victory we must be valiant and persistent in the fight. If we would win the prize we must “run with patience the race,” etc. (b). But this numbering would serve other important purposes. It would tend—

2. To manifest the Divine faithfulness. God had promised Abraham that his seed should be as the stars for multitude. This census shows how God was fulfilling that promise. Seventy-five souls went down into Egypt. And how wonderfully are they increased in 215 years! Now there are six hundred thousand men able to bear arms. And the whole population could not have been less than two millions, and this despite the oppression and persecutions of the Egyptians. “He is faithful that promised.”

3. To show forth the Divine power. We see this in His feeding and sustaining so immense a number in the desert, “without harvest or husbandry, without planting or tilling, without sowing of corn, or without feeding and breeding of cattle.”

4. To the promotion of order. “It is a rout and a rabble, not an army, that is not mustered and put in order.”

5. To exhibit, on the coming of the Messiah, the correspondence of the event with the predictions concerning it. He was predicted as to come of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Judah, of the house of David. Hence the importance of an accurate register of tribes and families.

6. To illustrate the care of God for His people generally and particularly. They were numbered individually and by name. The Lord’s care over His people is most minute and constant and tender. “He calleth His own sheep by name, and leadeth them out. The good Shepherd giveth His life for the sheep.” “The Lord knoweth them that are His.” “The very hairs of your head are all numbered.”


(a) I warn those who have only lately found their Saviour from rushing before their fellow-men, and attempting to fill those posts in the service of Christ which demand a deeper experience and a more tried and tested Christianhood. The Lord’s retirement to the wilderness after He had been baptised and announced as the Messiah, after He was in a peculiar manner “full of the Holy Ghost,” gives to all of us not less humbling than profitable guidance as to the deliberation with which solemn work ought to be undertaken.… Not up to Jerusalem, but away to the wilderness; not out to the multitude, but back to the solitude; not forth to the world to conquer, but away from it, “impelled” by the Spirit, “to be tempted.” Nor does this stand solitary in the history of the Church. You remember that strange, half-involuntary forty years of Moses in the wilderness of Midian, when he had fled from Egypt. You remember, too, the almost equally strange years of retirement in Arabia by Paul when, if ever, humanly speaking, instant action was needed. And pre-eminently you remember the amazing charge of the ascending Lord to the disciples: “Tarry at Jerusalem.” Speaking after the manner of men, one could not have wondered if out-spoken Peter, or fervid James, had said: “Tarry, Lord! How long? Tarry, Lord! Is there not a perishing world groaning for the ‘good news’? Tarry! did we hear Thee aright, Lord? Was not the word, haste?” Nay: “Being assembled together with them, He commanded them that they should not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father.”—Grosart.

(b) We are here in every sense on a stage of probation; so that, having been once recovered from apostasy, we are candidates for a prize and wrestlers for a crown. It is not the mere admission into the kingdom for which we contend. When justified, there is open before us the widest field for a righteous ambition—and portions heightening in majesty, and deepening in brilliancy, rise on our vision to incite to unwearied endeavour. For I count it one of the glories of Christianity that, in place of repressing, it gives full scope to all the ardours of the spirit of man.… Christianity tells her subjects that the rewards in eternity, though all purchased by Christ, and none merited by men, shall be rigidly apportioned to their works. She tells them that there are places of dignity, and stations of eminence, and crowns with more jewellery, and sceptres with more sway, in that glorious empire which Christ shall set up at His second appearing. And she bids them strive for a loftier recompense; she would not have them content with a lesser portion, though it infinitely outgrew human imagination as well as human desert. She sends them to wrestle for the loftiest, though unworthy of the lowest. She does not allow the believer to imagine that everything is done when a title to the kingdom is obtained. She shows him that the trials of the last great assize shall proceed most accurately by measure of works. There is no swerving in the Bible from this representation. And if one man become a ruler over ten cities, and another over five, and another over two, each receiving in exact proportion to his improvement of talents, then it is clear as demonstration can make it that our strivings will have a vast influence on our recompense—that there shall be no particle in the portion of the righteous which is not altogether an undeserved gift; still, in the arrangements of judgment there will be an accurate balancing of what is bestowed and what is performed. Oh! it shall not be said that because he is secure of admission to heaven, the Christian has nothing further to excite him to toil. He is to wrestle for a place amongst spirits of chief renown; he is to propose to himself a station close to the throne.—H. Melvill, B.D.


(Numbers 1:1)

“And the Lord spake unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tabernacle of the congregation.”

In the Hebrew Bible this book is called בְּמִדְבַּר = in the desert. By this name also the Jews generally speak of it. The tide is most appropriate for the book which records the history of Israel during the long wandering in the wilderness.


I. The natural trials of the desert.

Deserts are generally characterised by—

1. Barrenness. “The general character of the wâdvs, as well as of the mountains of Sinai,” says Dean Stanley, “is entire desolation. If the mountains are naked Alps, the valleys are dry rivers.… The Israelites were brought into contact with a desolation to them the more remarkable by its contrast with the green valley of the Nile.” And in another place he speaks of “the whole wilderness” as having “a doubly dry and thirsty aspect.” The world, with its wealth and pleasures, its honours and power, cannot afford satisfaction to the longing souls of men. It is clear from their very nature that temporal and material things cannot satisfy spiritual beings. (a)

2. Homelessness. Men do not as a rule establish homes in the desert. They may pitch their tent there for a little while, but they speedily move on to other scenes. The home of the soul is not here. Its rest is not here. If any man attempt to find the home of his soul in anything here he will find, sooner or later, that great has been his mistake, and sore will be his disappointment. Only in the spiritual, the personal, the perfect, and the permanent is the true home of the soul.

3. Painlessness. There were no well-defined roads in the desert. And the Israelites were strangers in it. Left to themselves they were liable and likely to go astray. And man if left to himself now, or to the world’s guidance, will not find the true path of life. And even when by Divine direction he has found it, the world presents many enticements to lure him from it.

4. Perilousness. They were exposed to danger from the scorching sun, from violent storms, from savage beasts, and from desperate bands of robbers. The perils to which the good are exposed in this world are many and great. They spring from “the wiles of the devil,” “the depths of Satan,” the seductions of the world, and the lusts of the flesh.

And in the case of Israel in the desert there seemed to be,—

5. Aimlessness. How aimless and fruitless must the thirty-eight years of wandering, to which they were con-condemned for their unbelief and rebellion, have seemed to them! Inexpressibly weary and dreary must those years have been to the young generation. There are times in the spiritual life of good men when they pass through somewhat analogous experiences. The years pass, opportunities come and go, life hastens on towards its close; and so little seems accomplished, so little progress made in our character, so little true work done. We have toiled and struggled long, and at times painfully, and yet we have not attained, the goal of our ambition seems still so far off that the heart is prone to grow weary and despondent. Such are some of the trials of the desert.

II. The Divine Presence in the desert.

“The Lord spake unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tabernacle of the congregation.” They were in the desert; but God was with them there. We have here,—

1. Divine communication in the desert. “The Lord spake unto Moses,” etc. And God is in constant communication with His people now. His voice is never silent; for in silence some of His most precious communications are made. The thoughtful and reverent spirit hears His voice in the sounds and silences of nature, and can say,

“Cleon hears no anthem ringing in the sea

and sky:

Nature sings to me for ever—earnest

listener, I.” (b)

God is also ever speaking through the Sacred Scriptures, and by His Holy Spirit.

2. Divine provision in the desert. The Lord fed the vast host of Israel with manna from heaven, and with water from the rock He supplied them. They were in the desert, but the resources of God never failed them. So now, “The Lord will give grace and glory; no good will he withhold from them that walk uprightly.” “Your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things.” “My God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus.”

3. Divine shelter and rest in the desert. The people of Israel for forty years were homeless wanderers; but they found their rest and home in God. “Lord, Thou hast been our dwelling-place in all generations.” God is the only true home and rest of souls.

3. Divine direction in the desert. The Lord went before them in the pillar of cloud by day and in the pillar of fire by night. Thus the desert was not really pathless, their tedious wanderings were not really aimless. And still the Lord directs His people He does so,—

(1) By the leadings of His providence.
(2) By the teachings of the sacred Scriptures.
(3) By the influences of the Holy Spirit.
5. Divine protection in the desert. The Lord protected the Israelites from the heat of the sun by day by means of the pillar of cloud; and from the attacks of savage beasts by night by means of the pillar of fire. He also guarded them from the assaults of neighbouring nations, except in those instances in which they disregarded His counsel, and rebelled against Him. God is still the sure defence of all who put their trust in Him. “No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper.” “If God be for us, who can be against us?” “Who is he that will harm you, if ye be followers of that which is good?” God is with us in our march through the desert; and His presence assures us of all good.

III. The Divine uses of the desert.

Why this wandering to and fro for thirty-eight years? What is the meaning of this tedious and painful delay? Of what use was it? To prepare a people for the inheritance of Canaan. God has not only to give them the inheritance, but to fit them for it—for its privileges, duties, etc. Time was needed for two things:—

1. That the generation of slaves might pass away. Were the people that left Egypt fit to enter upon the privileges and duties connected with the independent possession of the Promised Land? Slavery had robbed them of their manhood. They were most persistent and provoking unbelievers, contemptible cowards, shrinking from any difficulty, quailing in the presence of any danger. They were the creatures of carnal appetites, preferring the fish, the cucumbers, the onions, and the melons of Egypt with slavery, rather than the manna of heaven and freedom. Emancipated in body, they are yet slaves in soul. And by reason of this, and of their murmurings and rebellions against God, they must live and die in the desert (see Numbers 14:26-35). In this we have an illustration of God’s dealings with His people now. There is much in us that must die and be buried before we can enter upon the inheritance of spiritual perfection. Our craven-hearted fears, our carnal lusts, our miserable unbelief, must be buried in the desert. The slave nature must be put to death, etc. There are godly persons in this world who are past service, whose strength and health have long departed, whose life is one of constant weariness and pain, who long for the summons hence, and wonder why it is so long delayed. May it not be because the discipline of the desert is not yet ended? There is something of the old nature that is not yet dead and buried.

2. That a generation of free men might be educated. In the desert God was training the children into true manhood,—into fitness for the place, the duties, and the privileges designed for them. And the education was remarkably successful. The generation that was trained in the wilderness and entered the Promised Land, was honourably distinguished for faithfulness, etc. (comp. Joshua 24:31; Jeremiah 2:2-3). So in this world God is educating us into calm, far-seeing faith, into high-souled courage, into reverent and hearty obedience, etc. This life, when truly lived, is not fruitless, aimless, or vain. Even its trials are designed to bless us. Its storms and strifes are intended to invigorate and nerve us. In the desert we are being trained by God into spiritual perfection and power, and educated for service and blessedness.


Let us ponder well the Divine design of our life in this world. By the help of God let us seek its realization in ourselves.


(a) We might ask the statesman, and as we wished him a happy new year, Lord Dundas would answer, “It had need to be happier than the last, for I never knew one happy day in it.” We might ask the successful lawyer, and the wariest, luckiest, most self-complacent of them all would answer, as Lord Eldon was privately recording when the whole bar envied the Chancellor, “A few weeks will send me to dear Encomb, as a short resting-place between vexation and the grave.” You might say to the golden millionaire, “You must be a happy man, Mr. Rothschild.” “Happy! me happy! What! happy! when just as you are going to dine you have a letter placed in your hand, saying, ‘If you do not send me £500, I will blow your brains out!’ Happy! when you have to sleep with pistols at your pillow!” We might ask the clever artist (David Scott), and our gifted countryman would answer, of whose latter days a brother writes, “In the studio all the pictures seemed to stand up like enemies to receive me.” This joy in labour, this desire for fame, what have they done for him? The walls of this gaunt sounding place, the frames, even some of the canvases, are furred with damp. In the little library where he painted last was the word “Nepenthe,” written interrogatively with white chalk on the wall. We might ask the world-famed warrior, and get for an answer the “Miserere” of the Emperor Monk, or the sigh of a broken heart from St. Helena. We might ask the brilliant courtier, and Lord Chesterfield would tell us, “I have enjoyed all the pleasures of the world, and I do not regret their loss. I have been behind the scenes; I have seen all the coarse pulleys and dirty ropes which move the gaudy machines; and I have seen and smelt the tallow candles which illuminate the whole decorations to the astonishment of an ignorant audience.” We might ask the dazzling wit, and faint with a glut of glory, yet disgusted with the creatures who adored him, Voltaire would condense the essence of his existence into one word “Ennui.” And we might ask the world’s poet, and we should be answered with an imprecation by that splendid genius, who—

“Drank every cup of joy, heard every trump
Of fame; drank early, deeply drank; drank draughts
That common millions might have quenched, then died
Of thirst, because there was no more to drink.”—Pollok.


(b) God hath a voice that ever is heard,

In the peal of the thunder, the chirp of the bird;
It comes in the torrent, all rapid and strong,
In the streamlet’s soft gush as it ripples along;
It breathes in the zephyr, just kissing the bloom;
It lives in the rush of the sweeping simoom;
Let the hurricane whistle or warblers rejoice,
What do they tell thee, but God hath a voice?
God hath a presence, and that ye may see
In the fold of the flower, the leaf of the tree;
In the sun of the noon-day, the star of the night;
In the storm-cloud of darkness, the rainbow of light;
In the waves of the ocean, the furrows of land;
In the mountains of granite, the atoms of sand;
Turn where ye may, from the sky to the sod,
Where can ye gaze that ye see not a God?

Eliza Cook.


(Numbers 1:2-3)

These annals are an historic mirror. They image out a heavenly Father’s special dealings with each child of faith. The parallel is quickly drawn. They once groaned bitterly in cruel bondage. But Mercy set them free. Believer, you too were once a slave at Satan’s will. But now the chain is broken, etc. Israel’s tribes are journeying, as strangers, through a desert waste. And is not yours a wilderness career? But they are conveyed by a heavenly guide. So, too, a beckoning hand marks out your wanderings by day—by night, etc. They had heard “the voice of words”—the fiery law. This law has also pierced the deep recesses of your inner man. You have thus learned the glorious righteousness of God, etc. Was Israel God’s special portion? You, too, are not your own. You are a purchased property, etc. There is no novel thought in this. But common truths—like common blessings—soon lose their point. Colours soon fade without a renewing touch.
And now, before the people move, God speaks again. He gives command to register the number of each tribe.… New instruction meets us here.
In common matters, men count possessions, which are choice, and dear, and prized. They whose mean joys are fixed on this world’s pelf—thus calculate their gold. See, too, the watchful shepherd’s care. Do we, then, stray beyond sound limits when in God’s numbering we read God’s love? Do not clear characters here write, that His people are thus numbered, because loved—counted, because prized? My God loves me; my name is in his heart. The knowledge of this fact is reached by happy steps. They are all Scripturally firm. Review them. Wherefore was Jesus sent to bear your sins, and deck you in his robe of righteousness? Why was Christ slain? Why are you spared?.… Wherefore did the Spirit speed to arouse your sleeping conscience—to show self’s ruin and the remedy of the Cross?.… How is it that your tottering feet are still upheld along the slippery hill, which leads to Zion’s heights? The strength is not your own. There can be only one reply, God loves you. Would that the eye of Faith for ever rested on this glorious truth. God loves you! What an amazing impulse to bear the willing servant over all mountains of doubt, and fear, and hindrance! What a strong shield to ward off Satan’s darts! It is victory, before one blow is struck! It is light in the dark day of trial! It is the holy wing to lift above the world!
Who are numbered? None are enrolled, but they whose age and strength enable them for war. Christ’s service is a mighty work—a determined fight. Satan disputes each onward step. The world presents its countless troops, etc. The flesh is an internal foe, etc. Believer, yours is this warrior’s life. Fight, as one fighting for eternity. Strive, as one striving for a kingdom. Jesus commands, etc. Follow him boldly. No one will triumph who has never fought. No one who truly fights, will fail.

Each numbered soldier paid a ransom price (Exodus 30:12). The rich—the poor—were equally assessed. All in Christ’s camp are ransomed by his blood. All plead one sacrifice.

Next comes the register. It presents a vast array of numbered warriors. Beyond six hundred thousand men (Numbers 1:46). Whence is this marvellous increase? One family had entered Egypt. Hardship, and cruelty, and toil had done their worst to keep them low. But God’s early promise was their portion (Genesis 12:2). The numbered people prove that our God is Truth as well as Love.

Behold, again, this multitude. It is an emblem of a far larger host (Revelation 7:9). The fight is a prelude to the crown.

About a year has passed since the last numbering. The Levites then formed part of the collected mass. They are not now included. But the number then and now amounts exactly to the same. Israel has surrendered Levi’s tribe, but Israel’s forces are not thereby less. Here is a profitable lesson. We never lose by giving to the Lord. Selfishness is penury. Christian benevolence is wealth.

Once more survey the Numbered People. You are inclined to say, this band will safely reach the promised land. Alas! two only steadfastly adhere. The multitude distrusts the Lord. Their corpses strew the desert. An awful proof that outward privileges alone save not (Hebrews 3:19). Unbelief is the bar which shuts out Christ. Unbelief rejects the Gospel, and so perishes.—Henry Law, D.D.


(Numbers 1:4-16)

In these verses we have an illustration of—

I. Co-operation in Divine Service.

One man of every tribe, being head of the house of his fathers, was to be associated with Moses and Aaron in numbering the people. By this arrangement—

1. The toil of Moses and Aaron would be lessened. There is urgent need for the lessening of the labours of many overwrought Christian ministers to-day. And there are many things in which others may render them valuable assistance.

2. The accomplishment of the task would be facilitated. The cause of God in this world will advance with rapid strides when co-operation in Christian work shall become constant and universal amongst His people.

3. The envy of the princes would be prevented. We know that on a subsequent occasion certain “princes of the assembly” arose against Moses and Aaron, saying, “Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them; wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the congregation of the Lord?” “Sore eyes,” say Babington, “cannot abide the clearness of the sun, and an evil stomach turneth the best nutriment to hurt. The greener the leaf is, the sooner the worms bite it.” Probably, moved by envy, they would have murmured against Moses and Aaron at this time; but, being united with them in the business, all occasion thereof is removed. Co-operation in service is the best antidote to envy and complaint and carping criticism. Grumblers are seldom found among the workers of the Church.

We have in the text an illustration of—

II. Society’s need of leaders.

1. Because they are at present indispensable to social order and progress. These men were representatives of the people. Instead of “the renowned,” we should translate, “the called of the congregation.”—Keil and Del.: “In Numbers 1:16 they are designated as ‘called men of the congregation,’ because they were called to diets of the congregation, as representatives of the tribes, to regulate the affairs of the nation.” And society in this age must have its leaders and representatives in politics, in military affairs and enterprises, in science, in religion, etc. Moreover, it is essential that some persons should be entrusted with the reins of government. Rulers are indispensable to order. Leaders are necessary also to secure unity in the pursuit of any great and comprehensive aim. Certain objects of utmost importance to society cannot possibly be attained without cohesion of purpose and effort on the part of a large number of men, and such cohesion is impossible without leaders. “Amongst the masses,” says Guizot, “even in revolutions, aristocracy must ever exist; destroy it in nobility, and it becomes centred in the rich and powerful Houses of the Commons. Pull them down, and it still survives in the master and foreman of the workshop.”

2. Because of the differences in the faculties of men. These men were “princes” from the nobility of their birth: and they were probably men distinguished also for their abilities. Speaker’s Comm.: “The selection of the Princes of the Tribes appears from Numbers 1:4 to have been made under Divine direction; but probably, as Numbers 1:16 seems to suggest, they were for the most part the same persons as those chosen a few months previously at the counsel of Jethro (Exodus 18:21-26) Of those here named Naashon, prince of Judah, was brother-in-law of Aaron (Exodus 6:23), and ancestor of King David. Elishama, prince of Ephraim, was grandfather of Joshua (1 Chronicles 7:26-27). The peers of men like these, though nothing has been in fact preserved to us respecting them, were no doubt entitled, amongst their fellows, to the epithet ‘renowned,’ Numbers 1:16.” Some men are born rulers. The governing faculty is innate in them. They have the extensive mental vision, the calmness of judgment, the promptitude in action, the love of order, the power of arrangement, the acquaintance with human nature, the skill in managing affairs, etc., which mark them off for leaders of men. But in others the qualifications of leadership are conspicuous by reason of their absence. And amongst those in whom the ruling faculty is innate it exists in different degrees of power. So they are fitted for different degrees of dominion. “We must have kings,” says Emerson, “we must have nobles; nature is always providing such in every society; only let us have the real instead of the titular. In every society, some are born to rule, and some to advise. The chief is the chief all the world over, only not his cap and plume. It is only this dislike of the pretender which makes men sometimes unjust to the true and finished man.” (a)

We have in the text an illustration of—

III. The grand characteristic of true leaders.

They are pre-eminent in service. These “princes of the tribes” were to serve the tribes in this numbering of the people. “Those that are honourable should study to be serviceable.” “Whosoever will be great among you,” said our Lord, “let him be your minister; and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant; even as the Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for many.” “I am among you as He that serveth.” The great God who is supreme over all is servant of all. And from the ministering of the archangel to the labour of the insect, the true rank and glory of a creature consist in the service which it renders in God’s universe, (b)


(a) Greatness is not a teachable nor gainable thing, but the expression of the mind of a God-made great man; teach or preach, or labour as you will, everlasting difference is set between one man’s capacity and another’s, and this God-given supremacy is the priceless thing, always just as rare in the world at one time as another. What you can manufacture or communicate, you can lower the price of, but this mental supremacy is incommunicable: you will never multiply its quantity, nor lower its price; and nearly the best thing that men can generally do, is to set themselves not to the attainment, but the discovery of this: learning to know gold when we see it from iron-glance, and diamonds from flint-sand, being for most of us a more profitable employment than trying to make diamonds out of our own charcoal.—John Ruskin.

(b) There is no dignity but of service. How different the whole notion of training is now from what it was in the middle ages. Service was honourable then. The first thing taught then was how to serve. No man could rise to the honour of knighthood without service. A nobleman’s son even had to wait on his father, or to go into the family of another nobleman, and wait upon him as a page, standing behind his chair at dinner. This was an honour. No notion of degradation was in it; it was a necessary step to higher honour. And what was the next higher honour? To be free from service? No. To serve in the harder service of the field; to be a squire to some noble knight, to tend his horse, to clean his armour, to see that every rivet was sound, every buckle true, every strap strong, to ride behind him and carry his spear, and if more than one attacked him to rush to his aid. This service was the more honourable because it was harder, and was the next step to higher honour yet. And what was this higher honour? That of knighthood. Wherein did this knighthood consist? The very word means simply service. And for what was the knight thus waited on by his squire? That he might be free to do as he pleased? No, but that he might be free to be the servant of all. By being a squire first, the servant of one, he learned to rise to the higher rank, that of servant of all. His horse was tended, his armour observed, his sword and spear and shield held to his hand, that he might have no trouble looking after himself, but might be free, strong, unwearied, to shoot like an arrow to the rescue of any and every one who needed his ready aid. There was a grand heart of Christianity in that old chivalry.—George Macdonald.


(Numbers 1:5)

“These are the names of the men that shall stand with you.”

The text teaches that the Lord knew these “princes of the tribes of their fathers”—their names, their parentage, their fitness for the work in which they were to take part, etc. We infer that God is perfectly acquainted with His people.


I. The great truth here implied.

God knows His people individually and altogether.

1. This is philosophical. If God is infinite, He must know all things. Nothing can be so great as to surpass His comprehension; nothing so small as to escape His notice. Great and small, generally and particularly, He knows all things and everything. “The relation God holds to objects of knowledge,” says Bushnell, “is different in all respects, from that which is held by us. Our general terms, man tree, insect, flower, are the names of particular or single specimens, extended, on the ground of a perceived similarity, to kinds or species. They come, in this manner, to stand for millions of particular men, trees, insects, flowers, that we do not and never can know. But God does not generalise in this manner, getting up general terms under which to handle particulars, which, as particulars, He does not know. His knowledge of wholes is a real and complete knowledge. It is a knowledge of wholes as being a distinct knowledge of particulars. He knows the wholes in the particulars, the particulars in the wholes.” “History acquaints us, that Cyrus had so vast a memory, that he knew the name of every particular soldier in his army, which consisted of divers nations; shall it be too hard for an infinite understanding to know every one of that host that march under His banners?” (a)

2. This is Scriptural. See 1 Kings 19:14-18; Psalms 1:6; Psalms 56:8; Psalms 147:3-4; Isaiah 40:26-31; Malachi 3:16-17; Matthew 6:25-34; Matthew 10:29-30; John 10:3; John 10:14; John 10:27; Philippians 4:3; 2 Timothy 2:19; Revelation 3:5; Revelation 21:27. “No doubt but He that calls the stars of heaven by their names, knows the number of those living stars that sparkle in the firmament of His Church. He cannot be ignorant of their persons, when He numbers the hairs of their heads, and hath registered their names in the book of life.… He knows them as a general to employ them, as a shepherd to preserve them.” God’s knowledge of His people involves His favour towards them. It is a knowledge not of apprehension merely, but of approbation also. It implies affection for them, the exercise of care over them, etc., as in Amos 3:2.

II. The practical bearings of this great truth.

The realization of this truth will tend,—

1. To restrain from sin. The consideration of God’s perfect acquaintance with us is fitted to check any rising inclination to evil. “The ways of man are before the eyes of the Lord, and He pondereth all His goings.”

2. To promote sincerity of life. He cannot he imposed upon by any empty forms or hollow pretences. Our thoughts and feelings are known to Him. And simulation and dissimulation are an abomination in His sight.

3. To promote humility. The consideration of God’s knowledge makes manifest the greatness of our ignorance, “We are but of yesterday, and know nothing.” God knows all our secret sins,—all unholy desire, etc. Surely this should humble us.

4. To quicken reverence towards God. Great intelligence is a thing to command respect and admiration. But He in whom infinite intelligence is joined with infinite holiness should be admired and adored.

5. To comfort the godly under reproaches. So it proved to Job when misunderstood and falsely accused by his friends (Job 16:19; Job 23:10).

6. To sustain the godly in affliction and trial. He who thoroughly knows each and every one of His people will certainly support them in their afflictions, give them patience in their trials, and in His own time deliver them from all troubles.

7. To incite to hearty obedience. If He knows us always and altogether, shall we not endeavour to do those things which He approves? If He regards us with favour, shall we not seek to love and honour Him?

8. To strengthen trust in God. No plans that are formed against His people are unknown to Him. His own designs are formed in infinite wisdom. He knows all our temptation and weakness, all our danger and need. And His power to help is as great as His intelligence. “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any one pluck them out of my hands.


(a) A little child sits on the verandah and watches the worm. He is a voyager for his food on the leaf of the mulberry tree, and he goes eating, eating, eating. Let us suppose that some Divine Power enables that worm to be so far intelligent as to say, “It is said that there are beings who can understand this whole tree; but it does not seem to me possible. I can comprehend how there might be beings that should understand this leaf, and the next three or four; but to take in all the million leaves on this tree is a thing that transcends my conception. I do not believe it possible for any magnified worm to understand so much.” It is not possible for any worm. But there is a little Sunday-school child sitting on the verandah, who looks on the tree and sees the whole of it; and not only sees the whole of it, but can individualize the leaves at its pleasure. How easy it is for that little child to take in that whole tree! and how hard it is for that worm to take in more than three leaves! And let that child grow up, and be educated, and trained in landscape-gardening, and it will take in, not merely a tree, but a whole forest. If one leaf is coloured, if one twig is broken, if there is a dry branch, it does not escape his notice. Differences of hue, light, and shadow, the infinite diversities that come in forest life—he takes them all in, and has a kind of omnipresence in his consciousness of the facts of this whole matter. What could a worm understand or imagine of a being that is competent to take in the realm of philosophy, and that makes himself the measure of creation? He says, “It does not seem reasonable to me that anybody can understand more than twenty leaves. I cannot; and I do not see how anybody else can.” And yet, do not you understand how a person can take in sections, and gradations, and ranks, and degrees infinitely above what a worm could understand? And have you anything more to do than to carry on that idea to imagine a Being before whom all eternity passes, and to whom all the infinite treasures of this eternity shall be just as simple as to you the leaves on the individual tree are? It only requires magnitude of being, infinity.—H. W. Beecher.

The sun is a natural image of God; if the sun had an eye, it would see; if it had an understanding, it would know all visible things; it would see what it shines upon, and understand what it influenceth, in the most obscure bowels of the earth. Doth God excel His creature, the sun, in excellency and beauty, and not in light and understanding? certainly more than the sun excels an atom or grain of dust. We may yet make some representation of this knowledge of God by a lower thing, a picture, which seems to look upon every one, though there be never so great a multitude in the room where it hangs; no man can cast his eye upon it, but it seems to behold him in particular; and so exactly, as if there were none but him upon whom the eye of it were fixed; and every man finds the same cast of it: shall art frame a thing of that nature, and shall not the God of art and all knowledge, be much more in reality than that is in imagination? Shall not God have a far greater capacity to behold everything in the world, which is infinitely less to Him than a wide room to a picture?—Charnocke.


(Numbers 1:17-19.)

This census was taken as they were formed into a nation. In Egypt they were not a nation, but hordes of slaves. Now begins their national existence. God reduces them to order, consolidates them, that they might undertake the responsibilities and enjoy the privileges of nationhood.
Why did God give us this record? Paul writes that “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable,” etc. The Bible is a practical book; it is inspired for our profitall of it. True, some portions are more esteemed by us than others are. Look at the well-used Bible of an aged Christian. Some parts are more soiled than others. Is this right? Yes. It is compatible with reverence for the whole Bible, just as Christ, while loving all the disciples, had his three best-loved among them. But we ought not to neglect any part of the Bible. There is a blessing in all of it. In places we least expect it, we find it to be inspired for our profit. This chapter seems dry and profitless, but it is not so. Like some of the glens in South Wales,—sterile, barren, unattractive, and, to the outward look, valueless; but underneath are coal mines and untold wealth. So with this chapter. Let us inquire, what this numbering was calculated to teach the people at the time, and in like manner to teach us at the present day?

I. It was calculated to teach them the grand fact that God was personally interested in and well acquainted with each one of them individually.

The object of the census was to individualize them, to separate each from the mass, to register each name that the record might be kept before God. He wanted them all to feel, that He knew them and was interested in them. There is a tendency in man to think that he is lost in the mass, and that the great God is not interested in him. This tendency is very pernicious; it leads to sin, and then to despair. The Bible all through combats it; and there is no doubt that it was one great design of this census. This chapter is to us like the microscope in nature—revealing to us God’s greatness by the interest He takes in the individual. It is a grand truth to feel, God sees me, knows all about me, cares for me. He is not some cold abstraction, indifferent, inaccessible, and unmindful of us. Far from it. The Bible and Christ bring Him near to us, showing Him to be full of interest in us. He feeds the fowls, clothes the lilies, knows the varying market-price of sparrows, numbers the hairs of our heads, knew the street, house, and person where Peter lodged. Struggling, anxious, suffering one, single yourself from the crowd. God knows, loves, cares for thee.

II. It was a vivid illustration of the faithfulness of God to His word.

He had said to Abraham that his seed should be numerous, that they should go to Egypt, etc. The figures of this chapter show how well He kept His word. To faith a fact is better than a hundred arguments. And anything that strengthens our faith in God’s Word is a great blessing to us. The worth of the Bible and its promises in a suffering, sinful world no one can tell. To shake one’s faith in the promises is like going through a hospital and rudely tearing the pillows from under the heads of the sufferers. It is faithfulness that makes the promises precious. What a comfort to Israel to have confidence in the Word of God, to feel that they could trust Him! Nothing would impress His faithfulness more than this census, showing how well He Had kept His promise to Abraham. It also speaks to us, etc.

III. It afforded them striking proof of God’s power to keep His word.

God is not only true, but His arm is almighty. It was by this census that the people knew how many they were. God led them out of Egypt, rescued them at the Red Sea, protected and fed them thus far in the wilderness. Was there anything too hard for the Lord? Would not all this encourage them to lean on His arm? He had proved His power to keep His word. God is equal to all our wants. His word is true; His arm is strong. With such a God for our Friend we have nothing to fear, etc. “Among the gods there is none like unto Thee, O Lord.” “Happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help.”

“This God is the God we adore.

Our faithful unchangeable Friend;

Whose love is as great as His power,

And knows neither measure nor end.

’Tis Jesus, the First and the Last,

Whose Spirit shall guide us safe home:

We’ll praise Him for all that is past,

And trust Him for all that’s to come.”


These figures then are eloquent. Let them lead us to trust more fully in God. The ungodly! what say they to you? They certify your doom, if ye repent not. The threatenings as well as the promises of the Bible rest on the word of the faithful and almighty God.—David Lloyd.


(Numbers 1:20-46.)

In these verses we have the record of the number of men “from twenty years old and upwards that were able to go forth to war” in the respective tribes, and in the whole of the tribes united, with the exception of that of Levi. A consideration of the numbers of the respective tribes will be found in other commentaries. We propose to consider this first army of Israel as an illustration of the Church Militant.

I. The necessity of this army.

Before the Children of Israel can take possession of the Promised Land the idolatrous Canaanitish nations must be dispossessed. To expel them from the country Israel must encounter them in battle and vanquish them. And to do this a large and brave army was necessary. It is necessary that the Christian Church should be militant. The individual Christian cannot attain the inheritance or spiritual perfection without conflict. And the Church cannot take its true place or fulfil its Divinely appointed mission without doing vigorous battle.

1. Internal foes have to be conquered. In ourselves there are carnal appetites which must be subdued, evil passions which must be quelled by the power and principles of Divine grace, etc. The Christian has to achieve self-conquest. “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city.” “The battle in which thoughts are the only swords, and purposes are the only spears, and tears are the only shots—the inward struggles of men’s souls—these are, after all, the mightiest battles; and in the sight of God they are the most sublime.”

2. External foes have to be conquered. God summons us to do battle with ignorance and superstition, with dirt and disease, with immorality and irreligion, with vice and crime. We need to guard against Satanic subtlety, and to resist Satanic influence. It is madness to make light of the adversaries with which the Church of Jesus Christ has to contend. It is to invite defeat, etc.

II. The authority for organising this army.

“The Lord spake unto Moses,” expressly commanding him to take the number of men able to do military duty. The first army of Israel was organised under Divine direction. May we not infer from this that there are possible circumstances in which war is justifiable? In itself war is unquestionably a terrible evil. (a). But it certainly appears to us that circumstances may arise in which a nation would be justified in having recourse to war. “The arms are fair,” says Shakspeare, “when the intent of bearing them is just.”

“War is honourable

In those who do their native rights maintain;
In those whose swords an iron barrier are
Between the lawless spoiler and the weak,
But is, in those who draw the offensive blade
For added power or gain, sorded and despicable
As meanest office of the worldly churl.”

Joanna Baillie. (b.)

III. The Composition of this Army.

1. It was composed of Israelites only. None of the “mixed multitude” were included. The warriors were men who could “declare their pedigrees after their families, by the house of their fathers.” In fighting the battles of the Lord in this age thorough decision is required. “Who is on the Lord’s side?” The victorious Church must be composed of true Christians. Victories for truth and right demand the prowess of true and righteous men.

2. It was composed of able men only. “Every male from twenty years old and upward, all that were able to go forth to war.” In accomplishing His purposes God uses fit instruments. He employs means adapted to the attainment of His ends. In the conflicts of the spiritual life and work every Christian may through Jesus Christ be an able warrior. Weak and timid in ourselves, we may be courageous and “strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.”

3. It comprised all the able men. “Every male from twenty years old and upward, all that were able to go forth to war.” No excuses were allowed. None were exempted. Altogether the army was very large: it consisted of six hundred and three thousand five hundred and fifty men. Every Christian is called to be a soldier. The continuance and growth of the Christian life are impossible apart from vigorous conflict. We must either vanquish our spiritual enemies, or they will vanquish us. Neutrality is out of the question here. And no thought of truce can be entertained without loss and injury. Neither can we do our fighting by proxy. Every Christian must be a personal combatant in the great conflict.

IV. The conquering spirit of this Army.

Their leaders constantly endeavoured to inspire the soldiers with the spirit of intelligent trust in God. When this spirit animated them they achieved splendid triumphs: when it failed them they turned their backs to their enemies and fled in dismay. Victory in our spiritual conflicts is attainable only through faith. When our faith in God is strong, we are invincible. When it fails, we are overthrown by the first assault of the enemy. “This is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.” “Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked.” True faith gives glorious visions to the spirit, inspires us with heroic courage, girds us with all-sufficient strength, makes us more than conquerors through the Captain of our salvation. (c.)


1. A call to decision. “Who is on the Lord’s side?”

2. A call to courage. Our arms are tried and true; our great Leader is invincible; let us then “be strong and of a good courage.”

3. A call to confidence. Our courage, to be true, must spring from faith. By trust we triumph.

“Strong in the Lord of Hosts,

And in His mighty power;

Who in the strength of Jesus trusts

Is more than conqueror.”

C. Wesley.


(a) Wherever there is war, there must be injustice on one side or the other, or on both. There have been wars which were little more than trials of strength between friendly nation’s, and in which the injustice was not to each other, but to the God who gave them life. But in a malignant war of these present ages there is injustice of ignobler kind, at once to God and man, which must be stemmed for both their sakes. It may, indeed, be so involved with national prejudices, or ignorances, that neither of the contending nations can conceive it as attaching to their cause; nay, the constitution of their governments, and the clumsy crookedness of their political dealings with each other, may be such as to prevent either of them from knowing the actual cause for which they have gone to war.

John Ruskin.

(b) You may, perhaps, be surprised at my implying that war itself can be right, or necessary, or noble at all. Nor do I speak of all war as necessary, nor of all war as noble. Both peace and war are noble or ignoble according to their kind and occasion. No man has a pro-founder sense of the horror and guilt of ignoble war than I have. I have personally seen its effects upon nations, of unmitigated evil on soul and body, with perhaps as much pity and as much bitterness of indignation as any of those whom you will hear continually declaiming in the cause of peace. But peace may be sought in two ways. One way is as Gideon sought it, when he built his altar in Ophrah, naming it, ‘God send peace,’ yet sought this peace that he loved as he was ordered to seek it and the peace was sent in God’s way:—“The country was in quietness forty years in the days of Gideon.” And the other way of seeking peace is as Menahem sought it, when he gave the King of Assyria a thousand talents of silver, “that his hand might be with him.” That is, you may either win your peace or buy it:—win it, by resistance to evil; buy it, by compromise with evil. You may buy your peace with silenced consciences; you may buy it with broken vows, buy it with lying words, buy it with base connivances, buy it with the blood of the slain, and the cry of the captive, and the silence of lost souls—over hemispheres of the earth, while you sit smiling at your serene hearths, lisping comfortable prayers evening and morning, and counting your pretty Protestant beads (which are flat, and of gold, instead of round, and of ebony, as the monks’ ones were), and so mutter continually to yourselves, “Peace! peace!” when there is no peace, but only captivity and death for you, as well as for those you leave unsaved—and yours darker than theirs.—Ibid.

I believe in war. I believe there are times when it must be taken. I believe in it as a medicine. Medicine is not good to eat, but when you are sick it is good to take. War is not a part of the Gospel; but while men and the world are travelling on a plain where they are not capable of comprehending the Gospel, a rude form of justice is indispensable, though it is very low down. If you go to a plain still higher, war seems to be a very poor instrumentality. And if you go yet higher and higher till you reach that sphere where the crowned Sufferer stands, how hateful and hideous war seems! In the earlier periods of society it is recognised as having a certain value; but its value is the very lowest, and at every step upward, till you come to this central Divine exhibition, it loses in value. Always it is a rude and uncertain police of nations. It is never good. It is simply better than something worse. Physical force is the alternative of moral influence; if you have not one, you must have the other.—H. W. Beecher.

Few religious men could justify most of the wars of history. On one side or other war must be the greatest of all crimes, and the instances in which either side is right are but few. But this does not affect the principle. If but one can be instanced in which a people simply resisted aggression, conquest, violation of liberties, or wrong, it would suffice. If England were invaded by an unprovoked aggressor; if London were assailed, its homes in imminent peril of violation, the property of its merchants, the honour of its women, the lives of its children and citizens imperilled, what should I do? Go out and reason with the invader? appeal to to his sense of righteousness? Yes, it would be right to do that if it were practicable. Crowd into churches to pray? Yes, it would be eminently right to do that. But suppose the invader to be as ambitious, as false, and as conscienceless as Napoleon, to be sunk below any possible appeal to moral feeling, am I passively to let him work his devilry—to burn my house, murder my children, and do worse to my wife and daughters? Am I to pray, and passively expect God to work a moral miracle? I think not. I am to employ righteous means to resist wrong, and to ask God to bless them. If only the magistrate’s sword will deter the robber and the murderer, I am to use that sword; and an army in its only lawful capacity is simply a power of magistracy. Some of the greatest deliverances that God wrought for His people were through armies. The most precious liberties of the world and the Church have been won by armed revolution and defence. From Marathon to the Armada, from the destruction of Sennacherib to that of Napoleon, from the revolt from under Pharaoh to that from under the Stuarts, or the King of Naples, the moral and religious sense of the world has approved the resistance of wrong by force. So long as force and the magistrate and the police are necessary to preserve righteousness and justice and liberty, they must be employed. The ideal of Christianity is peace and universal brotherhood, but it is not to be attained by permitting the ruffian and the robber and the tyrant to work their will unresisted—that would be to leave society to lawlessness and brutality.—H. Allon, D.D.

(c) How often, through the world’s literature and history, have we heard some ambitious commander or emperor babbling, in his vain waking dreams, of a world’s conquest! We turn from these poor visions of cruelty and blood to the meek army of the living God; from the false victories of force to the true victories of faith. Here, on a lowly bed, in an English village by the sea,—as I was lately reading,—fades out the earthly life of one of God’s humblest, but noblest servants. Worn with the patient care of deserted prisoners and malefactors in the town jail for twenty-four years of unthanked service, earning her bread with her hands, and putting songs of worship on the lips of these penitent criminals—she is dying; and as the night falls some friend asks, “What shall I read?” The answer of the short breath is one firm syllable, “Praise!” To the question, “Are there no clouds?” “None; He never hides His face. It is our sins which form the clouds between us and Him. He is all love, all light.” And when the hour of her departure was fully come, “Thank God, thank God!” And there,—as I read again—in his princely residence, surrounded with the insignia of power, but in equal weakness before God, expired a guileless statesman, nobleman by rank and character, calmly resigning back all his power into the Giver’s hands, spending his last days of pain, like many hours of all his days before it, with the Bible and Prayer-book in his feeble hand, saying, at the end, “I have been the happiest of men, yet I feel that death will be gain to me, through Christ who died for me.” Blessed be God for the manifold features of triumphant faith!—that He suffers His children to walk towards Him through ways so various in their outward look;—Sarah Martin from her cottage bed, Earl Spencer from his gorgeous couch, little children in their innocence, unpretending women in the quiet ministrations of faithful love, strong and useful and honoured men, whom suffering households and institutions and churches mourn. All bending their faces towards the Everlasting Light, in one faith, one cheering hope, called by one Lord, who has overcome the world, and dieth no more!

“One army of the living God,

To His command we bow:

Part of His host have crossed the flood,

And part are crossing now.”

The sun sets; the autumn fades; life hastens with us all. But we stand yet in our Master’s vineyard. All the day of our appointed time, let us labour righteously, and pray and wait, till our change come, that we may change only from virtue to virtue, from faith to faith, and thus from glory to glory.—F. D. Huntington, D.D.


(Numbers 1:47-54)

The tribe of Levi was not numbered with the other tribes. The Levites were exempted from military service, and set apart for the service of the tabernacle. In any wise and proper arrangement of the affairs of human society, provision will be made for the requirements of the spiritual nature of man. The chief features of the service of the Levites as here indicated may properly be regarded as illustrative of the work of the Christian ministry.

I. The true Christian minister should manifest some fitness for the work before he is designated thereto.

The Levites had manifested their zeal for the worship of God by slaying the worshippers of the golden calf at the command of Moses (Exodus 32:26-29). And, as a reward, the honour of this sacred calling is conferred upon them. They had already acted as assistants to the priests (Exodus 38:21), being of the same tribe as Moses and Aaron. And now they are expressly appointed to the charge of the tabernacle. “But the Levites after the tribe of their fathers were not numbered among them. For the Lord spake” (not “had spoken”) “unto Moses, saying,” etc. “Singular services shall be recompensed with singular honours.” That a person should manifest some fitness for the work of the Christian ministry before he is set apart to it seems so obvious and indisputable that it would be superfluous to call attention to it, were it not that in practice it is so often disregarded. There seems to be in some quarters an impression that almost anyone is competent for the sacred office of the ministry. In determining the trade which their sons shall learn, wise parents will consider their respective inclinations and aptitudes. An artist would, perhaps, make a poor minister; a successful merchant might utterly fail as a barrister. Is there less aptitude required in the work of the Gospel ministry than in the other pursuits of life? Unfitness should be tolerated in any sphere of life and activity rather than in this. There should be adaptation of voice, of mind, of character, etc.

II. That the true Christian minister is called of God to his work.

“The Lord spake unto Moses, saying, … Thou shalt appoint the Levites over the tabernacle of testimony,” etc. In addition to fitness for the office, the true minister will feel a conviction of moral obligation to enter upon the holy work: the impulsions of the Divine Spirit will urge him in the same direction, until the words of St. Paul truly express his condition, “Necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the Gospel.” “True ministers,” says Hugh Miller, “cannot be manufactured out of ordinary men—men ordinary in talent and character—in a given number of years, and then passed by the imposition of hands into the sacred office; ministers, when real, are all special creations of the grace of God.” The Christian ministry is not a profession into which a man may or may not enter as he pleases; but a Divine vocation, which is solemnly binding upon those to whom it is addressed, and without which no man can enter upon it without sin.—(a)

III. That the work of the Christian minister demands his entire devotion thereto.

The Levites were to be free from all other service, that they might give themselves unreservedly to the ministry of the tabernacle. There are men who are rendering (in preaching and otherwise) most useful and self-denying service to the Church of Christ, whose time and energy are not entirely devoted to it. They are worthy of high honour. But the work of the stated minister and pastor demands all his time and energy, if it is to be done well. His duties are so many, so great, and so unspeakably important, as to challenge all his powers. M. Henry:—“Those that minister about holy things should neither entangle themselves, nor be entangled, in secular affairs. The ministry is itself work enough for a whole man, and all little enough to be employed in it.” The Apostle Paul, in writing to the Christians at Rome, specifies their respective duties, and urges each one to diligence in the discharge of his own (Romans 12:6; Romans 12:8). And to Timothy he writes: “No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life,” etc. (2 Timothy 2:3-4). And considering the solemn issues of his work, in conscious weakness he cries, “Who is sufficient for these things?”

“’Tis not a cause of small import

The pastor’s care demands;

But what might fill an angel’s heart,

And filled a Saviour’s hands.”


IV. That a faithful discharge of the duties of the Christian minister is essential to the well-being of society.

The duties of the Levites are briefly stated in Numbers 1:50-51; Numbers 1:53. No one who was not of their tribe was in any way to intermeddle with their duties or encroach upon their position. If a stranger drew near to the tabernacle he was to be put to death. If the functions of the Levites were not properly discharged, wrath would be upon Israel. What was the intention of these strict regulations?

We suggest—

1. That the sacred things might be decently kept and ordered. The Levites had charge “over all the vessels of the tabernacle, and over all things that pertained to it.” It is most important that everything which is used in connection with the worship and service of God should be appropriate to its sacred uses, and be well preserved. God’s service hallows even the meanest things which are employed in it; but we should devote our best things to it.

2. That the people might be inspired with reverence for sacred things. This to us, to a large extent, accounts for the stern penalty annexed to any intrusion upon the function of the Levites. Reverence is one of the highest attributes of mind. The Lord seeks to enkindle or increase it in Israel.

3. That the people might be impressed with the unworthiness of sinful man to approach unto the Most High. We sinners are utterly unfit to draw near unto Him who is “glorious in holiness.” The Levites were called to the charge of the sacred things. They alone could draw near to the tabernacle. Through the mediation of Jesus Christ all men may now draw near to God. (See Hebrews 10:19-22.)

Now, these things are needful at the present time. Becoming worship, reverence for sacred things, and humility towards God are ever obligatory and beneficial to us. The true Christian minister in the faithful discharge of his duties confers the greatest benefit upon society.—(b)

V. That personal holiness of heart and life are essential to the faithful discharge of the duties of the Christian Ministry.

The Levites were separated from the other tribes for their sacred work. Their outward separation was intended to show forth the separation from worldliness and sin which the Lord required of them. They who have to do with holy things should themselves be holy. “Be ye clean that bear the vessels of the Lord.” (See Romans 2:21-24; 1 Timothy 4:16; Titus 2:7.) Thus Goldsmith describes the Christian minister—

“In his duty prompt at every call,

He watched and wept, he prayed and felt for all;
And, as a bird each fond endearment tries
To tempt its new-fledged offspring to the skies,
He tried each art, reproved each dull delay,
Allured to brighter worlds, and led the way.” (c)


(a) The minister without a vocation is not only unhappy, he is guilty,—he occupies a place, he exercises a right which does not belong to him. He is, as Jesus Christ said, “a thief and a robber,” who has not entered in through the gate, but climbed up some other way. The word vocation has, in other applications (that is to say, as applied to professions of a secular order), only a figurative significance,—at least only a figurative significance is attributed to it. It is equivalent to aptitude, talent, taste. It is natural to represent these qualifications as voices, as appeals. But when applied to the ministry, the word returns to its proper sense. When conscience authorises and compels us to the discharge of a certain duty, we have that which, although out of the sphere of miracle, deserves most fully the name of vocation. In order to exercise the ministry legitimately, a man must be called to it.—A Vinet.

(b) That a man stand and speak of spiritual things to men. It is beautiful,—even in its great obscuration and decadence, it is among the beautifullest, most touching objects one sees on the earth. This Speaking Man has indeed, in these times, wandered terribly from the point; has, alas! as it were, totally lost sight of the point; yet, at bottom, whom have we to compare with him? Of all public functionaries boarded and lodged on the Industry of Modern Europe, is there one worthier of the board he has? A man even professing, and never so languidly making still some endeavour, to save the souls of men: contrast him with a man professing to do little but shoot the partridges of men! I wish he could find the point again, this Speaking One, and stick to it with tenacity, with deadly energy; for there is need of him yet! The Speaking Function—this of Truth coming to us with a living voice, nay, in a living shape, and as a concrete practical exemplar: this, with all our Writings and Printing Functions, has a perennial place. Could he but find the point again,—take the old spectacles off his nose, and looking up discover, almost in contact with him, what the real Satanas, and soul-devouring, world-devouring Devil, Now is.—Thomas Carlyle.

(c) Beloved in our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, it is a very monstrous thing that any man should have more tongues than hands; for God hath given us two hands and but one tongue, that we might do much and say but little. Yet many say so much and do so little, as though they had two tongues and but one hand: nay, three tongues and never a hand. Insomuch as that may be aptly applied to them which Pandulphus said to some in his time: “You say much, but you do little; you say well, but you do ill. Again, you do little, but you say much; you do ill, but you say well.” Such as these (which do either worse than they teach, or else less than they teach; teaching others to do well and to do much, but doing no whit themselves) may be resembled to diverse things. To a whetstone, which being blunt itself, makes a knife sharp; to a painter, which being deformed himself, makes a picture fair; to a sign, which being weather-beaten, and hanging without itself, directs passengers into the inn; to a bell, which being deaf and hearing not itself, calls the people into the church to hear; to a nightingale, which being restless and sitting upon a thorn herself, brings others by her singing into a sweet sleep; to a goldsmith, which being beggarly and having not one piece of plate to use himself, bath store for others which he shows and sells in his shop. Lastly, to a ridiculous actor in the city of Smyrna, which pronouncing “O cœlum!—O heaven!”—pointed with his finger toward the ground; which when Polemo, the chiefest man in the place, saw, he could abide to stay no longer, but went from the company in chafe, saying, “This fool hath made a solecism with his hand; he hath spoken false Latin with his hand.” Such are all they which teach one thing and do another; which teach well and do ill.—Thomas Playfere.

The faithful minister is strict in ordering his conversation. As for those who cleanse blurs with blotted fingers they make it the worse. It was said of one who preached very well, and lived very ill, that when he was out of the pulpit it was a pity he should ever go into it; and when he was in the pulpit, it was a pity he should ever come out of it. But our minister lives sermons. And yet I deny not but dissolute men, like unskilful horsemen who open a gate on the wrong side, may, by the virtue of their office, open heaven for others, and shut themselves out,—Thomas Fuller.


(Numbers 1:52)

The various tribes of Israel had to be placed in order, and the whole to be put under a strict regulation. This was needful for encampment, for march, for worship, for battle: without this, confusion, etc. Israel in many things typical of the Christian Church. We see it in this also,—

I. The One Israel.


1. Their real oneness of descent. The children of Abraham.

2. Their original condition. All bondsmen.

3. Their Divine, deliverance. Brought out of Egypt, etc.

4. In one Divine covenant. Promises, etc.

5 Journeying to the one inheritance.

6. Under one command. See how this all applies to the Church of the Saviour. All the children of God by faith, all heirs, all pilgrims, all of one covenant, one Saviour, etc.—essentially one; one in Christ Jesus.

II. The various Tribes.


1. Their different names. Necessary for distinction—recognition.

2. Their different positions in the camp. See next chapter. East side, Numbers 5:3; south side, Numbers 5:10; west, Numbers 5:18; north, Numbers 5:25.

3. The various tribes were in one general accord and union. All one religious confederacy, absolutely one, worship one, etc.; in perils one, in warfare one, in prospects one.

III. The Special Directions to the different Tribes.

1. Each tribe had their own standard or banner to distinguish it from the rest. No order without.

2. Each man was to be by his own standard. Not a wanderer; not a visitor to all; but his own fixed, legitimate position.

3. Thus the duties of every tribe would be regarded and fulfilled.

4. Thus the interests of all would be sustained. Now, if this was important and necessary in the camp of Israel, how much more in the Church of the Lord Jesus! The thousands there: millions here. But let us see,—

IV. The Spiritual Lessons the subject presents to us.

1. We see now the denominational tribes in the Kingdom of Christ. Christians of different conditions, education, training, leaders, etc.

2. Christians have a special interest in their own camp.

3. To devote themselves to these is the first duty and privilege. Just as families are constituted, so churches.

4. All the various denominational camps constitute the one Church of the Saviour. Only one Israel, one body, one army, etc. For particular purposes, every man by his own camp; for general purposes, all acting in conjunction and harmony. How absurd jealousies and envyings! How ridiculous isolation! How oppressive assumptions and priestly dictations! How suicidal strifes and contentions! How monstrous exclusions and anathemas! The great tabernacle of God is built four-square, and includes all the tribes. Christian denominations have special standards, and serve the whole best by every man being by his own standard. The glory of God is identified with the unity of the whole. Christ’s prayer to Him, etc.—Jabez Burns, D.D.

Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Numbers 1". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/phc/numbers-1.html. Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1892.
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